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.

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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.

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

Historical fiction in verse: Blood Water Paint

Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough, (March 2018, Dutton Books for Young Readers), $17.99, ISBN: 9780735232112

Recommended for readers 13+

It’s an historical fiction type of review day. Blood Water Paint is a stunning story based on true events, told in quiet, powerful verse.

Artemisia Gentileschi is the 17-year-old daughter of Renaissance artist Orazio Gentileschi, but her talents far outweigh his. At the mercy of her cruel father, Artemesia is her father’s assistant, model, and – all too often – the chief artist on the paintings he signs his name to. Her father hires artist Agostino Tassi to work with Artemisia and refine her talents, and she is at first thrilled to have someone recognize her work on its own merit. But when Agostino rapes her, she refuses to play the passive any longer, and brings him to court to keep her honor and reputation intact. As she goes through the grueling judicial process, she remembers the stories of strong women, told to her by her deceased mother, and draws on their strength.

This is feminist historical fiction at its finest. Through Artemisia, we see that women have always had to push back against male society. The very women she paints tell the story: Susanna and her Elders depicts a woman leered at by a group of “respectable” elders; the Biblical heroine Judith, who took matters into her own hands when her husband was murdered by foreign invaders. Artemisia’s relationship with her father is complex: he’s jealous of her talent and berates her, even humiliates her, but when she tells him about her rape and intent to bring Agostino to court, he stands by her – even though he knows, and tells her, that Agostino will not be the one on trial. It will be Artemisia. Sound familiar? Sound like it could be taken from the news this week? Not much has changed.

Artemisia persists, and in that persistence, she empowers every person to pick up this book. She persists in her artwork, and she persists in bringing her attacker to justice. It may not be a justice that suits the crime – sound familiar? – but she accomplishes what most women of the time would never be able to. And this is a true story: Bustle has a brilliant article on the real-life Artemisia, and how author Joy McCullough discovered her thanks to Margaret Atwood.

This book is captivating; a powerful combination of verse and prose that will spark readers’ emotions and start discussions. Blood Water Paint examines issues that are all too relevant today – the perception of women and believing abused women who come forward – and is ultimately an empowering story of a young woman who takes her power back. Put this on your shelves and make sure your teens know about it.

Blood Water Paint has starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and Publisher’s Weekly.

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

Social Justice, Union Organizing, Dairy Wars, and an Orphan Band!

The Orphan Band of Springdale, by Anne Nesbet, (Apr. 2018, Candlewick Press), $18.99, ISBN: 9780763688042

Recommended for readers 8-12

It’s 1941, and things are tense in the U.S. as the world is at war in Europe. Eleven-year-old Gusta is on the run with her father, a German labor organizer, heading toward Maine to stay with her grandmother, when her father disappears. Gusta shows up on her grandmother’s doorstep with the clothes on her back and her beloved French horn. Her grandmother and aunt, who run an orphanage, take her in, and Gusta starts adjusting to life in a place very different from New York. American nationalism runs rampant in Maine, and Gusta’s last name and status as a newcomer brings some suspicion with it, as does her talk about unions and workers’ rights. Her uncle, a mill-worker whose hand was mangled at the factory, can’t work, so Gusta takes it upon herself to approach the owner of the mill to ask him to consider helping with her uncle’s bills. What Gusta doesn’t realize is that her desire to do the right thing puts her at odds with the mill owner, who has a history of his own with her family.

There is such rich and relevant storytelling here. Gusta is a wonderfully realized character with a strong background in social justice: a background that makes her an outsider in her own country. She comes to Small Town America during a time when there of alien registration drives (it really happened) and extreme patriotism; when something as innocuous as a last name aroused suspicion. Gusta is hyper-aware of injustice and determined to do what’s right, whether it’s bringing union reps to her town or point-blank asking for compensation for her uncle’s work-related injury. It’s her unflinching sense of right and wrong that puts her at odds in her community – and her father’s reputation certainly doesn’t help. Thank goodness her tough but loving grandmother is there to lean on. The Orphan Band of Springdale moves at a good pace, has believable characters in relatable situations, and readers can easily draw parallels between 1941 and today.

An author’s note reveals the very personal connection between the author and Gusta’s story. Readers can download a discussion guide and author’s notes from Candlewick’s website. The Orphan Band of Springdale has starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and the Bulletin of the Center for Chidren’s Books.

 

 

Posted in Historical Fiction

Redemption in the Old West: The Outlaw

The Outlaw, by Nancy Vo, (May 2018, Groundwood Books), $17.95, ISBN: 9781773060163

Recommended for readers 5-9

A small town in the Old West is terrorized by an Outlaw, who disappears one day. But when a mysterious stranger rides into town and starts making repairs and improvements, it draws close attention from some of the townspeople. Can even the meanest outlaws get redemption?

This is a beautifully created story of redemption and empathy. The spare text finds power in its brevity, with powerful mixed media images to enhance the story. The Outlaw quietly comes back to town – has he had a moment of clarity? – to make life in the town better, but when he’s recognized, any goodwill he may have built up is dashed: until a young boy stands up to the crowd. And sometimes, a voice of reason is all it takes to set change in motion. Not everyone will be on board, but the value; the importance, of taking a stand is the important thing. The Outlaw brings strong themes of empathy and redemption to readers, and with it, the opportunity for solid discussion about forgiveness and whether or not good deeds balance out terrible wrongs.

Author-illustrator Nancy Vo’s webpage has more of her artwork, links to her blog, and information about her books.

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

Read some US History in verse with Siege

Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution, by Roxanne Orgill, (March 2018, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763688516

Recommended for readers 10-13

The summer of 1775 was rough. The British occupied Boston, and kept a stranglehold on the city, cutting the residents off from food and medical supplies, which really didn’t help the smallpox situation, either. George Washington was chosen to lead the American armed forces, and expected to work miracles with almost no money and troops with no training. Author Roxanne Orgill uses verse to tell the story of how General George Washington turned the tables on the British. Beginning in the Summer of 1775 and going through to Spring 1776, she gives voice not only to Washington, but his generals, soldiers, and aides; his servant-slave, William Lee; and his wife, Martha. We also get to read The News from Boston, newspaper-like reports on the state of the city; and Orders, daily instructions from Washington to his officers. Source notes, a glossary, and a bibliography complete the book.

If you’ve got Hamilton fans in your readership, this is an easy booktalk. The fast-paced verse moves the book along and takes readers into the minds of historic figures that we don’t normally hear much from. Siege is a good additional read for tweens interested in US history, especially those kids interested in the American Revolution.