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.