Thursday, January 19, 2017

Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and Reading
by Suzanne Morgan Williams

It’s Martin Luther King Day and I’m writing this blog, trying to get it done before I’m called to jury duty tomorrow. Somehow it's fitting, that on a day that celebrates a man who stood up for and ultimately gave his life to change our institutions for the better, that I’m preparing to participate in a very small and basic way. So I have to get things off of my to do list. That means a bit of stream of consciousness –

So then, I’m thinking it’s not just Martin Luther King Day but Black History Month. And although I tell teachers, plead with them actually,  not to use Black History Month and Asian American Month etc. etc. as the only time to feature books about diverse children, I certainly want them, and you, to remember them at this time. So here are some of my historical favorites with African American subjects:

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (MG/YA historical novel – National Book Award Finalist, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction)
Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (MG historical winner of Newbery Medal)
Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis (YA historical novel)
Because They Marched, the People's Campaign for Voting Rights that Changed America, by Russell Freeman, (nonfiction, middle grade),
Circle Unbroken by Margo Theis Raven, Illustrated by E.B. Lewis (nonfiction historical picture book)
Moses; When Harriet Tubman Led Her People by Carol Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. (Nonfiction biography picture book – Coretta Scott King Award, Caldecott Honor)
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (tween/YA verse memoir; winner of National Book Award, Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award)

Since this list is by no means inclusive, here are some online resources for books by and about people of color.
The Brown Bookshelf, 28 Days Later (2014)
We Need Diverse Books, Where to Find Diverse Books.

Happy reading. And when you find a great book, share it!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mysteries of History by Mary Louise Sanchez

Part of the excitement of reading and writing historical fiction for me is learning historical facts folded artistically in a story. The facts make the story more believable. I just completed an adult historical fiction story and learned how divisive Americans were in 1941 about entering the war, until Pearl Harbor united the country to go to war.

  I always appreciate it when an author explains historical findings in an author's note, and was very impressed with the depth of research Adam Gidwitz did in the Inquisitor's  Tale. I believe the research is often a labor of love for the author and ends up being  a treasure trove for the reader.

This summer I was privileged to attend the SCBWI (Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators)  summer conference in Los Angeles. I attended a session by Kate Hannigan who wrote the Detective's Assistant about Kate Warne, the first female detective for Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. The author gave us a handout for sources which help her with the research process.

In my own writing, sometimes I get sidetracked doing research and then want to call that time—writing time, when it really is an excuse not to put words to the manuscript. Perhaps this is the reason my two novels have taken years to complete!

In my own historical fiction writing for middle grade kids I have spent many happy hours researching facts about the Great Depression for my unpublished novel, The Wind Calls My Name. I particularly enjoyed researching Shirley Temple movies and found one that was historically accurate for the year I was writing about in my story. I also enjoyed learning about the Shirley Temple dish prizes put in Bisquick in the 1930s.

My works-in-progress novel, Cutting the Strings, has given me the opportunity to learn more about WWII.  Again, I researched movies—this time of the 1940s, and even found one on YouTube about the 442nd regimental combat team of Japanese- Americans. The newsreels of the time period are available on the Internet and I watched many of them, along with movies set during WWII. My research also included many non-fiction books and interviews of WWII soldiers.  
Did you know that when the Nazis censored books, it outraged American librarians enough to start a campaign to get reading materials to our soldiers? Then the War Department and the publishing industry got involved in 1941 and sent 120 million lightweight paperback books to our troops.

I was born and raised in Wyoming and even graduated from the University of Wyoming, but never learned that seven Japanese-American internees at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, during WWII,  were sent to a federal prison in Kansas for refusing to join the draft and for counseling other draft-age Nisei (U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry) to resist military induction.

These No-No boys, who answered no to two questions concerning U.S. citizenship, were deprived of their American civil rights and then were asked to fight for their country. However, many Japanese-American young men did heed to call to fight for their country. They were banded together in the 442nd regimental combat team, fighting in Europe during WWII. Today, both of these Japanese-American groups are entitled to be called heroes.

In the name of research, I have enjoyed reading many outstanding children's historical fiction stories set during WWII. The most recent one is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain about an orphan French boy who lives with his aunt, a servant for Adolf Hitler at his Austrian mountain retreat.

Even though we have been inundated with fact checks on the news since before the election,  I trust the author did his research and thus, I now know Hitler had a dog named Blondi.

What are some mysteries of history you've learned from reading historical fiction? What nugget of truth(s) do you wish an author would include in a story?

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Inauguration Day and the Presidency

On January 20, 2016, the United States of America will inaugurate its forty-fifth President when Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office. This date, along with the fact that one month later on February 20 we celebrate President’s Day, makes it an appropriate time to look into the history of all of our country’s presidents.

The oath of office is a simple statement contained in the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The words “So help me, God,” are not written in the constitution, but have been added by many presidents.

Lives of the Presidents, Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought), written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt, provides an excellent introductory overview of each of the presidents through Barack Obama. This is one of the extensive series of the Lives of series of books that include titles about scientists, artists, explorers, and many more.

Presidents, written by James Barber, in association with the Smithsonian Institution, is one of the Eyewitness Books’ series. The book is an easy read, excellently illustrated to keep the younger reader’s attention. An interesting companion book is First Ladies, written by Amy Pastan. It also is profusely illustrated and an easy read. Both books have been updated to include the Obamas. Having these two books side by side makes for an enjoyable educational experience.

A more comprehensive look at each president is contained in Our Country’s Presidents, written by Ann Bausum for the National Geographic Society. The dust jacket points out that this volume provides “comprehensive information for school reports.” In addition to the biographical information about each president, there is a special chapter that explains “The Electoral College” in an easily understood manner. A separate supplement contains stories about “Our Country’s First Ladies.”
Again, both volumes include Barack and Michelle Obama.

Scholastic provides the Encyclopedia of the Presidents and their Times, by David Rubel. The format offers a page for every year since 1789. This chronological history explains how the president in each year influenced or was impacted by the events that took place. A special section, “A History of the White House,” provides an extensive, well illustrated, story of the evolution of the executive mansion. Another interesting addition is the section on the “Presidential Election Results,” providing the distribution of the electoral vote (and where available the popular vote) for each of the candidates, from all of the political parties, who ran for the office. The Obamas are included.

The Big Book of Presidents by Nancy J. Hajeski provides “fascinating presidential trivia, including . . . little-known facts.” Did you know Millard Fillmore installed the first kitchen stove in the White House?  In addition to timelines and biographical facts about each president, the book contains many interesting special articles, such as: “The Houses of Congress” and “Assassinations.” Like all of the books described above, this volume is current through President Obama.

A fascinating, small book entitled Presidential Losers, by David J. Goldman, delves into controversial personages such as Aaron Burr, who assassinated Alexander Hamilton. In addition to several interesting one-time candidates, the book educates the reader on the persistent candidates who consistently lost. Henry Clay tried three times unsuccessfully, and William Jennings Bryan was another three-time failure.

As the old cliché goes, last but not least, is Where Do Presidents Come From? And Other Presidential Stuff of Super-Great Importance, by Michael Townsend. Whereas I skimmed through many of the previously listed books, I read this one from cover to cover. Middle-grade readers will get a kick out of this comic book presentation. Heck, even I couldn’t put it down, and I haven’t been a middle-grader for almost seventy years. Townsend does not cover each president in detail, but provides an overall history of why the United States has a president and what his (that is still the correct pronoun at this writing) duties entail. One of the more fascinating chapters is “How Does a President Get Elected?” Included is a simple explanation of why we have an Electoral College. Naysayers from the losing political party consistently demand that the next election be decided by popular vote. These folks will learn why our founding fathers created this compromise protection for all of the states after reading this funny presentation. After all, we do not elect a president just for the overcrowded population centers.

Our country has just gone through what pundits today claim is an unprecedented election. Studying the history of our presidents and how they achieved this lofty position reveals many shenanigans and much gnashing of teeth by conflicting political parties over the years. When I was a middle-grade student we were required to memorize the names of the presidents. Perhaps not the most necessary of requirements, but at least we knew who they were and what they accomplished. Students today certainly should be taught the history of why we are a republic, why there are three branches of government, and why we select the important position of President the way we do.

In Bear Claws, The Iron Horse Chronicles--Book Two, I included scenes about the presidential campaign of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 as he toured Wyoming on the first transcontinental railroad. The lives of the presidents have impacted all citizens since the nation's founding. It is right and proper that we know about them and honor them.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sara K Joiner: Early Days of the Movies

2016 has been a rough year, especially when thinking about well-known individuals who have died. From David Bowie and Alan Rickman to Prince and Anton Yelchin to George Michael and Carrie Fisher, lots of people around the world have lost someone they didn't know personally but who meant a great deal nonetheless.

I've spent a lot of time this year mourning strangers who were friends. And now I have to add Debbie Reynolds to that list.

I was about nine years old when I saw Singin' In the Rain for the first time. I loved it! Not only is it my favorite movie musical, it's also my favorite movie about the movies and one of my favorite movies in general. Set during the transition from silent films to "talkies," it introduced me to a world I knew nothing about. It showed history happening to people who lived it.

Recently, I read I Don't Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney. Although set earlier, it reminded me of Singin' In the Rain. It's about a young girl who spends a summer in Los Angeles with her extended family in 1918. Her step-cousin is infatuated with the movies and ropes her into "starring" in the picture he's making. Cameos from Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith pop up throughout. There's a great discussion of Griffith's classic Intolerance. It gives readers a lot of details for further entertainment, including the actors and directors mentioned plus movies to watch.

I Don't Know How the Story Ends is a great book for middle grade readers, especially if they love the movies. Watch it with Singin' In the Rain for a good look at the full span of the early days of filmmaking. And don't forget to watch a silent film or two, as well. They're treasures.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a librarian.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Boy Called Dickens

Thanks to the Muppets, multitudes of children and adults have been introduced to A Christmas Carol. I suspect far fewer have been properly introduced to the author, Charles Dickens—who is not, after all, Gonzo.

A Boy Called Dickens, by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix, is an excellent avenue into the life of this famous author and his work.

"Come along, now. We are here to search for a boy called Dickens. He won't be easy to find. The fog has crept in, silent as a ghost, to fold the city in cold, gray arms." --Hopkinson

Dickens at the blacking warehouse. By Fred Bernard
The book opens, dear reader, with a chase through the icy streets of London as we attempt to follow the lonely, ragged, and elusive 12-year old Dickens. He leads us to Warren's Blacking factory, where he works 10 hours a day packaging bottles of shoe polish. 

Dickens' only relief to the drudgery is the stories he makes up. Today, Charles tells his friend Bob Fagin about a boy named David who runs away from the cruelty of factory work. His tale is cut short when the boss enters, demanding silence and work.

The ghosts of Dickens' stories come alive through Hendrix's illustrations as they follow Charles through the soot-choked fog of 19th century London. 

"Then Dickens walks on, surrounded by pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl. There are lawyers, clerks, convicts, and keepers of old curiosity shops. There are even ghosts and spirits. And children like Dickens, trying to hold on to a dream.

"All these characters and their stories swirl about the boy like the fog."

It is not until the mid-point that we discover why Dickens is in this cold, miserable, and isolated state. His father is in debtor's prison. Dickens is working to survive. 

When his father is released, things begin to look up for the Dickens family, but Charles is still sent to work, though his family does not need his income. Here, in poetic brilliance, Hendrix illustrates Dickens turned away from us, on a blank white page. 

Dickens' father finally ends this wretched period of Charles' life and sends him back to school. Spring has turned to summer. Sunlight streams through clean windows onto a warm classroom cluttered with books, boys, and even a few mice. 

We leave Dickens as a grown up, still walking the streets of London but no longer followed by his ghosts, which we must assume, found a home in his books. 

The impact of this episode on the life of Charles Dickens must have been profound. We see it in his advocacy for social reform, and we read it in his books. Was it the birthplace of Ebeneezer Scrooge? We can only guess. 

"Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping , clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My copy, purchased at Blackwells in Oxford, UK.

 Parents, Teachers, and Librarians:

I found A Boy Called Dickens in the children's fiction of my local library (3rd to 8th grades). I find picture books in this section are sadly neglected. Rescue this one and give it some exercise.

  • Create a Dickens' display including: A Boy Called Dickens, biographies, and children's versions of Dickens' stories. Parents may enjoy these versions as, let's face it, the original works are a hard slog for even the most devoted English major.  (Thank you Kat, for pointing that out.)
  • The Christmas season is a great time for a Dickens-themed display. Host a storytime featuring "Stave One" of A Christmas Carol (an awesome read-aloud. Try it!). You might follow with a showing of one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, or to guarantee a crowd, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Steer everyone to the display and include books on London. Usborne has a great book. If possible, include food such as Christmas pudding, mince pies, and hot spiced cider.
  • For older students, discuss the impact they think Dickens' early life might have had on his later work. Discuss the wretched things that happen to people in our time. Imagine a different world and how that might be brought about. 

"and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
--A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Riding the Rails: Jennifer Bohnhoff on America's Orphan Trains

It's a shame that few Americans seem to know about America's Orphan Trains, because the story is both interesting and deeply disturbing.

Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 children, mostly from the slums of large cities on America's eastern seaboard, were loaded into trains and sent west. Many of these children were orphans with no known relatives to take custody of  them. Others came from impoverished families that had no way of caring for them. These families believed and hoped that their children had a better chance at a rich and fulfilling life if they followed Horace Greeley's admonition "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country." Still other children had run away from abusive or neglectful families and made the choice to ride the trains themselves. 

The orphan trains began because a Methodist minister named Charles Loring Brace sought to find a way to help vagrant children living in the streets of New York City. At the time, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 children (out of a total NYC population of 500,000!) lived in substandard conditions. No social programs, welfare programs or foster care were in place to assist them. Believing that these children would fare better if they were raised in the wholesome atmosphere of farms, Brace created the Children's Aid Society. Later, other organizations also created programs to get indigent or needy children out of the cities and into the country. Here are some books if you would like to pursue this topic further:

Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story, by Andrea Warren tells the story of Lee Nailling and his brothers, who were placed in an orphanage when their mother died. Two years later, they traveled to Texas on an orphan train and were split up. Lee ended up moving from home to home, until he was finally placed in a loving family who allowed him to keep in touch with his brothers.

We Rode the Orphan Trains, also by Andrea Warren,  is a compilation of interviews with the other riders that the author made while writing Lee Nailling's story. Both books are nonfiction and would be good background material for the following novels on the same subject:

A Family Apart is the first novel in a four-part series by the very popular author Joan Lowery Nixon. It is well researched and a very quick and easy read for middle grade students.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, alternates between the Great Depression when the character Vivian Daly, a recent Irish immigrant, was put on an orphan and sent to Minnesota, and the present, when she is an old woman living in Maine. When 17-year-old Molly Ayer.
Molly, a Penobscot Indian who has spent her life being shuffled between foster homes is sent to help the elderly woman clean her attic as part of her community service, the pair form a a deep bond that helps Vivian overcome her lifelong sense of shame.

12-year-old Rodzina Clara Jadwiga Anastazya Brodski is the main character in Karen Cushman's Rodzina, a novel set in 1881 and about a Polish immigrant girl who is put on an orphan train in Chicago. This novel has the wildest and most exciting plot of all the books listed here. It's far fetched, but good fun, and might just interest middle grade readers enough to make them research the Orphan Trains further. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches middle school social studies in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of four books for middle school readers. You can learn more about her and her writing at her website.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

#Diversity and How the Past Inspires Us Today, with Chris Eboch

The Power of Diversity

Recent months have seen an increase in bullying and racism in schools. Children, of course, reflect what they see in the world around them. We can mourn what’s happening, and we can fight it in a variety of ways, through civic action, leading by example, discussing issues with our own children and students, instituting anti-bullying policies at local schools, and so forth.

Writers, teachers, and librarians also have a special tool in books.

Books of all types, from contemporary realistic stories to science fiction and fantasy, can present diverse characters and inspire kind and generous behavior. Historical fiction also has a place in showing kids the wonderful diversity of our world, and in encouraging them to practice everyday heroism.

My novel The Well of Sacrifice brings the world of the pre-Columbian Maya to life, challenging the idea that only white Europeans developed advanced civilizations. Young Eveningstar makes friends with a foreigner, learns to question authority gone bad, and stands up for her beliefs against great threats. In addition, the book touches on environmental issues that remain relevant today.

The Genie’s Gift, inspired by the mythology of The Arabian Nights, introduces the culture of the Ottoman Empire. The heroine, Anise, wants to change her future but suffers from extreme shyness. While young readers may not face her specific challenges – ghouls, monsters, and a solo journey across a vast desert – they may see themselves in her social anxiety and desire to break away from the path the patriarchy has set for her.

My upcoming historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, shows kids today the differences – and similarities – of young people 5000 years ago. I hope readers will not only learn about a remarkable culture, but also be touched by the friendships shown, and understand that the same humanity exists in all of us. My current my work in progress, The Guardians of Truth, is also set in ancient Egypt. In this young adult adventure with paranormal elements, fierce brown and black girls in ancient Egypt fight against injustice. (Read a sample here.)

Many people have been feeling anxious and depressed in a time where our society seems to be breaking apart. Teachers, librarians, parents, and writers can make a difference in the future by supporting and inspiring young people today. That isn’t always easy, but presenting great books and reading and discussing them together can be a step in the right direction.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.