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June 2023

Historical Fiction Roundup

30th October 2010

Blue Willow by Doris Gates

Janey and her family have been on the move since their farm failed in the dust storms of Texas.  Janey can’t even imagine staying in one place for more than a few months, and her dream is to settle in a house like the one pictured on her precious blue willow plate.  This Newbery Honor book told Janey’s story gently, and was enriched with illustrations by Paul Lantz, whose drawing style reminded me of Lois Lenski.

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen

A fictionalized account of the Todd family’s journey to Oregon, told through the eyes of 9 year old Mary.  Written for upper elementary/middle grades, the story is authentic, full of details and awe inspiring.

Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II
A Memoir by Annelex Hofstra Layson

When the Japanese invaded the island of Java during World War II, they imprisoned the island’s Dutch citizens in prison camps for the duration of the war.  Annelex was 4 years old when she was sent to a prison camp with her mother and grandmother.  In this slim volume, she shares her memories of that horrible experience in order to honor those who suffered, and to share the lessons of compassion, freedom, and positive thinking that she learned in the camps.

Annexed: A Novel by Sharon Dogar

Anne Frank’s story has been told in many ways by many people.  But what about Peter’s story?  For the first time, an author explores what life may have been like for Peter VanPels, hiding in the annex with Anne and 6 other people.  This novel is based on Anne’s diary, other historical documents and extensive research.  Haunting, powerful, heartbreaking.

I’ve read some great historical fiction recently, ranging from 1840’s Ireland to 1950’s New Jersey.    First up is the Children of the Famine trilogy by Marita Conlon-McKenna.  This juvenile fiction series follows 3 Irish children, orphaned in the Great Famine, as they search for a new home and a place to belong.  It would be interesting to compare with Nory Ryan’s Song.

Moving to the 1870’s and Idaho Territory.  In Jenny of the Tetons, Carrie is orphaned by an Indian attack as her family makes its way to Oregon.  With no where else to go, Carrie makes her home with Beaver Dick, a trapper and his Shoshoni wife, Jenny.  Beaver Dick and Jenny are based on real people, and each chapter begins with an excerpt from Beaver Dick’s journal.

Private Peaceful is the battlefield reflections of a 16 year old private in the British army.  The tension builds with each chapter as a crucial night comes to an end.  An excellent choice for middle school boys.

And finally, we have Newbery Honor winning Penny from Heaven.  11 year old Penny lives with her mother and her mother’s parents.  While her life with her mother’s family is quiet and controlled, it is her dead father’s family that provides noise and excitement.  During one eventful summer, Penny discovers the secrets behind her father’s death, and brings both sides of her family together.

This was a fantastic book.  Yolanda, her brother Andrew and her mother move from inner-city Chicago to Michigan.  There, Yolanda must re-establish her reputation as a tough, not to be messed with girl.  She also has to look out for her little brother Andrew, who communicates to the world with his harmonica.  But when Yolanda is busy with a new friend and Andrew is harmed, she know that it is up to her to make things right again.

There are some fantastic themes developed in this book: Friendship, family, loyalty, honesty, communication, love.  Through it all, Yolanda is convinced that her brother is a genius, and she will stop at nothing to prove it to the world.  This would be a great read-aloud in a fourth or fifth grade classroom.

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Readers Circle)A fascinating series, spanning 15 some years in Pakistan.  Shabanu is a desert girl, who through a series of tragic events, is married off to be the fourth wife of a much older, wealthy and powerful clan leader.  Desperate for freedom and safety for herself and her young daughter, Shabanu waits for the right time to seize control of her own future.

Shabanu, a Newbery Honor book was the first, and in my mind, the best book of the series.  Staples Haveliincludes rich Pakistani history and culture, and her tale of Shabanu being forced to leave her beloved family and desert home is amazing.  The remaining two books are good, and wrap up the story, but they aren’t of the same quality as the first.  Although I liked how the series ended overall, in The House of Djinn, Staples used djinn (mischievous spirits) to move thThe House of Djinne plot along.  These supernatural beings were not in keeping with the feel of the first two books, were very distracting, and not at all necessary for me.  Other than that, it’s an excellent series, well worth reading.

 Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison Captured by Indians from her Pennsylvania farm, Mary is separated from her family and eventually adopted by a Seneca tribe.  The only thing Mary has left from her family is her mother’s last words to her: “…make the best of things and be happy if you can…It don’t matter what happens, if you’re only strong and have great courage…”  Mary took these words to heart, and made a life for herself with her Seneca family.  Based on a true story, this is a wonderful book.

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