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Two Historical Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read: A Detailed Review

Books have always had the ability to provide a refuge from life and its realities. Books can alter perspectives and advance self-growth through contemplation.


Reading is more than just an escape or enjoyable pastime, it is a gateway to reflection, a practice that is crucial to adopt in life. As time goes by, it becomes more important to remember world history and to ensure that we learn from the past.


Major events like the Holocaust or Black Slavery are being forgotten because the people who lived to witness those horrors are no longer here to share their stories. It is not the same as hearing about these topics through social class.


Reading books about these events can help close the gap between the future generations' understanding of the past and the individuals who experienced it.


Note: Some of the books have heavy topics and are not suitable for young children or teens who aren’t familiar with mature topics.


If your child struggles with reading because they have trouble understanding books, check out our article on improving reading comprehension.


Two Historical Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read
Two Historical Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read

 

In This Article

 

‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by: Anthony Doerr




Novel Background


‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr is a historical fiction novel set during World War II. In an interview with NPR news, Doerr explained that the first inspiration for the novel came to him while on a train in Europe.


He continues,

“[the train] started going underground. The man in front of me was on call and the call dropped. And he got angry. And I just remember thinking, what he's forgetting — really what we're all forgetting all the time — is that this is a miracle.”

That experience was the start of a ten year journey of writing what turned into a Pulitzer prize winning novel with over 15 million copies sold. The novel describes how it would be to live in a time where technology wasn’t as dependable.


Synopsis


Anthony Doerr’s novel ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ is about a blind and strong French girl and an intelligent German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.


Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works as a locksmith. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle Etieene lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.


In Germany, Werner Pfennig, grows up with his younger sister Jutta, enchanted by a radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance.


Derived from: Goodreads


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‘All The Light We Cannot See’ is a story about broken dreams and promises; of choosing the right thing even when it's not convenient—even when you’re uncertain.


In the book, greed and power is symbolized by a stone known as the Sea Of Flames. Acquiring the stone brings bounty to the individual, but incurs suffering on others. The symbol of the sea of flames and its curse is a fitting metaphor for human greed and the suffering of war.


Its message is simple but history has repeatedly proven it to be unachievable. Will you choose to gain power at the cost of people around you? Can you forgive yourself for taking it; for turning away from it?


Genre, Age Rating And Content Warnings


Genres: Historical fiction, War.

Age Rating: PG-13, suitable for most teens 14 and up.

Content Warnings: While the book is not graphic, it contains mature content such as: rape, murder, torture and bullying, war, anti-semitism, mild vulgar language.


Novel Overview


Warning: This section contains spoilers for the book. If you plan on reading this book as well, consider skipping to the next section.


Werner is an avid learner with great passion for science. As Werner grows older, his confrontation with racial supremacy and moral good leads him to an obstructive character arc. His ambition is one of the key elements of his character, and is partially responsible for his downfall.


Werner grew up in desperate circumstances, and as a result is submissive and cowardly. At the same time, Werner isn’t inherently evil—which is how most German soldiers are depicted in narratives. Werner’s understandable weakness in the face of desire and doubts is what makes his character human.


Werner could have been a great scientist or inventor but was unable to because of the circumstances around him. While Werner was unable to be everything else he dreamed to be, he realized that the one thing he could choose to be was a better person.


In comparison, Marie grows up comfortably in Paris, but with time, has to face a series of unfortunate events that seem to surround her. Marie-Laure’s condition invites sympathy from the reader. Her childish hope is what paints her as the stereotypical victim of the war.


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Both Werner and Marie-Laure are not as they appear to be. While Werner is a German soldier, he is not evil. In contrast to Sergeant von Rompel—a power hungry German soldier who is desperate to have the sea of flames, Werner is simply greedy for a better life.


In comparison, although she is blind, Marie-Laure sees and understands things better than most. Even though Marie-Laure goes through enough hardships to be deserving of selfishness, she is the one who returns the stone and ends the suffering around her.


These techniques give the unexpected. Readers are forced to look at typical characters with a less agreeable perspective. By doing so, the author encourages the reader to reflect on the lessons presented in the book.


Historical Importance


At the start of World War II, very few understood that what the Nazi Regime was doing to Jews was wrong, and many turned a blind eye from it. By the time the world woke up, catastrophe had already occurred.


Individuals need to understand the importance of remembering world history and the brutality of war. At the end of the book Marie-Laure herself realizes how easy it is for the world to forget a history that has scarred its past and people to the core.


“Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.” (pg, 382)


Refuting A Common Argument Against The Novel


“A really boring book with awfully sad ending. I get it that wars are not happy events but this book made me even feel sad for German troops! (Which normally should not happen).” (From Google Reviews)


Anthony Doerr uses both stereotypical representation of Nazi German soldiers and character’s like Werner, to show that there are people who struggle to be good and people who choose to be bad.


Reader’s feel bad for German’s like Werner and his sister Jutta because they should. Throughout the book, the author shows how German propaganda slowly changes Werner.


Good evening, he thinks. Or heil Hitler. Everyone is choosing the latter. (pg, 63)


On the other hand, Jutta, in her childhood innocence, is shown to be defiant and resilient.


“All you want to do are mathematics problems,” Jutta whispers. “Play with radios. Don’t you want to understand what’s happening?”

“What are you listening to?”

“We’re dropping bombs on Paris,” she says. Her voice is loud, and he resists an urge to clap hishand over her mouth. Jutta stares up, defiant. “That’s what I’m listening to, Werner. Our airplanes are bombing Paris.” (pg. 66)


Despite resisting the wrong beliefs around her, Jutta’s character change at the end of the book shows how the Nazi German label has made her guilty and timid.


“Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.” (pg, 367)


While Nazi Germany is rightfully portrayed as an evil and inhumane movement, it is just as (perhaps even more horrifyingly) true that many people were, acting on orders, brainwashed with propaganda and pushed to sheer desperation for survival.


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Werner’s story itself proves that while these situations don’t justify such horrific actions, it does explain it—all the more reason to recognize that tragedy isn’t as separate from evil and humanity as we’d like it to be.


Life Lessons and Areas of Understanding


Besides the contextual importance of the decisions made during the war, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ also teaches a very important lesson on choosing the right thing now—-and in the future.


Werner’s blind pursuit of ambition compels him to set aside his moral compass, exposing himself to corruption and immorality. Werner’s refusal to stand up in the face of injustice causes him to suffer along with others.


“Because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not.” (268).


However, when he challenges the beliefs taught to him, he finds the courage to stand up for what he truly believes in, granting him peace of mind.


A significant reflection on Werner’s part reads: “Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices. Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down.” (pg, 297).


Doerr’s understanding of the blind pursuit of ambition can be considered in society today. If individuals let themselves become blindsided by ambition and the idea of success, they will become indifferent to injustice and corruption, ultimately leading to suffering.


Individuals cannot find true contentment until they choose to do the right thing over their desires. When an individual struggles to choose the right thing, they should ask themselves the same question as Werner: “Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?” (pg. 168).


Memorable Quotes


“We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”

“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

“To see her is to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts.”

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

“Nothing will be healed in this kitchen. Some griefs can never be put right.”

“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?”

“What you could be.”

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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by: Harper Lee





Novel Background


‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is a historical fiction novel set during the Great Depression. The novel is largely influenced by the author’s own life growing up in Southern Alabama.


One of the main character’s in the book, Atticus, is similar to her father, who was also a lawyer. The names of Atticus’s children are similar to Lee’s own siblings. During her time in university, Lee used to write about racial injustice, a major theme in the book.


Despite the great influence, Lee has explained that her novel is not an autobiography, but rather an example of how an author "should write about what he knows and write truthfully".


Over 40 million copies of the Pulitzer Prize novel have been sold and the book has been translated into forty languages.


Synopsis


Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a coming-of-age story about a fiery girl named Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout and her brother Jem grow up in Maycomb, a small fictional town in rural Alabama.


Growing up, Scout hears stories about her neighbor Arthur Radley, nicknamed Boo, who never comes outside of his house. Obsessed with the rumors about him, the children try to lure Boo outside, leading them to unexpected truths.


As she navigates the social inequalities and prejudice she finds in her town, Scout grows up under the moral influence of her father Atticus, who is a lawyer assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a poor black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.


“Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.” (Goodreads)


Genre, Age Rating and Content Warnings


Genres: Historical fiction, Racism, Law, Bildungsroman.

Age Rating: Suitable for most teens 13 and up.

Content Warnings: While the book is not graphic, it contains mature content such as: rape, murder, death, violence, aggression against children, misogyny, racism, mild profanity and slurs.


Novel Overview


Warning: This section contains spoilers for the book. If you plan on reading this book as well, consider skipping to the next section.


Being set in a small town under the perspective of a child, the novel is a slowburn. The novel starts with an adult Scout reminiscing about her childhood. Scout is an intelligent fiery young girl, while her older brother Jem is brave and idealistic. While the two care for each other, they often clash because of their age difference and maturity.

The story mainly focuses on the children and how their ideologies and perspectives change as they grow older. Throughout the novel, Atticus remains a pillar of good for the children, always encouraging them to do the right thing.


When their father chooses to defend Tom, Scout and Jem receive blows of criticism by their extended family and school friends. While Atticus attempts to shield his children from the ugliness of people, Scout and Jem become determined to defend him.


After seeing the prejudice around them, Scout and Jem begin to understand that Boo Radley doesn’t come out of his house because he fears the scrutiny of people.


Because it’s set in an older period in southern Alabama, the novel may be difficult to read for some because of its language style.


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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been banned multiple times in several schools and countries because of its content. While it is not graphic, many feel that its mentions of racism and rape is not appropriate.


With this in consideration most kids should read these books when they are older or more mature. This is so that they can actually understand the real message and how it portrays different ideas. While the age rating is low, younger children may be too immature to understand that the usage of derogatory terms is contextual and not being encouraged.

Historical Importance


Taking place in the early 90s, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ explores how racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination are taught from an early age.


Racial discrimination laws aren’t as old as we think. In fact–in the US, segregation ended in 1954 (about 70 years ago), and the last segregated school in Canada closed in 1983. While society is progressing to what we assume to be ‘civilized’, racism is just as deeply rooted. It will take much awareness and change to truly get rid of such baseless discrimination.


Remember that we are always in a moment of history. We have the power to prevent history from becoming a horror story for future generations.


Refuting A Common Argument Against The Novel


“Before the trial, racism was prevalent in the town, and after? still.. prevalent.. the slurs in the book are appalling but it’s all written off bc “it was a different time”, not to mention the blatant sexism to scout.”

(From Google Reviews)


“The book depicts a basic white savior complex.” (From Google Reviews)


While it is important to give spotlight to communities that have experienced racial discrimination, it is also necessary to understand how deeply rooted racism is—-from the perspective of white people as well.


The novel is from the perspective of a literal child. Just because it show’s misogyny and racism doesn’t mean it commends it. It doesn’t spell out the wrongdoings, it is made clear through the double standards. The actions of the character’s are horrible because that’s how people are. It shows Scout is influenced by those biases. More importantly, it shows how she refutes them.


Furthermore the use of language is realistic but not encouraged. It is true to the time period to show that it was common to speak of black people in a derogatory manner. I’d be as bold as to say that if it makes you infuriated then it’s working. It makes you think about how it’s humanly possible to stoop so low—all the more reason to strive towards being better. It's still necessary to know about these uncomfortable things of the past so we remember why it's wrong.


To not acknowledge the social atmosphere of the time setting would be untrue. Allowing history to be forgotten when it should be condoned is an injustice to the individuals who lived it.


I’d argue that not every story with morally good white people and racism has white savior complex. In the case of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson was influenced by the author’s own life.


It is believed that Atticus was based on Lee’s father, an attorney who defended two black men accused of murder. (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) Atticus isn’t a white savior, he's just a good guy who happens to be white.


Life Lessons and Areas of Understanding


The main idea of the novel surrounds the statement, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird serves as a symbol of innocence.


Tom’s case is revealed halfway through the book and not as a main plot event so that the reader can see Scout's and Jem’s maturity level change by connecting the mockingbird to Boo Radley, who is mentioned in the beginning. The children don’t see Boo as a person until they experience how Tom was treated.


This idea might be why Lee changed the title of her novel from ‘Atticus’ to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”—-to reflect that the story “went beyond a character portrait.”


Through these characters, the children learn that harming others because of misunderstandings or prejudice is as bad as committing a great sin.


The story isn’t about a white man doing the right thing, but rather the idea that it is sin-like to harm the innocent, no matter who they are. Be it Tom Robinson or Boo Radley.


Through Atticus’s teachings, the author constantly reinforces the need to understand and respect others, to stick to what’s morally right even if all the odds are stacked against you. Most importantly, do not let the beliefs of others rule your conscience.


Memorable Quotes


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (pg. 30)


“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do—seems that only children weep. Good night.”

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.”


“A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. In the name of God, do your duty.”

Atticus’s voice had dropped, and as he turned away from the jury, he said something I did not catch.

I punched Jem. “What’d he say?”

“In the name of God, believe him”


“But before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.”



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History Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read
History Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read

FAQs

What questions to ask before reading a book?

Encourage your child to reflect on what they are reading before they actually open the book. Reading the title and synopsis can prompt ideas on the content of the novel. This can prepare their mind before they actually start reading. Thus, improving critical thinking skills. If the book also has real life situations, it can prompt your child to fully understand the importance of what they are about to learn.

How to improve vocabulary with reading?

When faced with an unknown or difficult word, search the definition and pronounce the word out loud. Familiarizing yourself with the word can make it easier to remember. Many readers skip over difficult to pronounce words. Doing this will prevent you from expanding your vocabulary. Another tip is to highlight difficult words or often repeated words. Going back and seeing your progress can boost your confidence and highlight growth. Finally, the best way to improve vocabulary is to read, alot. Especially starting from a young age. Many children who read a variety of materials early on in life have better language skills.


Summary of Two Historical Fiction Novels Your Teen Must Read


As knowledge becomes more accessible, less people are able to fully appreciate humanity’s dependence on it. Books are the one tool that cannot be taken for granted without consequence. History has repeatedly proved that knowledge and understanding is necessary for the preservation of humanity.


‘All The Light We Cannot See’ shows how important it is to remain morally strong in the face of survival and uncertainty. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ remains a masterpiece that makes you question the beliefs you’ve been taught and the influence of social inequality and prejudice on individuals.


Both novels are influenced by real life themes, and their stories highlight how important it is to keep on learning, reflecting, and understanding. By doing so, we can keep our eyes open and weave through life’s grand tapestry with purpose, determination and clarity.

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