Unlikely Allies: Historical Fiction for Middle Grade Readers

June 18, 2021 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Historical fiction inhabits the sweet spot between history and fiction. It invites us to journey to the past and then return to our own time with new insights. For young readers (and for adventurous parents who are game for a “family book club”😊), here are three terrific, recently published historical novels.

Set in faraway times and places, the novels share a common element. In each book, two or more characters form an unlikely partnership, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes by happenstance. Bolstered by these alliances, the characters achieve aims that they couldn’t attain individually and also forge bonds of solidarity, friendship, and love.

Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Soviet Union: 1986-87

Blackbird GirlsWinner of a 2020 National Jewish Book Award, this riveting novel opens in the town of Pripyat in Ukraine. The nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant has just suffered a catastrophic explosion. The Soviet government downplays the danger, notwithstanding the ominous red sky, billowing smoke, and residents who fall suddenly ill.

Valentina and Oksana, both 11 years old, wait for their fathers to come home from work at the Chernobyl plant; neither father returns. Despite being classmates and neighbors, the girls strongly dislike each other. Oksana, who has grown up with an abusive, intensely anti-Semitic father, constantly taunts Valentina, who is Jewish. To the dismay of both girls, they must evacuate together to stay with Valentina’s grandmother in distant Leningrad. As they navigate the travails of Soviet life – spying neighbors, the black market, government lies, the pressure to profess loyalty to the Motherland – Valentina and Oksana gradually put aside old prejudices and come to trust each other. They become close friends and allies. A Muslim family in remote Uzbekistan plays an unexpected, life-saving role.

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

French Highland Villages: 1942-43

Village of ScoundrelsAlthough many brave individuals aided Jews in Europe during World War II, it was extremely rare for an entire community to do so. One of those exceptional communities was a cluster of mountain villages in south-central France that hid hundreds of Jews from the Nazis and smuggled hundreds more to safety.

Village of Scoundrels is a fictionalized account of young teenagers in this French community. Some are Jewish refugees living under false identities, and some are non-Jewish French teens. Despite differences in background and personality, they work together on perilous missions – forging documents, carrying coded messages for the French resistance, hiding Jewish children in the forest during raids, and covertly guiding Jews across the border into neutral Switzerland. A suspicious policeman tries to discover the young people’s secrets.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine

Spain: 1483-92

Ceiling Made of EggshellsLoma is a precocious, clever young girl who lives with her large family in the Jewish ghetto of a Spanish town. Loma’s grandfather, Belo (short for abuelo, or grandfather), is a prominent scholar and wealthy financier, an advisor to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Recognizing Loma’s talent for numbers and mature judgment, Belo takes Loma with him as he travels across Spain on many vital missions. Belo extends loans, collects taxes to finance the monarchs’ wars, ransoms Jews out of slavery, and negotiates with the Inquisition for the freedom of imprisoned conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity). Loma proves to be an able assistant, and she and Belo make a formidable team. But over time, Loma becomes frustrated that Belo won’t release her to pursue her own ambitions. The tragedy of the Jewish expulsion from Spain offers Loma, aided by the family’s Muslim servant, an opportunity to make some choices for herself.