Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

YA Alternate History: My Name is Victoria

My Name is Victoria, by Lucy Worsley, (May 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-8807-3

Ages 12+

Lucy Worsley, British historian Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, creates an alternate history surrounding Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne that YA fans, Anglophiles, and BritLit fans like me will LOVE.

Eleven-year-old Miss V. Conroy, daughter of Sir John Conroy, wielder of the royal checkbook (aka, the comptroller), is headed to London to serve as a companion to the Princess Victoria. She’s not terribly sorry to leave home – her mother seems to have forgotten about her ages ago, and her domineering father insists that Miss V and her dog, Dash, are exactly what the young Princess needs. Or does Sir John need another set of eyes and ears in Kensington? That’s what seems to be the case, as Miss V discovers once she arrives at Kensington and meets Victoria, who’s an unkempt, rude girl prone to throwing temper tantrums. Sir John expects Miss V to keep him apprised of everything the young princess says and does, desperate to keep his oppressive hold on Victoria and her mother – a structure known as “The Kensington System” – and eventually, wield the power behind the throne. As Victoria and Miss V develop a close friendship, Miss V begins questioning her father and The System.

Originally published in the UK My Name is Victoria is a book that historical fiction fans will addictively read from start to finish. Miss V goes through major character growth, from a young girl in awe of her powerful father, to a jaded young woman who has seen and learned too much about the world, and her family’s place in it. Queen Victoria is a strong supporting character; at times needy and unpredictable, other times, aware and angry, striking out at the repressive Kensington System and John Conroy’s manipulation. There are complicated relationships, British politics, a little bit of intrigue, and a blend of fact and fiction to please. My Name is Victoria has a starred review from Kirkus. British history fans should check out Lucy Worsley’s webpage, and learn more about the real-life Victoria and the Kensington System at the BBC’s page. U.S. Publisher Candlewick Press has a chapter excerpt available.

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Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

My Year in the Middle: Relevant then, relevant now

My Year in the Middle, by Lila Quintero Weaver, (July 2018, Candlewick), $15.99, ISBN: 9780763692315

Ages 8-11

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera and her Latin American family find themselves in the middle of a civil rights struggle in their Red Grove, Alabama neighborhood one hot summer in 1970. The tensions run high in her integrated school: black kids sit on one side of the room, white kids on the other; she sits in the middle row. She’s in the the middle child, smack dab between her older, activist sister and younger twin siblings; she’s in the middle when it comes to local politics: many of the white families want to re-elect segregationist governor George Wallace, while Lu and her family support incumbent Albert Brewer. Many of her classmates are leaving their school to go to a private, white school. When Lu befriends fellow track runner Belinda Gresham, an African-American girl, and her classmates turn on her, she decides it’s time to take a stand.

Inspired by the author’s Alabama childhood, My Year in the Middle is a story of civil rights and finding one’s voice. Lu puts up with the passive racism in her community, with remarks like, “she’s from South America, she doesn’t mind going to school with Negroes”. But seeing how her African-American friends are treated by her fellow classmates, and by the general public in her town, pushes her buttons. Lu is a character who stands out: she’s a character of color stuck in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, but because she’s not African-American, she’s tolerated: until she digs in her heels and says, “No more”. She gives and receives support from her black classmates and from Sam, her classmate and crush, a white preacher’s son who is bullied for his civil rights stance.

Lu is at once relatable and a mirror for our society today. We’re still divided, and more and more people are forced from the middle to take a stand. Readers may recognize recent political speeches and attitudes in George Wallace’s condescending stumping and the racial tension that permeates Lu’s classroom. My Year in the Middle is a solid work of historical fiction that provides excellent discussion topics for readers on civil rights, social justice, and where we’ve gone versus where we are.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery is keeping watch

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery, by Allison Rushby, (July 2018, Candlewick Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9780763696856

Recommended for readers 9-12

Flossie Birdwhistle is a ghost, but that’s beside the point. She’s got a very important job as Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery; making sure her fellow souls are at rest and cared for. She’s a young ghost – she’s only 11- and while some may have something to say about that, she’s good at her job. Right now, her big concern is World War II, currently raging over Britain, and disturbing her dead neighbors. Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier up to no good, so she starts investigating, and learns that he’s somehow managed to bridge the gap between the worlds of the dead and the living. She has got to stop him before he – and the enemy army – can destroy Britain!

This is thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction with a nice dose of the supernatural. Flossie has a nicely sketched out backstory, and we learn just enough about her fellow ghosts and familiars to keep us satisfied and turning pages. I like how author Allison Rushby incorporated Hitler’s well-documented fascination with the supernatural into the story, making this a “what if” type of alternate history novel for younger readers, and I like Flossie’s determination and ability to think while under (often literal) fire. Mystery and ghost story fans will enjoy meeting Flossie and friends. Want to give readers a fun website? Let them visit the actual Highgate Cemetery’s webpage, where they can find war graves (including soldiers from WWII), take a virtual tour of the cemetery, and visit a few luminaries.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The Unbinding of Mary Reade

The Unbinding of Mary Reade, by Miriam McNamara, (June 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510727052

Recommended for readers 14+

Raised as a boy to take the place of her dead brother, Mary Reade spent her formative years as Mark, mainly to get her drunken mother money from her wealthy grandmother, who would never name a female heir. Eventually, Mary took to the high seas, where her life depended on passing as male. She joined pirate Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny after they raided a merchant ship she sailed with, finding herself fascinated with the fiery redheaded Bonny, who wore dresses and wielded weapons with pride and bravado.

This could have been so much more. I found the nonbinary, bisexual Mary Reade storyline brilliant, capturing the sheer terror of living in a male-dominated, homophobic society. Mary is constantly afraid for her life because of who she is, and the men around her shove their hands down her trousers and pull up her shirt, seemingly at will, to confirm rumors. She’s powerless to say or do anything, because in this society, different equals death, and it’s always over her head. She finds relief in living as a male, yet feels uncomfortable being gendered at all – despite the fact that the novel always refers to Reade as “she”. Anne is a study in frustration, appearing as a tragic, yet scheming, woman who attaches herself to any male – or male figure – that will help her navigate 18th Century society. Is she bisexual, or is she just using her sex to gain favor? There’s a lot of slow burn relationship work here between Mary and her childhood love, Nat, and some tumultuous relationship beginnings with Anne Bonny that never quite gain footing. I wish the book concentrated more on the two pirates’ adventures together, and that Anne emerged as a stronger female character. Mary’s gender confusion and self-doubt may resonate with nonbinary and trans readers, and engender empathy in all readers. It’s an add to consider for historical fiction and LGBTQ collections.

 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

Blacksmith’s Song: An entry into African-American folklore

Blacksmith’s Song, by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk/Illustrated by Anna Rich, (Feb. 2018, Peachtree Publishers), $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-56145-580-5

Recommended for readers 6-10

An enslaved boy realizes that the rhythm of his blacksmith father’s “song” – the hammer striking the anvil as he works – changes when he sends word to other slaves that it’s time to escape. He waits for it to be his family’s turn, but when his father falls ill, he takes matters into his own hands: for himself, his family, and the slaves who rely on his father’s message.

Inspired by stories from the Underground Railroad, Blacksmith’s Song gives readers a new entry into African-American folklore: some may have heard of the quilts and the messages they provided; some may know that dances and songs like “Wade in the Water” provided coded messages; now, we have the rhythm of the smith’s hammer. Anna Rich paints stunning portraits in oils: the forge’s flame and sparks; the grim slave catchers riding out in search of escaped slaves; the watchful eyes of the boy and his family, and the warm glow of the firelight as the boy takes up his father’s hammer for the first time. A good addition to historical fiction picture book collections and to readers interested in American folktales, particularly surrounding the Civil War-era South.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Never That Far: They never really leave us

Never That Far, by Carol Lynch Williams, (Apr. 2018, Shadow Mountain), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-62972-409-6

Recommended for readers 9-12

Twelve-year-old Libby is devastated when her best friend, her grandfather, dies at home. Crippled by grief, her father can barely get out of bed to work in the family’s Florida orange groves. On the night of Grampa’s funeral, though, Libby has a visitor: Grampa’s spirit shows up in her room, telling her that “the dead ain’t never that far from the living”, and that she has to search the lake for something he left for her. Sadly, he tells her that her father can’t see him; he doesn’t believe. To him, “the Dead are dead”. Libby joins forces with her friend, Bobby, to discover the treasure at the lake, but her father spirals further into grief and depression and threatens to derail Libby’s entire mission.

Never That Far has a touch of the supernatural set into a realistic fiction about grief, loss, and family. The Sight, Libby’s family gift, allows her to see and speak with dead family members. Her father has been worn down by grief, enduring the deaths of his siblings, wife, mother, and now, father; he has spent years arguing with his family about their “gift”, refusing to accept it for what it is. Libby’s revelation is unbearable to him, threatening an even greater rift between father and daughter when he tries to stop her from her mission. Together, Libby and Grampa, with some help from Bobby, work to save Libby’s father, who’s in danger of becoming a shell of a person and leaving Libby alone in the world.

The characters are gently realized, revealing themselves to readers little by little over the course of the book and packing powerful emotional punches as they come. Libby witnesses her grandfather’s grief at not being able to connect with his son in a scene that will have readers reaching for tissues. Taking place in the late 1960s in rural Florida allows the plot to remain character-driven. This is a moving story of grief, loss, and renewal that will appeal to certain readers: it’s a good book to have handy for your tough times lists, and for comfort reading. It’s spiritual, rather than overtly religious, and is soothing for readers experiencing loss and moving on.

 

 

 

Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Get Radical with Fierce Young Women from U.S. History!

The Radical Element, edited by Jessica Spotswood, (March 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-9425-8

Recommended for readers 13+

This anthology gives readers snapshots of young women at pivotal moments in their lives and U.S. history, from 1838 to 1984. Written by YA literary powerhouses including Anna-Marie McLemore (Wild Beauty), Marieke Nijkamp (This is How it Ends), Dhionelle Clayton (The Belles), these 12 stories are about young women who are the “radical element” in their time periods; their communities; their families. A young Jewish woman living in 19th century Savannah, pushing to learn more about her faith; a Cuban immigrant, living in Queens (whoo hoo!) and walking the line between her parents’ traditional world and the new, modern world; a 1950s debutante whose idea for her future doesn’t quite line up with her mother’s.  All of their stories are here, expertly told and starring a fabulous and diverse group of females: multicultural and LGBTQ characters all find a home here.

The authors alone make this a must-add to bookshelves and book collections; the stories contained within present strong characters and exciting adventures, with backstories that still hold relevance for readers today. Characters here deal with gender identity, racism and religious persecution, and sexism. These are perfect for quick reads or to binge read like the best Netflix series. Contributor bios at the end introduce readers to the authors.

The Radical Element, a companion to A Tyranny of Petticoats (2016), has a starred review from Kirkus.