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Children's Book Reviews

Up Close & Personal...History Comes Alive

Up Close & Personal...
History Comes Alive

Kate Marley

Historical stories are a great way to personalize history and make it real for children. The following books are about children in some famous, and not so famous, moments in time. Historical fiction brings the muck, the gore, the smell of reality and the intimacy of heartbreak right to the reader. And while they are a sneaky way to teach about the past, they also show how kids throughout time have dealt with hardship and troubles, some of which may seem bizarre to youngsters today. We may no longer have arranged marriages or pirates, but the principles of faith, courage and truth are still relevant. One can always hope that kids, at least, might learn from history.


Granddaddy's Street Songs by Monalisa DeGross. © 1999, Hyperion.
Not so long ago, street vendors called arabbers wound through the streets and alleys of Baltimore with horse drawn wagons, luring their customers with songs. Little Roddy loves to hear his Granddaddyís stories about his days as an arabber, loves to look at the old pictures and sing the old songs. Warm and colorful illustrations by Floyd Cooper capture the old manís vibrant memories, and even more, the love between him and his grandson.

Lewis & Papa by Barbara Joosse. © 1998, Chronicle Books.
They hear that one can make their fortune by packing sought after goods down the Santa Fe Trail, and Papa decides to join a wagon train of others doing the same. Papa takes his son Lewis along to help, and along the long hard trail, Lewis learns how to pack a wagon, how to cross a river safely, and what it is to be a man. Illustrations by Jon Van Zyle help bring the West to life.

Bachís Big Adventure by Sallie Ketcham. © 1999, Orchard Books.
Johann Sebastian Bach himself told his version of the story. Even in a family known for their musical talent, Johannís abilities were extraordinary. One day, his older brother tells him that Adam Reincken of Hamburg is the greatest organist in Germany, not Johann. Being a determined sort of kid, Johann walks all the way to Hamburg to find out about this man for himself. Amusing watercolors are by Timothy Bush.


Happy Birthday, Josefina! by Valerie Tripp. © 1998, Pleasant Co.
Spirited, curious Josefina lives in 1824 New Mexico, on her fatherís ranch with her sisters. Like all the American Girls stories, itís fairly predictable, but still a nice story about everyday life in an early Hispanic community.

Soft Rain by Cornelia Cornelissen. © 1998, Delacorte.
This is another excellent story about the Trail of Tears, when the American government brutally relocated the Cherokee nation in 1838. Nine year old Soft Rain and her mother are forced at gunpoint to abandon her blind grandmother and their house while her father and brother are in the fields. Spare but eloquent, the agony and heartbreak of this forced march where hundreds died are told through her eyes.


Fire, Bed & Bone by Henrietta Branford. © 1998, Candlewick.
This powerful, lyrical novel about the Peasantsí Revolt in 1381 England is told from a dogís point of view. She watches as her master and mistress listen to the whispered words of equality and freedom, and is there when they pay for their presumption. In spare but eloquent language, she tells of the children, both canine and human, during these unsettled times. Itís an eye-opening look into the experiences of a class too often overlooked.

Susannah by Janet Hickman. © 1998, Greenwillow.
This is an excellent book showing how the power of cults to cause dissention among families is not a modern phenomenon. Set in 1810, this story about a thirteen year old dragged into a new Shaker settlement by her distraught father after her motherís death touches on many issues still very relevant today. Cults, money, custody battles, family values, tolerance, freedom of religion and the pursuit of happiness are all part of Susannahís story as she struggles against a way of life that she can not accept, even though it brings peace to her father.

Pirateís Son by Geraldine McCaughrean. First American edition, 1998, Scholastic.
Orphaned and penniless in eighteenth century England, Nathan Gull and his younger sister Maud are befriended by Tamo White, a pirateís son who was sent to Nathanís school. The three travel to Madagascar, where Tamo grew up, and become mired in the islandís complex and dangerous cultures - natives trying to live their own way, the pirates who prey on them and the sea traders nearby. Both are foreign to Maud and Nathan and the finely detailed story of how these youngsters find a new life is absorbing.

Miriam by Beatrice Gormley. © 1999, Eerdmans.
Nearly everyone knows the story of Moses, but here is another point of view. His older sister Miriam and the Egyptian princessí chief lady-in-waiting Nebet trade chapters as they tell their side of the story. Miriam struggles to stay true to her God and her own growing powers of prophecy as she lives in the palace among what is at first to her an alien culture. Nebet is trying to keep her princess on Pharoahís good side among the cutthroat political manuevering by courtiers and priests even as her mistress does flaky things like adopting a Hebrew baby. I only wished it had been longer; Moses is still a toddler at the end, but hopefully there will be a sequel.

Dust From Old Bones by Sandra Forrester. © 1999, Morrow.
In 1838 New Orleans, young Simone Racine is part of the free mixed race society that lives fairly prosperously, but precariously, along side the whites and slaves. This is a fascinating story about some hard choices Simone must make and how she grows up a little during a difficult year for her and her family.

Child Bride by Ching Yeung Russell. © 1999, Boyds Mills Press.
In 1940, Ying is being raised by her Ah Pau, her motherís mother, in a small town while her parents are working in Hong Kong. But when her paternal grandmother falls ill, Ying is sent to see her and discovers, to her horror, that she will be married off. Although only eleven, Ying vigorously protests, and when that doesnít work, runs away to find her Ah Pau.

Banditís Moon by Sid Fleischman. © 1998, Greenwillow.
During the gold rush in the mid 1800ís, there rode a Mexican bandit known to some as the Robin Hood of California. Twelve year old Annyrose accidentally falls in with him and his gang while escaping her cruel guardian and itís through her eyes that we learn about Joaquin Murieta, what set him on the outlawís path, and their narrow escapes as Murieta seeks vengeance and Annyrose seeks her brother. Other colorful characters include Three Fingered Jack, O.O. Mary and Captain Love. If any of these names sound familiar (for instance, from the Zorro movie?) perhaps itís because some of them were real people.

Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. © 1999, Hyperion.
This is a story about a year in the life of an Ojibwa girl living with her family by Lake Superior. Itís a busy year, filled with gathering food, and taking care of her younger siblings, visiting relatives. But during the winter, an unwelcome and deadly visitor arrives, and changes her life forever. Itís a haunting, but hopeful story mostly about the resilience and power of the human spirit.

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