J History

NETTIE AND NELLIE CROOK: ORPHAN TRAIN SISTERS by E.F. Abbott

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Twins Nettie and Nellie spent a lot of time together, just the two of them.  Their father was often away for long periods of time to find work, their older brother worked all day, and sometimes their mother would disappear for weeks–especially after their baby sister died.  But one day a man arrives to take the children away, saying that they are not being cared for properly.  At six years old, Nettie and Nellie find themselves in an orphanage, even though their parents are still alive.  Not long afterward they are put on a train and sent West with a group of other children in search of “forever homes.”  But some homes are not as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

Based on the true story of the Crook sisters, Abbott’s book gives readers a glimpse into what it might be like to be placed in foster care or adopted in the early twentieth century.  Neither the characterization nor the settings are particularly vivid; the book is plot driven.  But the subject matter is interesting, and may especially appeal to readers now that Simone Biles’ Olympic wins are raising awareness of what foster care and adoption are like today.  I would recommend this book to third and fourth grade readers who are interested in history.

ELEPHANT MAN by Mariangela Di Fiore

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Joseph Merrick was born in 1890 at a time when relatively little was known about genetic diseases. When his skin began to grow wrinkly lumps and his body to become deformed, people thought he was a monster. When he became a teenager, his step mother threw him out of their home, and Joseph had no option but to travel the world being displayed as a circus freak. After being swindled out of all of his money, Joseph finally found an accepting home at a hospital in London where Dr. Frederick Treves treated him with dignity and studied his disease.  There, Joseph finally began to enjoy his life and to express himself by writing poetry. 

This children’s picture book tells Joseph’s story as a narrative, focusing on what Joseph must have felt like being ridiculed and bullied for so many years. Through Joseph’s story, the author makes the point that every person has value and true beauty is internal. The story is simply told, in a way that will be accessible as a read-aloud for younger elementary students or for older elementary-aged students to read themselves.

CHASING FREEDOM: THE LIFE JOURNEYS OF HARRIET TUBMAN AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY by Nikki Grimes

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In a fictional conversation “inspired by historical fact,” Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony discuss their different fights for freedom and how their lives and causes intersected along the way. This book contains interesting facts and helps the reader see how pieces of history which are often described in isolation are really part of a broader fabric of events.  The format of the book as a conversation is unique, although I did not find it as compelling as I had hoped. Since the majority of the book is dialogue, the events are explained more with a statement of facts rather than the vivid narration you find in many historical nonfiction books, as well as historical fiction.  But it is a quick and informative read with supporting illustrations that are likely to engage many young readers.

ODETTE’S SECRETS by Maryann Macdonald

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Odette Meyers was a child when the Nazis invaded France. Her father joined the French Army and was put in a German prisoner of war camp, and her mother became involved with the Resistance.  When the Germans began to round up the Jews in her neighborhood, Odette and the other children of the Jewish resistance fighters escaped by train to the French countryside where they were hidden among Christian families. Odette had always been good at keeping secrets, but in the country she had to learn to keep the biggest secret of all: her identity.

Maryann Macdonald tells the true story of Odette Meyers in first person free verse.  Her story focuses on the changes that the war brought to her daily life as a child. If you liked Odette’s Secrets, you might like Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.

AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: THE TRUE AND TERRIFYING STORY OF THE YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1793 by Jim Murphy

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In the summer of 1793, Philadelphia was a hot and foul smelling place.  Sewage and the bodies of dead animals festered in the streets, swarmed by flies, mosquitos, and other insects.  When the first few people died, doctors assumed that they had succumbed to the typical summer illnesses believed to be caused by “foul smells.”  But more people began to fall ill, and soon the death count had risen to dozens—then over a hundred—each day.  Many fled the devastating disease that turned its victims yellow and caused them to spew black bile and blood.  But others risked their lives to stay in Philadelphia and search for a cure.  Jim Murphy tells the story of one of America’s most famous epidemics, focusing on the doctors and nurses who tried to treat the fever’s victims in a time of limited medical knowledge.  The story an interesting glimpse into the history of medicine, though it is not as gripping as some of Jim Murphy’s other nonfiction books which have a stronger “survival story” element.  An American Plague is more history than survival story, but is still a fascinating read.

If you liked An American Plague, you might like other books by Jim Murphy, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, and A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse.

CAN YOU SURVIVE ANTARCTICA?: AN INTERACTIVE SURVIVAL ADVENTURE by Rachael Hanel

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Can you survive a trek through the frozen wilderness of Antarctica?  Choose to join a real historical Antarctic expedition or try your luck as a modern Antarctic explorer or scientist!  As you make choices, you learn about history, the Antarctic climate, and survival skills.  The “You Choose Books” series has a number of books set in historical and extreme survival environments, all of which use the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format as a vehicle for education.  These books are not as complex as many fictional Choose-Your-Own-Adventures–nor do they go into as much depth as many nonfiction books.  But they are great for stirring up interest in a subject.  As soon as I finished my “adventures,” I started looking up more info about the Scott and Admundsen expeditions online because the glimpse I got from this book had me hooked!  Great for reluctant readers, readers who like survival stories, and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure readers looking for a little more depth in content.  Check out the whole series!

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.

FREEDOM’S CHILDREN: YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS TELL THEIR OWN STORIES by Ellen Levine

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Ellen Levine compiled the stories of over a dozen African American civil rights activists, all of whom were children and teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  The stories these activists tell about their childhood struggles are at times shocking but always inspiring.  Readers will learn about some of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as small victories with hometown sit-ins and day-to-day struggles with segregation.  Intended for older school-age children and teens, this book includes frank and occasionally graphic discussions of the violence during that time period, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I used this book as the basis for a library program for children ages 7 & up and their parents.  I discussed the violence selectively–as an introduction for the younger kids that would not be traumatizing.  I did share one picture of protesters being attacked with fire hoses when we talked about peaceful protests and talked about how African American students were bullied at first when integrating schools.  I focused on the children and how they had used peaceful means of protest to help change attitudes in their country.

This program was very well-received by students and their parents.  Students were surprised to learn that children their age (and sometimes younger than they) were arrested for peaceful protests–and shocked to learn that some “colored” schools didn’t even have bathrooms or outhouses!  After the presentation, we had time for students to write or draw a reflection on what they had learned.  I gave them the following prompts:

  • One story that inspired me today was . . .
  • One time I saw injustice when . . .
  • One time I stood up for someone else when . . .
  • One time I stood up for myself when . . .
  • One time I was brave when . . .
  • If I were alive in 1950, my life would have been different because . . .

I was so impressed with their observations about injustice and bullying in their own school environments and their insights into how segregation would have impacted their lives–no matter what their race.  While the children wrote and drew, parents began a conversation about racism they had witnessed or experienced in their lifetimes.  A parent from South Korea discussed her experience with injustice and protests during her childhood and how it compared to the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was a very thoughtful and productive conversation.

This was one of the best-received programs I have ever done, and I found it personally inspiring, as well.  I highly recommend the book, and if any librarians/educators would like more information about the program, just shoot me an email!  I would be more than happy to share my presentation.

BLIZZARD: THE STORM THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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The blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States in March 1888 took the country and the fledgling National Weather Service completely by surprise and claimed hundreds of lives.  Though it was not the most devastating natural disaster the United States has ever faced, it drastically changed the way our nation viewed disaster preparedness and meteorology.  Jim Murphy tells the story of the great blizzard through the eyes of the people who experienced it–some who survived to tell the tale, and others who perished–while weaving in the science behind the storm and the big picture of the political and social climate that affected the responses of individuals and the government.  Although it is targeted for middle grade and teen readers, this fascinating and fast-paced book may be of interest to adults, as well!