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.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Burnt Bread and Emigrants

As Sarah has recently blogged, to write about history requires research, research, research.  I am still working on my other two books, so for this blog I was - stumped. 

I wanted to write about Canada, especially the border region between the newly-emerging Union of American states and Canada at the time of the American Civil War.  Then I realized I needed extensive research on the period.  But that is a book for the future.

So I have to fall back on future ideas - now, that sounds like that daft movie Back to the Future, doesn't it?  Never mind.  I have always been fascinated by the story of Pompeii.  I have vivid memories of pictures in the old illustrated weekly Picture Post of Vesuvius' last eruption in 1944. Now I plan to write a historical fiction for middle graders based on life in this city. 

Founded by Greeks around 8BC, nestled under the shadow of ancient Mount Vesuvius and fronted by the famed Bay of Naples, Pompeii was the vacation place of choice for wealthy Romans.  It was a thriving, prosperous city whose streets were lined with elegant houses and large, equally elegant villas.  

Pompeii was home to a variety of people. The wealthy employed slaves to cook, clean, run their errands and otherwise keep life flowing smoothly.  Sculptors were in great demand and the city was noted for its beautiful friezes.  Artisans' shops sold jewellery, leather goods, and kitchen wares. There were  bakeries, taverns and cafes.  There was a huge arena for amusements, there were the public baths so beloved of the Romans, and of course there were the brothels.

Then in AD79, all this changed in the blink of an eye when Vesuvius erupted.  According to Pliny, who saw the first great eruption from across the Bay of Naples, a great column of superhot gas, ash and various rocks shot high into the air like the trunk of a pine tree, then fell down to earth as it cooled.  First the fine ash fell, then the rocks.  People still had time to flee the city; many heeded the warning but many either were not worried or did not have the means to evacuate.  The choking gases made breathing difficult for those who remained.  Perhaps they felt, poor souls, that this first great eruption meant the mountain would now calm down.  Alas for their hopes, next day more superhot poisonous gas and lava poured down the mountainside and buried the city and all who dwelt in it under millions of tons of volcanic ash.  Poor Pompeii was left abandoned for nearly two thousand years until in 1748 a group of artifact-seeking explorers began to dig there.  How stunned and overjoyed must they have been to find so much of life in that ancient city had been preserved under all that ash.

Last year we were most fortunate to have an exhibition of recovered items from Pompeii at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  I hope you enjoy these photographs I took.  The loaf of bread, the  dog with collar and chain - poignant reminders of life

My niece took her three children to visit Pompeii two years ago.  I had to laugh when she told me they trekked up Vesuvius and when they reached the crater rim she was disappointed not to see bubbling lava.  "I don't know what I expected." she wrote.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


It's Thanksgiving, so first, a moment to remember all those who've paved the way for us - be they writers, readers, or unknown participants in our collective history. We are on a path together and as writers of historical fiction, we know how important it is to remember.

Our best work takes readers into another time and place to experience something in the past, as though it is happening now. It helps them to understand how it felt to be there. In some ways, we are recreating eye witness accounts. Which brings me to my point.

At this particular moment in history, I believe those of us who are, say over 50, have a duty , to share our stories. Perhaps younger folks don't remember what the Ku Klux Klan is. Perhaps they didn't have friends whose parents survived the holocaust. Perhaps they don't remember the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam years. Do they know what it was like to see a friend sneak away to Mexico for an illegal abortion? Or to have a grandparent to die suddenly, because they didn't have access to medical care? Perhaps they can't believe people were denied jobs because they were women, black, brown, or gay? Perhaps they don't know what our soldiers endured in World War II or Korea or Vietnam to ensure that we can speak our minds freely. If you are worried about that echo chamber effect, then share in person, to the younger folks you know who might not remember. We are elders now and it is our responsibility to pass on these stories. They are real and important.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Very First European Thanksgiving in the U.S. by Mary Louise Sanchez

As a young child growing up in the 1950s we learned about the First Thanksgiving, complete with the trappings of Pilgrims and Indians. I remember building a ship out of large wooden blocks in kindergarten and sitting in our chairs inside the structure we created. It was called the Mayflower.

Another strong memory is learning to play a piano piece from the John Thompson series.  The beginning words to the song were, "The year 1620 the Pilgrims came over. . . ." Now I know the song is more familiar as the Dutch Christian hymn, "We Gather Together" and the beginning words are the same as its title. 

I also sang "Over the River and Through the Woods" from the music books my classmates and I used in our elementary music classes.

In my own family, we enjoyed the traditional American style Thanksgiving.  The smell of yams baking always brings back a memory of when my sister and I were allowed to camp out in our kitchen overnight, as the smells of Thanksgiving permeated our little fort.

 Earlier smells of roasted chiles in the fall were brought to our Thanksgiving table and the tables of our gente (Hispanic close and extended family) through the fresh green chile side dish, with just the addition of salt and a hint of garlic.

Now I can appreciate the significance of fresh green chile, which we always include in our Thanksgiving meal. I give thanks to the Native Americans who introduced this food to the Spaniards over 400 years ago so that in this present day we can enjoy it almost daily.

Chile (green and red) brings an image to me of the first encounter of Native Americans of the Southwest and my ancestors, the European pilgrims from Spain via Mexico. This encounter was an occasion for Europeans to celebrate the very first Thanksgiving in present day United States.

After years of Spanish exploration, the Spanish government, under King Philip II of Spain, decided to send soldiers and their families from Zacatecas, Mexico (New Spain) to colonize further reaches of New Spain, or as we know it today—New Mexico.

 Juan de Oñate was awarded the contract to lead the expedition to the new land where Franciscans had started missionary work.

The colonizers included about one hundred and thirty Spanish soldiers, many with their families, as well as their servants, for a total of around four hundred people. There were also seven thousand head of livestock, eighty-three carts, and materials to start new lives.
Some of the statues commemorating Onate's expedition- Albuquerque, New Mexico Museum of Art & History

Unlike the English Pilgrims of 1620, who came via the Atlantic Ocean on ships,  the Spanish colonizers made a hard journey along a desert route, known today as the Camino Real.  
Goodreads image
At least twenty two years before the English Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, these colonists arrived at a place near present day El Paso  on April 30, 1598. On that Ascension Day, which is a holy day on the Catholic Church calendar, Juan de Oñate, on the south bank of the Rio Grande, made a formal declaration that this land belonged to Spain and the colonizers gave thanks to God.

Later in May the expedition entered present day New Mexico and established their first capital which they named San Juan de los Caballeros. Just as in the story of the English Pilgrims and the Indians, the Spanish introduced their foods to the native Americans of New Mexico. These natives, in turn, introduced their foods to the Spanish colonizers. One of those foods was—chile. 

Do you have a food on your Thanksgiving or holiday table that gives a nod to your culture and/or traditions?

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Historical Novelists Before Middle-Grade Became a Genre

Seventy years ago, when I entered the middle-grades for the first time (now you can calculate my age), there was no “Middle-Grade” genre for books. We, of course, read the traditional books by the same famous authors students read today—Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Jack London, to name a few. Before, during, and following World War II, I do not recall that many books were targeted to an audience of young readers. There were exceptions, of course. Esther Forbes’s Newberry Prize-winning Johnny Tremain was and still is a favorite.

This leads me to recommend young readers take a look at two historical novelists who are largely forgotten today. Probably neither of these great authors were recommended by my teachers. Popular movies of the day based upon these authors’ novels perhaps guided me to read their books. I continue to reread them. They are cracking great adventure reads that teach a lot of history in the process.

Samuel Shellabarger (1888–1954) wrote his first historical novel in 1928. During his lifetime he wrote eighteen works of fiction. My favorite of his books is Captain from Castile, written in 1946, about Hernan Cortez' conquest of the Aztecs. A movie based on the novel starring Tyrone Power appeared in 1947. The reader learns about the terrors of the inquisition in Spain and the brutal subjugation of the native inhabitants of what is now Mexico.

Shellabarger's writing usually contains a love interest, but there is no explicit sex.

Another of my favorites is Prince of Foxes, Shellabarger's next book, written in 1947. Again, Tyrone Power starred in the movie of the same name in 1949. Here, the reader is immersed in the intrigues of Cesare Borgia and his infamous family during the time of the Holy Roman Empire before Italy became the country we know today.

In 1950, Shellabarger’s The King’s Cavalier appeared. I am currently rereading this book for the umpteenth time.

My other forgotten historical novelist is Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). He produced thirty-one novels, plus numerous short stories, a few non-fiction books, and a play. Among my favorite books by Sabatini is Scaramouche, written in 1921, about a lawyer who masquerades as a buffoon during the time of the French revolution. This great novel has been made into movies more than once, but the one I remember starred Stewart Granger in 1952.

Sabatini, like Shellabarger, includes a love interest in his novels, but no sex.

Probably the most famous of Sabatini’s historical novels is Captain Blood, written in 1922. What middle-grade boy, or girl, does not like a roaring pirate tale? Sabatini is known for adhering closely to historical facts in his books; even though, like my approach to writing, his protagonists are fictional. Errol Flynn starred in the 1935 movie, which recently played on Turner Classic Movies. After watching the movie rerun, I reread this book.

Sensing that some folks may consider these books too long or too difficult for today’s middle-grade reader, I performed some “un-scientific” research into the readability of the novels.

The Hemingway Editor software program gives a random selection of the written word from Samuel Shellabarger’s Captain from Castile a “Readability Rating” of Grade 5. By comparison, various websites rate J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as Grade 5.5. My own Bear Claws rates as Grade 5 in the Hemingway Editor.

The books by Shellabarger and Sabatini are typically longer than most on today’s middle-grade bookshelf, but no more so than many of the Harry Potter books. The stories by my two great "forgotten" authors are so compelling I’ll bet they will be read from cover to cover.

My writing has been influenced by Shellabarger and Sabatini, but I do not profess to be in the same league as they. Still, my historical novel Bear Claws, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Two, won the Silver Will Rogers Medallion Award for 2016, and the Wyoming State Historical Society awarded Bear Claws First Place in Fiction for 2016. Take a read and let me know what you think.

Golden Spike, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Three, the final book in my trilogy about Will Braddock's quest to determine his own destiny during the time of the building of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s, will be released by Five Star Publishing in mid-2017.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sara K Joiner: Research, Research, Research

Centre Dwelling at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
is now a museum dedicated to Shaker displays
about life in the village.
photo by Sara K Joiner

In 2014 I was offered the opportunity to go with a friend to an even being held at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky. While I had been to Hancock Shaker Village years earlier, Pleasant Hill operated as both a museum and hotel. I would be staying in one of the buildings that once housed Shakers as they went about their daily lives. My mind raced with the wonder of that thought.

This would be a lot of fun.

As happens, an idea for a book sprang into my head while I was there touring the buildings and learning about life at Pleasant Hill. I didn't do anything with the idea at the time. It was vague and unformed. I would give it time to take root.

Two years later, I returned to Pleasant Hill for another event with the same friend. The vague idea had taken root but it was still struggling to grow. It needed fertilizer. Before my next trip to the village, I had to know more about the history of the place and the people. I wanted to be able to use my time there wisely to gather small details that would help make this story idea blossom.

I searched the catalog at the library where I work and found lots of books on the topic. Books for adults, books for teens and tweens, even books for preschoolers. I started with the basics, as I often do, and read some of the children's books. Reading the children's books allows me to ease into the deeper waters of the scholarly adult material. The children's books teach me the terms and phrases I'll need to know. The adult material adds depth but the children's books add interest.
Looking down over the spiral stairs in the Trustees' Office
at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
photo by Sara K Joiner

As I read the material, I made notes of specific information that I would need to know. With only the main character taking shape in my mind, my research would guide me in a direction for the story. As I read, ideas took shape and questions needed answering.

Unfortunately, I wasn't always finding the answers in the books I had.

I don't rely solely on printed material for research, of course. I'm a librarian, and I love to find new sources of information. I watch documentaries. I buy appropriate music. I search Flickr or Google Images. I follow Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. I perform various and sundry Internet searches.

For the research for this book, I contacted the collections manager at Pleasant Hill and asked to meet with him. I had never done this kind of a interview before, and I had to make sure I didn't waste his time or mine by asking questions that could be answered with a simple Google search.

I kept a list of questions and thoughts about what might or might not happen in the book. Being very up front with him about the vagaries of publishing and the early stages of my work on this project (not a word written, yet!), I tried to ask questions specific to Pleasant Hill. Although there were a few general ones thrown in that I hadn't found answers to. It was a fun and exciting two-hour chat.

When I get to writing this story, which now has much stronger roots and is flourishing in my brain, I will certainly owe a debt to collections manager and the research provided by all those other scholars and authors.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Soldier Sister Fly Home" by Nancy Bo Flood: A Short Review

Middle-grade novels featuring Native American protagonists are few. Finding one that is authentic, literary, and elegant is a delight. Sister Soldier Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood and illustrated by Shonto Begay is such a story: a rich tapestry of symbol, metaphor, danger, and reconciliation.

It is 2003 and the war in Iraq has already claimed the life of Lori Piestewa, the first Native American Woman to die in battle on foreign soil.* And Tess's sister, Gaby, has just enlisted, leaving Tess feeling angry, abandoned, and afraid. To make matters worse, Gaby asks Tess to take care of her wild horse, Blue. The last thing Tess wants to do.

Not only is Tess fighting her fear of Blue, she also wrestles with being bi-racial: Navajo and Bilagáana (White). Having her feet in both worlds, she feels she is neither, feels at war with herself. Who is she? Navajo? White?

"We all have many parts Tess. We walk many paths, wear different shoes. Sometimes moccasins, sometimes sneakers. Some paths cross, some come together."

But if I follow one path and leave the other behind, will I lose one? Will I get lost?"

The quote above is a particularly powerful conversation between Tess and her Navajo grandmother, her Shima' Sani. As they draw closer, Tess begins to understand who she already is. Her relationship with her grandfather also unfolds through the story and paradoxically, it is through these Navajo grandparents that she understands more about the part of her that is 

Nancy Bo Flood also does a wonderful job of dispelling Navajo stereotypes. Tess is not an Indian who naturally loves horses, herding sheep, or weaving rugs. She is a runner, though, and her grandmother, while traditional in many ways, including the joy of a good joke, loves a good strong latte, Emily Dickinson poetry, and surprising Tess by negotiating the Internet. 

Through a tragic event, Tess learns that there are things she must do even though those are the last things she ever thought she could do. She does not answer all her questions, but she does learn to accept what she can not change. She also learns that her Navajo and White sides do not have to war with each other. The story suggests that perhaps it is not necessary to answer the question, that we can, in the end, be ourselves.

This was a short review, not worthy of the depth of symbol and meaning found in the book. I urge you to include it in your displays for Native American Heritage month, class room library, and personal bookshelves. It is just the sort of book We Need Diverse Books is calling for. And like all good stories, in the end it is about all of us. We discover ourselves and each other there.

You can find out more about Nancy Bo Flood on her website:

You can find an interview here.

There is a glossary and discussion questions at the end of the book. You can find more discussion questions here.

*It should also be noted that Lori Piestewa was half Mexican American.

You should also be aware that there are animals killed in the story, which may upset some children (and adults). 

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.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Avi: King of the Middle Grade Historical Novel

There are many writers of middle grade historical fiction, but for my money Avi is king because despite adversity, he’s written a lot of highly readable works set in a wide timespan.

Avi is living proof that writing doesn’t always come easily, and that disabilities don’t have to become excuses or barriers. Avi has dysgraphia, which caused him to be labeled as sloppy, erratic and inattentive when he was in school He still reverses letters and misspells words, but that hasn’t stopped him from writing hundreds of thousands of them. Avi says that he persevered because he liked what I wrote, so he learned to refuse to listen to his critics. Now that he is an award-winning author, Avi likes to visit schools and encourage students with learning disabilities. He says those students “come in slowly, waiting for yet another pep talk, more instructions. Eyes cast down, they won't even look at me. Their anger glows. I don't say a thing. I lay out pages of my copy-edited manuscripts, which are covered with red marks. 'Look here,' I say, 'see that spelling mistake. There, another spelling mistake. Looks like I forgot to put a capital letter there. Oops! Letter reversal.' Their eyes lift. They are listening. And I am among friends.”

Avi is the author of over 30 books, many of which are historical novels. His novels range from ones set in the Middle Ages up to the present. Here are a few to try, each from a different historical period:

Crispin: Cross of Lead is a Newbery Award Winner. Set during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, this book tells the story of an orphaned peasant boy who flees his village after he is declared a "wolf's head," meaning anyone can kill him on sight. Carrying his mother's lead cross, Crispin goes on a journey to discover who he is.

Sophia’s War tells the story of Sophia Calderwood, who becomes a spy for the American Revolutionaries after witnessing Nathan Hale’s execution in New York City. As a maid for General Clinton, the supreme commander of the British Army, she discovers a traitor in the American army. When no one believes her, Sophia decides to single-handedly stop his treacherous plot.

Iron Thunder tells the story of the nautical battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor through the eyes of Tom Carroll Early, a thirteen-year-old who works in the Brooklyn ironworks after his father is killed fighting for the Union. Hounded by Confederate spies who offer him money for information, Tom must decide whether he trusts the crazy inventor who is building an iron-clad ship.

Catch You Later, Traitor, one of Avi’s most recent books, is set in the 1950s and is about a twelve-year-old kid who loves Sam Spade detective books and radio crime dramas, but finds himself in the middle of a real-life mystery when the FBI accused his father of communism.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is the author of three middle grade historical novels, The Bent Reed, Code: Elephants on the Moon, and On Fledgling Wings. Her next novel, set in New Mexico during the Civil War, is due out next spring. You can read more about her writing at her website,

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