5 YA Historical Novels About Real-Life Disasters

Up From the SeaWhen disasters strike in faraway places, it’s hard not to view them from a remove. Sensational, disturbing images and breathless, 24/7 reports on TV and in real time add to a sense of unreality. I’ve always found it easier to understand real-life events when they’re filtered through an individual’s experience, rather than through facts and figures lacking a human element. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with these YA books, all of which take place in conjunction with historical disasters I knew very little about. (Till now!*) P.S. Have your tissues handy for big-time catharsis crying.
*Please do not quiz me.

Japanese Tsunami
Up From the Sea, by Leza Lowitz

A moving, free verse novel set in Japan, Up From the Sea depicts the harrowing survival story of teenaged Kai, a half-American, half-Japanese coastal villager who loves soccer. At school, he suffers from bullying because of his mixed race. His life is forever changed by the tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011, but during a trip to New York to meet and connect with kids orphaned by 9/11, he takes the opportunity to seek out his American father. Their relationship may be complicated, but it’s also more vital than ever in the wake of Kai’s losses.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
15-year-old Mercy Wong is brave, resourceful, quick-witted, and adventure prone (the novel opens with a hot air balloon ride gone wrong). Despite the daily racism faced by the inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906, Mercy is determined to protect her weak-lunged younger brother from a life spent working in the family’s laundromat. In her view, “The only way to overcome hard luck is hard work.” Her plan to gain admittance to St. Clare’s private school succeeds, albeit with challenges she never could have anticipated, but when the earthquake hits, her dreams are shattered. In the days that follow, Mercy and her classmates put aside their differences and come together to aid others in need. Lee is tremendous at making the past come alive through vivid details and deeply appealing characters.

The Spanish Influenza Pandemic
A Death-Struck Year, by Makiia Lucier
This critically acclaimed debut centers on Cleo Berry, a senior in high school who lives with her older brother and sister-in-law in Portland, Oregon, in 1918, where no one fears the flu because it’s believed to be an East Coast problem. (“It couldn’t happen here” has apparently been the go-to response to tragedy for centuries.) When the epidemic arrives, Cleo rebels against her school’s quarantine and ends up serving as a volunteer for the Red Cross, risking her heart (to a medical student) and her life in the process.

The Plague
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

The year is 1666. The place is a town later dubbed “Plague Village.” Terrified yet? Our young heroine, Anna Frith, has already been widowed and is raising two children when the story starts. Then the Black Death arrives and the villagers of a small town in England are convinced by their rector that the noblest choice is to quarantine themselves. As a result their village population is reduced by two-thirds. A compelling look at the human capacity for kindness and cruelty in the face of grief and suffering, by a Pulitzer Prize–winning author.

Hurricane Katrina
Beneath a Meth Moon, by Jacqueline Woodson

From the ages of 11 to 15, Laurel Daneau suffers losses most of us can’t fathom. Her beloved mother and grandmother are both killed in the storm, their home destroyed. Laurel, her father, and her baby brother are forced to leave Mississippi. Though heartsick and broken, Laurel manages to start over in Iowa by joining her new school’s cheer team and making some good friends. But when she meets T-Boom, who gets her hooked on meth, Laurel discovers that suppressing her misery through drug use is a welcome relief, and not one that’s easily given up, even as it destroys her life. The emotional devastation experienced by survivors of Hurricane Katrina is brought into stark clarity by award-winning Woodson. I read the last half of this book with blurred vision because I was crying so hard.

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