Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Oldies, But Goodies: Pre-Colonial Period by Mary Louise Sanchez

It's important for students to have knowledge about the people, ideas, and themes involved in the Age of Discovery from before 1491 which led to the colonization in the Americas. To help students engage in their study of the pre-colonial period in American history, I am sharing some of my top choices for historical fiction books in this category: Oldies, But Goodies: Pre-Colonial Period.

 Teachers, with the emphasis on reading informational texts, be sure to balance the inclusion of historical fiction with non-fiction texts and primary sources. 

These historical fiction stories provide a worthwhile reading experience because students can get caught up in the excitement of the story; learn the big picture of the historical period; and gain background knowledge, which can help students interpret and make sense of the facts.  
 I've included some books which were award winners; and since I feel it is important for historical fiction to support and foster multicultural understanding, I've included some books that offer an alternative perspective on the historical event. My other criteria for including a book are:
  1.  I read the book and enjoyed it.
  2. The book could possibly be in many school libraries in the school district (making it easier for interlibrary loan purposes), or the books could be housed in a school book room. 

When possible, I am providing you with the author's name, title, illustrator, publishing company, ISBN,  page numbers, reading level (R), interest level (I), and a short blurb. This information can help you consider books for your curriculum. I'd like to acknowledge that much of the information was taken from Recreating the Past and Literature Connections to American History, both by Lynda G. Adamson. 

Before 1600
Conrad, Pam. Pedro's Journal: A Voyage with Christopher Columbus. 0-590-46206-7.  81 p. R=6; I=6. Chosen to be cabin boy because he reads and writes, Pedro accompanies Christopher Columbus on the Santa Maria in 1492 and records what he learns.
Illus. Peter Koeppen. Paper, Scholastic (Apple), 1992.
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Dorris, Michael. Morning Girl. Hyperion, 1992.   1-56282-285-3. 74p.  R=6;I=4. Morning Girl and Star Boy live with their parents on a Bahamian island in 1492 before Columbus finds them. Even in their simple culture, they have an understanding of the world.
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O'Dell, Scott. The King's Fifth. Illus Samuel Bryant. Houghton Mifflin, 1966. 0-395-06963-7. R-4; I=7. The  black slave, Esteban, is held in a prison in 1541 and will be tried for hoarding the king's fifth of gold taken on Mendoza's expedition. Newbery Honor, 1967.
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Yolen, Jane. Encounter. Illus. David Shannon. Paper, Harcourt Voyager, 1996. 0-15-225962-7. Picture book.  The story of Columbus' landing in the Americas, as told by a boy of the Taino people who lived there.
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The American Colonies 1700-1774
Anderson, Joan. Spanish Pioneers of the Southwest. Photographs by George Ancona. Dutton, 1989. 0-525=67264-8. 48p. Grades 3-6. In this photo essay, a young boy in Santa Fe, New Mexico or New Spain, is to guard the pueblo and call for the gates to be closed in case of Native American attacks . 

Anderson, Joan. A Williamsburg Household. Photos by George Ancona. Clarion, 1988. Paper, 1990. 0-395-54791-1.  48 p. R=7;I=2.  In 1770, Rippon and his family are slaves to Williamsburg families.
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Dalgliesh, Alice. The Courage of Sarah Noble. Illustrator Leonard Weisgard. Scribner's, 1987. 64p. Paper, Macmillan, 1991. 0-689-71540-4. R=3, I=3. In 1707, Sarah stays goes with her father to build a new house in Massachusetts and stays with the Native American family while her father return for her mother. Sarah's mother refuses to believe Native Americans can care for her child better than she can. Newbery Honor, 1955.
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Rinaldi, Ann. The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre. Harcourt Brace, 1993. 333p. Paper, 0-15-227517-7. R-4; I-7. Rachel is an indentured servant to John and Abigail Adams around 1770 in Boston and hears the news from the British and the colonists.

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Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver. Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 144p. Paper, Dell, 1984. 0-440-47900-2. R=4; I=5. Matt is left alone in Maine to watch over their new house and someone steals his gun. The Indians nearby help him and Matt reciprocates by teaching them to read. Newbery Honor, 1984. Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 1984.
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Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Houghton Mifflin, 1958. Paperback, Dell, 1978. 256 p. R=6, I=6. In 1687, Kit, an orphan, travels from Barbados to New England to live with her aunt and is accused of witchcraft, when she is actually teaching a child to read. Newbery Medal, 1959.
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Verisimilitude or Phony History

Verisimilitude is a big word that means giving the appearance of being real or truthful. A historical novelist has an obligation to his or her readers to write a story that is credible, authentic, and plausible. In writing The Iron Horse Chronicles, I spend countless hours scouring sources to ensure the historical timeline in which I place my characters adheres closely to the truth. Readers implicitly place a trust in me to provide an account of events that is believable and honest, while at the same time being entertaining and educational.

Printed books must compete with a plethora of electronic media. E-books are becoming more prevalent, making access to the written word potentially easier; but to many it is still easier to watch a television show or a movie. Middle grade students undoubtedly learn much about history from these latter media, and I am frustrated by what has been presented recently about the building of the first transcontinental railroad.

Screenwriters apparently do not feel the necessity to adhere to the principle of verisimilitude. Today’s scripts remind me of the Western movies of the 1940s and 50s (which I devoured as a boy) that didn’t care what stood in the way of a “good story.” Two recent offerings from the producers of the visual media have been disappointing because of their unnecessary distortion of history.

Hell on Wheels, an original AMC television series (TV-14), commenced in the fall of 2011. I have watched every episode and have marveled at how the writers ignore the facts. Recently, the conclusion of the show’s fourth season invented a meeting between President Ulysses S. Grant and Mormon leader Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. No such meeting occurred. The screenwriters included Doc Durant, who appears throughout the series as the Union Pacific’s principal on-scene manager. They never mention General Grenville Dodge, who was the real force behind the physical construction of the UP. When Durant, a financier, occasionally came west from the company’s New York headquarters, he usually made a mess of things. The Salt Lake City scene also included Collis Huntington, whom the screenwriters present as the manager of the Central Pacific’s field construction. Huntington was the CP’s lobbyist in Washington, DC. Charles Crocker was the driving force in the field. Students, young and old, who are not familiar with the history of westward expansion will come away with a misunderstanding of the facts.

The Lone Ranger, a 2013 Walt Disney movie (PG-13), also presented a distorted version of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The scriptwriters abandoned verisimilitude in favor of sensationalism. For the Comanche Indians to have attacked the Union Pacific Railroad, as depicted in the movie, they would have had to make a thousand-mile trek from Texas. The Sioux and the Cheyennes did attack the railroad in Nebraska and Wyoming, but the railroad traversed their hunting grounds. The Utes and the Shoshones, who inhabited Utah and were the tribes physically in a position to have attacked, were peaceable in 1869. There were no Indian attacks at the time of the driving of the Golden Spike. As a boy, I was an avid watcher of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. I looked forward to enjoying the resurrection of those memorable characters in the new movie, but the distortion of history ruined it. Sadly, some young readers of my book Eagle Talons told me the movie was a favorite.

Now that I have vented my frustration, I must return to finishing the third book in my trilogy and try to remain reasonably close to the truth. I admit to placing my fictional characters in juxtaposition with historical personalities in order to write about the real events of history. I'll try hard to use verisimilitude.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Researching After the Ashes

Research. It is the cornerstone of any good historical fiction. Why are you setting this particular story in this particular time?

Why did I set After the Ashes on Java when Krakatoa erupted?

As I said, the original idea struck me when I read a book about the volcano's eruption. Consequently, the eruption itself becomes a plot point.

This meant I needed to research the eruption. The best source, and the one I relied on the most, was Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester. Whenever I would come across differing accounts, I would rely on Winchester's book to settle those conflicts.

In reading different books about Krakatoa's eruption, I discovered some interesting facts that I couldn't necessarily add to the novel—either the main character never discovered this or it didn't add anything to the story. Here are some of the more amazing facts:

  • Time zones had not been established in 1883. Therefore, recorded times for each of the explosions from the volcano vary quite a bit. Historians today generally identify the first explosion as happening at 1:06 p.m. Sunday, August 26, 1883. The remaining explosions occurred at 5:30 a.m., 6:44 a.m., 8:20 a.m. and 10:02 a.m. Monday, August 27. Time zones were officially established in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC.
  • The Dutch navy's paddle-steamer Berouw broke her moorings during the tsunamis. She was carried two miles up the Koeripan River in Sumatra and wedged, upright, across the river like a bridge. All twenty-eight crew members were killed. The ship remained there until the 1980s when the last, non-scavenged pieces deteriorated.
  • The final eruption at 10:02 a.m. was heard almost 3,000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. People there thought they were hearing gunfire from distant ships.

This is what's so fascinating about research. All these little tidbits of information that add up to an awe-inspiring view of the world.

So go forth and research. Learn new and interesting things. Share that knowledge with the world.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes and is also a public librarian in Texas.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Michele Hathaway on Historical Fiction in a Word Cloud

When it comes to children who would much rather program a robot than read a book, creativity is essential, and word clouds are one solution. Although Word Clouds have been around for a while, they are still a great way to get your reluctant reader or writer going. Those who don't need as much encouragement will have fun, too. If, like me, word clouds are a recent discovery, they are basically a list of words generated from an idea, or in our case a work of historical fiction. Simply place this list in a word cloud program and--voila--a word cloud!

Although there are many word cloud programs, Christopher Pappas suggests Five Best Free Word Cloud Creation Tools for Teachers. Tagul is an especially fun word cloud generator because of the shape selection. Some programs will let you upload a photo to create the shape. I brainstormed the word cloud above from Kirby Larson's Dash, the 2015 Scott O'Dell Award winner. Tagul does require an account, but it is free and easy to sign up.

Text Mining

Creating a word cloud from a book or history lesson is essentially mining--mining words and ideas to focus on essential elements and gems within a work, but a fancy program isn't necessary. Construction paper, felt, a blackboard, sidewalk, chalk, markers, glue, Velcro, you get the idea, is all you need, and probably will appeal more to your visual artists and kinetic learners. Just be sure to let your techies have their moment of glory on a computer, from time to time.  For library programs this is perfect. Get your young readers to create a word cloud of their favorite book titles or focus on a specific book. Put them on posters, hang them above bookshelves or on walls, or fix the words directly onto a wall.  

Speeches & Pre-reading

Speeches such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" or Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," are marvelous in a word cloud and a good way to add dimension to a historical fiction. Word clouds can also be used for pre-reading. For example, students can enter the major headings from a textbook into a word cloud program as a foundation for a new unit.


Recently, I was having trouble refocusing on a work in progress after some time away. A friend suggested I make a Wordle. Just saying  Wordle is fun. The result is to your left. As well as focusing on main themes, word clouds work well for helping your creative writing students generate characters. They might even place it in a silhouette. 

Words are fun whatever the medium. I hope you'll put word clouds in your kit. And be sure to pull it out when the robot programmers in your life start wilting.

Here are a  couple more websites you might want to check out:

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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jennifer Bohnhoff on History's 'What ifs'

New York: E. Anthony (ca. 1846)
In February 1861 the lieutenant colonel in command of the 2nd U.S. Calvary Regiment stationed at Fort Mason, Texas received orders to report to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in Washington D.C. for reassignment.

When the officer's stagecoach stopped over in San Antonio, he was accosted by three secessionist army commissioners. Texas sided with the south, but as there had been no formal declaration of war, the policy was to allow federal soldiers to march out of the state unimpeded.

The commissioners announced that the U.S. garrison at San Antonio had already left, and that the city was under Confederate control. The lieutenant colonel must declare himself in favor of the Confederacy, or the commissioners would detain him as a prisoner of war.

The officer drew himself to attention and proudly stated that he was not a Texan, but a Virginian, and that he would decide for himself which side to take. His brave comportment must have cowed the commissioners, because they chose not to press the issue. He continued his journey eastward.

When he arrived in Washington D.C., General Scott offered the man the top field-command position in the Union Army. The lieutenant colonel declined, choosing allegiance to his state over his country.

That lieutenant colonel was Robert E. Lee, and his decision to align himself with the south profoundly affected the course of American history. Had those commissioners in San Antonio imprisoned that lieutenant colonel, the Civil War would have been a very different.

What if Robert E. Lee had moldered in a Confederate POW Camp for the entire period of the Civil War?

Such 'what ifs' are the fodder of alternative histories, those works of fiction in which events play out differently than actually happened. In these novels, the South wins the war, or slaves revolt on their own and now fight both North and South, or Europe intercedes for one side or the other. The stream of history jumps its course and nothing is as we know it.

But not all 'what ifs' are in the realm of alternative history.

What if you woke one day to find an enemy army camped on your property?

What if your house became a field hospital for one side, then the other?

What if your crops were trampled, your animals slaughtered and your fields littered with bloated corpses?

These were some of the questions I asked myself when I was writing The Bent Reed, my historical novel set in Gettysburg

I found the answers in journals, memoirs and newspaper articles from the period, and in secondary sources that quoted the personal remembrances of people who had lived through the battle. I then created a fictitious family plunked their farm down right where armies would collide. I made them suffer through many circumstances that had happened to real people. The stream of history stayed in its channel and ran its course, even if it flowed over rocks that I had imagined into place.

Historical novels help readers put themselves into the swirling events of history. By reading them, we begin to ask our own 'what ifs.'

What if I were present at the Battle of Gettysburg? How would I have reacted to the violence or its aftermath? What lessons can I learn from those who have gone before me?

The answers not only help us understand the past, but help us to proceed into the future.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade social studies teacher and the author of two historical novels for middle school readers.  You can learn more about her and her books here.   For more details on Robert E. Lee's brush with the Confederacy, see Civil War in Texas and New Mexico Territory by Steve Cottrell (Pelican Publishing Co, 1998).

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Diversity in Children’s Literature

A student project for The Well of Sacrifice
This post is adapted from a chapter of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The Kindle version is currently on sale at Amazon.

We live in a world of many races, cultures, and religions. Children’s literature should reflect that diversity, but white, Christian characters and culture dominate. One recent study found that of children’s books with human characters, only about 10% featured nonwhite characters. Yet more than 37% of the US population is nonwhite, and that percentage is growing. (In these figures, Hispanic/Latino people and characters are counted as nonwhite.)

Historical fiction is certainly not the only way to show other cultures, but it is one way. Some authors may wonder if they have the “right” to write about other cultures, or fear being accused of appropriating another culture’s voice. Yet most editors feel an author’s background is a distant second to writing skill.

Although I am not Latina, I wrote a book set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala because I’d spent several months traveling to Mexico and Central America and the culture fascinated me. With little historical fiction written about this culture and era, the book was embraced. The Well of Sacrifice was listed in the Seattle Public Library’s brochure “Chicano/Latino Doorways to Culture and Tradition.” In a MultiCultural Review article, “Great and Almost-Great Books about Latinos,” Isabel Schon called it “An exciting, fast-paced thriller that brings to life how a great Mayan city may have been abandoned as well as other details of Mayan civilization, such as their sumptuous markets….”

People who draw on their own experiences in a diverse world can create multicultural stories that explore deeper questions of how cultures interact. Eden Unger Bowditch is the author of the Young Inventors Guild series, set in 1903. She says, “The characters come from different parts of the world and find that, against their differences and against the dangers they face together, they become something of a family. As the mystery unfolds, they come to understand how the brotherhood of science is more than a common language but the very link that connects them.”

Living as an American in Egypt “has brought so many diverse and compelling people into my life,” Eden says. “Being expats, we are all drawn together. In this sense, the children of the Young Inventors Guild are expats, as it is a strange world in which they find themselves. It creates a unique bond among them that gives them strength to uncover the truth.”

Physical and Mental Conditions

Diversity involves many aspects of biology and culture. People of all ages have a variety of physical and mental abilities/illnesses. One young reader could be going through cancer treatment. Another may be blind or deaf. One might be on the autism spectrum or have just received a diagnosis of ADHD. Some children need to use wheelchairs. Some suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder.

Other young readers have family members with special needs, physical challenges, or mental illnesses. These kids may have responsibilities the average young person doesn’t have because of unusual family demands. Kids whose lives have not been affected in any of these ways still benefit from knowing about these situations. It helps them understand and empathize with their classmates, and it helps prepare them for challenges they could face in the future.

Fellow “Mad about Middle Grade History” blogger Suzanne Morgan Williams says, “My novel, Bull Rider, is the story of how Cam O’Mara helps himself and his older brother, Ben, when Ben returns from Iraq with a severe TBI [traumatic brain injury], having lost an arm, and initially unable to walk and talk. At first I minimized Ben’s injuries because I was uncomfortable with them myself. But as I wrote his character, I realized that he was still there, still the man he’d been – just changed. Good stories are about change and change comes to everyone. It doesn’t matter if a character is mentally or physically challenged, they can change. Disabled people can be interesting characters,” she adds. “Above all else – any other injury, happenstance of birth, personality trait – your character is a person.”

May B., by Caroline Starr Rose, has a young heroine with dyslexia, abandoned on the Kansas prairie in the 1870s. Caroline Starr Rose says, “I’ve come to the conclusion I am qualified to tell May’s story because it is one of identity and self-worth — something all of us must face at some point, something that becomes very real to young people as they become aware of their place in this world.”

Jennifer Bohnhoff’s historical novel, The Bent Reed: A Novel about Gettysburg, has a heroine in a body cast for scoliosis. Showing the Civil War from the viewpoint of a girl with scoliosis rather than a boy soldier gives this book a unique perspective.

Putting It All Together

Finally, it’s worth noting that books can include characters from more than one category of diversity. Christine Kohler’s novel No Surrender Soldier is set on Guam during the Vietnam war era. The characters are nearly all non-Caucasian, mainly Chamorros – indigenous Pacific Islanders in the Mariannas – or Japanese, or mixed Chamorro and Japanese. The main character’s grandfather has a disease similar to dementia. Two other characters have PTSD. That’s a lot going on in one book, but it reflects the complexity of real life. Strong storytelling means the novel is still accessible to the average teenager. According to the review journal Booklist, “This debut transports readers to an exotic place in a troubled time and reveals that being a teenager in Guam is not so different from being a teen elsewhere in the world.” By finding commonalities among differences, a writer can introduce young readers to different experiences and viewpoints.

Books that feature different cultures, especially historical fiction, can work well in the classroom. The Well of Sacrifice, has stayed in print since 1999 because many schools use it when they study the Maya. Stories need to appeal to a general audience, not just people within the culture. Writers do that, Kohler says, when they “write from the depth of emotion – from love to suffering – that we share in humanity.”

The more diversity we provide children through books, the better we’ll reflect real life – and help young people develop compassion and understanding.

Resources for Diversity:

The Children’s Book Council CBC Diversity shares news encouraging diversity of race, gender, geographical region, sexual orientation, and class.

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Exploring Diversity page has links to book lists about many religions and races, and relevant interviews.

Multiculturalism Rocks! is a blog celebrating multiculturalism in children’s literature, with many useful links.

We Need Diverse Books promotes changes in the publishing industry to produce literature that reflects all young people.

Disability in Kidlit examines the portrayal of disability in MG and YA literature.

SCBWI has grants to promote diversity and children’s books.

The National History Education Clearing House has a database of state social studies and history standards, searchable by state and grade: http://teachinghistory.org/teaching-materials/state-standards

Chris Eboch is the author of The Eyes of Pharaoh, an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt; The Genie’s Gift, which draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights to take readers on a fantasy adventure; and The Well of Sacrifice, about a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala who rebels against the power-hungry High Priest. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The Kindle version is currently on sale at Amazon for $2.99.