8 Favorite Middle Grade Books Set in the 1930s

I am a sucker for historic fiction. The 1930s especially holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s because it was a time of great change, with music and arts booming, women making amazing strides, or cheeky slang to boot: it just blows my wig!

When I was doing research for my middle grade book The Dust Bunnies, which happens to be set in the 1930s, I looked to other middle grade books set in the ‘30s for inspiration.

Here are some of my favorites, which I believe are great sources for all ages to learn about history and experience a unique place and time in our nation’s history.

Out of the Dust
by Karen Hesse

The quintessential Dust Bowl book. I remember reading it as a child, not really understanding why Billie Jo had to suffer in the way she did. But as a piano player, I do remember being drawn to her love of music. It shows her creativity amid such hard times. She found her music. Something we all must do.

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Esperanza Rising
by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Perhaps what is so unique about this time period is the fact that the Great Depression forced individuals had to reinvent themselves and rise above the odds. It’s as though hardships snuck up from behind people and knocked them down without warning. That’s what happened to Esperanza who was forced to migrate from Mexico to California to work at a camp for Mexican migrants. Esperanza represents so many young children who faced such trials and who continue to manage with hardships today. She is a strong and inspiring hero for young children.

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Sweet Home Alaska
by Carole Estby Dagg

It is important for children to understand true events, no matter how tough they may be. This is why I believe historic fiction is so helpful as a learning tool. It is a way to connect with characters and see history through their eyes. In Sweet Home Alaska, readers learn about a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression. Also, the main character’s name is Terpsichore. Win!

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Blue Willow
by Doris Gates

Blue Willow resonated me because it is a story of a young girl migrating across the nation to escape hardships of the drought, which is similar to the crisis my main character Lyla finds herself in in The Dust Bunnies. I love that the story is about finding home. For people who don’t have the same walls and roof to find shelter behind each night, what does home mean? And what does it mean to be without possessions? In Blue Willow, we learn through Janey Larkin what it means to find peace when home and possessions are abstract things.

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The Velvet Room
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Velvet Room was published in 1965 and tells the story of Robin who finds solace in reading and dreaming—an escape from poverty, hard labor, and her father’s illness. Snyder published 43 books in her lifetime, and Robin Williams—the protagonist in The Velvet Room—may be one of my all-time favorite middle grade characters. Robin is always getting in trouble for running off, being curious, finding comfort in a velvet room lined with books, and for seeming to want to escape reality. Sounds like my kind of gal.

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The Mighty Miss Malone
by Christopher Paul Curtis

This book is an emotional roller coaster. The Mighty Miss Malone follows Deza whose family is hit on hard times when there are no jobs for black men in Gary, Indiana, and so her father leaves to find work. When Deza and her family go in search of him, they end up in Flint, Michigan clinging to hope. I enjoy that this book is about the powerful magic of hope. Sometimes, that’s all there is. But sometimes it’s all we need.

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Stella by Starlight
by Sharon M. Draper

I absolutely adore the cover on this one! The illustration is tight, but it also delivers such a haunting message. The KKK is a tough subject to broach with children, but this book captures modern race relations in a way that is digestible for children. I think it should be handed out in every school across America. The main character Stella is a strong girl, facing opposition of the KKK in Bumblebee, North Carolina, and she teaches us to listen to our inner voice.

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Turtle in Paradise

by Jennifer L. Holm

11-year-old Turtle goes to live with distant family in Key West, Florida in 1935 when her mama has to part ways due to work. And it is here where she begins to come out of her shell, learn about family secrets, scams, and even pirate treasure. This would be a great vacation book for a child to read, as it’s an interesting way to learn about the dirty thirties and some of its icons like Shirley Temple (who plays a significant role in the book). It also has a wonderful message of dreaming big—a message that is timeless, no matter the era.

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Check out more middle grade books set in the 1930s. And come back to visit soon as my middle grade book set in the 1930s, The Dust Bunnies, unfolds!

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