Tag Archives: historical fiction

Here by Richard McGuire

hereHere by Richard McGuire

I really love the premise: taking one fixed spot on earth, examining the many years of lives (from prehistoric to contemporary) and living by visually presenting the slices in time: one might see a Native American couple making love and a modern American, white family squabbling on the same or adjacent or consecutive pages, all “cut up” and scrambled, seemingly not following rhyme or reason.  But, of course, there are certain patterns and events clustered by the nature of the happening (holiday celebrations, fighting, loss, new births, etc.)  However, aside from admiring the beautiful and pristine, almost too clinical, artwork and having some moments of revelation (finding out on what ground the current house was built, for example,) I was left not all that impressed or emotionally affected which I definitely was hoping for!


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X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon

xX: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon

So many of my esteemed colleagues have reviewed this book extremely favorably and some of them told me exactly why they love this book.  They cite the energy in the narrative, the honesty in the young man’s anger, and the eventual growth and redemption of this lost soul.

So I feel like walking on thin ice to say that I didn’t find the novel or the protagonist quite compelling all the way through.  I found the beginning of the narrative strong and powerful.  I was moved by Red’s emotional ties to his mother and siblings; I was convinced that he would find justification of he must steal.  His slow realization of his “place” in the world saddened me.  The refrain of “Just a n****r” is both chilling and makes my blood boil!  And one cannot easily forget his witnessing a lynched body and the connection to the song “Strange Fruit.”

But then… we have 200 pages more of Malcolm engaged in various illegal activities, and continuously excusing himself because of his sorrowful past, family situation, societal reality, etc. I understand that all of these are based on real events, family stories, and Malcolm’s own words. I can only speak for myself as a reader how after a while it felt more tedious than compelling. The pacing went from tight to sloppy.  I got quite impatient and did not feel empathy or sympathy toward him.  Perhaps that’s not the intent of the author but it was difficult for me to want to follow his next missteps since I stopped caring.

The final payoff of X’s enlightenment comes very late and lasts very briefly within the confine of this novel. The book ends before his important life’s work begins.  For many who already know quite a bit about Malcolm X, his personal narrative, his rage, and his complex relationship with the Nation of Islam, the ending is but a beginning — we know what he would become.  And the book includes extensive after matter to detail Malcolm X’s achievements.  I just wonder what impression this “novel” of Malcolm X leaves a younger reader.

I also wonder how the pacing feels and my emotional engagement might have been different if the narrative voice had been a more universal third person, so that I could understand his internal struggle and also observe his external charms and charisma (and not just being told by the protagonist that “people seem to be drawn to me” or “girls like me.”)

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West of the Moon

westofthemoon by Margi Preus

One of my favorite folk tales is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and many children’s books have been inspired by this tale, such as East by Edith Pattou, a beautiful fantasy reimagining. I enjoyed reading this book by Preus, but due to my own preferences for “real” magic and fantasy, I found myself unsatisfied by the dreams/magical realism/faux fantasy elements in what is really a tale of immigration. That said, I appreciated greatly Preus’ ability to give deep and complex emotions to Astri and her deft hand at portraying vivid landscapes and adventures.

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A Matter of Souls


Author: Denise Patrick Lewis

Genre(s): Short Stories, Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction

Basic Content Information: Eight short stories, African American experiences from various periods (voting, slavery, owning a business, current conflicts, etc.)  Some are about families and others are romances — showing the struggles and triumphs (and failures) without reservation.

Edition: Netgalley

Pub Date: April 1, 2014

Publisher: Carolrhoda/Lerner

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media.  The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Rose Under Fire

roseunderfireby Elizabeth Wein

I have only read three books by Elizabeth Wein.  Years ago, The Winter Prince, last year, Code Name Verity, and now Rose Under Fire.  But, I now know, unwaveringly, that this is an author who can steal people’s hearts and cleanse their souls with her storytelling wizardry.

Elizabeth Wein, my friends, has a creative mind that goes forever deepr and her stories always take you to unexpected but exciting places — no matter their subject matters.  Her mind is so incredibly nimble that she can organize very complex threads into easily followed paths through intricate mazes she has devised for her readers. And, oh, the hearts and souls of her characters and the epic scale of their sufferings and triumphs! They linger on and sustain you like the LIFT under the wing of an airplane and a soaring kite! Read this book NOW and tell everyone else to read it.

I know that young teen readers will take to Rose’s story more readily than they with Verity and can’t wait to recommend this to them all!


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Boxers / Saints (Boxset)

boxersandsaintsby Gene Luen Yang

As I said in my notes earlier, my reactions to this two-book graphic novel set are complex and still unresolved even after several days’ reflection.  Partly because that I found so much of it outstanding, so I did not want to be nitpicking about certain details and I don’t want to color anyone’s reaction to this historical fiction based on my largely emotional reactions as a Chinese American reader who wants everyone to know THE WHOLE STORY!!  I also don’t want anyone to think that I KNOW the WHOLE STORY.  In fact, I had to do some research as I read the book since my textbook history knowledge of this rebellion was also mixed with folklore and stories I saw on tv when I was little.

I am quite aware that Yang did not set out to write a historical treatment of the entire movement, but to personalize individual experiences so that he, and the readers, can explore the impacts of these events.  He couldn’t have been more successful in reaching his goal.  I greatly appreciate how there are never easy answers in Gene Luen Yang’s stories — the readers are left to wonder whether to be angry or sympathetic toward the characters; to admire or abhor what they do; and to be enlightened or perplexed by their reasons for their actions.

I’m glad that Yang included a list of the books he used to create this narrative since the origin of the Boxers and their practices are much debated topics amongst Chinese historians.  The references to the boxers’ being spiritually possessed by powerful deities based on folk beliefs are in agreement with most historians’ findings and there was a real leader of the movement named Red Lantern Chu.  I wish, however, that some sources translated from Chinese scholars were consulted and that the main sources have more balanced views from both sides.

I wish that I could have been convinced of Bao’s ignorance of Qin Shi Huang who is one of the most famous personalities in Chinese history — even if he might not have featured greatly in the opera — but was glad that the First Emperor is portrayed with a complexity of his own.

I wish that I had not cringed so much by Yang’s referencing/highlighting the more exotic but less significant aspect of the rebellion: how some boxers believed that foreign forces’ success was due to their utilizing the “yin power” (usually refers to the female spiritual power) which is evil and undesirable (drinking menstrual blood, flags woven from women’s pubic hair, etc.)  Even if these were documented facts (as Diana Preston claims in her The Boxer Rebellion,) I simply couldn’t help feeling ashamed and hoping fervently that young readers won’t mistake such “foreign” notions as typical of my fellow countrymen in the 21st century. (Does the inclusion of such claims enhance the storytelling and the power of this book?  I am too shaken by it emotionally to see it… perhaps someone else could convince me otherwise!?)

I wish that the slogan on the war banner had been written out in traditional Chinese characters because the events happened way before the simplification of the characters.

The above are all pretty much about Boxers — and I didn’t really get a chance to talk about Saints — which, for some odd reason, I found thoroughly convincing and more intense, although it is only half the length of Boxers.  I found the timeline crisscrossing of the two books very effective and the two pages (282 in Boxers and 158 in Saints) depicting compassionate deities (Guan Yin and Christ) with the same visual design absolutely breathtaking.

These two books can generate so much discussion and are so thought provoking that I have to tag them Highly Recommended even if I had some personal reservations…


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All the Truth That’s In Me

allthetruthby Julie Berry

I couldn’t put the book down, especially toward the end — really wanting to know how everything played out. I don’t want to spoil it for other readers so won’t say how the plot/romance/mystery/fate were handled by the author — suffice it to say that I was quite impressed.

The most impressive aspect of the book, to me, is the author’s ability to maintain the inner voice, authentic and powerful, of Judith.  Every thought and emotion felt raw and genuine.  Did I sometimes wish that she had thought or acted differently because I wished all the best for her at the moment? Definitely.  But did I want her to act completely rationally — definitely not — because then we would not have had this very readable and more importantly, for a school librarian, “sellable” book to my middle school readers.   I already know that those who enjoyed Scarlet Letter and The Crucible would find this a much easier but nonetheless as gripping addition on their reading list!

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Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby

I always wanted to read this book — and more than one teachers at school urged me to read it. Since I can’t really read it this year – I downloaded the audio book read skillfully by Marc Thompson. Thompson definitely did the story justice with expertly designed and executed voices for the many characters in the tale. The story itself satisfied: a wonderful blend of life-or-death/survival scenarios and the warmth of friendship and inter-generational support. Although there are some really despicable adults in the tale, there are also so many caring ones that eventually made the three children’s lives better.

I anticipated a lot more “magic” due to the title and the cover design and felt slightly disappointed when I realized that it’s mostly a tale of young immigrants and their struggles finding their places in the world and supporting their families. All three protagonists’ stories are definitely compelling. Kirby then introduced some magical elements in the form of the golems and the golem’s “heart” for the clockwork man. Being a picky and sometimes narrow-minded genre-purist, I found this mixture a bit disconcerting — although it was quite satisfying to read those fantasy bits. I don’t think any child reader will be bothered by this mixture of historical/realistic story telling and elements of magic.

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Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

Who would have thought? Richard Peck: the 21st Century Austen for the 8 to 10 set? But he IS! This little gem of a book has all the good stuff:

A cast of talking mice whose actions and living conditions are completely believable and are in tune with children’s fantasy play; a twisting, surprising, and humorous upstairs/downstairs comedy that involves Royalty and seafaring; the perennial favorite plot progression allowing the lower class main characters go up the social ladder due to good luck and hard work; and clean grown-up romances.

Peck’s deft hand also created a great protagonist in the no-nonsense Helena and made her think and speak properly like one would have from the late 1800s. I was completely charmed!

(And the full-page incidental illustrations add to its charm even more!)

Quick – go and get a copy and treat yourself and your young readers!!

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Deadend in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: FSG
Page Number: 341
Pub Date: 9/13/2011 (from Galley)

I really enjoyed the many bits and pieces of humor that is a somewhat tamed version found in Gantos’ earlier works.  The characters are more eccentric than completely out of control (with perhaps a couple of exceptions.)  Most of them are quite endearing and are what hold the story together and pull me through — especially Ms Volker and Jack the first person narrator.  Jack’s narrative voice is so lighthearted that the deaths and destruction simply don’t seem that dire.  The mystery aspect only gains momentum toward the very end of the tale and the resolution is fairly uneventful, in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book.
Jack Gantos puts himself into the story as the 14-year-old boy narrator.  It is set against the Cold War era, in a little town called Norvelt (established by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression.)  The old folks are dying (somehow mysteriously and rapidly,) the young people are leaving town, the children are bored.  The narrative voice is a sweet one – an earnest and nose-bleeding (there is A LOT of it in the book) boy whose life is both trapped by reality and freed by innovative imagining and by helping with an old woman who’s the town paper’s obituary writer and an inventive historian herself.

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Wonderstruckby Brian Selznick

I adored The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian’s Caldecott winning, form-innovating, ground-breaking novel told in text and pictures. I have been waiting for Wonderstruck with both happy anticipation and a slight dosage of anxiety: what IF it is not as good? What if it feels like the author has set a trap for himself and cannot top his last achievement? Would I be as taken by this story as the mysterious tale of Hugo? Would I feel that it is merely a repeat of what he already did once and since it is such a singular and unique format, it might not bear the weight of a second attempt…

I am so pleased that the book is not at all these What Ifs… Instead, it tells a fascinating and moving story succinctly and attractively with text and pictures. And instead of a novelty, it might start a different kind of storytelling form for others who are similarly minded and have suitable tales to present in this way.

I did so want to SEE Ben’s story, though. I was craving pictures for his part of the tale! That, to me, is a strength of the book: I can see how young people can be compelled to “illustrate” parts of the text. Others might be inspired to curate a personal “Cabinet of Wonder” (a personal museum.) And all of us will learn to appreciate all the connections that we make throughout our lives with others.

The release date of the book is September 13th, a day after the start of the year at my school, and I can’t wait to have it on display to herald a year of reading with a wonderful new book for all my students! Let’s shout HURRAY together for another tour de force by Brian Selznick!

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One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

The quiet power of the book builds and builds and builds until at the end, my heart is squeezed and my eyes are wet. I feel for these characters as if they are my closest friends and Delphine’s resilience and vulnerability and her final “triumph” made me want to hug her and tell her how incredibly proud she should feel about herself and also to “be eleven” and to perhaps now relax just a smidgen and to be loved and cuddled once in a while.

My huge appreciation also goes to the author and editor.  What a hard thing to achieve portraying a young woman whose sole focus is on herself and her craft as a poet, who comes off as uncaring and abusive, but the entire time, this reader senses an admirable dedication and stoicism and does not view her as a monster mama. The final explanation of her hard life comes at the right time and gives just the right amount of information to let me know that she is just coming out of her own protective shell and there will be some softening and relationship building in the future. (But, no false hope of her suddenly and irrationally becoming a pampering, snuggling kind of mother.)

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When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle Blows When the Whistle Blows by Fran Slayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Judging by the somewhat muted and sleepy cover, I thought I was going to read a “pensive, quiet” coming-of-age, historical fiction. It turned out that the story is NOT all that quiet: every episode falls on an All Hallow’s Eve from early-40s to late-40s. You get the thrill of the secret Society’s weird, slightly off and scary way to honor a recently deceased member; you get the Halloween prank gone awry; you get the blood-pumping, almost heart-stopping football game actions; and you get the death and danger working on the steam-engined trains. But then, you also get so much HEART between the main character and his father. It is an entirely “male” book, glaringly so — you hardly see a female character and they hardly have even a speaking turn. It’s all… very, macho, but oddly also very tender. And so much humor and humorous wisdom. I am not ashamed to say that I cried hard at the end of the tale… mourning the passing of a man and of an era so lovingly and convincingly portrayed by the author.

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Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Al Capone Shines My ShoesAuthor: Gennifer Choldenko
Reading Level: 4th to 7th Grade

Publisher: Dial
Edition: Hardcover, 2009 (galley)

I am completely delighted by this book. I really enjoyed the first one and this one holds up, well and strong, and I think it works even better. Maybe because I thought, “What can she come up with that can top the first book?” before starting to read this one.. and Choldenko absolutely pulled it off. There is humor and tension all throughout the book, not to mention some hard-to-sort-out moral dilemmas. Over the years, my students have loved the first book — from really strong readers to really reluctant ones – and both girls and boys do, too. I can see this one achieves the same effects: not a book that gets everyone super-excited, but one that gets talked up by young peers and gets passed around without making too big a wave. Its “beloved-ness” will last quite a while, I believe.

I also really appreciate the author’s notes. This will make for a good historical-fiction writing assignment starter book. (I can see a whole class reading the book, discussing the facts and fiction aspects of the story, and doing some sort of historical research and writing a short story. <– with my librarian's hat on, of course.)

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Here Lies Arthur

Here Lies Arthur

Author: Philip Reeve
Reading Level: 5th to 8th grade

Pages: 352
Publisher: Scholastic
Edition:Hardcover, 2008

This is a book for the Arthurian Legends enthusiasts, and I happen to be one. Having read many re-imagined Arthurian tales, I was completely delighted by this fresh take on the “true story” behind the legends. Reeve’s conceit is a fabulous one: it is all about the power of stories, storytelling, and story tellers. The title alone is worthy of much examination, with its double meanings of “lying dead” and “telling lies.”

At the beginning, I was perplexed by the switches between past tense and present tenses. Slowly, I realized the why and when of such passages. This is a meta-fiction in a slightly different form and it really works for me.

I imagine that, though, this might not be as much fun for some others. If you don’t find piecing together pieces of a complex story puzzle (who’s who and which event eventually “became” which well known tale,) then, you won’t be having as much fun as I do. If you are not usually a sucker for stories that “discuss” the underlying philosophical elements of story-telling or humans’ needs for such elaboration, then, you probably won’t like this book as much as I do. And if you are not totally loving the meta-fiction genre, then you definitely will not enjoy it as I do. Also, if you only want a story with magic and valor, (that’s what I expected, before reading the actual text) then, you definitely will be disappointed. This is one Arthurian tale, featuring heavily the prototype character or Merlin (Myrddin) that definitely has NO magic whatsoever!

What’s even more impressive with this tale is Reeve’s ability to actually tell a cohesive story, with a highly believable and admirable main character, set against a convincing backdrop. (Although one might say that the language of the telling is fairly contemporary 21st century, it is to be excused because the teller could be anyone in any time – everything is apparently made-up anyway.)

To say that I am highly impressed is to put it lightly. I hope many others (especially middle school readers) will find this an intelligent and satisfying read!

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Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn BridgeAuthor: Karen Hesse
Reading Level: 6th and up

Pages: 240
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

I did not know that this would have been so good. I did not expect that I would have loved it so much and that I could not stop reading it and pretty much finishing it in one “fell swoop.” It seems Dickensian, but that might not be a fair comparison because it is actually quite sparing and except for the intentional repetitive phrasing in those dream-like segments about the children “under the bridge” (and so effective, those poetic passages.. *sigh*), there is not that much repeated sentiment. I was drawn in, felt like I lived side by side with Joseph, and often was surprised at the richness and the vividness of the world I “saw” through the text. It doesn’t hurt that I (and my family) adore the sense of place and history and the bustling life of Coney Island.

I wasn’t sure at first about the vignettes of the children under the bridge but found them so mesmerizing and expanding of the experience of the turn-of-century Brooklyn – not only those who “made it” but of those who struggled and failed… I imagine that I’ll remember Joseph’s story for a long time, but I will never forget the Radiant Boy’s, or Mattie’s, or Otto’s, or the story of May who almost died from eating the poisonous meal, twice.

It’s an intricate tapestry and an “important tale” that is beautifully woven in the hand of artisan.

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The Diamond of Drury Lane

The Diamond of Drury Lane (A Cat Royal Adventure)Author: Julia Golding
Reading Level: 4th to 7th grade

Pages: 424
Publisher: Roaring Brook
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

This is a winner! (Literally, too, since it did win the Smarties prize.)

Cat (Catherine) Royal is a charming, vivid, endearing, and plucky heroine. Readers really care about what happens to her and her friends. The host of friends are also drawn with details and depth. One can practically hear them speak and see them act and react to Cat’s adventures. The clever device of having Cat being immersed and specially educated in the backstage of a theater gives credit to Cat’s deft hand at recounting events and using words above her station in life. For example, on p. 89: (I cast around for some suitably Shakespearean language to impress them, not having in truth a clue what I was talking about) “the wickedness of treason, the sting of revenge, and the noble disinterestedness of love, all set behind the scenes.”

The fast pace, the string of new obstacles, the many friendships between the characters, the gradual and satisfying unraveling of the truth about the Diamond, the breezy and energetic prose — all contribute to make a completely enjoyable reading experience. I especially appreciate how Cat got into bigger and bigger trouble and deeper and deeper danger as the story moves along so that toward the end of the tale, you are really anxious to see how she gets out of this last huge scrape.

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Keeping Score

Author: Linda Sue Park
Reading Level: 5th to 7th grade

Pages: 202
Publisher: Clarion
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

Keeping Score Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
It does not take much for me to cry over characters and events in books. However, often I feel manipulated and eventually resentful because the author did something to “make” me cry for the wrong reasons. Not this one. My tears (they came toward the end in several places) were well worth the shedding. I got to really admire Maggie and completely believed in all her feelings: the indignation of how her prayers and sacrifices did not work out the way she had hoped for; the anger fits; the holding on to the hope; her compassion… Thank goodness that she is not perfect! But, so admirable and a character that readers might feel being able to emulate. I enjoyed reading the whole art of baseball score keeping and how Park weaves the baseball stories with the Korean War stories and the personal growth stories all into one neatly wrapped package. The fervor for the game is definitely palpable and contagious.

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Hitler’s Canary

Author: Sandi Toksvis
Reading Level: 5th – 7th

Pages: 191
Publisher: Roaring Brook (originally Randomhouse, UK, 2005)
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

What a feat… a tender, courageous, and often wryly humorous tale about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. (Even if it’s just a small corner of the world the Nazi’s had a hold on.) Because of the courage and ingenuity and the strong belief in human equality of the Danish people, most of the 8000+ Jews were sheltered, transported to safety, and survived. This story from pre-and-early-teen Basme’s (Teddy Bear) view point should be introduced to as many young readers as we can! It does not have extremely gruesome depictions that will upset young readers who have yet to know this part of our history, but it has plenty of nerve-wrecking moments and conflicts to hold one’s attention and interest. There is great sacrifice and a few upsetting events (at least two quite irrevocable sufferings) toward the end of the tale, justifiably depicted. I cried, laughed, and gasped with terror, during the great theatrical scene that Mama staged to save their neighbors. Knowing that the story is inspired by family histories and relatives of the author I bought the story even more.

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The Last Girls of Pompeii

Author: Kathryn Lasky
Reading Level: 5th-7th

Publisher: Viking
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The imagined story of a group of nobles, slaves, and gladiators during the days leading to the eruption of Vesuvius is a great topic. I enjoyed the historical details but at the same time found that at certain points, the “history lesson” overshadows the momentum of the plotline and thus slows down the pacing of an otherwise very exciting tale.

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