The Crossover: History’s Out-of-Body Experiences

Article by liz

The Crossover: in which kids specialist Liz stacks up the best young adult books of the moment, for the most "grown up" of readers

To me, historical fiction is the literary equivalent of an out-of-body experience. I feel like I'm looking at myself through a telescope—separated, ostensibly, by the distances in time and space, but still seeing myself in the characters, in how things really haven't changed for people in fifty or 100 or 500 years. I feel it even stronger when the characters are young people, coming of age. The struggles of adolescence don't change based on when you're born—you might have a different set of cares and worries, but you're still awkward and uncomfortable and trying to find your feet. I think those struggles get thrown into sharper relief by setting them in a different place and time: you take away the complaisance of a familiar setting and can see the problems more clearly. It's easier to fall down the rabbit hole when it doesn't look like your front door.

But I don't just love these books because they have "the timeless appeal of a great story," or some other marketing-copy-sounding vibe. This distance that historical fiction gives can also make certain stories easier to tell—stories that were forgotten, or thought of as unimportant, or glossed over. Especially the stories of young people. Young adult historical fiction is in a fantastic boom right now of stories untold in their own time, brought to life by these phenomenal writers' hands. Take a look at some of this moment's most essential books!

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Salt to the Sea Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399160301
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Philomel Books - February 2nd, 2016


Titanic. Lusitania. Wilhelm Gustloff? You've probably heard of the first two ships, but not the third—even though more than 9000 people, 5000 of whom were children, lost their lives. (In comparison, both Titanic and Lusitania had less than 3000 casualties combined.) The January 1945 sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, as it evacuated military personnel, civilians, and refugees from eastern Germany in advance of the oncoming Russian Army, was the largest loss of life from a single ship sinking in history.

SALT TO THE SEA moves inexorably toward this tragedy, as our characters flee the devastation of war toward the ships that are meant to be their saviors. A Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian runaway, a Polish refugee, and a German soldier trade narration as they journey to the sea: four teenagers doing the very best they can in the horrors of wartime, making the choices that will save their lives—or end them. Ruta Sepetys doesn't flinch from showing any of the horrors of wartime in deep winter, and freezing and starvation even start to seem gentle compared to the gruesome lengths some people take to keep themselves and their loved ones alive.

As difficult as some parts of this book were, I have to say, I couldn't put it down. There's hope and bravery, kindness and generosity, even in bitter cold and terrible circumstances. It's enough to keep spirit alive—for the reader as well as the characters. SALT TO THE SEA is triumphant, illuminating, and mesmerizing, and it gives a necessary voice to this shockingly-forgotten tragedy. I'm not going to forget this book for a long time.

Anna and the Swallow Man Cover Image
ISBN: 9780553513349
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers - January 26th, 2016


I still have so many questions about this book, days after finishing it. The story won't leave my head—it asked so much of me as I read it, and now, I'm finding myself with so many things I want to ask it. Not for a lack of answers provided, you understand, but questions about the characters' pasts, their futures, and the world created in the bell jar of this gorgeous little novel.

Seven-year-old Anna's father leaves her with a friend one day—in Poland, 1939—and never comes back for her. Anna, being the smart girl that she is, realizes she has to leave, too, and finds herself under the protection of a mysterious man who can whistle birds down out of the sky. The two of them set off to traverse the Polish countryside together: Anna and the Swallow Man.

It's melancholy and beautiful, watching a child learn about the harshness of the world under such a protective arm. This book is a gorgeous example of craft: Savit's spare writing focuses on language, specifically the many languages that Anna and the Swallow Man speak to each other. A person's language, in this book, represents their identity—a powerful statement in a book that focuses on the chaos and bloodshed of Eastern Europe in World War II.

In a book where you never learn one of the main characters' given names, of course identity becomes a central question. But what I loved the most about ANNA AND THE SWALLOW MAN was that it never forced any questions, or made any reveal feel cheap. Identity, illness, choice, and personhood: the book revolves around these core ideas, but they come up as characters come in and out of the narrative. ANNA AND THE SWALLOW MAN feels almost like a fable, or a myth, but set against one of the most painfully real and unforgettable eras of our time.

A Madness So Discreet Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062320865
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Katherine Tegen Books - October 6th, 2015


A MADNESS SO DISCREET, explained most simply, is a psychological thriller. Well. A thriller about psychology. Criminal psychology. And regular psychology, at that. All right, it's not very simple. You might have guessed by now that I like books that don't present tidy answers to neat questions. A MADNESS SO DISCREET goes so far from providing neat, clean answers to obvious black-and-white questions that it's off the color spectrum entirely.

Grace, our protagonist, begins the book pregnant by assault and voiceless from her trauma, imprisoned in a nineteenth century insane asylum. When she's freed, she descends immediately into a different type of madness, using her near-photographic memory to assist a doctor developing the new science of criminal psychology. Much of the initial horror in this book comes from simply the nineteenth-century approach to mental illness (wrapping in sheets? lobotomy? no thank you), but as in all good thrillers, the real spectre becomes the dark and horrible things that people can do to other people. It's not nice, and it's not pretty, and it certainly hasn't changed from the 1800s to now.

But while A MADNESS SO DISCREET spends much of its time in the darkness, the really important parts of this book are what happen in the light. The moments of agency and empowerment that Grace and her fellow inmates can have amongst themselves; the way Grace begins to use her intelligence and aptitude to keep what happened to her from happening to anyone else. Grace's journey to finding her own strength becomes a powerful statement about agency in a book that is so much about victimization—of women, of the mentally ill, of the powerless. A MADNESS SO DISCREET becomes a story about finding yourself when you've been locked away—and taking those prison bars and breaking them over your knee. I think we need more books like this.

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The Passion of Dolssa Cover Image
ISBN: 9780451469922
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Viking Books for Young Readers - April 12th, 2016


All right, this book isn't out until April, but I need to put it on your radar now. It's the story of a thirteenth-century girl from Provence who hears God in all things—and who, when she decides to preach what she hears, is violently pursued and silenced by the Inquisition. It's about a teenage matchmaker in a small seaside town who finds this girl dying and decides to help. It's about faith and truth and the beauty that can be found in all kinds of heresies. It's about conscientious objectors, and dissidents, and iconoclasts. It's timely and timeless. Get ready for this book.

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