Historical fiction is all well and good, but there’s an extra-special soft spot in my heart for historical fiction that’s based on girls that were really real. From the very famous Elizabeth I to the less familiar heroines of various wars and eras, it’s amazing to see what actual girls have done throughout history—even if it happens to be through the fictionalized (aka heart-stoppingly beautiful) lens of a YA novel. Plus, if I’m being honest, it doesn’t hurt that most of these real-world leading ladies happen to have been fancy-pants royalty, and I’ve always had a thing for ball gowns. So for every reader who knows you can wear a floor-length dress and still kick butt with the best of them, here are some of the best REAL, ACTUAL, ONCE-ALIVE heroines of the YA world:
Tarnish, by Katherine Longshore
Freshly arrived from France, Anne Boleyn isn’t exactly making friends in the court of Henry VIII. Anne’s not considered pretty by court standards—not like her older sister, Mary—and with her not-quite-right clothes and her not-quite-right manners, she worries she won’t make a good marriage at all. Determined to do better than her father thinks she can, Anne accepts lessons in seduction from Thomas Wyatt, one of the many resident poets at court. Before long the entire court, including King Henry, is taking notice of her—and that’s a good thing, right? For all that you’ve ever wondered about Henry VIII’s second wife (mother of Elizabeth I and inspiration for the restructuring of England’s entire religious system), here is Anne at her best: smart, funny, and willing to do anything to make a good life for herself.
The King’s Rose, by Alisa Libby
Continuing the fascination with the many wives of Henry VIII, The King’s Rose is the story of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Catherine is just fifteen when Henry decides he wants to marry her…but what does Catherine want? Not Henry, to be honest—and why should she, when he’s approximately twelve times her age and has been married four times before? But her family and the King insist, so Catherine is married. The trouble is, all she can think about is the one perfect kiss she shared with Thomas Culpepper, and she wants more. This book is lovely and tragic, especially if you go in knowing Catherine Howard’s eventual fate.
Loving Will Shakespeare, by Carolyn Meyer
At the ripe age of 26, Anne Hathaway is already considered an unmarriageable old maid by Elizabethan standards. So she’s surprised (pleasantly) when the much younger Will Shakespeare falls in love with and marries her. With an unpleasant stepmother and a distant father, Anne is all too happy to start what she expects to be the perfect family. But when Will suddenly becomes successful, Anne realizes the family she wants may not be the family she gets. Equal parts sad, funny, and romantic, Loving Will Shakespeare is an interesting take on the life Shakespeare left behind while he peddled his plays in London.
The Lost Crown, by Sarah Miller
You already know Anastasia, I’m sure, but have you met her sisters, Olga, Tatiana, and Maria? They’re all just on the brink of adulthood when 1914 hits, bringing with it the conflict of World War I. And just as the girls are forming their own opinions on the world around them, they’re imprisoned, stuck under house arrest in a doomed situation. The Lost Crown will make you fall in love with all four of the Romanov sisters, each with her own distinct personality, as they face their fate together. Warning: this book will make you very, very sad, so be sure to have something happy at hand for a follow-up read.
Just a Girl, by Jane Caro
The life of Elizabeth I is a fascinating one—born to a father who was desperately hoping for a boy, she spent her childhood going in and out of banishment, subject to the whims of her father and living in the shadow of her mother’s execution. In Just a Girl, Elizabeth thinks back on the full life she’s already had on the evening before her coronation: the deaths of each member of her immediate family, the sacrifices, the political intrigue, and (most importantly) the full headstrong, passionate, nerves-of-steel personality that made her the force of nature she had to be.
Cate of the Lost Colony, by Lisa Klein
For a slightly less documented (but no less real) heroine, meet Cate, or Lady Catherine as she’s more properly known. Cate is one of Elizabeth’s closest ladies-in-waiting, until the moment Elizabeth discovers Cate’s secret attachment to Sir Walter Raleigh and banishes her to Roanoke Colony. Once there, Cate has to learn to live on her own in the wild, without the comfort or companionship of court life. It’s a seamless blend of fact and fiction, combined with the excellent, still-unsolved mystery of what happened to the colony—which, thankfully, leaves Cate of the Lost Colony a little more open to a happy (er) ending than some of the other ends-in-execution books on this list.
The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette, by Carolyn Meyer
Speaking of execution, how can you not be intrigued by Marie-Antoinette? A beautiful, lonely Austrian princess marries a shy, unaffectionate French prince at a time when France and Austria were enemies, and the drama that ensues is full of rumors (are Marie-Antoinette and her husband even together?), rules (why does the French court have so many ridiculous rules?), and lavish parties (Marie served one hell of a cake). With the French monarchy on the fritz and Marie struggling to put on a brave front in the face of startling poverty and unpopularity, it’s unsurprising things end the way they do, but Meyer will have you wishing you could save Marie-Antoinette from her inevitable fate—or at least give her a nice, heartfelt hug.
A Soldier’s Secret, by Marissa Moss
Sarah Edmonds’s Civil War career includes battlefield nursing, secret intelligence, and prisoner-of-war escape. It also includes masquerading as a man named Frank Thompson, a carefully guarded secret Sarah kept from everyone, especially the other men of her regiment. Told from Sarah’s perspective and closely based on reality, A Soldier’s Secret follows Sarah’s heroics as she does what she can for her country—and falls in love with one of her unsuspecting fellow soldiers.
Anne & Henry, by Dawn Ius
And finally, for a slightly (all right, more than slightly) less realistic but no less awesome take on the ill-fated romance between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, there’s Dawn Ius’s Anne & Henry. Henry’s life has long been out of his control, with every move planned way in advance by his family. But all that pressure to be successful can’t stop him from falling in love with Anne Boleyn, a wild girl who’s definitely not Tudor-approved. With an Anne who’s just as witty and devil-may-care as we’ve been told and a Henry who’s just as alternately charming and destructive, Anne & Henry feels true-to-history…just with motorcycles.
Who’s your favorite real-life heroine?