Tag Archive: historical fiction


audacity

Audacity by Melanie Crowder

Told in masterful verse, this is the story of real-life heroine Clara Lemlich who led the largest strike by women in the history of the United States.  Born in Russia, Clara was forbidden any education because her devout Jewish father did not approve.  When her family emigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, Clara was required to go to work to support her family while her father and brothers dedicated their lives to prayer.  Clara got work in the garment industry, discovering horrific working conditions and refusing to just accept them.  Clara worked to get women workers taken seriously by the male-driven unions and for their plight to be incorporated into union strikes and negotiations.  Along the way, she also used the public library and free classes to teach herself English.  Anyone wondering if one person can truly make a difference in a larger world has only to read this book to be inspired to action.

Crowder’s poetry here is completely amazing.  From one page to the next, she captures the incredible spirit of this young woman and her desire to educate herself.  When she finds something to fight for, she is unstoppable, fearless and unbeatable.  Crowder also ties Clara to nature, even in among the tenement buildings of New York City.  She is a small hawk, a flower in the concrete, she herself is the force of nature in the city.

Just the descriptions of the horrific beatings that Clara withstood on the streets and the picket lines would make most people quit.  But Crowder makes sure to depict Clara as a person first and a hero second.  It makes what she did so much more amazing but also encourages everyone to realize that they too have this within them if they are willing to take on the fight.  This woman was a heroine in such a profound way, unsupported by her family and willing to use all of her free time to make a difference, she is exactly what the modern world needs to have us make change now.

Strong, beautiful and wonderfully defiant, this book is an incredible testament to the power of one woman to change the world.  Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel.

x

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

This is the story of Malcolm X’s boyhood and teen years.  Malcolm Little grew up during the Depression, surviving on dandelion greens soup after his father is murdered.  When his mother gains the attention of social services, Malcolm is moved out of the family home and away from his days of stealing melons from patches and apples from stands to fill his belly.  When Malcolm gets a chance to leave his foster home and head to live with his half-sister in Boston, he jumps at the chance.  Boston and its neighborhoods are a buzz with activity and nightlife and Malcolm immediately joins the fray, turning his back firmly on the way he was raised.  Malcolm continues to explore the dangerous side of society by dealing reefer, drinking, and dating a white woman.  He moves to Harlem where the jazz is even more incredible and where he really gets into serious trouble.  This novel follows Malcolm from his childhood until he is imprisoned for theft at age 20 and eventually converts to Islam.

Shabazz is one of the daughters of Malcolm X and according to the Authors Note at the end of the book the story while fiction is firmly based in real life people and events.  The writing prowess of Magoon is also here in full force, directing a story that is a headlong dash into sex, drugs and jazz into something that speaks volumes about the intelligence and emotions of the young man at its center.  The result is a book that shines light on difficult years of Malcolm X’s life where he lost himself and then the tremendous results of having returned and found himself again. 

There is such emotion here on the page.  Malcolm’s heart shows in each interaction he has, each moment of losing himself that he manages to find.  It is a road map of hope for those who are lost to these moments in their lives that you can return and be better than ever.  It also shows the humanity behind the historical figure, the real boy behind the legend.

Powerful, gritty and honest, this novel expands what young readers know about Malcolm X and offers hope for those in their own crisis.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Candlewick Press and Netgalley.

whale trails

Whale Trails: Before and Now by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Released January 20, 2015.

A little girl and her father run a whale boat that takes people out onto the water to view the whales in the sea.  Her family has worked the sea there for generations, so she explains how different their search for whales is from those in the past where the whalers were hunting whales.  Each pair of pages shows modern day and then turns in sepia tones to the past.  From changes to the pier and the businesses along it to the design of the boats themselves to the routes and tools used, each pair of pages show how things have changed.  Yet at night as they head home, the bay is the same and so are the whales that live there.

Cline-Ransome has cleverly combined history with always-popular whale watching, creating a book that invites exploration.  Not only is this a look at the changes of the boats over time and what they do with the whales in the bay, but more subtly and importantly, it also looks at the changes in attitudes towards wildlife.  Throughout it is a hopeful book, examining the past with a frank and factual approach. 

Karas’ illustrations clearly show the modern and the historical side-by-side.  His sepia tones spread all the way to edges of the page while the illustrations themselves are framed by lines.  The more colorful modern pages have illustrations that take up the entire page and are less formal feeling thanks to the lack of framing.  These cues will help children keep the two time periods clear.

Clever, smart and engaging, this mix of modern and historical whaling is a superb addition to any library collection.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.

a fine dessert

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Released January 27, 2015.

Follow one recipe through the centuries in this exceptional picture book!  Starting over 300 years ago in England, the book starts with a mother and daughter out picking blackberries.  Once home, the mother skims cream from the milk from their cow and whips it with a bundle of twigs for 15 minutes until she has whipped cream.  That is combined with squashed and strained blackberries mixed with sugar to create blackberry fool.  The fool then needs to be cooled, so they head to the hillside to chill it with sheets of winter ice that they store there.  Then the family enjoys it and the little girl licks the bowl clean.  As readers turn to the next family in Charleston, South Carolina about 200 years ago, they will notice so many changes just not in the recipe itself.  The method of refrigeration changes, the method of whisking the cream and the time it takes, the way they get the ingredients, and the family setting.  Next comes even more changes as the setting turns to a century ago in Boston and then the final family, a modern San Diego father and son.  Each family brings updates to the methods but enjoys the delicious dessert exactly the same way, with gusto!

Jenkins has an author’s note at the end of the book that further explains and points out the changes from one century to the next in the way food is procured and prepared.  Even the use of actual recipes only appears in the final family.  Written in a jolly way, this picture book uses repetition and patterns to make sure that children will see the differences in the way the food is prepared as the time passes.  It is a fascinating look at how food preparation has progressed but also in how very much has stayed the same.

Blackall’s illustrations are playful and clever.  She too uses repetition in her illustrations, showing the joy of licking the whisk or spatula and the final head dive into the bowl after the meal is complete.  There is a simplicity to her art as well, allowing the settings she conveys on the page to speak clearly.  One knows even without the words that you are in a different time and place thanks just to the illustrations.

A joy to read and share, this book has all the delight of a great dessert but is also packed full of historical information and detail.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.

ghosts of heaven

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

Sedgwick once again takes readers on a unique journey, this time all bound together by spirals both symbolically and tangibly.  Told in four sections, which Sedgwick explains can be read in any order, the book begins in Paleolithic time with a young girl who has become a woman but not yet borne children being selected to travel to the special caves where someone more important with do the painting on the cave walls.  She is meant solely to climb the walls burdened with his supplies.  But the story twists and turns away from what is expected into a different story entirely.  The second tale is of the witch hunts in England, where another girl is trying to survive after her mother’s death.  Her mother was the cunning woman of the village, caring for the health of everyone.  And the girl has caught the eye of the landowner’s son, but things are not that simple and when a new religious leader comes to town, the girl finds herself at the sharp end of his attention.  The third tale brings readers into the world of a 1920s asylum for the mentally ill where a poet who is incarcerated there is obsessed with spirals and draws a young doctor into his world.  The final story is set in the future, aboard a spaceship where only one person wakes at a time, keeping the ship maintained as it heads on its lengthy journey that will save the human race.  Then things start going wrong.  Four stories, each spiraled with one another into a whole novel that is dark, deep and incredibly engaging.

Each of these stories stands on its own merit, each one more dazzling than the next.  Yet as a whole it is where they are truly powerful, tied together with spirals of time, spirals of power, the spiral of humanity too.  Sedgwick excels at creating tension in each of these stories, each building ever so cleverly and enticingly towards an ending that readers long to arrive and yet dread.  Sometimes you know where they are headed, others you have no idea, and in each there are connections to the others, echoes from one story to the next through time and space.

This is a book that requires strong teen readers.  Some of the stories are less about teens than about adults, yet it is the stories of those teen girls that echo through time, tying the stories into one novel.  It is a book that will be welcomed in high school classrooms, one that insists on discussion, one that will resonate with certain readers who see the world as one enormous spiral too.

Exquisite writing, beautifully plotted and filled with powerful tension, this novel for teens is a great way to start a  new year.  Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Roaring Brook Press and Netgalley.

madman of piney woods

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there.  This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red.  Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter.  He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood.  That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it.  Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring.  He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods.  Red is a scientist.  He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is.  She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump.  When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different.  But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?

I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original.  Happily, it certainly is.  It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books.  Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are:  one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view.  Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another. 

Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers.  There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.  Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful.  They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties.  It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.

A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.

mortal heart

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

Released November 4, 2014.

The third in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, this book follows a third sister from the convent of Mortain.  Annith has been kept at the convent longer than her two friends and has never been sent on assignment.  Now she has excelled at all of her training to such an extent that she has surpassed the skills of many of her teachers.  With their Seeress very ill, Annith is proposed to be the next Seeress for the convent, but that would mean that she would never leave, be stuck in stuffy rooms all the rest of her life, and would never put her skills to use.  So Annith works to make sure that the existing Seeress survives her illness, spending long hours nursing her back to health.  When she discovers that even then she will not be sent into the field, she begins to question whether the convent and the Abbess are truly doing the work of Mortain.  So Annith escapes, heading out to see what Mortain has planned for her and her life.  Soon Annith is caught up in the perils of traveling across a war-torn country, fighting for her and her country’s freedom, and falling in love.

LaFevers ends her trilogy on a high note with this book about Annith.  Her trilogy has focused on a different daughter of Mortain in each book, offering a strong cohesion across the series but also a unique perspective and voice with each new protagonist.  Each of the girls is quite different from the other, yet all of them have their demons to face and problems to overcome.  Placed against a backdrop of war and political intrigue, the books ride that wave of ferocity, honor and strategy to great effect.

Annith herself is a very intriguing character.  While the other two books in the series showed her as friendly but rather aloof, this book delves deeply into her motivations and how she came to be the person she is.  As each layer is revealed, her complex personality makes sense and as she begins to leverage it to create the life she wants and deserves, she becomes all the more passionate and powerful.  LaFevers writing is so readable, it gallops along at a fast pace but also is clearly trained and focused. 

A fitting end to a grand trilogy, I can’t wait to see what LaFevers has for us next!  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

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

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.

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