I'm not sure why, but I often had a hard time getting boys in my middle school classes interested in historical fiction novels. They seemed to gravitate toward fantasy or mysteries or sports stories. Nothing against any of these genres, but there is some great historical fiction that they might otherwise miss out on! But I could usually get a few kids hooked on books like these... (All great stories!)
1. The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell.
Ramon is the teenage son of a pearl merchant who lives on the coast of Baja California. He is learning the trade, and wants to work as a pearl diver--one of the men who dives into the sea, collects oysters, and opens them to find the treasures inside. He enlists the help of Soto Luzon, a superstitious client of his father, to learn this task. But Soto Luzon warns him of a giant manta ray--the Manta Diablo--who is the master of the pearls and will want them back. When Ramon discovers a fabulous pearl, he thinks his dreams have come true! But as strange things begin to happen, Ramon begins to wonder if Soto Luzon is right about the Manta Diablo. A compelling tale, full of adventure and suspense!
2. The Warhorse by Don Bolognese.
Young Lorenzo is the son of an armorer for the Duke. He longs to serve as one of the Duke's warriors, but his father has strictly forbidden him to do so. Lorenzo must be content with learning the arts of war with just enough mastery to help in his work in the armory. But when he discovers the plot of some mercenaries threatening the city, he may find himself in battle nonetheless!
I love the setting for this book--northern Italy during the renaissance--and I feel like the book does a great job of giving the feeling of city-states and their rivalries; a good glimpse into the culture of that time and place. The artwork in the book (supposedly taken from Lorenzo's notebook) is beautifully done and enhance the storytelling. Not the swiftest pacing, but some very adventurous and suspenseful scenes and students who got hooked on the book always reported that they enjoyed it.
3. The Cay by Theodore Taylor.
Phillip lives with his mother and father on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao when World War II breaks out. With German U-boats spotted in the area, the family decides to leave for America. Unfortunately, their ship is torpedoed by a German submarine and Phillip is knocked unconscious as he is thrown into the water. Phillip is saved by Timothy, an elderly black man who had been one of the sailors on the ship, but due to the blow to the head, Phillip goes blind, and the pair are shipwrecked on a small island. Phillip struggles to adjust to his new life, both due to his blindness as well as his racist prejudice toward Timothy. Despite his initial dislike for Phillip, Timothy patiently teaches him everything he will need to know to be able to survive on the island on his own, even though he is unable to see. The pair eventually are able to overcome their differences and become true friends. But when a terrible storm comes to the island, the pair will be stretched to their limits to fight for survival!
This is a fantastic book! Full of adventure (who doesn't love a shipwrecked-on-a-deserted-island story?) but also full of heart: overcoming prejudice to find a friendship that is color-blind.
4. Worth by A. La Faye.
Nathaniel is growing up on a small farm in late 1800's Nebraska. Life is hard, the work is hard. Nothing very exciting happens for Nathaniel. That is, until his accident. His leg is crushed while helping out with the farm work, and he is now an invalid. His father now sees him as more or less useless. And so another boy, John Worth, enters Nathaniel's life. An orphan, Nathaniel's father takes John on to do the work Nathaniel used to do around the farm. Nathaniel is angry and bitter toward both his father and John. But John has troubles of his own to deal with, including working through the tragic death of his family, and living more as a servant than a son. Add to this the conflicts caused by fence-cutters in the area stirring up problems for local farmers and ranchers, and real trouble is brewing. Can they overcome their differences to help save the farm?
5. The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare.
This tale, set during the time of Christ's ministry, gives a real historical understanding of the times and culture where Jesus walked.
Daniel is a young Jew, who absolutely hates the Roman occupiers. He has some skill as a blacksmith, and takes up with a band of outlaws who seek to fight against these foreign oppressors, hoping to avenge his father's death. But Daniel's world is shaken when his grandmother dies, and he has to go home to take care of his only remaining relative: his sister, Leah, who is mentally ill, or possibly possessed by a demon. He makes a new life caring for Leah and working in his friend Simon's blacksmith shop, but he resents this and still wants revenge on the Romans. His whole worldview is adjusted as encounters Jesus himself.
This book fascinates me. As a person of faith, it was very interesting to see Jesus as a character in the story--not the central character, but important in several ways. But this is not really "religious fiction," it's an action-packed story about love and hate, self-sacrificing, and how the choices we make impact those around us. One of my very favorite books of all time!