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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: historical fiction, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 26 - 50 of 1,019
26. Short Review: Salt and Storm

Salt & Storm by Kendall KulperLittle, Brown. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

Salt and Storm is set in an alternate 1860s, where witches and magic are real. Avery is the granddaughter of the witch of Prince Island, and should have been trained and raised to be the next witch. Except, her mother -- who refuses to have anything to do with magic or witchcraft -- drags Avery away from her grandmother and forbids her to see her. At sixteen, Avery is trying to escape her mother's control and claim her inheritance.

What I liked most about Salt and Storm is that Avery wasn't aware of the full picture. She knew what she knew, believed she had the full picture, believe she knew the real story about the witches of Prince Island. She thought she knew herself, but it turns out things aren't what she thinks they are. Which means what she wants isn't what she thinks it is. I also like the historical information in here, about life on nineteenth century islands.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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27. Lilies of the Field (1962)

The Lilies of the Field. William Edmund Barrett. 1962/1988. Grand Central Publishing. 128 pages. [Source: Gift]

There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. It will, inevitably, grow with the years. Like all legends, it is composed of falsehood and fact. In this case, the truth is more compelling than the trappings of imagination with which it has been invested. The man who has become a legendary figure was, perhaps, of greater stature in simple reality than he ever will be in the oft-repeated, and expanded, tales which commemorate his deeds. Here before the whole matter gets out of hand, is how it was...
His name was Homer Smith. He was twenty-four. He stood six foot two and his skin was a deep, warm black.

 If you love, love, LOVE the movie--or if you only like it--you should treat yourself and read the book. How does it compare with the movie? Is it as wonderful? as magical? as perfect? I'm not exactly sure it's fair to compare the two. I can easily say it's well worth reading. I loved meeting Homer Smith. I loved meeting all the nuns. I loved seeing Homer at work. I loved his interactions with the sisters, especially seeing him teach them English. There are so many delightful and wonderful things about the book AND the movie. The book isn't better than the movie, in my opinion, but it is at least as good as the movie which is saying something. (My expectations for this one were very high!)

So in case you're unfamiliar with the movie starring Sidney Poitier, here's the basic plot: Homer Smith is a man who likes his independence. He's traveling the country in his station wagon, and, he's a handy man of sorts. He stops when and where he likes and he finds work. He does a few odd jobs for some German nuns. One of them feels that Homer is God's answer to her prayers. She feels that Homer has come specifically to build them a church. Though they don't have enough money or enough resources, they have faith that it will happen and that Homer is the man for the job. Can one man build a chapel?!

So Homer Smith is a delightful character. And the book is a great read.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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28. Free Online Laura Ingalls Wilder Course: Part 2

2015-02-16 10.57.51Author, teacher, and editor Pamela Smith Hill will begin the second part of Missouri State University’s Laura Ingalls Wilder course on April 6, 2015. The course runs for eight weeks and will cover the second half of Wilder’s Little House series, starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake as well as the second half of Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. Wilder’s recently released autobiography, Pioneer Girl, (edited by Hill) is recommended reading.

If you weren’t part of the 7,000 students who participated in the first course, no matter! Anyone can sign up. Click through to enroll.

 

The post Free Online Laura Ingalls Wilder Course: Part 2 appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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29. Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby, 336 pp, RL 4

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby winner of the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. And, while this award is well deserved,  Icefall is so much more than a mystery - it is a coming of age story and a story within a story as well, with memories coming together to create something greater than the mystery itself. In fact, Icefall reminds me of Shannon Hale's Newbery Honor winning Princess

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30. Her Royal Spyness (2007)

Her Royal Spyness (Her Royal Spyness #1) Rhys Bowen. 2007. Berkley. 336 pages. [Source: Library]

I wanted a quick, light read: light on history, light on mystery. I was satisfied enough with Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. Why "satisfied enough"? Well, the book moved quickly for me. I was interested in the time period it was set. (England, spring of 1932) I was also curious about the "royal" aspect of it. (The heroine is 34th in line to the throne.)

The premise of this one is simple. Lady Georgiana (Georgie) may be royal, but, she's also young and poor. Being royal makes her eligible for making a good marriage, perhaps, most likely an arranged marriage. But it keeps her from getting a regular job and earning her own way. To escape a social event designed to match her to someone she doesn't want to marry, she lies to her family and arranges to go to London. Her brother is allowing her to stay at his place--the family's residence--but he's not allowing her to take any servants or providing any money to hire her own once there. She'll be completely on her own for however many weeks she chooses to escape. She'll get reacquainted with some people, meet several new people, etc. She'll also socialize with the queen on occasion. (The queen wants her feedback on the married American woman, David is infatuated with.) One of the people she meets is a potential fling. His name is Darcy. The two could have some light fun together. But. She's uncertain about him and if she even wants to have a fling.

So. The mystery. A body is found in the bathtub. A dead body, of course. (I kept thinking of Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers). She discovers the body, and since it's in her brother's house, well, she fears that everyone will conclude that her brother "Binky" did the crime...

I found it entertaining enough. I didn't find it to be the perfect read, however. In terms of characterization and dialogue and description. It kept me reading at the time, but, I'm not sure it's one that will stick with me.

Still, I think I will read one or two more in the series to see if it improves.

ETA: I have read about three or four chapters in the second book. Enough to know that I don't think it will suit me after all. It's just not a good match for me. 

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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31. Straight From the Source: Janet Fox on Writing Historical Fiction

Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her 2010 young adult debut novel, FAITHFUL, was an Amelia Bloomer List pick, and was followed in 2011 by a companion novel, FORGIVEN, a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award Finalist. Her newest YA novel, SIRENS launched in November 2012; the Kirkus reviewer said in part, “SIRENS is a celebration of girl power, sisterhood, and hope for the future.” Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a former high school English teacher. Janet and her family live in Bozeman, Montana, where they enjoy the mountain vistas.

What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?

Most of my stories begin with a scene, but it’s more like a dream sequence. I often have no idea what’s going on in the scene and who the characters are, but if it resonates at a deep level, has some meaning for me that I can’t – yet – put into words, then that becomes my mission: put this emotion into words. For example, the opening scene of SIRENS was also the first thing that came to me as I began thinking about the book, and that image of a wharf over the Hudson River at night was important but I had no idea why Jo was throwing medals into the water or why she was there, or even who she really was. Water, of course, became a motif, and Jo’s gesture was a metaphor for her to let go of the past.

As soon as I decide to go forward from my key scene, I focus on the character. I spend a lot of time thinking about my protagonist and my antagonist, although I do so very organically, because a great deal of what I learn comes through the drafting, since I’m a pantser. I write a lot of stuff that changes or goes away but that helps me discover who my character is and what she needs. My protagonist – her attitudes, behavior, dreams, desires – always drives my stories, not the other way around. When I write historical fiction it doesn’t change the fact that readers want stories that help them reach into their buried dreams, and they do that by identifying with the character.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I use a number of sources, everything from primary on. I read novels written in the period because they tend to mimic the voice of their era, and contain details that I can use. I look for period costumes in pattern books and magazines of the times – which often reveal nice details like “hunting costumes” or the layers of undergarments. I do visit museums for visuals. And I try to find anything that will add nuance to the era I write about. In SIRENS, which is set in the 1920s, I wanted more than the usual flapper/gangster/Prohibition stuff, and while listening to the radio one night, I heard a discussion about the Spiritualism movement of the 1920s, and thought “that’s it.”

But my favorite resource, depending upon the era, is period newspapers. They are available on line, and I love perusing the society column and the ads, in particular. From those I can harvest a feeling for what people were dreaming about – what they wanted, aspired to acquire, and how much that might cost. And how the “society” behaved, which the lower classes might desire to emulate, or rebel against. Again, it comes down to individual desires and dreams.

At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

I draft almost right away, because I start with that dream and character. I research as I go. That’s because I’m usually too impatient to start the story-telling to do research first! So I’ll write until I reach a point where I need to answer a question, like “what was the flu pandemic like?” or “what was happening in Chinatown then?” And then I’ll research, which is easy in this internet era. Other details – the sensory stuff that comes from place – I’ll either tap from memory and experience, or go to that place and soak it up. Or watch videos or comb through photographs, since I’m a very visual person.

I never spend much time researching in advance, because the story comes to me way before I know where and when to place it.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

I do love history. It was my favorite subject in high school. I like the echoes and resonant desires, I like especially the somewhat mythic historic elements – things like Robin Hood, or the Roman conquest, or the western expansion in America. I like taking history and turning over the rocks to discover the personal and small within historical times. I love the idea of having a character hear a famous speech or witness an historical event, and then interpret it at the scale of an individual lifetime.

Has your research ever affected the overall thrust of your book? How so?

Always, but in unexpected fashion. In researching FAITHFUL, I learned that in the early 1900s there were still highway robberies taking place in Yellowstone Park, and tourists were relieved of their possessions, but thought this was highly romantic and exciting, so I worked that experience into the novel – and it became crucial to both FAITHFUL and FORGIVEN. In researching FORGIVEN I learned of the importing of young – very young – Chinese girls who were sold into terrible slavery in San Francisco, and this became my protagonist’s larger goal, to free some of these girls. So while I have my core emotion and my character’s desire up front, I often find historical details that will bolster the story in unexpected ways.

faithfulforgiven

Why is historical fiction important?

That old adage about being condemned to repeat the things we don’t learn the first time is true, and there are lots of historical moments I wouldn’t care to repeat. Historical fiction makes history more accessible, especially to young people. It personalizes history, and sheds a different spotlight on details, and can bring into focus comparisons between today’s events and historical events. Plus, well-written historical fiction is just plain fun to read.

 

 

The post Straight From the Source: Janet Fox on Writing Historical Fiction appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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32. Review of the Day: My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True)
By Alison DeCamp
Crown Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-39044-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Children’s historical fiction novels often divide up one of two ways. In the first category you have your important moments in history. In such books our heroes run about and encounter these moments by surprise. Extra points if it happens to be a Great Big Bad Moment in history as well. Then in the second category are the books that have opted to go a more difficult route. They may be well grounded in a time period of the past, but they do not require historical cameos or Great Big Bad Moments to transport their readers. Such books run a very great risk of, quite frankly, becoming dull. Read enough of them and, with the exception of a few, they all run together. Humor often helps me distinguish them from the pack. After all, would Catherine Called Birdy command quite so many hearts and minds if it weren’t also deeply amusing? Still, it’s rare to find fiction set in the past for kids that’s quite that original. It takes a certain kind of devious brain to hit on an all-new take. Enter My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp. Falling squarely into the second category rather than the first, this 1895 charmer utilizes plenty of visuals along with an unreliable narrator and classic comedic setting. I can say with certainty that your kids will never read a work of lumberjack fiction quite as fast and funny as this ever again.

Well, sir, it looks like Stan’s found himself in a heap of trouble. First off there’s the difficulty with his dead father. The problem? He’s not dead. He’s nowhere around, and now he seems to have divorced Stan’s mama, but dead he is not. Then there’s the fact that it’s the middle of winter yet Stan’s mama and his 95% evil Granny (her percentage fluctuates a lot) are packing him up and they’re all heading up to some godforsaken lumber camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that’s good for Stan since he’s been hoping to build up his manly skills so that he can support his mama. Unfortunately his cousin Geri, who seems to revel in torturing him, will be there as well. Can Stan fight off his mother’s multiple suitors, keep his eye on the lumberjack he’s dubbed “Stinky Pete”, and learn to be a man (if Geri doesn’t kill him first) all at once? If anyone can, it’s Stan. Probably.

Humor in historical fiction can come across as a case where the contemporary author is shoehorning his or her own beliefs onto characters from the past. Often when this happens it feels fake. I remember once reading a children’s novel set in the Civil War South where an enterprising young woman, with no outside influences, actually said, “Corsets don’t just restrict the waist. They restrict the mind,” or something equally out of left field. So to what extent are anachronisms a threat in books of this sort? For example, would someone like Stan really have called his cousin “Scary Geri”? For me, I don’t worry as much about the small details. If the language isn’t strictly of the late 19th century variety then who in the Sam Hill cares? (Forgive my language, granny.) It’s the big things (like mind restricting corsets) that catch my eye. With that in mind, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Stan is a sexist jerk. He quite believably does not look on women’s accomplishments as something to commend (which, in turn, is an interesting way of building up sympathy for his cousin Geri). In other words, he’s of his time.

To bring the funny, DeCamp does two things I’ve not seen done in works of historical fiction before. The first involves a ton of late 19th/early 20th century advertisements. Using the conceit that this is Stan’s scrapbook, each image makes some kind of commentary on what Stan is describing. They’re also hilarious. I cannot help but imagine the countless hours DeCamp spent poring through advertisement after advertisement. One wonders if there were parts of the narrative wholly reliant on the existence of one ad or another. Hard to say.

The second clever and hitherto unknown thing DeCamp does with her storytelling is to make Stan an unreliable narrator with unreliable narration. Which is to say, you’ll be reading his private thoughts on the page when suddenly another character will comment on what clearly should have been kept inside Stan’s brain. The end result is that the reader will lapse into a continual sense of security, safe in the knowledge that what they’re reading isn’t dialogue (after all, there aren’t any quotation marks) and then, exactly like Stan, the reader will be shocked when someone comments on information they shouldn’t know anything about. It really puts you directly into Stan’s shoes and helps to make him more relatable. Which is good since he runs the risk of being considered unsympathetic as a character.

Unreliable as a narrator, potentially unsympathetic as a human being, Stan still wins our love. Why? He’s Kid Falstaff! A coward you root for and love, yet still don’t always approve of. Still, even in the depths of his own delusion, how can you not love the guy? He’s a Yooper Telemachus fending unworthy suitors off of his mama. And even when you’ve taken almost all you can take from the guy, you’ll find him saying something like, “This is the furthest I’ve ever felt from being a man. All I really want to do is cuddle up in bed and have Mama read me a book. Or play with the toy soldiers still lined up on my windowsill in the apartment house. But I can’t. Because that’s not manly, and being manly is the only way I’ll ever understand my father . . .” Poor kid.

A good author, by the way, allows their supporting characters some personal growth as well. It doesn’t all have to come from the protagonist, after all. In this particular case it’s Stan’s mama, a character that could easily have just been some passive, maternal bit of nothingness, who comes into her own. For years she’s been held down pretty effectively by her own mother. Now she has a chance at making a bit of a life for herself, choosing her own mate (or not choosing, as the case may be), and generally having a bit of fun. I know no kid reading this book is going to care, but I appreciated having someone other than Stan learn and grow.

I sit here secure in the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, an enterprising adult (be it teacher, parent, or librarian) will take it upon themselves to actually follow Mrs. Cavanaugh’s recipe for Vinegar Pie. The recipe is right there in black and white in the book, clear as crystal. If you have any goodness in your heart and you are tempted to tread this path, here is a bit of advice: don’t. It’s called Vinegar Pie, for crying out loud! What part of that sounds appetizing? You know what is appetizing? This book. Hilarious and heartbreaking and funny funny funny. You know what you hand a kid that gets the dreaded, “Read one work of historical fiction” assignment in school? You hand them this and then sit back to wait for their inevitable gratitude. They may never say thank you to your face, but you’ll be able to rest safe and secure in the knowledge that they loved this book. Or, at the very least, found it enticing and intriguing. 99-100% fantastic.

On shelves now.

Source:

Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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33. Tigers Promise: Tigers Curse Novella by Colleen Houck

Before the curse, there was a promise. A prequel to the bestselling Tiger’s Curse series, this much anticipated novella recalls the beginning of Ren and Kishan’s story. Before Kelsey there was a girl, raised by a villain, whose love for a hero changed the course of history.  Trapped under the thumb of her abusive and powerful father Lokesh, Yesubai struggles to keep her own magical abilities

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34. On Writing Historical Fiction

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My beat may lie in another time, but my approach is that of a reporter, trying for a scoop, looking for clues, connecting facts, digging under the surface. . . . History is full of gossip; it’s real people and emotion. — Jean Fritz

The post On Writing Historical Fiction appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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35. 1492: New World Tales, by Richard and Judy Dockrey Young | Book Review

This unique book is a potpourri of re-told stories from several cultures on both sides of the Atlantic as they might have been known in 1492, the year Columbus set sail for India and found what is now known as the Americas.

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36. The Manager, by Caroline Stellings | Book Review

This funny novel is told through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Ellie, but the real star is her older sister Tina. They live in Whitney Pier over the gym where their father, a former boxer, trains aspiring boxers.

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37. Echo: A Novel - a review

If this is how the year is starting out, it's going to be a banner year for middle-grade books.  First, Gordon Korman's Masterminds (more on that fantastic new thriller another day) and now Echo: A Novel.

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2015. Echo: A Novel. New York: Scholastic.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of Echo from Scholastic and was intrigued that it was wrapped in musical notation paper and had a smartly-boxed Hohner Blues Band harmonica tied to it.


I was happy to see an apparently music-related book, and what somewhat surprised to find that Echo begins with a fairytale, "The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger," a fairytale replete with abandoned princesses, a magical forest, a mean-spirited witch, and a prophecy,

"Your fate is not yet sealed.  Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Though brief, I became enthralled with the tale and was surprised and taken aback when I reached Part One and found myself not in the fairytale forest, but in

Trossingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1933, home to the world's oldest harmonica manufacturer.  I couldn't wait to find out what became of the abandoned princesses, but soon found myself wrapped up in the story of young Friedrich Schmidt, a German Jew during Hitler's ascendance to power.  This kind-hearted, young boy of a musical family was surely destined to be gathered up in the anti-Semitic wave sweeping through Germany. I became engrossed in Friedrich's story, anxiously hoping that things would work out for him and his family, and was again surprised when I reached Part Two and found myself in

Philadelphia, 1935, home of the then-famous Albert Hoxie and the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, and of the Bishop's Home for Friendless and Destitute Children, where I found myself in the company of piano-playing orphans, Mike and Frankie Flannery.  Their story was no less heart-wrenching than Friedrich's, and I found myself desperately rooting for the young boys when I suddenly arrived

in a migrant worker's community in Southern California, 1942, where young Ivy Maria Lopez was about to play her harmonica on the Colgate Family Hour radio show, but her excitement was short-lived.  I fell in with this hard-working, American family and hoped, along with Ivy, for her brother's safe return from the war.

Of course, there's more, but this is where I will leave off.

Pam Muñoz Ryan has written a positively masterful story that will take the reader from the realm of magic through the historical travails of the infirm, the oppressed, and the poor in the midst of the 20th century.  Through it all, music gathers the stories together in a symphony of hope and possibility.  In music, and in Echo, there is a magic that will fill your soul.

It may only be February, but I predict that praise for Echo will continue throughout the year.


On a library shelf near you - February 24, 2015.

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38. Happy Lunar New Year - and a book excerpt.

As a little gift for the Year of the Goat, I'm posting the first chapter of Across the Dark Sea, which begins with the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. If you prefer, you can download it from my website:


The book has lovely illustrations by Donna Rawlins, but you'll have to imagine that for this excerpt!

Like a cricket to freedom
It started on the first day of Tet, in the middle of the fun and firecrackers, when they put old pants and shirts on top of their New Year clothes and took a bus from Saigon to Uncle Huan’s near the sea. Or before that, when Ma sold everything they owned so nothing was left but the furniture and Trung’s bamboo cage for his fighting crickets. Or maybe it started two years before, on that rainy day in 1976 when the soldiers took Ba away because he was a doctor for the army that lost the war.
Whenever it started, it happened the night they crept out of Uncle’s house in the middle of the night, Mai on Ma’s back and Trung carrying his parcel of new clothes.
A man was waiting on the path to the river. Trung froze so still his breath didn’t come, but his mother hurried forward as if she didn’t know how to be afraid.
‘It’s Ba,’ she whispered.
Every morning for two years Trung had prayed to see his father again. This man was thinner and older, with his two front teeth missing, but when he held out his arms, Trung exploded into them like a cricket escaping to freedom.
Mai couldn’t remember so long ago; she thought Ba was an ancestor in a photo. She started to cry.
‘Sh!’ whispered her mother, and they hurried on to the river through the moon shadows and strange night noises.
A crowd of people were waiting on the bank – men and women, children and grandmothers – and even though they jostled and stared, even the babies stayed quiet as a secret. Trung had so many questions he didn’t know what they were, but he held tight to his father’s hand while a voice inside his head chirped like a happy cricket, ‘Ba’s here and we’ll be all right! Ba’s here, we’re together again!’
Ma and Mai came up behind them. Mai started to cry again till Ma turned around. ‘Silly Mai!’ whispered Trung. ‘It’s Ba!’
Then, from the darkness of the river, Trung saw three dragon shapes gliding towards them. He tugged Ba’s hand hard – then a wave of people pushed them to the water, and the dragons turned into sampans with a boatman poling each one.
Trung stumbled as the river snatched him. His feet skidded, his arms waved, and he splashed face-first into the water. His parcel of clothes floated away.
Ba grabbed him and dumped into a sampan. More people tumbled in: a bigger boy landed on his foot and someone’s elbow was in his back.
Ba turned around for Ma and Mai.
The boatman lifted his pole. ‘No more!’
‘Ba!’ croaked Turn, his throat so dry with fear that his voice didn’t work.


His father grabbed the sampan and slid inside.
The night was black and the river was blacker, but blackest of all was the big fishing boat ahead of them, with the line of people scurrying up its side like ants up a honey jar. Then their sampan bumped against it too, Ba hoisted him up to a ladder, and the other boat started poling back to the shore.
To get Ma and Mai, thought Trung, as hand by hand, foot by foot, he climbed the prickly rope ladder to the deck.
The half –moon came out, its crescent of light shining on the calm sea.
It shone on the soldiers who burst out of the woods, and on the sampans racing up the river to hide.
It shone on the shore where Ma waited with Mai, while the fishing boat with Ba and Trung sailed out to cross the sea to Australia, 6000 kilometres away. 


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39. Sleep in Peace Tonight (2014)

Sleep in Peace Tonight. James MacManus. 2014. Thomas Dunne Books. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

Sleep in Peace Tonight was a great read. It is set, for the most part, in England in 1941. Harry Hopkins, FDR's adviser, is being sent to England to speak with Churchill. He'll spend many months talking with Churchill and writing to Roosevelt. He's there because of the war, of course. Popular opinion in the U.S. at the time being that war should be avoided at all costs no matter what--no matter what Hitler was doing in Europe or England, no matter how desperate the situation was growing. Churchill and many others, of course, were advocating the U.S. to become involved, saying that it was the obviously right thing to do. Hitler is bad news. Hitler must be stopped. Political tension. This book is essentially all about political tension. Tension within the United States. There being isolationists and even Nazi supporters within the U.S. Tension between Britain and the U.S. Tension between two personalities, of course. There being a whole lot of he says this but means this. The setting and atmosphere is well-developed. One gets an idea of what it was like to live in a topsy-turvy world with nightly bombings, and the only certain thing being that life is short and death could come anywhere, anytime.

Sleep In Peace Tonight is more than a historical novel, however, it is also a romance. Did I love the romance? Not particularly. On the one hand, it introduces a character, Leonora Finch to the story. She is patriotic and smart and oh-so-capable. She's doing her part for the war. Her storyline reminded me very much of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Her role in this novel is a bit underdeveloped in a way. I wouldn't have minded if more had been her story. Or if she got a book of her own. (That being said, I found Hopkins' story to be compelling for the most part.) But do I love Harry Hopkins and Leonora Finch as a couple? Do I think this is a compelling, oh-so-romantic, moving love story? Not so much.

Overall, I liked it very much.

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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40. Classroom Connections: THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY by Augusta Scattergood

Augusta scattergood

age range: 8-12

setting: Florida, 1974

visit Augusta Scattergood’s website

The cast of lively characters, including spunky and tough Anabel who befriends Theo, come to life under author Scattergood’s talented hand. A heartwarming story of friendship, family, and finding one’s place in the world despite hardship and heartache.   – School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY, my second middle-grade novel, was recently published by Scholastic Press. It’s the story of a boy named Theo who’s forced to move to a little town called Destiny, Florida, with an uncle he doesn’t really know. Theo’s a resourceful, talented boy. His uncle’s an unhappy Vietnam veteran who doesn’t know how to raise a kid. But there’s a bright ray of sunshine in their new life together— Miss Sister Grandersole, dancer, advisor, and owner of the Rest Easy Rooming House and Dance Studio, where they fortunately have landed.

What inspired you to write this story?

We had recently moved to Florida and I was feeling a little like Theo! Where am I? Why are all these lizards in my garden? Also, as a child, I had some remarkable dance and piano teachers. Not always remarkable in their ability to teach—though some were extremely talented!—but certainly interesting characters. Once I convinced my critique group and my early readers that “Sister” was not a retired nun wearing red tap shoes, Miss Sister Grandersole was the most fun character to write. I guess you could say I was inspired by memories and moving.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

My new book doesn’t focus on one truly important historical event like Freedom Summer, the backbone for my first novel, GLORY BE. The aftermath of the Vietnam conflict plays into the story, and there were details from that time that I wanted to get right. I used veterans’ sites to read of others’ experiences coming back from Vietnam. And I consulted my friends who had served.

I also verified all the baseball facts, but that part was easy. I loved reading about Hank Aaron’s journey. Because of his career milestones, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is set in 1974. Sometimes that seemed so recent, I had trouble remembering that made it historical fiction!

The hardest part of writing for me is that first draft. I struggle. A lot. But I love the revision process. Generally, I try to break it down and not tackle too many things at once. I’ll revise first for plot and character arcs. Then I’ll get to the fun part, making the language and the dialog read in a way I hope enriches the story.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to make new writers think it’s not fun to write a book. Even on the days that nothing seems to work, writing really is more than hard, gut-wrenching work. It’s often a joy.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Make the story sing and make the plot move quickly! Of course, these are challenges all writing presents, no matter the genre.

When creating historical fiction, it’s tempting to dump all the important facts into readers’ laps. But the smallest details like skate keys and 45s (those are musical recordings, for those of you too young to remember!) and anti-war buttons on knapsacks really bring the time period alive.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

Quite truthfully, the story behind THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is timeless. A boy finds himself an outsider in a totally new place, meets someone who’s been there forever, makes a friend. Theo’s a kid who’s resilient, in the worst of situations. The post-Vietnam time period, the uncle who can’t quite get past his wartime experiences, families that were split apart by strong feelings during the Vietnam conflict should offer teachers an opportunity to discuss so many things. Perhaps even a few things not too often found in middle-grade novels.

But at heart, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is really about discovering family, not only the family you are born into, but the family of your heart. Those are the people who come into your life when you most need them.

The post Classroom Connections: THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY by Augusta Scattergood appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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41. Dyslexia and MAY B.

This weekend I’m speaking at the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. I’m amazed that three years later, my book is still connecting with readers — especially young people with learning disabilities.

may b 300

Here’s an interview I did a few months ago that ran in the SWIDA newsletter:

What inspired you to choose a girl with dyslexia as your main character?

In order for a book to work, an author must not give their characters what they want (at least not straight away), but must make them face their fears and weaknesses. Without these things, there is no change. Without change, there is no story.

May’s name came to me before her story did. I liked the way May Betterly could become May B. and how “maybe” could speak to her perception of herself (maybe is such a wishy-washy word. It makes me think of mediocre or so-so). I knew early on that May wanted to be a teacher, and decided the most direct way to challenge her would be to make this dream virtually impossible. Pulling her out of school and giving her dyslexia (in an era where this would have been completely misunderstood) fit the bill.

What special challenges did this choice create?

The first is obvious: I am not an expert on dyslexia in the least. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what her challenge was — anxiety? Fear? A learning disability? Because the book doesn’t spell out exactly what is going on, I thought I could get by with not addressing things: If May and her teachers didn’t know, why would we, as readers, need to?

My editor wasn’t impressed with my line of thinking. She told me (and rightly so!) that if I left readers hanging, they’d feel frustrated. She suggested I weave more clues that pointed toward dyslexia in the text and that I define May’s disability in the author’s note.

This terrified me. I was sure as soon as I used a technical word I’d be claiming some sort of expertise. The more I researched, though, the more I was reminded that dyslexia is not a one-size-fits-all struggle. I tried to convey in the author’s note general similarities those with dyslexia commonly share (issues with fluency, word recognition, and comprehension; the omission of words and anxiety stemming from reading aloud, for example) and techniques that some find helpful (repetition, reading in unison with one or more people). I also had a writing friend who is a literacy expert read the manuscript.

More than once a person has asked me on what authority I’ve written this book. I’ve come to the conclusion I am qualified to tell May’s story because it is one of identity and self-worth — something all of us must face at some point, something that becomes very real to young people as they become aware of their place in this world.

Before you were a writer, you were a classroom teacher. How did working with students with reading disabilities shape your perspective of May B.?

I’m going to turn this question on its head a little. It wasn’t working with students with reading disabilities that shaped my perspective so much as examining my own time in the classroom — my attitudes, my efforts, and if I’m honest, my shortcomings. In forcing myself to sit with this character and her two very different teachers, I found myself reflecting again and again on my teaching. What I learned wasn’t always attractive. It’s easy to love the hard worker, the kid who wants to do well. It’s not so easy to get behind the child who isn’t as winsome. I have to confess there are kids I put more effort into because I enjoyed them more. There are others I didn’t try as hard with, sometimes because I wasn’t qualified, sometimes because I didn’t fully understand their needs. And sometimes I didn’t put as much work in because I didn’t want to.

If I was going to tell the most honest story I could, I couldn’t hide from these unattractive qualities I found in myself. Instead, I needed to mine them to make the story real, to make it work.

Do you have any words of wisdom you would like to offer students with dyslexia?

I hesitate when taking about the traditional ideas behind character development — the need for flaws and weakness — when talking about May Betterly. I don’t ever want children who have learning disabilities to see themselves as flawed or weak. It was very important to me that May not be “cured” of her dyslexia, first, because it’s an untrue way to look at disability, and second because it sends a damaging message, one that says you are only whole without disability.

Part of my reason in writing the book was to examine the concept of worth — how so often who we are becomes based on what others tell us about ourselves or on what we’re able to do. Like May, I think all of us in some way feel we don’t measure up. Struggles, like dyslexia, don’t define us. They are not shameful. They might be seen as “character flaws” in a book (ways a character is made real and relatable), but such real-life struggles never, ever make a person somehow worth less.

Last year I got an email that thanked me for writing May B. It directed me to a blog post that literally took my breath away:

At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable.

…I feel like Caroline Starr Rose wrote this book in part for me.

It was as if she were writing to encourage me on behalf of all my teachers in and outside of the classroom who for years didn’t see that all the misspelled words and run-ons as a red flag. It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, May.

I hope readers of all sorts will be able to relate to — and find confidence and courage in — May’s story.

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42. Fast Five: Books I Read with Babes in Arms

books with babies

It feels like forever since I’ve run a Fast Five post! So long, perhaps I need to explain myself again. Fast Fives are books thematically grouped together. Here are some that still get plenty of views:

Today’s Fast Five books are ones I devoured with infants at home. Those early days, I wasn’t good for much other than baby care and reading (how perfect is it that feeding a baby fits so nicely with cruising through a book?). My boys are middle schoolers now, but these five books continue to be favorites:

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster — Jon Krakauer:

I’d seen the IMAX movie about the 1996 climb where eight people had lost their lives and was fascinated. Survival stories have long been a favorite (I wonder if this read subconsciously influenced that little survival story I later wrote?), and I was GLUED to this book. I’ve gone on to read Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven. He could write about anything, and I’d be hooked.

Possession — A. S. Byatt:

The first time I saw this book I was a freshman in college, but didn’t read it until years later when I found it in a used bookstore. Possession now ties for first place (with The Count of Monte Cristo ) as my favorite book of all time. There’s poetry! Romance! Mystery! History! Dual story lines that weave in and out of one another! A ticking clock! And overall there is spectacular, spectacular writing.

The Name of the Rose — Umberto Eco:

My freshman year at Hendrix College, my History of Christianity professor showed us the movie version of The Name of the Rose. This is the only Eco novel I’ve ever read (something I must remedy someday). It’s monks, middle-ages, and mystery — super engrossing. A great read.

Anna and the King of Siam — Margaret Landon:

This is the book The King and I musical was based on. I’ve had a life-long crush on Yul Brynner (don’t laugh) and had recently seen Anna and the King, a 1999 movie based on the same true story of British school teacher Anna Leonowens‘s experiences teaching in the court of Siamese King Mongkut. While the book has been criticized for some cultural inaccuracies, the story is a true adventure.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra — Margaret George:

Margaret George is a master. As a historical novelist, I’ve learned it’s vital to make sense of a character’s actions and motivations as they unfold alongside true history. Margaret George has this down pat. One of the things that continues to stick out for me is George’s ability to make the Egyptian / Roman battles come alive. And then there’s the Julius Caesar and Mark Antony romances. Goodness all around.

* Notice Possession made this list, too!

The post Fast Five: Books I Read with Babes in Arms appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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43. 2015 Pura Belpré Awards: Celebrating the Latino cultural experience in children's books (ages 2-14)

The Pura Belpré Medal
Each year, I look to the Pura Belpré Awards with joy. These awards celebrate the Latino cultural experience in books for children. Year after year, this committee selects books that speak to my students, both affirming my students' experiences and providing a window into others' cultures. Each year, I discover new books through these awards and celebrate ones that are already favorites.

2015 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, was awarded both the Pura Belpré Award for Illustration and the Caldecott Honor Award. I adore this book and have shared it with teachers and families all fall. As the Belpré press release states, Morales "uses rich, vibrant color photographs and minimal evocative text to beautifully portray the unique imagination and creativity of an iconic Latina artist." The joy and inspiration Morales gets from Kahlo is palpable on every page. (ages 3-12)

2015 Illustrator Honor Awards

Little Roja Riding Hood, illustrated by Susan Guevara and written by Susan Middleton Elya. I can't wait to share this with students -- they love modern twists on favorite fairy tales. I haven't read it yet, but Kirkus Reviews calls it "a spirited interpretation" that blends "a whimsical fairy-tale land with contemporary Latino-American life." (ages 3-7)

Green Is a Chile Pepper: A Book of Colors, illustrated by John Parra and written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong. My kindergarteners loved this duo's Round is a Tortilla last year, with Parra's folk art and Thong's rich language. Green Is a Chile Pepper continues this pair's delightful concept books that are full of Hispanic cultural details woven into lively text and colorful illustrations. (ages 2-6)

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh combines clear text and folk-inspired art to bring this important story to children. Sylvia Mendez and her family fought for their right to go to their local neighborhood school in Westminster, California, in a court case that set a precedent for Brown vs. the Board of Education. This evocative, accessible story is one of my absolute favorites of the year, and I'm so happy to see it honored here and by the Sibert Committee. (my full review) (ages 6-10)

2015 Pura Belpré Author Award
I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín, illustrated by Lee White and translated by E.M. O'Connor. I just started reading this last week after the awards were announced, and I can already tell that several of my students will love it. Celeste’s carefree life in Valparaíso, Chile, is shattered when warships appear. As people disappear, Celeste’s parents go into hiding, and she is sent into exile. When she returns home, she works to reunite people she loves and to move her country forward. The award press release states, "Lyrically written by acclaimed poet, Marjorie Agosín, this Chilean story offers a refreshing perspective on resiliency." (ages 10-14)

2015 Author Honor Award

Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, written by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Raúl Colón. This accessible volume contains 20 short biographies of Latino men and women who have shaped the United States. Each chapter is about 3 to 4 pages long, providing enough depth to hold the reader's interest and paint a picture of these noted figures' remarkable achievements. I especially love the range of people Herrera includes. An excellent book for schools and families. (ages 8-12)

Please seek out and share these excellent books. Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Penguin, Abrams, Macmillan, and Chronicle Books. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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44. The Accidental Highwayman - an audiobook review

Tripp, Ben. 2014. The Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides. New York: Tor Teen.


Can I tell you how much I like this book?  I reviewed it several months ago for AudioFile Magazine and could hardly wait until they published my review so that I could freely blog about my affinity for it!  Although "swashbuckling" is the term I've seen most often in reviews of The Accidental Highwayman, I would characterize it as a mix of daring deeds and derring-do, of historical fiction and magical conviction.  You can read my official review here, I listened to the audio version, but would guess that the printed copy is equally enjoyable.

To summarize:

Amidst a grim 18th century English setting arises the accidental highwayman, Whistling Jack.  Teenager Kit Bristol makes the unlikely yet unavoidable transformation from circus performer to manservant to famous highwayman tasked with the rescue of a mysterious princess from an enchanted coach.  Narrator Steve West employs the English "standard accent" for his presentation of the gallant robber.  He delivers non-stop action and suspense while maintaining an air of wise contemplation suited to this retrospective narrative of daring deeds from a magical past.

This is the first in an expected series. Judging from the effort expended on the series' official website, http://kitbristol.com , they knew right out of the gate that this one would be popular!  Enjoy the goofy trailer (there are two more on the site).

 

Note:
As a fledgling ukulele player myself, I love that Ben Tripp plays the ukulele in this trailer.

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45. Meet Kate Shackleton

Dying in the Wool. (Kate Shackleton #1) Frances Brody. 2009/2012. Minotaur Books. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

Did I love Dying in the Wool? No, not really. I had hoped to love it since it's a cozy mystery set in England in the 1920s. But I merely liked it instead of LOVING it.

The novel introduces the private detective, Kate Shackleton. She's a widow; her husband was a soldier who died during the war. Since the war, she's helped--usually without a fee--people find out what happened to their missing loved ones. Her other hobby is photography.

In Dying in the Wool, Kate Shackleton has her first paying case to solve. Her friend--her acquaintance--Tabitha is getting married in a month or two. Her father, a mill owner, disappeared in 1916. Some people strongly feel he's dead--likely suicide. Other people feel strongly that he's just ran off, probably with a woman to start a new life. Tabitha wants answers. Are the people in the village of Bridgestead keeping secrets? And can Kate and her ex-policeman partner (Jim Sykes) get people to talking? Will this case be easy or difficult? Is it dangerous to ask the wrong questions even after all these years?

I liked the setting just fine. I did. I liked Kate Shackleton and her partner, though I wish we'd had more of him. Would I have liked this one more if I'd found more of the characters likable? Perhaps. Probably. I really just felt this one had so many despicable characters in it. I hardly liked anyone! And it is NOT a clean read. I was hoping it would be a bit cleaner. That probably kept me from loving this one too.

Medal for Murder. (Kate Shackleton #2) Frances Brody. 2010/2013. Minotaur Books. 432 pages. [Source: Library]

Did I love Medal for Murder? I think maybe I did. At the very least I liked it so much more than the first book in the series. (I think I might have not been in the right and proper mood to enjoy/appreciate Dying in the Wool.)

Kate Shackleton and Jim Sykes have been asked by a pawn shop owner to investigate a robbery, and to discreetly visit the owners of the stolen (pawned) items. Sykes visits some. Kate visits some.

But Kate's passion isn't with finding missing things, it's finding missing persons. And within a day or two of her arrival, she does indeed have a person to track down.

I may have liked this one more because of its theatrical themes. The missing girl--woman, I should say--is an actress. She disappeared after the last performance of the play at the local theatre. Her disappearance wasn't the only strange and unhappy event that night....

I really did enjoy this one very much. It was a quick read! I really started to like the characters, especially Kate and Jim and Inspector Charles.

Murder in the Afternoon. (Kate Shackleton #3) Frances Brody. 2011/2014. Minotaur Books. 400 pages.  [Source: Library]

I am definitely enjoying this mystery series. I may have started the series hesitant, but, by the third book, it is love. I've enjoyed each book in the series a little bit more.

Mary Jane Armstrong comes to Kate Shackleton early one morning begging her to help find her missing husband. Her daughter, Harriet, had found him dead on Saturday evening. However, by the time she'd returned with an adult--the body was gone. NO ONE in their town/village had believed her. "She's just a girl after all...and everyone knows that girls make up stories for fun." That's the logic that Kate Shackleton is up against. Kate does believe Harriet's story. And though she has the mother's support--seemingly strong support--in the case, she's having a hard time of it since no one in the community wants to talk to her about the supposed crime.

But as readers can imagine, things are not as they appear. Danger remains so long as the murderer remains free.

This one is a nice addition to the series. Readers learn more about Kate's background. And Inspector Charles is definitely coming to be a love interest!

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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46. The Last Song - a review

Wiseman, Eva. 2012. The Last Song. Plattsburgh, NY: Tundra.

Some locations and eras appear regularly in historical fiction  - the US during the Civil War, the Midwest during the Dust Bowl Era, the British Isles in the medieval period, Europe during the Holocaust, the list goes on ... but seldom does it include Spain during the Inquisition.

In this first-person, chronological account, teenager Doña Isabel learns her family's deepest secret - her parents are not devout Catholics as she was raised to be.  Secretly, they practice the Jewish faith - a practice punishable by death under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, and their Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada.  Set in Toledo, Spain, 1491, Isabel is the daughter of the King's physician, a position that has always kept the family in wealth and privilege.  As the Inquisition grows more brutal, suspected heretics are forced to wear sambenitos (sackcloth), they are beaten, tortured, murdered, and burned alive at autos-da-fé.

I looked around to keep awake.  The church's walls were festooned with the sambenitos of the heretics who had been burned alive at the stake during different autos-de-fé. 

"So many sambenitos," I whispered to Mama.  "They should take them off the wall."

She rolled her eyes. "They are supposed to be reminders to the families of the condemned heretics.  They are warnings to them not to follow in the footsteps of their relatives," she whispered.  "They are a warning to us all."

 Her words filled me with fear.

Her parents decide that to keep Isabel safe from the Inquisition, they will promise her in marriage to the son of the King and Queen's most trusted advisor. Luis is loathsome, however, and instead of Luis, Isabel falls in love with Yonah, a young Jewish silversmith, Soon the lives of the entire family are in danger.

If Isabel abandons her lifelong faith a little too easily and if Eva Wiseman paints Isabel's future a little too brightly, this is a small price to pay for a book suits an older, middle-grade audience and draws attention to a terrible period of religious persecution that is not often covered for this age group, grades 6 and up.



Spoiler:
Ironically (in light of today's current political, social and religious climate), Isabel and her family leave Spain counting Moorish refugees as their friends.  Together they head to Morocco in search of freedom and a better life. How much has changed; and yet, how much remains the same.  We learn so little.


Note:
My copy of The Last Song was provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I'm sorry that I did not get to it sooner.

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47. 2015 Coretta Scott King Awards: celebrating African American culture and universal human values (ages 4-15)

Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are a continued source of inspiration for me and the schools I serve. Each year, these awards are given to authors and illustrators for books that honor African American culture and universal human values. Today, I would like to share the winning books with you. As the award website states,
"The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood."
2015 CSK Illustrator Award
Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers and written by Misty Copeland. In this stirring, beautiful picture book, Copeland creates a conversation between a young girl who dreams of dancing and herself as a professional ballerina (my full review) Myers illustrations are full of vibrant, saturated colors and help children visualize a story as they listen to Copeland's poetic text.

I read Firebird today with 2nd graders -- Jeehyun said, "It's like it was showing the young girl's life cycle," as she grew up and followed her dreams. I smiled, as we thought back to Jeehyun in kindergarten and wondered what advice she would have to herself as she was just starting school. It was a magical moment to share.  Inspiring, for ages 6-10.

2015 CSK Illustrator Honor Awards:

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Joesphine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Patricia Hruby Powell. I adore this beautiful biography that Patricia Hruby Powell & Christian Robinson created celebrating Baker's life and work (see my full review).  Christian Robinson captures Josephine's movement and playfulness with his gorgeous acrylic illustrations. Savor this long picture book biography over several sittings -- and notice how the pictures and words play off each other. For ages 8-12.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by Katheryn Russell-Brown. As Kirkus writes, "Bewitched by the rhythms of jazz all around her in Depression-era Kansas City, little Melba Doretta Liston longs to make music in this fictional account of a little-known jazz great." Kids love the exaggerated illustrations that brim with humor, sass and verve--just like I imagine Melba's trombone playing did. A great picture book biography, for ages 4-8.

2015 CSK Author Award:
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, is a moving, evocative memoir in verse that paints a picture of what it was like to grow up black and female in the 1960s and 1970s (see my full review). This book was especially meaningful to several of my African American students, especially girls, who could relate to Jackie's experiences. This powerful book will now be decorated with four medals: the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Sibert Award for nonfiction. Excellent and outstanding in so many ways, best suited for ages 10-14.

2015 CSK Author Honor Awards:

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was recognized for its portrayal of a close-knit African American family, loving and supportive but also rife with tension between the brothers. As you know, my students are **huge** fans of The Crossover. As I said to a friend when I first read it, I love how the characters' African American identity is an important part of the book, but not an issue in the story -- it's just part of who they are. Don't BOTH of those medals look fantastic on this cover? Fantastic for ages 9-14.

How I Discovered Poetry, by Marilyn Nelson, is memoir in verse that is based on Nelson's experiences growing up as a daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force during the 1950s. Publisher's Weekly calls this "an intimate perspective on a tumultuous era and an homage to the power of language." To learn more, listen to this NPR interview with Nelson. I have not read this or shared it with students, so I'm not quite sure if it's best suited for ages 12 and up, or would be a good fit for our 5th graders.

How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon, is a gripping novel for teens that is undeniably relevant to issues our society is grappling with around the country. As Publisher Weekly writes, Magoon "offers multiple, contradictory perspectives on the shooting of an African-American youth. No one disputes that 16-year-old Tariq Johnson was shot on the street by Jack Franklin, a white gang member, but the motives of both killer and victim remain fuzzy, as do the circumstances surrounding the shooting." While I have not read this, I am a big fan of Magoon's previous work and know this will be an intense and full of raw emotions, for ages 14 and up.

2015 John Steptoe Award for New Talent:
When I Was the Greatest, by Jason Reynolds. I have not read this, but friends are raving about this engaging story of urban teens Ali, Noodles and Needles. As the award committee writes, "In an authentic contemporary voice, Reynolds focuses on the importance of family, the acceptance of responsibility and the obligations of friendship and portrays a likeable teenager learning how to be a good man." Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Please seek out and share these books with kids in your life. They are each truly special. Early review copies were kindly sent by the publishers Penguin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Lee & Low, and Chronicle Books. We have purchased additional copies for our school library and classrooms, and we will continue purchasing more for gifts. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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48. Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper | Book Review

Stella by Starlight, by esteemed storyteller Sharon M. Draper, is a poignant novel that beautifully captures the depth and complexities within individuals, a community, and society in 1932, an era when segregation and poverty is at the forefront.

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49. Seven Middle Grade Books for African American History Month

February is African American History Month. Sharing these books with young readers comes with the responsibility to discuss ... progress towards equality.

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50. Review of the Day: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780803740815
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

As a child I was what one might call a selective reader. Selective in that I studiously avoided any and all works of fiction that might conceivably be considered “depressing”. Bridge to Terabithia? I’ll have none please. Island of the Blue Dolphins? Pass. Jacob Have I Loved? Not in this lifetime. Lord only knows what caused a book to be labeled “depressing” in my eyes before I’d even read it. I think I went by covers alone. Books picturing kids staring out into the vast nothingness of the universe were of little use to me. Happily I got over this phase and eventually was able to go back to those books I had avoided to better see what I had missed. Still, that 10-year-old self is always with me and I confer with her when I’m reading new releases. So when I read The War That Saved My Life I had to explain to her, at length, that in spite of the premise, cover (again with the kids staring out into nothingness), and time period this isn’t the bleak stretch of depressingness it might appear to be. Enormously satisfying and fun to read, Bradley takes a work of historical fiction and gives the whole premise of WWII evacuees a kick in the pants.

Ada is ten and as far as she can tell she’s never been outdoors. Never felt the sun on her face. Never seen grass. Born with a twisted foot her mother considers her an abomination and her own personal shame. So when the chance comes for Ada to join her fellow child evacuees, including her little brother Jamie, out of the city during WWII she leaps at the chance. Escaping to the English countryside, the two are foisted upon a woman named Susan who declares herself to be “not nice” from the start. Under her care the siblings grow and change. Ada discovers Susan’s pony and is determined from the get-go to ride it. And as the war progresses and things grow dire, she finds that the most dangerous thing isn’t the bombs or the war itself. It’s hope. And it’s got her number.

I may have mentioned it before, but the word that kept coming to mind as I read this book was “satisfying”. There’s something enormously rewarding about this title. I think a lot of the credit rests on the very premise. When a deserving kid receives deserving gifts, it releases all kinds of pleasant endorphins in the brain of he reader. It feels like justice, multiple times over. We’re sympathetic to Ava from the start, but I don’t know that I started to really like her until she had to grapple with the enormity of Susan’s sharp-edged kindness. As an author, Bradley has the unenviable job of making a character like Ada realistic, suffering real post-traumatic stress in the midst of a war, and then in time realistically stronger. This isn’t merely a story where the main character has to learn and grow and change. She has this enormous task of making Ava strong in every possible way after a lifetime of systematic, often horrific, abuse. And she has to do so realistically. No deus ex machina. No sudden conversion out of the blue. That she pulls it off is astounding. Honestly it made me want to reread the book several times over, if only to figure out how she managed to display Ada’s anger and shock in the face of kindness with such aplomb. For me, it was the little lines that conveyed it best. Sentences like the one Ada says after the first birthday she has ever celebrated: “I had so much. I felt so sad.” It’s not a flashy thing to say. Just true.

You can see the appeal of writing characters like Ada and Jamie. Kids who have so little experience with the wider world that they don’t know a church from a bank or vice versa. The danger with having a character ignorant in this way is that they’ll only serve to annoy the reader. Or, perhaps worse, their inability to comprehend simple everyday objects and ideas will strike readers as funny or something to be mocked. Here, Bradley has some advantages over other books that might utilize this technique. For one thing, by placing this book in the past Ada is able to explain to child readers historical facts without stating facts that would be obvious to her or resorting to long bouts of exposition. By the same token, child readers can also pity Ada for not understanding stuff that they already do (banks, church, etc.).

Ms. Bradley has written on her blog that, “I don’t write in dialect, for several reasons, but I try to write dialogue in a way that suggests dialect.” American born (Indiana, to be specific) she has set her novel in historical England (Kent) where any number of accents might be on display. She could have peppered the book with words that tried to replicate the sounds of Ada’s London accent or Susan’s Oxford educated one. Instead, Ms. Bradley is cleverer than that. As she says, she merely suggests dialect. One of the characters, a Mr. Grimes, says things like “Aye” and ends his sentences with words like “like”. But it doesn’t feel forced or fake. Just mere hints of an accent that would allow a reader to pick it up or ignore it, however they preferred.

Basically what we have here is Anne of Green Gables without quite so much whimsy. And in spite of the presence of a pony, this is not a cutesy pie book. Instead, it’s a story about a girl who fights like a demon against hope. She fights it with tooth and claw and nail and just about any weapon she can find. If her life has taught her anything it’s that hope can destroy you faster than abuse. In this light Susan’s kindness is a danger unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. Ms. Bradley does a stellar job of bringing to life this struggle in Ada and in inflaming a similar struggle in the hearts of her young readers. You root for Ada. You want her to be happy. Yet, at the same time, you don’t want your heart to be broken any more than Ada does. Do you hope for her future then? You do. Because this is a children’s book and hope, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is the name of the game. Ms. Bradley understands that and in The War That Saved My Life she manages to concoct a real delight out of a story that in less capable hands would have been a painful read. This book I would hand to my depression-averse younger self. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s one-of-a-kind.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover: I may poke fun at the fact that this cover looks so much like the “serious” ones I avoided like the plague in my youth, but I should point out that it’s doing something that almost no other similar children’s books dare.  Inevitably if a book is about a kid with a physical ailment of some sort, that ailment will not make the cover.  Much as publishers avoid putting overweight kids on book jackets, so too do they avoid physical disabilities.  Here, however, the artist has shown Ada’s foot, albeit in a simplified manner.  It’s not particularly noticeable but it’s there.  I’ll take what I can get.

Professional Reviews:

Misc: The author stops by Matthew Winner’s fabulous Let’s Get Busy podcast to chat.

Video: And finally, see Ms. Brubaker Bradley talk about the book herself.

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