The first one is called "A Bandit's Tale" by Deborah Hopkinson. It's about a boy named Rocco who lives in a small village in Italy with his big family. Rocco makes a bit of a mistake involving a donkey and some money and his parents decide that the best way to "help" Rocco would be to send him to America with a local man who promises that he will take care of Rocco and help him get work. It turns out this "padrone" has a group of boys that he expects to earn money every day by playing instruments on the street corners. The boys are marked so that they can't really run away (they would be easily identified and most of them don't speak any English) and so they live in horrible conditions with little food. Rocco falls in with a group of pickpockets and finds he's very good at helping the actual thieves. When he gets caught and goes to juvenile hall, things start to change. There are some really great connections to historical figures (although the notes that follow the story give extensive evidence that the story is really made up) that will make it a good jumping off point for research on a variety of topics. It remains a good story that kids are going to like reading because the characters are so interesting and well developed. Don't miss this one!
The next one is also historical fiction. It's called "The Search for the Homestead Treasure" by Ann Treacy. This one is actually told in two different historical periods-1865 and 1903. The story starts in 1865. Cora is 13 and lives with her mother and baby brother on their homestead in Goodhue County, Minnesota. Cora's dad died awhile back and her mom suddenly gets sick. The story flashes forward to 1903, and Cora's baby brother, Jacob, is now a grown man with a family. He has inherited the family farm and is moving his family there with the hope that they will love farming. His son, Martin, is less than thrilled. He wants to stay in town with his friends and his school. It turns out that the farm hasn't really been kept up and there is a lot of money owed in taxes, so Jacob goes to work in a logging camp some distance away from the family home. Martin, his mother, his great aunt, and his little sister are left to deal with the farm. Martin is also dealing the death of his fun-loving, daredevil older brother. Martin starts cleaning things out around the farm and finds his aunt Cora's diaries (which is where the story started) and starts to suspect that there might be treasure hidden somewhere on the farm. Martin also makes friends with a boy, Sam, who is a Gypsy. Martin's great aunt thinks Gypsies are all bad and that they should be avoided or run out of town. This one was a nice little mystery with an interesting setting. It would be a good one to use to talk about the hardships of the settlers as well as the prejudice and racism that surround groups other than African Americans.
This last one is NOT historical fiction and no one dies so it was a real change of pace for middle grade fiction. It's called "Dara Palmer's Major Drama" by Emma Shevah. Emma Shevah wrote a book last year called "Dream On Amber" that I really liked and I think this one is even better. It's about a girl named Dara Palmer who is dying to be an actress or at least be famous. She and her best friend Lacy have been very busy practicing their faces and are completely sure that they are the best actresses in their school, probably in the nation. So when they try out for the spring play, they are both shocked to find that they are not chosen to be the lead actresses, in fact, they are not chosen at all. As they start going through the reasons why that might be, Dara comes to the conclusion that maybe she didn't get chosen because she is Cambodian (she's adopted). Her mom calls to raise a ruckus about that possibility and the teacher says no, the problem is that Dara doesn't really know how to act. So Dara has a choice, take acting lessons or give up the dream of being famous. She decides to take acting lessons and Dara learns a lot, in the most hilarious possible way. She also has some opportunities to learn about her Cambodian culture and has some really great opportunities to think about what it's like to grow up in a culture that doesn't match your face or grow up with people you are not related to by blood. Dara's voice is so clear and so sparkly and so much fun, girls in particular are going to be absolutely crazy about her (maybe boys not so much). Dara has such a great way of expressing herself (at one point she says "School is sleeve chewingly boring.") and I found myself wanting to help her along her path (which, according to her, she so DOES NOT need). I loved this one!