Review: The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

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The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet.  He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private.  It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail.  But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him.  Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London.  Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently.  Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.

Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters.  At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England.  She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive. 

Eel is a wonderful protagonist.  He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery.  Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been. 

This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: Gross, Gruesome and Great Fun

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I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures by Carlyn Beccia

Have a symptom?  Look it up in this book, but beware!  Some of the cures listed just may not work.  It’s up to you to try to guess which ones would actually help and which might really hurt.   What would help a cough?  Caterpillar fungus used in ancient China?  Frog soup used in 16th century England?  Cherry bark used by ancient Native Americans?  Readers turn the page to discover which of the three would help.  The reasons behind the use of the cure and then the real results are offered, giving a readers a fascinating tour through medical history.  Happily, some of the cures are gross.  That and the way the information is presented as a guessing game make this book appealing to children, including reluctant readers.

Beccia has taken a cheerful approach to what could have been a very dark book.  Instead the tone stays rather merry, talking about the nutritional boost of frog soup, the healing power of spider webs, and much more.  Her illustrations add to the fun with images like maggots with smiling faces and stinky socks tied around the neck.  They have an interesting blend of macabre and silly.

There are some misses in the book.  At one point, a woman of the 19th century is shown in a short skirt, looking very modern except for her cap.  The book maintains a great pace and tone, but falls short at the end where the healing power of mother’s kisses takes on an overly sweet tone.  I also have concerns about the imagery of the mothers and children, because the only one with darker skin is prehistoric.  The only Asian faces are ancient.  It is a frustrating misstep in a book that is good overall.

Get this into the hands of reluctant readers who enjoy gross things and you too will get to talk about maggots at the dinner table!  Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.