Thursday, November 16, 2017

Great Christmas Books for Middle Grade Readers

  Everyone loves a good Christmas read. Here's a short list of some of the best for middle grade readers.

Jingle Night, the second in The Anderson Chronicles, my series of contemporary novels for middle grade readers. Hector Anderson just can't get in the holiday spirit. He's loaded down with homework, and too broke to buy presents for his family or his heart throb, Sandy. Meanwhile, sister Chloe wants to be the angel of death in the holiday play, a role as silent as younger brother Calvin's been since the loss of his hand puppet, Mr. Buttons. Little brother Stevie can only remember four words from the song he must sing at the Little Leapers Preschool Pageant, but he uses his slingshot to spread Christmas cheer, which Hec's perfectionist Father doesn't appreciate. Hec is determined to solve his problems, and while Mom tries to eggnog and carol everyone into the Christmas spirit, he and his best buddy Eddie embark on a madcap plan to solve Hec's Christmas dilemma.

As if reenacting the game of Clue, The Green Glass House takes place in an old inn that's usually quiet at Christmastime. But this year, it fills with a hodge-podge of quirky guests, all of whom seem to be searching for the answer to a different mystery. Twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers' adopted son, turns into the sleuth who must solve them all. This story is part mystery, part folk tale, and part ghost story, with enough twists and turns to keep even the most finicky reader entertained.

The main character in Richard Peck's A Season of Gifts is twelve year old Bob, the son of a preacher and new kid in town, but the heart of this sequel to the Newbery Award winning A Long Way to Chicago and the Newbery Honor book A Year Down Yonder is the eccentric Mrs. Dowdel, an elderly, grumpy, gun-wielding woman who claims to have no interest in neighboring or in church, but has special gifts to share with both her neighbors and their new church.
 Children of Christmas has six stories by the Newbery Honor winning author Cynthia Rylant that are perfect for reading aloud, if you can control your emotions. Like Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, these poignant stories of lonely and desperate people are are  guaranteed to make you cry, yet her exquisite writing also conveys the special joy of the season, Stories include one of a lonely man who raises Christmas trees, a stray cat who finds shelter, an elderly widower missing his wife, an Appalachian boy who waits each year for a train bringing gifts, and more.

 From Anna, by Jean Little, begins in Germany in 1933. Anna Solden is the youngest and clumsiest in a large family that treats her like the incompetent baby. After they immigrate to America to escape the worsening political scene, the family discovers that Anna can barely see. A new pair of glasses and a special class for the visually impaired helps her blossom into a proficient and confident child. The climax features a Christmas during the depression that might have been dismal had it not been for the pluck and cheerfulness of the family, and at which Anna comes into her own and proves to her family - and herself - that she can do anything she sets her mind to.

How was Christmas celebrated in 13th century England? Nathaniel Marshall, the son of a knight, spends Chrismas at Glastonbury Abbey in my novel On Fledgling Wings. Nathaniel waits to see if the legend that the animals will speak at midnight is true, wonders if the saints looking down on him from the church friezes are watching him, and gets to serve the roast boar at the Christmas day banquet. But all too soon the peace of the season will pass, and Nathaniel will be embroiled in a battle for power at the manor house.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Our #Holiday Shopping Guide: Books for Historical Fiction Lovers

In plenty of time for the holidays, here are some of our group’s fabulous historical novels for middle grade kids – or any age!

The Eyes of Pharaoh, by Chris Eboch: When Reya hints that Egypt is in danger from foreign nomads, Seshta and Horus don’t take him seriously. How could anyone challenge Egypt? Then Reya disappears. To save their friend, Seshta and Horus spy on merchants, soldiers, and royalty, and start to suspect even The Eyes of Pharaoh, the powerful head of the secret police. Will Seshta and Horus escape the traps set for them, rescue Reya, and stop the plot against Egypt in time?

The Eyes of Pharaoh, set in Egypt in 1177 BC, brings an ancient world to life. “Mid School students and their teachers will love this fast paced mystery that has so much history and culture hidden in plain sight…. You won’t be able to put the book down until you learn what happens to the three friends.”

The Well of Sacrifice, by Chris Eboch: Eveningstar Macaw lives in a glorious Mayan city in the ninth century. When the king falls ill and dies, the city begins to crumble. An evil high priest, Great Skull Zero, orders the sacrifice of those who might become king, including Eveningstar’s beloved brother. Suspicious of the High Priest’s motives, Eveningstar attempts to save her brother, thus becoming the High Priest’s enemy. Condemned to be thrown into the Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar must find a way not only to save her own life but to rescue her family and her city from the tyrannical grasp of Great Skull Zero.

“[An] engrossing first novel….Eboch crafts an exciting narrative with a richly textured depiction of ancient Mayan society….The novel shines not only for a faithful recreation of an unfamiliar, ancient world, but also for the introduction of a brave, likable and determined heroine.” - Kirkus Reviews

The Genie’s Gift, by Chris Eboch: Shy and timid Anise determines to find the Genie Shakayak and claim the Gift of Sweet Speech. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?

The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East, drawing on the mythology of The Arabian Nights.

After the Ashes, by Sara K Joiner: Katrien lives on Java in the Dutch East Indies in 1883. She is determined to prove Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unfortunately, nothing causes her Aunt Greet more angst than Katrien crawling around the muddy jungle collecting bugs in the name of science―and in the company of a native boy, no less! If only Katrien would take an interest in running a household and making friends with other girls. But Katrien has no interest in changing, especially if it means socializing with the likes of mean Brigitta Burkhart.

Then, one stifling afternoon, Katrien’s world turns upside-down when the nearby volcano Krakatau erupts with a terrifying blast. For days, a deathly ash rains down on the Javan coast. Amidst the chaos, Katrien knows her only hope of survival is to flee the jungle with the one person she vowed she’d never befriend.

Learn more at Sara K Joiner‘s website or Amazon.

Bull Rider, by Suzanne Morgan Williams: Cam O’Mara, grandson and younger brother of bull-riding champions, is not interested in partaking in the family sport. Cam is a skateboarder, and perfecting his tricks—frontside flips, 360s—means everything until his older brother, Ben, comes home from Iraq, paralyzed from a brain injury. What would make a skateboarder take a different kind of ride? And what would get him on a monstrosity of a bull named Ugly? If Cam can stay on for the requisite eight seconds, could the $15,000 prize bring hope and a future for his big brother?

Bull Rider, set during the Iraq War, is a Junior Library Guild Selection, is on state award lists in Texas, Nevada, Missouri, Wyoming, and Indiana, and won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. 

Suzanne’s nonfiction titles include Pinatas and Smiling Skeleton. The Inuit, Made in China, and China’s Daughters. Visit her website or Amazon page.

The Amethyst Road, by Louise Spiegler: In a society similar to ours in some ways and very different in others, 16-year-old Serena and her older sister, Willow, struggle to get by in a tough, crime-infested urban neighborhood. By birth they are half Yulang, half Gorgio, but are accepted by neither race. The sisters get no help from the Yulang, because Willow’s child was born out of wedlock and the family has been declared outcast. The Gorgios are even worse, trying to take the child away. A run-in with social services launches Serena on a journey that is at once an escape and a quest to reunite her family.

With the help of a boy named Shem, who is on a quest of his own, Serena travels deep into the mountains, where precious gems are mined, and across barren plains, where white-clad Trident Riders are terrorizing anyone who is not Gorgio. Along the way, Serena finds the answers she seeks—and some she didn’t even know she was looking for.

The Amethyst Road, a fantasy set in an alternative Pacific Northwest, was a Junior Library Book selection, a New York Library Book for the Teen Age and a finalist for the Andre Norton Award (Hugo-Nebula Award Scheme) among other honors.

The Jewel and the Key, by Louise Spiegler: An earthquake and the discovery of a mysterious antique mirror unleash forces that jolt sixteen-year-old Addie McNeal back to 1917 Seattle, just as the United States is entering World War I. Addie finds herself shuttling back and forth between past and present, drawn in both times to the grand Jewel Theater. In both decades the existence of the Jewel is threatened and war is looming … and someone she cares about is determined to fight.

Eventually, Addie realizes that only she has the key to saving the Jewel—and the lives of her friends. But will she figure out how to manipulate the intricately woven threads of time and truly set things right?

To learn more about Louise Spiegler and to see examples of class-plans to accompany the books, visit her website. You can also find the books on her Amazon page.

The Young Inventors Guild series, by Eden Unger Bowditch: The Atomic Weight of Secrets is set in 1903. Five truly brilliant young inventors, the children of the world’s most important scientists, went about their lives and their work as they always had.

But all that changed the day the men in black arrived.

An amazing story about the wonders of science and the still greater wonders of friendship, The Atomic Weight of Secrets or the Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, the first book of theYoung Inventors Guild trilogy, is a truly original novel. Young readers will forever treasure Eden Unger Bowditch’s funny, inventive, poignant, and wonderfully fun fiction debut.

The Ravens of Solemano: It has been mere days since the brilliant children of the Young Inventors Guild slipped through the fingers of the horrible Komar Romak. They have escaped with their lovely and caring schoolteacher, Miss Brett; with their long-absent parents; and with their bizarre captors, or protectors, or both – the Mysterious Men in Black. Now they are traveling by train, destined for parts unknown.

But a note in the hands of a dead man in a New York tunnel guarantees that safety is but an illusion. When the children’s world is blown open, life will never be the same again.

From the rolling plains of America to the wide-open waters of the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar to the remarkable village in the hills of Abruzzo, Italy, The Ravens of Solemano or The Order of the Mysterious Men in Black, is an adventure like no other.

On Fledgling Wings, by Jennifer Bohnhoff: Nathaniel Marshal is a bully with a short temper and an empty place in his heart left by the mother who disappeared when he was a baby. The spoiled boy can’t wait to leave boring Staywell and begin training so he can become a knight like his father, the cold and distant Sir Amren. But when he arrives at Farleigh, he finds himself in a place of death and danger.

Set in the period of Richard the Lionheart, this is a coming of age story about a boy who must confront issues that many modern boys will recognize: the need to control one’s temper and destiny, the quest for acceptance, the desire for fitting in, and the awakening of love.

The Bent Reed: A novel about Gettysburg, by Jennifer Bohnhoff: It’s June of 1863 and Sarah McCoombs feels isolated and uncomfortable when her mother pulls her from school and allows a doctor to treat her scoliosis with a cumbersome body cast. She thinks life can't get much worse, but she's wrong.

Physically and socially awkward, 15-year-old Sarah thinks her life is crumbling. She worries about her brother Micah and neighbor Martin, both serving in the Union Army.  She frets over rumors that rebel forces are approaching the nearby town of Gettysburg. When the McCoombs farm becomes a battle field and then a hospital, Sarah must reach deep inside herself to find the strength to cope as she nurses wounded soldiers from both sides.  Can she find even more courage to continue to follow her dreams despite her physical disabilities and her disapproving mother?

Code: Elephants on the Moon, by Jennifer Bohnhoff: “And now some special messages,” the radio announcer said.  “The siren has bleached hair.  Electricity dates from the twentieth century.  The moon is full of elephants.”

Elephants on the moon doesn’t make any sense to Eponine Lambaol.  Little has made sense since General Petain, the leader of the French government, allowed the German army to occupy half of  France in the spring of 1940. After her father is conscripted to work on German fortifications, Eponine's mother moves to Amblie, a small town near the coast of Normandy.  They are the only Bretons, and most of the natives seem to hate them even more than they hate the Germans.  After Sarah, a Jewish classmate, disappears under mysterious circumstances, Rene, the charming and handsome son of the mayor, becomes the only remaining villager who treats Eponine well. He's hard to resist, but is he any safer than the disfigured German sergeant who tries to befriend her?

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’ makes more sense and is fraught with more danger than she could have ever believed possible.

Learn more at Jennifer’s website or her Amazon page.

The Iron Horse Chronicles, by Robert Lee Murphy: Eagle Talons, Book One, follows the adventures of Will Braddock, a fourteen-year-old orphan, who sets out in 1867 on a quest to determine his own destiny and winds up being involved in the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Will must prove to his newfound fictional friends, as well as numerous historical personages, that he possesses the gumption to make his own way in the dangerous West. He learns after many hard knocks that he must rely upon himself to achieve his goal. 

Bear Claws, Book Two, takes Will across Wyoming, through Utah and Nevada, and on into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Will Braddock continues as a hunter for his uncle’s survey team as the transcontinental railroad crosses Wyoming in 1868. But Paddy O’Hannigan’s vendetta grows more sinister, and Will is forced to use all his skills to save Ulysses S. Grant when Paddy attempts to blow up the presidential candidate’s train.

Golden Spike concludes the trilogy. The driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, almost didn’t happen. None of the history books mention this crucial event. Only five people were aware of the incident. Will Braddock knew. He was one of those five. It all started when Paddy O’Hannigan attacked Will; his uncle, Sean Corcoran; and Homer Garcon, in Echo City, Utah, four months earlier. When Will chases after Paddy, the Irish thug traps Will into a bigger mess. 

To learn more about Robert, visit his website. See Robert’s books on Amazon or B&N.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Real Heroes in #Sports by Elizabeth W. C. Junner

In the category of reluctant reader - surely the bane of every teacher and school librarian - boys usually outnumber girls. How can you coax them into discovering there’s a whole wealth of interesting, not to mention inspiring, information out there in the world of books?

Introducing them to books about real people who came from backgrounds the majority of children can recognise may not complete the transformation from reluctant to eager reader [and more enthusiastic scholar?], but it could be a big step in the right direction.

The brilliant movie ‘Chariots of Fire’, which cleared the decks at the Oscars after its debut in 1981, brought Eric Liddell’s athletic achievements wide recognition. While, of course, the movie focuses on Eric’s famous race at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, it portrays both the athletic greatness and spiritual integrity of the Scottish missionary.
 ‘The Flying Scotsman’ as Eric Henry Liddell was affectionately known, was born in Tiensing, China, where his parents, the Rev. James and Mrs. Liddell, were both missionaries. Eric attended the local elementary school before being sent to join his brother Rob at Eltham College in England. It was here Eric first showed his athletic prowess, particularly his speed on the track. 

While studying for a science degree at Edinburgh University, Eric competed for the university in rugby and on the track.

He was chosen to represent Scotland in both fields; unfortunately, though he was outstanding in each sport, his studies left him no time for both rugby and running. Forced to choose between them, Eric decided on running. His distances were the 220 yards and the 100 yards but he truly excelled at the latter. 

Eric was an automatic choice for the 1924 Paris Olympics; his elation turned to dismay, however, when he learned the 100 yards heats were to be held on a Sunday. In those days many Scots observed Sunday as truly a day of rest. Sunday Dinner would be prepared as far as possible the evening before! Active outside games like football and skipping rope were frowned upon. To run on Sunday was against Eric’s Christian ethics. What could he do?

It was suggested he run the 440 yards, a quarter of a mile. Eric hadn’t trained for this distance, but he had a plan for success. Tension ran high. On the morning of the race, one of the masseuses – from the American team I believe - slipped Eric a folded paper on which he had written an encouraging message and which Eric recognised as the masseuse’s variation on 1 Samuel 2:30: ‘He that honours me, him I will honour’.

Eric’s plan was to sprint the first two hundred yards of the 440 to get as far ahead of the field as possible and then, he is quoted as saying, he left it up to God to keep him fast. He won the gold medal in the 440 handily, and the bronze in the 220.    

The following year Eric returned to missionary work in China where Japanese aggression was making life increasingly dangerous. In 1941, as the Japanese advanced, Eric sent his family to safety in Canada while he remained to work at a poor station with his brother, who was a doctor. They were overworked, lacking much of the medicine, equipment and food they needed to help the desperate Chinese who came day after day seeking help.

In 1943, Eric was interned along with many others when the Japanese invaded the station. Despite the privations, Eric kept up morale; he taught Bible School, taught science to the children in the camp, and organised games. Overworked, exhausted, and undernourished, Eric developed an inoperable brain tumour. His earthly race finished, he died in February, 1945, just five months before the camp was liberated.   

How many Puerto Rican kids or kids of Puerto Rican descent have not heard of the great Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker?

Roberto, born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, was the youngest of seven children. When he was old enough he helped his father, a sugar crops foreman, by loading and unloading trucks. Always interested in baseball, Roberto joined Puerto Rico’s amateur league when he was sixteen years old and played for the Ferdinand Juncos team. In 1952 he signed with the winter team,Cangrejeros de Santuce. This was a franchise of the Puerto Rican

Professional Baseball League. While he was there the Brooklyn Dodgers offered Roberto a contract with one of the team’s Triple A affiliates.

This meant a move to the MontrĂ©al Royals farm team for Roberto but he never did play for the Dodgers. When Pittsburgh Pirates scout Clyde Sukeforth saw Clemente, he told the Royals’ manager that the Pirates were going to finish last in the league, therefore had the pick of the rookies, and he was picking Roberto Clemente Walker, no question.

His beginnings in Pittsburgh were not the easiest for Roberto. The winter before his rookie season with the Pirates a drunk driver slammed into his car at an intersection in Puerto Rico and left him with a back injury which forced him to sit out many games while he recovered. Because he was black, and spoke little English, the sports media and some of the team gave him a hard time; announcers kept referring to him as Bob, or Bobby, despite his preferring Roberto.  His response to this was he had been raised never to discriminate against anyone because of their ethnicity. As he proved his worth, Pittsburgh loved Roberto; his number was changed from 13 to 20, the number of letters in his full name.

In 1958 he signed for the U.S. Marine Corps. Under their rigorous training he gained ten pounds and had no back problems. By then Roberto was so invaluable to the Pirates team that State Senator John M. Walker sent a letter to U.S. Senator Hugh Scott requesting his early release from the Marines in 1959. Roberto remained a Marine Reserve until September, 1964. 

His rewards in baseball were many, culminating when he earned the World Series Most Valuable Player trophy, yet far outflanking those are his rewards in how he has lived, in what he has done to help others. He helped financially, never to gain recognition but simply because he could, and wanted to. He cared about children especially; his dream was to build a ‘Sports City’ where young Puerto Ricans would have access to coaching in many sports, facilities, and encouragement. In the off-season he taught baseball and ran free clinics for kids in Puerto Rico, especially those from poorer families. He loved his country and did much to raise the status of Puerto Rico and Latin America in the world’s eyes.

He was involved in a great deal of charity work, and when Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, was hit by a massive earthquake on 23rd December, 1972 he immediately began arranging relief flights. When he heard the aid on the first three flights had been siphoned off by the corrupt officials and never reached the victims he decided to go on the fourth flight himself, in hopes his presence would shame them into honesty. On December 31st he set off on an overloaded plane with an incompetent crew. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean immediately after takeoff due to engine failure. Roberto’s body has never been recovered, but his legacy lives on in the selfless work he did during his lifetime.                

And now we come to the last of our sports heroes, who was in his own words a really rotten kid, Louis Zamperini. With co-author David Rensin, in his book ‘Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In’ he speaks for those kids who are seen to be seriously off the tracks.

 Born in America of Italian parents who spoke Italian at home, he went to kindergarten in California speaking very little English, and very poorly at that. He hated recess when the other kids would surround him to taunt and jeer, to punch and kick him over his poor English, his wiry hair, and big ears. Eventually his father made him a punch bag, so that Louis learned to fight back – and win.

His older brother Pete was the model son who could do no wrong, and Louis the changeling child who could do no right. He felt he could never live up to Pete, so Louis set out to be as bad as he possibly could be. He was forever getting into trouble with the police, with school, and with his parents. One would think Pete might get fed up with Louis but he never did. He loved his little brother and when all three of the authorities mentioned above were at their wits end, Pete took Louis to the local steel mill, where the workers ‘looked hot, greasy, and dirty’. Louis was aghast. He didn’t want to end up like that, and Pete pointed out that’s exactly where he would end up, unless he smartened up. He warned Louis that no one could force him to turn his life around – he had to want to do that himself.

The school officials decided to give Louis another chance, especially after Pete suggested sports. Too small for football, Louis was entered in an interclass race to run the 660 yards with the promise if he ran, his school slate would be wiped clean. He ran. He came in last, in pain and suffering from having smoked since he was six years old. But the running bug had caught him. He ran, and in running and eventually winning, he found self-respect. He set himself to learn at school, recognizing the importance of education.

Adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for many days before being captured by the Japanese in WWll, Louis endured the brutality of their prison camps. Beaten day after day, he stubbornly refused to give in. When he was finally liberated and returned to America, at first it was great and then it appeared Louis was once again on the slippery slopes. Until his wife persuaded him to hear Billy Graham. Louis finally realised hatred consumes and destroys the person who hates, and accepted Christ in his life.  He worked tirelessly to help young people improve their lives, applying Christ’s teaching of love and tolerance, tough yet encouraging. 

All pictures are, to the best I can ascertain, in the public domain. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It's Stream of Consciousness Day

by the totally distracted author, Suzanne Morgan Williams

It's my turn on the blog, and perhaps because the whole house is torn apart so painters can work, I'm having a heck of a time focusing on one topic. So I declare this Middle Grade Historical Writer Stream of Consciousness Day. I'm sure you've heard of it. Here goes.

  • I have a historical manuscript that I'm waiting to hear back on. I believe I'll jinx my work by speaking too soon, so more on that later - if anything comes of a year and a half of work and a lot of hopes and prayers.
  • The painters are nice guys doing a really detailed job of redoing the interior of our home. Most of it is staying exactly the same color. We just needed it freshened up. I decided to change the color of two rooms. That seems fun and gives the whole place a different feel. It doesn't seem all that different from revising a manuscript. You keep the structure and polish up everything. A few sections definitely need to change. Now if you decide to re-write a manuscript, that's like tearing the roof off or adding a second story. The result may be better but it probably won't be recognizable.
  • How do I know when I've found the right story? It fascinates me. I can't stop researching. When I tell people about it I get excited, and if I've hit the right note, they do too. If I have the right story, I'm tenacious and bull dog like. I want to give it life and that usually requires revisions and maybe a re-writing or two.
  • And here's the thing about choosing to write about heroes and leaders that we know about, stories we learned in school - we already know them. A new topic may not seem important, because we don't know what would be interesting about it, or we might not feel comfortable with the subject. This is how the same history gets told again and again. Readers expect certain themes. Our job as writers is to find important stories that haven't been told, or to tell familiar ones in a fresh way. Both are satisfying and both can add to our understanding of history and our cultural capital.
  • Our historical understanding will only be improved by adding more stories, particularly about those people who've been omitted from traditional histories. And, like painting, be it house painting or fine art, the details tell it best. Focus. Sorry about mine, but gee, it's Stream of Consciousness Day.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

LeeAnn Wilmot on the Creation of Empathy and Safe Spaces in Historical Fiction

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells Scout that

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus is articulating the concept of empathy; the ability to feel another‘s feelings, and understand from their point of view. 

Historic fiction provides a little distance; there is no current or personal issue, and the reader is allowed to imagine feelings, without any personal threat.  Though removed in time and space, Zane in Zane and the Hurricane is someone with whom middle grade readers can identify.  Zane is 12; his life is not unlike our reader’s lives.  His journey through hurricane Katrina sweeps him from his usual life into experiences of joy, loss, sorrow, fear, and bravery.  He meets the grandmother he didn’t know existed and finds that he’s not at all sure that he likes her. He encounters dangerous events and people.

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team,
Many of our children have or will encounter dangerous people and events, and a great many of them will not.  And, maybe more of them fear dangerous people and events which they imagine will come someday. The hurricane setting, oddly, provides some safety when it comes to considering how to respond to danger, real or imagined. Zane recognizes danger and is appropriately fearful, but he also learns to seek safety and guidance. Zane isn’t really heroic--that might remove the opportunity for genuine empathy--but he is honest and caring and helpful, even when he’s scared.
Zane encountered realities in his life that many of us might prefer to hide from our children: parents in rehab, parents in jail, caretakers and friends who are not wholesome and protective.  Zane and the Hurricane does not emphasize these aspects of life, but they are mentioned, and contribute to the movement of the story.  Despite these factors Zane (usually) makes good choices; these are just aspects of his life and not a consuming focus. His mistakes in judgement are mentioned casually with the same lack of emphasis as the mention of dead bodies floating in the water; life moves forward. Difficulties and mistakes are absorbed into forward progression. There is no lingering, no berating.

The reader can identify with Zane partly because it’s “just a story,” about something which happened long ago.  Even though these parts of life may be very different for the reader, the reader can also sense that these children are not so very different, and we share feelings across time and space.  I would probably be frightened; I might chase my dog in the storm even though I knew not to. I might make mistakes, but I too will recover from them and manage my situation despite danger and adversity.

When children read about challenging events, hurricanes and wars, it’s common to ask, “How would you feel if……..?” Feelings are not so much evoked in non-fiction exercises. Non-fiction presents the reader with facts and details which can be compartmentalized, perhaps necessarily so. As an adult, even I was overwhelmed by the facts of Hurricane Katrina--all those people on rooftops! Early on, for me,  real people became just dots on rooftops. I just could not think about this. But, fictionalized characters offer a face and words to both free and limit our imaginations, and so I was able to journey with just one person, Zane, to see and feel the event through his eyes. I was able to experience both compassion and empathy--which I avoided when reading or seeing the news--when I looked through Zane’s eyes. I believe that this one brave, frightened, disobedient, and courageous child may create safe space for our middle school readers to feel all those feelings, too.

LeeAnn Wilmot is a youth librarian with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Library. When she is not at the library, she can be found hanging out with her three Rottweilers, and reading, of course.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sara K Joiner: Horror Historicals

Are you more likely to see a ghost in October?
photo by Sara K Joiner

October is the time of year when we want to be scared. The weather turns cooler, the trees begin losing their leaves, and we want to sit around a fire (either indoors or out) and give ourselves nightmares with tales of ghosts and devils, murder and mayhem.

Sit back. Relax. And enjoy some of these frightening treats that are all set in the past.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Orphaned Irish siblings travel to England and find work as servants in a creepy house. An enormous tree is growing into the house, and the family the siblings work for seems to be growing paler and weaker with each passing day. Will the siblings be able to save their employers from the evil creeping into the house? Or will they only have time to save themselves?

The Shadows That Rush Past: A Collection of Frightening Inuit Folktales by Rachel A. Qitsualik, illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh and Larry MacDougall
Four stories passed down through generations of Inuit storytellers describe a horrible child-stealing ogress, a monster that is half man and half grizzly bear, an ice-covered polar bear that is ten times the size of a normal bear, and a creature who surprises unsuspecting people by tickling them to death. The illustrations can be horrific and heroic as men and women, children and adults are depicted fighting monsters and suffering their fates.

Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Barry Moser
A boy and his uncle become victims of Wee Winnie, a witch who hangs her skin on a hook by the door and flies around on people. Only the boy's grandmother can save them, but how do you trick a witch, especially one as gruesome as Wee Winnie? The illustrations are wood engravings which up the creep factor even more and will haunt readers.

Forbidden by Eve Bunting
A teenage orphan girl is sent to live with an aunt and uncle she has never met on the stormy coast of Scotland. She finds herself surrounded by people, including her relatives, who are threatening and mysterious. Suspicious and determined to learn the truth about her new home, she finds answers that are more horrifying than anything she could have imagined.

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Natural Habitat of Fiction: Time Travel

Historical fiction is probably the closest any of us will get to time travel. Through it we can retrace paths we've already taken, or be transported to times we've never been. We see the past through a different set of eyes, taste the food, hear the talk, sing new songs, learn a foreign dance. Historical fiction is not only time travel, it is true magic.

Historic Time Travel 

The amount of historic or "time-slip" fiction, as it is sometimes called, is astonishing. Publishers produce more every year. Why is this?

One reason is that time travel allows us to make comparisons between our time and another. Time travel usually jumps between contemporary and historic periods, but can take place between one historic period and another, as in Louise Spiegler's  "The Jewel and the Key". The protagonist can also travel from the past to the present or even from the future to the past. Each combination offers a unique comparison between times, giving us a perspective we wouldn't get any other way. 

"In a way, time-slip fiction is simply a matter of art imitating life . . . . the reality of the history against which I set my adventures, is obviously shaped by now--by how things are and by who I am." --Kate Mosse

The popularity of time travel goes beyond comparisons, though. It 

is in Mosse's words "art imitating life." All history is viewed from the perspective of the one who views it--from the frame of reference from which one hangs all experience.  This is why historical time travel is especially suited for children. It is much easier to enter history through what is known. Connect young readers with dynamic contemporary characters, and they will follow them anywhere, even the past. 


Once established, these characters and the endless possibilities of history naturally lends itself to series. It was the recipe that launched my youngest son into the world of reading, thanks to Mary Osborne and her Magic Tree House books. She couldn't write them fast enough for him. Another of our favorites is The Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka. You can find more series on Susan Olson's blog, listed in the resources below.

"In truth, we all inhabit a time slip. As we go about our daily business, we are accompanied by the thoughts and feelings, the hopes and memories of our pasts. They shape how we behave and think and feel. History is a part of who we are--personal history and the greater forces that have shaped us." --Kate Mosse

As Duncan Sprott states "The past is the natural habitat of fiction." It is the natural habitat for all of us, because we are intimately connected to it. It is a magic we have made for ourselves.



Be sure to revisit Louise Spiegler's post "on Writing The Jewel and the Key," and Chris Eboch's post on "Traveling Through #History." Louise describes her process as well as joys and challenges of writing historical fiction. Chris continues the theme in addition to making some great book suggestions.

Time Travel Times Two : Blog by Susan Olson who reviews time travel fiction for middle-grade and young adult. Not all are historical. Check out Some Fun Lists and the links from there to specific genre trails.

List of Time Travel Books for Young Adult, Middle Grade and Children's Audiences This is an extensive list with clear headings for audience and genre.

Goodreads Children's Time Travel Fiction of the 1900s If you are looking for a particular era during the 1900s, Goodreads has lists by decade.

Historical Novel Society has lists of past and forthcoming historical novels for children (not specifically for time travel). This is a great way to discover what is coming up and when you can "generally" expect to get your hands on a copy. It includes several prior years.

Resource for writers and quotes for this post taken from: Brayfield, Celia & Sprott, Duncan. 2014. Writing Historical Fiction: A Writer's & Artist's Companion. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

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, September 14, 2017

Sports and Games from History, with Chris Eboch

Some young people struggle to connect to history. If you have young athletes, try looking at sports from other times and in other cultures. Finding the similarities can be a way to get kids interested in history.

For example, the Maya had games and toys that may still seem familiar. Here’s a description from Life among the Maya:

Even with all their duties, Maya children found some time to play. They probably had dolls and toy animals, and they used a marked board and beans to play a game something like checkers. They likely played ball games using rubber balls. In a few western Mexico villages today, the Maya play a ball game probably descended from the ancient version.

Editor Colleen P. Popson studied the game for Archaeology magazine and described the scoring system. “A team wins points when the opposing team makes an error, like missing the ball, hitting out of turn, extending over the center line when returning a serve, knocking the ball out of bounds, failing to announce the score after winning a point, touching the ball with the hands, or, curiously, accidentally touching a teammate. If a ball stops moving before it reaches the center line, it is a … dead ball, and a point for the other team. The team to score eight points first wins.”

Projects can connect historical fiction, history, the arts and more

Learning through Playing

Board games were also popular: In The Mystery of the Ancient Maya, Meyer and Gallenkamp say, “Markets were, as well, meeting places where people gathered and exchanged ideas with visitors from other areas. There may have been games of chance when people got together to trade and talk. One popular marketplace game was played by throwing 'dice' – kernels of dried corn painted with black marks – and betting on how they would fall.”

On her now-defunct website, Nancy McNelly described the Maya game Bul.

“‘Game boards’ have been found scratched into the stone of building floors and the bases of stelae….

“In Bul, a ‘board’ was made by placing 15 grains of corn in a row, the 14 spaces between grains being used for play. Four flat grains of corn with a black mark burned into one side served as dice. When the grains were tossed the count was based on the number that fell with the burned side up (1 burned side and 3 unburned = 1, etc.). But if all the kernels came up blank, the count was 5.

“Bul can be played with any even number of participants. The example used here is the simplest arrangement, with only 2 players. Each player has 5 game pieces; these could be any readily available item: seeds, sticks, bits of cloth, etc. …

“Opposing players each start with a single game piece at opposite ends of the board; each gets two throws of the corn in a row, advancing his marker the number of spaces indicated after each throw. When a game piece reaches the opposite end of the board, it is re-entered at the end where it started, as if the board were circular.

“The real point was to land on a space already occupied by your opponent. You would then take the other game piece ‘captive’ and change direction to drag it back to your ‘home’ end of the board. Once this was done, you could re-enter your piece into play, while the captive marker was ‘dead’. Play continued in this way until all of one side’s pieces were dead.

“With two players, as soon as one captured the other’s marker, there was no way to prevent it from being carried off the board. With multiple players divided into two teams, the situation was different. [Partners could rescue each other by] dragging both the captured piece and the opponent’s marker towards the other end of the board, where the partner’s marker was freed to be put back into play, while the opponent’s piece was dead. If enough people were involved in the game, it could take up to three hours for all of one side’s pieces to be killed.”

If you are studying the Maya, how about trying one of these games?

P. S. Neeley Shareware offers downloadable games from different cultures, including ancient Egypt and the Maya. It also has Viking, Sumerian, Japanese, Aztec, Chinese, and Moorish games.

Adding Historical Fiction

You can round out the lesson by reading historical fiction that includes sports and games. In The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar Macaw watches an exciting ball game:

Our team started with the ball, which was as big as my head and made of hard, solid rubber. The leader tossed the ball up and then bounced it off the thick protective pad he wore around his hips. The ball hit the sloped stone wall on the side of the court and spun back. Another player dove and managed to deflect the ball off his arm pad….

The novel also includes a Mayan legend about how the Hero Twins bested the Lords of Death in several challenges, including a ballgame. Read that legend online at Teaching the Myths.

Learning history through games and sports can work in the classroom or with homeschooling. But you don't have to be a teacher – anyone can have fun learning history while playing games!

Get lesson plans to use with The Well of Sacrifice, The Eyes of Pharaoh, and The Genies Gift at the "For Teachers" tab on my website.

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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