Thursday, March 16, 2017

Read Wide, Read Deep

By Suzanne Morgan Williams

    I was just giving school visits in rural Kansas with fellow author Terri Farley. It was great fun and we saw students from grades K-12 Together we did a family night that included folks from ages 3 to maybe 90. It was all about reading and writing. I kept thinking how differently one would experience the world from the open quiet prairies of Western Kansas than from, say, San Francisco Chinatown’s frantic pace. How can people, having such different perceptions understand each other. Time after time, I told the students to read. Read widely, read everything, read what you’re interested in and what makes you uncomfortable. This blog is about historical fiction, but today, I just want to talk about the power of books.

    Before my novel, Bull Rider, was published I wrote a dozen nonfiction books and that research covered a lot of history. I can tell you, that when a totalitarian government comes to power, or when one nation conquers another, one of the first things they do is burn the books. After this had happened a few times in ancient China, the people took to carving Buddhist texts in rock – harder to destroy. Books transfer cultural values, they provide information, and they give their readers the power of thinking beyond themselves and their own experience. Books level our experiences, allowing a sixth grader in a town of 350 in Kansas to share the same stories and information, as a sixth grader in Los Angeles or Chicago. It lets a grandmother who hasn’t taken a science class in fifty years understand what her grandchildren are learning in astronomy at school. And it let’s all of us see the world from multiple points of view, some comforting and familiar, some difficult or surprising. Reading stretches our minds and hearts.

    So bring on the books. Hand them to the kids you know. Let’s read about girls whose lives have been upended by war in Afghanistan, about boys who survived the U.S. Civil War only to get drawn in by the Ku Klux Klan, about the Russian Czars, and kids living on Alcatraz with Al Capone. Mostly, let's go for a variety of books, a mental feast, a healthy mix of the known and unknown. And let’s use what we read to better understand each other and our world.

    Read widely, read deeply, and read with your heart and mind wide open.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

75th Anniversaries in WWII History: by Mary Louise Sanchez

In January I received a Fit Bit bracelet which I mostly use to track my steps. The goal is to achieve 10,000 steps a day.  Imagine my surprise when I was alerted about a week later that I completed my first twenty-six miles for a marathon badge. I was proud to receive the badge but then reflected on endurance tests that people complete when they participate in Olympic marathons or marathons that last a longer period of time.

One difficult 60-70 mile marathon anniversary in history started 75 years old on January 7, 1942.  This was the beginning of the Bataan Battle in the Philippines during WWII .
 In April 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King, Jr. surrendered to Col. Mootoo Nakayama of the 14th Japanese Army.  Because the Japanese wanted to make another assault near the location of the surrender, they decided the large numbers of prisoners needed to be moved north. Since transportation was lacking, American and Filipino POWs were forced to march to a new camp between 60 and up to almost 70 miles north. This became known as the Bataan March.

There are many memorials to the memory of the these men in the Philippines. Because so many New Mexican soldiers were forced to participate in that infamous march, the state of New Mexico honors these men every spring with a marathon march/run at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico called the Bataan Memorial Death March. New Mexicans renamed the old state capitol building, the Bataan Memorial Building.  There is also a memorial, "Heroes of Bataan" in Las Cruces, New Mexico depicting three soldiers helping each other on the deadly march. 

I have yet to find a middle grade historical fiction novel with the Bataan March setting, but I believe these men's stories will be written and need to be shared.  Since my father-in-law was  a POW in Korea for two years, I would love to see an historical fiction story about the Korean experience too.

Another WWII 75th anniversary was observed this past December 7, 2016—Pearl Harbor. Thankfully, there are many books about the Pearl Harbor experience for students in the middle grades to read. I was fortunate to hear Graham Salisbury speak about his experiences growing up in Hawaii and his interviews with Japanese Americans who lived there during the Pearl Harbor bombing which lead to his books about Pearl Harbor.

Do you know anyone who endured or died in the Bataan March or Pearl Harbor? Do you know anyone who was a POW? What children's books do you recommend that speak to these experiences?   

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Historical Sleuthing with 'The Detective's Assistant' by Kate Hannigan

I attended Kate Hannigan's session at the summer 2016 SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles. After listening to her interesting presentation, I asked if she would be interested in being our guest blogger. She was gracious and agreed to share the story behind her award winning middle grade history novel, The Detective's Assistant. We both agreed this post was apropos for Women's History Month.

She writes fiction and non-fiction from her home in Chicago. Her historical novel The Detective’s Assistant was the winner of the 2016 Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade novel, received starred reviews from Booklist and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was a Booklist Editors' Choice selection, a Nerdy Book Club Award winner, a Bank Street College Best Children's Book selection, named to state reading lists, as well as an Amelia Bloomer Project List for Feminist Books selection and a Mighty Girl Top Books for Tweens and Teens pick. It also has been optioned for film. Kate’s non-fiction picture book A Lady Has the Floor (Calkins Creek), spotlighting the life and accomplishments of Belva Lockwood, publishes in 2018. Visit her online at

Historical Sleuthing with ‘The Detective’s Assistant’

I was researching a story about camels in the American West of 1856, just after the Gold Rush, when I stumbled upon my own golden nugget. It was just a few sentences about Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency and the day a woman named Kate Warne walked in to his office. But it would grow to become my obsession and later the middle-grade history-mystery novel The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).

Pinkerton recounts in his writings that he’d assumed Kate Warne was there to apply for a secretary position, but she talked her way into having him hire her as a detective. She said she could “worm out” the secrets of the wives and girlfriends of Chicago’s crooks and criminals, and Pinkerton thought it was a marvelous idea. “We live in progressive times,” he told her, and he fancied himself a progressive man.

America’s first woman detective? I was so delighted by the possibilities of telling Kate Warne’s story that I immediately dropped my camel research and dove deep into the Pinkertons—doing my own detective work. And I’ve found it all so fascinating, I’m still reading everything I can about this period of American history.

Because Chicago’s fire in 1871 wiped out so much of the city’s history and records, there is not a lot of material about Kate Warne’s life before becoming a Pinkerton agent. What we know comes from Pinkerton’s accounts in his detective stories, written long after the cases. But there are a few records that survived of Kate Warne’s own words regarding the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s most important case—the thwarting of the Baltimore Plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln on his way from Illinois to Washington and his inauguration. So I relied on them to help shape Kate’s character in my story.

Because these examples of historical record thrill the history nerd in me, I made sure to weave them into the story. For example, the actual messages Pinkerton telegraphed back to the home office in Chicago during the perilous journey through deadly Baltimore in the days leading up to the 1861 inauguration—where Pinkerton referred to President Lincoln as “Nuts,” himself as “Plums,” and Kate Warne as “Barley”—make an appearance in the novel. As do a few newspaper reports that I found both funny and informative.

By wrapping such a crucial moment in the history of our nation in a rollicking story, I thought I could reach more young readers. I hoped that by creating an underdog like Kate Warne’s niece, the irrepressible Nell Warne, we could journey with Kate Warne and the Pinkerton detectives and witness history—and see that it was exciting and heart-stopping and very much worth knowing about.

There are no known photographs of Kate Warne. Here is a painting dated 1866, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
And by throwing the spotlight on a lesser-known, essentially forgotten player from our past, Kate Warne, I’ve tried to show that history is filled with people who contributed to the building of our country but didn’t necessarily represent the mainstream. Because she was a woman, Kate Warne was dismissed as Pinkerton’s lover and her contribution forgotten. Historians pointed to the fact that she was buried near Pinkerton in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

So I went there and checked it out, and she is. But so are many other Pinkerton detectives, so are we to assume they were all Allan Pinkerton’s lovers too? I believe what he wrote about Kate Warne—that she was one of his finest, most capable operatives.

While I hope The Detective’s Assistant makes young readers intrigued by our past and inspired to learn more about American history, I find that it’s also inspired me. I’ve been bitten by the history bug, and now all I want to do is dig up more fascinating people—women and people of color especially, who have long been overlooked by traditional historians.

There is a saying that history is written by the winners. For me, I think history can be a whole lot more interesting when we discover the stories of those just outside that winner’s circle.

"In celebration of Women's History Month, Kate will be giving away THREE COPIES of The Detective's Assistant! Comment below for a chance to win!"

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ancient Egypt Speaks to Kids Today: A New Historical Mystery from Chris Eboch

Today I'm celebrating the re-release of my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, via Spellbound River Press. I've been reaching out to social studies teachers, and we've already had an order for 290 copies (I'm assuming from a school district)! If you are a teacher or librarian interested in finding out if this novel would work in your school, contact me through my website to get a free digital copy for review.

The Eyes of Pharaoh by Chris Eboch: This mystery set in 1350 BCE Egypt, for ages nine and up, introduces young readers to an ancient world. The dangers and intrigues of the time echo in the politics of today, while the power of friendship will touch hearts both young and old.

The Eyes of Pharaoh is ideal for use in elementary and middle school classrooms or by homeschooling students studying ancient Egypt. Suzanne Borchers says, “I teach a gifted class of fourth and fifth graders. Using this historical fiction is a window into Ancient Egypt—its people, culture, and beliefs. My class enjoyed doing research on Egyptian gods and goddesses, and hieroglyphs. Projects extended their knowledge of this fascinating time and place. I also highly recommend it for its fast paced plot, interesting and ‘real’ characters, and excellent writing.”

To help teachers in the classroom, extensive Lesson Plans provide material aligned to the Common Core State Standards. View them here.

The Eyes of Pharaoh is available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book via book retailers and distributors, including Amazon.

Chris Eboch is the author of more than 40 books for young people, including The Well of Sacrifice. This historical drama set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala is used in many schools as supplemental fiction when students learn about the Maya. Kirkus Reviews said, “The novel shines not only for a faithful recreation of an unfamiliar, ancient world, but also for the introduction of a brave, likable and determined heroine.”

The Eyes of Pharaoh is sure to reach readers in the same way. Ms. Eboch’s other titles include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show; the fictionalized biographies Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker and Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier (part of Simon & Schuster’s Childhood of Famous Americans series); and many nonfiction titles.

Learn more at or my Amazon page.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sara K Joiner: A Review of "Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring"

If you or your students are interested in codes, ciphers and clues, then Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti is just the book for you.

Telling the fictionalized story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who worked as part of Elizabeth Van Lew's Union spy ring during the Civil War, readers will find a woman determined to do what she can to end the horrors of slavery. Mary served as a servant in the Confederate White House and was well-placed to learn a great deal of information that passed across Jefferson Davis' desk.

While the book isn't long or difficult to read, it has a great deal of drama and danger which makes it ideal for reluctant readers. Mary has an antagonistic relationship with O'Melia, the Irish lady's maid to Varina Davis. Will O'Melia discover that Mary isn't the simple-minded servant she claims to be?

Mary had been a slave for the Van Lew family before being freed by Elizabeth who recognized Mary's intelligence. After being sent to school in Philadelphia, Mary eventually taught in Liberia before returning to the United States to marry. Her wedding occurred on the same day Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. Not long after that, Elizabeth Van Lew began recruiting spies for the Union and convinced Mary to work in the Davis household. Clever and educated, Mary Bowser risked her life spying for the Union. If anyone had learned she could read and write, she could have been killed as it was illegal in Virginia for slaves to be literate.

In addition to the story, the main focus of the book is on spycraft and deciphering messages. Throughout the tale, Mary keeps a diary (which may or may not be historically true) that she hides in different places throughout the Confederate White House. Readers' goals are to use the clues hidden in pictures and across the margins to find the final hiding place of the diary. An envelope with a Caesar cipher wheel, vellum with cutout holes, red acetate and a page from Uncle Tom's Cabin help readers solve the puzzles to lead them to the answer. If they grow frustrated or cannot solve them, the answers are provided in a sealed section at the end.

There are lots of clues. I have to admit that I didn't even spot all of them until I read the answers. Morse code, Vignere ciphers, the language of flowers, hidden writing -- it's all here to be pored over and puzzled out by readers.

While I will admit to not being the type of reader who particularly likes codes, I did enjoy deciphering the clues and challenging myself to solve the problems before I gave up and broke the seal. That's when I learned that although I had determined the location of Mary's diary, there were quite a few other clues I missed.

The acetate, vellum, cipher wheel
and page that come with the book.
Unfortunately, because of the pieces that come with it, this book wouldn't necessarily stand up to heavy library or classroom use and is really only able to be used by one, or perhaps two, readers at a time. It is fun to solve the riddles, though, and I gained a tremendous appreciation for the poor men and women who had to translate simple messages into codes that appeared to be gibberish. That takes some time!

And, of course, it is always worthwhile to learn about people and their lives. Mary Bowser was quite remarkable and even began teaching freed slaves to read almost as soon as the war ended.

Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring is written by Enigma Alberti and illustrated by Tony Cliff. It is the first of Workman Publishing's Spy On History series. The next book in the series, Victor Dowd and the WWII Ghost Army, will be available in January 2018.

Workman Publishing supplied a free copy of the book for review purposes.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY'S MINE : An Interview with Caroline Starr Rose

Today I'm pleased to welcome Caroline Starr Rose to the blog for an interview on her newest historical fiction, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. Among Caroline's works are her award-winning middle grade historical fictions May B. and Blue Birds.

"Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine is a rollicking adventure, warm and funny, chockablock with bad guys and good guys, mysteries and deceptions, dangers and disasters. it's a rip-roaring tale and a romping good read." --Newbery Award-Winning Author, Karen Cushman

Desperate to get away from their drunkard of a father, eleven-year-old Jasper and his older brother Melvin often talk of running away, of heading north to Alaska to chase riches beyond their wildest dreams. The Klondike Gold Rush is calling, and Melvin has finally decided the time to go is now—even if that means leaving Jasper behind. But Jasper has other plans, and follows his brother aboard a steamer as a stowaway.

Onboard the ship, Jasper overhears a rumor about One-Eyed Riley, an old coot who's long since gone, but is said to have left clues to the location of his stake, which still has plenty of gold left. The first person to unravel the clues and find the mine can stake the claim and become filthy rich. Jasper is quick to catch gold fever and knows he and Melvin can find the mine—all they have to do is survive the rough Alaskan terrain, along with the steep competition from the unscrupulous and dangerous people they encounter along the way. [Amazon Book Summary]

Caroline, thank you for joining us on Mad About Middle Grade History today. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for Jasper?

Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine is a blend of a couple different ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while. When I was first researching the American frontier for the novel that became May B., I happened to read a book called Women of the Klondike. It was a fascinating glimpse into a moment in history I hardly knew anything about. A few years later, my sons asked if I’d ever write a book about a boy. Around the same time, as I was thinking about their question, I read an article in the Albuquerque Journal about an eccentric millionaire named Forrest Fenn who had hidden treasure somewhere in New Mexico and written a cryptic poem about its location. The first person to figure it out could keep the treasure. Lots of treasure hunters have searched, but so far no one has found Fenn’s fortune. I took that Klondike setting, added my first boy protagonist, Jasper Johnson, and threw in a mysterious mine worth millions available to the first person who could solve five riddles leading to its location.

Just writing about it now makes me think, “I’d like to read that book!”

In the words of Jasper, "It was better than fine!" What sort of research did you do for this book?

Map of the Klondike
A few weeks ago I looked over my notes and realized I’d read four novels (middle grade mysteries, gold rush fiction, and a third round with Huckleberry Finn) and around 14 non-fiction books in preparation for writing Jasper. I also watched a couple documentaries, visited countless websites, and for the first time ever, traveled to a place in one of my stories. (My husband and I took an Alaskan cruise in 2015).

I know Jasper was modeled after Huckleberry Finn. Can you tell us more about this?

When my sons asked me to write a story with a boy protagonist, I immediately thought of Huck Finn. I mean, has there ever been a more memorable boy in the history of American literature? I couldn’t go wrong in using Huck as a starting place, I figured. The more I thought of it, the more I realized he would make a great model for a Klondike gold rush character. Huck’s colloquial speech, sharp observations, sweet gullibility, resourcefulness, and tendency to speak his mind all fit perfectly with the gold rush setting, where misinformation abounded and quick wits were necessary to survive.

What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?

I hope readers close the book feeling like they’ve been to the Klondike gold rush, that they experienced everything right alongside my characters and really have a sense of what the world was like over a hundred years ago. I’d love it if it took some time for them to readjust to regular life! I also hope readers might reflect on wealth and riches and what really matters in this world.

Miners climbing the Chilkoot Pass

Who are some middle-grade historical fiction authors that inspire you?

Karen Cushman is the master. I also enjoy Christopher Paul Curtis, Augusta Scattergood, Kirby Larsen, Jennifer Holm, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

A great list of authors! This is your third work of historical fiction. Why is historical fiction important?

It is so easy to be inwardly focused, to think that our lives and our current moment in history are the ultimate. Historical fiction invites us to look beyond our experiences, our perceptions, and the way the world functions in this time period. Ideally, it leaves us with a better sense of others—even if we don’t always agree with them—a better sense of ourselves, and the ability to appreciate both the differences and similarities between the past and present.

What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author?

Knowing characters I’ve created live apart from me in the hearts and minds of readers is pretty much everything.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Thank you for the opportunity to visit Mad About Middle-Grade History today! 

Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable,* Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices,** Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico. You can find Caroline here .

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.

Subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe or Follow by E-Mail buttons to the right, or add Feedly or another reader. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Paddy Graydon: Author Jennifer Bohnhoff Considers a Civil War Ruffian

"A Jurilla" Library of Congress

There aren't too many Civil War characters more colorful Captain James (Paddy) Graydon. He was a hard drinking, disagreeable man who was quick with his fists and short on temper, but his recklessness has earned him a place in American history.

In 1853, when he was 21 years old, James Graydon emigrated to the United States from Ireland to escape the Potato Famine. He joined the army and was posted to the southwest with a unit of dragoons, or mounted light infantry. Already hardened from his difficult youth, the blue eyed, 5' 7" Graydon learned to speak Spanish and Apache during the five years that he fought Indians, bandits, renegades, and claim jumpers in an area that stretched from Santa Fe to the Mexican border.

When he was discharged from the Army in 1858, Graydon opened a saloon near Sonoita, Arizona, where he attracted a rough crowd of patrons. Graydon wasn't suited to a sedentary life. He continued to track horse thieves, rescue captives from the Indians, and guide army patrols in addition to running his saloon.

In 1861, Confederate General Henry H. Sibley threatened to bring the Civil War into New Mexico. Graydon went to Colonel Edward Canby, the highest ranking Union officer in the state, and offered to form an independent company of spies. Many of the mean and nasty men Graydon recruited were former patrons of his saloon. They were an undisciplined lot, but very good at collecting information and doing the kind of sabotage work that regular Army soldiers could not.

There are no pictures of Graydon or of his Company of spies, but the Library of Congress sketch entitled "A Jurilla" is probably a good representation of what a member of the spy company would look like.  They wore no uniforms, rarely bathed, and refused to participate in parades and drills like regular soldiers. The bottom corners of this lithograph, from an April 9, 1863 Harper's Weekly, shows a company of spies taking two sentries prisoners. Graydon's spies did this kind of work. They were also well known for wandering into the Confederate camp and sitting around the campfires, drinking coffee and gathering information.

But the action that Graydon is most famous for happened on a bitterly cold night in February, 1862. Sibley's Confederate Army was encamped about four miles east of Fort Craig, where Canby's Army and a large number of New Mexico Volunteers awaited. Under cover of darkness, Graydon and several volunteers left the fort and crossed the icy Rio Grande. When they got close to the corral that enclosed Sibley's pack train, Graydon lit the fuses on pack boxes filled with explosives that he had put on two old mules, then shooed them towards the Confederate lines.

Graydon's scheme did not go as planned. His mules turned back. As Graydon and his men ran for their lives, the explosives blew up, killing no one but the mules they were attached to. However, the explosion caused Confederate pack mules to stampede down to the Rio Grande, where Union troops rounded them up. The Confederate Army lost over 100 animals, and had to abandon many of the supplies that they desperately needed if they were going to conquer New Mexico and the rich gold fields of Colorado and California.

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History to 7th grade students in Albuquerque. Paddy Graydon shows up in her next book, Valverde,  a middle grade historical novel about the Civil War in New Mexico which will be published this spring.