Posts tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

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Birthday Cake for George Washington.jpgTitle: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780545538237
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.

In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar.

Hercules, a slave owned by President George Washington, is a valued member of the White House Staff as the cook for the president. When Washington’s birthday arrives, Hercules is tasked to bake a cake, but there is no sugar to be found anywhere in the kitchen. With a little improvising of using honey instead of sugar, the cake is successfully made. The charcoal pencil pictures are supplemented with Photoshoped images of actual cookware. The enslaved kitchen staff are shown with a variety of skin colors.

Upon publication, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding this book. My library was one of the few to purchase and receive a copy before Scholastic discontinued publishing the title due to public outcry regarding the portrayal of the “smiling slaves”. I’m unaware if the reviews influenced the artist’s note at the back of the book, which stresses that “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” An author’s note attempts to separate fact from fiction, clarifying that while Hercules’s daughter (who is the narrator in the story) doesn’t seem to have ever been at the center of government in the Philadelphia house, Hercules’s son Richmond was present for at least a while as a favor to the cook. The author’s note also emphasizes that Hercules along with the other slaves were rotated out to avoid allowing them freedom under a Pennsylvania law that freed slaves who resided in the state for more than six months.

I’m unsure how much control the author had over the illustration process, but it seems that the text taken by itself does not promote a “happy” situation. At various points in the story Hercules “roared at the kitchen maids”, “growled at Chef Julien” (a white chef from France) and at the kitchen boy, “scowled at the swirling, whirling snow” and “Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile.” I can imagine an imperialistic tone as he orders his staff around, repeatedly voicing “You! […] And you!” While the pictures show a smiling group of workers, the text reflects an uncertainty and anxiousness as they try a new recipe for the very first time to be presented at a Presidential birthday party. The cake (and the feast in its entirety) that is finally produced seems rather small for the number of guests one would expect at a birthday party for George Washington. The text presents an enslaved chef who is hiding his anxieties in front of his owner to avoid any disciplinary action, who takes responsibility for the entire cake so if something is wrong he saves others from being reprimanded, or worse. “No one seems to breathe until the cake platter comes back” empty, and Delia’s heart is “pounding” as the President approaches afterward. This is not the presentation of happy, accomplished culinary chefs confident in their ability, but slaves who know if they do something wrong it could mean dire repercussions.

When the controversy first surfaced, author Mitali Perkins publicized how she would have corrected the book to further stress the condition of slaves during that time period. While her rewriting of the text certainly stresses the dangers of not successfully caring out the orders of their owners, it’s a minimal change to a text that ultimately portrays a story that is intended for young children with a limited exposure to the concept of slavery.Writers portraying slavery and other historical social issues must balance a fine line of keeping it factually accurate but also factually appropriate for that age group. This book also provides a glimpse at a slave who was an anomaly, one who was well-known and dare we say respected, as evidenced by Washington allowing father and son to work together as a “favor”. My opinion is a different illustrator may interpretation of the text may have negated the controversy.

I am a huge admirer of Mitalie Perkins’s Bamboo People and thought that she also raised several issues regarding Scholastic’s decision to pull the book from production. Is it censorship? I find myself asking the same question, especially in light of other books being questioned post-production. It’s not only children’s books, but adults books as well. Back in 2012, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was pulled from store shelves, and the publisher’s Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton was quoted in an NPR article asserting that:

“There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.” […] “The truth is, the withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this,” Hampton said. But, he said, “If there are matters of fact not correctly handled or the basic truth is not there, we would make a decision based on that.”

Since then, we’ve had titles like A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, where the smiling slave portrayal was questioned even as it won award recognition. Ghosts by acclaimed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeir is having its portrayal of Dia De Los Muertos questioned because it was slightly fictionalized and Telgemeir’s own experience in that culture is being questioned. And recently When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is being “postponed” for “further reflection”. I must say I have not read any of these yet. Is this concern over cultural portrayals a desired response to the We Need Diverse Books movement, or will it backlash and yield even fewer depictions out of fear that they offend or prove too fictionalized? I’ve read reviews where factual inaccuracies have been brought to life in nonfiction books that don’t prevent their publication. Are we then being hyper-vigilant regarding fiction for a particular reason, and should we pass that same scrutinizing eye on nonfiction? If readers, reviewers, and the public in general are more willing to challenge a fictionalized publication, then we should evaluate why.  How much license should be allowed? I don’t have any of these answers, but they should be questions that are broached when discussing these and future incidents. In regards specifically to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I think reprinting with a different illustrator and making a few minor corrections, like Perkins suggests, would make it more acceptable. However, I’m not a member of that African-American culture, and recent conversations seem to imply that I must defer my opinion to those who are members. That doesn’t mean I can’t voice them here.

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Audacity Jones to the Rescue.jpgTitle: Audacity Jones to the Rescue
Author: Kirby Larson
ISBN: 9780545840569
Pages: 224 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.
Reviewed from ARC furnished by the publisher
Publication Date: January 26, 2016

“I am here to solicit a volunteer. For a mission.”
“Mission?” The word worked its way out of Miss Maisie’s gyrating mouth.
“Mission?” Seventeen girlish voices echoed their headmistress.
“I may not say more.” The Commodore held up his hand. “It is a matter of utmost secrecy. And”–he leaned in toward Miss Maisie’s ear–“discretion.” (15)

Audacity Jones has always wanted an adventure, and now she has one, leaving Ohio and the School for Wayward Girls where she has lived as the only true orphan most of her life to follow Commodore Crutchfield all the way to Washington D.C. for a secret mission. Asking questions about her role doesn’t get her any answers, and both the Commodore and his driver Cypher are acting very suspicious. When the mission finally begins, things don’t go as planned as Audacity realizes she might need to stop the Commodore instead of helping him, before his plot involving the President succeeds. With only a newsboy, his grandfather, and a friendly cat to call on for help, Audacity might have more adventure then she desired.

The author clarifies in an author’s note the liberties she took with details and timelines when crafting this story, which is always appreciated since we all can’t be knowledgeable about every aspect of history. With age appropriateness she broaches several other discussion worthy topics, including the impact of transitioning from horse and buggy to automobiles had on other industries and the legalities of if a kidnapping truly happens if there is no ransom demand. Audacity is rather precocious because of her literary love, getting intentionally sent to what is called the “Punishment Room” but is really the Library (called such because the proprietor of the school hates to read) in order to escape into the worlds. She is also surprisingly mature for her age, debating with herself early in the book what subject she should focus her reading on based on a variety of school subjects. Although she is naive due to her limited lifestyle, Audacity is not stupid and when given the clues quickly figures things out and reacts accordingly. A dedicated friend who doesn’t ever misstep, quite frankly she’s slightly unbelievable as the plucky orphan heroine.

The other characters were one-dimensional to me, especially the other girls in the school, some of which don’t even make an appearance. The ones who do are almost indistinguishable from each other, although they get identifying traits (the triplets, or the one who came from the circus family, or the bratty bully, etc.). The Commodore and his accomplices are given motivation by the end of the book, but even these two seem stock in their portrayal. I’m not sure if it’s because Larson was trying so hard to keep the plans a secret or simply because she was so focused on developing Audacity. A very quick read, but I don’t think this one will come to mind unless pressed for historical fiction specifically. We’ll see how long it lasts in my memory banks, as it may surprise me.

The Doldrums

Doldrums.jpgTitle: The Doldrums
Author/Illustrator: Nicholas Gannon
ISBN: 9780062320940
Pages: 340 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“We have to go to Antarctica,” said Archer.
Oliver laughed, but Archer wasn’t joking.
“You’re serious?” said Oliver.
“Yes,” said Archer.
“But that’s impossible.”
“It will be difficult.” Archer corrected him. “But not impossible.”
Oliver shook his head. “There are at least—at least three big problems with that. And the first is that even if you were successful—even if you somehow made it to Antarctica, you’d still probably die down there.”
Archer leaned back on the roof and asked, “What else?”
Oliver blinked a few times. “That’s not a big enough problem for you?” he said, then sighed and continued. “The second is that if you’re not successful, if you get caught, you’ll be slapped off to Raven Wood, which might be worse. The third is that you have no experience with anything of the sort. Antarctica is not an impulse destination.” (101-102)

While Archer’s only friend Oliver is right in that Antarctica is not an impulse destination, Archer has been obsessed with finding his grandparents ever since they disappeared on an iceberg in Antarctica two years ago. Ever since, Archer’s mother has confined him to the house, which is filled with oddities left over from his grandparent’s adventures. When new girl Adelaide moves from France into the house behind Archer’s and rumors spread that she lost her leg when it was eaten by a crocodile on a failed safari trip, Archer thinks he’s at least found a solution to problem number three. Adelaide is willing to assist, and Oliver gets dragged into a scheme to stow away on a boat heading for Antarctica. Archer thinks it is a great plan, Adelaide is excited to go on an adventure wherever it leads, and Oliver doesn’t think it will work, but no one expects the plan to play out like it does.

Archer’s plan is a Hail Mary effort on his part to go somewhere and do something, anything. He’s so envious of his grandparents’ ability to travel the world that his mother’s efforts to confine him and keep him safe make him all the more anxious to get out, get away, and get going. Archer’s father is slightly more realistic than his wife, at one point dryly commenting that there had been no word of iceberg sightings in the area when Archer is denied his request of visiting the nearby park. But unfortunately for Archer, it’s his mother who has the final say in all matters. And also unfortunately for Archer, the plan is laughably simplistic, realistically portrayed for someone who has no experience in exploring, much less mounting a rescue mission.

Like Archer, Adelaide is also looking for an adventures. She dislikes her new school, her teacher, and her new life, especially after the accident that took her leg. Mrs. Murkley, a teacher at the children’s school, reminds me of Matilda’s teacher, and Adelaide assumes the role of Matilda in her first introduction to the teacher. Adelaide sees the unbelievable animosity that Mrs. Murkley has towards everyone she meets and wants to stop it at all costs. Her quick comebacks against Mrs. Murkley’s tirades are a fine bit of barbed dialogue and just one way that her disability doesn’t slow her down.

Oliver is the most pragmatic of the trio, adding a sense of levity against the other two’s optimistic expectations. He reminded me a little of Ron from the last Harry Potter, where they are both questioning the improvised plan, in this case climbing onto a boat with the bare minimum of supplies and figuring it out when they get there. He at one point even tells his friends that he doesn’t want to go and that “I was in this only for the friendship. […] I’ve only had far-death experiences and I’d prefer to keep it that way.” (227) But by the end, it’s Oliver who has the biggest role in the outcome of the plan, and I like the turn of events even if you don’t get all the answers you want because not everything works out the way the children hoped. The pictures are nice but unnecessary for the story. This would satisfy armchair adventurers like Oliver, but readers like Archer and Adelaide who are expecting more Antarctica adventure may be disappointed, as it’s mostly talk and the action that does take place is nowhere near Antarctica.

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun.jpgTitle: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Narrator: Katharine McEwan
ISBN: 9780307989925 (audiobook)
Pages: 366 pages
Discs/CDs: 12.5 hours, 10 CDs
Publisher/Date: Books on Tape, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2015. (Penguin Random House, LLC, c2015.)

I closed my eyes and tried to scream, but only released a puff of air. I felt Paddy’s mouth again and knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return. The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels, then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion. […]
The doctor gave me laudanum, and then stitched me up with a hooked needle and thick black thread. […]
“He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.”
I felt the tug of the needle, a pushing and pulling, as if just that part of my body were caught in a small current. His words were another kind of current. “What am I meant for then?”
“How wonderful that question is, Beru.” He smiled mysteriously. “And as you did not die on this day, you have more time in which to answer it.” (39-41)

Ironically enough, she did spend the rest of her life trying to find her place in the world. A fictionalized account of a real woman I have never heard of, author Paula McLain elaborates on the details of Beryl Markham. Beryl is a modern woman living in the turn of the century, in an English colony in Africa. Her father moves the family to a farm, even though he’s not a farmer. Her mother leaves with her brother Dickie after only two years, and Beryl is left with her father. She thrives in the bush with a native Kipsigis tribe and a particular young boy Kibi who becomes a life-long companion. But as she grows, she realizes that her upbringing was anything but conventional, and she balks at becoming a cultured woman with nothing to do except tend the hearth and home. From horse training to eventually learning how to fly, Beryl charts her own course, looking all the while for a man whom she can trust with her heart and high hopes.

Provided with engaging story-telling, which sounds quite frequently like you are gathered around a campfire in the safari leaning in to hear the speaker’s words, Katharine McEwan’s narration complements McLain’s descriptive prose. It drops to a whisper when she’s sneaking outside as a child after dark, and has a sense of urgency when faced with dangers and decisions. Beryl’s dialogue is higher pitched and more attitudinal when she is younger, separating it from her older experiences and the “looking back” narration that the rest of the book takes. While I have no idea how accurately the foreign words are pronounced or the people are portrayed, having never visited the country much less the continent, her pronunciations are beautiful. Distinctions between the African residents and those from the English areas are clear. With a novel that spans decades and two continents, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

Readers should read the author’s note at the end, which is where McEwan provides insight on the inspiration for her novel. Drawing information from Beryl’s autobiography West with the Night, McEwan elaborates on this unknown aviator’s accomplishments. First soloing in 1931, she was one of the first women to receive a pilot’s license. She pioneered the practice of scouting ahead for animal herds for safari groups. In 1936, she flew across the Atlantic and made headlines in the United States, but garnered barely a mention in the English papers. Earnest Hemingway recognized her writing skills, which was ultimately what resulted in a reprint of the manuscript 50 years later when Beryl was 80 years old. It’s a book that other readers intrigued by this fictional account may want to search out for the original inspiration.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.jpgTitle: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781582344164
Pages: 782 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Publishing, c2004.

“I have studied histories and biographies of the Aureates to discover how they began,” said Strange, “but it seems that in those days, as soon as any one found out he had some aptitude for magic, he immediately set off for the house of some other, older, more experienced magician and offered himself as a pupil.”
“Then you should apply to Mr. Norrell for assistance!” cried Mr. Honeyfoot, “Indeed you should. Oh! Yes, I know,” seeing that Mr. Segundus was about to make some objection, “Norrell is a little reserved, but what is that? Mr. Strange will know how to overcome his timidity I am sure. For all his faults of temper, Norrell is no fool and must see the very great advantages of having such an assistant!” (222)

Reclusive Mr. Norrell is intent on being the only magician in England, buying up every book on the subject, refusing to take students, even causing the society of magicians to be disbanded in a bet intended to dissuade any potential rivals. But after a more elaborate display of magic, Mr. Norrell finds himself moving to London and years later taking a self-taught pupil named Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell rationalizes that if he teaches Mr. Strange, his ideas will be the ones to be spread and there will be no dissenting opinions on the matter. If only it were that easy. As Mr. Strange’s involvement in military matters takes him farther and farther from Mr. Norrell’s influences, he becomes bolder in his practices and disagreements with Mr. Norrell. A feud is afoot, possibly encouraged by forces outside of either magician’s control, one that will impact the lives of others both living and dead.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, this hefty novel is unlike anything I have ever read. Spanning a decade in the lives of the two magicians, the episodic prose is dense, scientific, and old-fashioned in tone and spelling. This is the only novel in recent memory that I have read to include footnotes, especially footnotes that are sometimes so complete they require several pages to conclude. Understandably some parts are more entertaining than others, with huge sections requiring concentration in order to slog through detailed accounts of magical preparation, study, and history. It’s unquestionably one of the most exhaustive backstories of fantastical creation, and the magic invoked by the two main characters is almost incomparable, following the rules outlined in the world building. Some readers may appreciate the thoroughness of the details while others will want to (and most likely will) skip ahead and find the more narrative portions, where the plot progresses more rapidly. An ambitious debut novel certainly, which the back jacket reveals took almost a decade to write, but one that readers need to be in the mood to start and commit to reading, otherwise they may find themselves resenting their efforts to complete the endeavor.

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“Cancel???”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

Finding Someplace

Finding Someplace.jpgTitle: Finding Someplace
Author: Denise Lewis Patrick
ISBN: 9780805047165
Pages: 214 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2015.

”We’re trapped up here!” she shouted. […]
Reesie held her breath as first his feet disappeared, then his knees. Just as his face vanished, they heard loud splashing. His head popped up again. When he crawled off the ladder, he was wet from the waist down. Reesie saw his eyes and knew how scared he was. Her heart thumped.
“We gotta get on the roof,” he said, reaching for the crowbar. “Miss M, I’m sorry but we have to bust it up.”
”What?” both girls yelled at once.
“Calm it down, a’ight? Yeah, the roof. How else are we gonna get out of here?” (88-89)

Reesie (short for Theresa) Boone is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday party. Everyone else is looking at the upcoming storm, which the news forecasts is going to be the big one. Some neighbors and extended family members are evacuating, but Reesie’s father is on the police force and intent on staying at his post. When her mother gets stuck working at the hospital when the storm hits, Reesie must fend for herself during the storm. But after the storm hits and the water recedes, life does not return to normal, and Reesie wonders if it ever will.

Ressie is a realistic character who grows and changes as a result of the events and decisions she is forced to face. In the beginning she focuses on her birthday and party, and by the end she is thinking more about her family and world as a whole. She is bright, intelligent, and has a good head on her shoulders even while her actions are in line with what a teenager would do in those situations. Her family is equally realistically portrayed, with a variety of opinions expressed regarding responsibility to their community and their family, and what action should be taken. It was such a juxtaposition when her brother, who is away at college, calls before the storm to encourage her to evacuate, and then mentions in passing he has a date that evening. It reinforces the idea that life continues elsewhere in the world when a disaster hits, even as people impacted by the storm are hard-pressed to think of anything else and have priorities that are incomparable to anyone who didn’t experience them first hand.

It’s refreshing to see not just the time before and during the storm, but the story follows the family for months as they deal with the fallout and aftermath. Arguments arise, relationships change, and Ressie is faced with an unclear future, tensions at home and school, and nightmares. Readers are privy to all the uncertainties, rather than the glamorized survival instincts that a few other books focus on during their narrative. As we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the storm just months ago, it’s important to remember that even though the storm has passed, the work is just beginning and even 10 years later continues.

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