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,

Source for this blog post:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Chris Eboch on #Haunted History - Learning #History through Ghost Stories

Some children find it difficult to connect to history. Historical fiction can help, by telling history through the lens of exciting stories, full of action and adventure. If that is not enough to attract a young reader, consider ghost stories.

Some ghost stories are also set in historical times, such as Ghosts I Have Been, by Richard Peck, which is set in 1913. Still, the humor, chills, and spunky heroine will appeal to contemporary readers. Blossom Culp has visions, and here they connect her to the sinking of the Titanic.

Other books in the Blossom Culp series also feature ghosts with history connections. Check out an overview of the first book in the series, The Ghost Belong to Me, with some classroom activities and history links from Carol Hurst’s Children Literature Site.

For even longer ago history, try Lady Margaret’s Ghost: A Felicity Mystery (American Girl Mysteries), by Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Set in the 1770s, 11-year-old Felicity must run the household while her mother and siblings are way. Felicity has a sick horse, so this mystery will especially appeal to young horse lovers.

Set Today, Ghost of the Past

Many other ghost stories are set present-day, with a modern child connecting to a ghost. In some of these, the ghost is not especially historical – it simply a way to add mystery and chills. Peni R. Griffin wrote The Ghost Sitter about a girl killed in a firework accident who haunts her suburban home. Finally a family with a girl her age moves in, and the girl helps free her.

Laura Ruby wrote Lily’s Ghosts based on stories a friend told her about her family’s “haunted” house. “As a kid, I adored anything scary – ghosts, monsters, mummies, you name it,” Ruby says. “So, when I sat down to write my own books, I wrote the ones I would have liked to read when I was a kid.”

Ghosts at War

Other titles have ghosts strongly rooted in history. These spectral figures provide a glimpse of the past, without requiring the reader to be totally immersed in the historical setting. The Battlefield Ghost, by Margery Culyer, tells the story of a ghost who was a soldier with Washington during the Battle of Princeton. 

The Nina Tanleven Mysteries, by Bruce Coville, all feature ghost adventures. The one with the strongest history hook is book 2, The Ghost Wore Gray: Nina and her friend Chris meet the ghost of a Confederate soldier. What is he doing hunting a hotel in New York State? A mystery as well as a ghost story, this fun novel touches on both the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

The Civil War is a popular error for ghosts, apparently. Two books by Elaine Marie Alphin Ghost Cadet and Ghost Soldier – also involve Civil War ghosts.

Lois Szymanski and Shelley Sykes wrote the Gettysburg Ghost Gang series of six books. “We love the research that goes into writing civil war era ghosts,” Szymanski says. The Gettysburg Ghost Gang uses a contemporary setting with civil war era ghosts. “Our ideas come from our history research and our experiences on actual ghost investigations,” Szymanski says. “For instance, in our history research we found that hundreds of women fought in the Civil War dressed as men.” This inspired A Whisper of War.

Ghost Who Can't Forget the Past

In my Haunted series, thirteen-year-old Jon and his eleven-year-old sister, Tania, are typical modern kids – except for the fact that Tania can communicate with ghosts. In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids help investigate a hundred-year-old tragedy in Colorado silver mining country. The Riverboat Phantom puts them on the Mississippi River on an antique riverboat. For The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, Jon and Tania travel to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, where the ghost of an old miner is still looking for his lost mine. In this series, the ghosts are being held in this world by something that happened in the past. In order to help free the ghosts, Jon and Tania must understand that past.

Visit the Spellbound River Press website for a teaching guide to use with The Ghost Miner's Treasure. It includes discussion questions on topics from science to ethics, plus critical thinking, writing, and mapmaking projects.

If you are considering using ghost stories to connect kids to history, be sure to review the book first. In some cases the history connection is strong and accurate. However, this is not always the case. Still, if you have a very reluctant history reader, getting them started on ghost stories in general could be a way to ease them toward historical ghost stories and then other historical fiction.

While ghost stories are not usually the most historically detailed of historical fiction, they can be a bridge for young readers who prefer the paranormal to the historical.

What other middle grade ghost stories can you think of that use realistic historical elements?

Subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe buttons to the right, or add to Feedly or another reader.

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with 40+ published books for children. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure, and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at or her Amazon page.

Chris is also the author of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Jane’s Book of Ages: Three Not-So-Plain Janes

My blog this month is dedicated to three Janes: the tragic girl queen, a famous author, and a woman whose life was one of drudgery and much sorrow and who yet managed to carry an unquenchable faith in the Lord, joy in reading, and delight in life.

Queen Jane
Lady Jane Grey was born to wealth and power. As the great-granddaughter of King Henry Vll, she was the first cousin once removed to the only surviving son of Henry Vlll, Edward Vl. She was every bit as precocious and brilliant as her bigoted Protestant cousin, and they were close friends. When he was dying, Edward named in her in his will as his successor, knowing that otherwise his half-sister Mary, equally bigoted and  a devout Catholic, would inherit the throne. 

Queen Jane reigned for only nine days. Then Mary – Bloody Mary of our school history books in Scotland – rode into London at the head of an army. Jane’s nine day reign was over.

At first Mary pardoned Jane. However, upon learning Jane’s father had taken part in a rebellion, Jane and her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, were both beheaded. Queen Jane was a girl of 16. After her accession, Jane became  a popular name for girls  and may have been even more so after her execution.

Author Jane

Jane Austen was born the seventh child to a comfortable middle-class life. Her father was an Oxford-educated English vicar, and he and her mother were much respected in their community. Well-educated themselves, Reverend George and Mrs. Cassandra Austen encouraged their family in creative thinking and to read from his extensive library. Jane and her eldest sister Cassandra were sent to boarding school until financial constraints forced their return home. It was a close, clever family in which the children put on plays, wrote, and played games of charades. 

It was only after Jane’s death her brother named her as author of comical love stories, which were a gently sardonic commentary on the nobility and customs of the day. These novels, of which Pride and Prejudice was ‘her darling’, were  required reading in my English literature class at school and are still widely read and enjoyed today. 

Jane in Sorrow

Finally we come to our third and last Jane.

Jane Franklin was born to Josiah and Abiah Franklin, the youngest daughter in Josiah’s large family. Her father was a tallow chandler, a soap and candle maker. He had neither wealth nor standing in his adopted city of Boston, Massachusetts. His first wife had borne him five living children; his second bore him another twelve, of which the last son was Benjamin Franklin. The youngest, a girl, Josiah named after his mother, and the little English Queen, Jane.

Jane adored her brother Benjamin, and in his turn he loved her. In his own way, he cared for her. Reading a biography through the eyes of the twenty-first century, we think he didn’t do much. But we have to recall how different were times and mores in the eighteenth century. 

Josiah didn’t have the money to educate Benjamin as he would have liked. Jane was fortunate in that her mother could read and taught her to read and Benjamin encouraged this reading. Who knows what the world has lost because Jane was unable to pursue an education.   All of their lives the brother and sister wrote letters to each other. This correspondence is beautifully and delicately described in Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages – Jane Franklin Mecom’s homemade book. 

Benny ran away from home at seventeen to make his fortune and ended one of America’s founding fathers and most famous men. Jane never left home. Her lot was to be marriage and child bearing.

At fifteen, she married a layabout. She lost her first baby and the following two. Jill Lepore speculates Jane, who her brother had heard was ‘a noted beauty’ may have been pregnant when she married. If so, she threw her life away on a ne-er-do-well.

Jane spent her married life either pregnant or nursing, with a husband who was always in debt.
She worked for her father, making soap and candles. She made her own little book through the painstaking boiling and pulping and pressing of rags into parchment. Her Book of Ages. Her days were long and full of drudgery. Throughout, she kept her passion for reading, loving and tending to her family, and writing always to her brother Benny. Although I have not yet finished Lepore’s fascinating book, I’ve read more than enough to heartily recommend it, and to urge teachers and librarians to seek out middle-grade biographies on Jane Franklin Mecom and her little Book of Ages.  A fascinating glimpse of American life. 

As far as I know, the picture I have attached (the recently found Eastman portrait of Lady Jane) is in the public domain. Rather than rely entirely on (distant) schoolday memories, I’ve resorted to Wikipedia to make sure I’m on the right track with my mini-biographies of little Lady Jane Grey and Jane Austen.  I guess she was never crowned, as she was referred to only as ‘Lady Jane’ in our history books.  

Elizabeth Junner McLaughlin

Subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe buttons to the right, or add to Feedly or another reader.