You guys, we’re actually living in the future. Half the stuff in 20th century sci-fi novels is already our reality, and now we’ve all got phones that connect to our battery-operated cars that give us GPS directions to the nearest coffee shop where we use electronic money we never even see. Raise your hand if you remember the days when you spent hours trying to get the high score on Snake, which was the only game on your brick-sized Nokia. Everything has changed so much in the last 15 years—much less the last 100—that it’s hard to even remember a time when the internet wasn’t a thing. So in order to remind you just how far we’ve come, we’ve created this guided YA tour through the 20th century.
1909: A Mad, Wicked Folly, by Sharon Biggs Waller
This story is set at the height of the women’s suffrage movement in a London where women are nothing more than wives and mothers, and follows 17-year-old Victoria Darling. She has nearly every advantage—beauty, talent, wealth. She’s perfect wife material by the day’s standards, except that what she really wants is to attend art school. When Victoria poses nude for the sake of art, she’s kicked out of her French finishing school, and her parents try to marry her off to a wealthy man. But Victoria doesn’t back down and soon finds herself involved with the women’s suffrage movement, which forces her to consider just how much she’s willing to give up for her dreams.
1918: A Death-Struck Year, by Makiia Lucier
When the real-life Spanish Influenza pandemic struck in the early 20th century, it was a gruesome and sobering time for much of America. A Death-Struck Year explores that devastating time period as the disease makes its way to Cleo’s hometown of Portland, and she’s forced to watch it ravage her community. After her boarding school is closed by the health department, Cleo sneaks back to her family home to ride out the disease. Eventually she volunteers with the Red Cross, and in the midst of the death and gruesome medical procedures, finds hope and a sense of place.
1929: Bright Young Things, by Anna Godbersen
The first in a trilogy, Bright Young Things is set in 1929 Manhattan, complete with speakeasies, elegant parties, handsome men, and Broadway dreams. Filled with scandal and intrigue, it follows Letty and Cordelia as they make their escape to the big city, Letty to become a Broadway star and Cordelia to find and meet her bootlegger father. Letty finds that show business is harder to crack into than she thought and ends up a cigarette girl at a speakeasy, but Cordelia’s dreams seem, at first, more achievable: she finds her father, joins him in his mansion, and is transformed into a flapper by society girl Astrid. As the three ladies party their way through New York, they learn about friendship, love, and betrayal in the last summer of the Jazz Age.
1944: Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein
From the author that brought us the magic that is Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is another stunning WWII thriller about the power of friendship and hope. When 18-year-old Rose Justice is shot down while flying an Allied plane from Paris to England, she’s captured by the Nazis and sent to a notorious women’s concentration camp. There, she meets women from France, Poland, and Germany, developing friendships as she comes face to face with atrocities beyond our imagining. It’s a story about what it means to survive crimes beyond the endurance of the human spirit.
1965: Purple Daze, by Sherry Shahan
Set against the volatile backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the age of rock and roll, Purple Daze is the story of six teenagers set in suburban Los Angeles. Told mostly through letters, journal entries, and free verse, the story follows the friends as they deal with the social chaos around them and ultimately lose their innocence, offering a snapshot of life in the 1960s. Current events and speeches are interspersed throughout the narrative, so readers can connect with the larger events facing these teens as they struggle to find their place in the world.
1971–1973: Dreams of Significant Girls, by Cristina Garcia
Set right on the verge of feminism’s second wave, which saw a significant revolution in the roles and power of women, this novel explores the lives of three teenage girls with vastly different backgrounds after they become roommates at a Switzerland summer boarding school. A rebellious Midwesterner named Ingrid, a genius Iranian noblewoman named Shirin, and a Jewish Cuban-American chef must find their places in a world that at times seems too big to take on alone. The ladies offer each other comfort and support as they rebel against what is expected of them.
1983: Going Over, by Beth Kephart
This tale of a divided city set six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall captures the desperation of the time with beautiful prose and an absorbing love story. Told from the perspective of Ada from West Berlin and Stefan from East Berlin, Going Over explores the pain of separation and cruelness of fate as the young lovers fear circumstances will prevent them from reuniting. Their love story delves into the politics that can divide people, and an interesting subplot involving a Turkish boy helps create a bigger picture of what life was like for people living on either side of the wall.
1993: The Carnival at Bray, by Jessie Ann Foley
End your tour of the 20th Century in 1993, with this novel that pays tribute to the grunge era in all its denim glory. Maggie is living the dream in Chicago, where she’s part of an active music scene and has a troubled musician uncle who sneaks her into grunge rock concerts. But she has to leave all that behind when her mother uproots the family and moves them to Bray, near Dublin, Ireland. While adjusting to her new home, first love and a devastating death change everything. To fulfill a dying wish, Maggie goes on a forbidden pilgrimage to see Nirvana in Rome. It’s a bittersweet story of first love and tragedy at the height of the grunge movement.