Apr 11, 2010

Historical Fiction Book Reviews

Peck, Richard. 2003. The River Between Us. Penguin Group (USA). ISBN 0803727356

In 1916 a young boy travels with his father and two brothers to their father’s hometown. Upon meeting his grandparents, aunt, and uncle, the story and narration shift to the boy’s grandmother Tilly in 1861. Tilly describes her life on the homestead during the Civil War, and the mysterious guests that come in the dead of night.

Critical Analysis:
In 1916, Howard Hutchings and his two younger brothers travel with their father to his childhood home. Howard’s grandparents, aunt, and uncle still reside in the southern Illinois homestead. The story changes narration to Howard’s grandmother Tilly, and we are transported back in time to when she was a teenager in 1861. During this time, the Civil War is getting under way, and racial tensions run high in the town. One night, two mysterious women (Delphine and Calinda) from New Orleans arrive by boat. Tilly’s mother takes the two strangers in as boarders. The adjustment is difficult for everyone; Delphine is temperamental and demanding, and Calinda takes over the kitchen making her "PRAWLEEENS", but the money is good. Over time, mysteries about these women unfold, as well as the war.

The setting for this story is ordinary (Illinois), but what the reader will be drawn to are the characters and events. Tilly's sister Cass suffers from eerie visions and at times a gruesome scene unfolds of people suffering a horrible death. Delphine and Calinda are unique to the story as well. Their New Orleans dialect is intriguing and when we read, "...imagine-toi Maman and Papa in the brilliance of the ballroom, leading a quadrille.", we realize how very different the two women are from Tilly's family. The relationship between Delphine and Calinda is almost stereotypical. During most of the book we aren't quite sure what their relationship is. Tilly suggests that Calinda is her slave or servant. It is not until the end when we find out their true relationship.

Although this is a young adult novel, Peck doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details of war life, as well as the tough economic times for families waiting for soldiers at home. He also doesn’t tiptoe around the harsh viewpoints towards blacks and slavery during those violent times. The town in which the story take place is factual, and it is quite possible that two strangers exited a boat in the middle of the night during the Civil War and changed the lives others. The River Between Us is a great historical fiction read for a middle or high school student. The description of war wounds and the language may prove too difficult for a younger reader.

Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2004
National Book Award Finalist, 2003

“The author crafts his characters impeccably and threads together their fates in surprising ways that shed light on the complicated events of the Civil War." Publisher’s Weekly

“Peck spices up his stew with showboats, apparitions, romance, battle, and twists around every corner in this great read, even for those who dislike historical fiction.” VOYA

“Peck writes beautifully, bringing history alive through Tilly's marvelous voice and deftly handling themes of family, race, war, and history. A rich tale full of magic, mystery, and surprise.” Kirkus Reviews

Peck, Richard. 2006. The Teacher’s Funeral. Penguin Group (USA). ISBN 0142405078

Map out the distance between New Orleans, LA to the southern tip of Illinois. Discuss how you think the boat trip was for Delphine and Calinda.

Park, Linda Sue. 2001. A Single Shard. Scholastic Inc. ISBN 0439445469

Twelve-year-old Tree-ear is an orphaned child who longs to make the delicate celadon pottery his small village in Korea is famous for.

Critical Analysis:
Tree-ear is a twelve-year-old homeless orphan in Ch'ul'po, a small village in Korea during the mid to late 12th century. Since he was a very small child, a crippled man named Crane-man has been taking care of him under a bridge they call home. They live an honest and honorable life for being homeless and penniless. Crane-man has taught Tree-ear to never steal or beg claiming that those actions are “no better than a dog”. One day, after searching for food in trash heaps, Tree-ear travels to a potter’s house. For weeks, he has been going to watch the potter make the fragile green pottery his village is famous for. When he arrives, the potter is nowhere in sight, and he cannot resist the temptation to hold a beautiful ceramic. Upon discovery, Tree-ear drops the piece and it shatters. Being an honorable boy, Tree-ear volunteers his services to the potter to work off the debt. The work is hard, but he feels honored to work for a Master Potter. When his debt is paid, Tree-ear stays to work for the potter in exchange for food. Tree-ear is never selfish. He always shares the food he earns with Crane-man. When a royal aid comes to the village for a commissioned piece of pottery, Tree-ear and the potter work night and day on a new technique. Things do not go as expected and Tree-ear must take a very long journey to the countries capitol to deliver the pottery. Will he fail his Master Potter or will Crane-man’s teachings provide the insight and strength he needs?

Park takes on a very daunting task. I cannot imagine the amount of research that had to be done in order to make this story accurate and entertaining. Most books for young readers do not tackle the mid to late 12th century or celadon pottery. She takes the reader into a very unfamiliar time, and yet she makes it seem that it isn’t so long ago. The voice she gave to Crane-man makes an impression on the reader. His philosophies on stealing, begging, eavesdropping can all be retold today. It is important for a young reader to know that honorable deeds and characteristics stand the test of time. Tree-ear has many heart-breaking moments in the story. Tree-ear can prove to be a good role model for young readers who struggle with poverty, loss and heart-break. Park gives us a timeless story of courage and hope. Shard would be a great read for a parent and child. Both would learn about Korean culture and the time period.

Newbery Medal Winner
ALA Notable Children's Book Winner, 2006
Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award Nominee, 2006
Massachusetts Children's Book Master List Winner, 2003
School Library Journal Best Books, 2001
ALA Booklist Editors' Choice, 2001
New York Public Library, "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing", 2001
Parents' Choice Memorable New Title, Fall 2001

“Intrigues, danger, and the same strong focus on doing what is right turn a simple story into a compelling read. . . . A timeless jewel.” Kirkus Reviews, Starred

“A well-crafted novel with an unusual setting.” ALA Booklist, Starred

“…this book not only gives readers insight into an unfamiliar time and place, but it is also a great story.” School Library Journal, Starred

Have children research celadon pottery online. Have them sketch a vase that the Master Potter may have made.

Have children sculpt small monkeys out of clay like the one Tree-ear gave to Crane-man.

Lowry, Lois. 1989. Number the Stars. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0395510600

Ten-year-old Annemarie and her best friend Ellen live in Copenhagen during the Nazi invasion in 1943. Their friendship is put to the test when the Jews are being led out of the country.

Critical Analysis:
In 1943, Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen live in Denmark, a German occupied country during World War II. The girls try to live their care-free life, but the reminders of war and struggle surround them. Armed guards roam the streets 24 hrs a day, food like flour and butter have been rationed, and people whisper at all hours of the night. Annemarie’s best friend is Jewish, and when the Nazi’s begin pushing people out of their businesses and relocating families, she fears for her best friends life. The Rosen’s decide to escape Denmark because rumors involving horrific acts are being spread. In order for the Rosen’s to escape without alarming the authorities, Annemarie’s family takes in Ellen and tries to pass her off as their daughter while the rest of the Rosen’s flee to Sweden. Tensions rise and Annemarie’s mother takes the girls to her brother’s house in Gilleleje, a small boating village in Denmark. It is there that she learns why everyone whispers at night. Soon, Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission. Somehow she must find the courage; for her best friend’s life is at stake.

In my eyes, Lowry can do no wrong. Every book I have read is a page turner filled with only the best choice of words. Number the Stars is no different. Many books have been told about this shameful time period, but only Lowry tugs at your heart and makes it sing all in the same sitting.
The characters are believable, as well as the series of events that lead to the Rosen’s need to leave. The loving relationship between Annemarie and her best friend Ellen are constant. Annemarie wants to protect Ellen when she finds out that the Nazi’s would harm her over her religious beliefs. This bond is what carries Annemarie through her courageous mission.

Readers will easily be caught up in the story, and goosebumps will come easy when the guards enter a scene. This title is a must read for anyone child studying the Nazi occupation during WWII. Thankfully, Lowry provided an Afterword that solidifies what is fact, and what is fiction. Truly, Number the Stars is a masterpiece that will be relevant for years to come.

Arkansas Charlie May Simon Master List Winner, 1991
Sydney Taylor Book Award, Association of Jewish Libraries Winner, 1989
Kansas William White Master List Winner, 1991
Kentucky Bluegrass Master List Winner, 1991
Maine Student Book Award Winner, 1990
Massachusetts Children's Book Award Finalist, 1993
Newbery Medal Winner
ALA Notable Children's Book Winner
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year Winner

"The whole work is seamless, compelling, and memorable -- impossible to put down; difficult to forget." Publisher’s Weekly

"While the novel has an absorbing plot, its real strength lies in its evocation of deep friendship between the two girls and of a caring family who make a profoundly moral choice to protect others during wartime." Booklist

Jordon, Kathy. 2004. A Guide to Using Number the Stars in the Classroom. Teacher Created Resources. ISBN 1557344248

Have students locate on a map of Denmark the cities Copenhagen and Gilleleje and identify them on their maps

Have the students color code a map of Western Europe according to each countries involvement with the war (i.e. German Occupied Countries such as Denmark colored all one color, and Neutral countries such as Sweden are another color).