Kids’ Historical Fiction Books & Telling COVID Stories

In the past year, we’ve abruptly found ourselves living through a significant event in world history. For those not yet born, the pandemic will no doubt develop its own mystique in the decades to come. Consequently, I’ve found myself wondering lately: How will this period of history be fictionalized? How will COVID be used in kids’ historical fiction as it forms part of stories written for future generations of children? It’s a little surreal to think about.

I never imagined I’d experience, first-hand, a piece of world history. I’ve grown up with so many galvanizing events of the last century in the review mirror: World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Cold War, while medical catastrophes like the Spanish Influenza (1918) and the Black Death (mid-1300s) seemed even more remote and – to my mind, at least — well-anchored in another time period completely. After all, didn’t modern health and medical knowledge make such concerns barely a consideration? As we can all attest now with the arrival of the COVID pandemic, the answer is clearly: “No”. 

We have lived the world event — are living it, and will continue to live it for some time. It’s changed children’s lives in countless ways, many of those not yet fully realised. So, how will children’s authors unpack all those experiences when writing books for kids’ on historical fiction?

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.

Teen couple in masks talking on park bench could feature in kids historical fiction about covid.

How Will Historical Fiction Represent COVID?

I am interested to see what unfolds for children’s and young adult fiction. I envisage a range of realist fiction exploring rapid and pivotal life changes, coping with fear and isolation, championing resilience and adaptability, and blossoming teen romances hindered by the virus.  
 
There are certainly many coming-of-age perspectives that could be mined, including financial hardships, family tensions and disrupted lives –  seemingly countless scenarios to explore!
 
I imagine there will also be a resurgence of dystopian fiction based around virus infection, rather than totalitarian reigns. Swift societal controls that start for the purest of intentions but become corrupted over time, as well as, nefarious vaccination tales.
 
But perspective is a key ingredient to a good story, especially when paired with considered  reflection. That’s why contemporary authors are still producing powerful children’s literature set against the trials of previous historical events, such as the World Wars I and II, as well as numerous other cultural events and conflicts. 
 
We will need to wait and see what lessons the history of the COVID pandemic will provide through historical fiction. For now, however, there’s a wealth of available historical fiction for children and teens, set against global past events. Before we foray into some of those available, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the benefits of historical fiction for kids.

What are the Benefits of Kids Historical Fiction Books?

Historical fiction has a number of benefits for children, from early readers through to young adults. Stories set against past events and time periods open up reading enjoyment, contextual learning and intergenerational connections – not to mention, learning about history itself! Historical fiction:

  1. Creates a context for current events and how they have been shaped by the past.
  2. Provides for exploration of human interaction and behaviour in extreme circumstances.
  3. Educates about history in a more compelling and memorable way.
  4. Helps bridge generational divides by bringing to life formative periods of older relatives.
  5. Fires the imagination and builds a greater appreciation for changes in locally and globally.

Book Series: Sub-Genres of Historical Fiction

 
Children’s historical fiction books have developed as a  series genre in recent decades. As a result, a number of interesting sub-genres are available to engage readers, depending on a child’s age, personality and reading proclivity.
 
Here is a guide with classifications to help you determine suitable content:
 

 

Note: Some of these series could be assigned to more than one category. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve assigned them to the most applicable.

Graphic Novels Featuring Historical Fiction

Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

Ages:  8 years and up

Historical eras and events include:  American Revolutionary War, American Civil War, Pioneering Days, World War I, World War II

Description: American history in graphic novel format for middle-grade reade rs dedicated to hearing the most thrilling, shocking, gruesome, and TRUE history stories. Stories of ingenuity, close calls with danger, and acts of heroism, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, answers questions of history with vitality and humor.

Book cover in graphic novel / cartoon manga style showing half a face grimacing and cloaked figure in black with sword.

Series: Boxers and Saints

Ages:  12 years and up

Eras and events: The Boxer Rebellion, Boxer Uprising or Yihetuan Movement, was an armed and violent xenophobic, anti-Christian, and anti-imperialist insurrection in China between 1899 and 1901, towards the end of the Qing dynasty.

Description:  Refreshing historical approach with the parallel stories of two young people caught up on opposite sides of a violent rift. One wants China rid of foreign influence, the other finds acceptance and friendship with the Christian missionaries. Through both protagonists’ eyes, readers are treated to a complex story of culture, identity, faith and love as the complexities of the Boxer Rebellion told with clarity and magical realism.

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Series: Maus

Ages:  13 years and up

Era: Early 1940s / Hitler’s Europe

Description: In the award-winning graphic novel, Maus, Vladek Spiegelman and his wife are living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

If you’re looking for more series in different genres of graphic novel, you may like to read a little about the rise of graphic novel.

Time Travel | Historical Events & Culture

Historical time travel is a wonderful way to interest middle school kids in reading, so it’s not surprising there are many engaging series for the younger age groups, particularly children aged 9-12 years. “Historical fiction tells the stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people living in ordinary times. For me, it’s like a time machine.” says Ellen Klages, in her discussion on the educational importance of kids historical fiction.

And with time travel series that’s exactly what you get: a time machine in some form or another —  even if that “machine” is a Magic Tree House! In addition, time travel books enable children to easily make direct comparisons between different historical periods and the present. They also create a dynamic way to introduce events and periods in history while keeping the action moving. A reader can ‘dip their toe’ in a given period or culture before being whisked elsewhere. 

Historical fiction tells the stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people living in ordinary times. For me, it’s like a time machine.

Illustrated book cover of young boy flying on winged dinosaur while little girl runs after him.

Series: The Magic Tree House

Ages:  6 years and up

Eras and cultures include: California in 1906. Dinosaurs, Egyptians, Pompeii, Twister, mix between culture, historical events and weather events! Shakespeare, earthquakes, Africa, Australia – and more! Description: Time travel for the littlies! These illustrated fantasy books provide entertaining stories for younger readers. When Jack and his little sister, Annie, discover a mysterious tree house, it’s the start of many adventures to different periods in history and world cultures. This 35-book series will keep young children reading!
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Series: The Time Riders

Ages:  8 years and up

Eras include: Dinosaurs, medieval Sherwood Forest, American Civil War, Reign of Caligula during Roman Empire, Great Fire of London, Biblical times. Also some future time travel – forward to 2070.

Description: Mess around with time and the world you know… and it could become a world you don’t. Liam O’Connor should have died at sea in 1912. Maddy Carter should have died on a plane in 2010. Sal Vikram should have died in a fire in 2029. But all three have been given a second chance – to work for an agency that no-one knows exists. Its purpose? To prevent time travel destroying history…

Multi-layer image with running silhouette of boy, explosive light and ancient time piece.

Series: The Book of Time

Ages:  9 years and up

Eras: Scotland in 800 A.D. (Viking settlement of Scotland), Ancient Egypt, World War I, Ancient Pompeii, depression-era Chicago, ancient China, Renaissance Rome.

Description: Sam Faulkner is searching through time for his father who’s gone missing. Sam must solve the mystery that started with a statue; a coin; an old book in the dusty Faulkner Antiquarian Bookstore…or lose his father in time.

“Beyond the book’s adventure and suspense aspects, I was determined that the periods that Sam travels to be as accurate as possible. Not just movie backdrops, but real moments of history. The illuminated manuscript that Sam manages to save from the Viking invasion (on the Island of Iona, around 800 A.D.) really exists. Likewise, Corporal Chartrel, whom Sam helps during the battle of Verdun, really was wounded in the way I describe. The strike of the workers of Thebes that Sam joins actually happened. And each time, these are central plot elements. Tightly linking history and fiction was at the heart of this project! As for actual research, I suppose I’m only doing my job, if not as a historian, at least as a history teacher.” – ‘Book of Time’ author, Guillaume Prevost

Historical compass over colorful abstract graphics.

Series: The Infinity Ring

Ages:  9 years and up

Eras include: 1492 Spain (Columbus), medieval Paris, 1850s United States (Underground Railroad), Dark Ages, ancient Mayan times, WWII, Ancient Greece (Alexander the Great) Description: History has gone disastrously off course… and three kids must travel back in time to set it right! When best friends, Dak and Sera, discover the Infinity Ring—a time-travel device—they find themselves teaming up with Hystorian-in-training, Riqand, in a centuries-long secret war for the fate of mankind.
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Series: The Time Slip

Ages:  9 years and up

Eras include: With a starting point in Australia, various historical periods and cultures are explored, including: French revolution of 1789, 19th century Scotland, Australia in the late 19th century, and early 1940s. Description: Each novel features a new female protagonist in a different place and time, providing readers with an opportunity to see life through the eyes of young girls in very different eras of modern history. Extensive historical research lends these page-turning tales authenticity, while the characters remain vivid and their adventures engrossing.
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Series: The History Keepers

Ages:  11 years and up

Eras: 19th century France, Roman Empire, Shakespearean England, Imperial China

Description: The History Keepers is an organization of secret operatives who travel back through time to protect history from those who would like to change or exploit it for their own gain. Part mysteries, part spy stories, part science fiction—all action!

 

If you have a young reader intrigued by time travel books, you might also be interested in this engaging book series about time travel to the future

War, Conflict & Natural Disasters | Historical Series For Older Readers

Hardship, ingenuity, loyalty and resilience are strong themes in children’s historical fiction set amidst world wars and localized conflicts. Not only do readers get to experience these events through the eyes of a child (rather than, say, a grandparent) but to appreciate that young people can rise to very challenging circumstances. Given the subject matter of these books, most are aimed at kids of middle-school age or older. 

Of course, natural disasters create their own microcosms of conflict, as well as harsh – and often persistent – deprivation. It’s encouraging to see series such as Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zones, which have been published to help children understand what life can be like in these circumstances, and indeed, may have been like for refugee children in their communities.

Book cover showing close up of left eye and face of a horse, overlaid with silhouette of soldiers.

Series: The Warhorse

Ages:  10 years and up

Era:World War I Description: This moving duet book series tells the story of war through the experiences of a young farm horse, Joey, who is sold to the army. Throughout the Joey’s experience in the deadly chaos of the First World War and its aftermath, the horse’s courage touches the soldiers around him.
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Series: Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zones

Ages:  11 years and up

Disaster Events: Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011; 2014 drought in Henan, China; 2011 New Zealand earthquake and its aftermath; Typhoon in the Philippines Description: A fiction series set in contemporary natural disaster zones. The inspirational stories of courage, resilience and hope give insight into the environment, culture and identity through one child’s eyes.
Blue and white striped book cover.

Series: From One Boy to Another

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: World War II

Description: Two boys. Two very different stories. The same horrific war. Newly orphaned Pierrot must leave his home in Paris for a new life in the German mountains. It is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house but the home of Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Bruno wonders who all the sad people in striped pyjamas are on the other side of the fence?

Once series book cover image of boy walking on barbed wire tight rope against threatening sky.

Series: Once

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: World War II

Description: Felix, a Jewish boy in Poland in 1942, is hiding from the Nazis in a Catholic orphanage. The only problem is that he doesn’t know anything about the war, and thinks he’s only in the orphanage while his parents travel and try to salvage their bookselling business. And when he thinks his parents are in danger, Felix sets off to warn them – straight into the heart of Nazi-occupied Poland.

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Series: The Pagan Chronicles

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: Circa Late 12th / early 13th Centuries  Medieval Jerusalem

Description: Pagan is a 16-year-old thief and beggar, trying to survive in Medieval Jerusalem with no home or family. To find safety and escape those to whom he’s indebted, Pagan joins the Knights Templar and is soon a squire-in-training to the admirable and good-hearted, Lord Roland. The irreverent Pagan must learn to fight, clean, escort pilgrims to holy areas and shrines and – most importantly – hold his tongue! As Pagan grows and matures, his experiences lead him from apprentice to mentor, and to situations in which he must re-evaluate all his previously held values and ideals. This action-packed and humorous series is narrated in Pagan’s sarcastic and witty voice. It is loaded with down-and-dirty details of medieval times and brings to life Medieval Jerusalem and the Crusades.

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Series: Through My Eyes

Ages:  12 years and up

Conflict Zones: Kashmir, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Syria, Myanmar

Description: Through My Eyes is a moving and engagingly educational series which invites young readers to enter the fragile worlds of children living in contemporary war zones. Every day in an increasing number of countries, children are desperately trying to survive as their families and their whole way of life is destroyed by war. This new series is a tribute to such children and the themes of courage, determination, triumph and perseverance will inspire, challenge and engage young readers, creating greater cross-cultural understanding and informed empathy.

Book cover with war planes over field, red bikes leaning on stone fence in foreground.

Series: Code Name Verity Cycle

Ages:  14 years and up

Era: World War II

Description: These harrowing and beautifully written books feature the stories of different key characters, loosely intertwined. Featuring elements of suspense, spy and personal tragedies of war, the books are filled with danger, resolve, and survival, revealing just how far true friends will go to save each other. The bondage of war will never be as strong as the bonds forged by the unforgettable friendship in these extraordinary tales of fortitude in the face of the ultimate evil.

Kids Historical Fiction Classics

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Series: Anne of Green Gables

Ages:  10 years and up

Era: Victorian (Late 1800s) Description: Anne of Green Gables follows the life of vivacious and overly imaginative orphan, Anne Shirley. The series starts when she’s adopted at age 11 and goes to live with an aging couple on Prince Edward Island in Canada. These moving novels are full of humour and highlight friendships and community life, portraying Anne’s adventures, hopes and dreams throughout adolescence and into adulthood.
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Series: Little Women

Ages:  10 years and up

Era: American Civil War Description: Set in Massachusetts, the stories centre on the four March girls – Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth – who struggle against poverty as they await the return of their beloved father from the Civil War. Even though money is short and times are tough, their differing characters and infectious sense of fun sweeps everyone up in their adventures and moving story.
Ceremonial gold metal sculpture of eagle landing, wings out stretched.

Series: Eagle of the Ninth

Ages:  11 years and up

Era: Roman Britain

Description: The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain…and were never seen again. Four thousand men just disappeared, a mystery that has never been solved, until now… A young soldier, Marcus Aquila, sets off into the unknown north to discover what happened to his father and the rest of the lost legion. Themes of love, loss, revenge and honor are explored against a richly imagined backdrop of ancient Britain.

British Naval officer in 18th century uniform with overlay of ship at sea.

Series: Hornblower Saga

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: Late 18th Century – Early 19th Century British Navy

Description: In 1793, on the eve of the Napoleon Wars, the young Midshipman receives his first command…As a seventeen-year-old with a touch of seasickness, young Horatio Hornblower hardly cuts a dash in His Majesty’s Navy. Yet he proves his seafaring mettle on the waves. A series of riveting tales of high seas adventure with the honorable Hornblower.

Profile head and shoulders view of French aristocratic woman with upswept blond curls and blue evening dress.

Series: French Revolution

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: French Revolution (late 18th century France)

Description: Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, this duet is an epic tale combining a vivid sense of history, characters full of Dickensian drama and fascination, and sizzling adventure touched with magic and romance. It is the story of a remarkable boy, Yann, on a desperate mission in the turmoil of revolutionary France. Intriguing key characters include: Tetu the dwarf, Sido, unloved daughter of a foolish Marquis; and Count Kalliovski, a Grand Master of a secret society.

Spy and Mystery Books | Historical Fiction Settings

Book cover showing ivory ladies gloves and antique key sitting on a red table cloth.

Series: The Agency / Mary Quinn Mysteries

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: Victorian

Description: Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners—and an unusual vocation as an undercover agent. This mystery series is packed with action and suspense, banter and romance. It evokes the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, as the feisty heroine lives by her wits while uncovering secrets… including those of her own past.

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Series: Bloody Jack

Ages:  12 years and up

Era: Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

Description: Intrepid Jacky Faber—soldier, sailor, spy, and sometime pirate—crisscrosses the world during the late-18th and early 19th centuries. From the streets of England, to North America, France, Spain and Australia –she finds herself in the thick of historical events such as colonization of US and Australia, the Napoleonic wars, and the Spanish Inquisition. Action-packed series highlighting simultaneous events during a key period of colonial history.

American Perspective | Historical Events & Culture

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Series: The Little House

Ages:  8 years and up

Eras: Late 1800s, American frontier days

Description: Centered on the life of a fictionalised Laura Ingalls and her pioneering family in the American mid-west in the late 1800s. It depicts their everyday life and challenges. Pioneer life is sometimes hard for the family, but it is also filled with everyday joys and heartwarming events.

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Series: The Seeds of America

Ages:  11 years and up

Eras: American Revolution

Description: Set in 1776, against the backdrop of the American struggle for independence, this is one girl’s struggle for freedom in a society in which she is considered someone else’s property. Isabel and her sister, Ruth, are slaves. Sold from one owner to the next, they arrive in New York as the Americans are fighting for their independence, and the English are struggling to maintain control. Soon Isabel is struggling too. Struggling to keep herself and her sister safe in a world in which they have no control.

Book cover showing profile of young woman in pioneer dress looking over green farm land.

Series: Hattie

Ages:  12 years and up

Eras: Early 1900s, World War I, Pioneer homesteading in America

Description: After inheriting her uncle’s homesteading claim, independently spirited sixteen-year-old orphan Hattie Brooks travels across the mid-west from Iowa to Montana in 1917. Hattie is a complex, brave and resourceful character, her story is all the richer for being based on that of author, Kirby Larson’s, own beloved grandmother. The duet is an engaging duo of historical narratives filled with warmth and humor against a backdrop of post WWI.

Book cover graphic of girls face in metal helmet above crossing search lights and war planes.

Series: The Soldier Girl / Front Lines

Ages:  14 years and up

Eras: World War II

Description: The most terrible war in human history. In this retelling, females are eligible for service. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, three American girls sign up to fight: Rio Richlin, Frangie Marr, and Rainy Schulterman. These are average girls with dreams and aspirations, at the start of their lives, at the start of their loves. With no way of knowing what to expect, they volunteer to fight in the greatest war the world has ever known.

Australian Perspective | Historical Events & Culture

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Series: Audrey of the Outback

Ages:  7 years and up

Era and Culture: 1930s Australia and the Great Depression

Description: Audrey of the Outback is a series set in the 1930s in the Australian outback. Audrey is a determined, mischievous, imaginative and inquisitive girl, whose stories reflect her adventures with her friends and family . These award-winning books are backdropped by rural challenges of the era, and also include a glossary of Aussie slang.

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Series: Do You Dare?

Ages:  8 years and up

Eras and Events:  Australian Bushranger Days, World War I, 1850s Gold Rush, Depression

Description: These fast-paced, adventure-driven stories effortlessly bring to life many facets of Australian European history. Compelling reads, driven by vivid action, great characters and some thrilling moments of jeopardy!

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Series: Our Australian Girl

Ages:  8 years and up

Eras: Range through the 19th and 20th centuries, including European/convict settlement, war time and immigration issues.

Description: Our Australian Girl is a series set in different periods of Australian history. Each period features a courageous girl, whose adventures are told over four books. Novels are set in various historical backdrops ranging from convict era of through war time to late-20th century, and depict different cultures and periods in Australian history.

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Series: My Australian Story

Ages:  9 years and up

Eras: Time periods range from 1854 to early 2000s

Description: This series of 30+ books explores personalized stories against a backdrop of world events including plagues, wars and migration. Each book is written in the form of a fictional diary of a young person living during an important event or significant time period in Australian history.

I think the juxtaposition of past and present make for a more poignant and powerful exploration of significant change.

My senior year English teacher, Mrs Dowling, was a proponent of writing from the emotion of “now” — writing from deep within the well of events and emotion as they are happening. I’m sure there are many writers who agree, and who are already inspired to use the pandemic as a backdrop for a young adult book or book series.

However, I have my doubts that writing in the “now” is timing that produces the best narrative. I think the juxtaposition of past and present make for a more poignant and powerful exploration of significant change.

Kids’ historical fiction books provide more than a frame of reference on a personal level, they offer perspective on a community and cultural level, too. But in order for that to happen, some water needs to pass under the bridge; some time is needed to reflect and gain perspective on the lasting impacts of COVID. It may be a few years, therefore, before we see truly worthwhile historical fiction on the lasting ramifications of the pandemic. How long that will take — and the creativity it produces — will make for compelling and moving children’s historical fiction in the decades to come.