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.

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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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Chris Eboch on Fantastic History: Bringing Legends to Life with Historical Fantasy

At a glance, historical fiction and fantasy appear to be opposites. Historical fiction requires intensive research to accurately portray a specific past time. In fantasy, the author may create the setting from pure imagination. Yet some writers combine the two genres into historical fantasy.

Historical fantasy can be a way to introduce history to young people who would not normally read historical fiction. Clare B. Dunkle says of her historical fantasy novels, “I think the fantasy elements were what sold the books. They certainly were the elements that made me want to write them.” However, “A number of reviewers also mentioned the setting favorably.”

The historical accuracy varies. How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, claims an old Norse setting but is only loosely based on historical Vikings. Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series reminds the reader of ancient Greece, but includes anachronisms such as guns. Catherine Fisher’s Oracle Prophecies trilogy combines ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These books are more “inspired by history” than based in historical fact. Still, they could be enough to interest a young reader in a past time period. They could also be paired with more realistic historical fiction or nonfiction for an interesting discussion of what is real and what is imagined.

Other books are set in a clear historical time and place. Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast puts Beauty and the Beast in ancient Persia. Walter Mosley’s 47 is set on an American slave plantation, with a character from a distant world.

A Favorite: Britain

Many traditional fantasy books draw upon medieval England for setting and mythology. This era remains popular, but some authors take extra care to portray an accurate past. Of her novel, Janet Lee Carey says, “Dragon’s Keep started out as a novelized fairytale about a princess with a dragon’s claw. The story begins in A.D. 1145 and takes place on a fictitious island that was once an English prison colony.” Her story is solidly grounded in English history.

Clare B. Dunkle set By These Ten Bones in about 1550 in the Scottish Highlands and used fantasy elements from the beliefs of the medieval Highlanders. She says, “Folklore-based fantasy has always been a favorite of mine. I made a study of the folklore of Britain when I was in school, so it was a natural choice when I decided to write.”

More recent historical England is another popular fantasy setting. Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and its sequels, set in Victorian England, use an accurate setting where only a few people access the fantasy world.

In contrast, fantasy elements are an accepted part of everyday life in the Sorcery & Cecilia series by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Reka Simonsen, then Senior Editor at Henry Holt and Company, once said, “I’m not sure if the [English] setting fascinates so much because YA readers today have grown up with Harry Potter, or because Victorian London is the birthplace of the most famous classic horror and ghost stories, of if there’s some other reason entirely.”

Farther Afield

Other books push the boundaries into more unusual times and places. Tracy Barrett’s novel King of Ithaka is based on Odysseus’ son Telemachus. She once said, “I’m trying to keep all the day-to-day details of late Bronze-Age Greece accurate and the centaurs, nymphs, sea-creatures, and other creatures that are in the story are interwoven with these realistic details.”

My novel The Genie’s Gift is set during the Ottoman Empire and draws on the mythology of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights). While the magic and monsters are fantasy, the clothing, food, and other details help capture a setting that is not well-known to most US students.

American history has its fans as well. Carla Jablonski’s Silent Echoes involves characters in New York City in 1882 and the present. Jablonski was inspired by research about a historical figure. “If she claimed these things today, they’d assume she was crazy. That got me thinking about context; about how values, attitudes, even sanity and reality are determined by the historical time period. The fantasy element allowed me to contrast how the same behavior would be perceived and experienced differently in different times.”

Tiffany Trent’s In the Serpent’s Coils involves a magic school in post-Civil War Virginia. “Often, fantasy books feature some sort of conflict that culminates in an epic battle,” Trent says. “But what if the epic battle has already happened? I wanted to give the sense that my character Corrine, at 15, had lived through a tremendous amount, before she even got involved with dark and mysterious Fey.”

The Painful Truth

Many of these fantasy authors appreciate the gritty realistic details that come from history. Carey says, “The fantastical elements require solid ground. The reader needs to feel as if she’s in a real place. The filth and stench of the middle ages helped me ground the story in reality. Medieval times offered so many strange and often gory details simply as it was. I found the time fascinating from fleas and famine to bizarre medicinal cures—did you know that goose droppings liberally applied can cure baldness?”

Dunkle comments, “Anchoring By These Ten Bones within a historical setting gave the book its strength. The Highlanders had a fascinating superstitious lore. They wouldn’t have been surprised to find a werewolf in their midst, and they would have known exactly which brutal course of action to employ.”

For young readers who are baffled by the concept of cassette tapes or a phone with a cord, all history seems fantastical. Barrett notes, “To most people the Bronze Age is as fantastical a setting as Venus!”

Authentic History, Fresh Fantasy

Though some writers use history only as inspiration, many are committed to historical accuracy. Jablonski says, “The research helped inspire events that took place in the book and I think the more realistic the setting, the more absolutely rooted in the truth, the more your reader will go with you in the fantasy.”

“I also write nonfiction,” Trent says, “so I’m a stickler for being as accurate as I can, no matter what I’m writing. In the Hallowmere books, I used as much factual detail as I could, even down to finding out the days of the week corresponding to the 1865 calendar so I knew whether I was scheduling events at the proper time.”

Dunkle comments, “For By These Ten Bones, I probably did more research than I would have done for straight historical fiction because I needed to know not just the historical details of life in a Highland township but their superstitions, pagan practices, and religious beliefs as well.”


Historical fantasy can be a way to introduce the legends and beliefs of a specific time period. That can make for some fascinating classroom discussions. 

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The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East, drawing on the mythology of The Arabian Nights. Shy and timid Anise determines to find the Genie Shakayak and claim the Gift of Sweet Speech. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?

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 www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Dogs At War



Throughout history when men have gone to war, so have their dogs.  The first story here, War Dog, by Henry Treece (1911-66), is a stirring tale set in south-eastern Britain, A.D. 43. 
Bran was a black, rough-haired pup who was entrusted to Gwyn, son of the Catavellauni king’s hound keeper, to rear and train as a war-dog.  When old enough, he was taken to the blacksmith and fitted with the broad bronze collar that would protect his vulnerable throat in confrontations with wild animals. Once Bran had sufficiently honed his attack skills against wolves, he was tested against a different foe – a Silurian prisoner.  Though unused to fighting a man and at first bewildered, Bran won this fight. Now he was ready for war, and his bronze collar was overlaid with a massive spiked collar.
In AD43, Claudius launched an invasion of Britain. Bran accompanied Gwyn and his master, Caratacus, King of the Catavellauni, to war against the Roman invaders.  Though the Catavellauni fought bravely, their chariots and stallions were no match for the great number of heavily armoured Romans and their elephants.  At the battle’s end, Caratacus was led off prisoner, Gwyn lay dead on the field, and Bran was beaten unconscious and left for dead as he lay over Gwyn’s body.
He did not die, however; there were more adventures for Bran before his journey’s end, in Rome, far away from south eastern Britain. 
While Henry Treece does not gloss over the hardships, cruelties and uncertainties of the time, he reminds us that the Ancient Britons were not savages but much like ourselves, albeit minus radio, telephones, cell phones, satellites, and television. This neat little book artfully combines an action tale with history, and includes two pages of  historical fact at the end.

Although Judy’s story is fact, not fiction, she was such a heroine of the war in the Pacific, she deserves recognition.  Robert Weintraub’s book is a children’s version of his earlier adult book. It is a gripping tale of one amazing dog, a true heroine if ever there was one. 
    Judy was born in a kennel for British citizens in Shanghai.  Ever adventurous, she escaped from the outdoor pen at just a few weeks old.  Her first encounter was then, when a Japanese sailor kicked the tiny pup across the street. This, Judy’s first encounter with them, led to a lifelong dislike of Japanese.  Luckily, shortly afterwards a girl who worked at the kennel found the pup and took Judy back.
The story goes from Judy’s days as a Royal Navy ship’s mascot on a gunboat in the Yangtze River to her ship being bombed, her long and dangerous trek through the jungle, her narrow escape when she attacked a crocodile while saving ‘her men’, to her days as an official Prisoner of War, and her many narrow squeaks from being shot by the Japanese guards.  Throughout, Judy went about her work of alerting people to imminent danger, saving many lives, and comforting those in distress.  The last man she attached herself to was Frank Williams, who she sensed was desperately in need of a friend.
While it is a harrowing tale, it does have some funny incidents and young readers will be happy to learn  in 1946 Judy was awarded the Dickins medal, the canine equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

My last choice is the stories of three dogs, from the foul trenches of the first World War, to Greenland in the early days of WWll, and finally to Vietnam.
Sheila Keenan provides the text and Nathan Fox the illustrations.  I must confess I couldn’t follow the graphics – too much – but I am prepared to believe they will appeal to a reluctant reader. 
The first story is of Marcellinus, dubbed Donnie, and his Border Collie Boots.  In December, 1914, they followed Dr. Fulham to Ypres with the Nova Scotia Highlanders.  A white band round his middle, with a broad Red Cross either side, denoted Boots was a mercy dog.  Her task was to crawl into no-man’s-land after dark to sniff out wounded men; she could even detect life in those left for dead.  Then she would guide the stretcher bearers to the rescue.  After one tremendous, blinding explosion Donnie and Boots were separated from the doctor and ended up with an Irish regiment. Boots managed to catch a goose, which made a welcome change from army rations.  The story ends with Boots rescuing a wounded Donnie, and both being reunited with Dr. Fulham.
The second story is a totally different setting, a brand new American Air Force base in icy Greenland, spring 1942.  New recruit Cooper is assigned to work the dog team. Loki, the only white dog on the team is labelled “tricky – he’ll do anything for food and is hard to handle,” by the sergeant.  Cooper forms an immediate bond with Loki, much to the sergeant’s annoyance.  When the sergeant learns Nazis have come on an espionage mission, he sets out on reconnaissance. Cooper, with Loki leading the team, goes with him.  From then on it’s all action – they hear, but cannot see, another sled – Nazis?  An American plane goes down close to them, when they reach it there’s only the pilot alive.  He’s badly injured. The ice starts to move, there’s a top secret weapon aboard the plane, it cannot fall into enemy hands.  One hazard follows another, and Cooper has to depend on Loki’s smarts, strength, and courage to succeed in his mission.
The third story hinges between August 1968 in North Carolina and 1967-68 in Dau Tieng, Vietnam.  Henryis lonely.  His mother assured  him North Carolina, where she came from, would be special.  But the trailer park was anything but special that summer – no other kids, and old Mrs.Johnson who ‘thought she was special because she was the only one with a working television, and kept it blaring all the time to let folk know’.  The trailer next to Henry’s was empty. One day his mother brought home a Beagle pup that Henry named Bouncer.  Alas, Bouncer fell foul of Mrs Johnson. Tibbets, the park manager arrived just in time to see Bouncer knock over a trash can. He told Henry he had to get rid of Bouncer, or he would.  The ‘empty’ trailer door opens, and Lanford orders Henry to pick up the trash.  Tibbets yelps that he won’t stand for it…Lanford grabs Tibbets by the shirt front and stares him down.  Tibbets goes off, muttering, “Crazy Vet, crazy Vet”, which leads to Lanford having nightmares about Vietnam.
Bouncer leaps on him as he lies in his lounger outside his trailer, waking Lanford who commanded, “Down!” and much to Henry’s surprise, Bouncer obeyed.  Lanford had a dog once.
He helped Henry train Bouncer, and little by little man and boy became friends.  Lanford is a super artist. His trailer is full of drawings, of Vietnam, his buddy Hado, and his beloved German Shepherd bitch, Sheba.  She was one wonderful dog. The graphics portray the hell that was Vietnam, Lanford’s pain when Hado was blown apart and still tried to joke, and, even worse when he had to leave Sheba behind.
This story leaves the young reader with a lot of questions, because there are a lot of Lanfords out there, now coming from Iran and Afghanistan.
            The colours chosen for the graphics are evocative of the particular times; the khakis, oranges, scarlet and shadows of the trenches, the starkness of the Arctic, the camouflage greens and duns of Vietnam.  As I’ve said, the written word is more powerful for me, but the bilingual eleven year old grandchild to whom I gave this book loves it.