Somehow, I managed to fall in love with history despite what happened at school. We glossed over the experiences of immigrants like my Greek grandparents who came through Ellis Island and certainly never studied the contributions of Asians even though the Japanese-American side of my family fought in the 442nd and worked on the sugarcane plantations of Hawaii. History class was something to be endured—apart from the deathly boring presentation, which sucked the life out of any potentially interesting stories, it was a total erasure of my family and a slog through a past in which no one like me (or many of my classmates) seemingly existed.
Nevertheless, I ended up majoring and getting a Master’s in history, but only because I eventually encountered teachers and professors who opened up different vistas. Today, more than ever, history is a battleground over whose voices matter, whose lives matter, whose stories are worth telling. History is important because what we believe about the past directly shapes the present we think we inhabit and the future we believe we should build.
Even if many textbooks remain incomplete (or worse), I am heartened by some original and engaging works of historical fiction coming out in early 2019. They offer teen readers glimpses into less frequently covered settings, show how exciting history can be, fill in curricular gaps, and highlight struggles that are relevant to the present day. While certain well-trodden topics continue to be milked for material, I hope these titles are a sign that more surprises are in store.
Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden (Jan. 8) explores the intricacies of social class within the African-American community of post-Reconstruction–era Washington, D.C. Rather than situating black history in a context that centers on the attitudes of white people, this book follows one young woman from Savannah as she pursues a very different life among the fashionable and intellectual elite, navigating differences that resonate today.
Although more than 20,000 European Jews fleeing Hitler joined the already vibrant Jewish community in Shanghai, it is likely that Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Jan. 22) will be the first time that many teen (and adult) readers get to know this group of people. The themes of anti-Semitism and refugees fearing for their lives and learning to adapt in a new culture are sadly all too relevant to current events.
The Weight of OurSky by Hanna Alkaf (Feb. 5) sheds light on a pivotal event in Malaysian history: the race riots that began on May 13, 1969, and tore apart this multicultural nation. Focusing on one teen girl caught in the midst of the chaos, this is a story of mental health struggles and strangers crossing ethnic boundaries to form bonds of trust in a time of crisis. It’s a tough and honest read that showcases Asian history for a change.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.