Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006

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Last Updated 06/18/06


Picture Books

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Papa's Latkes by Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-0779-7) $15.99

In a winter sometime during World War II, Selma and her little sister Dora help their father prepare latkes, for the first Chanukah since their mother died, a few months before. At first Selma is too grief-stricken to eat: "Papa's latkes shouldn't look like this. They should look like Mama's latkes. Chanukah shouldn't be like this. Three people in the kitchen instead of four." But Papa reminds her that, "we can remember Mama. And we can make latkes and we can still celebrate Chanukah. That is what Mama would want us to do." Edwards uses flavorful dialogue to enliven the long, sad story, while Schuett's oil illustrations bring out the sombreness and uncertainty in the faces of the two girls, and the desperate cheerfulness of their father as he tries to make the holiday a happy one. (5-10)


Chapter Books

Singer to the Sea God by Vivien Alcock. Delacorte, 1992; Dell Yearling, 1995 (0-440-41003-7) $3.99 pb

Set in ancient Greece, this unusual adventure story is an exciting, sometimes magical look at how an ordinary person can become inadvertently caught up in the making of legends. Phaidon, a young Greek slave, has his first brush with myths in the making when his sister Cleo is accidentally turned into stone by Perseus and the Medusa's head. As Perseus tells him, "Innocent people suffer in wars. It's always been that way." But when Cleo's body is stolen from him to be sold as a statue, Phaidon vows that nothing will stop him from finding it and giving her a proper burial--and that includes a six-headed monster and a mysterious oracular prophecy that he is expected to fulfill.

Phaidon's adventures in pursuit of his vow make for an enthralling tale, enhanced by a memorable cast of characters and a deftly created other world. But what really drives the story is an underlying wistful sadness at the fate of Cleo and a curiosity about how Phaidon--young, clumsy, and certainly not innately heroic--will manage to address the wrong done to her. The bittersweet resolution to his quest is an unexpected, yet thematically satisfying end to a story that is fated to become myth.

The Barn by Avi. Orchard, 1994; Avon Camelot, 1996 (0-380-72562-2) $4.50 pb

Everyone knows that nine year old Benjamin is the smart one of his family, "fit for more than farming." But when his father is struck down by a fit of palsy (a stroke), Ben has to leave school, to help his brother and sister keep their homestead claim going and tend their helpless, speechless father. As Ben struggles with the often disgusting tasks of keeping his father clean and fed, he finds the hardest part is seeing their once kind, jovial father so vacant: "It was like keeping watch on an empty box."

Then Ben discovers that his father had wanted to build a barn for his sake, so that if school made him dissatisfied with the farm, he'd "have something fine to come home to." And he finds that the dream of the barn is the key to reaching the person that still lives, somewhere within the "deep, dark cave" his father has become. Somehow, he must convince his family to make the dream come true, so he can give his father a reason to survive--and prove that going to school hasn't made him different.

Short and spare, The Barn is so economically written that not a word is wasted; every line of the text resonates with thought and emotion. The characters and setting are real and immediate, and the powerful first person narrative draws the reader in, to share Ben's initial despair, a growing sense of urgency and the mixed rage, anguish and triumph of the ending. Compelling, original and emotionally authentic, this is an astonishing story. * (9 & up)

Ruthie's Gift by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Illustrated by Dave Kramer. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32525-8) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1999 (0-440-41405-9) $4.50 pb

This light, episodic story tells the adventures of eight-year-old Ruthie Hawk, just before the start of World War I. Growing up with six brothers--surrounded by boys--Ruthie finds it hard to be the proper lady her mother wants her to be. When she sees a beautiful doll in the Sears Roebuck catalog, she dreams that it could help her be more ladylike: "Having her would be almost like having a sister." But the doll costs almost $5, an incredible sum. How Ruthie learns that she can be a lady through her own strong character and good heart--and gets the reward she deserves--makes for a likable, satisfying story. (8-12)

Dear Great American Writers School by Sherry Bunin. Houghton Mifflin, 1995 (0-71645-4) OP

Twin Branch, Kentuck may be a small town, but it's full of interesting characters just waiting to be turned into stories. So when Bobby Lee Pomeroy sees an ad for a mail order writing school--"Turn stories into dollars!"--she's sure it will change her life. And in it's own way, it does. This fresh and funny epistolary novel chroncicles a youn girl's growth from a naive dreamer who thinks of writing as a way to get rich quick into an educated young woman who has learned to value herself and her talent. Along the way she has many funny and bittersweet tales to tell about small town life during World War II, in a voice that's lively, wry, yet homey: "I saw the two of them up at the Five and Dime looking into each other's eyes like they were counting the specks." "My heart was fluttering like paper caught in an electric fan." Although Bobby Lee's voice has some narrative limitations and is even occasionally marred by anachronistic slang, she is a memorable and inspriring character. (10 & up)

Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by Daniel Duffy. William Morrow, 1983; Beech Tree, 1998 (0-688-16280-0)

Weaving a gentle message about learning from other cultures into an easy-to-read story, Molly's Pilgrim is a thoughtful look at the problems of a young immigrant. Third-grade Molly is miserable in her new school, where she is constantly taunted about not speaking English perfectly and being Jewish. When her mother makes a doll for the class Thanksgiving project, Molly is even more humiliate: the doll looks like a little Russian girl, not a Pilgrim. But as Molly and her classmates learn, "Pilgrim" can mean anyone who travels to find freedom: like Molly and her family. Although set around the turn of the century, Molly's sympathetic narrative could be that of any "pilgrim" today. (5-8)

Make a Wish, Molly by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by Jan Naimo Jones. Doubleday, 1994; Dell Yearling, 1995 (0-440-41058-4)

The follow-up to Molly's Pilgrim is a similar yet somewhat richer and more sophisticated story, intended for slightly older readers. Several months have passed for Molly and she's much happier, because she's found a friend named Emma. But when Emma has a birthday party, Molly can't eat any of her wonderful birthday cake: it's Passover, and regular flour is forbidden. For Elizabeth, Molly's old enemy, it's the perfect chance to make trouble between Molly and Emma by spreading nasty rumors about Jewish customs. Molly's too shy and embarrassed to explain--but how can she keep her friend? This longer narrative gives Molly more depth than the previous book, making her and even more sympathetic and understandable character. (6-10)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32175-9) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1997 (0-440-41412-1) $4.99 pb; Laurel-Leaf, 2001 (0-440-22800-X) $5.99 pb

Definitely deserving--at the very least--its 1995 Newbery Honor, this is an unique and memorable book, a funny, sad and loving story about the power of family in the brightest and darkest times of life.

The Watsons--the Weird Watsons, as they sometimes get called, especially after Byron gets his lips frozen kissing his reflection in the car mirror--are Momma, Dad, Byron, Kenny and Joetta, a working-class black family suffering through the cold of Flint, Michigan in the early 1960's. Kenny is the narrator, an intelligent but unsophisticated "Poindexter"--read "nerd"--who describes with innocent humor his family's quirks, his troubles with bullies, and his love-hate relationship with his tough, sometimes brutal older brother Byron, who casually protects him when not busy tormenting him himself. Byron, having turned thirteen, is an "official teenage juvenile delinquent," and his parents are starting to find him uncontrollable. And so they decide to finally follow-up on their threat to take him to Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, a strict disciplinarian who "won't be putting up with any of that mess."

What awaits the Watsons in Birmingham? A small but devastating part in one of the most tragic, incomprehensible moments in American history; an event that will leave Kenny reeling from the unfairness of life and the sudden awareness of true evil. And when he is at his lowest ebb, hiding in the space behind the couch like a hurt animal waiting to heal, it is tough, seemingly heartless Byron that comes to his rescue.

Children's books that deal with heavy, painful subjects are commonplace these days, but what sets The Watsons apart is that most of the narrative is so lighthearted, with no forebodings in the text of the events of the end. Readers are unlikely to understand the significance of the title; I didn't make the connection myself until I saw the book's dedication to four girls who died very young, "the toll for one day in one city." But I don't think Curtis was aiming for shock value, which would just make the book annoying; rather, the contrast between the book's beginning and end emphasizes the incomprehensible swiftness with which life can change and our sense of security get ripped from us. The humor and lively characterizations of the narrative also make it far more pleasurable to read than most other children's books about tragic events, which are invariably almost unrelievedly sombre. Ending on a positive note, as Kenny realizes that he will always have the security of his family's love, The Watsons turns what could be a dirge into a celebration of what is good in life. (10 & up)

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-72806-1) $13.95; HarperTrophy, 1998 (0-06-440684-9) $4.95 pb

Cushman's third historical novel departs from the world of medieval England for a very different time and place: California during the gold rush. But thankfully, the change of setting hasn't changed Cushman's vivid, earthy prose or her skill at creating a real and memorable heroine. California Morning Whipple, the daughter of Western-dreaming parents--her siblings were named Butte, Prairie, Sierra, Golden Promise, and Ocean--doesn't share the family dream in the slightest. When her father dies and her mother finally moves the family to Lucky Diggins, California, California the girl's first reaction to the "majestic, noble, imposing, magnificent" land is "Awful. Just awful." There's no school, no library, not even any houses; like everyone else, the Whipples will live in a tent.

Quickly deciding she must change her name--"in California it was not just a name. It was a place, a passion, a promise"--California becomes Lucy, "because it was not beautiful but ordinary... It was a very Massachusetts name." And Massachusetts is where Lucy longs, with all her heart, to return. But despite her best efforts, the hardships of life in Lucky Diggins keep her secret store of pickle crock money from growing enough to pay for her passage home. Though she refuses to accept life in Lucky Diggins, Lucy is forced to put aside her dreams and her books to help the family. She finds herself making friends, particularly with Lizzie, a wild, tough girl from an abusive family, and Bernard, an escaped slave, both of whom show her some new ways of looking at the world. As the Whipple family struggles through hard times and painful losses, Lucy, who has always valued safety above everything else, learns the value of freedom. In a delightfully surprising ending, she comes to understand what home really means, and achieves her real heart's desire at last.

Through Lucy's pungent, heartfelt narrative, Cushman tells a colorful story that brings the Gold Rush setting to life. At its heart though, is a theme that was also the center of her Medieval story Catherine, Called Birdy and is equally meaningful in today's world: that children don't often have many choices about their lives. This time around, Cushman manages to find a satisfying resolution that offers an understanding of both the importance of family and the necessity of following your own dreams. (10-14)

An Island Far from Home by John Donahue. Carolrhoda, 1995 (0-87614-859-3) $14.96

For twelve-year-old Joshua Loring, news that the Civil War may be ending soon is a disappointment: ever since the death of his father, a Union doctor, he's been eager to join up and "make them pay." But Josh's uncle, an officer at a nearby army prison, knows that the South is already paying "with its blood," and he urges Josh to write a letter to one of the Confederate prisoners, a lonely fourteen-year-old named John Meadows. Soon Josh and John are corresponding regularly, sharing the details of their lives and learning that "sometimes our enemies are very much like ourselves." Then the war ends, and Josh realizes that he and John may never again have a chance to see each other. And so he sets out on a very dangerous journey: to sneak into the island prison and finally meet the Reb soldier who had somehow become a close friend.

Well written and emotionally credible, An Island Far From Home is both an absorbing and educational story. Along with some exciting adventure and an effective portrait of a young boy's life in the 1860's, it offers a clear, basic understanding of some of the complex emotional issues surrounding the Civil War. As Josh comes to understand, both sides had reason to believe they were in the right and both sides had terrible loses that must somehow be forgiven, because "people are gonna have to live together again." Donahue does a good job of creating a balanced picture of the different attitudes of the time, while still maintaining an authentic atmosphere. (8-13)

Radical Red by James Duffy. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993 (0-684-19533-X) $13.95

The fight for women's suffrage has unexpected consequences for a twelve-year-old girl and her family in this historical novel set in Albany in 1894. Connor O'Shea and her mother Nora, both of whom know what it's like to feel powerless, are rapidly converted to the suffragists' cause by women activists paving the way for Susan B. Anthony's appeal at the state constitutional convention. But their assistance in the cause has to be kept a secret: Connor's father, an ambitious policeman, is vehemently opposed to the suffragists and determined to do whatever he can to stop them. When he discovers the truth and violently beats them both - not for the first time - Nora and Connor leave him to start a new life together, finding a personal victory despite the failure of Anthony's appeal.

Like many "issue" novels, Radical Red suffers from having a narrow - and not a particularly well-developed--focus. The suffragists are not interestingly characterized and most of the political elements of the story are dull. The main power of the book is the strongly drawn relationship between Connor and her mother and the personal effect the suffragist movement has on them, giving Nora the resolution to leave Connor's abusive father. Although the book focuses on Connor and Anthony, it is Nora, the woman who's always been a "good wife" but refuses to let her husband abuse her child again,who is ultimately the most interesting heroine. (10-14)

Sound the Jubilee by Sandra Forrester. Lodestar, 1995 (0-525-67486-1) $15.99; Puffin, 1997 (0-14-037930-4) $4.99 pb

A little-known episode in American history is the basis for this moving story about a slave family's first experience with freedom. Eleven-year-old Maddie and her family could never hope to escape from their owner's North Carolina plantation; the risks are far too great. But when their terrified Mistress takes them to an island in the Outer Banks to escape the Civil War, they suddenly have the perfect opportunity: nearby Roanoke Island has been turned into a safe haven for runaway slaves, and running away is a simple matter of walking away. Island life is far from perfect, and the former slaves must cope with constant battles against the elements, dangerous illnesses, and unkept promises and racial hatred even from the Union soldiers who are supposed to be helping them. But though the life is hard, being able to build their own homes, work their own land and for once enjoy the fruit of their own labor is, for many, like having found "heaven on earth."

Told in the context of Maddie's troubled adolescence, as she struggles to find out who she is, fulfill her dreams of an education, and make her family accept her as her own person, Sound the Jubilee is a sympathetic and engrossing story. Sadly, as with most histories of this kind, the ending is unhappy and unjust: with the end of the war, the original owners of Roanoke Island received pardons for their war crimes, and the land that had been given to the hardworking runaways to be tamed, farmed and turned into a community was taken from them. But through the character of Maddie, who is strong, intelligent and willing to fight for her dreams, Forrester puts a brave face on the ending, showing that the experience of Roanoke Island was one the now free black families could use to help them succeed in their new lives. (10-14)

Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff. Delacorte, 1997 (0-385-32142-2) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1998 (0-440-41453-9) $4.99 pb

Rockaway Beach during World War II is the atmospheric background for this tender story of friendship and growth. Lily Mollahan loves summers at the beach, where she's free from school, and piano lessons, and the way she never seems to live up to people's expectations. And this year she really intends to work on her "list of problems"--especially her tendency to make up extravagant stories.

But the summer of 1944 isn't like any other summer: Lily's father is being sent overseas, her best friend at Rockaway is moving away, and Lily is left alone, except for her perpetually nagging grandmother. Then she meets Albert, a young refugee from Hungary, and Lily finds herself telling her worst lie ever, bragging that she plans to swim out to an army ship and join her father in Europe. When Albert decides to go too, so that he can find the little sister he left behind in France, Lily discovers that her impulsive lie has put his life in danger.

With scrupulous attention to detail, Giff carefully creates the world of 1944--so carefully in fact, it doesn't feel quite real at first. But with Albert's appearance, the story comes to life; his interactions with Lily are believable and engaging, as they slowly become friends and begin to share their pain and loneliness. Through Albert's experiences, Lily comes to understand many new things about herself and her life, including the fact that her grandmother really does love her; her inner growth is depicted with perception and without didacticism. With the background of summer days near the wild ocean adding a special tang, this is a poignant look at the homefront experience and the special bonds of friendship. (8-12)

Earthquake at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory. Harcourt Brace, 1992; 2003 (0-15-204681-X) $5.95 pb

Anyone who has lived through a major earthquake knows that surviving the initial shaking is only the beginning of the ordeal. Earthquake at Dawn, a description of the aftermath of the great quake of 1908, is not only interesting historical fiction, but provides some understanding of the experience of quake survivors--showing not only the terrors and major deprivations, but the implacable destruction of everyday life that's almost harder to bear.

Earthquake at Dawn uses a fictional narrator, fifteen-year-old Daisy Valentine, but the events of the story are centered around documentation left by two women: Mary Exa Atkins Campbell, who wrote an exhaustive, revealing letter about the experience, and Edith Irvine, who took photographs of the ruins of San Francisco at much personal risk. (Quotes from the letter and several of Irvine's photographs are included in the book.) In the story imagined here, Edith Irvine is accompanied on a trip abroad by Daisy, a family servant with dreams of seeing the world. Those dreams are abruptly halted by the earthquake; although Edith and Daisy are relatively safe on a boat in San Francisco harbor when the quake strikes, their efforts to find Edith's father at City Hall soon lead them into the heart of the disaster. Their fictional meeting with Mary Exa brings them together with others into a circle of people trying to help each other through the worst of the ordeals: lack of water, pregnant women going into labor, fires and explosions, and looters and vigilantes. Adding insult to injury is their growing awareness that a corrupt government is trying to cover up the extent of the damage, making Edith's attempts to document it with photographs a risky enterprise.

Although Gregory falls prey to the historical fiction writer's worst temptation--the urge to write in every well-known person who might possibly have met her characters--Earthquake at Dawn is engrossing and heartfelt, a very accessible record of this important event. The attention paid to seemingly small details--the annoyance of itchy, unwashed hair, the panic from hearing sudden thumps, Daisy's embarrassment after she saves herself from fire by leaving her skirt behind--helps give a picture of how it feels when your entire life is being continually disrupted (aftershocks making it impossible to ever feel safe), yet you still have to get on with day-to-day living. I just wish it had been within the scope of the book to include all of Campbell's letter, as its excerpts brought the experience to life even more strongly. (10-14)

The Gentleman Outlaw and Me--Eli by Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-73083-X) $14.95; Avon Camelot, 1997 (0-380-72883-4) $4.50 pb; Clarion, 2007 (978-0-618-83000-8) $5.95 pb (Note: The latest paperback edition has been retitled The Gentleman Outlaw and Me.)

For this book, Hahn leaves her usual suspense genre to explore the old west, and proves that she's as much at home with card-sharks and horse thieves as she is with sinister strangers. Our heroine is twelve-year-old Eliza Yates, a spirited girl with a sassy tongue, who narrates the story of how she become Elijah Bates, the boy confederate of the notorious Gentleman Outlaw. Neither of them, however, was exactly what they seemed.

Eliza's adventure begins when she and her beloved dog Caeser run away from her harsh relatives, to find the father who went west when she was five. Disguised as a boy, she saves the life of Calvin Featherbone, a refined young man who claims to be an experienced outlaw. His friend Miss Nellie draws a different picture of him, however: "Some folks think they know it all, but talking like you swallowed a dictionary don't mean a thing if you aint got common sense." And Eli soon discovers the truth of her words, as Calvin--who's as stubborn as he is conceited--gets her into one dangerous get-rich scheme after another.

There's nothing especially original about this plot, but it certainly doesn't seem stale. With a relish in her story that is highly infectious, Hahn spins a lively, funny tale, with lovable characters, a strong sense of place and an enjoyable dash of romance. (9-13)

Following My Own Footsteps by Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-76477-7) $13.95

Hahn's award-winning book Stepping On the Cracks introduced rough, tough Gordy Smith, a boy whom she originally envisioned as "a combination of three of the biggest bullies in my hometown." In this follow-up, Gordy takes center stage as the narrator as Hahn explores the forces that made him the way he is--and shows that he can be more.

The story opens with Gordy and his family on their way to stay with his unknown grandmother in North Carolina; the violently abusive "old man," his father, has finally been arrested. Contemptuous of his little sister June's efforts to please their grandmother and win affection, Gordy at first reacts to his new life the same as always, determined to reject everyone before they reject him. When his grandmother warns him that "if you don't learn to control that temper, you'll follow in your father's footsteps," Gordy retorts "I'll never be like that SOB!"--but he is obviously well on his way.

Still, Gordy starts to respect his grandmother for her strict but fair treatment, and he makes an unexpected friend in William, a neighbor boy handicapped by polio. Then Gordy's older brother Donny comes home from World War II--not the hero that Gordy expected, but a depressed, boozing loser--and "the old man" shows up, full of big promises about the great new life he'll give them in California. Incredibly, Gordy's mother is ready to give him yet another chance, but Gordy is determined not to put himself in his father's power again. But what will he do if his grandmother won't let him stay? And an even more troubling question haunts Gordy, after a calamitous attempt to get William to walk on his own: is he really "just like the old man"? Gordy's vivid first-person narrative makes this an accessible yet multi-faceted portrait of a boy struggling with complex forces in his life, made even more complex by his refusal to look them in the face. Through his relationships with June, Donny and William, Hahn shows the caring impulses and essential naivete that Gordy hasn't yet managed to destroy in himself; his grandmother's intelligence and authority offer him a chance for self-knowledge and change. Although the conclusion of the William episode makes the happy ending seem overdone, this is overall a strong, positive story, with a well-crafted period setting and atmosphere. (9-13)

Lotta's Progress by Norma Johnston. Avon, 1997 (0-380-97367-7) $14.00; Avon, 1999 (0-380-78916-7) $3.99 pb

Many readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women vividly remember the scene in which the March girls unselfishly give their Christmas breakfast to a poor German family. This fictional work by the author of the biography Louisa May makes an imaginative leap to tell that story as it might really have happened to a German family meeting the Alcotts in 1848.

Lotta Muller and her family come to America believing that it's a land of freedom and opportunity. But instead of streets paved with gold, jobs for the asking and schools open to all, they find crowded tenements, wretched poverty and rampant discrimination against immigrants. Just when the family has seemingly hit rock bottom, Lotta is given the name and address of Mrs. Bronson Alcott, a "crazy lady" who "goes around giving things away to poor folks." The Alcotts, although relatively poor themselves, do help the Mullers--giving them not only material goods, but the resources to be able to provide for themselves. And the steadfast conviction of the power of determination and hard work she finds in young "Louy" Alcott gives Lotta something very important: a renewed belief in the American dream.

This smoothly written, well-paced story, told from Lotta's point of view, is a sympathetic look at the realities of immigrant life, giving a far more human face to characters only seen as pitiful recipients of the March's charity. The flip side of this is that as Lotta and Louy become good friends, it becomes increasingly implausible that the sort of equal relationship Johnston envisions could ever have been the basis of the depiction of the Hummels in Little Women; it might have been better if the book did not draw on that connection at all. Nevertheless, this is an engaging story that can be appreciated both by fans of Little Women and by those who have yet to read it. Fans will especially enjoy seeing the details of Alcott's life that reflect her books--many of them real, others further, playful, imaginative leaps by Johnston. (10-14)

Earthquake! by Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Viking, 1993 (0-670-84874-3); Puffin, 1995 (0-14-036390-4) $3.99 pb

Part of the "Once Upon America" series, this book gives a brief but vivid portrait of the immediate aftereffects of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The story follows twelve-year old Phillip, who is trying to calm the strangely terrified horses in his father's livery stable when the quake hits. He and his family escape unharmed, but their house is ruined, and a nearby gas leak spells immediate danger. Trying to cope with the loss of everything familiar, Phillip doggedly holds on to one thought: somehow saving their horses and the family business. Conveying a strong sense of the emotional devastation that accompanies a disaster, Earthquake! manages to end on a believable note of hope, as Phillip takes comfort in his ability to care for horses, the one thing that nothing can take away from him. (7-11)

All is Well by Kristin Embray Litchman. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32592-4) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1999 (0-440-41488-1) $3.99 pb

When a new family moves in next door, Emmy Frailey is delighted to find that they have a daughter, Miranda, just about her age. But the new neighbors aren't so welcome to her mother, her father and her father's other wife, Aunt Zena: they're Christians, or "Gentiles," and their presence signifies a threatening change in the formerly all-Mormon neighborhood. As the two girls become friends, the families gradually learn to trust and respect one another... but life has become more dangerous for polygamous Mormons in Utah, and Emmy's pa is forced to go underground to avoid jail. Then Miranda becomes sick with typhoid and Emmy knows that only one thing can save her: a blessing from Pa.

If they can get past the painfully soppy cover, readers will find this a pleasant, undemanding story that's most notable for providing a perspective rarely seen in children's literature. Litchman does her best to explain both sides of the conflict without getting into sticky areas; the result is naturally a simplified explanation that may not satisfy all readers. Aside from one implausible conversation, the historical setting is well drawn, giving a good sense of what life was like for a Mormon farm girl in 1885. (8-12)

Fire at the Triangle Factory by Holly Littlefield. Illustrated by Mary O'Keefe Young. Carolrhoda, 1996 (0-87611-868-2); (0-87614-970-0) $5.95 pb

A tragic historical episode, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911, is a vivid background for this exciting fictional story about two friends named Tessa and Minnie. The two teenaged girls, one Jewish, one Catholic, aren't supposed to be friends--but when fire breaks out in the factory in which they work, their friendship saves both of their lives. Although this book is written at a very low reading level, in short, direct sentences, it's at a much more advanced interest level; it's probably most appropiate for remedial use, rather than beginning readers. (7-12)

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (0-395-51060-0) $13.45; Laurel-Leaf, 1998 (0-440-22753-4) $4.99 pb

One of the best uses of children's literature is to make complex subjects and concepts more immediate and personal, "sizing them down," as it were, to their most basic level. For a subject as complex and staggering as the Holocaust, good children's books are vitally necessary--'books that don't try to tell the whole story, but make the situation come alive through one situation, one character. In Number the Stars, Lois Lowry found a story to tell that reveals a lesser known aspect of that evil period: the courage and humanity of ordinary, good people who fought against it. The result is a poignant, life-affirming novel that richly deserved its 1990 Newbery Medal.

It is 1943 in Denmark, but for ten-year-old Annemarie and her best friend Ellen Rosen, life is fairly ordinary, despite the privations of war and the often frightening presence of German soldiers. Then suddenly the danger becomes acute for the Danish Jews and Ellen's family must go into hiding, leaving her behind as Annemarie's "sister." That night the Nazis come and Annemarie just barely manages to break Ellen's Star of David off of her neck in time.

The next day, Annemarie's family goes to visit Uncle Henrik, a fisherman who lives right on the water. "You can stand on the edge of the meadow and look across to Sweden," she tells Ellen, not realizing then the significance of her own words. But when the time has come to say goodbye to her friend, Annemarie understands without being told where she is going--and when it's discovered that a vitally important package has been left behind by the refugees, Annemarie knows that somehow she must get it to the boat. Then she is stopped by German soldiers. She is only a timid little girl: can she possibly find the wits and courage to deceive them?

As told in the afterword of Number the Stars, "almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark--nearly seven thousand people--was smuggled across the sea to Sweden," right before their "relocation" was to begin. This is the kind of story epics can be made of, but Lowry's simply-written book focuses on the small, personal aspects of the drama--just good, caring people doing what they can, sometimes at the cost of their lives--and thereby gives even more meaning to the history. Annemarie doesn't go looking to be a hero--at the beginning of the book she is "glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage." But she is called upon, and discovers that even the most frightened person can be brave when she needs to be. Reading her fictional story gives a new understanding to the facts that are told in the afterword: for every Jewish family that made it to Sweden, there is an untold story of goodness and sacrifice. (8 & up)

Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan. HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-023328-1); HarperTrophy, 1997 (0-06-440622-9) $4.50 pb

"'Happily ever after,' said Caleb when Papa married Sarah. 'Now we'll live happily ever after. That what the stories say.'" Of course, real life is rarely that simple; though Anna, Caleb and their Papa all love Sarah, their happiness is disrupted by a severe drought that turns their beautiful prairie into a remorselessly hot and dangerously dry land. Anna, the young narrator, watches her stepmother in constant fear, seeing how much she misses the coolness of her native Maine; even though Sarah would never desert her new family or give up a fight, she hates the land that gets everything from people and "gives nothing back"--and as as her friend Maggie tells her, "If you don't love it, you won't survive... You have to write your name in the land to live here." But it will take the ultimate, painful test of separation for Sarah to finally give herself up to the prairie and truly "write her name in the land."

Like its predecessor, Sarah, Plain and Tall, this is a short, spare, evocative story, expressing deep feelings in simple words. It's a style perfectly suited to the homey life of the prairie and to the quiet characters, who aren't always "good with words" but who can see the important things between the lines. (8 & up)

The Day That Elvis Came to Town by Jan Marino. Little, Brown, 1993; Avon Camelot, 1993 (0-380-71672-0) OP

With her father's drinking, her mother's constant nagging and a home so filled with boarders she has to sleep on the sun porch, it's no wonder that Wanda tries to shut the outside world out, finding her only peace and privacy in listening to Elvis Presley records and dreaming he's dancing with her. The arrival of a new boarder, blues singer Mercedes Washington, seems to open a new world for Wanda: not only is Mercedes kind and understanding, but she actually went to high school with Elvis! Soon Wanda has a new dream - meeting her idol in person - and she refuses to see anything that gets in the way of that dream, even the fact that the beautiful, glamorous Mercedes has serious troubles of her own.

Marino has written a tender, absorbing story about learning to appreciate people for who they are, rather than who you want them to be. Wanda and her family are drawn with sympathetic honesty and the many complex issues of the story - racism, alcoholism, poverty - are interwoven so delicately that they never seem forced or overwhelming. (8-12)

White Lilacs by Carolyn Meyer. Gulliver, 1993 (0-15-200641-9) $10.95 hc; (0-15-295876-2) $3.95 pb

A shameful, little-known episode in American history is fictionalized in this poignant novel. While waiting table for her employer's Garden Club, twelve-year-old Rose Lee Jefferson overhears a frightening conversation: The Garden Club's latest plan to beautify the city is by "getting rid of us." It's 1921, and Rose Lee and her family, like almost all the other blacks in Dillon, Texas, live in a neighborhood called Freedom. They have their own school, churches and businesses, as well as Rose Lee's grandfather's beautiful garden, "The Garden of Eden...right here in Freedom." Now the white residents of Dillon want to "rid our city of the blight...eradicate the squalor" of Freedom and they look upon its residents like children..."who may have to be persuaded that it's for everyone's good." And as Rose Lee discovers when her school is burned down, there's nothing that the white citizens of Dillon won't do to persuade them.

Told through Rose Lee's eyes, White Lilacs is a moving story of a young girl forced to witness the devastation of her entire community. Although slightly flawed by a strained and slap-dash ending that seems designed merely to highlight a "good" white person, its clear and forthright version of the true story of Quakertown, Texas is a quietly pointed reminder of a terrible injustice. (10-14)

The Girl-Son by Anne E. Neuberger. Carolrhoda, 1994 (0-87614-846-1); (1-57505-077-3) $6.95 pb

When Induk Pahk was born in 1896, her father first named her "Imduk," which means "virtuous woman" in Korean. He hoped this name would help counteract the powerful birth signs she was born under, signs wasted on a mere girl. But the signs--and Imduk's mother--had other plans for her and at the age of seven she was reborn as "Induk" ("benevolence"): a boy. For a year, Induk pretended to be a boy in order to be allowed to go to school--only the first of many challenges she would face to get an education. Her struggles led to a vow to live up to the meaning of her name: to do kindnesses for others and help them become free.

This simply written but inspiring true story celebrates the spirit of a young woman who "spent her adult life giving others freedom through education." It's also an intriguing look at the role of women in Korean culture in the nineteenth century and a strong commentary on the importance of education. (8-12)

The Lights Go On Again by Kit Pearson. Viking, 1994 (0-670-84919-7) OP

It's been almost five years since Gavin and Norah were sent to Canada as English refugee "War Guests," as told in The Sky is Falling and Looking at the Moon. Now the war finally seems to be ending, but although fifteen-year-old Norah yearns for home, ten-year-old Gavin feels that he's already there, with his friends, dog and adoring "Aunt" Florence. His parents are only distant memories...so distant that when word comes they have been killed by a bomb, he feels almost nothing--except hope that the two of them can now stay in Canada. When Aunt Florence offers to adopt them, Norah refuses, insisting that she belongs in England with what's left of their family--but Gavin, seeing a chance to keep almost everything he loves, decides to stay. But can he really bear to lose his one link to his biological family?

An excess of exposition about the previous books makes it difficult to get involved in this story, but once past the explanations it is engrossing and thought-provoking, with realistically fallible characters. Gavin himself sometimes seems too self-centered and wishy-washy to be sympathetic, but his character is redeemed in a satisfying yet poignant ending: the discovery of a lost old toy unleashes his pent-up grief for his parents, causing him to return to England with his sister and struggle to "be brave" about his homesickness for Canada. (10-14)

Nobody's Daughter by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32106-6) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1996 (0-440-41160-2) $3.99 pb

Emily Lathrop Hasbrouck has spent her short life being trained to be grateful for the roof over her head; the orphaned child of a "no-account" Hasbrouck, she has no claim on anyone for a home. Living first on the Christian charity of her great-aunt (which doesn't extend to providing for Emily in her will) and next at an orphanage, Emily tries to be good and grateful, but she can't help wanting things: a real home, a piano to play, a future as more than a servant--and to be free from the taunts and bullying of the rich girls in town, who make the orphans--helpless to retaliate against the children of the men whose charity they live on--their favorite prey. Emily holds on to one hope, that she'll be able to find the family who adopted her baby sister, who simply must honor the tie of blood and take her in too. But when the usual tormenting goes much too far one day, Emily's hope is shattered, leaving her with the realization that as an unwanted orphan she is truly entitled to nothing in this life--except ordinary justice.

A sobering portrait of what it can mean to be all alone in an intolerant world, this is a painfully bleak novel. An aura of sadness hangs over even the most cheerful scenes, foreshadowing the inevitable heartwrenching climax that spells the end of Emily's hopes. Pfeffer manages to scrape together a reasonably positive and still-believable ending, but the atmosphere of sadness lingers, mute testimony to the true seriousness of the problem and the improbability of many happy endings. (8-12)

The Hopscotch Tree by Leda Siskind. Bantam, 1992; Dell Yearling, 1995 (0-440-40959-4) $3.50 pb

Every day, Edith dreads the sight of the Purple Sweater, aka Zandra Kott. Being Jewish, Edith is a prime target for Zandra and her bullying gang, and even talking to her favorite tree can't seem to help her figure out what to do about it. But when Edith discovers a secret about Zandra, she has to grapple with an even more important problem: whether she can stop Zandra's cruelty without becoming cruel herself.

Set in the 1960's, this is a strong portrait of what it's like to be an outsider among people who are hostile at worst, ignorant at best: the complete obliviousness of Edith's teachers that cutting out angels and singing religious carols might make her uncomfortable is a pertinent comment on what anyone outside of the standard mold has to deal with. There's no miraculous happy ending, but a believably positive one that shows the value of standing up for yourself and keeping your integrity. (8-12)

Love from Your Friend, Hannah by Mindy Warshaw Skolsky. DK Publishing, 1998; HarperTrophy, 1999 (0-06-440746-2) $5.95 pb

I hope it may be a sign of a change in the mood of children's fiction, that the two happiest books I've read in ages are set in a poor urban neighborhood (Jonah the Whale) and during the Great Depression. If there's one thing this book is not, it's depressing; I smiled all the way through it.

Hannah Diamond is looking for someone to write to: her best friend Aggie has moved away and never answers any of her letters. But trying the "pen pals" box at school only gets her "two measly lines and an unfriendly P.S." from a BOY. So Hannah decides to take her problem straight to the top, asking President Roosevelt to help her find a pen pal. It's the beginning of some wonderful correspondences, as Hannah finds herself writing to the president, his wife and his secretary, as well as to her grandmother, a friendly drifter who stopped by her parent's restaurant, and the recalcitrant Aggie. And by the end of the book she has found the pen pal she most wanted, a true friend, in a most unexpected place. Writing about the world around her--her parent's roadside diner, her secret spot on top of a mountain, her Jewish grandparent's candy store--as well as her thoughts and feelings, Hannah creates a distinctive time and setting. It's a world that has its share of troubles, but the mood of the times is optimistic--and we see the ultimate benefits of that optimism played out throughout the story.

Hannah's letters, and their replies, also create relationships; even the characters who never write letters themselves, like Hannah's mother and father, acquire clear personalities, seen through Hannah's eyes. Hannah herself is the most vivid personality: her warmth, imagination and sincerity are unmistakable. Her reluctant pen pal Edward Winchley is a match for her, a wryly funny boy whose letters slowly reveal the sadness of his life. When Edward begins to change, in response to Hannah's letters, we believe it, because we believe in both of them.

I can't wait to read more books about Hannah. I wish she would write to me. * (8 & up)

Cat Running by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Delacorte, 1994 (0-385-31056-0) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1996 (0-440-41152-1) $3.99 pb

The period and setting of Cat Running--California during the Depression--bring to mind an older, much-loved book by Snyder, The Velvet Room. Those aren't the only resemblances: like Robin in The Velvet Room, Cat Kinsey also feels the need to run away from her problems, and she also finds a special, secret place to escape to. But real life inevitably intrudes on those trying to escape it, this time in the form of Sammy Perkins, a ragged little "Okie" girl who is drawn to Cat's secret grotto--and the beautiful doll Cat keeps there.

Cat already has reason to despise the Perkins family: Sammy's older brother Zane Perkins has shown her up by running barefoot in the school races, while she refused to run because her father wouldn't let her wear slacks. And she has been well taught to avoid "those disgusting Okies" and their "dirty, diseased children." Desolate little Sammy is hard to hate though, and as Cat's initial fear and dislike of the poverty-stricken "Okies" changes to sympathy and understanding, she learns some surprising truths about her own family problems--and about the importance of running to get somewhere, rather than to get away.

Beautifully enhancing the straightforward changes that go on in Cat's heart and mind with more subtle layers of meaning , Snyder has written yet another book that readers will be able to sympathize and grow with, finding it more touching and powerful with each rereading. In a sense, Cat Running is a reworking of The Velvet Room, bringing a more mature and enlightened perspective to the themes Snyder first introduced 30 years ago--gone are the melodrama, too-good-to-be-true wish-fulfillments and, most thankfully, uncomfortably classist assumptions. Each of the books has its own value, however; I would like to think Cat Running will not replace the earlier book, but become a companion to it. (8-12)

No Friend of Mine by Ann Turnbull. Candlewick, 1995 (1-56402-565-9) OP

A "teacher's pet" and frequent target for bullies, Lennie Dyer is pretty lonely until he meets Ralph, who despite his nice clothes and "posh" accent also likes imaginative games and swapping cigarette cards. Ralph doesn't seem to care that Lennie is poor and his father is an unemployed coal-miner, so Lennie tries not to care either, ignoring the cautions of his family and the obvious disapproval of Ralph's. But there's a lot about Ralph's life that Lennie doesn't understand, and when their friendship is put to the test, Ralph may not be able to meet the challenge.

Written in a direct style, without much subtlety of language or theme, No Friend of Mine draws an accessible portrait of the stifling power of class barriers in pre-World War II England, while demonstrating that what's really important in a friendship is loyalty and strength of character. The relationship between Lennie and Ralph is particularly well-drawn, showing that they really do like and care about each other. Recommended for reluctant readers. (10-14)

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen. Illustrated by James Watling. Dial, 1994 (0-8037-1526-9) $14.99; Puffin, 1996 (0-14-038319-0) $4.99 pb

Based on the reminiscences of a real little girl, later written down by her daughter, Bound for Oregon is a stirring story about a family's adventure-filled trip on the Oregon Trail. Nine-year-old Mary Ellen Todd and her family leave the poverty of Arkansas dreaming of a "western paradise," a land so bountiful that people joke "out in Oregon pigs run around under the acorn trees, round and fat and already cooked." The lands between, however, are harsh plains and mountain ranges, where the Todds face sickness, starvation and even Indian attacks. When Mary Ellen's father is stricken with illness, it seems as if the family will fall apart without his strong, purposeful leadership. But in the course of their journey, Mary Ellen has learned the lesson of surviving, even when filed with fear: "just doing what had to be done. Facing west and putting one foot in front of the other. Enduring."

Bound for Oregon draws a vivid picture of these American pioneers, in an entertaining tale that will keep the details of the history fresh in readers' minds. Van Leeuwen maintains an authentic atmosphere well, competently dealing with the historical writer's uneasy balance between truth and stereotype. Expressive and carefully detailed black & white illustrations are good companions to the story. (8-12)

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Viking, 1988 (0-670-81027-4); Puffin, 1990 (0-140-34535-3) $2.98 pb

Twelve-year-old Hannah hates the Passover Seder at Grandpa Will's. She hates his strange fits about the tattoo on his arm, and the long boring speeches, and everything she's expected to remember. "All Jewish holidays are about remembering," she tells her mother. "I'm tired of remembering."

Then she goes to open the door for Elijah--and suddenly finds herself being called Chaya. She has traveled through time and space to a Jewish village in Nazi-occupied Poland, the only one there who knows the fate that awaits them. At first Hannah urges people to fight, but her efforts are useless; her foreknowledge is too little and arrives too late, and she, along with everyone she has met, winds up in a concentration camp. There she is befriended by a girl named Rivka, who teaches her the tricks of survival in a place where every day of survival is a victory over evil; it is Rivka who tells her, when she rages against the passivity of the prisoners, that "it is much harder to live this way and to die this way than to go out shooting... We are all heroes here."

Reading it with a critical eye, The Devil's Arithmetic seems awfully heavy on the lessons; practically every line of dialogue starts to seem like a sound bite of profundity. Nonetheless, it is deeply moving story of both staggering evil and goodness, and the vital importance of remembering them. (10 & up)


Young Adult Books

For Freedom by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Delacorte, 2003; Laurel-leaf, 2005 (0-440-41831-3) $5.50 pb

Suzanne's thirteenth year is a hard one. Her family's home in Nazi-occupied France has been taken from them, her best friend has been rendered mute from witnessing horrors and there is little to eat besides cabbages, potatoes and endless rutabagas. Although she's relieved to still have her singing lessons, Suzanne doesn't know how to respond when told to thank God for her blessings: "What would I say? Thank you God for not making me a Jew. Thank you for not making me a black person or anyone else that Hitler would hate. Thank you for not giving the Nazis a reason to make me disappear. I couldn't imagine God having much patience with such prayers." So instead she always prays for the same thing: make me strong.

Suzanne's chance to be truly strong comes when she is fifteen years old. Now singing in professional shows, she is always on the go... a perfect cover for someone to give and receive messages for the French Resistance. Despite her father's constant exhortations to follow the Nazi rules, Suzanne becomes a spy.

Based on a real person, this is a terse, compelling story of a girl who decided to do more than just survive and daily risked her life: not just for her country, not just to save others, but so she "would never have to look back and admit that we had not acted against the horrors that swirled around us." (14 & up)

SOS Titanic by Eve Bunting. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-200271-5) $13.00; (0-15-201305-9) $6.00 pb

Focusing less on the history of the doomed Titanic than on fictional passengers, this is an exciting adventure story that effectively personalizes the tragedy. Fifteen-year-old Barry O'Neill, on his way to join his parents in New York, isn't much enjoying his luxurious first class accommodations on the Titanic: he's lonely for his grandparents, and justifiably nervous about running into the Flynn brothers, fellow passengers from his Irish village who have a grudge against his family. To make things worse, the creepy cabin steward keeps dropping hints about some danger that threatens him--or is it the entire ship that's threatened? When Barry inevitably tangles with the Flynn boys, he also meets their attractive sister, Pegeen, and starts to see a new side of the troublemaking family. Then the disaster strikes, and Barry discovers that the impoverished steerage passengers--including the Flynns--are virtually trapped on the ship. Somehow he feels he has to save Pegeen--but can he even save himself?

Although it's a bit overburdened with subplots and eerie foreshadowings, this is a gripping story with lightly drawn but striking characters. The complex class issues that arise aren't thoroughly explored, but they do provide an interesting conflict and a romantic aura which makes Barry's strong feelings for Pegeen plausible. Barry's interactions with his fellow passengers give the description of the last hours of the ship a special poignancy, as he sees his friends and acquaintances face death, in many cases needlessly. Enjoyable just as an adventure, this is also a stirring introduction to a fascinating true story, in which human arrogance received a resounding comeuppance. (12 & up)

The Clock by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. Delacorte, 1992; Dell Yearling, 1994 (0-440-40999-3) $3.99 pb

Fifteen-year-old Annie, a farmer's daughter, knows well that in 19th-century New England, "daughters never got anything." That's why she keeps on at school, even though she's the oldest scholar there--so she can be a schoolteacher someday, able to take care of herself. But Annie's father is irresistibly attracted to novelties--like an expensive clock, a worse than useless item on a farm, where things must be done according to nature's timing. And so Annie is contracted, against her will, to work at a nearby mill and help pay off his debts.

At the mill, Annie finds herself in an unexpected and intolerable predicament: the overseer, Mr. Hoggart wants her to "be friendly" to him and deliberately endangers the life of the boy she likes. When the situation explodes into tragedy and Annie still cannot get anyone's support in getting out of the mill contract, she realizes how helpless she really is. "I'd come to be everybody's toy, for them to play with as they liked: Pa's toy and Mr. Hoggart's toy . . .They all had something they wanted from me and they were determined to get what they wanted. Me, I just didn't come into it, any way I could see." Annie is determined to run away and not be helpless anymore, but not before getting even with Hoggart--if she can.

Not just a sobering portrait of what life was like for women in 19th-century America, The Clock also offers a memorable commentary on the personal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, as "sun time" gave way to "clock time": "With sun time, the way we always worked before, and our grandpas and grandmas before us . . . you could rest a little when you were tired, and take a drink of something when you were thirsty, or a bite of bread and cheese when you were hungry. But with clock time you weren't allowed to get tired or hungry or thirsty on your own; you had to wait until the clock told you it was time to be thirsty or tired." I doubt if any reader would want to return to a way of life in which there was so much injustice and virtually no redress against it, but it's worth thinking about how things, and the love of things, can drive people's time and their lives. The Clock, although it tends a little towards repetition and rushes disappointingly through its ending, is an intriguing and valuable book. (12 & up)

With Every Drop of Blood by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. Delacorte, 1994 (0-385-32028-0) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 1996 (0-440-21983-3) $4.99 pb

The authors of the Newbery Honor book My Brother Sam is Dead have written another thoughtful and absorbing story about young people living through wartime, this time with a Civil War setting. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Johnny, whose father died "for the honor of the South," it describes his foolish decision to join a wagon train taking food to the rebels, partly to earn money for his needy family, partly in revenge for his father and partly because of the sheer excitement of participating in the war. When the wagon train is captured by a troop of black Yankee soldiers, Johnny's dreams about Southern honor are lost in the bitter reality that he may well die and leave his family destitute. But there is one hope of escape: Johnny's captor, Private Cush Turner, is a young runaway slave who wants desperately to learn how to read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Johnny certainly doesn't want to "help a darky set himself up as good as a white man" but he figures he can teach Cush the wrong words while winning his trust. And what starts as manipulation is unexpectedly changed by the vicissitudes of war into true friendship, leaving Johnny at the end of the war finally opening his mind to the words he had refused to "teach right" to Cush: "All men are created equal."

Although it aptly illustrates the horrors of war--and as an afterword points out, this was an especially violent and horrific conflict--the strong point of With Every Drop of Blood is in its depiction of the growing friendship between the two enemies, rooted in vivid, believable conversations about Cush's life that challenge everything Johnny has ever believed about black people and slavery. The philosophical points in the book aren't expressed with much subtlety, but the Colliers do a nice job of establishing the basic similarities between the characters, in one-upmanship dialogues that add a touch of humor to the sombre story while revealing that both boys are young, naive and ignorant. The ending is particularly poignant, as Johnny and Cush try to figure out what their friendship will mean in the new world created by the war, which may not yet be so different from the old. (12 & up)

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Clarion, 1994 (0-395-68186-3) $13.95

Unless I miss my guess, Catherine, Called Birdy will be a strong contender for the next Newbery medal. Despite some first-book flaws, it is possibly the best historical fiction for children I've ever read--and highly entertaining, to boot.

Commanded by her brother Edward to write an account of her days, in the hopes it will help her grow "less childish and more learned," fourteen-year-old Catherine begins: "I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say." The place is Stonebridge, Lincolnshire, the year 1290, and Catherine's days are spent in spinning, preparing the Medieval equivalents of Tums and Alka Seltzer and trying to avoid marriage to the highest bidder. Despite repeated admonitions to be contented with her lot, Birdy chafes unbearably for the freedom of a boy, or even of a village girl, keenly aware of the hypocrisy and injustice that govern the lives of noble women: "Why must I learn to walk with a lady's tiny steps one day and sweat over great steaming kettles of dung and nettle for remedies the next? Why must the lady of the manor do all the least lovable tasks? I'd rather be the pig boy."

Still, Birdy does manage to have some fun: talking with Perkin, the goat boy; ducking out to visit fairs; thinking up new ways to curse (she variously tries "God's knees," "God's chin,"and finally settles on "God's thumbs"); and successfully discouraging possible suitors by blackening her teeth and feigning imbecility. But when a suitor comes along who will not be discouraged--"an ugly shaggy-bearded hulk" who seems both cruel and disgusting--the true horror of her lot in life becomes clear. How on earth can she marry him? How on earth can she not?

Through the perceptive eyes and pointed commentary of this spirited and intelligent girl, Catherine, Called Birdy creates a vivid, thoroughly accessible portrait of life in the Middle Ages. Birdy's lively combination of sharp wit and earthy humor make the book uproariously funny and almost hide the fact that it also contains a great deal of actual information. The flaw in this otherwise superb book is that it is sometimes too realistic: the plot advances very slowly, with many short journal entries simply describing details of daily life. Although these are often amusing in themselves, and no doubt true-to-life, I found myself impatient for something to happen. Most of the book manages to maintain both historical accuracy and the requirements of fiction, but the conflict shows--particularly in the end, which in trying to satisfy both needs falls decidedly flat.

Nevertheless, I don't think I've ever read another historical work that gave such a strong feeling for its period, in such an enjoyable way. "The England of 1290 is a foreign country," writes Cushman in the author's note. "Medieval people live in a place we can never go, made up of what they value, how they think, and what they believe is true and important and possible." Probably so...but this, I think, is as close as we are likely to get. *

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-216705-6) $17.00; 2004 (0-15-205310-7) $8.95 pb

Word-loving Mattie Gokey longs for college and a life as a writer, but the threads tying her to her home town seem to get stronger every day. There's the endless battle against poverty on her father's farm. There's Royal, who has no use for books or conversation, but whose physical presence haunts her. And there's the sacred promise she made to her dead mother, to take care of her sisters. Mattie feels as trapped as an ant in pitch. But when a strange young woman entrusts Mattie with her love letters, and is later found drowned, Mattie discovers that some traps--and some promises--have to be broken. Inspired by true events and actual letters, A Northern Light brings the beauty of insight and hope to its evocative portrayal of the often harsh, crude and heartbreaking world of rural poverty in 1906. (13 & up)

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. Henry Holt, 1999; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-440-22904-9) $5.50 pb

The Vietnam war, women's liberation, first love and the arrival in town of Zachary Beaver, "the fattest boy in the world," make life in a small town where "nothing ever happens" unexpectedly tumultuous for Toby and his best friend Cal. Winner of the National Book Award. (12 & up)

Westminster West by Jessie Haas. Greenwillow, 1997 (0-688-14883-2) $15.00

In this remarkable look at her own hometown, Haas weaves events from the past into a story that is vital and resonant today, a multi-faceted novel touching on relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters, the roles of women, and the nature of trauma and psychosomatic illness.

The year is 1884 and the small Vermont town of Westminster West is being threatened by a mysterious arsonist; three barns have already burned down. But Sue Gorham has a more immediate problem; she's fed-up with doing all the hard work while her sister Clare, the "delicate one," gets rest and attention. Then Sue finds her father's old diary in the attic and learns some painful truths about her parents. What starts as a sleepless night for her rapidly deteriorates into a serious nervous condition under her mother's anxious care, shifting the balance of power in the family--and once she's experienced it, Sue finds that she can't bear to give Clare back the power of being the delicate one. Then the firebug strikes at the Gorham farm, and Sue and Clare must each make a choice about what is really important to them.

Based on true events, Westminster West is set during a difficult time for farm women, one in which they still needed to work extraordinarily hard, yet were also beginning to be expected to be "ladies"; as an older woman puts it, "you've got all the work we ever had, and you've got to keep your hands nice, too!" To Sue, it seems as if "everything she'd learned about becoming a woman was a form of disguise. Mask your strength. Lower your voice. Never seem to be angry or perspire." Perhaps that's why a half-feigned illness so easily becomes genuine, and so very difficult to give up. Beautifully organized and thoughtfully characterized, this story gently leads the reader to some fascinating insights about human nature. Although Haas admits that this interpretation of Sue and Clare's story is her own invention, she makes it hard to believe it could have happened in any other way. * (10 & up)

Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky. Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1994 (0-560-47331-X) $13.95; Point, 1996 (0-590-47332-8) $4.50 pb

Salem Village in 1691 is the setting for this young adult historical novel. Twelve-year-old Mary Chase recounts her experiences of the growing chaos and insanity of the Salem witch trials. During the fear-filled days, woman after woman is taken away to be imprisoned for witchcraft, including Mary's own mother. One of this novel's strengths is its accurate, detailed description of the witch trials. Relying on extensive historical research, Lasky uses the actual language of the Puritan judges and victims, which makes her work even more chilling.

What helps to set this book apart as a fine example of historical fiction is the author's attention to showing the very human emotions that lurk behind the witch trials. Greed, jealousy, and anger all drive the girls who accuse the witches and the individuals who judge them. The book shows how everyone gets drawn into the ever-widening circle of the trials. Because of its historical accuracy and its excellent depiction of the insanity that sweeps through the Salem community, this novel deserves to be read by any student interested in broadening his or her knowledge of one of America's darkest periods. (12 & up)

The Good Liar by Gregory Maguire. Clarion, 1999 (0-395-90697-0) $15.00

After the German army occupied France in World War II, some of the French resisted and some became collaborators. But as Marcel Delarue remembers, "many more of the French people, my family among them, appeared merely to live out the war hoping to squeak through unnoticed and unharmed." Growing up in a small village in occupied France, Marcel and his brothers Rene and Pierre are aware of some privations, but otherwise the war doesn't interfere much with their childhood pursuits--especially their favorite game of seeing who can lie the most creatively and plausibly. When Marcel meets a friendly German soldier, who reminds him a little of his absent father, there doesn't seem any real harm in spending time with him; he's even proud of keeping such a big secret, a splendid "extended lie." But things in his village aren't exactly as Marcel thinks they are, and to his horror, he learns that his secret friendship could be a dangerous one.

Stories about childhoods lost through war aren't new; what makes The Good Liar so interesting is that it shows the precise moment in which a child passes from ignorance to awareness, suddenly forced to comprehend "too much doom for a child to imagine." Marcel is not exactly a hero, in the sense that, say, the characters in Lois Lowry's Number the Stars or Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (see above) are, but in a way, that makes his story more meaningful; his newfound understanding, with its accompanying confusion and ambiguities, is a very believable and sympathetic portrait of what it's like for ordinary kids to face terrors: "innocent, stupid, trusting, lying, needy, loving kids.... Like you."

Through the simple device of having an adult Marcel write his story at the request of three contemporary schoolchildren, Maguire easily draws readers into this book, despite the foreign tone that might otherwise have made it less accessible. It reads like being told a story by a favorite uncle: somehow both romantically far away, and very close to home. * (9 & up)

Land of Hope by Joan Lowery Nixon. Laurel-leaf, 1993 (0-440-21597-8) $3.50 pb

The first book in Nixon's "Ellis Island" series is an enjoyable light read about fifteen-year-old Rebekah Levinsky, who immigrates with her family from Russia to the United SDtates. Both the trip and the arrival are difficult for the Levinsky's, who discover that their new life means constant hard work and the loss of many of their treasured religious traditions. But for Rebejah, it also offers something: the chance for the education that was denied to poor women in Russia. Like the friends she met on the boat trip--Kristin Swensen, Rose Carney and the attractive musician Aaron Mirsch--she is determined that America will be the place where her dreams come true.

Written in a simple, unsophisticated style, Land of Hope is essentially a standard YA problem/romance novel, well transplanted to a historical setting. The details of the period and of Jewish life are nicely drawn and add interest to the otherwise familiar theme. (12 & up)

Land of Promise by Joan Lowery Nixon. Laurel-leaf, 1994 (0-440-21904-3) $3.99

The second book in the "Ellis Island" series is another undemanding historical romance, this time focusing on Irish immigrants in Chicago. Fifteen-year-old Rose Carney comes to America to help earn the money to bring her mother and sisters over--but her father's drinking and her brothers' involvement in dangerous political activities make that goal seem very distant. When her mother dies and her brother Johnny is arrested for smuggling weapons money into Ireland, things seem hopeless, until help from Jane Addams' Hull House and the boy Rose loves save the day. The treatment and characterizations are simplistic, but the attractive period flavor makes this enjoyable light reading. (12 & up)

Land of Dreams by Joan Lowery Nixon. Delacorte, 1994; Laurel-Leaf, 1994 (0-440-21935-3) $3.99 pb

The third book in the "Ellis Island" series about young immigrants takes sixteen-year-old Kristin Swensen and her family to a Swedish farming community in Minnesota. Kristin, longing for the freedom of the New World she's heard so much about, is dismayed to discover that the community sticks stubbornly to the old ways of Sweden; all of her attempts to break free from her restrictive woman's role end in failure or disgrace. Will she ever be able to achieve her dreams of wearing what she wants, doing as she pleases--and even choosing her own husband?

Like the first two books, this is an enjoyable light historical romance, nicely integrating details of Swedish and immigrant culture with its basic coming-of-age theme. A somewhat uneasy balance between historical accuracy and catering to modern sensibilities make it rather less believable than its predecessors, however. (12 & up)

If I Should Die Before I Wake by Han Nolan. Harcourt, Brace, 1994 (0-15-238040-X) $16,95; 2003 (0-15-204679-8) $6.95 pb

Hilary, a young member of the "Aryan Warriors," a Neo-Nazi organization, lies in a coma after a motorcycle accident. Seemingly lifeless, her mind still works furiously, ceaselessly spewing a torrent of hate for her mother and for Jews, whom she blames for her father's death. Then she finds her consciousness slipping away--into the body of a girl called Chana, a Jewish girl who lived during the Holocaust, 50 years before. At first Hilary thinks her visions are a meaningless dream and refuses to accept their significance, but they keep coming. Inside Chana, Hilary experiences the fear, pain, loss and despair of the Jews in the Nazi ghettos and concentrations camps, becoming one with her in her suffering until she can no longer tell where Chana's life ends and hers begins.

the inherent power of this story is somewhat marred by an ambitious narrative style that isn't completely successful. Hilary's torments inner voice, half watered-down expletives and half confused flashbacks, does not give a convincing explanation of her anti-semitism. Chana's narrative works better, especially as it becomes the focal point of the novel: the recreation of the physical and emotional horrors of the Holocaust is vivid and soul-wrenching. (At one point, Chana realizes that the smell of Auschwitz is that of "human flesh, human hair and bones burning. I was drenched in it, choking with it, but I knew that in order for me to live, I had to breath, I had to inhale this residue of someone else's life.")

Chana's story, describing in bitter detail her efforts to keep both her body and spirits alive, builds in power until finally the war is over and she has survived--in part, as her intuitive grandmother tells her, because Hilary's spirit was with her. "She was the brave Chana, the strong Chana, the Chana who could cry and mourn so many deaths, so much destruction, so that you wouldn't have to... Your shvester, your other self, kept your soul alive. In a deeply moving ending, the separate spirits of the two girls talk to each other for the first time--only now Chana is the old woman she is in Hilary's time, another patient in the hospital. By sharing her experiences with Hilary she has saved her life, just as Hilary's spiritual presence saved hers in the past. And now, she tells Hilary, it is her turn to share what she knows with others, to be a witness: "I reached out to you. I touched you. I screamed, and you heard. In hearing me, in understanding me, you have given my past new meaning. It will change to meaning of your past as well, and someday your life as an angry child who has turned her hate to love will change still another life." (12 & up)

Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. Delacorte, 1993; Laurel-Leaf, 1995 (0-440-21936-1) $3.99 pb

In a short but utterly compelling narrative, Sarny, a twelve-year-old plantation slave, tells the story of how she was given a precious and dangerous gift: the ability to read and write. Sarny's teacher is John, a slave who has done the unthinkable at least twice--once in escaping slavery, once in returning. For in spite of the brutal punishments given to any slave who dares to learn letters or counting, John is determined to pass on his knowledge to other slaves, to bring them "the way to know."

Supposedly a true story (unfortunately no references are given), Nightjohn is a masterful work which manages to be both realistic and uplifting, showing the courage and intelligence with which slaves faced their appalling situation. The story pulls no punches in describing the horrors inflicted on the slaves: not only torturous physical punishments, but an entire way of life designed to make them feel like animals. And so we see why Nightjohn risked his freedom and his life: although he couldn't save the slaves, he could give them a voice to document their histories and a knowledge to help sustain them throughout their hard lives. Written with striking images and powerful turns of phrase, Nightjohn is mesmerizing, impossible to put down or to forget. *

To Cross a Line by Karen Ray. Orchard, 1994; Puffin, 1995 (0-14-037587-2)

By keeping quiet and inconspicuous, and saying "Heil Hitler" when he had to, seventeen-year-old Egon Katz managed to live safely though most of 1938. Then one small moment of misjudgement brought him, a Jewish boy, to the attention of the Gestapo, and Egon knew that escaping Germany was the only way to survive. But in a world where everyone seemed to be obedient to the Party, where could he go--and who could he trust? Based on true events, this is a terse, gripping story of survival that offers a sharply focused, intimate portrait of one person's experience during the Holocaust. The narrative is short and spare, but has enough vivid detail to bring Egon's story to life, showing how his will and determination helped him to get through the terrors and indignities of life on the run. (12 & up)

Mara's Stories by Gary Schmidt. Henry Holt, 2001 (0-8050-6794-9) $16.95

Using a framing device in which a woman in a concentration camp tells stories to her fellow prisoners, this unusual collection retells stories from Jewish folklore and history, giving them all a Holocaust setting. Although the style is occasionly a bit maudlin, some of the book is extremely powerful and moving. (10 & up)

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. Knopf, 2003; Laurel-Leaf, 2005 (0-440-42005-9) $6.50 pb

Like the tree that grows in Brooklyn, milkweed is a tenacious plant, the only hint of green managing to survive in the desert of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator of this story is also tenacious, even as he is buffeted by forces beyond his control, like a milkweed pod blown about by the wind. His first memory is of running; the only name he knows for himself is Stopthief. When he's adopted by another homeless orphan named Uri, his first name and background are bestowed up him: Misha Pilsudski, a Gypsy boy who once had seven brothers and five sisters.

For a time, Misha lives a comfortable underground life, thieving with Uri and a group of other boys, always sharing some of what he steals with the local orphanage. Then he befriends a girl named Janina Milgrom, a girl who lives in a nice home and wears beautiful shiny shoes... for a while. Janina and her family are marched to the Ghetto shortly before Misha himself is forced there--Uri, with red hair and a genuis for conformity, manages to escape--and when Misha, a skilled smuggler, supports them with stolen food he becomes part of their family and gains another identity: a Jewish boy named Misha Milgrom.

Even when Uri reappears with a message--"Do not be here when the trains come... Run. Don't stop running"; even when Janina's father begs them both to run away from the Ghetto--Misha clings to his new family and the life they know. But he can't control the forces that will once again blow them like the wind.

Even aside from the ugliness it depicts, Milkweed is a challenging story. Although occasionally the narrator steps outside of the events to comment as an adult, most of it is told in the voice of the uncomprehending, gullible boy he was, who is reliving pieces of story barely understood, sometimes barely understandable. But it well repays the reader who commits to it, and comes away with a new sense of what it means to live through such times. I was left in tears by the book's end, in which the adult Misha embraces the final pieces of his identity. (14 & up)

The Ramsay Scallop by Frances Temple. Orchard, 1994; HarperTrophy, 1995 (0-06-440601-6) $4.95 pb

Fearful of being mistreated, and of the danger of dying in childbirth, thirteen-year-old Elenor wakes up every day hoping that her promised husband Thomas will never come back from the crusades. For his part, the battle-weary Thomas returns home far too disillusioned about the so-called glories of war to want to think about marriage. Wishing to help them both, and disturbed by the unrest the return of the Crusaders has caused among his people, their priest, Father Gregory, has an idea: Thomas and Elenor, travelng as "chaste companions," will make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Spain as penance for the sins of their entire community. This spiritual act will help to bring the community back together--and also buy a little time for Thomas to heal, and Elenor to grow up.

As Elenor and Thomas travel, they find a world of new friends, learning from them their stories and songs and discovering new ideas and ways of living. "Pilgrimage is painful," Father Gregory had told them. "Painful and hard. How else could it pay for our sins?" But amid the hardships are emotional and spiritual rewards that bring the unlikely couple unexpectedly close to each other--and to their own true selves.

Exquisitely beautiful in a way that owes more to sheer emotional resonance than to overtly elegant writing, The Ramsay Scallop is a rich, enthralling, heartfelt portrait of life in the Middle Ages. Its greatest triumph is that it creates that emotional resonance even while expressing, without compromise, the very different values of the time. Much of the story is about beliefs--learning them and questioning them; this astutely chosen structure opens a window onto that world for modern readers, who may not fully understand why the characters feel, act and believe as they do, but can't help but respond to their sincerity and conviction. * (12 & up)

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