I love books, travel, and history, so it’s no surprise that historical fiction set in other countries (or “world historical fiction”) makes me a very happy reader. Some of the best children’s books fall into this category, as evidenced by the many Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor stickers you’ll see on the books below.
Fiction always helps kids (and adults!) experience life in other people’s shoes—with historical fiction from around the world, they get the added bonus of exploring foreign cultures and different time periods.
The books on this list are considered “middle grade” fiction–they’re aimed roughly at kids from eight to fourteen, although I’d say they tend to skew to the 10-14 crowd. I’ve included a rough age estimate with each book. (Of course, these books can be great for adults, too!)
If I’ve missed one of your favorites, please share in the comments. I love to hear about great books! For my master list of book lists, click/tap here.
Note: Excuse the upcoming gushing, I just really, really like a lot of these books.
Favorite World Historical Fiction for Kids
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (ages 9-14).
Ada was born with a clubfoot, so her abusive mother never lets her leave their London apartment. When World War II begins, Ada’s mother decides to evacuate Ada’s brother Jamie, but not Ada, from the city—so strong-minded Ada sneaks out to join him. Ada thrives in the country, but her newfound happiness is threatened when her mother arrives to take her home. If you like this compelling, Newbery Honor-winning book, be sure to read the sequel, The War I Finally Won.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (10-14).
In this first book in the Breadwinner series, Parvana and her family are feeling the pain of the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan. When her father is unfairly arrested, plucky Parvana dresses like a boy so she can work to support her mother and siblings. While she enjoys the freedom her disguise provides her, she also witnesses some of the horrible acts perpetrated by Taliban members. Deborah Ellis based this thoroughly absorbing novel on her interviews with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and she donates the book’s royalties to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (9-14).
This is one of my all-time favorite children’s books! In 1910, Maia, an orphan, travels from England to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to live with newfound relatives, but they turn out to be extremely unpleasant people. Still, Maia finds happiness—and plenty of adventures—as she explores the rainforest and becomes friends with two other orphans—-the child actor Clovis, and Finn, a boy of mysterious origins who lives on his own in the wild.
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (9-14).
In turn-of-the-century Vienna, Annika has been raised by servants who found her abandoned in a church as a baby. Though she loves her makeshift family, Annika has always wondered about her parents—so she’s thrilled when a beautiful woman claiming to be her mother arrives and sweeps her off to a castle in Germany. But life with her mother is not at all what Annika expected—in fact, it’s downright dangerous! This charming story is filled with appealing characters and affectionate descriptions of Vienna at the height of its glory.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (9-14).
I’m cheating a little with this book because it’s mostly set in the United States, but it’s so good it deserves to be on lots of lists! As the story begins, Hà and her family are living in Vietnam shortly before the Fall of Saigon. Though they’re loathe to leave their home—especially because they’re hoping Hà’s long-missing father will return—they board a refugee boat headed to America. Thanhha Lai based this Newbery Honor-winning book on her own experiences as a refugee, and the free verse format—each short chapter is its own poem—draws readers directly into Hà’s courageous heart and clever mind.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (9-14).
When Hitler ordered the arrest and deportation of all Denmark’s Jews on October 1, 1943, many Danes worked together to smuggle over 7,000 of the country’s approximately 7,800 Jews on boats to Sweden. In this inspiring, Newbery Medal-winning story, Annemarie Johnannesen and her family hide her best friend, Ellen, from the Nazis overnight and then travel to the coast to help Ellen and her parents escape. As Annemarie learns more about her family’s resistance work, she’s asked to take on her own dangerous but necessary mission.
Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan (8-12).
After Nazi soldiers occupy a Norwegian town, the residents plot to remove nine million dollars worth of gold from the bank before the Nazis can seize it. Since adults are more likely to arouse suspicion, the town’s children are asked to carry the gold on their sleds to a safe hiding place. Like Number the Stars above, this suspenseful story celebrates the courage of children and their contributions to World War II resistance movements.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (ages 11-14+).
This is the powerful–and true–story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Forced to flee his war-torn village, Salva walks with little food or water for many months before arriving at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. After spending years at three different refugee camps and enduring a number of horrifying experiences, Salva finally finds a home with a caring family in Rochester, New York. In real life, Salva now runs a successful non-profit that builds much-needed wells in South Sudanese villages (learn more here).
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (10-14).
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve owned this book for over a decade but never read it until this year. I thought the basic plot details—a boy in 12th-century Korea wants to be a potter—just wouldn’t do it for me. But it turns out I loved the book, and the end left me crying, smiling, and wishing Tree-Ear’s story would continue. I’m looking forward to reading this one with my boys, in large part because Tree-Ear is such a fabulous and honorable hero.
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (10-14).
Yep, it’s another book by Linda Sue Park. They’re just so good! Here, she brings to life a devastating period in Korea’s history—the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. When restrictions tighten in the early 1940s, Sun-hee and her brother Tae-Yul must adopt Japanese names (Sun-hee’s is Keoko) and they’re no longer allowed to speak the Korean language. Koreans are also expected to fight for Japan in World War II, and Tae-Yul decides to enlist in order protect his family. Sun-hee and Tae-Yul are dual narrators in this haunting and eye-opening story.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (11-14+).
After Manjiro and his fellow fishermen are marooned on a barren island in 1841, they’re rescued by an American whaling ship. Unlike his friends, curious Manjiro is eager to learn about the “foreign devils,” and he’s eventually adopted by the ship’s captain. But though Manjiro loves his new family in America, his heart yearns for home. He embarks on a seemingly impossible journey—to return to Japan, where citizens who leave the country and try to return are executed. This adventure-filled story is based on the fascinating life of Nakahama Manjiro, the first Japanese person to live in the United States.
The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan (9-14).
Neftalí has always been a dreamer who revels in the sensory wonders of the world around him—much to the dismay of his harsh father, who wants him to put more muscle on his bones and become a doctor or dentist. As Neftalí grows up, he must decide whether to please his father or follow his own passions. Based on the early life of acclaimed poet Pablo Neruda, this lyrical story, which includes hints of magical realism, is complemented by evocative illustrations from the acclaimed artist Peter Sís.
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (10-14).
Here’s another one of my all-time favorite children’s books—it’s a wonderful story of friendship, love, and forgiveness. In ancient Israel, Daniel lives in the mountains with rebels who oppose the Roman Empire’s rule over their country. Daniel is angry and embittered by past wrongs, but his attitude slowly changes when he makes new friends and hears the words of Jesus, who teaches that men should love and not hate. Clearly, this Newbery Medal-winning book has strong Christian elements, but it can be enjoyed by people of all faiths.
Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan (10-14).
In 1914 Russia, Katya lives a charmed life as the daughter of one of Empress Alexandra’s ladies in waiting. Then World War I strikes, followed by the Russian Revolution, and Katya’s perfect world falls apart. Though this book covers tumultuous events and includes quite a bit of heartbreak, it’s doesn’t feel too dark and ultimately it shows Katya find the strength and courage to live a new–though much harder–life. If you enjoy this book, try its three companion novels, starting with The Impossible Journey (which, I warn you, is very good but very sad).
Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (9-14).
Sasha can’t wait for the next day of school, when he’ll be inducted into the Young Pioneers to further show his support for his revered leader, Josef Stalin. But his life unravels when his Secret Service father is arrested, and then, at school, he accidentally breaks the nose from a statue of Stalin. Soviet-born author Eugene Yelchin offers a brief but powerful and chilling glimpse into Stalin’s cult of personality as well as the paranoia and betrayal that permeated everyday life during his rule.
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