Book List

Best YA Historical Fiction of 2019

Unabashedly rooted in the author’s homeland and confronting timely topics and challenging themes, this book has broad appeal...

THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY

A girl battling mental illness searches for her mother during the historic race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sixteen-year-old Melati Ahmad, a Malaysian of Malay descent, has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mel believes a djinn has taken over her consciousness and if she doesn’t placate it by counting in threes—her compulsive behavior—all her loved ones will die, and it’ll all be her fault. On May 13, the first day of the riots, Mel is saved by Auntie Bee, a Chinese-Malaysian stranger, and forced to leave her best friend, Saf, for dead. Wracked with guilt, Mel must battle her rising anxiety and the Djinn’s accusatory voice to find her missing mother. While the war between the Chinese and Malays rages on, Mel finds an ally in Auntie Bee’s son, Vince. Armed with a Red Cross curfew pass, Mel and Vince scour the city helping those in need. When faced with a life-or-death situation, Mel digs deep and finds the inner strength to confront the Djinn and stand up for what she believes in. This is a brutally honest, no-holds-barred reimagining of the time: The evocative voice transports readers to 1960s Malaysia, and the brisk pace is enthralling. Above all, the raw emotion splashed across the pages will resonate deeply, no matter one’s race or religion.

Unabashedly rooted in the author’s homeland and confronting timely topics and challenging themes, this book has broad appeal for teen readers. (Historical fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-2608-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

A beautifully nuanced exploration of culture and people.

SOMEDAY WE WILL FLY

During World War II, Lillia and her Polish family struggle to make a new home in Shanghai.

DeWoskin (Blind, 2014, etc.) explores a rarely depicted topic: the struggles of the Shanghai Jewish refugees. Lillia’s parents, Stanislav Circus acrobats, are performing their last show when the event is raided. Her mother is lost in the confusion, and Lillia, her father, and her developmentally disabled baby sister flee Warsaw, traveling by land and sea to China. Part of Lillia rejects what is going on around her, in innocent disbelief at what people are capable of doing to one another, while another part revels in small freedoms, wandering the streets of Shanghai unmonitored, amazed at discovering a Jewish community in this foreign land. There, in a place where she begins to hate the hope she harbors that her mother will find them, Lillia both discovers new strength and plunges into new depths of desperation, driven to do things that would surprise and appall her old self. Though the instances of Chinese romanized text are missing all tonal marks that denote pronunciation and meaning, English translations are given. The vivid characters are flawed and evolve, sometimes according to or despite their circumstances. Particularly fascinating is the juxtaposition of the plight of Jewish refugees with that of the Chinese living in a Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

A beautifully nuanced exploration of culture and people. (author’s note, sources, map) (Historical fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-670-01496-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

An innovative, entrancing account of a popular figure that will appeal to fans of verse, history, and biography.

VOICES

THE FINAL HOURS OF JOAN OF ARC

A multivoiced verse retelling of the last day of Joan of Arc’s life.

Interspersed with snippets from the transcripts of the Trial of Condemnation and Trial of Nullification are monologues in verse from the individuals surrounding Joan, in actuality or in memory, on the last day of her life. The expected characters are there—Charles VII, her mother, the saints who guided her—but also other, unexpected, choices—the fire, the arrowhead that pierced her shoulder, her hair, her virginity. The title cleverly alludes to both the voices that guided Joan and the cacophony of voices in the book, all of whom take various forms that heighten their individual personality. There is concrete poetry as well as poetic forms popular during and after Joan’s time: the villanelle, the sestina, the rondeau, and the ballade. Joan herself is ethereal, wondering, and poignant. The conceit works; the variety of voices and compelling verse bring the story to life and heighten the pathos of Joan’s death. Among her last words: “…the penetrating / pain will be my ecstasy in / knowing I was true; there is nothing / I have done that I would alter / or undo.” Compelling for pleasure reading, this will also be a valuable addition to language arts lessons.

An innovative, entrancing account of a popular figure that will appeal to fans of verse, history, and biography. (preface, map, author’s note, list of poetic forms) (Historical verse novel. 13-adult)

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-328-98759-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Masterfully conjures grace, beauty, and humor out of the tragic wake of the Vietnam War.

BUTTERFLY YELLOW

The day after Hằng arrives in Texas from a refugee camp, she heads toward Amarillo to find her little brother.

On that same day in 1981, an 18-year-old aspiring cowboy named LeeRoy is traveling to Amarillo to pursue his rodeo dreams. After some helpful meddling from a couple at a rest stop, LeeRoy finds himself driving Hằng on her search instead. They make an odd pair, a white boy from Austin and a determined Vietnamese refugee on a mission. But their chemistry works: Hằng sees through LeeRoy’s cowboy airs, and LeeRoy understands Hằng’s clever English pronunciations, cobbled together from Vietnamese syllables. When they find Hằng’s brother and he remembers nothing about Vietnam, Hằng and LeeRoy settle in at the ranch next door. Hằng’s heartbreaking memories of the day her brother was mistakenly taken by Americans at the end of the war, her harrowing journey to America, and the family she left behind are all tempered by LeeRoy’s quiet patience and exasperated affection. It is their warm and comic love/hate relationship, developing over the course of the summer into something more, that is the soul of award-winning Lai’s (Listen, Slowly, 2015, etc.) first young adult novel. Every sentence is infused with warmth, and Lai shows readers that countless moments of grace exist even in the darkest times.

Masterfully conjures grace, beauty, and humor out of the tragic wake of the Vietnam War. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-222921-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

WHERE THE WORLD ENDS

In this Carnegie-winning novel, McCaughrean (The Middle of Nowhere, 2013, etc.) turns a small piece of history into an epic, nearly mythic, tale.

St. Kilda’s archipelago, far off the northwest corner of Scotland, is the most remote set of islands in Great Britain. In 1727, a boat set off from the sole occupied island, Hirta, dropping a small group of men and boys at Warrior Stac, a giant rock, for a fowling expedition. Told from the point of view of Quilliam, one of the older boys, (precise ages are never given; the boys seem to range in age from around 10 to about 16), the trip begins as a grand adventure: scaling cliffs via fingertip holds, making candles out of dead storm petrels, and cutting the stomachs out of gannets to use as bottles for oil. But then, inexplicably, the village boat does not return for them. As the weeks stretch to months and the birds begin to leave the rock, the party fears the end of the world. Cane, one of the men, sets himself up as a divine authority, praying for repentance, while Quill attempts to soothe the younger boys through story—and himself through memories of a young woman he loves. McCaughrean takes the bones of a real event, wraps it in immersive, imaginative detail and thoroughly real emotion, and creates an unforgettable tale of human survival.

A masterpiece. (map, afterword, birds of St. Kilda, glossary) (Historical fiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: Dec. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-22549-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships. (Historical fiction. 14-adult)

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD

A 16-year-old girl finds friendship and questions social hierarchies at her boarding school.

After Adele Joubert is demoted from her favored place among the popular girls and sent to live in a room where a former student died, she begins to question the carefully structured hierarchy of her community. Within Keziah Christian Academy, a school for mixed-race students in 1965 Swaziland, a class system separates the rich from the poor, dictating who eats first at meals and who gets access to the best textbooks. Hair texturism, colorism, and the legitimacy of their parents’ relationships also create divisions that Adele, who is of black and white ancestry, challenges with her budding friendship with her new roommate, Lottie Diamond, a poor outcast of Jewish, Scottish, and Zulu heritage. When classmate Darnell Parns, who is coded as neurodivergent, goes missing, Adele pushes boundaries aside to search for him and, in the process, learns more about her own complicated origins in the sweeping hills where Keziah is situated. With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly, focusing on Adele’s interpersonal development. The gorgeous imagery sets the scene wonderfully, and there is mention of the religious and geographical colonization represented in the book, the hazy morals of the adults, and the relationships between black, white, and mixed-race citizens of Swaziland, but the narrative doesn’t dig too deeply into these subjects.

An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships. (Historical fiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-51557-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

A stunning novel that exposes modern fascism and elevates human resilience. (author’s note, research and sources, glossary,...

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THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE

The pitiless dictatorship of Francisco Franco examined through the voices of four teenagers: one American and three Spaniards.

The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936-1939, but Franco held Spain by its throat for 36 years. Sepetys (Salt to the Sea, 2016, etc.) begins her novel in 1957. Daniel is a white Texan who wants to be a photojournalist, not an oilman; Ana is trying to work her way to respectability as a hotel maid; her brother, Rafael, wants to erase memories of an oppressive boys’ home; and Puri is a loving caregiver for babies awaiting adoption—together they provide alternating third-person lenses for viewing Spain during one of its most brutally repressive periods. Their lives run parallel and intersect as each tries to answer questions about truth and the path ahead within a regime that crushes any opposition, murders dissidents, and punishes their families while stealing babies to sell to parents with accepted political views. This formidable story will haunt those who ask hard questions about the past as it reveals the hopes and dreams of individuals in a nation trying to lie its way to the future. Meticulous research is presented through believable, complex characters on the brink of adulthood who personalize the questions we all must answer about our place in the world. 

A stunning novel that exposes modern fascism and elevates human resilience. (author’s note, research and sources, glossary, photographs) (Historical fiction. 15-adult)

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-16031-8

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Philomel

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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