Tag Archives: historical

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.

Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author  has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.

Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.

As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.

The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.

There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen
Candlewick, July 2018.

A YA romance set in medieval France that is a twist on Beauty and the Beast. As in the fairytale, a cruel and heartless French aristocrat is transformed into a hideous beast, and can only be changed back when he loves and is loved in return.

Jensen adds a new character, Lucie, a maid at the Chateau Beaumont who is initially attracted to the gorgeous chevalier, Jean-Loup, but he is quickly shown to be rotten to the core when he rapes her. Thinking she is pregnant, Lucie runs off to the woods where she is rescued by Mere Sophie, a wise woman. Sophie transforms Jean-Loup into a hideous beast and allows Lucie to watch his suffering by transforming her into a candlestick (though not one that sings and dances!)

But here the story swerves from the original – Beast has no recollection of his time as the chevalier and proves to be a gentle and charming companion and Lucie finds herself falling in love with him.

Enter Rose (the Belle of this story), who is held at the chateau after her father steals a rose and is initially terrified of the Beast, falling in love with the idea of handsome Jean Loup instead. Rose is also something of a Cinderella character as she has two mean and grasping sisters.

As Lucie and Beast, and even Rose, begin to understand that love is about more than skin deep appearances, they work through their love-quadrangle (Jean-Loup being the fourth side) towards a satisfying ending beyond the traditional happy ever after wedding, aided by some magic.

The prose, characterization and plot development serve this interpretation well and will provide enjoyably lush escapism for a teen reader.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017

Hardinge (The Lie Tree, 2016) creates an extraordinary fantasy which marries a 17th century English Civil War setting with her usual dazzling creativity, deliciously deep and complex characterization, and bright, sophisticated writing.

Some members of the aristocratic Fellmottes are able to be possessed by multiple ghosts, ancestors who continue to live on by passing from body to body though, unfortunately, if too many crowd, in the spirit of the host can be lost. Young Makepeace Lightfoot, an illegitimate and lowly branch of the family, has this ability and after the death of her mother is taken in by the Fellmottes to work in their kitchen.

But she realizes that she is a spare host, being kept on hand in case a vessel for the ancestral spirits is needed and she runs away, using her wits and those of a few friendly ghosts that she has invited in, to journey across war-conflicted England, staying one step ahead of her pursuing family.

Makepeace is a trademark Hardinge protagonist: intelligent, thorny, and gutsy. But the tightrope trick here, which the author brilliantly pulls off, even adding some flourishes, is that Makepeace is host to a bear, a Royalist doctor and a Parliamentarian soldier, all of whom are fully-developed characters and have easy to follow conversations with her and each other. Makepeace has a half-brother, James, who also has the Fellmotte ability, and he is her anchor as well as the catalyst for Makepeace’s bid for freedom. This reminds me, in its profundity and authenticity, of the sibling relationship in Cuckoo Song.

At first, I found the novel to be rather slow-paced and uninvitingly grim. But I was riveted once Makepeace sets off on her own and the novel explores the political and social landscape of her country as she is hunted by her family.

As a teen, I was fascinated with the Civil War and was wholly on the side of the way more romantic Royalists. Indeed, one of my earliest historical crushes was Rupert of the Rhine (who gets a shout out here with his dog, Boy). As an older, and maybe wiser, person, I can feel much greater sympathy with the dour Parliamentarians who, while having justice on their side have a bit of a worrying hardline streak. All this to say that Hardinge does a marvelous job of evoking the divergent camps and Makepeace’s pragmatic approach to them.

Makepeace wants to do more than just get by and survive, she wants to flourish and this is an ideal novel for readers who want to do the same, whether they are middle schoolers, older teens, or adults.

Hardinge, hugely popular and feted in the UK, seems to be finding an audience here in the US following the success of The Lie Tree. Her blend of historical setting, singular fantasy, and courageously unsentimental feminist protagonists can make for a challenging and spiky read, but the balm of the gorgeous writing eases the way.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2017

I’ve only known Gratz as the author of the enjoyable Boys Own-style WWII thriller, Projekt 1065, and Refugee is a complete departure from that style to a much more serious and realistic one, which, nonetheless, makes a gripping novel.

Three stories of refugee children from different countries and different eras are woven together to show the essential truth of what it means to be forced out of your home and have to seek a new life in a foreign country. Josef is a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany who flees from there with his family onboard the MS St Louis to Cuba. Isabel and her family flee from Cuba in 1994  to the United States on a makeshift boat after her father gets in trouble with the Castro regime. In contemporary times, Mahmoud and his family flee from the Syrian civil war, heading across land and sea to get to Germany.

Gratz cleverly links the stories thematically through the dilemmas and challenges that the families face, and through the linking device of the escape across water. He even, in a final twist, brings all the stories together.

This is a middle grade novel and the author doesn’t pull his punches on the dangers that these families face and the outcomes are realistically not happy for everyone. The prose is workmanlike but still manages to communicate the emotions of the highs and lows of these children’s experiences. He also captures the warmth of the families and the drive they have to better their lives of their children.

The author includes some notes on the real life stories behind his fictional ones and includes maps (hurrah!) of the three families’ journeys.

Clearly this is an important of-the-moment topic, and Gratz makes it accessible for a middle grade reader by putting it through the eyes of kids their age and includes sufficient context to make the situations understandable without getting too bogged down in the weeds.  At the same time, by including these three diverse stories, he illuminates the universality and historical relevance of the refugee experience.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

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Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
A Queen’s Thief novel
Greenwillow, 2017.

Though I have read and enjoyed a couple of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books it was a long time ago and I recall very little. This book is not quite part of the series but is set in the same world and Eugenides the Thief is a support character.

A YA historical novel set in an alternate version of Medieval Mediterranean, it’s both a buddy road trip and a primer on political manipulation and intrigue. Kamet, a high up Mede slave is on the run after his master is poisoned and fortuitously meets up with an Attolian who is there to take him to Gen, the King of Attolia as revenge for something his master did. (The Attolian’s name is withheld until quite late in the book – a typical Turner ploy. Apparently this character was in a previous book though I had no recollection of him – anyway, I’ll treat it as a spoiler and won’t give his name here)

As they travel by boat, foot, and cart on the run from the Emperor’s guard, they encounter kindness and cynicism, help and hindrance. Narrated by Kamet, we see his sharp-wittedness which gets them out of as many tight spots as the Attolian’s fighting skills. His condescension to the Attolian, who he believes to be a bit of a lunkhead, gradually gives way to admiration and friendship.

The writing is exemplary and serves the characters and the plot without being showy for the sake of it and it’s a satisfying, warm novel that’s character driven as well as plot driven. There are the twists that a Turner fan might expect but are just as thrilling for a newcomer to the series. As ever with Turner, while I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I’m not sure how much kid appeal it has – but she keeps writing them and libraries keep buying them so I’m obviously missing something!

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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