Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Review of Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Prairie Lotus

by Linda Sue Park

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2020. 261 pages.
Review written March 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Prairie Lotus is a beautiful story of a half-Chinese girl, Hanna Edmunds, settling with her Papa in a town in Dakota Territory in 1880. They plan to open a dress goods shop. Hanna had learned to sew from her Mama, who died back in California, and dreams of also sewing dresses for the ladies of the town.

But Hanna encounters lots of prejudice for being a “Chinaman.” The people of the town don’t want to send their children to school with her, and even people who seem nice ask terribly ignorant questions. So besides trying to make friends in a new town, missing her Mama, and trying to make the shop a success, Hanna hopes that people will even allow her to live there.

Hanna has some encounters with some Indian women and children. She sees the settlers’ attitudes toward Indians with the perspective that these are people who look like she does, with black hair and dark eyes.

I couldn’t help but love Hanna, with her passion for making beautiful dresses, her willingness to think the best of people, and her determined spirit. Here’s a book that all children can picture themselves as being part of, experiencing a town on the frontier.

Prairie Lotus is written as both a tribute and an answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. The author notes in the back that she grew up loving those books.

Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing. The character of Ma was most problematic. Her values of propriety and obedience over everything else seemed to me both misplaced and stifling.

And Ma hated Native Americans. In several episodes throughout the series, she expresses that hatred. While I could not have articulated it at the time, I harbored a deeply personal sense of dismay over Ma’s attitude. Ultimately it meant that she would never have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like me. Someone with black hair and dark eyes and tan skin. Someone who wasn’t white.

I appreciated that she did a lot of research to make sure she gets the encounters with Native Americans right.

I also chose to include a few lines of Dakota dialogue. I felt strongly about including those words in an effort to counteract previous generations of innumerable children’s books that have never depicted or even acknowledged Native languages, and the stereotypes of Hollywood that reduced Native communication to grunts and pidgin.

She concludes the Author’s Note like this:

Prairie Lotus is a story I have been writing nearly all my life. It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings. My wish is that this book will provide food for thought for all who read it, especially the young readers in whose hands the future lies.

She has not only succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written a main character her readers will love. They will imagine themselves back in LaForge, wanting to be Hanna’s best friend. But children won’t feel cut off from that imagination by the way they look.

lspark.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2018. 296 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 31, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2019 Winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Historical Children’s Fiction

My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face. So far, the only part of that we’ve achieved is the hamburger part, but I was still holding out hope. And the hamburgers here are pretty good.

Mia’s parents were well-respected in China, but in America they’re having trouble keeping jobs. So when they get a job as motel managers – which comes with a place to stay, rent-free – they are excited. But the owner of the motel promises them one rate of pay – then changes the deal after they’re signed up. He makes them pay for any repairs needed out of their own pay, so what they take home becomes less and less. Since it takes all her parents’ time to clean the rooms, Mia ends up running the front desk.

Mia learns a lot at the front desk about how America works, especially from the regulars – the people who live in the motel long-term. But she also learns from her new best friend at school – Lupe, who is also a recent immigrant to America. Unfortunately, the son of the motel owner is also in her class. And he isn’t much nicer than his father.

When friends from China come by needing a place to stay, Mia’s parents are happy to put them up in an extra room – only Mr. Yao mustn’t find out.

When Mia sees injustices around her, she learns how to help – by writing. Her mother says she’ll never catch up with the native English speakers. Her mother was an engineer, so she wants Mia to focus on math, where she can help. But Mia dreams of helping her whole family with her writing.

Mia’s only ten, but she’s feisty and she’s friendly, and when she sees a problem, she doesn’t rest until she’s done something about it. Reading about Mia and her family was a delight.

kellyyang.com
arthuralevinebooks.com
scholastic.com

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Review of Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, pictures by Amy June Bates

Monday, March 9th, 2020

Gittel’s Journey

An Ellis Island Story

story by Lesléa Newman
pictures by Amy June Bates

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019. 44 pages.
Starred Review
2020 Sidney Taylor Picture Book Award Honor

Gittel’s Journey is the story of a young girl traveling by herself to America from Poland with her mother’s Sabbath candlesticks. The story is based on the true stories of the author’s grandmother and adopted aunt.

Gittel had set out with her mother, but her mother is turned away because of an eye infection. She tells Gittel to go on without her and gives her the address of her cousin. But when Gittel arrives in America after a long journey, the ink has worn off the paper because she has kept such tight hold of it.

Fortunately, Gittel finds kind helpers in America for a happy ending.

The story is simple, but catches the reader’s imagination with the idea of a young girl crossing an ocean alone. The beautiful water color illustrations and loving care taken in the book’s construction make this book a work of art with a classic feel.

amybates.com
abramsyoungreaders.com

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Review of Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. 370 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 27, 2020, from a library book

Where the Crawdads Sing came out in 2018, when I was busy reading for the Newbery committee and didn’t have any time for adult books. But the book is still tremendously popular and always on hold, so I decided to get on the list for it and see what all the fuss was about.

I was not disappointed. This is a book with a mystery and a dramatic courtroom scene. But it is mostly a poignant story of a girl who’s been abandoned over and over again, has had to figure out life on her own, but who lives a beautiful life understanding the natural world and all its wonders.

The Prologue of the book tells us about a dead body in a swamp in 1969. Then the main body of the book opens in 1952 when Kya is six years old and her mother walks away from their shack in the marsh and never comes back. One by one, her older sisters and brothers leave as well. She gets a few years with Pa before he starts drinking again and one day never returns. So Kya has to figure out how to survive in the marsh from ten years old.

She’s a resourceful little girl. And she knows the marsh like nobody else. She knows how to hide from people like truant officers – after trying exactly one day of school in the town. She figures out how to cook and how to get food and supplies. And she knows all the creatures and birds that share her home.

Meanwhile, interwoven with scenes of Kya growing up are stories of the investigation of the dead body in the swamp. The body was a popular young man in the town, a star football player when he was in high school. He fell from an old fire tower. But there are no footprints in the mud leading up to it, not even his own. Gossip starts to mention that he once spent time with the Marsh Girl.

This is also a story of the men Kya eventually meets. One is a beautiful love story – but like so many other people in her life, he lets her down. And then there’s the story of the young man she turned to out of loneliness.

All along the way there are beautiful descriptions of life – all sorts of life – in the marsh. There’s poetry about it and we come to understand Kya’s wild heart. It’s also a wonderful story of how she builds a beautiful life. Of course, that will all be threatened if she’s convicted of murder.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Prologue, giving a small taste of the nature writing woven throughout this book:

Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – against the roar of a thousand snow geese.

deliaowens.com
penguinrandomhouse.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Potter’s Boy, by Tony Mitton

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

The Potter’s Boy

by Tony Mitton

David Fickling Books, 2019. First published in the United Kingdom in 2017. 246 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 16, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Fiction

The Potter’s Boy surprised me by its loveliness and its wisdom. I read it quickly, trying to decide before the deadline which book to nominate for a Cybils Award, and ended up wishing I’d had time to slowly absorb its contents and pull out wise quotations from it.

There’s a dragon on the cover, but I’m not quite sure it’s a fantasy book. There is an episode with a dragon, but that part may well be a dream or vision. Most of the book is a roughly historical tale set in a country similar to ancient Japan.

Ryo, our hero, is the son of a potter who loves his work, and Ryo is apprenticed to him. But one day, brigands attack their village, and a traveler defeats and confounds the brigands. Ryo asks the traveler to teach him to fight like that. The traveler tells him to wait a year, until he is thirteen, and then to seek the Hermit on Cold Mountain.

The book tells the story of Ryo’s journey when he does, in fact, go to the Hermit on Cold Mountain to be trained. So it’s an educating-a-young-person story, but this one takes some surprising turns.

All along the way, Ryo is trained in mindfulness and even nonviolence (which seems surprising for a fighter). It isn’t identified as Buddhism until the author’s note in the back, though some Japanese terms are used in the teaching.

But it’s all so lovely. A compelling story of a young person’s journey and coming of age – but also full of wisdom.

Just a warning — there is a terrible tragedy in the second half of the book. How Ryo deals with that tragedy is where this becomes not a typical fantasy tale. But please don’t expect all sweetness and light.

There were plenty of wise quotations in this book, and here’s an example:

The important thing is to live and to love, and, if possible, where possible, to make something good from time to time. It may be something you can see and touch and hold on to, like a pot or a fine garment or a painting. Or it may be something more ephemeral, such as good food, which is made and gone in a short space of time. Or it may simply be the art the skill, the knack, of making people happy, or cheerful or at their ease.

It does not matter so much what it turns out to be, but I urge you, if you are reading this, whoever you are, to ask yourself, “What do I make or do that is good, that brings beauty, pleasure, or happiness into the world?” And if you can find no answer to that, seek inside yourself to find the seed, the grain, of something that might fulfill that purpose. We cannot all be great artists or musicians, scientists or storytellers. We cannot reckon to be the best at what we do. But we can, each one of us, look inside ourselves to find a leaning, a direction, that suggests to us how we might make something of worth, while we are here. Is this not true?

An uplifting story of finding one’s calling.

scholastic.com

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Review of White Bird, by R. J. Palacio

Monday, January 27th, 2020

White Bird

by R. J. Palacio
inked by Kevin Czap

Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. 220 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 in Children’s Fiction
2020 Sidney Taylor Book Award Winner

This beautiful graphic novel written and illustrated by the author of Wonder is framed as a story told by the grandmother of a boy who’s a bully in Wonder. But his grandmother tells him the story of how she was hidden in a barn during the Holocaust – and that story will touch anyone’s life.

The boy who helped her escape and whose family saved her life had been crippled by polio. So the other children mocked him, and Sara did not stand up for him against that bullying, even though she’d sat next to him for years because their last names both started with B.

The story of Sara’s escape, and then the constant fear of discovery, and the way Julien and his mother helped her keep her courage up – but at great risk – all makes gripping reading. The story is not true, but there is information at the back telling about how it is all based in fact.

In the present, Julien’s grandmother tells him this was the boy he and his father were named after – someone who showed great kindness when any kindness felt like a miracle. The image of a white bird found throughout the book and the lessons drawn about standing up to evil and showing kindness make this a story that will resonate.

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Review of Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhhà Lai

Monday, January 20th, 2020

Butterfly Yellow

by Thanhhà Lai

Harper, 2019. 284 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 2, 2020, from an advance reader copy picked up at ALA Annual Conference
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 in Teen Fiction

(I have to apologize. My web host doesn’t support the notations for the Vietnamese diacritics over ‘a’ and ‘e’. I carefully found the right symbol in Word, but it did not carry over when I copied it to my blog. I acknowledge that this is not the correct name for the main character without the diacritic symbol, nor is it the correct name for the country where she was born. It’s not even the correct last name of the author. I am sorry.)

Butterfly Yellow is set in summer 1981 in Texas, about a girl who has survived a harrowing journey from Viet Nam, including a traumatic journey on a boat where most of the other passengers, including her mother, died or were killed by pirates.

Now Hang is in Texas, staying with her uncle, who got to America before the war. But Hang is on a mission to find her brother, who was taken away from her six years ago, when he was five years old and she was twelve and tried to carry out a scheme.

In the final days of the war in April 1975, Hang thought she was so clever, devising a way to flee while her family strategized and worried. Every day newspapers printed stories about Americans panicking to save hundreds of orphans. There was even an official name, Operation Babylift. She assumed she and her brother would go first, then somehow her family would join them in America. But in line at the airport she was rejected, a twelve-year-old passing as eight. Linh was five, three to foreign eyes, just young enough to be accepted as an orphan. Hang saw little Linh thrashing as he was carried into a Pan Am.

By the time her brother was ripped from her, nobody cared to hear why she lied. With so many scrambling to flee before the victorious Communists marched in, one more screaming child was just that. An American volunteer with puffy, sweaty hands must have felt sorry for her. He pressed a card into her palm as he pushed her away from the ladder. Sun rays radiated through each strand of his mango-colored hair. She had to stop an impulse to extinguish the fiery puff of gold threads on his head. He was the last to board. Hang screamed until the Pan Am blended into the sky and left a long loose-curl cloud. For hours, until dusk enveloped her and mosquitoes chased her home, she focused skyward and pleaded for forgiveness. When she opened her palm, the card had disintegrated except for one clue: 405 Mesquite Street, Amarillo, Texas.

Hang’s mission, her one purpose now she is in America is to find her brother. That mission starts out on a bus, but when the bus’s motion, reminding her of the escape boat, makes her sick, the bus leaves without her. Her mission ends up entwining her fate with that of LeeRoy, a boy who is also eighteen and has left his home for the summer on a mission to ride in rodeos and be a cowboy.

When Hang does find her brother, he doesn’t remember her. And his American mother wants Hang nowhere near him. But Hang is going to find a way to stay as close as she can – and a lot of things happen to Hang, LeeRoy and Linh that eventful summer in Texas.

This book is beautifully written, from several different perspectives. One thing I love about it is how when Hang speaks in English, the phonetic spelling is given – but phonetic from the perspective of someone from Viet Nam, full of diacritic marks, and not using the same phonetics as an English-speaking person would use. The reader has to learn how to understand Hang and gradually figure out what she is trying to say. When she thinks or writes in Vietnamese, she is completely fluent, so the reader understands the difficulty of trying to communicate in a foreign language.

We gradually learn about the trauma Hang survived, both in Viet Nam and as she escaped from Viet Nam. It’s horrific, and explains why she covers herself up and hides even in the Texas summer and doesn’t even think of trying to look pretty.

This is a book of cross-cultural understanding, as well as a book of love and healing.

thanhhalai.com

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Review of Further Chronicles of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Further Chronicles of Avonlea

by L. M. Montgomery

Seal Books, 1987. First published in 1920. 199 pages.
Review written September 17, 2019, from my own copy.

I feel guilty reading this book, because I know full well that it was published against the author’s wishes and without her getting any of the profits. She, in fact, sued her publisher to desist publication, and won that case. It’s kind of too bad to go against her wishes after her death.

And yet… stories by L. M. Montgomery!

Now, I was enjoying them thoroughly, marveling in her quirky, humorous characters and the wide variety of situations – until I got to the last two.

What happened when this book was published was that L. M. Montgomery had already split with the publisher of Anne of Green Gables, L. C. Page. So that publisher pulled out stories she had submitted for possible publication in the first volume — Chronicles of Avonlea — but that they had decided not to use.

In her lawsuit, Maud Montgomery claimed that the book damaged her reputation, because she had used some of the plots here in other places.

Well, I disagreed about it damaging her reputation – until I got to the last two stories. The next-to-the-last story uses the same plot as one of the subplots used in Anne’s House of Dreams. There may be other stories repeated, but I couldn’t pinpoint where. I was enjoying them greatly.

But the last story – the last story is completely, horribly, blatantly racist toward Indians and “half-breeds.” Just horribly so. It’s assumed that they are inferior and shouldn’t dare to aspire to fall in love with someone with a “good pedigree.” And things are said about their “natures” – which are simply despicable. It’s even worse than the racism in Kilmeny of the Orchard.

Now, she was a product of her time, and everyone around her thought that way – but that story, “Tannis of the Flats” – is still horrible. And yes, reading it damages her reputation for me – though I doubt that’s the story she was thinking of.

I would have been better off if I’d bowed to the author’s wishes and refused to read this book.

But I was enjoying some gems before I got to that point! L. M. Montgomery got her start writing stories, and she mastered the form. So let me just give my readers fair warning – you might want to stop before you get to the end.

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Review of Lovely War, by Julie Berry

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Lovely War

by Julie Berry

read by Jayne Entwistle, Allan Corduner, Dion Graham, Fiona Hardingham, John Lee, Nathaniel Parker, and Steve West, with a historical note read by the author
original music by Benjamin Salisbury

Reviewed August 1, 2019, from a library audiobook
Listening Library, 2019. 12 hours, 57 minutes, on 11 compact discs.
Starred Review

This audiobook is an epic novel and an astonishingly wonderful production. As you can tell by all the distinguished readers (including a couple of my favorite narrators), they use different readers for different people telling the story.

This book is told by the gods. You see, in 1942 Paris, the god Hephaestus has caught his wife Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, cheating with his brother Aries, the god of war. As her defense, Aphrodite tells the gods that mortals know more about love than gods do – and she gives an example, telling the story of two mortal couples who fell in love during the Great War, Hazel and James (both British), and Colette (Belgian) and Aubrey (African American).

The couples came together because of War and because of Music – so Aries and Apollo help tell the story. But Death also comes into the story, so Hades has parts to tell as well.

The story is epic. Hazel meets James a week before he ships out to fight. She volunteers with the YMCA and goes to France, where she meets Colette. Colette has already suffered the loss of her entire family and the boy she loved at the hands of the Germans. But Hazel plays piano and Colette sings, and while playing in the YMCA relief hut, they meet Aubrey, the king of ragtime.

There’s an extended author’s note at the end, because she did a lot of research. When she spoke about how moved she was viewing the World War I memorials in Europe, I was instantly reminded of my own visit to the museum at Verdun and how it utterly shook me. But she went even more places than I did.

The officers in the story were people who actually lived and battles are portrayed that they actually fought. Aubrey encounters horrible racism overseas from Americans but not much at all from the French – matching the actual experiences of American soldiers in World War I.

The story itself is lovely and will wind itself into your heart. I also enjoyed the playful and unusual frame of a story being told by gods. I’m already going to say that I hope this audiobook wins this year’s Odyssey Award for the best children’s or young adult audiobook production. It gives an amazing listening experience.

julieberrybooks.com
booksontape.com

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Chronicles of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

Chronicles of Avonlea

by L. M. Montgomery

Grosset & Dunlap, 1970. Originally published in 1912. 306 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 6, 2019, from my own copy

In preparation for a trip to Prince Edward Island in September, I’m rereading all my L. M. Montgomery books in the order they were published. Chronicles of Avonlea is number five in this endeavor.

Maud Montgomery honed her craft by writing stories and getting them published in magazines. She did this for years before her first novel was published. This collection of stories gives wonderful examples of her brilliance. The only I quibble I have with them is that she was being pressured to write more about Anne of Green Gables – and mention of Anne Shirley is shoehorned into almost every single one of these stories. The only one where it’s organic and Anne is an important part of the plot is the first one, “The Hurrying of Ludovic.”

The most brilliant story of all in this collection is probably my favorite short story ever. I’ve done readings of this story when I was in college to entertain my friends and, yes, when I came to this story this time through, I was compelled to read the whole thing out loud.

That Most Delightful Story Ever is “The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham’s,” the story of a woman who hates men and her cat trapped in the home of a man who hates women and his dog. The woman, who is the narrator, does come off best – and both change their attitudes by the end. The process is all the fun and reading it in the narrator’s voice saying, “I am noted for that” makes it utterly delightful.

Honestly, in this read-through, I’m constantly being shocked when I realize these older characters are now younger than me! Angelina Peter MacPherson is forty-eight years old in this story. In fact, many of the main characters in these stories are deep into adulthood. I’m going to file this book in with Teen Fiction, but really these are family stories. It’s all innocent and G-rated, about life and love, but there’s a lot of focus on older folks coming to understand whom they truly love, whether in romance or the love of a child.

This is a delightful collection, written by a master storyteller at the height of her powers.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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