Thursday, May 26, 2016

Orphans Wanted

Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. So read an 1860 poster advertising for riders for the Pony Express.

The Pony Express was created by three wealthy, freighting and stagecoach entrepreneurs, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. As the Civil War approached, the established 2,800-mile mail route across the Southwest would not be acceptable to the North, and a more northern route would be required. Russell, Majors, and Waddell set out to prove their route extending 1,900 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, using the Oregon/California Trail, was the best choice.

The Mail Must Go Through
by Margaret Rau
Russell, Majors, and Waddell knew a transcontinental telegraph was planned and when completed would make the Pony Express obsolete. But, the bulk of the mail would still travel by stagecoach until the first transcontinental railroad could be built. The Pony Express was a risky business undertaken to impress the Postmaster General and members of Congress. The founders knew the new venture would not make money, but they expected to receive the lucrative government mail contract once they proved how fast they could provided service. In early 1860, the founders hired 120 riders, established 184 stations, and bought 400 fast horses. They paid the riders between $100 to $150 a month, depending upon how dangerous their assigned section of the route.

Pony Express
by Fred Reinfeld

Each rider received a Bible and was required to sign a pledge he would not swear, drink, or fight. The mail was restricted to individual letters and newspapers printed on lightweight paper transported in a mochila, a specially designed saddlebag. Initially, the fee was $5 per ounce, but gradually dropped to $1. The first runs began April 3, 1860. Russell, Majors, and Waddell promised to deliver the mail from one end of their line to the other in ten days, which they did through all kinds of weather and despite frequent Indian attacks. The cross-country telegraph line was completed October 24, 1861, and the Pony Express died. Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not win the new mail contract, which eventually led them to declare bankruptcy.

Dozens of books about the exciting adventures of this proud band of riders have been written. The subject was a favorite of dime novels as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok got their start toward fame as Pony Express riders. Part of that fame was created by the publishing industry. This five cent novel was published by Beadle's Pocket Library in 1891. All riders had to be bachelors, and they attracted the attention of the ladies like rock stars do today. According to legend, one young lady invented the doughnut so that ex-jockey Johnny Fry could spear her treat on a finger as he raced past.
The Pony Express ended several years before my trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles, takes place, but many of the stations where riders changed horses were also stagecoach stations. Some of these stations appear in my books. For those adventurous travelers, young and old, who want to explore the route of the Pony Express, try The Traveler’s Guide to the Pony Express Trail, by Joe Bensen. His descriptions of the history and the location of the stations proved useful in my writing.

The National Pony Express Association conducts an Annual Re-Ride of the Pony Express Trail from Sacramento, California, to St. Joseph Missouri. This year it occurred June 15 - 25, 2016.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sara K Joiner: Horses, Horses, Horses

The running of the 135th Preakness Stakes in 2010.
photo by Sara K Joiner

May is the month for horse racing in my house. I love to watch the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, both run in May, and the Belmont Stakes in June.

Horse racing lends itself to classroom instruction. You have math. Have students calculate odds based on factors you provide. Or you could use past times in races to determine how fast a horse would run at various distances. Don't forget to calculate the average speed of the horse, too.

Science, another one of those STEAM topics, can also be taught through horse racing. First, you could cover the anatomy of a horse, and what you should look for if you were breeding race horses. Genetics comes into play here. Even geology and weather can be discussed. How do grass race tracks differ from dirt? What if it's raining?

Don't forget art. Those jockey's silks don't design themselves. Let students create their own silks and explain why they came up with that design.

That's quite a bit of learning for one two-minute horse race!

But this is an historical fiction blog, so naturally, I have some suggestions for historical fiction books about horse racing.

Gabriel's Horses by Alison Hart is set in Civil War Kentucky where a young slave dreams of becoming a jockey. When his horse-trainer father joins the Union Army, Gabriel must protect himself and the horses he loves from a cruel white trainer. This is the first book in the Racing to Freedom trilogy.

Deborah Savage's To Race a Dream is about a girl who moves to Minnesota in 1906 and discovers she lives next door to Dan Patch, the fastest horse in the world. After spending time with the famous race horse, Theodora must find the courage to become a jockey at a time when only boys could race.

The Charioteer of Delphi is part of Caroline Lawrence's wonderful Roman Mysteries series. A missing race horse leads Flavia and her friends into a mystery featuring sabotage, danger, and chariot racing.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a public librarian. She will be appearing on a panel at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con in June.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

When Camels Roamed the Old West by Sherry Alexander

Did you know the U.S. government once experimented with using camels in the old west? It's a case where truth is stranger than fiction--and provides fertile soil for historical fiction. Today I invited writer, author, blogger, and child advocate Sherry Alexander to tell us about her research, books, and articles about camels in the old west. 

When Camels Roamed the Old West 

Three years ago while doing research on the California Gold Rush of 1849, I came across a newspaper article from 1857 that announced the arrival of camels in Texas. I’ve always loved American history, but until that moment I had no idea that camels were part of the Old West. That article was only six sentences long, but it started me on a journey that led to the writing of two books for middle grade and up—one non-fiction and one fiction.

In 1836, the Seminole War was under way in Florida. U.S. Army Captain George Grossman asked Congress to import camels to use as transportation over the rough Florida terrain. Congress denied that request. However, the idea did not die. Twelve years later, the request made its way to Congress once again. This time it was to use camels in the newly acquired southwest which included Texas, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of both Colorado and Wyoming. Once Mexican territory, this 525,000 square miles became part of the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Congress said no to the request, but, then Senator, Jefferson Davis was listening. When he became U.S. Secretary of War in 1853, he asked for the camels again. Congress was reluctant, but they finally agreed to a test. In 1856, thirty-two camels from the Middle East arrived in Indianola, Texas, and another forty-one landed nine months later.

The experiment lasted until the Civil War, and while the camels proved their worth time and time again, they lost favor. After the war, the Army auctioned some to circuses and entrepreneurs and turned loose others to fend for themselves in the deserts. My non-fiction book, The Great Camel Experiment of the Old West, chronicles their journey, but the incident that drove me to write my first middle grade novel occurred long after the Civil War.

For more than forty years, stories about wild camels, or ghost camels, were the stuff of legends throughout the southwest. The animals harassed miners, cowboys, and ranchers, and spooked horses and mules. Apaches even corralled them to sell to local butchers who passed the meat off as beef to the silver miners in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. However, one particular camel sparked my imagination and its very own legend.

It was a large, male Bactrian, or two-hump, camel. Those who actually saw it described it to local newspapers as reddish in color, shaggy, and mean. One of the last sightings of this red ghost before its death in 1886 was on a creek in southeastern Arizona three years earlier. It was a time when bands of Apache who left the reservation with Geronimo were attacking small Arizona ranches. A ranch woman encountered the camel at the creek near her home, and was killed. The witnesses said it stomped her to death.

I couldn’t get that incident out of my mind. I kept wondering, “What if?”
What if she had a son who didn’t see the animal that killed his mother, but found unusual tracks and long red hair? What if that son wanted revenge for his mother? What if the boy’s father was an army scout ordered back to the fort to hunt down the renegade Apache? There were so many what ifs that I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, so I wrote it.
Search for the Red Ghost is a middle-grade action/adventure and coming of age story that pits thirteen-year-old Jake Thrasher against the inherent dangers of the desert in 1883 Arizona. His Army Scout father refuses to hunt the animal responsible, so Jake takes matters into his own hands. He leaves the safety of his small ranch and follows a sparse trail through an inhospitable desert filled with snakes, wolves, grizzlies, renegade Apache, and the ever-present threat of death. Will he find his red ghost? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Sherry Alexander's stories and articles have appeared in Red Squirrel Magazine and Guardian Angel Kids. She lives in Southwest Washington with her husband of 47 years, two dogs, two horses, a gaggle of grand kids, and the occasional pack of coyotes. Search for the Red Ghost is her first MG novel, and is available both as an ebook and in print from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, MuseitUp Publishing, and all ebook retailers.

Her blog for kids

Her web site

Her author's page on Amazon

Her Goodreads page

Here is a link to an online non-fiction article "Camels in the Old West" in the February 2015 issue of Guardian Angel.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Remembering D-Day

 The invasion of Normandy, commonly known as D-Day, happened on June 6, 1944. Next month we commemorate the 72nd anniversary of a battle in which 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany.

Here are five suggested books to help middle school students understand this important historical event. Two are nonfiction, and three are historical fiction.

 D-DAY:The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 [The Young Readers Adaptation]

The Guns at Last Light was the third book in Rick Atkinson’s #1 New York Times–bestselling adult trilogy about World War II. Here is a portion of it, adapted for young readers. This volume includes tons of period photos and does a good job of capturing the events and the spirit of the day that led to the liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany's control. This is a great introduction to the battle, and will give students the prior knowledge they will need to understand the context of historical novels set in the period.

Remember D-Day: The Plan, the Invasion, Survivor Stories

This award-winning book was written in 2004 to honor the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Authored by Ronald Drez and published by National Geographic, it includes lots of photos and maps and a good discussion on the strategy used, the intelligence it was based upon, and the deceptions that led up this turning point in the war. 

Nonfiction books are great “birds-eye views” of D-Day. But historical fiction is better at giving readers a “boots on the ground” view of how it felt to be in the middle of the action. 

Scholastic Press published a series of historical novels for older boys called My Name Is America that did an excellent job on this. Each book was written in the form of a journal of a fictional young man's life during an important event or time period in American history. The series was discontinued in 2004 but the books are still enjoyed by middle school boys. 

 The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins: A World War II Soldier, by renowned, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers is the book in this series that focuses on the events leading up to and during D-Day.
The main character, Private Scott Collins, is a seventeen-year-old soldier from central Virginia. As his regiment takes part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and subsequent battles to liberate France, he records his experiences in a journal. By the end of the book he is no longer the naive young man who volunteered for war. The hardships and horror of battle have forever changed him.

On a budget? Like e-books? Search the web for free downloads of D-Day: A Second World War Soldier 1944, by Bryan Perrett. Part of the million-selling MY STORY series that gives the past a human touch,  D-DAY tells the story of Lieutenant Andy Pope who finds himself in command when every other officer in his company is injured while trying to cut off the Germans' line of retreat. This book is historically accurate and filled with the kinds of details that make for Vivid images, readers should love this first-hand account of danger and peril.

 But what was it like for those living in Normandy when the allies invaded? To answer this question, I humbly suggest my own middle grade historical novel, Code: Elephants on the Moon. This novel follows Eponine Lambaol, a Breton girl living in a village in Normandy not for from the beaches. She despises the Nazis who occupy her town and longs for the days before severe food rationing. As rumors of an allied invasion swirl around her, Eponine begins to understand that nothing and no one is what it seems, and that the phrase ‘The moon is full of elephants,’ which she hears on the radio, is really a code for members of the underground resistance who are preparing for the invasion.

Like Kindle Countdown Deals?
The Kindle version of Code: Elephants on the Moon will be on sale for only .99 on Amazon from May 5 through May 12.

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History at a middle school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has written three historical novels for middle grade readers, which are available in paperback and ebook from many online book sellers. She also sells her paperbacks and offers free signed bookplates through her website.

Interested in Code: Elephants on the Moon? Click here for more information, including free CCSS teaching materials.

For pictures related to Normandy, Breton horses, and World War II, check out her Pinterest Page.

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