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

The Red Ribbon finds hope in the heart of despair

The Red Ribbon, by Lucy Adlington, (Sept. 2018, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781536201048

Ages 12+

Ella is a 14-year-old young woman who lands in Auschwitz-Birkenau after being picked up on the way home from school. She lies about her age to be placed in the Upper Tailoring Studio; a dressmaking studio within the camp, where the skeletal women Ella calls “Stripeys”, referring to the prisoners’ striped uniforms, make dresses for their clients: the wives and girlfriends of the SS officers, and the female SS officers themselves. Ella has dreams of being a dressmaker and finds herself more than up to the task, but her friend Rose points out that there’s a fine line between doing what’s necessary for survival and collaborating with the enemy, no matter where one’s true passion lies.

The Red Ribbon looks at some big issues taking place during the Holocaust: there really was a dressmaking studio, where prisoners repurposed clothing taken from the arriving prisoners to make clothing for the SS wives, girlfriends, and officers. There were prisoners who acted as “prominents”: they oversaw other inmates and could be almost as cruel and demanding as their jailers. Ella’s talent for dressmaking gains her notice from one SS officer, an 18-year-old named Carla, who leaves her small gifts for trade and invites her to share birthday cake with her one time and viciously beats her another, calling her inhuman. Rose acts as Ella’s conscience, seeing through the illusion Ella desperately wants to create: an illusion where her grandmother is still safe at home and waiting to hear from her; an illusion where her dressmaking talent is valued, and the Auschwitz “Department Store” is a kind of thrift store and not a pile of stolen goods from stolen lives. Ella’s desperation to hone her dressmaking talent borders on collaboration, but she refuses to acknowledge it until a heartbreaking moment when her beloved grandmother’s sewing machine lands in front of her in the Studio. It smashes Ella’s naivete, but she and Rose bolster one another, and the women around them as they pray and wait for liberation.

There are some devastating moments in this story, and Lucy Adlington’s words weave beautiful, terrible visions. Prisoners tell each other to “Look down at your sewing, not up at the chimneys”. One prisoner is so desperate for news about her children that she asks about an SS officer’s son: “Tell us about the little boy –  how old?  My son was three when they took us.”

The book equally captures desperation and determination; hope and despair. It’s a good add where collections need YA fiction that discusses The Holocaust. Display and booktalk with Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Diary of Anne Frank and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (I’ve seen this title in both Juvenile and YA collections); Elie Wiesel’s Night and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The Jewish Book Council has an excellent list of Holocaust-related YA books. There is a creative writing resource available for free download from The Hay Festival.

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

Zora and Carrie have more adventures in Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, by T.R. Simon (Sept. 2018, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763643010

Ages 10-14

Is it any more perfect that the latest installment in a series starring a young Zora Neale Hurston is out right before Banned Book Month? Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is both a staple on high school reading lists AND a book that’s landed on Banned and Challenged lists since 1997.

Zora & Me is the story of young Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie. The year is 1903, and the two live with their families in Eatonville, Florida, in the first African-American city to be incorporated in the state. Even as a child, Zora is every bit the storyteller, the grand designer of adventures; Carrie likes to play it safer, but always follows Zora into an escapade – or a mystery. In this second novel, author T.R. Simon examines hate, white privilege, and history. It begins when Mr. Polk, their mute neighbor, is attacked and his horses set loose. When the girls go investigate and help Mr. Polk, they discover he can speak – he speaks to Old Lady Bronson, a woman rumored to be a conjure woman. When Mr. Polk breaks his silence, it sets other pieces to a long-unsolved puzzle into motion. The narrative shifts between the events in 1903 and the story of a Lucia, a young woman sold into slavery in 1855. In 1903, Zora and Carrie discover an abandoned plantation mansion on Mr. Polk’s property; at the same time, white men come to Eatonville and demand more of Mr. Polk’s land, claiming a right to it. Tensions rise, and the people of Eatonville prepare to stand up for themselves and their home. As the narratives move back and forth, the puzzle comes together and everything becomes heartbreakingly clear.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is intense and raw, with brutal honesty about slavery and its aftermath. T.R. Smith writes about the roots of racial violence and the “enduring wounds of slavery” that persist to this day. Zora Neale Hurston is an intelligent, headstrong 12-year-old, and Carrie finds her strength and voice. They’re strong protagonists, strong African-American young women, and fully aware of the danger that whites present to them, even if slavery is now something they’re only hearing about: many parents were born into slavery, and freed as very young children. This generation knows that they weren’t “given” their freedom. They weren’t given anything: they will fight for everything that is theirs. Lucia, the third main character in The Cursed Ground, tells a sharp, painful story about family lost and found; about freedom taken; about people who would diminish a whole race’s humanity, and about discovering and defending one’s sense of self. It’s an incredible story. A biography of Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline of her life conclude this story. I hope to read more of Zora’s and Carrie’s adventures. This is definitely on my Newbery shortlist, and I hope it’s on a Coretta Scott King Award shortlist, too. It’s a must-add to historical fiction collections and would make a stellar African-American History Month reading assignment for classes.

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.

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.