Tag Archives: historical fiction

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60’s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60’s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60’s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.

Canal Life

We have been stuck a bit for historical fiction this go around.  Not only has it been difficult to find books that fit into the time periods we’ve studied this year, but a few of the choices I’ve liked haven’t been as well-regarded by the kids.  All this has been a disappointment for me after a year of so much American historical fiction.  However, there’s just a dearth for this period.  When we begin Asian history in a month or so, there will be a few more options.

The Gate In The WallOne exception has been the book The Gate in the Wall by Ellen Howard.  I had never heard of this book or author, which had very few reviews, but with so few options I bought it to give it a try and was very glad I did.  It’s not a long book and follows the trials of Emma, a young girl who must work in a city mill to support her sister, nephew and brother-in-law.  One day, Emma is locked out of the factory and wanders toward home, hungry and sad, and stumbles on an entrance to the canal towpath, where she steals a potato from an anchored canal boat and hides out in its warm hull.  The next day, she finds herself taken away from all she knows to work on the canal.  It’s hard work, but it may mean a better life.

This was a short and simple book with lovely descriptions full of little details that show a way of life that most of readers will know little about.  Emma and the canal boat owner, Mrs. Minshull, are great, believable characters.  While it might be difficult to have a story of the industrial revolution that both realistically shows life for working class children and ends on an upbeat note, this book manages to do it.  Best of all for our purposes, the story gives a clear picture of life in the industrial revolution through Emma’s eyes.  I haven’t seen this book on many lists, but if you’re doing early modern history, it really should go on your read alouds list.

Historical Fiction Overload

We’ve been a little overloaded with historical fiction read alouds for American history this year.  In the middle of the last book, both kids gave me a pleading look and declared that they were done.  They wanted something different so we’re reading Harriet the Spy followed by The Hobbit.  Still, it was a nice run while it lasted.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
Unlike the rest of these, which we read more of less back to back, we read this gem earlier in the year.  It’s the story of a young Objiwa girl and her family in the mid-1800’s.  Seven year-old Omakayas sees both beauty and tragedy in this story, which is one of the most beautifully written books we’ve read in our homeschool.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’m not personally a huge fan of the Little House books.  If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you may even remember a bit of a rant about how I do not get the fanaticism over them.  However, people convinced me to read this volume aloud, about the early years of Wilder’s husband Almanzo in New York.  It has lovely descriptions of food and farm chores.  While it’s lacking in much plot, my boys enjoyed the anecdotal quality of the story.  It was hit.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
This recent book about the Civil War won a Newbery Honor.  In Homer’s funny voice, it tells the rollicking adventures of a young boy from Maine on a quest to save his older brother from the battlefield by chasing the Union Army all the way to Gettysburg.  On the way, he meets with some tragic and many amusing adventures and tells numerous lies.  While we enjoyed it (and I really loved it), this was the book that broke the camel’s back for the kids, who are clearly done with historical fiction for awhile.  The kids laughed at Homer’s adventures, but they also asked to finish quick.

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman
This is a short volume about the Civil War battle of Bull Run.  Paul Fleischman tells the story in more than a dozen voices, from an elderly southern lady to a Union general to a young Georgia boy in the Confederate army band.  It’s very different from most of the historical fiction for children, but the writing in the different voices is so strong and the tiny chapters worked well for me to occasionally pass the book to the kids to hear them read aloud as well.

The Great Brain and the rest of the series by John Fitzgerald
We tore through these books about a Catholic family in a small Utah town near the turn of the century.  Younger brother JD tells the story of his con-artist brother Tom’s wild exploits and rescues. Sometimes there is genuine drama and tension, such as when a murderer kidnaps a young boy, but most of the stories are much more lighthearted and a lot less tragic than some of the other historical fiction books we read, which probably explains why we read so many of them.  These gave us a great opportunity to talk about how narrators don’t always give the whole picture, as JD is often fooled by Tom in ways obvious to the reader.

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
This is the story of a tomboy girl in an isolated Finnish immigrant community in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century.  May Amelia has such a strong, funny voice, told in an interesting dialect that my kids found her very compelling.  This book swings from very funny to extremely sad in places, comparable with The Birchbark House in terms of tragedy and death.  Still, understanding that death was so much more common in the past seems like an essential part of history and I hope my boys have been benefiting from reading so much cathartic literature.

The Saturdays and the rest of the Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright
This charming series of four books about a set of four siblings was not historical fiction when it first came out.  However, the themes of buying bonds and planting Victory Gardens make it such.  Even just the old cars and the descriptions of New York before the war are great for historical setting.  In fact, all the descriptions in this series are beautifully written and richly detailed.  These books are often compared to the Penderwicks series, and the comparison is justified.  My kids enjoyed them greatly.