Transcending Time: YA Fiction Set Between the 1960s and 1990s | Great Books

There’s something about historical fiction that entices readers. These collected titles reach into the latter part of the 20th century covering romances, revolutions, and everyday life for today’s teens to explore.

There’s something about historical fiction that entices readers. Maybe it’s the thrill of learning something new or the draw of getting lost in a different time. Or maybe it’s that no matter the time period, many historical fiction titles bear truths that still carry weight today. Being immersed in a story about people who came before and dealt with relatable situations, despite the different circumstances, is a powerful experience for today’s readers. Now, combine historical fiction with a YA audience and something even more special emerges.

The 2020s have already seen an uptick of YA fiction that dives into the 1960s to 1990s. These narratives don’t shy away from the heartbreaking, intimate, and, ultimately, hopeful lives of teens whose experiences with everything from the HIV/AIDS crisis to the Cold War transcend time. The following collected titles, while not a comprehensive list, reach into the latter part of the 20th century covering romances, revolutions, and everyday life for today’s teens to explore.

BOTTNER, Barbara. I Am Here Now. Macmillan/Imprint. 2020. ISBN 9781250207692.
Gr 9 Up–When Maisie befriends Rachel, she discovers how art is a beautiful outlet while growing up with an emotionally abusive mother and absent father in the Bronx in the 1960s. In this novel in verse, Bottner covers themes of abuse and self-worth that ring as true in the 2020s as they did 60 years ago, with a coming-of-age account of one girl’s unreliable family and the golden friendships that saved her.

BOYER, Susan Azim. Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win. Wednesday Bks. 2022. ISBN 9781250833686.
Gr 10 Up–When an international incident leads to Jasmine’s student council election competition spreading anti-Iranian rhetoric around the school, Jasmine grapples with blending into the background or claiming her heritage. Boyer’s YA debut centers a biracial teen in 1979 Southern California, whose aspirations are mixed in with identity, family, and equity as the Iran hostage crisis begins affecting her daily life.

ELLIOTT, L. M. Walls. Algonquin. 2021. ISBN 9781643750248.
Gr 7-10–Growing up in communist Germany, Matthias is surprised to find that his U.S. Army brat cousin, Drew, living in West Berlin, might not be the enemy despite the bitter political divide. In this novel set over the turbulent year (1960–1961) that led up to the construction of the Berlin Wall, Elliott weaves a tale of family versus country during the Cold War, aided by Megan Behm’s brilliant photo essay.

ENGLE, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky: Love in a Time of Hunger. S. & S./Atheneum. 2021. ISBN 9781534464964.
Gr 7 Up–In the summer of 1991, Liana and Amado bravely abandon Cuba’s forced volunteer labor camps in search of a better life. Inspired by the experiences of Engle’s relatives, this triple-perspective novel in verse depicts the cruel reality of Cuba’s “decade of hunger” while highlighting the resilience of the Cuban people.

FARLEY, Grant. Bones of a Saint. Soho Teen. 2021. ISBN 9781641291170.
Gr 9 Up–After years of staying under the radar, RJ is forced by the Blackjacks gang to vandalize an older man’s property. Now, RJ must choose between resisting violence or following orders to survive. In this book set in 1978 Northern California, Farley’s expressive writing creates an atmospheric storytelling style that drives the narrative of balancing morality and the journey of growing up.

GANSWORTH, Eric. My Good Man. Levine Querido. 2022. ISBN 9781646141838.
Gr 10 Up–As the only Indigenous reporter at the Niagara Cascade, Brian is wrenched back to the place he deserted when a white man is assaulted in the middle of the Tuscarora reservation. Gansworth breaks down a six-part, 20-plus year look at Brian’s life (1970–1992) with moments of poetry and artwork that aid a fantastically packed story of one person straddling two identities while keeping his sense of self.


KONIGSBERG, Bill. Destination Unknown. Scholastic. 2022. ISBN 9781338618051.
Gr 9 Up–In 1987 New York City, Micah and C.J. meet, fall in love, and strive for a better future at the time of the brutally emotional HIV/AIDS epidemic. Konigsberg beautifully explores the vast experiences within the queer community as two teens’ budding relationship leads them to joyfully live life amid the trials, advocacy, and victories that occur while growing up.

MILLER-LACHMANN, Lyn. Torch. Carolrhoda Lab. 2022. ISBN 9781728415680.
Gr 8 Up–In 1969 Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union has wiped out the country’s freedom, leading to Pavol’s public suicide, and his three friends must deal with the aftermath of his rebellious act. Miller-Lachmann utilizes multiple young voices to expertly convey the high stakes as these teens wade through grief, trauma, and their fight for survival. Endnotes provide extended historical context.

REED, Christina Hammonds. The Black Kids. S. & S. 2020. ISBN 9781534462724.
Gr 9 Up–As one of the few Black students in her predominantly white high school, Ashley’s insulated life explodes when the four LAPD officers responsible for beating Rodney King are acquitted and protestors take to the streets. Reed keenly paints the historic 1992 L.A. Riots through the eyes of a young Black teen recognizing and confronting the call for justice for the first time.

SEPETYS, Ruta. I Must Betray You. Philomel. 2022. ISBN 9781984836038.
Gr 8 Up–Being blackmailed by the communist government leads Cristian to two choices: protect his grandfather and become an informer or use his position to rebel. Set during the 1989 Romanian Revolution, Cristian’s first-person narrative mixed with Securitate reports boldly embodies a nation’s perseverance. As always, Sepetys’s detail-oriented back matter assuages readers’ lingering curiosity about the Christmas revolution.

SHAW, Tucker. When You Call My Name. Holt. 2022. ISBN 9781250624864.
Gr 10 Up–Adam and Ben, two gay teens living in New York City, find their lives inexplicably intertwined at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1990. The book is told in alternating perspectives, and Shaw uses timely pop culture references and measured pacing to intimately intersect two lives through companionship, understanding, and triumph in the queer community during a pivotal time in history.

TORRES, Vanessa L. The Turning Pointe. Knopf. 2022. ISBN 9780593426135.
Gr 8 Up–Master Geno, Rosa’s ballet instructor and alcoholic father, demands perfection, but a new dance opportunity with Prince himself may just be her ticket to break free. A tribute to Minneapolis and Prince, Torres’s book vividly paints the bright, tough, unflinchingly true landscape of the 1980s, where a young woman grows comfortable in her skin amid family trauma.

VELASQUEZ, Elisabet. When We Make It. Dial. 2021. ISBN 9780593324486.
Gr 9 Up–As a first-generation Puerto Rican living in Bushwick, Sarai navigates through mid-1990s Brooklyn while balancing family trauma, the “war on drugs,” and gentrification in her everyday life. In this novel based on Velasquez’s childhood, readers follow a little over a year in Sarai’s life through poems, learning how to honor one’s existence while redefining what “making it” means.

WILES, Deborah. Kent State. Scholastic. 2020. ISBN 9781338356281.
Gr 7 Up–On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired upon college students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four, injuring nine, and creating a tidal wave of shock across Kent State University. A tragic, timeless story, which Wiles honors using free verse and multiple perspectives to give voice to those present at the shooting.

Emily Walker is a youth services librarian in the Chicagoland area.

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