J Historical Fiction

OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt

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Whenever everything seems to be going well, something terrible is going to happen soon.  When Doug gets a baseball cap signed by Joe Pepitone (the Joe Pepitone of the Yankees!), it is inevitable that his jerk older brother steals it. And when he is finally feeling happy on Long Island with friends and a baseball team, it is inevitable that his father mouths off to his boss, loses his job, and moves the family upstate to stupid Marysville, New York. Which means that they’ll be living near Ernie Eco (the jerk). Which means that Doug’s father will be going out drinking every night with Ernie Eco (the jerk) and his brother will still act like the evil criminal mind he is and his mother will still stare into the distance like she’s wishing she had a different life–or maybe wondering when Lucas will come home from Vietnam. And it turns out that everyone in stupid Marysville looks at Doug like he’s the scum of the earth. Terrific. But when Doug discovers a book in the library with an extraordinary painting of a terrified bird plunging toward an icy sea, he is inspired to uncover a new side of himself and the people of Marysville. Of course whenever everything seems to be going well, something terrible must be about to happen. . . .

Through brilliantly written first person narration, Schmidt gradually reveals Doug’s transformation and the evolution of his relationships with friends, family, and neighbors. Not only is the coming-of-age story compelling and accessible, but tense character relationships add suspense that makes this book difficult to put down. It will appeal to middle grade readers and teens (and even adults, especially those who grew up in the sixties) who enjoy coming-of-age stories and historical fiction.

Doug’s voice makes this book exceptional, and Lincoln Hoppe’s performance of the audiobook is perfect. I highly recommend listening to this one!

THE BOUNDLESS by Kenneth Oppel

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Will Everett drove the final gold spike into the railroad that spanned the continent.  He had merely been trying to visit his father at the work site, but the railway owner, Mr. Van Horne, took a liking to him on the trip up.  But moments later, an avalanche knocks the workers and businessmen off their feet and a vicious sasquatch attacks!  In the confusion, one of the railway workers attempts to steal the gold spike.  Will stops him, and he and his father help Mr. Van Horne to safety.  In gratitude, Mr. Van Horne invites Will’s father into his biggest venture yet: his dream of an eleven kilometer long train called “The Boundless.”  In all the excitement, Will almost forgets that the circus girl stole his sasquatch tooth. . . .

Years later, Will and his father board “The Boundless” for its maiden voyage across the nation, carrying the funeral car with Mr. Van Horne’s body–and the gold railroad spike.  While his father engineers the train at the front, Will travels in first class.  But he soon discovers the presence of some familiar faces.  The first is the circus girl who stole his sasquatch tooth.  The second is the same disgruntled brakeman who tried to steal the gold spike on the day of the avalanche, who Will observes murdering a train guard to steal the funeral car key.  With the brakeman and his cronies after him, Will takes refuge with the circus and in disguise begins the long and difficult adventure to the front of the train to warn his father of the danger.  But the circus owner, Mr. Dorian, may have an agenda of his own.

This novel is jam-packed with thought-provoking thematic material–from a complicated and nuanced class struggle to coming to grips with mortality to destiny and self-fulfilling prophecies to father-son conflicts over identity and dreams for the future.  I would not be surprised to see this on Newbery short lists.  On top of the deep thoughts, though, it is an exciting story.  The avalanche adventure hooks you early, and the intensity of murder and mystery continues through the entire book.  There is a lot going on, but it is not difficult to follow.  I enjoyed it and would recommend it to middle grade readers who like alternate histories, light fantasy, and thought-provoking coming-of-age fiction.

If you liked The Boundless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, or Savvy by Ingrid Law.

FEVER, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

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When her friend Polly dies of a mysterious fever, Matilda is in shock.  It doesn’t seem possible that Polly could have been so healthy yesterday and dead by the morning.  But in a few days’ time, the shock of Polly’s death is overshadowed by the terrifying reality of a yellow fever epidemic that leaves no one unscathed.  When her mother falls ill, Mattie and her grandfather try to flee Philadelphia, only to fall ill themselves on the road.  They recover and return to a changed city–full of crying orphans, ruthless thieves, mass graves, and starving survivors.  In order to survive, Mattie must learn to defend herself, do her best to help the sick, and cling to the hope that her mother may still be alive.

This exciting historical survival story will appeal to middle grade and teen readers.  If you liked Fever 1793, you might like A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse or An American Plague by Jim Murphy.

SAVING LUCAS BIGGS by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

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When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death by corrupt Judge Lucas Biggs, her world is shattered.  Although lawyers and family friends assure her that there will be appeals, Margaret knows it will be no use.  Her town is practically owned by Victory Fuels, a mining company that has been controlling people’s lives for decades.  Back in the 1930s, her friend Charlie’s grandpa, Josh, grew up the son of a Victory Fuels miner and saw firsthand how people can suffer at the hands of the corrupt company.  But Grandpa Josh has not given up hope.  He knew Lucas Biggs as a child and believes the good Luke is still hidden underneath the years of bitterness and corruption.  Moreover, Grandpa Josh knows Margaret’s family secret: their ability to travel back in time, a “quirk” which Margaret and all of her relatives have sworn never to use.  But with her father’s life on the line, Margaret decides to break her family oath and travel back to 1938 where she and young Josh will hopefully change history and end Lucas Biggs’ corruption before it starts.

This book had an exciting premise that kept me reading, although large chunks of explication often slowed me down.  The fantasy time-travel element is light, and most of the interesting things happen in the past.  Therefore, I would recommend this book to middle grade readers who like historical fiction  adventure stories.  I read an Advanced Reader Copy; the book comes out on April 29.

ONE DEAD SPY: THE LIFE, TIMES, AND LAST WORDS OF NATHAN HALE, AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS SPY by Nathan Hale

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Revolutionary Captain Nathan Hale is about to be executed for spying on the British.  While the British officer is fetching the hanging orders, the jovial hangman helps Nathan brainstorm some awesome Last Words.  But when Nathan says “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” he is immediately swallowed by a giant book.  It turns out those Last Words were so awesome that Nathan Hale made history!  And his brief visit to the history book gives him a glimpse of some fascinating events that happen in the future.  When the British officer returns, Nathan Hale delays his hanging by telling the story of the Revolutionary War and its outcome.  And he promises to delay his hanging even further by telling about other dramatic historical events as the series of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales continues.

This graphic novel series is great!  Author/Artist Nathan Hale (illustrator of Rapunzel’s Revenge) brings American history to life with his artwork and infuses it with humor through the great framing story of the character Nathan Hale, the pompous British officer, and the comedic hangman.   One Dead Spy is currently on the NYT Bestselling Graphic Novels list.  Two sequels have been published so far (Big Bad Ironclad! and Donner Dinner Party).  A fourth (Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood) comes out next month.

THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

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Omakayas was named after a little frog because the first step she ever took was a hop.  At seven years old, she still loves to jump around and can hardly sit still.  But she and her siblings still need to help with chores to help the family survive throughout the year.  Some chores are fun—like finding the perfect birch to build a summer birchbark house—and others are terrible—like scraping the inside of a moose hide.  Through her many activities and adventures from one summer to the next, Omakayas experiences both joy and grief and comes to understand herself and her role in the family even better.

Often when families are reading The Little House on the Prairie, parents tell me they are surprised by the racism in the books that they remember so fondly from their childhood.  The Little House books are certainly a product of their time and give insights into how homesteaders perceived American Indians.  But while young children are frequently exposed to such racist stereotypes in literature (Peter Pan being another example), they rarely encounter realistic portrayals of this period in history from the American Indian perspective.

In addition to being an excellent historical fiction novel in its own right, The Birchbark House is the perfect family read-aloud to provide a counter-perspective.  Like the Little House books, The Birchbark House focuses on family, friendships, and daily life for a young girl.  Readers get a glimpse into the Ojibwa way of life in the 1840s, as well as interactions with white traders and homesteaders from the Ojibwa perspective.  The Ojibwa are not the same nation that the Ingalls family encountered in Kansas (the Osage), so it is not a direct counter-perspective.  But the situation of the two book series is similar—both about families living in the relative wilderness and struggling to survive and get along peacefully with their “strange” neighbors—and they are around the same reading and interest level, both series being appropriate as read-alouds with young  elementary-age children.  

ELIJAH OF BUXTON by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Elijah was the first free Black child born in the Canadian town of Buxton.  His parents—as well as most of the adults in his town—were once slaves in the United States who escaped to freedom in Canada.  For Elijah and his friends, ringing the freedom bell when an escaped slave arrives in Buxton is always exciting, but the true meaning of freedom becomes more real as Elijah grows toward adulthood and has some dangerous adventures of his own. 

By exploring the history of slavery through the characters of a free town, Christopher Paul Curtis captures the utter joy of freedom in a rare and beautiful way.   Even with slavery such a recent and raw memory in his community, growing up in a free town, Elijah (like most of his readers) is somewhat naive and ignorant of what a captive life really feels like.  This novel is Elijah’s coming-of-age story by which he comes to understand and appreciate more fully his family’s and community’s history.  And through his story, the reader will come to experience the same.  Curtis does not shy away from the horrors of slavery nor does he rely on violence and drama to propel his plot.  I highly recommend this novel to middle grade readers who want to read some really good, character-driven historical fiction.