Tag Archives: historical

Three Keys by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Three Keys is the sequel to Front Desk, and Mia Tang and her crew are back. Her best friend, Lupe, is an undocumented immigrant, and this story revolves around the election of Governor Pete Wilson and his Proposition 187 which had devastating effects for undocumented immigrants (and even documented ones – there was a palpable fear in the air, lots and lots of racism and plenty of hate crimes). With their various gradations of immigration status, Lupe, Mia (who has a green card), and Jason (who was born in the US to naturalized-citizen parents) struggle to figure it all out. (Well, Jason does, and Mia helps him. Jason’s parents are still terrible and his dad even votes for Prop 187, even as their own money troubles are escalating and they downsize to a smaller home.)

On a personal level for Lupe, her mom returns to Mexico voluntarily (because her mother has died) and then is unable to cross the border again. Her father becomes worried about her and goes to the border to find her, but gets detained by immigration police. Lupe comes to stay with the Tangs at the motel for months and there are some really heart-wrenching scenes about their separation. Hank and Mia find an immigration lawyer to take the case pro bono. There are scenes of rallies and protests and the fear calculus of attending them for the various characters. The economics of the weeklies’ finances is not explored at all but rather they are made to seem financially comfortable, which is far from realistic.

Mia’s teacher is another person whose mind she helps to change, through her writing as in Front Desk. Mrs. Welch shows some racism toward Mia at the beginning of the school year, and wears a Pete Wilson pin. However, she comes to visit Mia and Lupe at the motel one day and sees the “Welcome to America” classes for immigrants that some of the motel’s weekly residents teach and starts to listen more and more to Mia. Mia also writes a letter to the editor of the newspaper and gets published. Mrs. Welch tutors Mia in writing, teaching her grammar formally which helps Mia greatly. When Prop 187 passes, Lupe leaves school, being tutored by Mia’s mom in math. This also sets Mia’s mom on a path to becoming a teacher, and there’s a sweet moment between her parents about her dad enabling her mom to pursue her dreams.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

by Kelly Yang
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

5th grader Mia Tang and her family move to yet another town in California. As Chinese immigrants in the 1990s, they are stuck in low-paying, unskilled jobs and the instability that accompanies them. But this time will be different – they will manage a motel together, as a family. But their boss, Mr. Yao, is cheap and pays them very little, even though (or maybe because?) they live at the motel rent-free. It doesn’t help that Mr. Yao’s son, Jason, is in Mia’s class at school and is well on his way to being a terrible person like his father. Mia’s new friend Lupe is the daughter of immigrants as well and the two hit it off fast. Lupe even helps Mia enter a contest to win a motel in New Hampshire.

Then there are the weeklies – the residents of the motel, who pay by the week. One weekly, Hank, is an integral part of Mia’s story, as they help each other. Over the course of the school year, this motley crew becomes a family, and Mia’s English improves to the point of actually helping people with her writing: a letter of recommendation for Hank to get a job, and a threatening letter to another immigrant’s boss who is trafficking immigrants to his restaurant and then confiscating their passports. She proves her mom wrong, that she’s not a bicycle among cars when it comes to competing with her classmates in English.

I loved the author’s note that most of the story was autobiographical. Even the harder parts, like when Mia’s mom gets beaten up by a thief. I was sort of glad that the motel giveaway didn’t really happen, because that, and its resolution, seemed pretty unrealistic. I was still moved by how it all came together, though, and I think young readers will love it (I would have, at age 10). Even Jason seems not to be quite as much of a lost cause as he did at the beginning, and it appears that he, Mia, and Lupe become friends in the sequel, Three Keys. Not much is made of the economics of the weeklies, and in fact they seem to have, if not plenty of money, at least not the bone-scraping poverty outlined in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Racism toward Black people is an important part of the storyline, but the racism and discrimination that Mia experiences is similarly brushed aside, which was disappointing but understandable.

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

by Jonathan Auxier
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Nan Sparrow was raised by a chimney sweep in 1800s London. One day he leaves and she is on her own, finding her way to a master sweep with other child sweeps to manage. The Sweep had left her with a lump of coal that is somehow always warm, and is her prized possession and constant companion. But now Nan is big, almost too big to sweep, and one day something happens to waken the char who, it turns out, is a golem, a fabled Jewish monster. Nan must escape from the master sweep, Mister Crudd, and go underground with her beloved golem, whom she names Charlie. For a while this works, but then Nan and her fellow sweeps get involved in the labor reform that changes the landscape. Golems, it turns out, have a purpose in life, and once that purpose is fulfilled, they… expire. So too with Charlie.

I don’t know much about chimney sweeps, or this period of London’s history, so I was very grateful for Auxier’s note at the end about what was true and what wasn’t. Nan gains some guidance, especially about golems, from Miss Bloom, a teacher at a school where she swept the chimneys and where the incident that woke Charlie happened. There are many beautiful, lovely lines, especially about how saving someone else is what saves us. There were a couple of times where I thought the story would turn into something tidier, something happier, more akin to a rags-to-riches type story, but it didn’t. Nan remained resourceful and mature beyond her years, and grew and matured even more along the way. Her relationships with her sweep family deepened in ways I wasn’t expecting, and it was lovely. They learn from each other, and in particular she learns the truth about, and comes to terms with, what happened to the Sweep.

Double Review: Two by Jason Reynolds

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You
by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Reynolds says over and over that this is NOT a history book, and I have to agree because this was way more readable than a history book, especially because it felt like Reynolds was talking directly (and pretty informally) to me. Also, though it went chronologically, Reynolds made connections between different historical events that I had never seen before (some events I had never heard about). He did seem to be very focused on Angela Davis; the last section of the book sounds like the whole history of the country comes back to her. And maybe it does – I’m new to learning about her life. The main thing that blew my mind was the idea that the American Revolution was fought over slavery – in the same way that the South wanted to keep slavery in the Civil War, apparently the colonies wanted to keep slavery in the Revolutionary War. There were other interesting connections and explanations but I don’t want to spoil them – go read it!

Ghost
by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

In the first book in the Track series, we meet Ghost, aka Castle Cranshaw, as he is discovering an innate ability to run and learning for the first time what it means to be on a team. He stumbles across a city track team with a cab driver for a coach who becomes almost a guardian angel for Ghost, bailing him out of a few scrapes. Ghost struggles to deal with his feelings and trauma of being chased by his abusive father out of the house with a gun. (His father has been in prison for the past three years because of it.) Befriending the other team newbies, not to mention Coach, helps Ghost start to work through it, while giving him something productive to do with his youthful energy rather than continuing to get in trouble.I read this as an audiobook and the reader was great – really nailed Ghost’s voice!

Monument Maker by Linda Booth Sweeney

by Linda Booth Sweeney
illustrated by Shawn Fields
Overall: 4. 5 out of 5 stars

Daniel Chester French was the sculptor who made the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This book might not have caught my eye at all except that I randomly visited Chesterwood, his summer home, this past summer. I had never heard of French before that visit, though I’ve certainly been to, and seen many pictures of, the Lincoln Memorial.

Sweeney’s text is simple enough for a 9-year-old to follow and spends a good amount of time on this most famous work, which means that she skims over some aspects of his life (all of a sudden on page 20 he has a stepmother? also at some point gets married and has a kid, mentioned only in passing). Because the text is so focused, I mostly wasn’t too worried about it, though it did confuse me a bit. I found more information in the detailed timeline at the back.

Most of my praise for this book goes to its illustrations by Shawn Fields. I’m a little surprised this book didn’t earn a Caldecott, or at least a Caldecott Honor. I would categorize the illustrations in three types: color illustrations of two modern kids learning about French; black-and-white pen sketches of French and the people and places in his life; and softer, almost sepia-toned, representations of his sculptures. One particularly enjoyable spread had a sketchy French in front of his smooth illustrations, working away on them.

At the back is a detailed timeline of French’s life, an Author’s Note, a page about his inventions, a section on the Lincoln Memorial itself, a list of U.S. cities with at least one statue, and more resources. I especially enjoyed the illustrator’s note explaining his choices of media and the parallels in his life and French’s.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

by Lauren Wolk
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Crow has spent all but the very first hours of her life on Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. When she arrived on the shore of the island’s loner, whom she eventually named Osh, he adopted and raised her as his own. But now that she’s twelve, she’s more interested in where she came from. A stranger comes to the nearby island of Penikese, which held a former leper colony and from where everyone on the island suspects Crow came from (and they keep her physically distant because of it). As Crow grows over the novel, she learns not only the truth but also that it doesn’t need to define her. My one word of warning is that the stranger on Penikese turns out to be two strangers, and one of them is rather scary. I would not give this to a reader who is easily scared, especially of large, angry men breaking into their house in the middle of the night.

There’s actually quite a lot about this book that reminded me of Show Me a Sign: historical fiction about a little-known historical community on an island off Massachusetts, complete with a scary man and a first trip to the mainland without adults. Overall I enjoyed this story very much. It was a very fresh topic; as someone who also reads adult fiction, its similarity in subject matter to Molokai by Alan Brennert was what initially intrigued me. The writing is detailed and quiet in a way that seems to reflect Crow’s quiet life on the island, most of the time. I liked that she got some, but not all, resolution to her quest, and that the two adults in her life didn’t suddenly fall in love. Who knows, maybe there will be a sequel – but this book honestly doesn’t even need one.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

by Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

14-year-old Hanna and her father have just moved to LaForge, Dakota. It’s 1880 and LaForge is a new town. Hanna’s father is able to rent a house for them and start construction on a store where he’ll sell dress goods – fabric and sewing materials for people to make their own clothes. Hanna has two goals: finish her studies and graduate from school, and make dresses in her father’s shop. But racism stands in her way.

Hanna’s mother was Asian, which means that Hanna is half-Asian. Her mother was actually half Chinese, half Korean, which, as Park discusses in the author’s note, was Park’s way of inserting her own Korean self into the Little House on the Prairie books, which she was obsessed with as a child. Hanna’s mother died after a long illness brought on by the rioting in Los Angeles, where they used to live, against the Chinese community in 1871. As long as Hanna’s white father is the face of their family, the two of them can get established in the town. But as soon as Hanna shows up at school and people take one look at her face, things start to fall apart. Parents pull their children from school, her presence “causes trouble” because the town drunks assault her, and people start to boycott the store before it’s even opened. But Hanna has managed to make two key friends and they help turn things around. It’s a middle grade novel, so all ties up neatly and ends well, yet I could see sequel potential (there’s a boy Hanna likes, but I worry that going down that road would lead to a very unrealistic tidy ending, which would be annoying).

Park does an amazing job of describing life on the frontier, especially details of dressmaking, which I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how things work currently, much less 140 years ago. there is the commentary on the racism that Hanna faces, where even the sympathetic white people were only willing to bend the rules of society and help to a point, and Hanna boldly pushes them to be true allies. She also offers some commentary on the Native Americans that Hanna befriends and how they were treated, which she also expands on in the author’s note. I also especially appreciate her eloquent phrasing of my own thoughts: “I also can’t help pondering which of our current and widely held attitudes will be fond lacking by future generations. Is our vision any clearer than that of our forebears?” In her acknowledgements, Park lists a number of Native people (and their tribal affiliation) who helped her, both well known and not. If I hear that Debbie Reese has offered thoughts on this book, I’ll be sure to share them, as well.

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare Le Zotte

by Ann Clare Le Zotte
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

11-year-old Mary Lambert is growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805, the height of the famous Deaf society there. Her friends and neighbors are all bilingual, it seems, and town meetings are conducted in both Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) and English. Mary can read and write in English, but not read lips, and her main language of communication is MVSL, which was a precursor to American Sign Language (ASL).

Mary’s family is still reeling from the loss of her beloved older brother, George, in a horsecart accident 8 months before. Mary is blissfully unaware that Deafness is highly misunderstood in much of the rest of the world, at least until a stranger comes to research her community. [Spoiler alert] At first the stranger seems benign, but then he abruptly kidnaps Mary and sails with her to Boston, where he keeps her as a domestic slave and a research subject. Mary is able to escape and return to home to her parents, who are beside themselves. She is certainly traumatized by the physical abuse she endures, but the major effects soon wane and she and her family are able to start to heal.

I give away the plot because it takes a while to get there, and without it, the plot is a bit slow. I thought the whole story was about her life on the island and her family’s loss of George, which is cool and all, but once this plot started, it really picked up and Mary became more interesting as a character. I loved her growth over the course of the story. The author’s note at the end explains more about the community and why the author chose to portray some signed dialogue in the grammar and motions of MVSL but the majority of the signed dialogue in English grammar, and I agree with her that it was just enough to get a feel for how it works without distracting too much from the story. The historical details were also great – I had no idea it would take 10 days to sail from the Vineyard around Cape Cod to Boston! These days it’s just 45 minutes by high-speed ferry from Woods Hole. This is also a great local historical fiction book for those in New England!

Two by Lois Lowry: On the Horizon and Looking Back

books_looking1_m  9780358129400by Lois Lowry
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a big Lois Lowry fan and always pleased to dive into a previously unknown (to me) book by her. I know there are a few lesser-known works (ones that are among her favorites, as it happens) and I confess I’m sort of saving them, because I know one day she’ll stop writing (she’s 83 now!).

I was excited to see that she had a new book out, On the Horizon, about her childhood in Hawaii and Japan in the 1930s/40s. It’s a memoir in verse, beautifully illustrated by Kenard Pak. The black and white illustrations, done in pencil, are surprisingly complex in shading. Two in particular were back to back, of Lowry as a girl meeting illustrator Allen Say as a boy, a moment they both recalled when they met for real years later (which I just learned and can’t get over!). In one picture, Lowry is foregrounded and Say is behind a fence, far away with friends. In the other, Say is foregrounded and blond Lowry and her memorable green bike are behind the fence and far away. The different perspectives really help drive home her text which attempts to show both sides, a tension she must have been aware of as an American living in the post-war years in Japan. (If you can, I recommend looking at this in a physical book rather than e-book as I did; some of the formatting was a bit wonky and I’m betting that the layout helps with the impact of the illustrations as well as the flow.)

Lowry did a lot of research into the details of the historic events that she lived through as a child, especially the lives of the American sailors who died in the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese civilians who died in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. The verse is sometimes rhyming and sometimes not, even within the same poem, which is jarring and maybe partly the point – sometimes we can see the rhyme and reason in why things happen, and a lot of times, especially in troubling times, we can’t. I did learn a new style of poetry called a triolet, which Lowry does three times well and is moving in its repetition (and reminds me of a pantoum, but I digress).

Lowry had such a unique childhood experience and I’m glad she finally delved into it. While looking for On the Horizon I also found her 1998 memoir, Looking Back, which helped give more context to On the HorizonLooking Back got a much-needed update in 2016. I loved the way she connected in each chapter a book she wrote to an event from her life that helped inspire it, even the ones I haven’t read yet.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

bk_long_walk_200pxby Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up because it’s been on our 6th graders’ summer reading list for a while and I’ve never read it. I was also looking for a quick easy read because it’s been a while since I’ve posted, which leads me to a quick update: I’m away for the majority of 2020 and while I’ll try to keep posting regularly, my book access seems limited to what I can snag as an e-book. I’ll still try to get to newer stuff, but might have to rely on whacking through the huge to-read list of older titles.

However, this book was hardly easy – sure, it only took me a little while to read it, but Salva’s story is a tough one. I did not realize, going in, that this was based on a single true story; I thought it was a composite story. Park knows Salva and had read his written accounts of his life to write her book. The story opens in 1985, when Salva is almost 11 years old and war comes to his village in southern Sudan, and is told alongside the story of a girl in Sudan in 2008, Nya, facing the same water struggles from when Salva was young. War comes to Salva, finally, and all at once, while he is at school and the teacher sends all the young boys into the bush – run away from the village, he says, fearing that the boys would otherwise be forced to become soldiers on one side or the other.

Salva, on his own, meets up with a group of people walking east toward Ethiopia. He meets his uncle along the way, who helps him come to terms with the fact that his family is likely all dead. His uncle and his new friend both die along the way, in pretty gruesome ways that are described quickly and pretty matter-of-factly, but still disturbing especially once you know that this is a true story. Salva’s story includes accounts of life in refugee camps, but at that point the story picks up a lot in pace and much of the interesting narrative elements are lost as we speed through the years to the end of the story. Salva moves to a few different refugee camps, in Ethiopia and then Kenya (when the Ethiopians kick them out), becoming a leader of a group of Lost Boys, and then gets sent to the US to live with a family in Rochester, NY, even though he is no longer a minor. He goes to college and returns to Sudan to help build wells – including the well that Nya’s community gets. Salva is eventually reunited with his father and learns that most of his family survived as well.

I appreciated that there was a note from Salva and an author’s note, both from 2010/2011, and then an updated note from 2015 about the publicity that the books has generated for Salva’s organization, Water for South Sudan. The book is so short that I would have loved more fleshing out of the second half of the story, instead of nearly straight narration. However, the shortness of the book means that a lot of kids choose it for summer reading, and I think it describes a world so utterly unfamiliar to most kids in my community that I really appreciate its inclusion in the curriculum.