Tag Archive: historical fiction


lies we tell ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

In 1959, desegregation of schools had become law and could no longer be delayed but that does not mean that it was welcomed.  Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister are two of the first black students to attend Jefferson High School.  She walks a gauntlet the first day of school just to enter the building where adults and students alike spit on her, scream racist remarks, and throw things.  It doesn’t get much better inside with the abusive language continuing, no one willing to sit near the black students in class, and the teachers doing nothing to stop it.  Linda Hairston is one of the white students that attends Jefferson High.  She is also the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper, a man who is fiercely critical of the attempts at desegregation.  Linda has been taught all of her life to fear her father and to keep separate from black people.  Forced to work together on a school project, Linda and Sarah spend more time together and learn about each other.  To make things more complicated, they are also attracted to one another, something that neither of their communities could understand much less embrace.  This is a powerful story about two girls caught in a city at war about desegregation where their own secrets could get them killed.

Talley has created one of the most powerful fictional books about desegregation I have seen.  Using the worst of racist terms that flow like water across the page, again and again, yet never becoming numbing, the language alone is shocking and jarring for modern readers.  Add in the physical and emotional abuse that the black students suffered and you begin to realize the pressure that they were under not only to survive day to day but to excel and prove that they are worthy to be in the school.  The gradual transformation of the attitudes of both Sarah and Linda are done believably and honestly.  Nicely, Linda is not the only one who grows and changes in the process.

Adding in the LGBT element was a brave choice.  While the book is about desegregation as much of the story, the attraction and relationship of the two girls is an equally powerful part of the book.  Modern readers will understand their need for secrecy and somehow the hatred of gay people allows readers to better understand the hatred of African-Americans depicted on the page.  It is clear by the end that bigotry is bigotry and love is love, no matter the color or the sex.  Talley beautifully ties the two issues together in a way that strengthens them both.

Powerful, wrenching and brutal, this book has heroines of unrivaled strength and principles that readers will fear for and cheer for.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Harlequin Teen and Edelweiss.

ben franklins big splash

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S. D. Schindler

Ben Franklin grew up the son of a soap maker and loved to spend his free time on summer days swimming in the river near his home.  In the time of his childhood, people just did not swim or wash regularly because they thought it would make you sick, so Ben was considered rather odd for the amount of time he spent in the water.  As he swam, Ben started to wonder why it was that fish swim so much better than he could.  And so Ben starts to come up with inventions that would help him swim like a fish.  First, he made swim fins for his hands out of wood and they did make him much faster, but they also made his wrists sore and tired.  The next invention was swim sandals, but they didn’t improve things much since they slid off his feet.  But Ben was not a quitter and so he took each defeat as a way to improve his idea.  After all, he was a scientist through and through.

Rosenstock sets just the right playful and rather silly tone with this biographical picture book.  She includes plenty of details about the society in the 1700s and how it was different from our modern one.  Using different fonts and repeating words, she also emphasizes the importance of trial and error in science and solving problems.  She also ties in the fact that this is how science works and how scientists learn things, along with a healthy dose of dedication and resolve.

The illustrations by Schindler are marvelous, cleverly covering up the more private parts of the naked swimming boy with splashes and waves.  They have a light-hearted quality to them and also a visual lightness that makes the book even funnier as they swim across the page.

A book to inspire children to try to solve problems they discover, this is a fresh and summery look at a boy genius at play.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

nest

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them.  Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting.  Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg.  She’s also having balance problems.  The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos.  Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression.  Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past.  As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium.  Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.

Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction.  Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes.  Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail.  Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can.  She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.

Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy.  She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book.  Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own.  He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention.  Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.

Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood.  Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City.  There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family.  But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood.  She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse.  When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life.  Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.

Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory.  Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth.  There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family.  There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too.  It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.

One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel.  Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone.  As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.

Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

anybody shining

Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Released September 23, 2014.

12-year-old Arie Mae loves living in the Appalachian Mountains.  She is so proud of her mother, who sings the old songs like an angel and her father who loves modern and traditional music.  All that is missing in her life is a best friend.  Arie Mae starts writing letters to her cousin who lives far away in Baltimore and whose mother had grown up in the mountains.  After sending letter after letter, Arie Mae gets no response, but continues writing anyway, sharing the details of her life and adventures.  Then Arie Mae gets another chance to make a new friend.  A group of children from Baltimore are coming to the mountains along with the song catcher ladies, who will record the traditional songs and who have also created a new school for people to learn traditional crafts that can then be sold.  Arie Mae knows right away that she won’t be friends with the bossy girl who looks down on the mountain children.  But there is a boy with a limp who loves to hear the traditional stories and refuses to let his limp stop him from exploring.  His mother warns Arie Mae that he should not exert himself much because of his health, but nothing is going to slow either of them down now that they are friends and there are woods and mountains to discover together. 

Dowell writes with a beauty that brings the Appalachians to life.  She captures the lifestyle of these people without flinching from the poverty that they live in, but also revealing the incredible simplicity of this life that makes it possible.  She shows the tension between traditional ways of life and the modern world in a very developed way, where the outsiders are the ones who want the traditions to continue and their lives to be undisturbed by modern conventions.  This is a beautiful novel about the power of writing, the question of whether those living in the mountains need saving, and the quest for a best friend.

Arie Mae is a wonderful character.  She is the lens through which we see the mountains and it is her love for them that appears on the page.  So does her voice, which is clarion clear and written with the rhythm of the mountains entwined in it.  Here is a passage from page 22 of the e-galley where she writes to her cousin about how writing has changed her:

I have found that since I started writing letters to you I’ve been paying close attention to all the doings and comings and goings of a day.  It’s like saving secrets to share with a friend late in the evening, when the lights are dimmed but for a single lantern hanging on a neighbor’s porch across the holler.

These are the sorts of images shared throughout the book, sprinkled throughout.  The setting of the mountains is as much a character on the page as Arie Mae is.  And it is brought to life just as vividly.

Strongly written, with beautiful passages, this novel for middle graders invites them to spend time with Arie Mae in the mountains and to join in the adventures.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

curiosity

Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

The author of The Shakespeare Stealer returns with another historical novel for children.  In 1835 Philadelphia, twelve-year-old Rufus has lived a sheltered life, kept inside by the curve of his spine and his small stature.  Then his father is thrown into debtor’s prison and his life changes dramatically.  Taken into a home for orphans, Rufus is rescued by his skill at chess and taken to live with Maelzel, a sinister man who owns a collection of automatons as well as The Turk, a chess-playing machine.  Rufus is forced to hide inside the cabinet below The Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers.  He is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison.  But Rufus’ life is not just playing chess.  He must remain hidden at all times to avoid the secret of The Turk being discovered.  He can’t ever go out, making this a twisted version of his earlier sheltered life.  Now he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten and to find a way to not meet the dark same end as a previous Turk controller. 

Blackstone’s historical fiction is rich and detailed.  He offers just the right amount of information so that young readers will understand the difference in society and the way of life, but not so much to slow down the story.  And what a story this is!  The Turk hoax is revealed in all of its twisted, waxy glory through the eyes of a disabled young boy whose entire world has been turned upside down.  Yet Rufus is always looking on the bright side, scheming himself to try to survive as best he can and yet also having a child-like wonder at things too. 

Blackstone brings early 19th century America to life on the page.  He populates his story with real people like Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum, adding to the already strong sense of reality in his tale.  At the end of the book, the author does speak about the liberties he took with these historical figures, including making the sinister Maelzel much more evil than he seemed to be in real life. 

Strong writing, a compelling story and a shining hero all make this work of historical fiction a dark delight.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

queen victorias bathing machine

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Queen Victoria longs to get out of the heat of the summer as well as her itchy clothes and tight corset and just be able to swim in the sea.  But her lady-in-waiting collapses even considering the scandal that could take place if someone were to see the queen before she reached the water!  The queen gives up the idea, realizing that there is no way that she could be properly dressed and still able to swim.  Prince Albert though wants to try to figure out a way to get his beloved wife into the water.  Albert came up with many ideas, but none of them worked.  Then he struck upon a wonderful idea, a wheeled wooden cart that could be pulled right into the water.  This true story of a queen who wanted a touch of freedom ends with an image of the restored bathing machine that is now on the Isle of Wight in England. 

Whelan takes a wonderfully playful look at solving the queen’s swimming problems.  She makes sure that at the base of the entire story is the adoration between Albert and Victoria, a rich love story even though they were monarchs and parents.  Cleverly having a fainting lady-in-waiting who is the voice of propriety in the book helps children understand the expectations of decorum in a previous day.  Whelan writes in a free rhyming verse here, the looseness of the poems feel simple by belie that skill that it takes to write in this style.

Carpenter’s illustrations also have a sprightly humor to them.  They also celebrate the love of the two historical figures.  Perhaps the most joyful images are Victoria finally able to swim and cavort in the water.  Or maybe it is the final illustration where Victoria is happily held in Albert’s arms dripping and happy. 

This piece of historical fiction is based on a true story and shows creativity and problem solving galore.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

saving lucas biggs

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death, she can’t believe it since she is certain he is innocent.  But this is what happens when someone tries to stand up to the company that owns the entire town.  It’s also the company that owns Judge Biggs.  The only way that Margaret can see to save her father is to change Judge Biggs’ mind.  According to Grandpa Josh, her best friend’s grandfather, Judge Biggs used to be a good person until his father was accused of murder and hung himself.  The only person who can change the course of time is Margaret who has to use her family’s forbidden power of time travel.  But history resists change and Margaret only has a few days before history rejects her to make the necessary changes to save her father.

De los Santos and Teague have written a book that takes on time travel in a very refreshing way.  The idea that history actively resists change and that there is a physical toll on the time travelers makes for frustrating time travel.  Yet it feels right and also creates tension in the story at just the right moment.  The authors also explore company towns and how workers tried to stand up to unfair business practices.  Here there is plenty of action in that fight, including murder and gunfire as well as quiet desperation. 

Margaret is a winning character, one who travels in time very reluctantly but is given little choice when she is the sole person who has a chance of saving her father.  The story dives into complexity, never making things easy or simple.  One aspect of this is the way that redemption is viewed.  Characters are seen as changeable, able to be rescued from what happened to them even in their elder years.  This book is about getting chances to make the right choice in the end, forgiveness for poor choices earlier, and friendships that stand through time and betrayal. 

A rich and vibrant look at time travel, this fantasy will also appeal to history buffs.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.

brother hugo and the bear

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Katy Beebe, illustrated by S. D. Schindler

Brother Hugo’s library book is due, but he can’t return it because it was eaten by a bear!  So Brother Hugo is instructed that he must create a new copy of the book.  First, Brother Hugo has to go to the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse where they have a copy of the book.  On the way, he can hear the bear snuffling behind him, but manages to reach the monastery and safety in time.  On his return to his own monastery, he can hear the bear snoring in his sleep, so he hurries back.  Then the real work begins, but he has the help of his fellow monks.  They must get a sheepskin, stretch it and scrape it, get parchment paper, and get them ready to write upon.  Then comes making the pens and inks that will be required.  Finally, Brother Hugo must sit and copy the book word for word.  Finally, the book has to be bound.  As he worked, Brother Hugo could hear the bear and the snuffling.  When the book was completed, the monks offered Brother Hugo a clever way to get to Grand Chartreuse safely despite the word-hungry bear, but even with their help Hugo finds himself face-to-face again with the great beast looking for books.

In this book, Beebe has created a fascinating look at the treasure and value of books and the efforts that it once took to create them by hand.  By inserting the question of the bear into the book, the story moves ahead very effectively, offering a nice plot point in what could have been a much quieter tale of book making.  The bear also offers a touch of humor into the story, for even those of us who agree that books and words are as sweet as honey will be amazed at this bear’s appetite for books.

Schindler’s art incorporates word art that hearkens back to illuminated texts such as the one that Brother Hugo recreates in the book.  Done in fine lines and with precision, the art is detailed and adds much to the story.  I particularly enjoy the scenes of Brother Hugo crossing the countryside, because they clearly evoke a different time and place.

This historical fiction nicely incorporates how books were once made into a tale filled with gentle humor and one hungry bear.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

girl in reverse

Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber

Lily can just barely remember her “Gone Mom” as she calls her birth mother.  She was adopted by her family when she was three years old.  All she knows is that her mother gave her up for adoption and then disappeared and has never been heard from since then.  With the Korean War brewing, Lily is the target of many “commie” jokes because of her Asian heritage.  Her parents don’t take the targeting seriously, encouraging her to ignore it.  When her little brother finds a box from Lily’s Gone Mom hidden in their attic, Lily suddenly has clues to follow about her mother.  She heads back to the orphanage that she was adopted from and finds one of the nuns who cared for her while she was there.  The nun has one last item from Lily’s mother that she has kept safe for years, which she gives to Lily, a fragile glass slipper.  As Lily and her brother begin to piece together Lily’s past, her present continues to interfere with the racial jokes getting more overt and a boy at school showing real interest in Lily as something more than a friend.  Lily must balance finding out about her past with her dreams for the future and learning to live with parents who lied to her about what had happened.

Stuber very successfully combines historical fiction with diversity in this novel.  Set in the 1950s, Lily struggles with how to react as racism becomes the norm during her school day.  Lily finds support with a janitor at the school while she is serving detention for leaving school grounds after being bullied.  He is a warm and wonderful African-American character who can speak and put words to what Lily is going through. 

The characters in the book are all robustly written and fully explored.  Even Lily’s dysfunctional parents have depth to them, reasons for their deceit, and the ability to learn and change.   Stuber’s prose is lovely, walking us through emotions and moments in a beautiful way.  Here is how she describes Lily’s mother on Page 208:

My father may wear the pants in the family, but Mother wears the perfume – her mood reigns, soaks everything, rules the day, the night, and everything in between.  But at this moment I cannot sniff her mood.

Beautifully written with complex characters, this middle school book takes us into history on a personal level.  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.

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