Tag: historical fiction

Review: Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd

Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd

Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd (InfoSoup)

Billie longs to be able to leave her small Alabama town of Anniston and head for a bigger city where things happen. She hopes to be a writer one day too. As the battle for civil rights comes right to Anniston with the Freedom Riders, Billie discovers that there is a lot more racism in her city than she had ever known. She sees it in her own father at home with the way he interacts with their housekeeper, Lavender. She sees it in her school in the way that people react to the news of the Freedom Riders and she sees it in action when the bus the Riders are aboard is attacked. Billie begins to realize that she too has certain points of view that need to change. She wants to be a rider in life, not a watcher. So when she learns that the Freedom Riders are back on the road, she and Lavender’s daughter head to Birmingham aboard the bus together. Along the way, they are faced with overt racism for being together and Billie begins to understand that her actions can have impact to support larger change.

At first I was very disappointed to see a white character as the lead in the book. Then as the book continued, I realized the power of what was being shown on the page. Kidd demonstrates through a very approachable young protagonist that racism is everywhere, even in people who do not seem to be racist at all. Billie is a great example of societal racism and someone who longs for change but can’t see their own role in the process and the subtle ways that race in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement is so pervasive. In Billie, Kidd manages to show a modern racism that is just as toxic as the more overt kind. It is carefully done, never overplayed, and offers a space for understanding and change to happen.

Kidd brings the Civil Rights Movement to life before the eyes of the reader, placing Billie in the midst of not only the Anniston Freedom Riders riot but also in Birmingham with the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. In both situations, there is real violence happening and real danger of people being murdered. Kidd pays homage to the bravery of the Freedom Riders and to their cause. He shows the price of silence and the challenge to speaking up against your home and community. It is a powerful piece of historical fiction.

Rich and layered, this is not a simple book. It will challenge readers to look at themselves and their biases and prejudice. It is a book that speaks to the modern Black Lives Matter movement and that encourages everyone to become part of the solution and not witness in silence. Appropriate for ages 10-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Albert Whitman & Company.

Review: Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

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.

Review: The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

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.

Review: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

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.

Review: Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay

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.

Review: Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

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.

Review: The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

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.