January 29, 2010

The Black Regiment of the American Revolution by Linda Crotta Brennan, Illustrated by Cheryl Kirk Noll. ( North Kingstown, RI: Moon Mountain Publishing, 2004). An attractive and informative book. Good illustrations. Glossary, places to visit, and resources. There are maps throughout. However they are small and a bit confusing. The sidebars were interesting but they were in very small type and often against a dark background, making them hard to read. A larger format would have improved this book. The text employs primary sources and illuminates an area of history that children may not be familiar with. I wished there had been a brief discussion of “overalls” and the author called Yorktown the “turning point” when Saratoga is commonly accepted as such.

January 29, 2010

Dadblamed Union Army Cow by Susan Fletcher, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (Boston: Candlewick Press, 2007). An amusing tale with great illustrations. However, I think it is too elementary for middle grade readers. The print is large and it reminds me of a book for little kids. It is based on a true story, but I don’t like the slang used in the book. It is such a struggle to get kids to use proper English that I do not want to encourage them to do otherwise. Also, it is condensing to assume people of the past did not use proper English. I am continually impressed by the Civil War letters I read, even those from common soldiers.

January 29, 2010

Ain’t Nothing But A Man, My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson, (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2008). An attractive book with great photos, this book gets to the heart of doing historical research. I liked the illustrations and I liked the message of the book. At times I felt the writing was labored, but the tale is an intriguing one. I also liked the material at the end: How to be a Historian and the Appendice..

January 29, 2010

Farmer George Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas, painting by Layne Johnson (Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, 2008). Nice pictures and some things I didn’t know about George Washington, but I didn’t like the continual use of “George” perhaps it was okay when he was young, but later on it got old. I liked the document fragments included, but I didn’t like the script they were printed in.  Although George Washington as farmer is an interesting aside, I wonder when kids know so little about American history if this focus isn’t a little too specific. I liked the two additions at the end: George’s Thoughts on Slavery, and Learn More about Farmer George at Mount Vernon.

January 29, 2010

Remember Valley Forge Patriots, Tories, and Redcoats Tell Their Stories by Thomas B. Allen (Washington, DC: National Geographic 2007). I really liked this book. Great pictures and small pictures of some of the leading figures and as the subtitle indicates, the book contains actual quotes from participants, instead of invented “voices” from the past.  I learned things from reading the book that I didn’t know and it was a great refresher for things I already knew. Good Time line at the end of the book. This book is “patriotic” in that it is a reminder of the many who suffered and died in the cause of American Independence. As Thomas Fleming says in the Foreward “Thomas B. Allen’s book captures this mysterious power of Valley Forge as a symbol of America’s spiritual strength. It is as good as a visit….”

January 29, 2010

Sisters of Scituate Light by Stephen Krensky, Illustrated by Stacey Schuett (New York: Dutton, 2008). This book is listed as “fiction” but it gives every appearance of being an accurate historical account by even including actual quotations from interviews with the girls. However, the girls were not young as portrayed in the book. Rebecca was 21, Abigail was 17. It blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. The pictures, though dramatic and colorful, seem to be more impressionistic than accurate. I liked the story, but I took the book out of the library, again, not realizing I had read it. Apparently, it didn’t make a big impression on me.

January 29, 2010

Dolly Madison Saves George Washington written and Illustrated by Don Brown. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007). I’ve always loved the story of Dolly Madison and I enjoyed the text of this book. The drawings are whimsical and I didn’t care for them, but kids might like them. The information about Gilbert Stuart and the Author’s Note were interesting, but you can’t depend on kids reading this type of thing.

January 29, 2010

Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin, Illustrated by Larry Day (New York: Walker, 2008). This is a quick read with lots of history presented in a pleasing manner. Great illustration, seemingly accurate. I liked the map on the inside of the covers.

January 29, 2010

The Brothers’ War, Civil War Voices in Verse by J. Patrick Lewis and Civil War Photographers (Washington: National Geographic, 2007). I was surprised to see this book of poems is considered to be nonfiction.  I liked some of the poems, but not for kids. Kids at this age are still literal. I can imagine them thinking that a slave, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Sherman, and other really wrote the poem that are in their voices.

The classic Civil War pictures never cease to startle. In spite of the celebration of violence in our culture, I’m not sure ten-year-old kids are ready for this reality. I took special exception to the photograph on p. 27.

I was particularly bothered by the two letters. My experience of reading Civil War letters would indicate that even the common soldiers wrote very good prose. I’m sure there were exceptions, but just as Americans couldn’t believe Frederick Douglass had been a slave because he was so eloquent, so also it is hard for 21st century people to believe how good the prose was at the time of the Civil War.

 The book has an attractive layout with the gold pages a nice counterpoint to the black and white photographs.

January 29, 2010

The Buffalo Storm by Katherine Applegate and Jan Ormerod (New York: Clarion, 2007). Great illustrations and a sweet story, but this book doesn’t improve readers’ knowledge of history. The protagonist seems a bit young four middle grade readers. I wouldn’t think too many readers would relate to a child afraid of storms. Poetically written.

January 29, 2010

Colonial Voices by Kay Winters and Larry Day (New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2008). This book had wonderful illustrations, but I found it boring, especially for readers familiar with Colonial Williamsburg crafts and trades people.  I liked the glossary and even learned something from the book that I didn’t know. However, the colonists throwing the tea into Boston Harbor is a one of those subjects that has been “beaten to death” and historians aren’t in agreement about its significance. I’d rather kids were introduced to something they knew less about. The use of the first person was not effective.

January 29, 2010

Letters from the Corrugated Castle, A Novel of Gold Rush California, by Joan W. Blos (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2007). I grew very weary of this book. The letters go on and on. It is hard to believe that young persons even in the nineteenth century would write such long and detailed letters. At 305 pages overall, the book is too long for many readers. I also felt that the heroine, Eldora, who couldn’t remember her mother, separated with too little sorrow from her Aunt and Uncle. That isn’t the only separation. Lucia mother leaves her and Luke’s father leaves him. And then there is Rafael, Isabela and Carmen. Yes, it was the nineteenth century and families were separated, but I felt this was forced. Throughout the story, it’s unclear what Eldora wants. So there is little to drive the reader.

January 29, 2010

Attack of the Turtle by Drew Carlson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2007). I felt the plot in this book was forced. And the storyline meandered, diverting to the Battle of Long Island. It wasn’t convincing that Nathan would leave the Turtle looking for his father, get involved in the battle without actually enlisting, and then leave the “military” as easily as he had joined up. At one point, Nathan is looking for Joshua Wade, but since his best friend at home was Josh, I was confused, not recalling if and when I had heard his father’s name before.  Putting Nate in the driver’s seat of the submarine was not historically accurate. I knew from the beginning he would be piloting it because of his fear of the water. Unbelievable stuff. I also didn’t like it that he put the word “bastard” into the mouth of Joseph Martin, whom I never recall using anything slightly off color and calling him “Joe,” something else I didn’t recall from Martin’s book. Throughout I felt a “modern sensibility” instead of details to transport the reader to another time.

January 29, 2010

Jamestown, 1607 by Michael L. Cooper (New York: Holiday House, 2007) I was not looking forward to this book since I know so much about Jamestown. I was pleasantly surprised. I especially liked that it relied heavily on primary sources, even to include period pictures. A few quibbles: p. 8 “rolled up their sails,” p. 12 pikes [which are like spears], and p. 75 Chaco was not the helpful Algonquin, but Chanco.  Errors like this made me wonder if I missed other errors.

January 29, 2010

Our Liberty Bell by Henry Jonas Magaziner, illustrated by John O’Brien. (New York: Holiday House, 20017)/This book was a quick read and I liked it because it was “patriotic.” I learned things about the Liberty Bell that I didn’t know and for kids it was contained a snapshot survey of a wide swath of American history. I would have preferred color illustrations. The illustrations were whimsical and I think serious illustrations might have contributed more.

January 18, 2010

The Adventurous Life of Miles Standish by Cheryl Harness (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007) I found it really hard to get through this book. The long sentences really wore me down. (For example a 36 word sentence on p. 90). In other places there were annoying sentence fragments. The tone was “chatty” probably in the attempt to be kid friendly. In doing so, the author used language not appropriate to the times and puts the readers on first name terms with Miles Standish, by referring to him throughout as “Miles.”

At times, the author’s knowledge of history was dubious. She makes sweeping generations that aren’t substantiated by current research:  P. 17 “From the 1500s into the 1700s, tens of thousands of heretics and witches (these, mostly women) were tortured and executed.” P. 21 “Most people, including Henry, believed that God gave kings, queens, czars, and emperors the divine right to rule their land and people with absolute power.” P. 31 I would quibble with her definition of pilgrims. (no mention of the religious connotation). P. 34 the implication is that the Dutch would not have been rich and powerful without refugees. P. 68 too simplistic discussion of self-government. P. 96 incorrect note on tulips. P. 97 misleading discussion of fish manure. P. 103 First Thanksgiving in Virginia.

January 18, 2010

The Amazing Air Balloon by Jean Van Leeuwne, pictures by Marco Ventura. (New York: Phyllis Fogelman Books, 2003). This is the story of a thirteen year old boy, Edward Warren, who was the first American to ride in a hot air balloon in 1784. I felt this was too juvenile for middle grade readers. Warren is thirteen, but there is little text to accompany the nice pictures.

January 18, 2010

My Lost Skirt, The Story of Jennie Hodgers, Union Soldier by Lynda Durrant (New York: Clarion, 2006), I read 106 pages of this book and finally gave up. I found it tough going. It tends to be a narrative of events, rather than a compelling personal story. It is an intriguing subject, a woman who passes as a man during the Civil War, yet the book missed in that it didn’t adequately deal with Jennie’s feelings or give a clear idea of how she coped. The story is a fictional account of an actual person, the only woman on either side of the war to receive a pension. She served as Albert Cashier. I found the prose and the narration ponderous, even though it was written in the first person in the present tense. The book has an author’s note and a bibliography, but no maps. The only illustration is on the cover.  It’s unclear whether the letter on pages 168-9 is an actual document or not. The author might have mentioned it in the author’s note if it was accurate. Contemporaries thought Jennie crazy. Her motivation seems to have been the increased opportunities for men, but this reader wondered if that was all that inspired her to live for 50 plus years as a man.

January 18, 2010

Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy (New York: Scholastic Press, 2006). Maggie and her family had a deadline to meet as they make their way along the Erie Canal in 1848 and they encounter one problem after another. An unlikely “savior” appears to help in the person of Billy Black.

At 268 pages the book is long, and in places it felt forced, especially the conflict between Maggie and Eamon, her younger brother.  It does give readers insight into life on the Erie Canal.

The book contains an author’s note and map at the end, plus a glossary. There was no bibliography. The author continually uses the word “alright” not established until 1893. The book didn’t suggest how the kids went to school and I wonder about the accuracy of the amounts of money described in the book.

January 18, 2010

Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven, pictures by E.B. Lewis (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. The story of a boy named Christmas John who rowed slaves to freedom from Kentucky to Ohio. The story was inspired by WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection. The  part of the story of the grandmother being a dyer and weaver and making the patchwork quilt was contrived.

Overall, I felt the level too junior for middle grade readers.  Yet, the pictures made this an attractive book.

January 18, 2010

Iron Thunder by Avi, The Battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac (New York: Hyperion, 2007). A well researched and easy to read novel with Civil War era pictures and illustrations throughout. Contains a glossary, Author’s Note, and The Monitor Today at the end.

The book is written in the first person for the series “I Witness” and tells the story of Tom Carroll, a boy aboard the Monitor while she was being launched and when she fought the Merrimac. The novel contains a great deal of historical detail. It is always a balancing act to get the right mix of history and story. If this book erred at all, it was on the side of history at the expense of the story. And it obviously did not err since it won the Beacon of Freedom Award, a child-chosen award for books on early American history.

Aside from Tom, a number of the other characters were not well developed. However, Avi does a great job of sustaining reader interest throughout. A lot of the research was done in Newport News, Virginia at the Mariners’ Museum.

January 18, 2010

My Name is Sally Little Song by Brenda Woods(New York: Putnams, 2006). The book tells the story through the first person narrative of a twelve-year-old American slave who with her family escapes slavery to find refuge in the Florida swamps with the Seminole Indians in 1802.

Nice little poems head each chapter and the “black” dialogue while well done is sometimes jarring. I was initially put off by the book because the picture it painted of slaves was grim and it is an oft told tale. It was very “black and white” without any nuances.

The book got better when the family made their way to the protections of the Indians. However, I did think that the continual parade of disasters was sometimes a bit forced. You have to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but that doesn’t always have to be an alligator attack.         I thought the lost mother was handled sensitively with a number of references to it. Many other  times, a leading character suffers loss without showing this in the story.

There is an afterward, but as an historian I wanted more. I wanted suggestions for further reading, a map, and a glossary of Indian terms used.

I liked the picture cover girl who is clearly African American wearing Seminole dress.

January 18, 2010

By the Sword by Selene Castrovill with illustrations by Bill Farnsworth (Calkins Creek, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2007) This story of Benjamin Tallmadge missed. The illustrations were pretty and impressionistic. The book had a timeline, author’s research notes, and maps all of which I applaud. However, the story wasn’t compelling, in spite of the action. Perhaps the story wasn’t developed enough for the reader to sympathize with Tallmadge.  He loved his horse, but forgot him. If this is true to the events, it doesn’t make Tallmadge sympathetic. In the Author’s notes when she asks “What is truth?” I cringed, not the best tact for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who can deal with uncertainty, but perhaps not high blown philosophical statements.

January 18, 2010

Voyage of Ice by Michele Torrey (New York: Knopf, 2004). This book was hard to put down. Initially, I was put off by the length, but since the drama was sustained, it went quickly. A great insight into the life of whalers in the 19th century. The age of Nick Robbins (15-16) and his devotion to Captain Thorndike’s daughter, Elizabeth made me wonder if this book was more of a young adult book.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was the statement after the title page: Voyage on Ice Being the true story of my Nicholas Robbins’ experience about the whaleship Sea Hawk, and of my captain’s cruelty, our shipwreck in the Artic, and of the hardships suffered thereby. As told to Michele Torrey. This blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, and kids have difficulty with what is real and what is imagined. Good glossary, overlong author’s note.

January 18, 2010

The Trailblazing Life of Daniel Boone and How Early Americans Took to the Road written and illustrated by Cheryl Harness (Washington, National Geographic, 2007). There are things I really liked about this book. I was especially taken with the illustrated time line that appeared at the bottom of each page. What a neat way to pique student interest and foster an understanding of many things going on at the same time. I found the Daniel Boone story interestingly presented with great illustrations. However, sometimes the prose was chatty and awkward. In places, I had to read things more than once to understand the author’s point. I liked when the author explained possibly difficult terms for kids such as p. 49 venison(deer meat). On p. 125 where she mention ordinary and with a parenthesis (includes bed and breakfast) although I’m not really sure I’d call an ordinary by that modern designation. Nonetheless, kids enlarge their vocabulary as they read.

I didn’t like expanding the Boone story to include Chapter 5 “On the Go” When Boone died, I lost interest and had to trudge through that last section. Perhaps to make the book different, the author has cast it in a wider mode, but I didn’t feel that was needed or effective. In fact, I felt it detracted from the book.

January 18, 2010

The Many Rides of Paul Revere by James Cross Giblin (New York, Scholastic, 2007). I thought I knew all about Paul Revere until I read this book. I didn’t know that Revere was such an entrepreneur and took more than one ride. I liked the archival illustrations, the Time Line, Maps, and Historic Sites to Visit. A great example of how a specific story, encompasses the whole. Great material for discussion of the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the War itself, the Industrial Revolution, the War of 1812 and the relationship of the facts to the famous poem. An attractive book, except I didn’t like the double columns.

January 18, 2010

A Pickpocket’s Tale by Karen Schwabach(New York: Random House, 2007). At 213 pages, the book is a bit long, but it is well researched and I think kids will like it. It is the story of Molly Abraham, a Jewish pickpocket who is transported for her crimes to New York in 1730. Of particular interest to kids will be the use of the London dialogue of Flash-cant. There is a glossary at the back of the book, explaining the terms. Many of them can be gleaned from context. The central character is engaging and well-drawn, the tension sustained throughout the story. Very well done. Includes an author’s note, map, and glossary. Highly recommended.

January 18, 2010

Torchlight by Carol Otis Hunter. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006) The book revolves around an incident in 1854 (The summary wrong on back of cover) Fifth grader Charlotte befriends an Irish girl, Maggie in Westfield MA amid strong anti-Irish feelings. The story is told from Charlotte’s point of view and language reflects the period. Good historical research. Gentle humor throughout the book graces what could be a dreary topic. Highly recommend.

January 18, 2010

Red Thunder by John P. Hunter (Colonial Williamsburg, 2007)

This book was on a good topic:  The Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and African American spy James Armistead. Young Nate and his dog help James with his spying. There was lots of drama in the book although I found much of it forced and unconvincing.

I do not think this book was suitable for young readers. Books for middle grade students generally do not employ the omniscient viewpoint found in this book, rather using either first or third person. And if more than one viewpoint is employed than usually a chapter shift. Also, at 232 pages this book was too long or perhaps it only seemed that way because of the way it was written.  The author does too much “telling” not enough showing. He tends to  explains things when they should naturally evolve in the story.

Also, the author uses non-eighteenth century terminology: Tarleton, a thug and tsunami….that might pass but when the main charter Nate thinks about someone being a nitwit, employing a term from the 1920s, it is jarring.

I question the accuracy of the story in several places. The writing style seems to be young adult and the content level middle grade.