Posts from the ‘Children’s Historical Fiction’ Category

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

Mister Max Book of Lost ThingsTitle: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno
ISBN: 9780375971235
Pages: 367 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., c2013.

“No Flower of Kashmir is presently berthed in my harbor. What’s her country of registration?”
“India,” Max guessed confidently.
“Nor are there any Indian registered vessels. We have, presently, one American, one Moroccan, one Dutch, one Canadian, and that’s all of them.”
Max considered this. “Which vessels sail at noon?” he asked.
“None, as it happens. Though three left their berths by ten-thirty this morning, so as to catch a favorable tide out of Porthaven.”
Something was very wrong here. (32)

Max’s parents are owners and actors in a renowned theatrical company that has just been invited by the Maharajah of Kashmir in India to establish a theater company for him. But when Max arrives at the designated dock to take the trip with his parents, there is no boat and no parents. Returning to his home, he alerts his Grandmother of the problem and the worrying begins. What is Max going to do for income to take care of himself? Max starts using his acting and observation skills and markets himself around the neighborhood as a problem solver, being hired to find a missing dog, a lost spoon, among other things. But the question he really wants to answer is where are his parents? Are they safe?

Max’s grandmother is the voice of reason among the excitement of the invitation to India, but of course no one listens until it’s too late because their egos are so inflated that dissenting opinions can’t reach their ears. The mysteries are lightly intertwined, and the clues are all there for listeners to discover the answers before being revealed by Max in flourishes that mimic his father’s theatrical style. Max’s independent thinking and unique problem solving skills make me think of an earlier Encyclopedia Brown or a younger Sherlock Holmes. His ideas are complemented by a young girl named Pia’s insistence at being his assistant, a much more loquacious version of Holmes’ friend Watson. Max ascertains “whatever she might claim for herself, her real talent was for asking questions. The girl was always asking questions, and some of them were just what Max needed to hear in order to discover his own ideas.” (259) We’ll have to keep asking more questions as this story continues.

Paul Boehmer’s booming voice serves Cynthia Voigt’s descriptive text well, setting the vivid scenes for listeners. His fully voiced narration distinguishes between Max, each of his parents, his grandmother, and the colorful cast of characters that Max interacts with as he searches for his parents and the things he is hired to find. But like so many of the audiobooks I’ve recommended recently, if you pick the audiobook you’ll miss out on the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. I’ll be recommending this series whole heartedly, and the second book in the trilogy, Mister Max: The Book of Secrets, will be released in September 2014.

Bluffton

Will Eisner Week 2014Did you know it’s Will Eisner Week this week, from March 1st through March 7th? Neither did I until I stumbled upon the announcement of the celebration in January. Will Eisner Week “is an annual celebration honoring the legacy of Will Eisner and promoting sequential art, graphic novel literacy, and free speech.” Looking for more information? Visit the website. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’m going to take this opportunity to review graphic novels, which I’ll readily admit I don’t read enough of. My first featured book will be last year’s Bluffton, by Eisner Award nominee Matt Phelan.

Bluffton








Title: Bluffton
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763650797
Pages: 223 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2013.
Publication Date: July 23, 2013

Henry Harrison realizes that the summer of 1908 is going to be different from every past summer when he sees an elephant stepping off train in his small Michigan town. That was the first summer the traveling vaudeville performers pay a visit and stay for their summer long vacation. Henry quickly meets Buster Keaton, a young slapstick comedian who travels and acts with his family. In other ways though, Buster is just like Henry who enjoys baseball, swimming, fishing, and playing elaborate practical jokes on people. Henry doesn’t know how he is going to survive the rest of the year while he waits for their return, which seems dull in comparison after their numerous adventures together.

I think “subtle” is the best way to describe this graphic novel. The mood of Matt Phelan’s story is portrayed primarily in the watercolor illustrations. Summer skies are bright blue over green grass and it feels like the sunshine can pop from the page and warm you if you sat there long enough with the book open on your lap. In contrast, the shorter winter sequences are painted with less color, and primarily blues and grays, with Henry’s shocking orange hair turning a muted mustard yellow in one school room scene.

Dialogue drives the action and provides conflicting views of the vaudeville lifestyle. Henry of course is jealous of Buster, who can do flips, is nationally admired, can travel the world, and doesn’t have to go to school. But readers also witness the flip side of a coin, as Phelan includes controversies about Buster’s age and accusations of child abuse, with hints of possible alcoholism. Buster was essentially forced into the family business, whereas Henry’s father, who owns a hardware store, alleviates his son’s fears of that same fate. “I never expected you to take over the store, Henry. Unless that’s what you wanted. [...] You’ll have lots of choices to make, Henry. Don’t worry so much about what you are going to do, Henry. Concentrate on who you are going to be.” (191-194)

Following that exchange is a poignant scene where Henry simply leans against his father in silence, soaking in the support. You have to wonder if Buster gets the same kind of support from his father. In an earlier spread, you do get the sense that Buster enjoys his life, taking opportunities away from his father to engage in his signature style of comedy. But long looks towards more traditional families lead readers to think more deeply about his desires. A quiet book that packs a punch with the range of subjects covered, it gives a glimpse of a time long past.

Crow

CrowTitle: Crow
Author: Barbara Wright
Narrator: J. D. Jackson
ISBN: 9780804123952 (hardcover: 9780375969287)
Discs/CDs: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 6 CDs
Pages: 297 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, c2012. (audio: Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2013.)

I crept along the stone wall and slipped down into one of the basement window wells. From there, no one could see me, but I had a clear view of the man standing at the top of the steps between two massive columns. He was thin and had shaggy eyebrows and a full silver beard that glinted in the sun. I recognized him but couldn’t remember his name. [...] Today he wore a suit and tie and looked like a refined gentleman, but when he spoke, he looked crazier than Crazy Drake. Spit spewed from his mouth and his face turned red as he shouted, “You are Anglo-Saxons! You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. Be ready at a moment’s notice. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win this election, even if we have to do it with guns.” (183-184)

It’s 1898 and has been years since the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Moses’s father is a respected alderman and reporter in their Wilmington, North Carolina community, and after saving for a year they were able to buy Moses’s mother an organ. But grandmother Boo Nanny is fearful of the changes in the air and the crows circling house, sure that it’s a sign of bad times to come. White folks in the neighboring towns are getting restless and resentful of African Americans succeeding. Red Shirts can be seen throughout the neighborhoods, claiming to be protecting and policing but really working towards taking over the government and intimidating others. Moses’s father won’t tolerate such abuses, but will Moses and his family end up paying for his father’s beliefs? What will happen in a town where simply standing up for what is right is seen as wrong?

The book was a slow start, and J.D. Jackson’s slow drawl, while possibly accurate to the setting and time period, did not improve upon the pace of the book. Short vignettes made up the first part, and you didn’t have anything to pull you along except the superstitions of Boo Nanny until almost half way through the book. Then conflict erupts in a big way, and Moses’s city changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable the speed of which events and emotions escalate, and maybe that’s intentional as a sleepy story becomes a pressure cooker of confrontations and readers are faced with the improbability of events that are based on actual history. As Barbara Wright reveals in her historical note, “In the twentieth century, the story of what happened in 1898 was largely forgotten by the white community and barely mentioned in history books. That changed when the North Carolina General Assembly created the Wilmington Race Riot Commission to look into the incident. The commission’s 2006 report, which includes photographs, maps, and charts, can be found at http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc.”; (296) This presentation gives a whole new perspective of racial tensions, and it reminded me of my reaction to the American Girl series featuring Marie-Grace and Cecile, when I learned of pre-Civil War affluent African Americans.

While it probably deserves a place in African American and Black History Month bibliographies, I keep coming back to the almost laborious pacing. Give this book to patient readers, and reassure them that action happens if only they stick with it.

The Lions of Little Rock

Lions of Little RockTitle: The Lions of Little Rock
Author: Kristin Levine
Narrator: Julia Whelan
ISBN: 9780399256448 (hardcover), 9780307968807 (audiobook)
Pages: 298 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours and 23 minutes
Publisher/Date: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2012. (audiobook by Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group)
Publication Date: January 5, 2012

“So what did Miss Taylor say to you?” JT asked.
I shook my head.
“She said Liz isn’t coming back to West Side,” reported Nora, peering over the top of her glasses. “I was standing by the door and heard her. She said Liz is real sick. But I don’t think that’s true, because Liz was in school last Friday and she was fine.”
JT thought for a moment. “My cousin got the stomach flu last week. That can come on real sudden.”
“Yes, but that only lasts a few days,” said Nora.
“Liz isn’t coming back because she’s a Negro,” said Sally.
We all turned to look at her. (62)

Before meeting Liz, twelve-year-old Marlee didn’t have a lot of friends because she didn’t talk to anyone except for her family or her old friend Sally. But her family starts talking less and less as tensions are running high in Marlee’s household, with her parents on different sides of the debate regarding integrating the Little Rock schools. Liz reminded her so much of her older sister that she just felt comfortable talking to her, and Liz started encouraging her to speak up more at school. Then Liz vanishes from school, and the rumor mill is swirling that Liz was actually a light-skinned African-American, sneaking into school and passing for a white girl in order to get a better education. With tempers flaring in this city and acts of violence threatening, Marlee realizes she must pick a side and speak up if she’s going to prevent disaster from striking her or Liz.

This book reads like a younger version of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It brings the issue of integration and segregation to a level that kids understand, and sheds light on a period of time that even Levine recognizes in her author’s note is not talked about. “When I was in elementary school, my own education about the civil rights era was sketchy at best, but even I learned about the Little Rock Nine. [...] On the other hand, I had never heard of schools being closed to prevent integration, even though I later learned it had happened in my very own state of Virginia as well.” (292-293) I’ve mentioned several times that I enjoy “based-on-a-true story” type books, which I think is why I enjoy historical fiction so much when it’s set around little known events. It’s a fun way for me to learn about history and serves as a launching point to discover more, and I think other readers would agree.

Lions of Little Rock paperbackLevine stays true to the era with language, which I appreciate when an author doesn’t cheapen the story by not using culturally significant words, like “Negro” and the not so nice term for African-Americans. I realize my not using it might look contradictory to some readers, but I don’t need to use the word to lend historical accuracy to a story, which is how Levine uses it. I absolutely love the front of the hardcover, featuring the black and white birds, both of which play a role in the story. While I know there’s lots of talk out there about white-washing covers and not portraying actual photographs of minorities on covers, I think the cover implies the tone of the story that can be found on its pages. The paperback version does have a photograph looking cover (I haven’t seen it in person, and it’s hard to tell by this graphic), but I think it makes the book look intended for younger audiences, which I don’t think would be right. Marlee is a seventh grader in the story, and things do get somewhat violent towards the end, so I would whole heartedly recommend it for middle schoolers but would probably hesitate to go younger. However, I do know some people who would argue that there was no audience filter on the events as they were happening, so why should we filter what they read since they would have experienced it first hand if they had been there. Obviously it’s your call as to who you recommend this book.

All the characters in the book are multi-faceted and very accurately portrayed. The time they are growing up in and the issues they are facing are not simple, and it’s refreshing to see so many characters realistically grappling with their lives. Marlee’s evolution is slow but steady, and we see enough glimpses of her during the school year to witness her thought-process and how major events influence her decision-making. Liz is bold and intelligent, and it’s no wonder that Marlee is pulled towards this new girl packing so much personality and self-assurance. Although told time and again that it would be dangerous to remain friends, just like typical teens they don’t recognize that danger and refuse to heed warnings until it’s almost too late. I want to also recognize the parents of both girls in this novel who work jobs and are out of the house but are far from absent or removed from the situation. Their thoughts and feelings grow, evolve, and change as the situation changes and the school closings continue to stretch on indefinitely with no answer in sight. They discipline their daughters but also support them, worry over their safety, and try their best to be involved and encourage what’s best in their children’s lives.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Julie Whelan’s narration, which is spot-on. It probably helps that the book is told from Marlee’s perspective, which limits the rare male voices to a meager half-dozen at most. Readers get swept away by the story and don’t notice the time passing until you have to change discs. I waited a long time to read this, but you shouldn’t. Put this on every recommended book list you can, whether it is a list of historical fiction, African-American fiction, amazing audiobooks or simply friendship or school stories. It’s a heartfelt, memorable, and eye-opening account of friendship in tough circumstances during a period of time that strongly affected the people who lived through it. The story will stay with you for some time after you’re done reading it, making it a strong contender for reading group discussion.

May B.

Title: May B.
Author: Caroline Starr Rose
ISBN: 9781582464121
Pages: 231 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, c2012.

On the fourth day,
I stand at the stove
and, with my finger on the calendar,
trace the days of August.

I’ve known it since last night:
it’s been too long to expect them
to return.

Something’s happened.

My legs fold under me
as I try
to catch
my breath
between sobs.(71)

Twelve-year-old May B. has been pulled from school by her parents and rented out to a new Kansas couple to help them keep their house and get established because the family crop has failed. “We’ll get you home by Christmas” her mother and father keep telling her, as they drop her off at the farmstead and leave her there. But newly married Mrs. Oblinger is from the city and not happy with her new life. When she takes off and her husband quickly takes chase, four days pass before May B. is willing to admit to herself that something’s happened and they’re not coming back. All alone, with winter quickly approaching, she’s frozen with fear and worried about the weather. Should she attempt to walk the miles of uninhabited land to find her parents’ homestead, or should she wait it out, with little food and wood, until her father comes to rescue her four months from now?

This is Little House on the Prairie meets Hatchet, which is confirmed when the author admits in her author’s note that she “fell in love” with the Little House books when she was a child. I was most impressed with how author Caroline Starr Rose maintains the tension surrounding May’s predicament. Short, staccato phrases make for poetry that echoes the nervousness, frustration, and at times depression May must feel.

Her feelings aren’t alleviated any when her only source of comfort is the reader that she smuggled into her pack when she first came to the Oblingers’ property. While she loves school and dreams of being a teacher, it’s quickly apparent that she suffers from dyslexia and struggles with making sense of written words that she can’t read even when she knows what they say. This was a new spin on an old concept, because we always think of learning disabilities as a recent development, but it’s entirely possible that people have gone undiagnosed for years.

I was slightly disappointed when May didn’t do more to ensure her survival. She obviously has knowledge of how prairie life works, since she makes bread and talks about the plantings. But we don’t see many of her efforts in the beginning, and we hear of her boredom more often than not. The fitful presentation mimics what May must be feeling as she quickly loses track of the days and weeks and only has the weather to rely on. At one point she even says “Time was made / for others, / not for someone / all alone.” (135) It makes readers stop and think about what little the days and weeks matter when there is no difference between them. But the day-to-day survival techniques and chores are the one area where I wish there had been more details.

A strong, relatable character allows readers a glimpse of a girl’s survival story in harsh conditions that we have very little experience with today.

Changes for Caroline

Title: Changes for Caroline
Author: Kathleen Ernst
Illustrators: Robert and Lisa Papp
ISBN: 9781593698928
Pages: 84 pages
Publisher/Date: American Girl Publishing, c2012
Publication Date: September 4, 2012

The success of our new farm depends on making a good start this summer. We must have a good harvest if we are to have any hope of surviving next winter. Therefore, I ask that you send Caroline to us right away. We will likely need her for some time to come.
Caroline gasped. She was to go to the farm? Right away? Without knowing when she might return? A band seemed to go tight around her chest. (10)

Things seem to finally getting back to normal, or as normal as they can get with a war threatening to disturb their lives at any moment. Then Caroline and her family receive word that her Uncle Aaron and cousin Lydia desperately need help starting their new farm… and they want Caroline to come and help! Within an hour, Caroline is packed and leaving her family behind to take the ride into the country. Farming is not easy, as they must plow the fields, tend the meager crops, milk the cows, and an assortment of other chores that take them from sun up to sun down. Life is made even more difficult when a thief starts running off with their hard-earned food. When Caroline is left on the farm by herself for the day and she hears noises, she must act quickly to save the food and supplies.

This is my favorite book of the Caroline series, probably because I’m willing to overlook the abrupt ending. It shows every day farm life during this time period. Yes, the war is still going on, but Uncle Aaron and his family are more concerned with getting crops in the ground, milk out of the cows, and food on their table then who is fighting who. Ernst includes little details about farm life, like if cows eat onions their milk tastes and smells funny for a couple of days. We see just how much hard work there is in keeping a farm in running order, and readers witness the camaraderie between farmers as they help each other with their chores. It reminded me of the Little House series, only much shorter and less descriptive. Although the war is still being fought at the end of this book, Caroline’s story ends peacefully and jubilantly as the whole country celebrates Independence Day in ways very similar to what we do today, with speeches, picnics, gun salutes, and music.

Caroline’s Battle

Title: Caroline’s Battle
Author: Kathleen Ernst
Illustrators: Robert and Lisa Papp
ISBN: 9781593698904
Pages: 90 pages
Publisher/Date: American Girl Publishing, c2012
Publication Date: September 4, 2012

“A few dozen British men and some of their Indian allies rowed ashore several miles west of here,” the officer said. “As soon as the wind picks up, though, the British fleet will surely head for Sackets Harbor and try to land a huge force near the village.” [...]
The officer waved his hand toward the shipyard. “I need these men to help defend Navy Point.”
Caroline caught her breath. She saw the men exchanging worried glances and heard them muttering in protest. “We’re needed here, to guard the gun boat!” one of the carpenters shouted.
“With so many of the American troops away, our position is desperate,” the officer snapped. “We need every man to fight.”
“But–but sir,” Caroline stammered, “who will defend our shipyard?” (28-29)

When the British decide to attack the town of Sackets Harbor while the majority of the military is away, every man is called into action to defend against the landing party. This leaves Caroline and her mother to guard the gunboat being constructed in the family operated shipyard. The British cannot be allowed to gain access to the almost completed gunboat, much less the building plans or the navy instructions housed in the office, and Caroline and her mother are ordered to burn the ship if the fighting goes bad. But with signal fires flaring and the sound of gunfire approaching, will Caroline follow orders or her heart when she’s called to action?

One point in the story that really struck me is when Caroline asks her mother “How do you know when it’s right to do what you’re told, and when to decide for yourself?” (44) Her mother doesn’t really answer except to say “It is sometimes very difficult. I try to use both my mind and my heart.” I feel though that this is one of the important things that girls discover or figure out as they are growing up is that sometimes you have to make your own decisions and you’ll have to figure out when that time has arrived.

Another aspect of the story that I enjoyed was knowing that the events in the book are based on actual events. We learn in the Looking Back section that Sackets Harbor was actually attacked just as described in the story and the outcome was exactly what happens to Caroline and her family. Staying that true to history encourages kids to investigate more and makes everything more believable. I was quite surprised about how close she gets to the fighting again, and I think readers will really bear witness to what it was like during that time.

I feel like the cover could have been done differently, since there are very few details for the background. Understandably the lack of details places the emphasis on Caroline and her torch and it’s effective in raising questions about what she is doing and who she is battling. That cover is just very different from the typical American Girl cover, and there is a stark contrast when compared with the others in the series. The plot however is more of the same intriguing and engaging story line that readers have come to expect.

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