Best Historical Fiction Picture Books

Historical fiction picture books are a great way to teach children about what life was like in a time long passed. This list includes book I find moving, thoughtful, instructive, and full of truth. Some of these stories follow specific historical figures and historical events. I do not earn any commission for any books I review; I legitimately enjoy these stories and I believe you will too!

Most of these stories are based in American history. Topics addressed in these wonderful stories range from the terrible realities of slavery to what life looked like through different seasons of a year. Enjoy the list! I hope you discover some elementary and middle grade picture books that you’re excited to read to your children.

historical fiction children's books

Where to Buy Picture Books

First and foremost, I am a supporter of buying from local businesses and bookstores. Search Google listings for locally owned bookstores in your area.

If you’re looking to buy historical fiction picture books online, you can order online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major booksellers. 

As a reminder, I do not earn any commission for any book recommendations I make. I want to share books I love with fellow parents and children’s book enthusiasts!

chanticleer and the fox

Chanticleer and the Fox

Adapted from The Nuts’ Priest Tale children’s book, Chanticleer is a rooster who constantly struts with confidence. One day, a fox shows up and threatens Chanticleer’s leadership of the barnyard. In a rare twist, the fox is the one who is ultimately outsmarted. At times, the vocabulary is advanced, but you could argue it pushes young readers to learn new words.

The rooster has 7 wives in the story, which I was not particularly a fan of, but the twist with the fox being outsmarted was unique. Originally written by Geoffrey Chaucer. Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

ox-cart man

Ox-Cart Man

This wonderful read-aloud picture book follows a father, mother, daughter, and son living on a farm in the 1800’s. Each character has different tasks they perform throughout the year to prepare for an annual event where the father takes their goods to market to sell. The father sells everything, including his ox and the cart that hauled all their goods. The father buys each family member something that will help them perform their tasks through the next year.

This book beautifully illustrates what life was like during this time period. Nothing went to waste, everything had some value and you used it to survive. Something very unique about this book is that it goes through an entire year, so the book ends right where the beginning of the book begins, in October. Written by Donald Hall. Illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

The Gardener

This story follows Lydia Grace Filch and her desire to be a gardener in the city. She stays with her Uncle Jim, who is a relatively unhappy baker. Lydia has an amazing ability to bring life to wherever she is. She grows flowers and ultimately grows the amount of joy in the lives of people in the community, including Uncle Jim. 

Though the story doesn’t outright say it, depression-era life is the backdrop. Lydia’s capacity for spreading happiness is in stark contrast to how most of the characters are initially feeling. It’s a very hopeful book. Written by Sarah Stewart. Illustrated by David Small

Grandfather's Journey

The story follows a Japanese man who left his home to travel across the sea to California at a young age. He fell in love with America, particularly San Francisco, and decides to live there. After he found a new life in America, he longs for the home he left behind. In the end, the grandfather had a deep love for both places and could never fully be content wherever he was. The illustrations are not overly vibrant, but they fit the story perfectly. Allen Say won the Caldecott Medal in 1994 for good reason.

January's Sparrow

This is an incredibly powerful African American story during the height of slavery in Kentucky. A young girl named Sadie and her family must flee in the middle of the night because January was beaten and killed by the master of the plantation. Sadie is forced to leave behind something she loves dearly, a sparrow made for her out of wood by January. The family makes the treacherous journey on the Underground Railroad to Marshall, Michigan where they gain their freedom. One day, a mysterious package is delivered to Sadie and her family. The package contains January’s sparrow with a note that says “I found you.” I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s amazing how the family and the community bravely handles this threat. 

Based on a true story, this book is incredibly honest about what slavery was really like throughout American history. The book is 96 pages, so be ready for a bit of a longer read with this book. The book may startle young readers a little bit, and it will certainly provoke questions — questions worth answering honestly. This is a picture book that middle school students can also enjoy and learn from. I’ve been a fan of Patricia Polacco for a long time, and this is some of her very best work.

hello lighthouse

Hello Lighthouse

This is a book about life outside and inside a lighthouse. Seasons change, but the challenges of life for the lighthouse keeper and his family are ever present. Rich in expression and imagery, you can almost feel the wind blowing and the sea crashing into the shore. The format of the lighthouse keeper writing everything in his logbook is unique and engaging. Written and Illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

moses when harriet tubman led her people to freedom

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

This is a true story that follows Harriet Tubman and her journey to help slaves gain their freedom. She hears the voice of God and takes a leap of faith, leaving her family behind. Her resilience and courage helped many slaves gain hope, strength, and ultimately freedom while traversing the Underground Railroad. This book could easily be used alongside history books for young readers to illustrate the importance of Harriet Tubman’s life. Written by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

coming on home soon

Coming On Home Soon

The story revolves around Ada Ruth, a young girl during World War II and the height of the threat of nazi Germany. Her grandmother must find hope and strength in each other when Ada’s mother must leave for Chicago. This story is a reminder of the power of hope and how difficult it can be to wait for something we long for.  Written by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

henry's freedom box

Henry's Freedom Box

This story is set during the height of slavery in the United States predating the civil war. A young boy named Henry Brown, who doesn’t even know how old he is, is taken from his family and is forced to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and gets married, but he again must endure the loss of his family as they are sold. Henry mails himself in a crate to the north to gain his freedom. The journey is difficult, but in the end Henry finally does learn when his birthday is, his first day of freedom. Written by Ellen Levine, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

when jessie came across the sea

When Jessie Came Across the Sea

The story begins in a small, poor village in eastern Europe. A young girl named Jessie lived with her grandmother until one day she was chosen to travel to America by the village rabbi. Her grandmother was not traveling with her, leaving them separated and saddened to be apart. She saves her money in the hope that her grandmother can come to America to be with her one day.

The illustrations shine in this story, as they capture the mood, environment, and weight of this story very well. Written by Amy Hest. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch.

Peppe the Lamplighter

Peppe the Lamplighter is a story of sacrifice and what it was like to be an immigrant in New York City after the American revolution. Peppe takes on the role of a lamplighter to help his family survive, even though he is just a boy. At first Peppe’s father disapproves of Peppe becoming a lamplighter, but Peppe’s family is very poor and he has a strong desire to help and provide. Ultimately, Peppe’s work as a lamplighter helps save his younger sister, and in turn gain acceptance from his family. 

The illustrations contrast dark and light tones in this beautifully told story. Written by Elisa Bartone. Illustrated by Ted Lewin.

mirette on the high wire

Mirette on the High Wire

100 years ago, Mirette lived in Paris helping her mother run a boarding house. One day, a morose man named Bellini rented a room and Mirette watched him walking on a clothesline. The more she learns about Bellini, who once walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, the more inspired and courageous Mirette becomes. She wants to become a tightrope walker like Bellini was. The story shows the power of friendship and encouragement as Mirette and Bellini both overcome their fears in the end. 

This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1993 for its illustrations. It’s vibrant and full of colorful detail. Written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully.

show way

Show Way

This story is about the great-grandmother of a young girl named Soonie. Soonie’s great-grandmother was sold to a plantation without her parents at the age of 7. She began to stitch pieces of fabric together with names on them, such as North Star. The patches had secret meanings which she made into quilts called Show Ways. These quilts were maps for slaves to follow as they attempted to gain their freedom. Soonie’s great-grandmother passed down this knowledge to her own daughter. Generations later, Soonie, who was born free, teaches her own daughter how to make quilts and read, passing down the tradition once more.

This story has a pattern of devastating to hopeful. Soonie’s great-grandmother loses her parents when she is sold, but her great-granddaughter is free and can read. The push for literacy is very prevalent in the story as well. Amazingly strong women and the bonds of mother-daughter relationships are ever-present throughout the story. Written by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by Hudson Talbott.

goin someplace special

Goin' Someplace Special

Set in Nashville in the 1950s, the city is segregated. The story takes place before the civil rights movement,  where persecution of African Americans was commonplace. Tricia Ann is resilient as the culture around her is determined to crush her spirit. She is determined to go to her favorite place, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it! This book is an honest look at what segregation was like on a daily basis. The story illustrates how hate tried to rule the day, but Tricia Ann meets many people who are strong and encourage her not to let signs of segregation seal her happiness.

As discouraging as this book can seem at times, the story really does leave the reader hopeful and encouraged. It illustrates that ultimately we choose the type of person we want to be to ourselves and to others. Written by Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

luke goes to bat

Luke Goes to Bat

Luke has dreams to become a professional baseball player like his hero, Jackie Robinson. He’s small and never gets picked to play baseball in the street, until one day the pickup game on the street is a player short. Luke has his moment to bat and strikes out. Discouraged, his grandmother takes Luke to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play. Luke gets to see his hero play in person. In the end, Jackie Robinson encourages Luke to keep trying and never give up. 

This book shows what life was like for a child in New York City in the 1950’s, and displays why baseball is called America’s Pastime. Written and Illustrated by Rachel Isadora.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this review of historical fiction children’s picture books! I have more category and individual picture book reviews on the site, as well as some of my own short stories and book giveaways. Enjoy!