Monday, January 31, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature, by George Sullivan (Clarion Books, 2011) ISBN 978-0-547-18203-2

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

After reading Candace Fleming's Barnum biography earlier this year,  I was happy to have the opportunity to learn more about Tom Thumb, "discovered" and made famous by Barnum himself.  This very accessible biography by George Sullivan, who has written more than 100 non-fiction books for young people, is a fascinating book for children or adults.

Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum
Charles Stratton was born in 1838, and was actually over 9 pounds at birth.  But before his first birthday, Charley seemed to have stopped growing.  The doctors were perplexed, since Charley was healthy in all other ways and perfectly proportioned.  Because of his small size and winning personality, Barnum offered to show him at his museum in New York.  Although his mother was initially against the plan, Charley's parents agreed to try it out for a sum of $3 a week.  Not yet five years old, Charley's show business career had begun as General Tom Thumb, a name Barnum chose from English folklore.

Because Tom Thumb and Barnum's lives were so intimiately entwined, the book provides plenty of anecdotes and background about Barnum's life as well as the "freaks" at his museum.  With the extensive archival photographs and original documents, such as the text of one of Tom Thumb's scripts, we are able to easily imagine his shows, in which, among other antics, he sang, danced, and sold kisses to the ladies.  Tom's popularity grew quickly, and before long his salary went up to a princely $25 per week.

Although Tom's exhibition as entertainment may seem distasteful to our twenty-first century sensibilities about people who are "different," the author is careful to put Tom's career in the perspective of the time.  No conventional careers would have been open to Charley other than entertainment, and under Barnum's tutelage he because very wealthy and traveled the world, even performing for Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children.  Background is also provided on dwarves throughout history, explaining how dwarves had a long tradition of serving as entertainers at royal courts and elsewhere. 
Tom Thumb's Wedding in 1863

Readers of this book will see how Barnum fanned the cult of celebrity to maximize his--and Tom Thumb's--profits.  When Tom Thumb married his miniature sweetheart, Lavinia (she was 32 inches tall, and like Tom, perfectly proportioned), it was a huge nationally covered celebrity event.  During the dark days of the Civil War in 1863, The Fairy Wedding, as it was called by the press, rivaled the war for newspaper inches, and police had to put up barricades to handle the crowds waiting to see the bride and groom arrive at the church in New York.  The couple and bridal party were photographed by no less than Matthew Brady, photographer to President Lincoln, and copies of the prints were mass produced as wedding souvenirs.  Tom Thumb, as the author points out, was a true celebrity in a time when there were few, as well as a person who earned respect as an entertainer, not just a curiosity.

This book contains plenty of information for children looking for a biography to read either for pleasure or for a school assignment and would be a great addition to both public and school library collections.  A bibliography, index, and author's notes are included. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: The Grave Robber's Secret, by Anna Myers (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Release date:  February 15,  2011

Author Anna Myers' newest historical novel for children is a dark tale indeed, opening with a creepy graveyard scene in which young Robby and his Da steal a corpse from a freshly made grave.  The theft is described in great detail, as poor Robby has to get into the grave with the corpse in order to help his father remove the body.  As long as they leave the clothes and any valuables, no crime was considered to have been committed.  The body, that of a young girl, is then sold to the medical school, where Robby meets Dr. Bell, the head surgeon. Robby is disgusted by this work, but his father insists Robby help him, threatening otherwise to take Robby's mother along.  
Robby's mother runs a boarding house in 19th century Philadelphia, with only one lodger, the kind but very elderly Miss Stone.   But it appears their luck might be changing when an important-looking man, William Burke, shows up with his young daughter Martha to rent rooms.  Robby's intuition tells him that something about Burke is sinister, and when he follows him to see what he's up to, he discovers Burke is a professional gambler.  But there's more to Burke than gambling, and soon he gets Robby's Da involved in his schemes.  Now Robby doesn't have to go robbing graves during the night anymore, and indeed he gets a small job working for Dr. Bell at the medical school.  But there's a truly evil project going on right under Robby's nose:  one that results in several murders carried out right in the boarding house!  Can Robby expose Burke's evil-doing without leading his own father straight to the executioner? 

An author's note explains how this book was partly inspired by the infamous case of Burke and Hare, who committed a series of gruesome murders in a Scotland boarding house in order to sell the bodies to medical schools.  The publicity about this case led to a law passed in Great Britain making it a crime to take bodies and at the same time providing that unclaimed bodies be given for medical school use.  Grave robbing was prevalent in the United States as well.

Although the publisher recommends this book for ages 8-12,  I would suggest the book for middle schoolers (10-14) because of the very dark nature of the content.  The story itself is well paced and exciting, and could be a good choice for reluctant readers looking for a historical title, particularly those who like "scary stories."  Robby is an appealing character who tries to do what's right, even at the expense of his own family.  The book does play to the stereotype of the long-suffering Irish mother and the drunk, abusive Irish father.  Robby's mother makes excuses for the father's behavior, telling Robby not to hate his father, but rather to feel sorry for him and to pray for him.  She tells her son that she can't leave his father, but Robby can when he's old enough. While this may offend out 21st century sensibilities, many women indeed were trapped in unhappy marriages during this time, with no feasible way out, especially since their husband controlled all the property.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: In Trouble, by Ellen Levine (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011)

Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Abortion is a topic few YA authors dare to broach in their books, and this reality alone would be enough reason for me to applaud award-winning author Ellen Levine's 2011 young adult novel In Trouble.  But the book has plenty of merit as an unsentimental look at the hard choices (or lack thereof) teens confronted when they became pregnant in the 1950's.

The film noir style cover, portraying a lonely teenaged girl waiting late at night on a deserted street, sets the stage for this dark novel set in 1956 New York, when choices for young girls who got themselves "in trouble" were limited indeed.  The author tells the story of best friends Jamie and Elaine, who both find themselves with unwanted pregnancies while in high school.  However, the pregnancies are ultimately dealt with in very different ways, with a sensitive portrayal of how two different families dealt with this difficult situation.

Note:  some spoilers....

Elaine has a steady boyfriend already in college, and is sure that he will marry her when she tells him about the pregnancy.  Jamie's circumstances, on the other hand, are slowly unveiled by the author through a series of nightmares as the reader realizes that she was date-raped by a friend of her sophisticated Manhattan cousin.  Jamie's family is already under plenty of stress, since her dad has just been released from prison, having been convicted for refusing to answer questions during the McCarthy hearings.  But when they discover her circumstances, her family steps up, even helping her find a doctor who will do an abortion, despite abortions being illegal at the time.  Elaine, on the other hand, is sent to a home for unwed Catholic girls, where she is pressured to give up her baby for adoption despite her wishes.

In Trouble is based on dozens of interviews Levine conducted, and although the characters are fictional, each event in the book actually happened to someone.  In an author's note, Levine explains why she felt compelled to tell Elaine and Jamie's stories.  "If we don't know what has happened, we can't appreciate our choices today and what we might lose if laws are changed," she writes.  She explains that although we might think things are totally different today, with the availability of legal abortion, in 87% of U.S. counties you can't get a legal abortion, because there's no doctor who will do it.

I believe this is an important novel for young people, particularly girls to read; unfortunately, I'm not sure it will be widely purchased by school and public libraries.  Despite the fact that Levine has won many awards for her work, including a Caldecott Honor for Henry's Freedom Box, few of the library systems in my area (Southern California) have purchased it, although the novel came out in September.  Whether this is because of the controversial subject matter or limited budgets, I can't say, but I hope librarians will not be reluctant to add this to their collections because the book deals with abortion.  It is a gripping story that deserves to be on the shelves.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review: Murder Afloat, by Jane Leslie Conly (Hyperion Books for Children, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Benjamin has a happy life in 19th century Baltimore in his affluent family, with his own pony, and no worries other than planning a picnic with his pretty neighbor Jane.  That is, until he is grabbed with a group of German immigrants and forced to work as part of the crew on the Ella Dawn, a decrepit oyster boat.  The Captain, who rarely surfaces, is a cruel drunk, and the first mate, Plum, runs the ship with a heavy hand.  They dub Ben "Little Gentleman" and laugh when he tells them his father is a wealthy lawyer.

Little did Ben know that the delicious oysters he and his family enjoyed at the holidays were likely to have been caught by a half-starved man or boy coerced into working on the oyster barges.  The work was considered so awful that no one would do it for wages, so the men are locked into the hold each night until the oyster season is over.  Although on the barge Ben no longer goes to school, he gets an education in life that he could never have imagined at home in Baltimore.

Conly writes in detail about the hard life the men on the barges faced, with long hours of backbreaking work and constant hunger.  Yet in spite of the hard work and awful conditions, Ben develops a love of the sea, and his family and luxurious lifestyle seem only a distant memory.  Will he be able to escape his bondage and return to his family?  Or does he no longer want the conventional life of a lawyer that his family had planned for him?

Fans of adventure stories like Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle are sure to enjoy this fast-paced, exciting tale of murder and adventure on the high seas.  It's also a coming-of-age tale as Ben struggles to understand what his path in life should be.  At 164 pages, this is a quick read that should appeal to reluctant readers as well as any young people looking for an action-filled adventure story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: Fallen Grace, by Mary Hooper (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Release date:  February 1, 2011

British young adult novelist Mary Hooper channels Charles Dickens in her newest historical novel for teens, Fallen Grace.  A spellbinding gothic mystery set in Victorian London complete with orphans, tragedy, and evil villains, Fallen Grace tells the story of orphans Grace Parkes and her simple sister Lily, who come from a respectable family but are now barely managing to stay alive on the cruel streets of London by selling bunches of watercress.  As the novel opens, the unwed Grace delivers a stillborn illegitimate baby.

Through her attempt to find somewhere suitable to bury her baby, Grace meets two individuals who will change her life; one, James Solent, is a handsome young lawyer's clerk who is attending his sister's funeral, and the other, the odious Mrs. Emmeline Unwin, is the wife of the owner of the largest firm of undertakers in London, a very profitable enterprise indeed.  Mrs. Unwin thinks the beautiful Grace would make a wonderful mute, a young girl paid to be a silent mourner at a funeral, and wishes to employ her.  Grace shudders at the thought, but when she and her sister find themselves evicted from their lodgings not too long after, she finds herself with nowhere else to turn.

Little does Grace know that barristers have placed an ad in a London newspaper looking for her sister, since it turns out they are the recipients of a valuable inheritance.  But the evil Unwins want to claim the inheritance for themselves, and are willing to lie and cheat and even get rid of poor Lily and Grace if they have to!  Will Grace be able to somehow outwit the evil Unwins, and claim what is rightly hers?

I couldn't put down this novel, as I became engrossed in the story of Grace and Lily, the terrible wrongs done them by the charities of the time, and the difficulties of their lives as they try to survive on the street in London.  Victoria and her beloved husband Albert appear briefly in the story, as does the most popular novelist of the times, Charles Dickens.  Most fascinating of all to me were the details of the London funeral trade and the Victorian cult of mourning, which includes the niceties of mourning dress and behavior, fanned by Queen Victoria's early mourning for her husband.  A special railway even existed to take mourners, separated by class, of course, to a vast cemetery built outside of London.

This is a terrific book to recommend to teens who like orphan tales, Victoriana, suspense and romance combined, and an excellent purchase for school or public libraries.  It makes a great contemporary read-along for a number of Dickens novels typically read in high school, such as Great Expectations.  Even if Dickens himself didn't appear briefly in the story, we can't help but think of Dickens' novels when reading Falling Grace, with its honest, noble, kind, and beautiful heroine in desperate circumstances, the money-hungry villains who take advantage of innocent children, and the requisite happy ending.

The book includes historical notes from the author.

Fallen Grace is one of 60 (wow!) nominees for the Carnegie Award 2011, the British equivalent of the Newbery.  For a complete list of nominees, click here.

Here's the very atmospheric book trailer:

The book was released last year in the UK; other reviews can be found on Goodreads as well as many UK blogs, including:

Wondrous Reads; Chicklish; Rhiana Reads; Heaven, Hell & Purgatory; The Bookbag; Scribble; and Lovely Treez Reads.

Hooper's next novel, Velvet, will also be set in the Victorian era; according to the author's website, it looks at fraudulent spiritualism, and is also a love story.  I look forward to reading it!

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

VELVET. It’s a look at Victorian spiritualism - fraudulent Victorian spiritualism, and also a love story.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bloggiesta Finish Line--Ole!

It's Sunday night and I'm done with my blogging weekend.  I didn't participate in as many of the mini-challenges as I would have liked, but I hope to go back to them in the next few weeks and explore them.  I did manage to create an About Me page, add an alphabetical by author index, clean up my labels so there are way fewer of them, hopefully rendering them more useful, write seven reviews, which still didn't get me completely caught up, and read two historical fiction novels to be reviewed on my blog.  We had such a picture-perfect gorgeous, warm weekend in Southern California I couldn't quite spend all my time indoors blogging!

Tomorrow I am off to a two-day Infopeople seminar sponsored by the California State Library on "Leading from any Position."  I'm looking forward to gaining all kinds of new insights and meeting some interesting new library-world colleagues.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bloggiesta Update!

Day I of Bloggiesta is over, and I worked for about five hours redoing my About Me page and creating an index of reviews that are listed alphabetical by author, as well as tweaking my alphabetical by title list.  Day II I'm going to work on redoing my labels so there are far fewer of them, hopefully making them more useful.  Day III--catch up on reviews!

How are you doing with your Bloggiesta goals if you are participating?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bloggiesta Begins!

This is my first year participating in Bloggiesta, sponsored by Mawbooks, and I'm looking forward to spending some quality time with my blog and other bloggers over the weekend.  I'm especially excited about some of the mini-challenges, particularly blogging goals, organizing your books (in piles all over the house at my home), and meeting new bloggers. 

My personal goals for the weekend include some rather tedious housekeeping chores, such as redoing my book index to make it more user-friendly, redoing my "About Me," and continuing to work on getting caught up on reviews, particularly books I want to highlight during February for African-American History Month and March for Women's History Month.  I'll also be wrapping up some planning for the inaugural Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month blog project that I'm working on with Shelf-Employed; we've filled nearly all our available dates for bloggers and authors but if you're interested in participating we're going to be posting links during the month of March as well.  Please check out that project at 

Happy blogging to all the Bloggiesta participants!  And if you still want to sign up, head over to MawBooks and sign up with Mr. Linky. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blog Tour: Author Dori Jones Yang, author of Daughter of Xanadu

Mongolian girls in traditional dress

I am delighted today to participate in the blog tour for author Dori Jones Yang, whose exciting new book, Daughter of Xanadu, was reviewed yesterday on my blog.  I asked Dori to tell us more about her research for this exotic story and share some of her photos of her travels.  After reading what she has to say, you too will want to go off to explore Mongolia--or, if you prefer, be an armchair explorer and read Daughter of Xanadu!

I love exploring places and times that are long ago and far away. For this book, that meant finding out about an era I knew nothing about: the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. That steep part of the learning curve is the most fun for me, so the research proved fascinating.

Marco Polo was my starting point. I knew that he was one of the first Europeans to go to China and that he wrote a book about it. But I had never read his book – and I didn’t realize that he spent 17 years there, from the age of 21 to 38. In his book, he never mentions a special someone he met there – and there must have been!  So my imagination took flight. Who might she have been?  Why did he stay there so long?

She must have been Asian. And she was probably Mongolian, since the Mongols were ruling China back then. But she would not have been an ordinary girl. I wanted her to be connected with the emperor, Khubilai Khan, who was 60 when Marco arrived. Aha! His granddaughter. I asked a Mongolian woman for some believable names, and she came up with the name Emmajin. But how and why would a princess meet a foreign merchant? I had to stretch my imagination even further.

In Marco Polo’s book, he tells the story of Ai-Jaruk, the daughter of a Mongol khan, who is so strong she defeats all her suitors in wrestling – and thereby wins the right to live in freedom like a man. I did some research on this woman warrior and found out she would have been Emmajin’s second cousin, though quite a bit older. How would it affect Emmajin to hear of a woman who achieved respect by becoming a successful warrior? And how might it change her, to get to know Marco Polo, a foreigner from a distant land the Great Khan had not yet conquered?

Many writers have written novels about Marco Polo, usually from his point of view.  I decided to try a totally different approach, and write from her perspective. What might a European have looked like to an East Asian who had never seen blue/green eyes or curly brown hair?

Once I decided my main character was Mongolian, I started a whole new line of research. I knew a lot about China, and I even speak Mandarin Chinese, but I knew nothing about Mongolian customs and culture.  So I read a lot, then – of course! – I had to go and visit Mongolia. Wow, was that fun. Mongolia is so different from any place I’d ever been.

Traditional Mongolian yurts
By tradition, Mongolians lived in yurts (they call them gers), tents that they move several times a year when their flocks need fresh pastures. They ate only meat and dairy products, and their favorite alcoholic drink was fermented mare’s milk. (An acquired taste!) Men and women both wore a type of robe called a del, with a sash at the waist. In Mongolia, I got to stay in a ger, drink mare’s milk, buy a del, ride camels and Mongolian horses, and even play their favorite musical instrument, the horsehead fiddle. Very fun.

The author plays a horsehead fiddle
So – did Marco Polo return to Venice with a beautiful Asian girl? Did he ever marry or have children? You can do research and find the answers. But to find out what happened with him and Emmajin, you’ll need to read Daughter of Xanadu.

I got carried away! I hope you will be, too.

Please visit my website,, and check out my lovely book trailer video at
(It has horsehead fiddle music in the background.)

And don't forget to enter to win a copy of Dori's book; just leave a comment with your e-mail address at this link.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway: Daughter of Xanadu, by Dori Jones Yang (Delacorte Press, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Looking for a book for teens who crave adventure, romance, strong heroines, an exotic setting, and plenty of actionLook no further than Daughter of Xanadu, a 2011 release from author Dori Jones Yang

East meets West in this tale of the fictional Princess Emmajin, an athletic, strong, and of course, beautiful young woman who keeps up with her male cousins in all kinds of athletic pursuits.  She dreams of joining the army of her grandfather, the Great Khubilai Khan, and pursuing glory on the battlefield for the Mongol Empire, then at the peak of its power.  She does not wish for a conventional pampered life of court gossip, marriage, and children like the other young Mongol women who surround her.

But Emmajin does not expect to meet the charming, handsome young merchant Marco Polo, who has come from the faraway city of Venezia, in a land known as Christendom not yet ruled by the Great Khan.  They meet in Xanadu, the Khan's summer palace, with its lush and magical gardens described in Marco Polo's writings and inspiring the famous Coleridge poem.  The Great Khan himself has asked Emmajin to get to know the foreigner, with the goal of gathering intelligence on their distant country.  But as she gets to know the young Marco, she finds herself more and more attracted to his foreign ways, from his clear light eyes, to his strange red beard, to his lilting accent when speaking the Mongol tongue, to his gift for storytelling.  As her heart's desire of galloping off with the army seems more and more possible, she is torn between her loyalty to Khan and country and her attraction to Marco.
What an impossible situation!  I had always been loyal to my Khan and my people, but now that loyalty required me to make an enemy of a man who was gradually becoming my friend.  
When fate makes them traveling partners as they travel across China together, Emmajin with a military unit and Marco on a secret mission for the Khan, they grow even closer as they share many adventures together.  But Emmajin knows Marco is not a suitable match as a husband for a Mongol princess--how will she handle this forbidden attraction, when his casual touch makes her tingle with desire?

Without divulging the ending, let me just comment that while the conclusion will probably please teen readers, it does not seem totally in keeping with the Mongol culture described in the novel.  Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed this swashbuckling tale of medieval China.  Emmajin is a passionate, strong heroine facing difficult life choices as she is torn between her own ambition, what society and her family expect of her, and her forbidden attraction to a foreigner.  Marco Polo himself has great appeal as a foil to the valiant Emmajin.  The book is carefully researched, and full of fascinating vignettes of the exotic Mongol culture and how, at this time period, it was changing and absorbing more Chinese elements, ranging from palace architecture to the drinking of tea.  Also noteworthy is the contrast between Mongol and Christian culture of the time, and the Khan's interest in hosting foreigners from all over the world.

Some readers may think the author was inspired to write this tale by the legend of Mulan, the Chinese woman who dressed like a man to take her elderly father's place in the army, she was in fact by the story of Ai-Jaruk or Khutulun, an actual niece of Khubilai Khan who accompanied the army on military campaign.  Her story was told by Marco Polo in his memoirs.

If you are interested in winning a copy of this exciting new novel, please leave a comment below with your e-mail address so that I can contact you if you are the winner, which will be chosen through a random number generator on Sunday, January 23.

And watch for a guest post from author Dori Jones Yang tomorrow, telling us more about the fascinating research she did to write this historical novel.

Below is a book trailer with footage from the author's research trips to China.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: The Civil War: Profiles (One Event, Six People), by Aaron Rosenberg (Scholastic, 2011) ISBN 978-0545237567

Recommended for ages 8-12.

The first in a new history series from Scholastic, this slim volume focuses on biographical sketches of six key players during the Civil War: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Clara Barton, George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, and Matthew Brady, and how their lives intertwined.  Suitable for elementary school-aged readers, the book is abundantly illustrated in full color, with photographs, maps, and paintings selected to bring these famous individuals to life.

Each person is profiled in a separate chapter, about 20 pages long, telling about his or her childhood, early years, their families, and their accomplishments, in an easy-to-read format.  The biographical format also allows the author to compare and contrast the different individuals, explaining how Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had many things in common, for example, both having started their lives poor and having become famous speakers and leaders, and how Matthew Brady's photography helped make Lincoln president.

This is a good choice for students interested in learning more about famous individuals from the Civil War, but it is not a book chronicling the war itself.  While the information provided is not in-depth, it provides a useful introduction to the various figures profiled, and may spur students' interest in exploring their lives in more depth in other biographies or Internet resources.    Enough details are provided on each of the six figures to be used in an elementary school biographical report as well; the book could also be a good selection for older middle school or even high school students with lower reading skills, since the small size and low page count (150 pages) make it less intimidating for reluctant readers than some other nonfiction choices.  Included in the text is a bibliography of relevant books, articles, and websites, as well as an index.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month 2011: Join our Inaugural Project!

For several months I have been working with fellow-blogger Lisa at Shelf-Employed on a special project to commemorate Women's History Month, celebrated during the month of March.  We have founded a special blog to celebrate across the kidlitosphere, the community of bloggers specializing in children's and young adult literature.  

Why celebrate women's history and children's literature?  Not so long ago, women's history was virtually ignored in the K-12 curriculum.  In 2011, we are fortunate to have many resources for our children to learn about women's history, from fabulous biographical picture books about remarkable women to historical novels to compelling history books written to especially appeal to young people.  We hope this blog will help you identify some of these resources, learn about new books on women's history, and enjoy reflections by some distinguished authors in the field, including Kathleen Krull, Candace Fleming, and Tanya Lee Stone, among others.   We will be featuring a post each day in March by a different author in children's literature or by a blogger who specializes in writing about children's or young adult literature.  Each post will tie into Women's History Month, and we hope that this project will become an annual event.  

Interested in participating?  Check out further information on our JOIN page, and then e-mail me as soon as possible at margo_tanenbaum(at)yahoo(dot)com or Lisa at shelf-employed(at)gmail(dot)com.  If we are unable to accommodate all those who would like to contribute, we encourage you to write a post on your blog about Women's History Month during the month of March and we will provide links to all appropriate posts.  Also, you can already sign up to "follow" this blog through Blogger, RSS, or e-mail.  We will also soon have a blog button up that you can post on your blog as well. 

Please feel free to leave a comment here as well if you have any questions!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: The Storm Before Atlanta, by Karen Schwabach (Random House, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

There's no shortage of historical fiction novels for children about the Civil War, but with the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict this year, this thought-provoking new novel by Karen Schwabach is a worthy addition to any school or public library's collection.   The novel tells the story of ten year old Jeremy, who wants nothing more than to enlist in one of the New York regiments of the Union Army as a drummer boy and gloriously die for his country.  Continually told he's too young to enlist, he goes off to find the war himself--to follow the army until they take him. Soon he joins up with the 107th New York Regiment from Elmira, takes his oath, and gets a uniform, a pair of shoes, the promise of $13 a month, and best of all, a glorious drum.  Traveling to Georgia, Jeremy and the 107th become part of a new corp led by General Hooker, on the march.  "They were not told where they were going or why.  It wasn't a soldier's business to know that."  But Jeremy can't wait to "see the elephant," as the soldiers called those who had seen action, but all they seem to do is march and wait.

We're also introduced to to two other key characters, whose lives will become intertwined with Jeremy's:  Dulcie, a spunky and very bright slave girl who runs away from her cruel mistress to find the Union Army, and eventually becomes a medic for a Union field doctor, and a friendly young Confederate soldier, Charlie Jackson, just a bit older than Jeremy, who's looking to trade for coffee or anything else.

War isn't as black and white as Jeremy had imagined back home.  Jeremy knows that Charlie shouldn't really be his friend, but he's hungry for company his own age.  And Charlie, on the Confederate side, wonders why he's fighting a war started by a bunch of rich men who "Told us we had to stand by the South.  Then they went home to their families, to watch their slaves makin' money for 'em."  And both sides learn that war is more about rain and mud and staying alive than glory and being a hero.

Schwabach creates sympathetic characters in her three young protagonists, as well as a very convincing sense of place.  The reader feels right there in the middle of the action, as 98,000 Union soldiers march into Georgia complete with hundreds of wagons, cattle to be butchered, ambulances, servants, contraband slaves, and even some dogs and a pet pig.  We experience along with Jeremy and Dulcie the chaos, blood, and horrors of the battlefield and its aftermath.  There's plenty of action, drama, and even a surprise ending (no spoilers here!) as Jeremy and his comrades in the First Division march closer to Atlanta.

The author includes a brief historical note with additional background information about the characters, many of whom were real people, and a bibliography of selected sources.  To learn more about events across the country commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, see the website of the Civil War Trust.  

Other reviews:
Tribute Books Reviews

I'm planning to compile a list later this spring of top 10 novels for young people about the Civil War.  What's one that you've read that should definitely be on my list?  Let me know your favorites in the comment field below.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Review: Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce (Dear America Series) by Lois Lowry (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12

With the relaunch of its Dear America series last year, Scholastic is not cutting corners, recruiting some of our most beloved writers for young people to add to this acclaimed historical fiction series for young people.  This particular title, written by two-time Newbery winner Lois Lowry, chronicles the life of eleven-year-old Lydia Pierce in Portland, Maine of 1918, orphaned along with her brother by the deadly Spanish flu epidemic.  Initially sent to live with relatives who can't afford to keep them, they are then sent to be raised in a Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake

The adjustment to the world of the Shakers is difficult indeed.  Because Lydia knows nothing of the Shakers, we learn along with her through about their customs and lifestyle.  She is struck by her first view of their settlement:  "It seemed to be a whole village, but quite small, and it was amazingly tidy.  It made me think of a toy village, built for dolls."  She was shocked to have her few meager possessions taken from her, told by one of the Shaker sisters that all that they had belonged to them all.  She was equally surprised to be separated from her brother after learning that men and women's lives in the community are quite distinct; even though they consider themselves brethren and sisters, they don't converse, and have no physical contact.  Because they don't marry, they take in orphans, who are free when grown up to go "into the world" or take vows to stay in the community.  Even their language seems strange and old-fashioned to Lydia.

Although both she and her brother are struggling with their grief over the loss of their parents and baby sister, but her brother seems unusually withdrawn, and when he runs away, she can't help but worry about him.  

But as the year passes, Lydia comes to admire and even love the kindly Shaker sisters, who teach her their beautiful handicrafts, songs, ways of worship, and finally, bring her a feeling of peace. Although the book encompasses only a year in Lydia's life, Lowry provides an afterword in which she tells us what became of Lydia and her brother Daniel.  Did they stay with the Shakers or leave the religious life behind?

As is typical with this series, a historical note at the end of the novel provides invaluable context for young readers about both the outbreak of the Spanish flu epidemic and the history of the Shakers, including information on present-day Sabbathday Lake.  We also learn that Lowry was inspired to write this title after buying an old farmhouse in southwest Maine, not far from the Sabbathday Lake community, where three Shakers remain in residence.

Unlike some other titles in the Dear America series, this novel is not action-packed; instead, it contains many details about the Shaker lifestyle and not a lot of action and conflict.  The conflict in the story is more internal, dwelling on whether Lydia and Daniel can adapt their hearts to the Shaker ways.  I found that its quiet style seems to fit with the Shaker theme, and the book should appeal to those children who like more contemplative stories as well as those who might be interested in learning more about different religions in our country. 

Young people who would like to read additional books about the Shakers might consider:

Anna's World by Wim Coleman (Chiron, 2009):  Takes place in a Shaker community in the 1840's.
Susannah, by Janet Hickman (Harper Trophy, 2000):   Takes place in 1810 on the Ohio frontier.
Shaker Hearts, by Ann Warren Turner (David R. Godine, 2002):  A picture book about the Shakers.
The Shakers:  American Religious Experience, by Jean Kinney Williams (Franklin Watts, 1997):  Examine the history, beliefs, and way of life of this religious group for grades 6 and up.

You can also view or recommend Ken Burns' documentary The Shakers.  Filmed in 1989, it features not only historical footage but also interviews with some of the few remaining Shakers at that time.

Sabbathday Lake is the only active Shaker community still in existence, although various Shaker communities, including Sabbathday Lake, are now historic monuments, and can be toured by the public.  Others include Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, and Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky.  I visited Pleasant Hill myself over 20 years ago and found it fascinating.

To see a recent interview with Lois Lowry, check out Lee Wind's blog I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell do I Read?

Disclosure:  ARC provided by publisher.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Big Year for Children's Historical Fiction and the Newbery

Sometimes when I tell people that I blog about children's historical fiction, they are surprised, wondering if there are still titles in that genre being published now that everything in the publishing world is vampires and werewolves.

But lo and behold, I couldn't help but notice that both the Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest (congratulations to author Clare Vanderpool--and it's her first novel, no less!) and three of the four Newbery Honor picks this year are historical fiction (and not surprisingly, given the focus of this blog, I had read all of them, although I didn't get to Moon Over Manifest until the end of 2010 and was still trying to decide whether to review more 2010 titles or not). The three honor books, Margi Preus' Heart of a Samurai, Rita Williams' Garcia's One Crazy Summer, and Jennifer Holm's Turtle in Paradise, were all reviewed here on my blog around the time of their release (titles link to my reviews).

I was also delighted to see that A Sick Day for Amos McGee won the Caldecott; sometimes I find that the Caldecott winners, while always beautiful to look at, don't always have strong kid appeal.  Definitely not the case with Amos McGee, a great read-aloud for preschoolers and lower elementary school age kids, full of kid-pleasing zoo animal characters and a storyline that is touching and funny, but not sentimental and maudlin.

Congratulations to all the winners, and especially to all the committee members who spend so many hours in meetings and reading all the nominated titles!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In My Mailbox/What's Coming Up in Historical Fiction this spring

This week I should be calling this meme, hosted by The Story Siren, In My Car, since that was how I lugged back a large number of terrific historical fiction for kids and teens ARCS from ALA in San Diego.  OK, some of them are going to blogging friends who couldn't make it to ALA, but the huge number of free books available seems to provoke some kind of weird book hoarding disease in me as I wander around saying to myself, I must have that one, and that one, and that one!  It seems to be a disease rampant among librarians, given the huge (and heavy) bags everyone was carrying around.  Personally, I prefer the "get a gigantic bag, fill it up to the brim, take it to the bag check, and start again" method.

I was able to get my hands on virtually all the upcoming children's and YA historical fiction books I had on my personal radar, plus some that I hadn't been aware of.  They are now sitting proudly on a special shelf reserved for books I am planning to blog about.  Then of course there's the ones I really want to read, but don't fit into my blog (usually I review those on Goodreads/Amazon), and that's another huge pile, and pile #3 is all the adult books I brought home that I thought would appeal either to my husband or that I wanted to try for myself.  I went to the Harper Collins adult release preview, and everything they talked about sounded so fantastic I could keep myself busy just on those titles alone!  I also attended their children's preview--I love attending these events because they manage to drum up such enthusiasm for each book that by the time they're done you can't wait to get your hands on them (the books, I mean, not the Harper Collins reps...)

In rough order of their release, here are the middle grade and YA historical fiction titles I picked up that are coming out soon and that I will be reviewing in the coming months, with links to their Goodreads blurbs:

The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell
The Grave Robber's Secret, by Anna Myers
Fallen Grace, by Mary Hooper
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
Strings Attached by Judy Blundell
The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
The Fitzosbornes in Exile,  by Michelle Cooper
In the Shadow of the Lamp, by Susanne Dunlap
The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird
Dear America:  Cannons at Dawn (Valley Forge, 1779), by Kristiana Gregory
The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow
Belladonna by Mary Finn
The Revenant by Sonia Gensler
Lunch-Box Dream, by Tony Abbott
The Auslander, by Paul Dowswell
Sylvia & Aki, by Winifred Conkling

I was also able to pick up some upcoming or just published history-related non-fiction to review, including:

Lewis & Clark, by Nick Bertozzi (a graphic novel)
Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming
How They Croaked:  The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous, by Georgia Bragg
Nurse, Soldier, Spy, by Marissa Moss
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, by Penny Colman
Me, Frida, by Amy Novesky
Play Ball, Jackie, by Stephen Krensky

Phew!  These will certainly keep me busy; I don't think I'll need to make any library runs for a while to supplement.  And that's not counting some additional titles I picked up that are already out but that I hadn't had a chance to review, such as When Molly Was a Harvey Girl and The Storm Before Atlanta, a new Civil War novel that was released at the end of 2010.

A gigantic thanks goes to all the publishers who so generously give out these review copies at ALA for librarians and bloggers to read and get excited about so we can talk them up to our patrons or in the blogosphere.

Are there any titles I mentioned that are on your 2011 to-read list?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Off to ALA Midwinter!

Today I'm off to the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in nearby San Diego.  While I didn't register for the full conference, I'm going to take advantage of the fantastic exhibits, the chance to attend "speed networking" from ALSC (anyone hiring children's librarians?), meet with YA bloggers at an unofficial meet-up at the Hilton Friday night, attend two Harper Collins spring previews, a San Jose State University library science student-faculty reception, have lunch with a kidlit blogger friend, and meet lots of new contacts!  I'll be driving back on Saturday with lots of new ideas for my blog and advance copies to read and review.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday

I was so excited to recently discover that a sequel will soon be published to one of my all time favorite historical novels for kids, Jennifer Holm's Newbery Honor-winning Our Only May Amelia, published in 1999.

The sequel, which comes out April 5 from Atheneum, is titled The Trouble With May Amelia.  Here's the description from the publisher:

May Amelia Jackson captured readers' hearts in the Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia. Now, after over ten years, Jennifer Holm is bringing this beloved character back in a beautiful way. The Trouble with May Amelia is a gorgeously written story that's as heartbreaking as it is funny.May Amelia lives in pioneer Washingon State in 1900, and she just can't act the part of a proper young lady. Working a farm on the rainy Nasel River isn't easy - especially when you have seven brothers and a Pappa who proclaims that Girls Are Useless. May Amelia thinks she may have finally earned her father's respect when he asks her to translate for a gentleman who's interested in buying their land and making them rich. But when the deal turns out to be a scam, Pappa places all the blame on May. It's going to take a lot of sisu - that's Finnish for guts - to make things right.

And here's the cover:  

Jennifer Holm is one busy lady--in addition to her tremendously popular Babymouse series and her historical novels, she has a new graphic novel series premiering as well (also co-written with her brother Matt Holm) which looks hilarious.  The first volume, which hits stores in May, is called Squish #1:  Super Amoeba.  The hero is a "comic-book loving, twinkie-eating, grade school amoeba trying to find his place in the world (or at least  trying to make it through a school day)."  Sounds like another winning series!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Awards Season Begins: The Scott O'Dell Award is Announced

The Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction for this year has just been announced, and I don't think anyone will be shocked that it has gone to One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which has been getting a lot of Newbery buzz as well.  The Scott O'Dell Award, established in 1982, is given for a distinguished work of historical fiction for young people, published by a U.S. publisher; the setting must be South, Central, or North America, and the author must be a U.S. citizen. 

I recently included One Crazy Summer on my 10 favorite books of 2010 post. 

The award was announced on Read Roger today; Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book, is also the chair of the Scott O'Dell committee. 

Congratulations to Rita Williams-Garcia!  I hope she will do something fun with her $5,000 in prize money, like go on that Disneyland trip that Delphine and her sisters were dreaming of!

More Challenges for 2011!

I didn't start blogging until mid-year 2010, so I didn't participate in any of the many challenges last year.  However, I decided to sign up for two more blogging challenges for 2011:  the Debut Author Challenge, hosted by, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011, hosted by Historical Tapestry, in addition to the already signed-up for YA Historical Fiction Challenge by YA Bliss.  There will be a lot of double-dipping, but it seems that's OK in the world of blogging challenges.  I have also marked my calendar for Bloggiesta, hosted by MawBooks, a weekend marathon blogging event for working on your blog, writing reviews, etc. held January 21 through 23.  116 bloggers are already signed up for that mega-blogging event! 

Here are some of the Debut Authors and their books I'm looking forward to reading (with links to Goodreads):

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler

Anya's War by Andrea Alban

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Esbty Dagg 

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

                         Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

                         Timeless by Alexandra Monir 

                         With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo

                         The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton

I haven't yet identified the full twelve debut YA/MG books to meet the official tally to meet the challenge, but I don't doubt I will add a few along the way, particularly ones that aren't historical fiction that I still pick up!   I also hope to do author interviews on this blog with a number of the debut authors that I read.  

What blogging challenges are you participating in this year?  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Congratulations to Cybils Finalists

The Cybils Awards finalists were announced today, and although I was somewhat disappointed not to be selected as a Cybils judge for 2010 (I'll try again this year) I was delighted to see that two of my nominations had been selected as finalists:  The Wager, by Donna Jo Napoli, in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category, and Henry Aaron's Dream by Matt Tavares, in the Non-Fiction Picture Book category.  I've read only ten of the total number of nominees this year, so I have a lot of terrific books to add to my To-Read list.

Congratulations to all the finalists and to all the judges who put in so many hours reviewing the long lists of nominees this year (I counted over 150 in the YA Fantasy/Science Fiction category alone!)