Rewriting the ’90s with historical fiction

Yes, books set in the ’90s are historical fiction. Here’s why it matters.


I remember the day in seventh grade when my English teacher announced that we would be doing a novel study on The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. She explained that the book was set in the 1960s and that before we started reading, was important we learned the historical context. She showed us pictures of teens in leather jackets with slick hair and played songs from Elvis Presley. We memorized the meaning of slang terms like “dig” and “tuff.”

It’s difficult to accept that for kids growing up today, the ‘90s will feel like the ‘60s did for me: a distant past. Somewhere in the not-so-distant future, an English teacher is introducing her class to a new book. They teach the historical context by showing pictures of teens in bucket hats and baggy jeans whike playing songs from The Backstreet Boys. The students will giggle at slang terms like “booyah!” and “da bomb.”

It will be a study of historical fiction. 

Today, diverse authors are looking back at the ‘90s (and other decades) and telling the stories that weren’t being published back then.

Young adult historical fiction is growing in popularity, especially with books set in the ’90s. As Bookstacked writer Michael Burns has written, nostalgia is a major selling feature in YA. In recent years, publishers have continued to look towards the past. This focus on what used to work and the constant rebooting of former mega franchises can feel uncreative and stagnant. 

However, looking back at the ‘90s is also deeply important. For authors from historically underrepresented groups, this renewed interest in the past gives chance and opportunity to tell old stories in new ways (or new stories in old ways).

Consider that mainstream YA books being published in the ‘90s were overwhelmingly white and almost entirely heteronormative. What depictions of race or sexuality that were present were too often inauthentic or based on stereotypes? Many groups of readers were left underrepresented and/or misrepresented. 

Today, diverse authors are looking back at the ‘90s (and other decades) and telling the stories that weren’t being published back then.

Here are some recommendations of awesome ’90s “historical fiction” that is breaking barriers today!

(1989) Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Life is changing quickly for three teens growing up in New York City. Reza is an Iranian boy who just moved to the city and he’s terrified about coming out. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer supporting her uncle Stephen, a AIDS activist. Art is their school’s only out and proud teen, documenting the AIDS crisis through his photography. Their lives become threaded together by the end of the book. 

(1991) Rani Patel In Full Effect by Sonia Patel

People see Rani Patel as a kick-ass Indian girl breaking cultural norms as a hip-hop performer in full effect. But in truth, she’s deeply insecure and worried about how she fits in to the traditions of her Gujarati immigrant parents on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i.

(1992) The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

Ashley Bennett, a Black teen, is living care free in the city of Los Angeles, coasting through her senior year and looking forward to summertime when life is turned upside down. When four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a Black man named Rodney King half to death, violent protests breakout across the city. Ashley can no longer continue on as if life were normal. 

(1993) The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

After losing her parents and moving in with her ultra-conservative aunt Ruth, Cameron Post is caught kissing with another girl at school. After being sent away to God’s Promise, a Christian discipleship program, Cameron must find the courage to live according to her own rules. 

(1993) Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Set in the era of grunge rock and riot grrl bands, Everything Grows is one young person’s journey to feel complete. When Eleanor’s English teacher suggests students write a letter to a person who would never receive it, Eleanor chooses to write to her bully, James, who recently died from suicide. With each letter she writes, Eleanor discovers more about herself, even while trying to make sense of his death. Along the way, she loses and gains friends, rebuilds relationships with her family, and develops a system of support to help figure out the language of her queer identity.

(1998) Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson

For fans of ‘90s Hip-hop, Let Me Hear a Rhyme is about  three Brooklyn teens — Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine — who plot to turn their murdered friend into a major rap star by pretending he is still alive. While keeping the charade alive, they attempt to uncover the truth about his murder. This thrilling mystery also explores ideas about friendship, love and justice.

(1998-1999) Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Better known as the prequel to The Hate U Give, Concrete Rose takes readers back to the ’90s to tell the origin story of Maverick Carter. It’s a moving depiction of Black boyhood and manhood. Mav wants to care for his family. As Thomas’ publisher puts it, “as the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money, he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison. Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.”

(1999) We Were Promised Spotlight by Lindsay Sproul

Taylor Garland is loved by almost everyone in her small town. She is good-looking and popular, homecoming queen, and the life of every party. People think Taylor is living the dream. In reality, Taylor is completely in love with her best friend, Susan, and desperate to leave town and start life over. Senior year is almost gone and Taylor must decide if she’s willing to throw away her “perfect” life for a chance at love and to be herself.

Spencer is a high school English teacher in Montréal, Canada. He loves graphic novels and books about road trips.

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