Journey to the Past: YA Historical Fiction You Won’t Want to Put Down

Journey to the Past: YA Historical Fiction You Won’t Want to Put Down

YA Historical Fiction

Susan Kaplan Carlton’s latest young adult novel transports readers to Atlanta in the late 1950s. In the Neighborhood of True follows Ruth as she moves from New York to Georgia and learns that embracing her Jewish identity means being ostracized at school. She makes the choice to hide her faith, until a local hate crime drives her to speak out against injustice. To celebrate the book’s release, Carlton shared a list of her favorite works of YA historical fiction. These works show how connected our past and present can be, and will inspire readers to ensure that the future doesn’t repeat the worst parts of our history.

I love historical fiction that feels urgent and contemporary, whether it’s set in the disco days of New York or just before the fall of the Berlin Wall or, in the case of my book, in 1950s Atlanta. Cracking open an immersive read not only helps me understand the past but also makes me rethink the present. When the news of the day threatens to whipsaw us all into a disheartened fury, I find these books, all set in the last half of the last century, very inspiring company.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

The 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia may seem an unlikely setting for a story about hope. But this raw, emotional page-turner introduces us to Beatles-loving, movie-going Melati, who is haunted by a djinn she believes she needs to appease with obsessive counting and tapping to keep her mother alive. In the aftermath of the riots, with the city in flames, Mel is sheltered by a Chinese family and has to face her own deep anxieties and biases to try to find her way back to her mother. As her Auntie Bee says at one point, “Where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky.” This book is deeply affecting.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

The summer of 1977 in New York is not just the stuff of disco fever but of fear. A serial killer—the Son of Sam—is gunning down young couples making out in cars, and an electrical blackout plunges the entire city into chaos. All that angst and anarchy pile up for Nora, the Cuban-American protagonist, who already has a lot on her plate: a crush on Pablo, her coworker at the deli; a best friend who’s drifting away; and an out-of-control brother whose own behavior teeters on the edge of violence. You can feel the heat rise off the page.

Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin

Everyone has a secret in this emotionally pitch-perfect novel set solidly in the ‘80s (think Keith Haring, 10,000 Maniacs, and Doc Martens). Lizzie, who’s been known nearly all her life as the “spaz” with epilepsy, gets a shot of confidence when cool girl Claire moves to town and encourages her to “face the strange.” Claire introduces Lizzie to the Center City district of Philadelphia and its clubs, pubs, and eye-popping art scene. Lizzie even finds the guts to date her longtime crush, Matt. But as Lizzie gains confidence, she notices that things are amiss—everywhere. Matt is cozying up to a mysterious boy, people are dying of AIDS, and Claire is hiding a deep sadness. This is an achingly true portrait of intense friendships in all their complicated permutations.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Ellie, a modern-day American student, finds herself transported, time-traveler style, up and over the Berlin Wall by a red balloon in 1988. There she meets members of a diverse underground group (Romanichal and gay) who may or may not help her get back home before the wall falls. Ellie is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and short chapters from her grandfather’s point of view in Poland are particularly stirring. At one point, Ellie muses about “the terrible ways in which time looped and history replayed itself.” Exactly. I’m halfway through the prequel, The Spy with the Red Balloon, and it’s just as memorable and magical.

The Ocean in My Ears by Meagan MacVie

This under-the-radar read is set in southern Alaska in the early 1990s, that quixotic time of landlines, letter writing, and acid-washed jeans. Meri, a white girl who is anxious to get out of Soldotna, best known for its salmon fishing and high teen pregnancy rate, messes around with an older bad-news guy while waiting to see if Joaquin, a Mexican boy who’s her longtime crush, decides he’s interested in her. The setting is incredibly vivid, but the real attraction is seeing Meri earn her choose-your-own-future feminist ending.  

Susan Kaplan Carlton, a longtime magazine writer, currently teaches writing at Boston University. She lived for a time with her family in Atlanta, where her daughters learned the fine points of etiquette from a little pink book and learned the power of social justice from their synagogue. Carlton’s writing has appeared in Self, Elle, Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Parents, and elsewhere. She is the author of the young adult novels Love & Haight, which was named a Best Book for Young Adults by YALSA and a Best Book by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street Books, and Lobsterland.

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