History Lessons: How Authentic Teens from the Past Hook Today’s Readers

by Kip Wilson

Forget the misconception that YA historical books are boring. Today’s historicals bring teenagers to life on the page—with all of their passion, impulsivity, and quirkiness. YA historical novels published these days focus on protagonists who are relatable to teens today, with stories every bit as compelling as those in contemporary or fantasy novels.

Historical hasn’t traditionally been a trendy genre, but it’s always there, humming along in the background, offering vivid windows into the past with authors like Ruta Sepetys, Stacey Lee, and Elizabeth Wein leading the way. And with good reason. Their work is gorgeously written, deftly plotted, and richly drawn in vivid settings. How do they make it look so effortless?

For starters, historical authors are notorious for immersing themselves in research. But they’re careful to feed the reader bits of what they learned, capitalizing on the essential details that connect the reader to the protagonist through their senses and emotions. This might actually be the thing YA historical fiction authors do best.

The result is that instead of wading through long, boring passages of description, readers touch the brush to the canvas with teenage artist and abuse victim Artemisa Gentilischi in Blood Water Paint; bristle at the racist treatment Mercy Wong gets on the streets of San Francisco as a Chinese American in Outrun the Moon; smell the stale cigar smoke emanating from Percy’s clothing with Monty after a night of too much drinking in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue; and feel Melati Ahmad’s fear in The Weight of Our Sky as a normally bustling street in Kuala Lumpur turns silent with shuttered shops and an eerie light, portending danger to the city’s residents.

Part of the immediacy the authors bring to these books is through the use of first person and present tense. Readers are right there in the protagonists’ heads. And all four of the above examples create an immediate connection with readers. Joy McCullough’s striking images in Blood Water Paint, Stacey Lee’s turn-of-the-century details in Outrun the Moon, Mackenzi Lee’s humor in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and Hanna Alkaf’s unapologetically Malaysian voice in The Weight of Our Sky all serve to transport readers to a different time and place.

Today’s YA historical fiction authors are also deliberate in choosing themes that are universal and characters whose stories haven’t been told before. Though the setting might be in the past, those themes and characters are as relevant as those seen in fantasy or contemporary genres—and as relevant as those readers face both today and into the future. To that end, it’s common to see historical protagonists struggling to fit in, speak out, survive clashes with family and society, and navigate romance.

Praise for the above books has understandably highlighted the connection readers feel to the books’ protagonists. Not only do readers enjoy spending a few hours with those characters among the book’s pages, but they also grow along with the characters. While characters in all novels generally grow over the course of the story, this is particularly true for YA protagonists. And YA historical fiction is unique in the way it allows readers to learn from the benefit of history’s hindsight, relating to these specific characters’ individual situations as part of a larger whole. In fact, I’d argue that the very best way to learn about history is through individual stories that place the reader there, with someone relatable to walk them through it.

The truth is that while authors of YA historical fiction certainly enjoy history in order to immerse themselves in the necessary research, the real lesson they impart to readers is not only how different things were in the past, but how very similar we still are to these people today.

Kip Wilson is the author of White Rose, a YA novel-in-verse about anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl. White Rose won the 2017 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and is a 2019 Winter/Spring Indies Introduce and Spring Indies Next title. It’s coming on April 2, 2019 with HMH’s Versify imprint. Kip holds a Ph.D. in German Literature, is the poetry editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and wrote her doctoral dissertation about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She’s lived in Germany, Austria, and Spain, and currently calls Boston home.

You can order Kip’s book, White Rose, here.