Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce
This is Elizabeth Bunce’s second novel and the first in a new series. I loved her first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, an intriguing interpretation of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, and I eagerly looked forward to her next book. A genre, fantasy series, usually less favored by me, Star Crossed nevertheless delivers on many of the same levels: a strong, resourceful, true-hearted heroine; a diverse cast of interesting characters; vivid description; and the entertainment of life’s deeper questions.
Set in a fantasy world that atmospherically parallels eastern Europe in the late middle ages, this tale is narrated by a girl who has had to make her way into a hostile world at a very young age. She is on a singular mission—to stay alive. She becomes a very good thief, forger, and spy. But a near brush with death from a failed caper at the beginning of the story propels her into a mountain castle. Here she will sit out a snowbound winter with a cast of characters at the center of a budding rebellion.
Celyn, as she calls herself, is afraid of nothing. She uses her talents to find out everything there is to know about the castle and its inhabitants, slowly flushing all mysteries into the light. The reader comes along on her journey, flinching at her every daring move, as each of the characters slowly but inevitably reveals the clarity of their position in the central conflict.
Celyn is tough, resilient, and clever; she knows and protects good whenever she sees it. Readers of all ages who have enjoyed the Bloody Jack books will also like this book. The plot is tightly wovern and requires the reader to pay attention and work things out, but there is nothing inappropriate for the youngest of accomplished readers.
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key
When my students finished Alabama Moon, Watt Key’s popular first novel, they all said they hoped Key would write another book so they could find out what happend with Hal. Well he did. As Moon was headed off to a regular life with long-lost relatives, Hal, the buddy he escaped from the “home” for boys with, is looking at the possibility of spending time in a tougher boys’ home that turns out to be more like a real prison.
Hal finds himself in this boys’ prison in Key’s second book and it is run by mean and corrupt adults who allow a viscious gang environment to thrive. Hal, who usually has no difficulty taking on trouble, will only get out if he stays out of trouble. Since that is virtually impossible, his only hope is to rely on friendship and to find a way to outwit those who want to keep him down.
Like Alabama Moon, this book is a compelling read driven by the reader’s empathy for a strong main character, constant action, and by lines clearly drawn between the light and the dark. While Alabama felt like an entirely new hero to literature, Hal is a more familiar one–a smart, brave kid with a good heart and a childhood that worked against him but that he is driven to get beyond. Key’s books are about boys and are written for boys in middle school or higher. Yet I enjoy them (I’m well past my school years and female) and look forward to the next one.
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.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
Fiction tends to follows certain rules, particularly fiction for kids. The reader is satisfied when the bad guys get their due, and when true friendship endures. But fiction based on a real event cannot necessarily follow those rules, because in real life, often good guys lose really badly and friendships get lost forever. In 1911, the lives and homes of the people of Malaga Island off the coast of Maine did get destroyed by some greedy, powerful men from the neighboring mainland. Nothing good came of it; the powerful men never got the tourist attraction they wanted and the people who lived there never came back.
Author Gary D. Schmidt populates this story with the new minister’s son who lives on the mainland and an orphaned girl, the youngest of several generations of African-Americans to call Malaga home. Turner finds his starched white shirts and the scrutiny due to the new minister’s son suffocating. He meets Lizzie, who rows over from her island to dig for clams on the mainland beach. Their instant liking for each other deepens into a solid friendship. He believes he can save her. She tells him he isn’t thinking straight. She is the wiser of the two.
This is a tale of the war between two human instincts: the desire to be generous and kind to others and the coexisting capacity to treat fellow humans cruelly and without conscience. It is told with a cast of colorful characters on a backdrop of natural beauty by a sensitive and lyrical writer. Written for middle school and older elementary school kids, it is also a joy to read for an adult.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
It is 1797 in London and a young girl has just been put out on the street. All of her family has died of the pestilence and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Oh, wait! Soon she is robbed of even those by a gang of orphans in need of new clothes. The girl who has her new clothes looks back at her and says, “Well, come on then. And quit your sniveling.” The girl, who narrates this story, writes, “I snuffles and gets up.”
She weeps, she trembles, she mourns, but she keeps getting up throughout this highly entertaining story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a ship’s boy, avoid being hung for thievery, and get enough to eat. I usually demand more than pure entertainment from the books I read–I want to be able to see the world in a new way or learn something thrilling–and I usually don’t like series books, but I finished this book with a single thought: I wanted the next book in the series.
The character of Mary who becomes Jacky leaps from the pages. The endless series of riotous adventurous never seem contrived. All resolutions feel perfectly apt. Danger never dissipates, but evil always gets its satisfyingly just desserts.
Bloody Jack will be enjoyed by kids who liked The Unfortunate Series of Events in their younger years, middle school and younger experienced readers who will not be confused by the occasional “guttersnipe” dialect of the narrator (“prolly” for probably; me mum and me pop, etc), high school readers who need a break from fantasy, teen-age angst, and vampire genres, and adults who just like to have fun reading. Attitudes towards the innate differences between the genders are of course amply explored and the romance is tender and true and not excessively graphic. I recommend not trying to find out if the author is male or female until you have read at least one book in the series.
Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Trouble, award-winning author Gary D. Scmidt delivers a book that reminds me what a gift reading is. Not just beautifully written with exquisite imagery, a tightly woven plot, and myth-like symbolism, it is a story that nourishes the spirit. Enacted in the person of a fourteen-year-old boy, innate inhumanity and innate grace battle for hegemony.
Trouble brings sorrow. It strikes Henry’s family even though they may have every reason to believe they should have been able to avoid it. With his parents and sister engulfed in grief, Henry embarks on a quest with a good friend, a faithful dog, and a misunderstood enemy. Together, they overcome those who wish to do them harm, stumble upon one island of refuge, and battle their own demons.
This book is such a joy to read, I want to give absolutely nothing away. I would not recommend it for the reluctant reader, although experienced readers from middle school on up, both boys and girls, will most likely enjoy this book.Trouble is literature for kids at its finest.
Uprising, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down, killing 146 garment workers, mostly women, mostly immigrants, and of an average age of 19. The largest industrial accident ever in New York City, this incident is in every U.S. History textbook. This fire changed the idea that in a free country, government could not regulate business. Locked doors, decrepit fire escapes, short fire ladders and hoses that couldn’t spray water high enough prevented the workers from finding safety. This tragedy shocked the nation and spurred the recognition of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
This is what students will learn in their textbooks. But in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s book of historical fiction, readers will get to know the people who lived (and died) around this event. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is so much more than a story about government regulation of business. It is a story about the irony of the American dream. People came (and still come) to this country to have the freedom to find a better life. So often, the pursuit of that better life has meant finding a way to profit handsomely from someone else’s labor. Such was the case with the institution of slavery, with indentured servitude, and with factory labor. One hundred years after this fire, remnants of this irony still tear at this free nation’s dream.
Haddix has been a popular author in my middle grade classrooms. Her Shadow Children Series, futuristic fantasy about population police hunting down illegal third children, was well-liked and read avidly by both boys and girls. So far I have given Uprising to a few ninth grade girls. Even though they were not fans of historical fiction, they all really liked this book. One of them commented that it didn’t matter what the genre or the subject matter was, really good writing can make any book worth reading.
When students ask why they have to study history, they are told they need to understand history in order not to repeat it. Well-written historical fiction like Uprising delivers that understanding by giving young readers fully dimensional people who lived the history. Appropriate for readers as young as sixth grade, Uprising is a book I would recommend for anybody who likes to learn something about history while reading a great story.