Posts tagged ‘historical fiction’

May 11, 2013

it’s not easy to get out of the Easy

outoftheeasyHere’s the first sentence.

My mother’s a prostitute.

Not how your average YA book begins. But keep reading. Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

Don’t you love that voice? That character? And don’t you want to read more? I did. Thus begins the story of Josie, a seventeen-year-old protagonist with one very strong desire: to leave behind everything she knows and get out of New Orleans. Or as the title says it, “Out of the Easy”.

I loved this book. It had everything I want: fast-moving plot, lots of action and drama, strong characters with strong desires, and great writing. Some of the great characters include Josie, the main character who cleans the brothel and works in a bookstore, her two guy friends (the bookish one and the cool one), her mother (a tragic and not very nice character), the colorful madam of the house who looks after Josie, and many, many others who come in and out and fill beautiful and dark roles.

Despite the setting, and the opening lines, this book is pretty PG-rated. We are talking some mild kisses and one almost-groping scene…lightyears away from Twilight, for example. I know there are some people who will say “what’s a prostitute doing in a YA book”? But those people probably haven’t read YA in about 50 years, and they likely don’t know many teens.

Most teens will relate to this character’s desire to get away from anything and everything they’ve always known. Of course, most teens do this in more of a figurative sense–with behavior (and a lot of “whatever”s). But the idea is the same, the pull to be in charge of their own life, to set out and make their mark. Another way to say it comes from David Copperfield, in a line oft-quoted in this book: “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Reading this book with your kid would be a great foray into those questions. You might not be able to directly ask your teen what they want to change in their lives (but if you are, awesome!). But you could start with a hypothetical. If they could get in that car with Josie and drive anywhere they wanted, where would they go? What would they want to do when they got there? And go back to that quote from David Copperfield. If they learn it as the quote from Out of the Easy, so be it. It’s something every teen should think about, and this book will make them do just that.

outoftheeasyTitle: Out of the Easy
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Age: 12 and up
Genre: Historical Fiction

November 16, 2012

A crazy summer, but a phenomenal book

I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the author of this book at a recent Highlights writing workshop. She was awesome. A faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Rita Williams-Garcia had a way of asking simple questions about your story that would expose profound issues. She was also phenomenal at the details…my story, for example, starts off with a girl stealing a diary from a woman. But as a reader, we didn’t see the diary until the girl had stolen it. Rita pointed out how the reader needs to see the diary, just as the girl does, zoom in on it, get closer to it, and then take it. Another writer had a car accident scene and we spent 30 minutes just taking apart who sees what when. The driver and the passenger both see the girl–but who should see her first? And who says something, if anything, and what do they say? And would the driver scream and then put a foot on the brakes or vice-versa?

That she is a master of her craft is obvious before you meet her of course, and this book (which is a Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award Finalist, and a winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Award–seriously, if this book had more awards, you wouldn’t be able to see the cover) really has it all.

Title: One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams-Garcia
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: Upper Elementary and Middle School

It’s a story of three sisters off to visit a mother who left them while the youngest was still a nursing baby. The book covers so much: it’s a story of daughters searching to define themselves in the shadow of a woman who doesn’t appear to want them at all. It’s a story of girls from a rural town who find themselves in Oakland, CA. It’s a story of African-American kids who learn about a new kind of pride in their race as they are dropped into the middle of the 1960s black panther movement.

The voice of the main character is at once lovable and mesmerizing. She could tell me about canned soup and I’d listen. But she’s not: she’s telling me about a cross-country adventure, a dangerous political movement, police arrests and double-crossers, friendships and crushes, and a family that grows closer through it all.

I think any middle-grade girl, and many boys, although it’s more traditionally a “girl” book, considering the main character, would love this book simply for the characters and fast-paced, colorful story. That they would learn about an important point in American history, well, they probably wouldn’t even realize it until the book ended and you started asking them questions. Asking them what THEY would do if they were asked to participate in a movement like that? What kind of dangers would they face for something they believed in? You could also use the scene at the end, where the girls recite a poem, as an excuse to get your own daughter to pick out a poem that is meaningful to her. And then maybe she could recite it at the Thanksgiving table. ūüôā

What do you think? How do you talk to your kids about questions of ethics and equality? Do you think you might use this book to introduce some of those ideas?

November 4, 2011

autumn winifred oliver (and I) do things different

I worked at a National Park one summer in college. I made $50 a month. Seriously. But they gave me a house to live in, so that was something. I had the best commute to work. It took about 15 minutes by bike and I didn’t have to pedal once–I just pushed off and felt the wind caressing my torso as I flew around the corners, watching the trees. (Of course, the corresponding commute home, which took me over an hour, was less good, but definitely great exercise!)

Right after he proposed, with the shells the ring was in, and right before we had to scramble over the headlands because we waited too long and the tide was coming in

I’ve always had a soft spot for National Parks. Olympic, where I worked, where I learned to backpack on my days off by taking onesolo trip after another, is my favorite. Of course, it also might be my favorite because that’s where I got engaged. (It was a trick my city-dwelling husband used to make me think he would go backpacking with me after we got married.) ūüôā

But now that I live in beautiful Tennessee, I’ve been enjoying a new park recently, the most-visited park in the country, the gorgeous Smoky Mountains. As a modern visitor, when I go to a park, I think about how grateful I am that we have all this quietness, all this beauty, just sitting there, waiting to be appreciated.

So when I saw this book and what it was about, I jumped at the chance to read it. And I’m glad I did.

Title: Autumn Winifred Oliver does things different
Author:¬†Kristin O’Donnell Tubb
Genre:¬†Historical Fiction (but don’t let that scare you!!)
Age: Middle Grade

Review and Summary:¬†Autumn Winifred Oliver is a wonderful girl with a strong voice and a strong sense of self. You meet her and get a great sense of her right away in chapter one, which begins: “I do things different. It helps to remind yourself of that when you’re attending your own funeral.” Each chapter begins with a piece like this “I do things different. It helps to remind yourself of that…” which gives you a sneak peek at what’s coming without giving anything away. If anything, these little snippets add suspense by making you wonder what they could possibly mean. Autumn lives in Cades Cove, a community that is about to become a national park. Autumn doesn’t know what to make it it all–the government people looking at her land, her grandfather snooping around, her father moving to the city to find new work, the possibility of losing her house and her community forever.

I love that the story feels universal–it’s about the way every girl this age often feels powerless over the bigger things in her life and how she comes to deal with them. The book gives you a sense of time and history without it feeling like a history lesson–it’s just a great book with wonderful detail. (I hate that I am apologizing for it being historical fiction, but I feel like some readers need an extra incentive to pick up an historical book. Trust me–I, too, used to be a reluctant reader of historical fiction, but after all the great ones I’ve read recently (this one, Moon Over Manifest, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes) I now swear to pick them up with excitement!

Follow-up with the kids:

There’s a lot you can do with this book. If you really want to make a history conversation out of it, there’s plenty of material there. There’s a short part in the book where Autumn realizes that what is happening to her already happened to the Native Americans who used to live on the land and were kicked off. It’s a good way to remind kids about the power of history, the lessons we can learn, the constant battles between those with power and those without, and the ways in which different people seem to treat each other.

But you can also just talk about Autumn. How does she deal with change? What things does she do that are positive? What is negative? Ask your child what she would have done. Chances are, the answers might tell you a little bit about what your child has done when they’ve felt like they were losing something. Or what they might do in the future.

I loved reading this book. I laughed out loud and thoroughly enjoyed getting to share the world of these characters, if only for a little bit.

September 26, 2011

a single good book in A SINGLE SHARD

My husband constantly makes fun of my reading habits. Examples: when one of his relatives picked us up at the airport and I spent the entire car ride home reading a book by flashlight. Well, flashlight app to be more accurate. Yes, I have a flashlight app and yes, it’s probably the most used of all my phone apps. It’s also great for reading at night in hotel rooms when the kids are trying to go to sleep.

Last night I told him I was exhausted and going to bed early and he came upstairs two hours later to find me with my nose in a book. I think I just have a special fondness for staying up late with a book. It conjures memories of Nancy Drew books in elementary school, staying up way past bedtime.

Recently, it conjured a different memory–that of staying up late reading to cram for a class in high school and college. I haven’t had to do that in while, but with my SCBWI writer’s conference coming up, I was mortified that I was about to meet Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park without actually having read any of her books. So after the first day of the conference I came home and started A Single Shard¬†around 9:00 so I’d be ready for my intensive with her the next day. My husband turned the lights out and put his head under the pillow.

9:00 PM for me today is probably the equivalent to what 2:00 AM was for my college self. It seemed a daringly late time to be starting a project; it felt like a secret endeavor, like I might get in trouble or had something important to do. ¬†Maybe both. And so there I sat, cuddled under the quilt, my family asleep, sharing the nighttime hours with a story about a young boy. A simple story, told with simple words, on a simple night. It was heaven. I’m on a Linda Sue Park kick right now, so you’ll be hearing about more of her books later.

Title: A Single Shard
Author: Linda Sue Park
Genre:  Middle Grade
Age: 8 – 12, upper elementary and young middle grades

Summary and Review:

It won a Newbery so I don’t need to tell you it’s a great book. This is the story of a homeless boy and the man he lives with under the bridge. It is the story of the boy’s quest to learn pottery. It’s the story of how he learns about himself and how he learns to belong to others.

What stood out most to me about this book was how disarmingly simple it was. The prose is clean and spare, light on its feet. I found out at the conference that Linda Sue Park is also a poet and that comes through strongly in this book. If I told you what happened in the book–the boy wants to learn pottery and apprentices to a potter, you might start yawning. But even though the action is there, and the plot strong, it’s the characters that make this a story you want to read. It’s the boy’s simple yet ardent desire and his willingness to work hard—and always put others first—to fulfill it.

I read it about a week ago. I liked it then, but the more I think about it, the more the story seems to seep into some place deep inside me and I like it more and more every time I think about it. What really stayed with me is the boy, the main character, and how straightforward, honest, and hard-working he was. He was the kind of kid you’d like to raise, or teach, or meet, or be, depending on whether you are reading this as a parent, a teacher, a girl, or a boy.

July 14, 2011

Join a small community in Vanderpool’s MOON OVER MANIFEST

Every morning at breakfast, my son turns on the CD player. Right now, we are listening to Hullabaloo’s Road Trip album, which I love, not only because it’s fun kids’ music, but also because I love road trips. I love everything about them–the details in the scenery that you miss from airplane, the local family restaurants you get to stop at, the greasy drive-through meals, the stupid car games, the fact that my family is stuck in a confined space, forced to answer my questions and converse with me. I love checking how many miles we have left and watching the number tick down. I love a long day of driving where you cover a lot of ground, and a long day of sightseeing where you cover almost none. I love people and places. And, even though it’s not about a road trip, that’s why I loved this book. Because it’s also about people and places, in the best possible way.

Title: Moon Over Manifest
Author: Clare Vanderpool
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School

Summary and Review:

I did not want to put this book down. ¬†Ever since I met Abilene in the first few pages as she jumps off train outside of Manifest because “any fool worth his salt knows you have to get a look at a place before the place gets a look at you,” I wanted to spend some time with this girl. Abilene feels abandoned by her father, who has sent her to Manifest to live with some old friends while he stays back and works on the railroad. But she makes the best of her situation, quickly making friends and becoming a person of influence in the small town community while she strives to learn the story of her father’s past here and maybe–just maybe–figure out why he left her and whether or not he will ever come back.

The story jumps beautifully from 1936 when she lands in Manifest, to the early 1900s when her father was growing up there. ¬†The town is full of colorful characters, made even richer because you get to know them at two different points in their lives. Propelled by mysteries large and small, the story moves along quickly powered by great writing that will make you feel that you, too, are part of this town’s history.

This would be a great book to read if you liked Chasing Redbird or Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.

April 28, 2011

On the darkest side of beautiful

Fairy tales were never meant to be pretty.  The original stories are a lot less about princesses in pink dresses than about evil mothers and vengeful fairies.  Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, would make the authors of those original dark stories proud.  It is a story about an average American family, an average girl, and the darkest part of the human heart.

Title: Briar Rose
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Age: Older, mature Middle School students and High Schoolers

Summary and Review:

Rebecca is a young reporter who has always been very close to the red-headed grandmother she resembles. ¬†Ever since she was a little girl, she has loved listening to the story her grandmother tells again and again–the story of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. ¬†Rebecca can recite her grandmother’s version by heart, but loves to hear it again and again anyway. ¬†But the story is full of mysteries, and the most important one guides this book: why does Rebecca’s grandmother insist that she is Briar Rose? ¬†That she is a princess from another land, that she is Sleeping Beauty?

Rebecca makes a promise to her grandmother as she is dying that she will discover the truth, that she will learn what her grandma means when she claims to be Sleeping Beauty. ¬†And while her older sisters mock her, Rebecca sets off on a life-changing journey and learns the remarkable story in her family’s past.

The idea that drives this book and the history behind it is brilliant. ¬†It’s an incredible reinterpretation of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and this comes beautifully to light in the first half of the book. ¬†If I can quibble with the book (and I guess I can…), I would say that I was a little disappointed with the second half. ¬†It seemed very disjointed from the first half–I would have loved if the two stories were more interwoven. ¬†However, that being said, this is a beautifully conceived story. ¬†(More info about the plot below the spoiler line.)

I also felt that the “mystery” she is trying to solve—that is, how exactly her grandmother could have been Sleeping Beauty—is fairly obvious from very early on in the book. ¬†(And I NEVER solve anything in a book until the end—I am a VERY clueless reader!) ¬†So I found it distressing that I predicted most of the events way ahead of the main character, who in comparison seemed completely clueless and out of it. ¬†I guess I would have preferred if it was just presented less as a mystery, but that’s just my take. ¬†However, just in case there are those out there that like to hang on to the mystery, I have left the rest of my review below a spoiler line, although I will by no means give everything away!


Rebecca’s journey takes her to Poland, where she finds the proof that her grandmother came to America near the end of World War II, not before the war as her family had been led to believe. ¬†What happened to her grandmother during the war and the people she met along the way pose the setting and the characters for a dark and violent Sleeping Beauty story.

Parents might want to know that despite the happy and very G-rated first half of the book, the story definitely takes a turn that will require a more mature reader for the end. ¬†The violence of the concentration camps and death camps is described in a lot of detail, including descriptions of inmates being forced to do things like roll in the cold snow, mentions of the gay inmates being asked to “try” themselves in brothels and be castrated if they “fail”, talk about babies being killed and people being stuffed into trucks with their children and gassed to death, among other descriptions of the horror that was the Holocaust. ¬†There is also some mention of having sex (although no description of this). ¬†Nothing is gratuitous and it’s all within the range of acceptable for a young adult reader, but parents and teachers might want to read the book along with their children to provide support.

April 11, 2011

Turtles, Scorpions, Pirate Treasure, and Diaper Rash

I’ve decided to go searching for some award-winning books, and this seemed like as good one as any to start with. ¬†It won a Golden Kite in 2010, an award given out by the SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, which means that it’s a peer award–an award given to writers by other writers. ¬†I like the validation of that, and since I’m a writer and a member of SCBWI, that seemed like a good place to start. ¬†I’m glad I did. ¬†My sister was in town, which meant that I actually had a few minutes to actually read, and this was a great escape.

Title: Turtle in Paradise
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: Middle Grade

Summary and Review:

Sometimes a book just gets you with one particularly good part. ¬†This one got me near the beginning, when Turtle was dropped off at a small house in the Florida keys to live with her surprised and overwhelmed aunt and cousins. ¬†She is outside the house, meeting her cousins and their friends when she overhears an older neighbor¬†referring¬†to the boys as the “diaper gang”. ¬†Now, as a reader, I assumed this was his way of insulting them. ¬†Turtle does too, and asks them jokingly if they change diapers. ¬†Now they, in turn, look at her like she’s an idiot and tell her that of course they do. ¬†And that’s her first introduction to the group of misbehaving¬†adolescent boys and their secret diaper rash formula.

The diaper gang are the major players in the book alongside Turtle, but the diapering is only a small part of the story. ¬†Turtle’s mom, a housekeeper, had to send her away because her new employer didn’t want children in the house.

In the keys, Turtle meets family members she never even knew about and some she thought were dead.  She has adventures that include crying babies, diaper rash, hurricanes, and pirate gold.  But in the end, this book is all about one thing: family.  And it will make you want to visit yours.

Another great thing about the book is its subtle historical setting. ¬†You get a good feeling for the poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression, of the stories of Little Orphan Annie and the stardom of Shirley Temple, but it isn’t rubbed in your face. ¬†An adolescent reader who would turn away historical fiction just because of the word “history” need not shy away from this book. ¬†In fact, don’t even tell them–they might not even notice.

The writing in the book is great. ¬†I love all the little details–the kids who don’t wear shoes, Turtle’s sarcastic cracks at the boys, the nicknames of all the characters (Beans, Too Bad, Slow Poke–almost no one has a real name). ¬†It all just fits together perfectly. ¬†I’m pretty sure that if I headed to South Florida now, I might find this family there, eating Turtle soup, chasing scorpions and running around barefoot.

Follow-up with the kids:

It can’t hurt to bring up the history piece after the fact, can it? ¬†It’s a perfect read in today’s times as a lot of families are feeling the same sense of poverty–that mix of hopelessness and dreams that comes with not having a lot of money in a country where others still have it.

Also, read the afterward with the historical details. ¬†I liked that part a lot, and it gave a lot of context to the book. ¬†I appreciated that it was in the afterward and not stuffed into the book, making it unwieldly like some historical fiction can be. ¬†I also liked the part about the pirate treasure. ¬†Without giving too much away, I can say that the pirate treasure storyline in the book didn’t really sit right with me, but the afterward put it into better perspective.

Another great conversation would be about Turtle and how she never cries anymore–she has to be the tough one in her family, her mom the weaker link. ¬†But then something near the end makes the tears flow freely. ¬†What is it and why was she finally able to cry? ¬†Was it only the sadness of the event, or was it something more, maybe something that finally gave her the courage to show her emotions?