Tag Archive: historical fiction

Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

In a series of short stories, master author Almond takes readers back to the magical times of his childhood as well as our own. The stories are all set in the places that Almond grew up in. The stories range in topic, but each one offers glimpses of wonder and deep understanding. They also all speak to the power of stories in our lives, whether they are to reveal or to hide the truth. The eight stories in the book give us characters living normal yet extraordinary lives. There is the girl rejected by school and society who finds it easy to believe she comes from somewhere far away. There is the home with a monster hidden inside it where you can hear its noises if you put your ear on the wall outside. There are the boys who run miles and miles to swim in the sea on one perfect summer day. There are poltergeists mixed with soccer games, bullies mixed with heroes. It is a beautiful collection of stories which put together make up a glimpse of a world past that still is relevant in our modern one.

Almond’s writing is exceptional. This shorter form allows him to create little worlds of magic, astonishing moments of clarity, decisions that reverberate in the community. He invites us into his home, revealing in paragraphs before each story the way that the story ties to his childhood or to a place that is dear to him. It gives us a look at his process, a way to understand the fictionalizing of memories and the beauty of turning everyday into amazement. The fantasy elements are there, dancing under the cloak of faith but there still, explained but also not completely fictional. There is a delicacy to this writing and yet a robustness to the setting that work particularly well together.

One of the best short story collections I have read in a very long time, this collection is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (InfoSoup)

Arthur can’t stand that the junk man is wearing his father’s hat, so he throws a brick at the old man and injures him. Sent to juvenile detention, Arthur has to appear in court where the junk man steps up and offers him a choice. He can either be sentenced to detention or he can do community service working with the junk man. Arthur agrees to work for the man. When he starts, all he gets is a list of items to find in the garbage. Soon Arthur is digging through the garbage himself. At first he does it with no interest at all, not fulfilling the list he has been given at all. Soon though, he is spotting treasures and keeping things like foil from his friend’s lunch. As he works on the items on the list, they grow in significance to him on a personal level and in his life. When he discovers what the man has been using the items for, Arthur is captivated and begins to work alongside him.

Pearsall has created a book that speaks to the power of one person to make a difference in someone’s life. First there is the brick being thrown, then the man saving Arthur from detention and then the story progresses and Arthur matures and he begins to save the man in return. It’s a beautiful cycle, one of caring and concern and humanity. The humility of garbage collecting is also a huge factor in the book, one that works not only to break down barriers but also to lift up the person to a different level along with the items they collect.

Pearsall also uses language impressively. She describes characters clearly and does not pontificate about the lessons to be seen in the book. Instead the story stands on its own merits and the conclusions you draw are your own. It makes it an ideal book to use with a class and will inspire discussions about right and wrong, and responsibility.

A vibrant piece of historical fiction based on a true story, this novel will be welcomed by teachers and youth alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (InfoSoup)

Christopher was taken from the orphanage where he grew up to become an apprentice to Master Benedict, an apothecary in 17th century London. Christopher loved working in the workshop and learning about the different capabilities of the various ingredients stored there. He created medicines that helped heal various afflictions, but he also got himself into trouble too. All it took was one homemade cannon, a best friend, and a stuffed bear. But all is not entirely good in Christopher’s world. There is someone murdering apothecaries but torturing them first. Christopher soon finds himself in the middle of the worst possible danger and left with only a trail of cyphers and clues to help him figure out who to trust.

Sands manages to create a rip-roaring adventure story and yet keep it true to a historical mystery set in the 17th century. Readers are immersed in the hierarchies of the apothecary guild, the complex political world, and the desperation of being an orphan and having no place to live in London. There are unlikely heroes, crafty booksellers, kind madmen, and plenty of villains. The book catapults readers into the story, leaving them breathless with the vaudeville humor of the story, gasping as the pace gets even faster, and holding on by their fingernails as the story twists and turns.

Christopher is a great character. He is smart as can be, solving cyphers and puzzles as well as figuring his way out of impossible situations. He is also brave, enduring real danger for the sake of what he believes in and what his master taught him. Add to that a humble nature that makes him a good friend and a tendency to find trouble. Other characters are compelling too, from his best friend who has real depth to his character to the villains who have complicated reasons for what they do. It’s a book that reads as a puzzle that readers must decipher.

It’s a wild delight of a novel that will have young readers captivated thanks to its chemical mix of science and historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Aladdin Books.

Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay

Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay (InfoSoup)

This second book in the series about Binny is another charmer. Binny has to start school in her new town now that summer is over. She doesn’t know anyone at all and the only child she has met she managed to knock into and spoil her mother’s birthday gifts while Binny was pursuing a butterfly. When a storm hits their small town, Binny and her family find that the roof of their house has caved in and they have to move to a rental house out in the country. At school, Binny is mercilessly bullied by the girl she knocked into and her friends. They call her “grockle” and make fun of the way she talks and acts. Binny finds herself taking solace in her family, helping her little brother James with his chickens. Then one of the chickens is taken by a “jagular” and Binny discovers a paw print that might lead her to figure out the puzzle of what animal took the hen. Tied together with Binny’s story is that of Clarry, a girl who lived in the house during World War I and who found herself drawn to the natural world in the same way that Binny does. It may just take the two of them together to solve the mysteries that Binny has discovered.

McKay has such a way of writing. It exudes warmth and humor. It’s rather like the cinnamon cake that appears in this book, something to be both savored and lingered over, but also one to be devoured with delight. If I could leave the house with a book like this tucked in my pocket to munch on each day, I’d be very happy indeed. The dual story lines of Binny and Clarry work particularly well. Clarry too is an intriguing character, a girl interested in an education in a time when that simply wasn’t done. Readers find out fairly soon in the book that Clarry lived to be 100 years old, but there are questions about how long others in her story lived which add to the mysteries of the book.

McKay creates characters who are their own people. There is Binny who is complicated both in the ones she loves and her own interests. She finds things on the fly and feels deeply about everything. Her younger brother James is also a delight. His way of greeting people, his vague general statements, his inquisitive nature. They all combine to one little boy with a huge personality. Clem, Binny’s older sister, has depths that are hinted at but not yet revealed. All of the characters are robust and personable. Those who seem one way upon first meeting them develop into intriguing full characters by the end of the book, and even the adults are treated this way.

Another wonderful read by the incredible Hilary McKay. I can’t wait to see what Binny gets up to next! Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko (InfoSoup)

Lizzie works alongside her father who is a doctor in San Francisco at the turn of the century. It gives her a break from the loneliness of attending a school where the girls won’t speak with her and from her brother who is getting more and more moody and secretive. It’s very unusual for a girl to be allowed to help a physician and Lizzie plans to go to college herself rather than being married off to a rich beau. But something strange is happening on the streets of San Francisco and there are rumors of plague in the city. Chinatown is suddenly quarantined and no one is allowed in or out. Lizzie’s family’s Chinese cook is caught in the quarantine and unable to return home. When Lizzie hears noises in his rooms, she investigates and discovers that his son has been staying there. The two become friends and he even convinces her to try to be friends with the girls at school too. Soon Lizzie is going from having no friends to having several, but even glittering social events can’t distract her from the medical mystery afoot in the city.

Choldenko has written a book that explores racism from a unique angle and perspective. Starting with the rumors of plague in San Francisco, she has built a mystery with a sound footing in history. Throughout the entire story, racism is a central theme as is social standing. Lizzie breaks both social conventions by befriending the cook’s son, someone who shows her just how much more there is to know about his father too. Though Lizzie is close to the servants and never demanding or cruel, even she has much to learn about their lives and the social forces at work.

Lizzie is a strong and brave heroine who risks her own social standing and reputation to do what is right. I enjoyed that she has trouble making friends, preferring books to approaching others. It is also noteworthy that she makes a great friend herself and the winning personality that readers immediately experience is the same that she shows those that she befriends. Lizzie also stands up to her aunt, someone who is trying to control her destiny and future. Yet even that aunt has another side, one that Lizzie has to work hard to discover.

Another strong historical novel from Choldenko, this book will be enjoyed by her fans who will like Lizzie immediately. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Wendy Lamb Books and Edelweiss.

Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (InfoSoup)

Callie returns in triumphant fashion in this second Calpurnia Tate book following the Newbery Honor-winning first novel. Calpurnia continues to study science and nature at her grandfather’s side. Together they begin to dissect worms and insects, moving upwards towards vertebrates. Callie develops several scientific devices to measure latitude and barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure drops seriously low and an unusual gull shows up in the yard, Granddaddy heads to the telegraph office to sound the alarm for coastal areas, but there is little to do in places like Galveston Texas where tens of thousands of lives are lost. Meanwhile, Callie’s brother Travis is continuing to bring home stray animals like armadillos and raccoon, leaving Callie to help hide the evidence. Their cousin who survived the hurricane in Galveston comes to live with them, moving into Callie’s room and bearing secrets of her own. Through it all, Callie struggles with the expectations for girls around the turn of the century, trying to find a way forward towards education rather than marriage.

Kelly writes of science in a way that will have any reader eager to start looking at the writings of Charles Darwin, reading about health issues of cows and horses, dissecting their own grasshoppers, and heading outside to find the North Star. She turns it all into an adventure, filled with outdoor excursions, smelly animals, and rivers to explore. At the same time, it is also a look at the expectations of a girl from a good family and the difference between her future and that of her brothers. Callie’s struggle with this inequity speaks to her courage and her tenacity, two parts of her character that are evident throughout the book. This dual nature of the novel adds lots of depth to the story, allowing fans of nature and fans or strong heroines a shared novel to rejoice about.

Kelly’s characters are wonderfully well rounded. Callie is not perfect and is far more interesting and human for that. She is not patient, hates to play the piano and sew, and speaks up at times that would be unseemly. At the same time she is wonderfully wild, brazen at times, and heroic at others. She stands by those who support her and thwarts those who oppose her. She cunningly uses people’s self interests to promote her own and is constantly learning from those around her. Even the secondary characters are well drawn and have depth. From Granddaddy to Callie’s mother to her cousin Aggie, all can surprise because they are crafted as full human beings.

This romping novel is a fitting and fabulous follow-up to the first. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams Garcia

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (InfoSoup)

The third and final book in the Gaither Sisters trilogy is just as delightful as the first two. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel south to Alabama to spend the summer with their grandmother and great-grandmother, Big Ma and Ma Charles. After living in Brooklyn, they are surprised at how slow life is in the country with no stores to visit and little to do to pass the time. Their cousin JimmyTrotter lives on the other side of the creek with Miss Trotter who is the half sister of Ma Charles. But the two sisters don’t speak at all except in messages that the children carry back and forth across the creek. The Gaither sisters learn about their extended family and all of the sorts of people that are part of their heritage, including Native Americans and white people. Delphine is just as hard on Vonetta as she always is, but it may be too much when Vonetta runs away from home. When tragedy strikes, it is up to Delphine to rethink the way that she interacts with her sisters, even when they drive her crazy.

Throughout the trilogy, Williams-Garcia has used these books to offer young readers a glimpse at the lives of African-American people in different parts of the country as well as the discrimination they face. This third book celebrates the various parts of African-American history, including some lesser known pieces like Native Americans owning and selling slaves. Here we also see the KKK and the mixed heritage of some of the more hateful people in a community.

Rippling through these more serious parts of the book are the personalities of all of the characters from the three sisters at its heart to their extended family. There are moments of hilarity mixed into it, creating a book that is a pleasure to read but also has a solidity to it thanks to its clear ties to real history. The dynamics of the sisters and their families is also captured in a realistic and loving way. Themes such as forgiveness, anger and family commitments are all part of this gorgeous read.

Readers who loved the first two books will adore this southern country ending to the series, though we will all mourn not being able to join these three sisters in more adventures. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

dear hank williams

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

Tate’s class has been told that they are doing a pen pal project and they can either be assigned pen pals or pick them. Tate has just the right person to write to, Hank Williams, who is an emerging star in 1948. Tate tells him all about her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana where she lives with her Uncle Jolly, Aunt Patty Cake and her little brother Frog. At first, Tate tells Hank Williams that her parents are well known and gone because of their work, her father as a photographer and her mother in the movies. But as she continues to write to them, she reveals the truth of her family life where her father has disappeared and her mother is doing time in jail. There is one final secret that Tate can’t face at all and it will take all of her courage to admit to it.

Holt writes a story of a girl who has concocted a life of dreams for herself. Tate is unfailingly positive about many things. Even when she talks about her mother being in prison, she focuses on the fact that her mother is in an elite singing group while there. Her life with her uncle and aunt is stable and lovely, filled with small moments that demonstrate their love for her, like finding a way to hear her mother sing on the radio and discovering just the right dog at just the right time.  Holt gives Tate all the time she needs to face her different truths. And the result is surprising and tender.

Tate is a marvelous character. She is quickly proven untrustworthy as she admits early in the novel to lying about her mother and father. Yet there is something so down-to-earth about her too that readers will somehow trust her despite all of this. Perhaps it is the details of her life that make that work, and the way that she hides truths even from herself. It is a delicate balance and one that Holt does very well.

Young readers will love this book for its heart and the beautiful spark of its main character. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.


Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Released February 24, 2015.

A stellar intertwined story that swirls around a magical harmonica, this book is one-of-a-kind in the best possible way.  When Otto meets the three girls in the forest, he sent on a quest that includes a harmonica that sings in different tones from normal ones.  Later, three young people encounter that harmonic and it changes their lives at critical points, bringing both peace and music into the darkness they are living in.  There is Friedrich, a boy in Nazi Germany, who is struggling to hold his family together.  There is Mike in Pennsylvania, placed in an orphanage when his grandmother can no longer care for him and his younger brother, desperate to find a place they can be together.  Finally, there is Ivy in California, excluded from the normal public school because she is Mexican-American and hoping that this last move is one that gets her family a permanent home.  The stories speak to the heart, each child facing the difficulties with immense courage and love for others. 

This book is a delight to read.  It marries the magic of the harmonica with more realistic historical fiction components very successfully.  Ryan explores some of the darkest times for families, put under excruciating pressure by the society they are living in.  She always offers hope though, allowing the harmonica and the power of music to pierce through and give light to the circumstances.  Beautifully, each story ends in a crescendo, leaving the reader breathless and worried about what will happen before starting the next story.  In the end, the stories weave together musical and luminous.

Ryan successfully creates four unique stories in this book and then brings them all together in a way that is part magic and entirely satisfying.  She writes of the cares of each child with such empathy, allowing readers to feel the pressure they are under.  Here is how she describes Mike’s responsibility for his younger brother on page 204:

That responsibility had become another layer of skin.  Just when he thought he might shed a little, or breathe easy, or even laugh out loud, it tightened over him.

She successfully does this with each of the stories, allowing readers to feel that tightening and the threat of well-being for all of the characters.  There is no shrinking from the racism and bigotry that these characters experience.  It is presented powerfully and appropriately for the younger audience.

A powerful book, this novel is pitch perfect and simply exceptional.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.

stella by starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

The author of Out of My Mind returns with a book that takes a hard look at racism in the United States.  Stella lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina during the Great Depression.  When her little brother wakes her up one dark night, they witness the KKK burning a cross in their town.  Their community is segregated, so Stella and her family go to a different school than the white kids in town.  It’s smaller and less fancy with one room but also one great teacher.  They also can’t use certain stores and many of the white people in town are rude and even violent towards them.  Stella’s father is one of the men in town who decide that they will push for their right to vote, even though they know the system is rigged, requiring tests for black people but not for white.  Stella gets to witness first hand the ignorance of people in power and their disregard for others, but at the same time there is reason to have hope too.

Draper writes a dynamic story here.  She evokes the time period beautifully, allowing readers to really experience the lifestyle, the poverty, and the deep racism of the times.  This is not a book that is just darkness though, Draper creates a strong African-American community in Bumblebee.  The neighbors look out for one another, help whenever possible, and face the worst of society together as a group.  The racism and segregation is presented with an appropriate level of violence for children this age, allowing readers to see that it runs far more deeply than is depicted on the page.

Stella is an extraordinary protagonist.  Her struggles with writing are presented cleverly on the page.  One immediately sees that this is a girl who struggles with the mechanics of writing like spelling and getting the words out, but once they are on the page she has a unique voice and a poet’s eye.  It is a subtle but strong message that if you struggle with something it certainly does not mean you are not gifted in it as well.  These passages of writing lighten the book as do the various stories inserted throughout the book, paying homage to the oral traditions but also to the community and its strength.

Powerful and wise, this novel for young readers will expose them to racism after the Civil War and the basis for many of the problems we continue to see today.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.


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