Slavery and the American Revolution; Forge provides another view

Forge (Seeds of America Book 2) by Laurie Halse Anderson; published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010; 294 pages.

When Chains (Seeds of America Book 1) ended, Curzon was rescued from sure death by Isabel and they rowed into the fog to freedom.  Or did they escape?  Forge continues the historically accurate story of Curzon and Isabel’s fight for freedom during the American Revolution.  After a spat over money and where to run, the pair went their separate ways.  Curzon’s running ends when he helps a young soldier defeat a Red Coat in a skirmish.  Friendship is forged between the two which starts a chain of friendship and loyalty as Curzon joins General Washington’s men at Valley Forge.  Even while battling prejudice and bad weather at Valley Forge, Curzon’s past returns to haunt him.  He finds he might have a path to freedom; but at what cost?

Being a fan of both historical fiction and Laurie Halse Anderson may color my perception of this book.  I adored Chains and waited impatiently for the sequel.  At first I was disappointed that Curzon took over the role of narrator.  But as the winter grew more harsh at Valley Forge, I couldn’t imagine this story being told any other way.  As students, we all have learned how brutal the conditions were for the soldiers at Valley Forge.  Nothing I learned at school prepared me for what Curzon and his company endured.  Among all the struggles for survival, Anderson has done a remarkable job of reminding us how unfair the fight for freedom was–everyone was expected to fight, but not everyone was fighting for their freedom.

Curzon’s voice is full of the vernacular of the time.  Fortunately, a vocabulary list is included at the end of the book.  The use of vernacular did not detract from the storytelling; instead, it enriched my experience and gave more insight into the era.  Anderson’s inclusion of questions and answers about the historical accuracy and her research is also an important piece of this story.  I especially appreciated her discussion of which characters are real historical figures and which are amalgams of multiple people (including Curzon).

Indeed, the quotes that open each chapter added to the storytelling and the history lessons.   Placed inside a book with rough cut pages, the use of fonts that read like the old broadsides of the Revolutionary period, and the use of vernacular made me feel like I was reading a historical document (a very readable historical document, by the way).  If the history books of my childhood were written with as much emotion, truth and accessibility, I would have read and retained far more information.  For that reason, I would recommend this for middle and high school students.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-12

Cover Art: The patchwork quilt look of Chains continues on this cover.  This time we see Curzon in his red tricorn and carrying his musket it the snow that marked winter at Valley Forge.  Keeping the design identity of the series is important to identify this as a sequel.  Readers of Chains will recognize it and continue the saga.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

How did I miss Eli the Good?!

Eli the Good by Silas House; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2009 (paperback edition, 2011); 295 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on paperback copy provided for free by the publisher.  Part of this review originally posted on

In the summer of 1976, Americans were busy planning bicentennial parties filled with parades and fireworks.  For 10 year old Eli Book, the 250th birthday of the country was a minor event in the summer that marked a turning point in his life, in his family, and among his friends.  Coming of age in a house with family secrets (some revealed, some fiercely protected) could only be endured in the company of a best friend (Edie) and a free-spirited Aunt Nell, both of whom hold their own secrets close to their hearts.  As the adult Eli looks back, he spots the turning points and blind spots that marked the summer of secrets that defined his adult life.

House tells the story as a reminiscence of an adult Eli and this style of narration perfectly suits the story.  We get to know young Eli through his adult eyes, sometimes excusing things his young eyes missed, often coloring that summer’s events through more experienced eyes.  While the story feels like historical fiction (recounting the juxtaposition of celebrating 250 years of freedom and ignoring the Viet Nam veterans) it reads like family history, like a coming of age story.  House’s most remarkable accomplishment is in his storytelling.  Like the best Southern writers, House’s prose seems like a lazy river carrying us through the deep lights and shades of a Southern family, all the while giving only glimpses of the tumultuous undertow below the surface.  For the tale of Eli, I would have gladly given the book 4 stars.  It is House’s development of place that elevates it to a 5 star book.

As I started the book, I wondered why it was considered a young adult book.  I mean, the protagonist is 10 years old, the words are deceptively easy to read, so why market to young adults?  Then the light dawned on me.  Not only is the narrator an adult looking back on his childhood, but he is also exploring the reality of family members returning home from war, with horrific secrets that haunt them.  The story is as relevant today as it was in 1976.  Families bear the burdens of our veterans.  How will we deal with that today?  Certainly, middle schoolers could read the book and get a historical perspective, but it is the young adults who can relate to Josie, Eli’s older sister who is 16 and protesting the war and testing the limits of her teenage independence.  The easy-going flow of the story is deceptive; there are so many levels of story and theme that House’s book will speak to young adults, and even some adults (my hand is up!) who were there during the bicentennial (or close to that time…).  War’s effects on families have not changed.

How did I miss this book when it was published in 2009?!?!?  Historical fiction, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, are right up my alley!  Well, let’s get the word out!  This is a book that should be read, savored, and discussed.  Speaking of discussions, there are book club questions at the back of the book.  Also, Silas House’s website includes a link to a printable copy of the discussion guide (which is from Candlewick’s site:

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12+

Cover Art: The sun flooding the shadows under an old gnarled tree speaks to the theme of bringing secrets out of the dark.  For me, the cover is oozing with a Southern-novel feel.  The title along with the image may generate curiosity.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

Briar Rose mashup of fairy tale and historical fiction

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen; published by Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 1992; 200 pages.

Gemma always told the tale Briar Rose to Becca and her older sisters, Sylvia and Shana.  It was a fairy tale full of castles and mists and awakening kisses.  What Becca and her sisters didn’t understand until after their grandmother’s death was that Briar Rose wove the reality of Gemma’s survival during the Holocaust into a happily-ever-after fairy tale.  An adult Becca, a journalist, travels back to Poland to follow the trail a box of mementos has revealed.  Is Becca a princess, in the most literal sense of the word, descended from Polish royalty?  Or is Briar Rose a metaphor for surviving one of the most horrific events in modern history?

I bought this paperback during a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM, in Washington, D.C. last summer.  With a return trip to D.C. on the horizon (we’re actually back from that trip now), I picked it up to read before revisiting the USHMM with my daughter, who’s wrapping up a major project on the Holocaust for school.  Only Jane Yolen could capture the ethereal realm of fairy tales while weaving a rather horrific tale of survival.  Her choice of retelling Sleeping Beauty as a Holocaust story was genius.  Not only did Gemma awake from her horrors, but I’d like to think that Yolen’s story will open the eyes of readers reluctant to read Holocaust non-fiction or historical fiction.

I know that my second visit to the USHMM was more poignant, more personal, because I kept a bit of Gemma’s experience in my heart.  References to mobile extermination, Chelmno, and the resistance movement meant more to me as I could almost put a face of someone I “know” (even though they are works of fiction).  For me, that is reason enough to highly recommend this book.

But it’s a Jane Yolen story, so the story will stand on its own, whether or not the reader takes any of the Holocaust horror away as the back cover closes.  I think the story is written at a level a little above most middle schoolers, who might choose to read this while studying the Holocaust, so I would really recommend that it be read collectively with teacher direction if used in middle school.  Otherwise, high school students and adults should add this to their “must-read” lists, especially preceding a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 10-adult

Cover Art: The paperback I read combined a fairy tale appropriate rose with barbed wire–pretty significant thorns, don’t you think?  That image should let browsers know that this is a Sleeping Beauty story unlike any other.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

Half Brother is all good

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel; published by Scholastic Press, New York, 2010; 375 pages.

Ben’s dad is a behavioral psychologist.  When Ben isn’t doing what dad expects of him, all of his psychological training is used full force to get Ben to change his own behavior.  For instance, Ben convinced himself that moving across Canada, from Toronto to Victoria, would be a great trip and excellent opportunity.  Turns out, the new house isn’t in the city and it isn’t close to more than a couple of kids his own age.  Another example is Ben’s reaction when his mom comes home from a trip with an eight day old chimpanzee.  When Ben doesn’t accept the chimpanzee or take an interest in the experiment that his father and mother have planned, his father works on Ben to convince himself that it’s a good idea to have a chimpanzee for a baby brother (or half brother).  It turns out that Ben’s parents have moved to Victoria to conduct experiments on whether or not chimpanzees can learn human language by signing.  Unfortunately, Ben’s father’s psychology works all too well and Ben embraces Zan as his new brother.  Further misfortunes plague the family and the experiment.  In the end, definitions of language, family and love are all tested.

Kenneth Oppel is a masterful story teller.  I read through Airborn in record time as his words flew into my imagination.  But I honestly had reservations about this book.  How on earth do you take philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas and make them interesting–no, entertaining–for middle schoolers and even young adults?  Well, I should never have doubted his skills.  Half Brother took me out of the 21st century back to the early 1970s.  How did I know it was the seventies?  Oppel’s skill in setting the story is wonderful–his descriptions of shag carpet, music favorites, and so much more led me by the hand back to the early 1970s.  He takes a moment to make sure all readers are back in time by mentioning the year about a third of the way through the book.

I was also transported into a family with dysfunctions most people can relate to.  I even found myself madly in love with Zan and Ben’s relationship.  While it reads well, it also poses questions about what makes a family and what responsibilities we have to each other and our animal friends.

For those last reasons, I would recommend this book to any teachers working with philosophy and ethics.  I would put it on pathfinders about the same subjects.  As a librarian, I would use it in displays about activism or just recommend it because it is such a complex book.  After I finished reading it, I was saddened by the fact that I was the first to check it out from my local library’s young adult section.  It had been on the shelf for nearly two months without being touched.  That is so sad for the young adults I know in my community that would devour this book.  Let’s get it into teen’s hands!

By the way, Oppel’s website includes a matching game–try to match the hand signals Zan uses:  The splash page ( includes links to the book trailer and a chat forum.  All are worth a look.

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 7-11

Cover Art:  The burnt orange dust cover features icons of man, woman, child…and chimp (picture the generic images on bathroom doors).  The yellow font for the title isn’t remarkable, but the yellow is repeated on the spine, along with the chimp image; that’s how I found the book on the shelf.  Teens won’t pick this up based on the cover; word of mouth and a good librarian or library display will have to communicate its value.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

Heavens to Murgatroyd, Countdown is hard to classify

Countdown: The Sixties Trilogy, Book One by Deborah Wiles; published by Scholastic, New York, 2010; 377 pages.

Fall of 1962.  Khrushchev and Kennedy are in a Bay of Pigs stand-off.  Tension is mounting.  At school, Bert the Turtle is reminding children to “Duck and Cover” in case the Soviets bomb the neighborhood.  Franny Chapman, a fifth grader, is struggling with her own fears.  Her family is new to the Washington, D.C. suburb so friendships are a fragile commodity.  Her father is a fighter pilot in charge of protecting Airforce One and the President of the United States; her mother is overly concerned with appearances and polite society; sister Jo Ellen is a college student that disappears; and brother Drew is  a third grader aspiring to be an astronaut.  Uncle Otts, her pseudo-grandfather, is struggling with issues that seem like a cross between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alzheimer’s.  Heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s enough to send a girl into a bunker for a lifetime.  So much is going on in Franny’s life!

OK, so enough about the storyline.  There is deep, rich history interspersed, real primary sources (like transcripts of actual broadcasts and photographs) and tastes of the time (like song lyrics and biographies of important politicians and musicians).  How do you categorize a book like this?  Wiles describes it as a documentary novel and I like that; I’d go so far as to add “edutaining” documentary novel to the descriptor.

For me, Countdown reads like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Green Glass Sea. The end pages are rippled, like the grooves in an old lp or 45 recording.  Often the concentric circles, like on an old record or even like sound waves, are used in the graphics behind the non-fiction portions of the book.  Portrait photographs, images of the ships surrounding Cuba,  song lyrics, biographies, transcripts, all work together to set the historical backdrop of Franny’s story.  I had to read the book twice to squeeze out all the information and entertainment I could get.  If it were up to me, I’d quickly add this book to the short list for the Newbery Medal.

Although Countdown is nominated for YALSA’s 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults, I’m not sure how I’d categorize this book.  It’s like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret; written, perhaps, for an upper-elementary to early middle school crowd, but certainly appealing to young adults.  With its “documentary novel” style, this book works for a very wide-range of readers.  So, sorry for cross-posting from the children’s book review blog, but I have to agree with YALSA, this book is phenomenal fiction for young adults.

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 4-12+

Cover Art: With an old 45 on the cover, will today’s youth get the cover?  And what in the world does “countdown” refer to?  Billboard’s Top 40?  Moments until World War III?  Between the bright yellow background, cryptic title and archaic record, I think the cover generates enough interest for young adults unfamiliar with the book to pick it up and give it a try.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction) and Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA) nominee for 2011.

You are there! Fever 1793

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson; published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2000; 243 pages.

Mattie Cook has plans: She’s going to own a city block with a restaurant, a coffee house and a store full of Parisian finery.  Sounds like a typical, American 14 year old, who wants to make it big.  The difference in this story is that Mattie Cook lives in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793.  At first, we find Mattie a little lazy and hounded by a sweet tooth.  As the story progresses, and the fever spreads, we find out just how strong and determined the teen is.  She courageously leads us, gentle readers, through the horrors that plagued the town.  She also discovers, and shows us, just how unselfish people can be.  By the story’s end, Mattie is running the show and is fully prepared to do so.

I think Laurie Halse Anderson is at her best writing historical fiction.  Sure, she focuses on what teenagers are like in any era.  Her forte, in my humble opinion, is placing her readers in the period by using some of the jargon, but not enough to make reading tortuous; and placing the characters in historically accurate settings, surrounded by real people of the time.  I’d recommend any of her historical fiction to language arts teachers to collaborate with social studies curriculum.  The author’s notes at the end of the book, highlighting the factual information that’s included in the book as well as the information the author used as background for writing the story, add another element for using this book in collaboration with nonfiction curriculum.

I think having read Jim Murphy’s nonfiction account of the 1793 yellow fever “plague” made this book more interesting for me.  I was already familiar with many of the real characters and events.  For sure, these two books should be recommended as a fiction-nonfiction set to young readers.

Overall, middle schoolers will relate to Mattie.  They’ll even like her, root for her.  In the end, they’ll learn a little American history, too.  Like, did you know Philadelphia was the U.S. capital?  Seriously?!

3P     4Q     Grade Level: 5-9

Cover art: A yellow tinge to the cover art (and definite yellow eyeball) along with the old-fashioned titular font tell browsers what the book is about.  Also, using a face in some slightly obscure way makes this scream that it’s by Halse Anderson!  Her fans will certainly be able to pick this book out!

From Reading List: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA), 2001; Margaret A. Edwards Award, 2009; The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

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