Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nineteenth Century Internet

The “nineteenth century internet” might not impress middle-grade students today, but it provided the first means of transmitting messages around the world in virtually real-time. This marvelous invention, which eventually evolved into the present-day internet, was the telegraph. Between these two mass-communication methods came the telephone, radio, television, computers, and satellites. When I was a middle-grade student and an active member of the Boy Scouts of America, one of the skills we strove to learn was Morse Code. Even after I went into the US Army in 1960, telegraphic systems were used to send messages around the world. The story of the evolution of communications is told nicely by Janice Parker in Messengers, Morse Code, and Modems.

In the early 1800s, several inventors, most notably in England, were experimenting with harnessing the power of electricity in order to send a signal over a wire. But the generally accepted “inventor” of a successful telegraph system is American painter Samuel F. B. Morse. He had been fascinated with the study of electricity as a youth, but it was not until he reached middle age that he embarked seriously on the idea of creating the telegraph. At the age of 41, after studying art in France, Morse sailed back home in 1832. Conversations with fellow passengers about the possible ways of using electricity to aid communications stimulated his interest. He immediately went to work on the endeavor that resulted in successfully demonstrating his invention at the United States Supreme Court in 1844. The message he tapped out to prove the telegraph could work is well known to American school children: “What hath God wrought?” A good biography of Morse’s life and work is contained in The Invention of the Telegraph and Telephone in American History by Anita Louise McCormick.

The Morse Code system of dots and dashes fascinated politicians, newspaper reporters, and railroad operators, who quickly took advantage of this speedy way of communicating. During the Civil War both the Union and the Confederate armies used the telegraph to control movements of troops and supplies. President Abraham Lincoln was a strong advocate of the new electric system of communication. He spent hours in the telegraph office of the War Department, across the street from the White House, receiving reports from the battlefields and sending orders to his commanders. President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine by Marty Rhodes Figley tells the story of the youngest telegraph operator in the War Department.

When the threat of a Civil War increased in 1860, the only means of communication between the contiguous states on the east coast and the new states of Oregon and California on the west coast was via mail delivered cross-county by stagecoach or sent onboard ships around Cape Horn, South America. From April 1860 to October 1861 the Pony Express shortened the delivery time of mail from weeks to less than ten days. But all the time the Pony Express was operating between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, workers hurried to stretch a telegraph line across the intervening prairies and mountains. With the transmission of the first telegram from California’s Chief Justice to President Lincoln in October 1861, the Pony Express died. Now, a message could travel in a matter of minutes almost anywhere in the country.

The original cross-country telegraph line followed the route of the overland stagecoach. When President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 on July 1 of that year, the construction program included a telegraph line to parallel the railroad. When the Union Pacific joined with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, cross-country stagecoach travel ended, and telegraph traffic switched to the new lines adjacent to the iron rails. One of the most famous transmissions via the telegraph to reach all points around the country, and even points in Europe via the recently completed undersea cable, was “Done.” That simple message signaled the driving of the golden spike and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Andrew J. Russell's famous photograph shows a spectator standing on the crossbeam of the telegraph pole above the ceremony.

I write about this historic telegraphic event in Golden Spike, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Three. This book is yet to be published, but the first two books in my trilogy (Eagle Talons and Bear Claws) contain numerous scenes depicting the important use of the first “internet” as work progressed to extend the railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, in the late 1860s.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sara K Joiner: Picture Books for Middle Schoolers

It's easy to think that picture books are simple stories for young children. Once readers reach certain reading milestones they're expected to abandon picture books for the more complex stories found in chapter books and novels.

But ignoring an entire sector of publishing could be detrimental to your students' understandings of history. Think about what they could learn if you took fifteen to twenty minutes to read an historical fiction picture book to them. Besides, who doesn't love to be read to?

Here are just a few that I enjoy.

You can teach lessons about the Civil War, but one of the best stories is Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. Although it's a picture book, the characters are teenagers. Both boys are soldiers in the Union Army, but Pink is African American while Say is white. The two form a powerful friendship and the story has a devastatingly heartbreaking ending. Fair warning: I can never read this book without crying, so have tissues on hand for your students.

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto is another glorious story that would work perfectly in a middle school classroom. It's about a young Choctaw girl who befriends a slave family on a nearby plantation. When the family learns the mother will soon be sold away, they plan an escape and receive help from the Choctaws.
The illustrations are beautiful, and Tim Tingle is a gifted storyteller. He is also Choctaw which gives the story the authenticity that is lacking in a large percentage of fiction about Native Americans.

Finally, The Bicycle Man by Allen Say is set in occupied Japan after World War II. Two American soldiers and the tricks they can do on a borrowed bicycle impress the main character, an elementary student who has never seen Americans before. Reading this to your students can help impart a sense of wonder about the meeting of two different cultures.

There are a world of beautiful, inspiring and well-written historical fiction picture books out there. When you're trying to introduce history to your students, don't rule them out as a method to teach.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Easter Rising 1916

1916-2016: Remember, Reflect, Reimagine

In 1916 a rebellion took place in Dublin, Ireland that catapulted the country toward civil war and eventually the formation of the Republic of Ireland. This year marks 100 years since that pivotal event, also known as the 1916 Easter Rising, which began on Monday of Easter week, April 24th. The Commemorations offer a wonderful opportunity to introduce Irish history to middle-grade readers.

Bisto Book of the Year Award 1997
Eilís Dillon award - 1997

A good place to begin is with The Guns of Easter by Gerard Whelan. Through the eyes of 12 year old Jimmy Conway, an impoverished boy with big dreams, Whelan immerses us in the world of 1916 Dublin. It is a complicated setting, shaped by Ireland's long history, which includes loyalists, nationalists, unionists, those indifferent to any cause and those caught in between. Whelan's sequel, A Winter of Spies, follows Jimmy's sister Sarah during the War for Independence.

"There are too many people willing to die for Ireland," said Skeffy. "Why can't more people just live for it?" Molly's Diary, The Easter Rising 1916, p. 36

Molly's Diary is another middle-grade historical fiction on the Easter Rising. It is packed with information, and although I found it to be a bit too packed, Molly is an engaging character who readers will find fun and lively. 

The Aftermath

Kilmainham Jail photo my Michele Hathaway
The Easter Rising was over in 6 days with a total of 485 dead and the majority of the leaders executed. The largest percent of casualties were civilian. At least 40 were under the age of 16. Nothing may have come of the Rebellion if the British had not so harshly executed the leaders and some innocent civilians. Most of the population was not in favor of the Rebellion to begin with, but the martyrs soon gained sympathy for the cause, setting the trajectory inevitably toward an independent republic.


I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. 
-- William Butler Yeats

Remember, Reflect, Reimagine

The Republic of Ireland is framing the 1916 anniversary as a commemoration, respecting the diverse groups of people who played a part in the history of this event. Because the Irish have a long and painful history of division and violence, they are careful to recognize that violence is costly for all. The commemoration websites stress that this is a time to remember history, to reflect on what has been learned, and to reimagine--to imagine an Ireland with a future of peace and prosperity for all. 

Further Resources:

  • "To mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a gift for the people of the world, a free eBook of 1916 Portraits and Lives, has been produced. From 11th March to Easter, the eBook of the beautifully illustrated 1916 Portraits and Lives is available as a free download*. eBook for Kindle available as a free download here."



  • Easter Rising in 8 Minutes:

  • 1916 documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. This documentary aired on March 16th 2016 in Ireland and is set to air soon in the United States. It looks to be excellent. 

For more historical fiction for middle-grade, see my January 2016 blog post 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, March 10, 2016

Warrior Women in Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Everyone clamors for strong women characters in middle grade fiction to inspire and empower our own girls. But is there historical precedence for powerful women? In the days before women had the vote, were there strong women who influenced policy or wielded political power? Strong women do not have to show up just in fantasy and myth. Here are a selection of historical fiction based on real women who wielded not only power, but a sword.

The strong woman in Rosemary Sutcliff's Song For A Dark Queen is Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, a British tribe under Roman rule. The story is told by Cadwan, Harper to the Queen, who watches her grow from a determined six-year-old into the leader who opposes the oppressive new laws of the Emperor, Nero. When the Romans flog her and rape her daughters, she leads a rebellion that destroys several cities and nearly causes the Romans to leave Britain. It is no secret to anyone who knows history that Boudicca's victories are short-lived and that Rome eventually triumphs. Because the Britains during this period were not yet leaving written records, all we really know about Boudicca comes from the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, and these two sources differ as to how Boudicca dies. Sutcliff has chosen to follow Tacitus' more romantic version, and says that Boudicca returns home drink poison from a cup made of Roman glass. Boudicca's story does not end well, but it is stirring and eloquent and asks readers to think about power and its uses and limitations.

The Edge on the Sword, by Rebecca Tingle is set nine hundred years later. The strong woman in this story is Flaed, a shorter version of  the historical Æthelflæd. Flaed is the fifteen-year-old daughter of the West Saxon king, Alfred. She is betrothed to King Ethelred of Mercia, a man older than her father.
King Alfred has made sure that Flaed has military training. She has learned to protect herself with stealth and smarts because her male opponents will always be stronger that she is. She is forced to use these skills when her party is attacked on her way to Mercia.  Flaed begins to realize that she fights not only to save herself,  but to save the ones she loves, and Wessex and Mercia.

Æthelflæd as depicted
in the cartulary
of Abingdon Abbey by Anonymous
We know from the original source of Æthelflæd's history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, that after her husband's death, Æthelflæd ruled Mercia in her own right for eight years, during which she kept the Danes out of Mercia and established a series of fortresses that protected the land. She was renowned as a formidable military leader.

The Dove and the Sword, by Nancy Garden, tells the story of the woman who is probably the most recognized woman warrior in history: Joan of Arc, the charismatic leader of the French during the Hundred Years War. Told through the eyes of Gabrielle de Domremy, a childhood friend of Joan, and the 'dove' to Joan's 'sword,' this story traces Joan from her first calling to her death at the stake. Gabrielle is a courageous young woman, but entirely fictional, but the author used many primary documents in building her story. As far as I could ascertain, most of the words attributed to Joan in this novel are actually her own words.

Women warriors might always win in fiction and fantasy, but the real world has not always been so kind to strong women. The stories of neither Joan of Arc nor Boudicca end well: both were destroyed by enemies and died brutally. But even if they failed to attain their goals, their noble lives and dedication to their causes can inspire today's girls to continue the fight for freedom to live their lives the way they choose.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a seventh grade social studies teacher and the author of three works of middle grade historical fiction. You can read about her and her books at her website:

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Middle Grade Historical Fiction with Fantastic Female Characters #wmnhist #whm

Chris Eboch with The Eyes of Pharaoh #MGlit in ancient Egypt
Blogger/author Chris Eboch
In honor of Women's History Month, I wanted to cover some middle grade historical fiction that included real women from history. But how does one find such offerings?

Cleopatra is certainly popular in historical fiction for various ages. Several middle grade novels on this GoodReads list of “YA & Middle Grade Historical Fiction set in Ancient Egypt” feature her. Queen Hatshepsut also shows up, and Pharaoh's Daughter: A Novel of Ancient Egypt
by Julius Lester tells the story of Moses with a focus on his sister, mother, and the Egyptian princess who adopts him. I've read a few of these novels, but none recently enough to give a good review. I'm assuming mileage may vary in regards to historical accuracy.

The Royal Diaries series also features Cleopatra along with many other real-life princesses from around the world throughout history. Here's a list of the books from GoodReads.

Far more middle grade historical novels feature strong fictional girls in a realistic setting. Teachers and librarians are likely familiar with many of these, including Out of the Dust by Karen Hess, The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, and Esperanza Rising
by Pam Muñoz Ryan. These three are all set during the Great Depression but have wildly different characters and styles; find more titles on this GoodReads list: “Young Adult & Middle Grade Fiction Set During the Great Depression.”

Caroline Starr Rose May B historical fiction on the prairie
Many other historical eras are represented in historical fiction with strong female characters. Consider the Revolutionary War novels Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and Sophia’s War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi. Dash by Kirby Larson and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry are among the offerings set during World War II. As a bonus, several of these feature diverse characters: a black slave girl in Chains, a Japanese American girl in Dash, and a Jewish friend in Number the Stars.

Bookworm for Kids lists these titles and many more (including many with male main characters) on its Historical Fiction page. Keene Public Library of New Hampshire offers "The Best in Historical Fiction for Young People” with pages for different regions of the world. (The Mayan Culture list features my novel The Well of Sacrifice!)

Jennifer Bohnhoff the Bent Read Civil War historical fiction
Caroline Starr Rose takes readers to a Kansas prairie homestead in May B., and all the way back to 1587 in Virginia for Blue Birds. Fellow blogger Jennifer Bohnhoff features strong girls near Gettysburg in The Bent Reed, and in occupied France in 1940 in Code: Elephants on the Moon.

And of course, a couple of my novels take readers to the distant past. The Eyes of Pharaoh is set in ancient Egypt while The Well of Sacrifice is set in the last days of a great Mayan city in the ninth century.

Do you have any suggestions for great middle grade historical fiction with strong female characters? Are any of them based on real people? Let's celebrate Women's History Month! #wmnhist #whm

Chris Eboch the Well of Sacrifice middle grade historical fiction about the Maya
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift draws on the mythology of 1001  Arabian Nights to take readers on a fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Learn more at or her Amazon page. You can also sign up for Chris’s newsletter or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

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