Category Archives: historical fiction

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

It is once again time to start reading the nominees for this year’s Virginia Readers’ Choice Award.  I love reading my way through this list every year!  There are always titles I missed when they first came out, and a great variety of books, so reading and talking about these titles is a great way to start off a new school year.

The first title I want to share this year is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces.

This is really an incredible book.  As someone who is not inclined to love historical fiction, and also not inclined to love novels written in verse, I will admit that I chose it as one of the first from the list to read because I wanted to get it out of the way.  I thought I would like it okay, but I didn’t expect to be as enthusiastic as I am about to be.  As it turns out, I loved this book.

The story takes place in the United States, a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, and centers on a boy named Matt Pin.  Matt grew up in Vietnam and was given by his mother to American soldiers as the war was ending.  He has loving adoptive parents; a kind piano teacher and baseball coach; and a great pitching arm.  But he also has intense, vivid memories of growing up surrounded by war; confusion and sadness about his mother’s choice to hand him to the soldiers, staying behind in Vietnam with his injured younger brother; and real problems with bullies who blame him for the war and the pain it has caused their families.  This is a heavy load for a 12-year-old kid.

But here’s what I love about this story.  It is a heavy load, no doubt, and the book doesn’t shy away from that.  There are scenes from the war, Matt’s memories, that are tough to read and will be tough for sensitive readers.  But there is nothing gratuitous, and I feel like Burg was very aware of her audience in writing this story.  She was careful to convey the reality/horror in an appropriate way and realistic about Matt’s struggles in coping with his past, but she balanced these out with positive scenes and emotions that were just as realistic .  The book is very readable for a wide range of kids; the simplicity of the language and verse form make it friendly for a kid who is not a huge reader, and the depth of emotion and complexity of the situation make it a great story for a more advanced reader.   Highly recommended!

P.S.  This is a great choice for kids who enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  I preferred this over that book; I felt like the verse form made more sense here than it did to me there, for some reason.  But I have had kids who, on hearing me talk about All the Broken Pieces, say that they read and loved Inside Out & Back Again, and I think this is a great next read for them.  I’ll be curious to hear how they compare the two.

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Filed under historical fiction, sad, Uncategorized

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

This morning, I read the first two chapters of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (recent Newbery winner) to two classes of 6th grade boys.  In one class, once we hit the part where the narrator, Jack, says “cheeze-us crust” as a substitute for the swear “Jesus Christ,” the laugh-fest began and continued off and on for the rest of class.  When I set the boys free to look for books in the library, I heard many exclamations of “cheeze-us! cheeze-us crust!”  It’s funny to me how I can never predict what the kids will go crazy over.

This is a great book to read aloud, because the voice of young Jack is so strong and so genuine.  Jack is young boy living in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962.  He has problems with nosebleeds that, in his own description, spurt out of his nose like water from an elephant’s trunk; some very humorous scenes in the book involve his unruly nose and its spewing of blood.  Jack has been grounded for the summer as punishment for firing his father’s Japanese sniper rifle without permission and then mowing down his mother’s cornfield (at his father’s insistence, but just try to get his mother to have sympathy for that!).  He is only allowed to leave the house to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, type obituaries for the town newspaper (her arthritis has made it impossible for her to type them on her own).

There were several things I liked about this book.  As I said, I loved the voice of Jack.  The humor was great; I laughed out loud several times, and it was the sort of humor that middle school kids would appreciate.  I enjoyed learning a bit about the history of Norvelt and how it fit with the New Deal and a series of planned government communities.  Seeing the history and learning about it through Jack’s perspective, as well as through the conflicting opinions of his parents, made it interesting.

So, I liked the book, and I think it will appeal to kids who like humor mixed with history.  However, I do not think I would have picked this to win the Newbery.  There were parts that dragged a bit for me, and I just did not think this book had the emotional punch of something like A Monster Calls or the beauty of Breadcrumbs.  It’s a solid little book, though, and if the laughter in class this morning was any indication, it’s a book that knows its audience and hits the mark.

Update:  Here is a short audio clip of Gantos himself reading the beginning of the book.  Thanks to Macmillan Audio for the link!

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Filed under funny, historical fiction, realistic fiction

Buzz Books (aka, My To-Read List)

Part of my job is reading reviews of books and following the blog buzz about which books are favorites to win awards (like the Newbery Medal, the Sibert Medal for kids’ nonfiction, or the National Book Award).  I don’t have the time to read everything I want to read, but with two weeks of holiday break approaching, I am putting together my To-Read List, based in large part on the buzz surrounding these titles.  Anything here is pretty much guaranteed to be well-written.  It might not appeal to a particular kid’s taste, but you needn’t worry about any of these books being awful!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This one has been on my list for months, and I hope to read it soon and book talk it with kids.  It’s the story of a young Vietnamese girl’s journey to America, specifically Alabama, after the fall of Saigon, and her struggle to adjust to a very different world from the one she has known.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.   This is a novel about loss.  I am, I confess, a complete sucker for sad books.  Even the story behind the writing of this book is sad.  Siobhan Dowd (who wrote the wonderful and quirky London Eye Mystery) came up with the idea for this book, but died of cancer before she could write it.  Patrick Ness (author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I wrote about in my post about Hunger Games read-alikes) picked up the idea and wrote the story.  Many of the reviewers seem to be flummoxed in trying to describe this novel, because of its inventiveness and power, and that tells me I must read it.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally Hemmings, from the perspectives of two of the children and another child close to the family.  I’m hearing that’s it’s uncomfortable, thought-provoking, engaging, and poignant.  A must-read, I suspect.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy mixes fantasy and historical fiction, set in the early 1950s.  Janie’s family has been forced to move to London due to the “Red Scare” in America, and there she meets a boy named Benjamin, the son of a mysterious apothecary.  Everyone I’ve talked to who has read this has loved it (kids and adults!).

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.  If you haven’t already seen Hugo (based on Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret), stop reading this and go immediately to a theater.  If you have, then you are probably already as excited to read another creation of Brian Selznick as I am.  ‘Nuff said.

Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder.  My own 5th grader read this last week.  She loved it, and I’m hoping she’ll write up a guest review of it for this blog, so I won’t say more.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  This one is being described as “beautiful,” “unforgettable,” “magical.”  Reviewer Elizabeth Bird on Goodreads writes that it “walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps ’em right smack dab in the face.”  For kids and adults tired of derivative fantasy, this sounds like a viable option.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.  I have actually already read a good bit of this one, but a kid came looking for it, so I let it go before I was finished, and I am anxious to get it back and finish!  Very engaging and interesting, and it gives some interesting facts, particularly about Earhart’s self-promotion tactics.

Some other titles on my list:

Chime by Franny Billingsley.  Mary Kendall (co-worker) has read this and gives it a big thumbs up for 7th and 8th graders.

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  A companion book to the wonderful Wednesday Wars.  Kids are giving me a lot of good feedback on this one.  Another good choice for 7th and 8th graders.

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Filed under fantasy, fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, realistic fiction, sad, Uncategorized

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I know Chains is a slightly older book (published in 2008), and it got a lot of acclaim already, but until this past summer, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it, despite a number of kids telling me I absolutely needed to.  So I’m a bit late to the party of praising this book to the skies, but I can’t resist joining in anyway.

First, something to know about me:  I most emphatically did not like historical fiction until I became a librarian and started forcing myself to read it.  I think this is because I didn’t like studying history as a kid (couldn’t remember all those dates!); the association with a class I consistently struggled with just shut my mind like a trap.  But over the last six years, the genre has really grown on me, and I must say I know a lot more about history now than I ever thought I would, thanks entirely to historical fiction novels and the curiosity they have sparked in me.  Stick an interesting and compelling kid in the middle of an important historical event or time, and suddenly it all feels real in a way it never did in the textbooks I had, and I find myself wanting to know more about the reality behind the fiction.

Isabel is just such a kid, and her place and time are New York during the Revolutionary War.  (Who knew how much was going on in New York during that time? I’m sure I never did!)  Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are slaves who have been promised their freedom upon the death of their owner, but instead, they end up in bondage to a cruel Loyalist family living in Manhattan.  The novel follows Isabel’s efforts to gain freedom in the midst of an ever-changing political climate.

What I loved about this book:

-Isabel.  She might be the strongest, most compelling girl character I’ve ever seen in middle school fiction.  She faces more hardship than a person like myself could even imagine, and sometimes she has to blank out her emotions as much as possible in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but her strength is nothing short of stunning.  My heart broke for her over and over, as my admiration for her grew.

-The history.  Yes, I loved the history.  I loved learning about the Revolutionary War, and what it was like for slaves in New York during that period.  The politics fascinated me, and trust me, if I am fascinated by history and politics, you can be assured that the vehicle delivering that information is top-notch.

-The complexity.  This isn’t a simple good vs. evil kind of plot.  Good folks allow bad things to happen, and it’s not any easier for the reader to see where Isabel should turn than it is for Isabel.

I’ll stop there, because I’m getting too wordy already.  Suffice it to say, this is a must-read.

Note for parents:  I read this with my 10-year-old, and I think it’s a really wonderful book to read to your child, or alongside them.  A strong reader can definitely handle it on their own, but for the younger middle school set, I would suggest reading it yourself as well.  There is a lot to discuss, and in our house, a LOT of questions came up about slavery, the poor treatment of slaves, betrayal of trust, and all sorts of Big Topics along those lines.  This is the kind of book that, when kids read it, they want someone to talk to about it.

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Filed under fiction, historical fiction, Uncategorized