March 27, 2017

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Tense Pasts: Middle-Grade Historical Fiction | SLJ Spotlight

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With the recent abundance of novels set in dystopias and sci-fi futurescapes, it might be easy for readers to overlook how much drama and adventure lay in the past. Turn their attention toward yesteryears with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s poignant tale of a young girl overcoming a physical disability set during WWII, Kristin Levine’s powerful novel about the red scare of the 1950s, or Leigh Sauerwein’s lyrical meditation on loss, set in North Carolina after the end of the Civil War. Kids looking for something a bit lighter will enjoy Alison DeCamp’s fun and folksy debut with shades of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

warthatsavedmylifeBradley, Kimberly Brubaker. The War that Saved My Life. 302p. Dial. Jan. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780803740815; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781101637807.

Gr 4-6 –Bradley turns her keen historical eye from Monticello (Jefferson’s Sons, Penguin, 2011) to the British home front during World War II. Ada isn’t exactly sure how old she is; for as long as she can remember, she’s been a virtual prisoner in her mother’s third floor one-room apartment. She was born with a clubfoot and her mother uses her disability as an excuse to abuse her both emotionally and physically. Ada watches the world through the narrow confines of the apartment window, waves to neighbors in the street, and carefully gauges the danger of being beaten during each encounter with her hateful mother. She envies the freedom of her little brother, Jamie, who goes to school and generally roves the neighborhood at will. When her mother prepares to ship Jamie out to the countryside with other children being evacuated from London, Ada sneaks out with him. When the two fail to be chosen by any villagers, the woman in charge forces Susan Smith, a recluse, to take them in. Though Susan is reluctant and insists that she knows nothing about caring for children, she does so diligently and is baffled by the girl’s fearful flinching anytime Ada makes a mistake. Though uneducated, Ada is intensely observant and quick to learn. Readers will ache for her as she misreads cues and pushes Susan away even though she yearns to be enfolded in a hug. There is much to like here–Ada’s engaging voice, the vivid setting, the humor, the heartbreak, but most of all the tenacious will to survive exhibited by Ada and the villagers who grow to love and accept her.–Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ

neardeathDeCamp, Alison. My Near-Death Adventures. 272p. Crown. Feb. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780385390446; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780385390453.

Gr 4-6 –Stan, the protagonist of DeCamp’s lively and folksy debut novel, lives with his mother in Michigan in the late 1800s when a mysterious envelope arrives that changes their lives. Eleven-year-old Stan (who is literally counting the days until he turns twelve) has always assumed that his “long-lost father” is dead, but with the arrival of the envelope–and Stan’s grandmother–he learns that his father is alive. Stan’s “near-death” adventures begin when he travels to his uncle’s logging camp where his mother and grandmother will cook for “real lumberjacks.” With his cousin Geri (older than Stan by “twenty-three months and three days”) as his guide, Stan navigates life with a group of colorful characters, using vivid language to describe the loggers and his campaign for his mother’s permission to participate in the annual logrolling event. While Stan helps with chores, forms friendships with the loggers, and feels uneasy about the interest several men express in his mother, his rich imagination finds an outlet in the scrapbook he fills with magazine ads and clippings, copies of which are scattered throughout the novel. More poignant is the life Stan imagines his father having while waiting for his young son to find him. “I imagine he’s out in the world doing something amazing, like mining gold or riding through the Wild West on horseback,” Stan thinks. A secondary plot about Geri’s interest in becoming a doctor enriches the story. Stan is a likable character with an exaggerated view of his abilities and a good heart. DeCamp’s novel is a solid choice for fans of Rodman Philbrick’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (Scholastic, 2009).–Shelley Sommer, Inly School, Scituate, MA

papercowboyLevine, Kristin. The Paper Cowboy. 352p. Putnam. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399163289; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698171749. LC 2014004421.

Gr 5 Up –Twelve-year-old Tommy struggles with a multitude of problems as he grows up in the small working class, immigrant community of Downer’s Grove, Illinois during the early 1950s. His mother, who suffers from debilitating mental illness frequently lashes out in fits of unpredictable violence that affect the entire family, including his father and two younger sisters. When his beloved older sister is severely burned in an accident that he blames on himself, he takes over her early morning paper route, meeting neighbors and encountering challenges along the way. Despite his valiant efforts to do right and “be like a cowboy,” Tommy finds himself acting more like an outlaw, stealing from a local shop and bullying other boys, especially a new-to-town, scar-faced boy he calls “Little Skinny.” When Tommy plants a Communist newspaper in Little Skinny’s dad’s shop, he realizes that his latest prank may have gone too far when it almost puts the shop out of business. As he learns more about the lives of those with whom he interacts, he feels remorse and tries to set things straight. Doing so requires telling the truth, finding surprising answers and nobly asking others for much needed help. Levine deftly captures a time period filled with an overarching paranoia and small-town life filled with tensions on many levels. The story itself is faintly reminiscent of Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, 2011), but without the humorous relief. Scenes of violent beatings, emotional hospital visits, and other family and social drama make this historical novel almost too realistic at times. Give it to readers who want to learn about the effects of bullying or surviving life’s tough situations.–Madeline J. Bryant, Los Angeles Public Library

rivermusicSauerwein, Leigh. River Music. 132p. ebook available. Namelos. 2014. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781608981861; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781608981878. LC 2014941719.

Gr 7 Up –The music of Sauerwein’s new novel refers to the chorus of voices that narrate this elegiac story set in North Carolina in the years following the end of the Civil War. At the center of the story is Rainy, a 10-year-old girl who knows very little about her personal history. Abandoned on a doorstep as a baby, she lives peacefully with Will, a kind farmer, and his son, Ben. When a series of valuable gifts (that are seemingly meant for Rainy) begin to appear, she wants to know more. Using voices from people, both black and white, whose lives are inextricably tangled and period details to enrich her story, Sauerwein provides a glimpse into lives touched by war and displacement. The narrators include Gabrielle, Rainy’s birth mother who had a relationship with another man while her husband was fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness, and Robert Ray, an older man who befriends Rainy and knows the truth about the young girl’s life. The passages narrated by Will are especially moving. He is an inherently good and trustworthy person and his instinct to protect Rainy in the midst of his own despair is poignant. River Music is well constructed, but it requires a thoughtful and mature reader. Rather than being plot driven, this is a slim internal story that is primarily a meditation on loneliness, loss, and love.–Shelley Sommer, Inly School, Scituate, MA

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  1. We are encouraging students to read more non fiction, there is a need for non fiction at the middle school level.