The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
A girl comes of age during the Bosnian War and its aftermath. She then becomes a doctor in a desire to help her country recover. On a trip to deliver inoculations to orphanages, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Through her memories of her grandfather and his stories, a story of Bosnian conflict and culture emerge. By the end, the reader will not be able to pass a quiz on the conflict, but the reader will have been there, on the ground and among the people.
Obreht is a storyteller — come sit by me here and I’ll tell you a story. type of a storyteller. The main two stories here are about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. Interspersed are full, rich stories of more characters–Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, the apothecary, as well as chair-riveting stories like the narrator’s journey to the “crossroads.” Her writing is lean, vivid, and masterful.
This is a good book for an experienced teen reader for several reasons. The author herself is young–twenty-one when she began the novel–and her voice, though as assured as that of a seasoned writer, is that of a young person. Though her plot is not linear, experience teen readers will fall into her rich storytelling. And finally, she is a very creative and skilled writer–teens will enjoy feeling they have not read anything like this book before while recognizing its exceptional worth.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.
The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent
In Kent’s earlier book, Heretic’s Daughter a young girl loses her mother to the notorious witch trials. Her father has a mysterious past–in this book we learn what that was.
The Wolves of Andover is about two different kinds of wolves–the wild ones and the human ones. Settlers in New England in the seventeenth century contended with many natural hazards–wild animals, smallpox, weather, crop failure, to name a few. But author Kathleen Kent uses her gift of vivid detail to make clear that the hazards from fellow humans were much more dangerous in the struggle to survive.
This story ties English history with Colonial history. The two of course were closely entwined during this period, a fact that does not come through in much of the American history taught in classrooms. Thomas Morgan, the man with the mysterious past in The Heretic’s Daughter, was involved in the English Civil War in which the king of England, Charles I, lost his head. The reader and the young woman who becomes his wife (and the accused witch in The Heretic’s Daughter), slowly uncover the part he played…the description that Martha eventually writes down is stunning and totally believable, even as a fictionalized account.
There is much violence, vividly depicted, in this book. It is definitely for mature readers. The history may be harder to follow for teen readers than Kent’s earlier book, simply because it is much more unfamiliar territory than the Salem witch trials. But if a teen reader liked The Heretic’s Daughter, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. By the end, the history becomes very clear and the reader gains a vivid perspective of the interconnectedness of England and its American colonies.
I loved both these books. But I love this period and place in history–I have a deep question in my psyche about why we left England and came here–so reading historical fiction as good as this is a treat I only yearn for more of.
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
A family of five escapes from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the dark of night. They throw themselves aboard a truck along with numbers of other desperate people, just minutes ahead of the patrolling Taliban. They are on their way to America. Only something unbearably horrible has happened: the youngest, six-year-old Mariam, did not make it aboard the truck–and there is no going back to get her.
Many stories start with an event that drives the rest of the story with its cry for resolution. This event, in the first pages of Shooting Kabul, grips the rest of the story with a barely containable wail for resolution. Yet Sensai manages to pace the everpresent anguish with the reality of any immigrant family adjusting to life in America in a very realistic and non-maudlin way.
The narrator of this story is Mariam’s 11 year-old brother Fadi. Fadi let go of Mariam’s hand as they were jumping in the truck and thus bears a heightened burden of guilt. His struggle to deal with his guilt as he tries to fit into his new life makes up the bulk of the story. The resolution is satisfying, evolving out of his strengths rather than his vulnerabilities..
This is a perfect book for middle school readers who like to read about people caught up in real, historically significant events, who are driven to understand more about their wider world. The tragedy that Fadi experiences will grab their interest and their empathy.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
History is one of the four core subjects that educators have decided all children need to study, the other three being English, math, and science. This is because there are lessons to be learned from history that one hopes will improve the quality of life for us all. That is why the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692 in Massachusetts hold a hallowed place in history curriculum. It is a clear lesson as to what can happen when superstition, fear, religious zealotry and what author Thomas Cahill once called “the need to lay blame and shed blood” coaelesce.
In The Heretic’s Daughter author Kathleen Kent has told the story from the fictionalized point of view of her ancestor–the daughter of a woman named Martha Carrier who was hanged on August 19, 1692 because she would not confess to being a witch. (If you confessed, you were simply imprisoned–oh, wait till you read about their prisons!) I learned about the Salem witch trials as a student, I taught them as a teacher, but never have I really understood what it was like until I read this book. Perhaps it is the author’s connection to the event, perhaps it is her meticulous research, perhaps it is the realistic detail she uses–the end result is a bright light shining on a significant piece of our history.
Reading this book also reminded me of why a strong independent reading program is so important for schools. This is a book that kids will love to read, from grades eight through high school. It is a book they can read in a week or less and that can teach them more about U. S. History than anything they will learn from a minute here and a minute there in their history classes.
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
After the Romans left the British Isles in the fifth century A. D., there were many centuries of pillaging and plunder by one tribe or clan upon another until it became a unified country. It must have been excruciatingly painful to try to raise crops and families. One legend gave them hope, and indeed continues to give hope to this day. That legend was of Arthur, the king who, with the help of a somewhat magical destiny, created a golden island of peace for a short period of time. The legend said it could be done once, so it could be done again.
Well, Philip Reeve has exposed that legend for what it was–a really good story. But no matter, it is the story that everybody needed anyway. Best not to go by the truth on the ground for historical inspiration–we humans are much better at story than we are at deeds. And Philip Reeve is an excellent writer who tells a really good story about an orphaned slave girl who was there and who may have been the only one with any common sense. So in this book, we get hope renewed by trading the ancient story of a legendary and peace-loving king for the modernized story of a sensible and strong-willed girl.
Fans of Reeve’s Mortal Engines series will like this book as will upper middle school and high school readers who enjoy stories of historical fiction with strong girl characters.
Number the Stars
That Lois Lowry could write Gooney Bird Greene, The Willoughby’s and Number the Stars is amazing. The first two are fun and silly. Number the Stars is neither. However, it is an excellent book that brings to life the story of how Danes supported their Jewish neighbors and helped them escape the Nazi’s. According to the afterword, almost the entire Jewish population in Denmark was smuggled into Sweden. Wow.
I recommend this book to any child that read and enjoyed the Diary of Ann Frank. It is a suspenseful story, but there is no graphic violence. It does contain mature concepts associated with war and the persecution of the Jewish people. It also addresses the concept of when it is okay to lie, and how sometimes not knowing something is a way to keep people safe. This is a great book to read with a slightly older child as it could foster good discussions. -Jessica