Tag Archive: historical fiction


echo

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.

war that saved my life

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ada has never been outside of her family’s one-room apartment.  Her mother won’t let her be seen by others, though Ada does sit at the window and wave at people.  Ada has one foot that is twisted and doesn’t work right, so she crawls around the apartment.  But when Ada realizes that she has to get stronger, she teaches herself to walk on her twisted foot, even though it is agony, making sure that her mother doesn’t find out.  World War II comes and children are being sent to safety outside of London.  Though her mother refuses to let Ada go, Ada escapes along with her little brother Jamie and gets on a train of evacuees.  From there they head into the country and are reluctantly taken in by a grieving woman.  Immediately Ada is given crutches which let her get around more easily and she stubbornly sets out to teach herself to ride her host’s ignored pony.  But there are many changes to come, ones that both test the strength of Ada and others that more strongly tie her to the woman who gave them shelter and care.

There are books that you read that tumble into, ones that are impossible to put down, but you don’t want to read them quickly because you are so entranced with the world they are showing you.  This was one of those books for me; I adored this novel.  All of the characters are human, they all make mistakes, lose their tempers, figure things out, move on and continue to care (in their own ways) for one another.  They are all brave in their own ways too, escaping from a life of imprisonment and hate, learning to live after loss, and creating their own family.  These are inspiring people, but the book also shows that community matters, that being accepted for who you are is vital, and that there are people out there to love us.

Bradley’s writing is exceptional.  It reads easily and beautifully.  She captures Ada perfectly, from her overwhelming fear of being beaten or put in a dark place to her determination and stubbornness; from her teaching herself to walk to the freedom of riding a horse.  Ada is remarkable.  She is a prickly child who does not let anyone into her world easily, but at the same time with the story told in her voice the readers understand her and witness how much she wants to connect and yet cannot.  That first person narration is a critical reason that this book works so well.

Brilliant characters shine on the page as this book looks at war, abuse, and love in a complex and heroic way.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial.

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.

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