J Historical Fiction

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Kenny has never been one of the popular kids, in part because of his lazy eye that makes him look kind of funny, but mostly because he is smart and good at school–which automatically makes him uncool.  It is both a blessing and a curse that he has the very cool troublemaker Byron as his older brother.  While Byron and his friends often bully Kenny, Byron can also get Kenny off the hook with some of the other school bullies.  But when Byron crosses one-too-many lines, their parents make a big decision: the whole family (including Byron and Kenny’s little sister Joetta) will be leaving their home in snowy Flint, Michigan and traveling down to Birmingham, Alabama where their grandmother lives.  Byron will be spending the whole summer with Grandma Sands, and if he doesn’t get his act together, he’ll be stuck there for the whole next school year.  Kenny is excited about his first adventure to the South, but there are some things he couldn’t quite prepare for. 

Dedicated to the four young victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 is undeniably a Civil Rights story.  But the approach that Curtis takes in his novel is somewhat unique.  The majority of the story is not about politics, racism, or hatred.  The focal point of the story is the family relationships.  Curtis focuses on characters, rather than events, making this family living in the past seem real and relatable to modern readers.  When the Civil Rights issue finally enters toward the end of the novel, the reader’s understanding of the events is framed by the reader’s intimacy with the characters.  While Curtis does not shy away from describing events that are both frightening and tragic, the strength and resilience of his characters and the message of his epilogue will leave readers with a sense of hope and closure.  This is a phenomenal book, and I highly recommend it!

If you liked The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963, you might like The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon.

ROWAN HOOD: OUTLAW GIRL OF SHERWOOD FOREST by Nancy Springer

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Rosemary has grown up in a small village with her mother, a healer with magical abilities.  But when her mother is killed, Rosemary flees into Sherwood forest, disguising herself as a boy and changing her name to “Rowan.”  She hopes to join Robin Hood’s band of merry men, for although Robin doesn’t know it, he is her father.  After getting in some trouble with the law for hunting in the Prince’s forest, Rowan finds Robin Hood.  But the reunion with her father isn’t quite what she expected it to be.

Rowan Hood is part of the long and glorious tradition of children’s books about girls dressing up like boys so that they can do cool stuff in a time period when girls weren’t allowed to do cool stuff.  For this reason, it will probably appeal most to girls, although there are some combat scenes, and anyone who enjoys Robin Hood stories will appreciate the connections to those tales.  I would recommend Rowan Hood to middle grade readers who enjoy both historical fiction and fantasy.

If you liked Rowan Hood, you might like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke, A Murder for Her Majesty by Beth Hilgartner, or The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer.  Teens who liked Rowan Hood might also like Alanna and similar series by Tamora Pierce.

CRISPIN: THE CROSS OF LEAD by Avi

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As peasants in late 14th century England, Asta and her son are bound to the land, serving their feudal lord, who has been off fighting the war in France.  The steward who governs them in their lord’s absence is a cruel man who for some reason has taken a disliking to Asta’s son.  When Asta dies, the steward falsely accuses Asta’s son of stealing and orders him to be executed.  The boy seeks refuge with a village priest. The priest gives him a lead cross with some writing on it that the boy cannot read.  The priest also tells him that his true name is Crispin and that he knows who Crispin’s father is.  But before he can reveal any more, the steward’s men attack, killing the priest.  Pursued, Crispin barely escapes into the forest where he meets a traveling jester named Bear who takes him under his protection.  Crispin and Bear travel the countryside together, Bear gathering support for a dangerous peasant rebellion, and Crispin trying to discover his true identity.

Like many of Avi’s historical fiction novels, Crispin (winner of the 2003 Newbery Award) features lot of action and adventure as well as thought-provoking reflection on the customs and society of the time period in which the novel is set.  The character of Crispin is not as interesting as some of Avi’s creations, largely because in this first book, he plays the role of a victim, raised in a society where he was not allowed to think or act for himself.  But through his association with the significantly more interesting and rebellious Bear, Crispin begins to gain a stronger sense of identity and agency.  His story continues in the Crispin: At the Edge of the World and Crispin: The End of Time.  This dark, gritty historical trilogy will most likely appeal to middle-grade readers who enjoy adventure and coming-of-age stories.

MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool

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Abilene and her father Gideon have always been together, even when times were tough and Gideon couldn’t find work.  But the summer of 1936, Gideon sends Abilene away on a train to the town of Manifest, Kansas, where he says an old friend Shady will take care of her.  Knowing (or perhaps hoping) that Gideon will come and collect her at the end of the summer, Abilene tries hard not to grow attached to Manifest.  But as she tries to search for her father’s footprint in the town, she stumbles upon a story of the town’s past that is too fascinating and mysterious to ignore–a story of con men, war, immigrant cultures, and spy from the Great War (the Rattler) who just might still be around the town.  Abilene and her friends try to piece together the past from a box of old letters and keepsakes, the town’s newspaper archive, and an old gypsy woman’s oral history.  Every day they seem to get closer to the Rattler’s true identity.  And although Abilene can’t figure out why Gideon never shows up any of the old stories, she is determined to find him somewhere in the town’s past.

Moon Over Manifest isn’t another one of those depressing Newbery winners about grief and loss.  It is a beautiful story of a young girl’s quest to learn more about her father’s past.  Set during the great depression, Abilene’s story is an historical fiction within an historical fiction: the focus being on the rich heritage of the town, the stories of the immigrants who settled there, the challenges they faced, and their success in building a town they could all be proud of.  Well-researched and full of engaging storytelling, Moon Over Manifest will appeal to historical fiction readers and those who like triumphant stories of the success of underdogs.  I highly recommend it!

THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly

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Callie Vee Tate has never felt close to her grandfather.  He spends many hours locked away in his study and doesn’t even seem to know the names of all of his grandsons–or at least which boy is which.  But when he notices Callie observing the natural world and the great interest she takes in it, he decides to share his hobbies as naturalist with his granddaughter–even though it is unusual for a girl in the late nineteenth century to study such things.  Together they read the works of Darwin, observe the beautiful world around them in their Texas backyard, and explore their environment as scientists.  Unfortunately, Calpurnia’s parents have plans for her that conflict with her passions.

At its heart, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a story of family relationships and of a girl trying to find her identity and place in society.  It is a sweet story with some great humorous moments, and a spunky narrator that you have to love.  It will probably appeal most to girls in upper elementary and middle school, although I read it with my adult book group, and we all enjoyed it as well!

THE SEER OF SHADOWS by Avi

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Horace Carpetine’s parents were somewhat radical in the late nineteenth century.  They raised their son to value the equality of all people–black or white, male or female–and to pursue the rational truth of science.  When Horace becomes apprenticed to a photographer, however, he soon finds all of his values challenged.  His master insists that he help fabricate a ghost photograph to swindle a wealthy client, a deception that troubles Horace at first, but once the apprentice realizes that he has somehow called a real ghost out of the photograph, his misgivings turn to terror.  Together with his friend Pegg–the wealthy client’s African-American serving girl–Horace tries to uncover the truth about the ghost-girl’s past and find a way to stop her from reaping revenge on those who wronged her.

This ghost story is a fun read for anyone who likes historical fiction with a bit of a fear factor.  It isn’t too terrifying–partly because the historical setting makes it seem fairly removed from the realm of modern possibility–but it is certainly creepy!  I would definitely recommend it to upper elementary readers who enjoy ghost stories and are looking to branch out beyond Mary Downing Hahn and Alvin Schwartz.

THE STAR OF KAZAN by Eva Ibbotson

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While on holiday in the Austrian mountains, Ellie and Sigrid find baby Annika abandoned in a church and bring her back to Vienna.  The three Professors for whom Ellie and Sigrid work as a cook and housekeeper are upset at first by the introduction of a noisy, messy baby to their home.  But within a few weeks, Annika becomes a beloved part of the household.  Although she works hard around the house helping Ellie and Sigrid, Annika loves her life in Vienna.  She loves the Emperor Franz Josef and his dancing Lipizzano horses.  She loves her friends Pauline and Stefan and the games of make-believe they play in the abandoned garden.  In fact, the only thing about life in Vienna that Annika does not love is Loremarie Egghart, the snobby, rich girl who lives across the street and who turns her nose up at Annika, the “kitchen girl.”  But when Loremarie hires Annika to read books to the bed-ridden great-aunt whom none of the Eggharts can stand, Annika finds a new friend, a friend with exciting and exotic stories of a glamorous past life, stories that will live with Annika long after the old lady herself passes on.

Everything in Annika’s world changes, however, when her real mother arrives in Vienna. Annika had always dreamed hopefully of a day when her mother would arrive to claim her long-lost daughter.  What Annika never expected was that her mother would be a “von”–a German noblewoman–Frau Edeltraut von Tannenberg.  She also never dreamed of what would come after her mother’s arrival–the part where she would take her away from Vienna and everyone she knows.  Annika’s new life in Germany is wonderful in some ways.  For one thing, there is Zed the stable boy, with whom Annika immediately forms a strong friendship.  And of course she is with her mother!  But Annika quickly learns that there are secrets in her noble family, and not all of them are good.

This novel is simply superb historical fiction–one of my favorite children’s books.  I highly recommend it to middle grade readers, and any adults who enjoy children’s fiction.  It has an engaging plot, wonderfully drawn characters, and clean, evocative writing.

The audiobook (narrated by Patricia Connolly) is also excellent!