Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Historical Fiction Reviews

Cushman, Karen. 2010. Alchemy and Meggy Swann. New York: Clarion Books.

In 1573, young Meggy Swann is unceremoniously shipped off by her mother to the dirty, gritty city of London, England and dumped on her distracted and unfeeling alchemist father.  Hampered by a physical handicap, she is unprepared for the hardships of life in this bustling, unsympathetic city and must find her way to function in a strange new world.  Along her way, she changes and learns about survival, courage, friendship and transformation. 

Critical Analysis:
Karen Cushman, a Newbery Honor and Newbery Medal winner for previous works of children’s historical fiction, once again uses extensive research to write a type of bildungsroman set in Elizabethan England about Margret Swann (“Only my friends call me Meggy”), a rather prickly, disabled country girl of 13 who is sent to the city to be cared for by a father she never knew.  She brings with her a goose named “Louise,” who is also lame, and her only friend now that her kindly grandmother has died.  She is forced to live in relative squalor by her distracted alchemist father, who wishes she had been a boy. 

The author uses plenty of descriptions of the clothing (doublets, kirtles, smocks, jerkins) and city descriptions of the era (soot, slime, sewage, noise and heads rotting on spikes), but the reader is primarily taken back in time by the language.  Meggy curses regularly, saying “ye toads and vipers;” “fie upon thee;” and a personal favorite, “go then, you writhled, beetle-brained churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain – may onions grow in your ears!”  At times the archaic language is heavy handed, but it does add accuracy to the story and makes the reader feel they are immersed in the time. 

 In the course of the book, Meggy learns ways to find her own food, make friends, navigate the filthy cobblestone streets with crutches and a limp and to help her brusque and distracted father in his alchemy laboratory.  She also uncovers and foils a plot to poison a nobleman and learns a trade that will allow her to survive.  

In spite her unfortunate circumstances, Meggy has spirit and determination and learns to be braver and stronger in the course of the story.  Universal themes of a journey or quest, overcoming adversity, courage, sacrifice and alienation in society are all present in this short book.  Though Meggy struggles daily with many things, at the end of the book she has come so far as to say, “I am not breakable, and I may be stronger than I look.”

The author’s sources for accuracy in the book, from language to clothing to city life, are listed and include six books and three websites.  Her author’s note at the end reveals in a lively style more information about the historical era, science, alchemy, printing, language and the particular birth defect she picked for her character: bilateral hip dysplasia. This defect was chosen for a reason:  in literature, a physical disability is usually a symbol or metaphor representing being different and overcoming a hardship.  

The cover of the book features a painterly style portrait of Meggy, and reflects the Elizabethan era in the medieval style script of the title and Meggy’s clothing.  Some of the themes of the book are shown in the alchemy bottles and equipment, Meggy’s crutches, and the delightful goose, Louise.

The author weaves the theme of transformation neatly into the book, from the quote by Carl Jung at the beginning: (“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed”); the references to alchemy throughout the book; and the final thoughts of Meggy at the end when she realizes how much her life has changed - “Was she so changed?  Just when had that happened, and how?”  In the last scene, she finally has a chance to dance, in her own way, with friends.  She rejoices, “Ye toads and vipers, here was transformation indeed!”

Best Books:
Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth, 2010
Kirkus Best Children’s Books, 2010
School Library Journal Best Books, 2010
VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers

“Cushman brings a distant historical setting, in this case Elizabethan England, to life with evocative details and authentic dialogue.” – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“Meggy is a heroine in mind and deed. Cushman has the uncanny ability to take a time and place so remote and make it live. Readers can hear and see and smell it all as if they are right beside Meggy. She employs the syntax and vocabulary of the period so easily that it is understood as if it's the most contemporary modern slang. A gem.” – Kirkus Reviews

Personal Response:
Spending time in Cushman’s world of Elizabethan England, through the eyes of a young girl, was educational and enlightening.  I appreciated how much research went into the writing of the novel, and am looking forward to reading the Newbury Award winning The Midwife’s Apprentice when I have time.  I also enjoyed the author’s note, especially her explanation of the differences between the uses of thee, thou, ye and you.  

This would be a great book to read to a class during the renaissance festivals that many areas host nearby.  It could also be used for descriptions of language, clothing and city life during a unit on Elizabethan England.  And of course, older kids could have fun coming up with their own blistering barbs using the examples of the verbal sparring Meggy and her friend Roger do in the book! 

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. Alchemy and Meggy Swann. (accessed November 4, 2013).

Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Jack Gantos, the author and name sake in the book as well, has written an “entirely true and wildly fictional” semi-autobiographical young adult novel about his time growing up in the town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania (named after EleaNOR RooseVELT), during the summer of 1962.  Filled with wacky characters, bits of history, and laugh-out-loud scenes, this novel captures the flavor of the era in a subtle way and reminds us that “history isn’t dead.  It’s everywhere you look.  It’s alive.” 

Critical Analysis:
 Is it a comedy, a mystery, a statement of the consequences of war, or a novel about community, friendship, and the importance of history?  It’s actually all of that, and more.  Jack Gantos (Jackie only to his mom), is a 13 year old boy living in the dying town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962, whose vacation gets off to a bad start when he accidentally fires a real bullet from his  father’s old WWII rifle and gets grounded for the summer.  His only outlets are helping his neighbor, Ms. Volker, an arthritic obituary writer and medical examiner, digging a bomb shelter for his dad, and reading lots of bloody historical books in the Landmark Book series. 

 During the course of this summer, he is cured of his emotionally-driven chronic epistaxis (nosebleeds), cleans up many poisoned mice and rats, experiences terrorism by a group of Hell’s Angels, helps identify a serial killer and dances a tightrope between his feuding parents.  Through all this, Jack comes to appreciate his town, his neighbors, his friends and even his parents in new and wonderful ways.

The author gives his character a wonderful voice, and includes lively dialogue so real, the reader feels he or she is part of the conversation.  The scenes in the book are listed chronologically, beginning with the derailment of Jack’s summer plans all the way through to August 17th, when “Jack Gantos was released from being grounded by his parents.”  He says, though, “stay tuned, because on August 18 he might be grounded all over again – unless he remembers his own history!” The author gradually reveals the historical era of the book through cleverly dropped references to time, place and characters. 

Some passages, especially about war, are so poignant they bear repeated readings.  And they are applicable to our times as well, reflecting universal themes.  His father, a WWII veteran, says, “Don’t ever go to war.  Even if you win, the battle is never over inside you.”  When asked by Jack which is worse, past history of future history, his father answers, “Future history; each war gets worse because we get better at killing each other.”  Jack learns about the importance of history by the end of the book when he says, “the reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you’ve done in the past is so you don’t do it again,” paraphrasing the famous quote that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

John Newbery Medal winner, 2012
Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2012
Best Books: 
Kirkus Best Children’s Books, 2011
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books, 2011
YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012
“There’s more than laugh-out-loud gothic comedy here. This is a richly layered
semi-autobiographical tale, an ode to a time and place, to history and the power
of reading.” – The Horn Book

 “[This is] a more quietly (but still absurdly) funny and insightful account of a kid's growth, kin to Gantos' Jack stories, that will stealthily hook even resistant readers into the lure of history. - The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Personal Response:
Dropping bits of history like bread crumbs for an eager reader to follow, Gantos had me reaching for my I-Pad and Google to learn more about the town of Norvelt and the various events of history peppered throughout the book.  References to JFK and PT109, Hemmingway’s hemochromatosis, the US Army bomber flying into the Empire State Building and Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence on the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, all led me to explore these topics in more detail.  This is definitely a book older boys will love, as there is a bit of gore, but it can also be enjoyed by anyone who likes books with quirky characters and an entertainingly interwoven plot.

The author provides a teaching guide at which covers themes such as family, friendships, community, courage, and growing up, as well as activities that could be used in language arts, social studies, drama and art.  Links to websites on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt and information on the Piper Cub J-3 plane (which can be interpreted as a character itself in the book) are included.

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. Dead End in Norvelt. (accessed November 5, 2013).

Schmidt, Gary D. 2007.  The Wednesday Wars. New York: Clarion Books.

From the award-winning author of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, comes the tale of 7th grader Holling Hoodhood who embarks on a year of change and growth set during the Vietnam era.  Holling learns his teacher doesn’t really hate him, he can run as fast as the wind with psychotic rats chasing him, reading Shakespeare does actually have a point, small acts of kindness are worth their weight in gold, and you don’t have to be lost in order to be found.

Critical Analysis:
“What’s in a name….” writes Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, but that question is one the reader ponders in Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars as well.  Names are important in this book, though it takes some time to figure out the connection between names and identity.  

Holling Hoodhood, is a 7th grade boy living during the Vietnam War era, who struggles with many universal issues of that age: mean teachers, bullying, relationships with friends and family, courage, and, of course, girls.   If an author is supposed to “write what they know,” then Mr. Schmidt must remember his middle school years well.  He gives our hero a wonderfully unique voice, part cynical, part wide-eyed curiosity and wonder.  Universal themes abound in this novel - of  struggling against adversity (“Mrs. Baker hate’s my guts”),  family dynamics, prejudice, bullying, courage (in the face of large 8th graders, escaped rats, Shakespeare, big sisters and yellow tights), and of course, baseball, America’s pastime.

The author gives this young adult historical novel a well-established setting, and drops plenty of appropriate references to give the reader a feel for the era: The Monkees, Walter Cronkite nightly Vietnam news, dittos (remember the purple/blue ink, the warmth, the smell of those copies?), war protests, Saturn V, Mickey Mantle, Brezhnev, POWs, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  Intermixed with these references is a story filled with comedy, drama, love and tragedy, not unlike a Shakespearian play itself.  

The author has a great time using quotes from the plays Holling’s teacher makes him read on Wednesday afternoons (hence, the Wednesday wars) to increase the comedic value of the dialogue between the characters. However the bard’s original intent in his words is changed and manipulated by Schmidt in new and fresh ways that leave the reader gasping for breath with laughter and awe.  And Holling’s teacher, Mrs. Baker, whose soldier husband is MIA during part of the book, doesn’t really hate him, as Holling thinks – she actually sees promise in him and has a plan to help him.  She tells him late in the book to “learn everything you can… and then use all you have learned to grow up to be a good and wise man.”  

 We come to see that Holling is well on his way to achieving this goal, through the help of his teacher, his friends, his community and his experiences with the world in which he lives.  Certain aspects of the plays that Holling reads with Mrs. Baker reflect life lessons Holling learns in the novel.  Of Hamlet, Holling says, "maybe he never had someone tell him that he didn't need to find himself...he just needed to let himself be found."  And, of course, one of the best lessons Holling learns is "to thine own self be true."

Cybil Award Finalist, 2007
John Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2008
IBBY Honor List, 2010

“Holling's unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open.” – Booklist

“Schmidt has a way of getting to the emotional heart of every scene without overstatement, allowing the reader and Holling to understand the great truths swirling around them on their own terms.” - Kirkus

Personal Response:
The Wednesday Wars is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and I read A LOT!  I laughed so hard at times, tears leaked and I scared the dog.  I especially loved how the author would occasionally repeat lines in the book from earlier sentences that made you look at the words in a whole new way, even expressing new thoughts, almost like the pantoum in poetry.  I already have a list of people who will be getting this book for Christmas, from my 13 year old son to my 89 year old veteran stepfather.  It’s one of those books that need to be read……and shared.

The obvious uses of this book would be to read it to a class during a unit on the Vietnam War, or even on making Shakespeare relevant to students of today.  But it’s so entertaining, and at times so amazingly poignant, that a teacher or librarian do not really even need a specific reason to recommend this book to a middle or high school boy, knowing that the reader’s life will be enriched beyond measure.

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. The Wednesday Wars. (accessed November 6, 2013).