Tag Archives: YA historical fiction

Time Enough for Drums, by Ann Rinaldi, 1986, Book Review

Ann Rinaldi has become a household name in YA historical fiction, and this is one of her most acclaimed books. It’s been on my reading list for some time. The year is 1775, and fifteen-year-old Jemima Emerson is a headstrong young lady. She’s not a bad child; she simply doesn’t think before she acts, and Mr. John Reid, her tutor (and a hated Tory), is determined to turn her into a lady. She resists with everything she has.

But war has a way of making one grow up. Jem’s brother, Daniel, fulfills a commission under General Washington. Her merchant father sacrifices much to supply the army. Her mother writes essays under a pseudonym that appear all over the American colonies. And her boyfriend, younger brother, and servant all leave to fight. Her sister moves away and marries a British officer. All these events have consequences. Then the dangers of war come directly to Jem’s home town of Trenton along with the occupying British army. In the meantime, the tutor Jem so despises ends up being more than he seems.

This is a tremendous coming of age story that takes place during the American Revolution, one of my favorite historical time periods. There were so many forces at work, so many players, so many changes, and so much at stake. It’s fascinating! Ms. Rinaldi does a tremendous job boiling it all down and illustrating how all those factors came to affect one family. And the independence theme comes through loud and clear, both on a national level and a personal one.

Ms. Rinaldi’s greatest strength, however, is the strong characters she creates. Jem is a complex girl living in a complex time, and John Reid is the perfect counterpoint for her. Just like Jem, I couldn’t stand him at first. But the interaction between them kept me turning pages, even if the romance that develops between them was a bit predictable. Their strong bond serves to emphasize the horribleness of war.

I would rate Time Enough for Drums in the 12+ YA category because of that same horribleness. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s all-encompassing. War is always terrible, and in this case, the details are probably best left to an older audience. It also has a few mild profanities.

Highly, highly recommended historical fiction.

The Candle Star, by Michelle Isenhoff


Divided Decade Trilogy, Book One

After a tantrum, Emily Preston is shipped from her plantation home to her inn-keeping uncle in Detroit. There she meets Malachi, son of freed slaves, who challenges many ideas she grew up believing. But when Emily stumbles upon two runaways hidden in her uncle’s barn, she finds that old ways die hard. And Mr. Burrows, the charming Southern slave catcher, is only yards away, lodged in the hotel.

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Excerpt from The Candle Star:

When Emily was a little girl, her father had taken her outside in each season and pointed out the pictures in the stars, explaining the ancient lore behind them. She wondered if he was looking up at the same stars right now.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Emily stared. She hadn’t heard Malachi approach.

“Looks like you can just reach up and pluck one down, maybe set it in a ring,” he said. “It’d be the most beautiful piece of jewelry you ever laid eyes on.”

He pointed to the giant dipper. “See the last two stars in the bowl of the spoon? They line up just right and point the way to the North Star.”

Emily had learned that when she was six.

“When I was little, I remember Mama setting a candle in the window on the nights Daddy would get in late. I slept sound on those nights, confident that beacon was guiding my daddy  home.”

He paused as he contemplated the night sky. “The North Star is sort of like a candle that God hung up special to guide His lost children. Lot of black folks looking up at it right now, directing themselves home to freedom.”

The Impossible Journey, by Gloria Whelan, 2003, Book Review, and a Sea Cutter Giveaway!

“Comrade Sergei Kirov was killed on the first day of December. That same night my parents disappeared.”

It is 1934 and Kirov was the man competing with Joseph Stalin for control of Russia’s Communist Party. Stalin wanted no competition. So Kirov was conveniently assassinated, and in the name of justice hundreds, perhaps thousands of arrests were made, even thought the killer was already in custody. Those “suspects” weren’t really suspected in the murder at all. They were simply too outspoken against the Communist regime.

Among those taken were Marya’s parents. Their crime? They once were rich. Her mother was sent to Siberia for three years; her father sent to a coal mine. Twelve-year-old Marya was left to care for her little brother all alone. They lived for a time with greedy neighbors who emptied their apartment of Mama and Papa’s things. But Marya knew it couldn’t be long before they landed in an orphanage. Then Mama’s letter came in the mail, and on it was a return address. Marya decides the family has been split apart long enough. She and little Georgi set out on the long, long trip to find her.

This is an eye-opening look at what really went on after the Russian Revolution. The disappearances, the secret police, the way aristocrats were turned into second class citizens, the seizure of farms, the disregard for human life. It was a terrible, terrible time in Russia’s history. Cleanly written and appropriate for ten-year-olds, it’s a fabulous way for kids to “see” what happened. They’ll live history with Marya and Georgi. The story takes place nearly twenty years after the revolution, however, and gives very little history about how the Communist regime came into being. It feels a little like jumping into a movie that’s half over. Some research into the 1917 revolution might be helpful.

Not my favorite book by Gloria Whelan, but I don’t think that woman can write a bad one. She always writes with an eloquence that makes the pages fly past, and she gives her characters such life. And I’ve always been fascinate by Russian history. I recommend The Impossible Journey.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, 2006, Book Review

This is a startling look at the holocaust through the eyes of a nine-year-old German boy. Bruno is the son of a Nazi Commandant. As a result of a promotion, Bruno and his whole family leave their lovely home in Berlin and follow Father to his new assignment—head of Auschwitz concentration camp. Bruno can see into the compound from his bedroom window, but he’s sheltered by his parents and extremely naïve. It’s this very naivety that makes this book appropriate for children as young as ten.

Mr. Boyne’s words flow very nicely, but the style is old-fashioned, almost simplistic. It’s in keeping with Bruno’s innocence. At times, however, the book almost doesn’t reveal enough information. Without some prior knowledge of the holocaust, World War II, and Auschwitz in particular, young readers might not even realize what’s going on throughout much of the book and may need some explanation. For example, Bruno calls the camp “Out-With,” and though he’s told in conversation that he pronounces it wrong, the proper name is never given until the Author’s Note at the end. Of course, an older audience will pick up on this immediately, but probably not kids. He also calls Hilter the “Fury” and is also called out on his mistake, but we are left to assume he’s saying “Fuehrer.” Hitler, however, is mentioned by name once or twice. And the horrors of camp are reflected more than viewed directly, which is good, but at times kids may not understand what’s happening.

Bruno lives at Auschwitz for a year at least, and though he learns bits and pieces, he never really does figure out what the camp is all about. I see the author’s intention, and I applaud that he keeps the entire book very appropriate for children, but Bruno’s innocence is almost to the point of impossibility. It is my one complaint. His friend Shmuel, a Jewish boy that he befriends on the other side of the fence, also comes off a little unrealistically. Though Shmuel is living in hell, he never displays much emotion, he never responds to Bruno’s total lack of understanding, and he never attempts to make his friend understand.

It is this naivety and innocence, however, that make such a shocking mirror. We are shown Bruno’s dismay at being uprooted from his home. We see his casual attitude toward wealth. We see his sister’s shock and horror at finding a louse egg in her hair. We’re told of the compassion Father showed to his mother’s dying friend. We experience the grief of Grandmother’s funeral. Yet it all underscores in a truly startling way the humanity of the Jews who suffer these things and more only a few yards. We see how Shmuel’s fingers are wasting away. We hear Bruno innocently assume there must have been a minor outbreak of lice in the camp because their heads are shaved like his. We watch him eat food in front of Shmuel without thinking. We hear him talk to Shmuel about “playing.” Bruno never really understands the life-and-death struggle, the horror going on just past his house.

But the reader knows. By the end of the book, even without any guidance by adults as to particulars, even without any graphic revelations by the author, the reader will have figured out the gist of what’s going on behind the walls. At one point, perhaps the most poignant moment of the story, Shmuel thinks, “It was almost as if they (he and Bruno) were exactly the same really.” The injustice comes through loud and clear.

While I do maintain that ten-year-olds could read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, be aware that it does have a few disturbing moments. They’re veiled or related matter-of-factly, like the shooting of a dog by a Nazi officer. Or like the marital strife between Bruno’s parents that suddenly ends with the reassignment of this same officer. Or Bruno’s observation that Mother lately needed to self-administer a lot of medicinal shots of sherry. It is the ending, however, that I won’t give away but I will caution parents about. Again, it is implied and not shown, but the readers know. And it is very disturbing.

Kudos, Mr. Boyle, for a touching story, for letting speak the voices which were silenced long ago, and for doing it in a way that gives kids an understanding of the past without overwhelming them. In my opinion, it is stories like this one–which teach children through emotional involvement–that are our best defense against repeating history.

After reading, I learned that a movie based on this book came out in 2008. (Where have I been?) I found the entire movie on YouTube and watched it the same day. It’s beautifully done. I thought Bruno and Shmuel are more believable and the problems between the parents develop more understandably. There are some profound moments from the book, however, that are left out. It’s a serious film, but appropriate for the same audience as the book. Well done and highly recommended.

Related post: Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

The Girl Who Came Home, by Hazel Gaynor, 2012, Book Review

Today I would like to discuss some things self-published authors should NOT do. Unfortunately, this book will be my shining example. I happened to stumble upon this novel on a blog I admire. It was a guest post by the author promoting her work. I’ve always had a morbid fascination for the Titanic disaster, especially since my grandfather immigrated to America by the same route only a few days later as a very small child. So I purchased the book, assuming the professionalism of the blogger would translate into a professional novel by the guest poster. I assumed wrong.

The Girl Who Came Home isn’t bad. The writer has some good instincts and some very pretty moments. The parallel stories of Maggie, a seventeen-year-old Titanic survivor, and Grace, Maggie’s twenty-one-year-old great-grand daughter, compliment each other well. Both are coming of age stories with tragedy, recovery, romance and hope. Maggie says, ‘I’ve lived a very happy life because of the Titanic. Life is fragile Grace – it is no more than a petal of a cherry blossom; thriving and in full bloom one minute and blown to the ground by a sudden gust of wind the next.’ That’s nice, isn’t it? Sure it is, except for the five punctuation errors. Unless, of course, they punctuate differently in Ireland.

Indie authors, if we ever hope to overcome the stigma attached to us–you know, the one that says we can’t punctuate, spell or locate typos—we must produce quality work. I paid money for this book. Not a lot, but when I pay I expect a book reasonably free of errors. Instead, I found a typo in the publication info at the front of the book and spotted them regularly until the last page. Not just little blips, either. Dialogue is encased in ‘’ instead of “”, punctuation is left outside quote marks, “alright” should not be one word, question marks are used incorrectly, dashes are incorrect, ship names are not italicized, commas are sprinkled randomly throughout and left off where they belong… I could go on and on. And then there were the regular typos.

Now let me talk about redundancy. This whole book needed a red pen to slash sentiments that are repeated too often. Like the regrets Grace has about letting Jimmy get away. We’re told several times she let him go because she couldn’t stand to be hurt again. Once would have been enough. There are many, many areas where a character is hashing over the same territory. I did a lot of skimming.

My point is not to bash this book. I actually enjoyed it for the most part. The cover art is gorgeous, the research is thorough, it has a nice twist at the end, and the descriptions, particularly of the Irish countryside, are exquisite. Disaster scenes on board the sinking ship also resound with authenticity. I could see the looming iceberg, hear the cries of the dying, feel the cold. But the errors were distracting. Had the manuscript been run through a good editor instead of through the family member Ms. Gaynor thanks in her acknowledgements much could have been salvaged. Instead, the book takes the reputation of every self-published author and plunges it into the icy depths along with the fated ship.

Perhaps I’m being tougher than I need to be because I’ve made these mistakes myself. I have worked without an editor, and I have worked with one. I’ve learned my lesson; I will now make a bold statement. Authors can produce every aspect of a book themselves very successfully with one exception: everyone, EVERYONE needs a professional editor. I’ll say it again. Guys! There’s no better investment you can make in your book than running it past someone who knows the business!

In conclusion, I must add, because this is a family-friendly blog focused primarily on middle grade reads, that this book is YA. It contains some sexual references and a fair bit of profanity.

Blood of Pioneers, by Michelle Isenhoff

BloodOfPioneers_cover_600x900Divided Decade Trilogy, Book Two

Hannah Wallace would like nothing better than to escape the tedium and never-ending work of the family farm.  She feels lost among so many siblings and haunted by the memory of a brother that Pa wanted more than he wanted her.  She needs a chance to set herself apart, but nothing exciting ever happens in Wayland.

When war breaks out between the states, her father and brother leave to fight, but the army isn’t open to twelve-year-old girls. All the local dangers dried up years ago–soon after her parents unloaded their wagon on Michigan’s fast-filling frontier. Then the farm is threatened, and the one place she longs to leave becomes the one place she’ll risk everything to save. 

Blood of Pioneers introduces a new heroine but contains a continuing thread of characters. This novel was previously titled Broken Ladders.

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The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, 2005, Book Review

the book thiefThe Book Thief is quite an accomplishment. Five hundred and fifty pages of thought-provoking text in a very unique, slightly jarring style, all narrated by Death. The originality of this book made waves a few years ago, and that’s pretty hard to do. It’s a story of words. Words that prompted a Fascist regime, and words that helped a young girl survive it.

Liesel Meminger lives in the outskirts of Munich with her foster Mama and Papa and a whole list of quirky neighbors. When she first came, she could not read. She learns during the early years of WWII, and as life grows more difficult, as she matures and grasps the wickedness surrounding her, she appreciates the power of language and its ability to destroy and to heal. It’s words that bind her to Papa. Words that fuse her to the Jew in their basement. Words that whipped the whole country into an uproar. Words that link her in crime to her best friend (and perfectly endearing character) Rudy. Words that so captivated an overworked Death that he noticed this one child out of millions and chose to share her story.

Zusak’s style is very peculiar, and I really didn’t care for it. Death has a scattershot approach, sharing broad, shocking revelations at the beginning of each break, then revealing them each in more detail while intermixing random, highlighted thoughts throughout. It’s a talk-about style, circling, pausing, circling, and finally honing in on details. Eventually everything fits together into an airtight package, but I found the flow disruptive and distracting.

The word choices Zusak employs are as original as his cadence. A “twitching” popped ball. “Slinging an armful of soup.” A “white and warm” haze. “Cherries of blood.” Smoke that “climbed her teeth.” Tears that are “wet streams of wire.” Interesting word choices. Sometimes even shocking word choices.

Surprisingly, for such a serious topic, the book includes a fair amount of humor. Not laugh-out-loud humor, but lip-wrinkling wit. Death has a very dry and morbid funny bone. For example, “For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.”  And, “It kills me sometimes, how people die.”

Zusak is an amazing writer. His style, his word pictures, his wit. I haven’t even gotten to his characters, and I won’t, but they are amazing too. And so is his fluency in profanity–in both English and German. Amazing. Astounding. Creative–I’ll give him that. Mama, in particular, has a flare for the obscene. Excessive. Inappropriate. Unfortunate.

So, while I didn’t really enjoy his style, I found Markus Zusak phenomenally talented. I liked many of his ideas, I appreciated his remarkable effort, but the language is such that it makes it difficult for me to recommend this one to kids.


The Prize: Tales from a Revolution: Vermont, by Lars D. H. Hedbor, 2009, Book Review

On the border between New York and Vermont lies Lake Champlain, like a 125-mile-long wedge cleaving the two states apart. Its northern end has access to the all-important St. Lawrence River; its southern end nearly reaches the Hudson River. During the centuries in which water travel was far superior to overland, this waterway was invaluable. In years of conflict, a contest for control was inevitable.

Lars Hedbor has crafted a superb novel set on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain at the outset of the American Revolution. As the first shots are fired, young Caleb Clark walks the tightrope between boyhood and manhood, but as the war sweeps northward, engulfing the waterway on which he’s spent his life, conflict and danger hasten his maturity. His wonderfully engaging journey takes readers through moments of grief and seasons of joy, all sparkling with lively humor. Through Caleb’s eyes, we’re treated to a glimpse of Colonial life and a local view of the battles of the Canadian campaign as well as the naval encounter at Champlain’s Valcour Island.

I’ve always been a history buff (as my first three novels will attest), so I particularly enjoyed The Prize. It’s meaty, stuffed with historical details that provide a real sense of what went on in the war. Yet this is no text book–Mr. Hedbor has an excellent eye for story. It’s starts just a bit slow, with lots of farm chores and hearsay about far away battles, but the characters grow on you quickly, and the plot intensifies along with the tension. I especially loved the conflict that builds between Caleb and the young lady he’s always, ahem, bumping into. Mr. Hedbor also has a particular gift for the Colonial vernacular, and his characters’ quick wit kept me smiling.

This is definitely YA. I wouldn’t rule out advanced middle graders, but the story contains some unapologetic, true-to-life moments of war. The language is clean, but includes difficult vocabulary. This isn’t a fluffy read. But adult and YA historical fiction lovers, you’re going to eat this one up. I did!

Where to find it:

Drop in on Lars’ website:  http://larsdhhedbor.blogspot.com/

The Color of Freedom, by Michelle Isenhoff

color of freedom2

Freedom Series

Meadow MacKenna hates the British. Turned off her Irish farm and forced to book passage to America as an indentured servant, she understands the rebel desire to throw off the yoke of King George’s rule. But is freedom worth the cost? Is it even possible?

When her new master turns abusive, Meadow disguises herself as a boy and flees. But she cannot outrun the political conflict. She’s moved by the courage, pride and determination of the American patriots, but their Puritan roots run deep. Will liberty apply to Negroes, to Quakers, to Jews–to Irish Catholics like her? Or will majority rule serve the majority? Perhaps the colonists had simply invented a new kind of tyranny. She cannot commit to such a cause. Neither can she prevent the war from claiming the souls of her father and the man she loves.

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Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool, 2010, Book Review

PDF Creation in Quark 7I loved, loved, LOVED this book! Recommended to me by a sixth grade literature teacher, I gobbled it up in a two sittings. A few days later, I learned it won this year’s Newbery. Well-earned, I say!

Following an illness, twelve-year-old Abilene’s father, Gideon, sends her away to friends in Manifest, Kansas, a town that strongly influenced his childhood, though he never talked about it much. It’s hot and dry, the dustbowl era, right smack in the middle of the Depression, and Abilene holds out desperate hope that her father will come back for her. But the rails, he told her, are no place for a young lady.

While she’s there, Abilene uncovers stories from 1917 that lead her on a spy hunt with two friends. The stories tie her to the town and develop a love within her for its people. But love, she learns, can be devastating.

Moon Over Manifest is Ms. Vanderpool’s first novel, but it is so tight. Every colorful detail eventually finds a place in the book’s final picture. Every single character becomes important. Everything fits together. And the human emotion it paints for us is still relevant eighty years after the book takes place.

The story does contain a spiritual element in the form of a gypsy story-teller who also poses as a medium. Abilene is skeptical of her the whole time, and nothing weird actually happens. The woman’s past later becomes intricately woven in the plot.

Great choice for readers 10 and up, especially those who enjoy nostalgic, small-town flavor. I almost think adults would like this one better than kids. It’s a powerful little story. A definite must-read.