In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!) Oh, trust me, my adolescent friends, I have been there, and I know your pain. That’s why I’m sending some stories your way that promise action, mystery and in some cases, some good old fashioned gore. Sure, you may not know much about history, but learning it from these juicy fictional accounts is way more fun than memorizing any old, dry textbook. And won’t you impress Mr. or Mrs. “I’ve-Been-Teaching-History-Since-Before-WWI” when you display your dazzling knowledge of Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or pagan Iceland in the time of the Vikings. Don’t be afraid to shout out to some of those dried-up, monotonous-monotone history teachers just what kind of hist. fic. you want to read: the kind that doesn’t put you to sleep! And maybe, just maybe, between all of you and me, we can start a revolution of revised historical fiction reading lists. Viva la Hist. Fic. for Hipsters!
Historical Fiction for Hipsters
It is 1945 and WWII is coming to a messy, brutal end. Germany is being squeezed by the Allies on both sides (British and American troops from the west, Russian troops from the east) and panicked civilians and refugees are desperate to escape the war torn country. Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse haunted by the loss of her family, is trying to save anyone who crosses her path, no matter how impossible their circumstances may be. Florian, a Prussian assistant curator, is traveling to the coast with a precious object that if discovered, could topple the entire Third Reich. Emilia, a sixteen year old Polish girl, is looking for a savior even as she hides a secret that could either ruin or redeem her, depending on who she trusts with the truth. And Alfred is a vain young Nazi in training, trying to hide his cowardliness behind a gruff curtain of superiority, even as he finds his slim grip on sanity slipping away. These four young people find their fates intertwined when they all board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German refugee transport ship that is supposed to carry them to safety. But the unlucky Gusloff is torpedoed by Russian submarines and sank on January 30th, 1945. Over 9000 people perish. Who among the four fleeing teens survives the icy waters and overcrowded lifeboats to start a new life in a new land–if any? Award-winning author Ruta Sepety‘s historical fiction could not be more timely as countries around the world wrestle with the question of how to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria today. Told in four intense, original voices, this masterful and heartrending tale about a little known WWII tragedy will help readers empathize with the plight of refugees throughout history. Don’t miss this boat when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
It’s the summer of 1977 in Queens, New York and situations both inside and outside seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez’s life are threatening to explode. Outside the tiny apartment Nora’s single mom works day and night to hold onto, it is the hottest summer on record. Arsonists are setting random fires around the city that are keeping the firemen like Nora’s best friend Kathleen’s dad busy day and night. There is a serial killer on the loose calling himself “The Son of Sam” who murders young couples in their cars and sends terrifying letters to the newspapers that give Nora nightmares. A city-wide blackout encourages a wave of crime that causes tempers to flare and feelings of fear and racism to flourish. Meanwhile, closer to home, Nora’s younger brother Hector, always a troublemaker, seems to be getting worse. A violent drop-out with a drug addiction, Hector rages at Nora, physically strikes their mother and rarely comes home at night. Nora is worried that he is possibly one of the city’s destructive arsonists. But she stuffs her misgivings deep inside, afraid of what telling the truth will do to her already fractured family. “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?” Nora longs to ask her father for help, but he has a new family in Manhattan and only calls on holidays to hear good news, not problems. The only bright spot in Nora’ life is her blossoming romance with her deli co-worker Pablo. His dreamy good looks and positive attitude give Nora hope. But when Hector takes his brutality to a new level and her mother loses her factory job, Nora pulls away from Pablo, afraid to draw him into her family drama. She’s never felt so alone, and wishes her mother didn’t always expect her hold everything together. “Shouldn’t she be able to take better care of us? Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do? Take care of their kids? Shield them from stuff? Pay bills? Why is everything the other way around for us?” Can Nora learn to ask for the help she needs before her entire world combusts? The novel takes it’s title from a well known disco song, but while Nora escapes to the club to forget her problems, the music can’t save her. I have deep love for Meg Medina’s books because they are set in my beloved Queens (my neighborhood of Forest Hills gets a shout out for it’s historical Tudor houses and because it was sadly a notorious site of one of the Son of Sam murders) and her teen characterizations are spot on. The feelings she conveys are honest and authentic, and her descriptions of NYC back in the day will make the 70’s come alive for you. Nora is a complex, original character who will bring your summer to its knees when you get your hands on this hotter than hot novel in March 2016.
What do a brother and sister in 1935 Nazi Germany, two homeless boys in 1935 Philadelphia and a young Latino girl in 1942 California have in common? A magical harmonica and the hope that lives within it. In Pam Munoz Ryan’s epic, all-ages novel, the power of music unites these young people across time and space as they each awaken the sleeping enchantment that is embedded in the deceptively simple instrument.
Twelve-year-old music prodigy Frederick and eighteen-year-old nursing student Elisabeth were once the closest of siblings, but they have grown apart due to Elisabeth’s new found fascination with the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Elisabeth believes in Hitler’s propaganda about about a “pure” race with no physical or mental flaws and Frederich, who was born with a large purple birthmark on his face, wonders how his sister can accept an idea that essentially brands him as an outsider in his own country. When their father is picked up by Nazi soldiers while Elisabeth is away, Frederich must embark on dangerous journey to save him, his only comfort the strange and beautiful harmonica he found in an abandoned warehouse.
Mike and Frankie have been living at The Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children since their Granny couldn’t take care of them anymore. Their only solace is each other and the old piano that Mile knows how to play from Granny’s many lessons. When a rich stranger arrives and offers to adopt them both because of Mike’s musical talent, the boys think their ship has come in. But when the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mike thought, he decides to sacrifice his own happiness in order to save his brother by auditioning for Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, a traveling harmonica band that takes in young musicians and pays for their keep. Maybe the family will love Frankie more if Mike leaves. But before his final audition, Mike learns a secret that threatens to destroy the plan riding on his skill with the beautiful harmonica he found in an old music shop.
Ivy is devastated when she learns that her family is leaving Fresno for a new home outside of Los Angeles. She was supposed to play her beloved harmonica in a radio show with her class, but now she must leave all her friends and start over at a farm that her father is taking care of for a family that has been sent to a Japanese internment camp. When she is pulled into a frightening situation where she must come to the aid of the Japanese family who provided her family with their new home, the only thing that soothes her fear is the music she plays on her harmonica.
The three stories converge on one night in 1951. How do Frederick, Mike and Ivy find each other and what brings them together? I wouldn’t dream of denying you the incredible satisfaction of finding that answer out for yourself. A hopeful, lyrically written story about the magic of the everyday and how one person, no matter how young, can make a difference. Whether you are six, sixteen or sixty, everyone should read Echo.
Ruth would do anything to get out of Gran’s “old person smelling” house, but the results are disastrous when cute Ray Stevens offers a sleepover with benefits. Dora wishes she had a place she could call home because no matter how kind Dumping’s parents are, she can never forget that she is a guest in their house due to her father’s inability to stay away from the bottle. Dumpling always wears a red ribbon on the end of her braid for luck, but it doesn’t save her from what fate has in store. Alyce is torn between the two worlds of professional ballet and commercial fishing, and making a choice means disappointing one of her divorced parents. Hank is forced to take his two younger brothers on the run in order to find out where he truly belongs. This group of disenfranchised Alaskan teens living on the edges of their white, Athabaskan and Inupiat communities in the 1970’s end up coming together in complicated and unexpected ways that will delight and surprise readers. Based on the debut author’s own experiences growing up in Alaska, this character-rich, poetically-written, all-ages read will be available at a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
It’s not easy being a sixteen year old orphan in 1964 Ontario. But it’s even harder when you’re a brown-skinned girl who’s just lost the only home you’ve ever known. When the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls goes up in smoke one terrifying night, Malou is thrust out into the wide world with just $138, a shopping bag full of used clothing and a hospital bracelet with the words, “Baby Fox.” With her only clue being the hospital address, Malou boards a bus to the tiny town of Parry Sound, where she hopes to solve the mystery of her birth. She quickly finds a room to rent and a cleaning job to pay for it, but it’s rough being on her own for the first time in her life. “Alone is a hard thing to be. There is not enough inside my own head to fill all the hours it would take to live alone. Especially without books.” As she starts investigating her background, Malou begins noticing and meeting other teenagers in town who look an awfully lot like her. Soon Malou finds herself entangled in an local secret that is far more complicated than she ever could have imagined. I tore through this fast paced and plotty novel in about twenty four hours, completely engaged by Malou’s singular voice and the riddle she is trying to solve. If you find yourself in a reading slump, this captivating historical identity mystery is the perfect antidote!
SPOILER ALERT: Before launching into this luscious sequel of epic proportions, please do yourself a BIG favor and read the utterly delicious first book in this planned four volume series. And if you’re already a fan of the fabulous paranormal Roaring Twenties tome, then by all means, READ ON! Picking up right where The Diviners left off, Evie is now enjoying superstardom as the “Sweetheart Seer” of WGI radio, streetwise Sam is working alongside steadfast Jericho and Evie’s Uncle Will at the Museum of the American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult, BFF entertainers Theta and Henry are playing the nights away at the Ziegfeld Follies and secret poet Memphis runs numbers during the day while working on love poetry for Theta after hours. Though they seem happy and busy on the surface, each continues to come to uncomfortable terms with the hidden abilities they have discovered within themselves. While exercising his dream walking talent to try and connect with his lost love Louis, Henry runs into Ling Chan, a Chinese/Irish teen who uses dreams to confer with the dead. Together they discover a seductive netherworld where a vengeful ghost is tapping into the dreams of innocent New Yorkers, causing them to fall into a deadly sleep from which they never wake. The ghost’s presence is tied to an old, bricked over subway station that was recently excavated. Once her bones are stirred, the veiled woman covered in blood and her army of soul sucking phosphorescent zombies haunt the train tunnels and only Ling and Henry have the clues to solve the mystery of her death and lay her spirit to rest. Meanwhile, on the romantic front, Sam and Evie embark on a news worthy romance that may or may not be the real deal, Theta and Memphis encounter the difficulties of interracial dating in the era of KKK parades and the Eugenics movement, while Jericho struggles with who to give his heart to PERIOD. As the story climbs inexorably to a tension-filled conclusion, the rag tag band of friends begin to realize that a greater evil than the previous Pentacle Killer and present Hungry Ghost is afoot and that they will need to reveal their clandestine supernatural skills to each other if they ever hope to win against it.
SO. MUCH. HERE. TO. LOVE, so I will spare you too many gushy particulars and just say that as a librarian I was delighted that Ling did research on the abandoned subway station at the Seward Park library with the help of fictional librarian Mrs. Belpre, and as a New Yorker I appreciated what seemed like a heartbreaking reference to 9/11 when the 1920’s train entrances were papered with handmade signs of people who have gone missing since the subway ghost started haunting. Finally, I laughed aloud with nerdy glee when the historically real Carl Jung made an appearance to talk dreams with Evie and Theta. Author Libba Bray’s ability to infuse a paranormal thriller with such nuanced and layered themes of bias, identity, and culture and how they are all integrated messily into the fabric of our collected American history is completely amazeballs. This rich, detail-packed second book does not disappoint with its deepening of the characters and relationships we came to know and love from the first book, and tantalizing hints of the horror to come, including additional references to the mysterious Project Buffalo and the enigmatic crow-coated man in the stovepipe hat. While it was definitely worth the wait, it’s going to be hard drumming our nail bitten fingers as we anxiously anticipate the next chapters in the newly formed Diviner crew’s supernatural adventures. Coming to a library, bookstore, e-reader or pillow near you August 25 2015.
In 1911 rural Pennsylvania, fourteen year old bookworm Joan Skraggs is done with letting her domineering farmer father dictate the direction of her life. After he refuses to give her the egg money she’s earned, shames her in front of her beloved teacher and burns her only books, Joan takes the money her dead mother sewed into the skirts of her childhood doll and takes the train to Philadelphia. There she has the good fortune of finding a job as a hired girl with the wealthy Rosenbach family and tastes real freedom for the very first time. Of course, she still works her fingers to the bone, but now there are afternoons off, new hats to be bought with her hard earned salary, and an entire home library to explore. But with these little luxuries come a whole new batch of problems. There are bewildering new rules to follow in the Rosenbach’s formal Jewish household. Malka, the elderly servant she works under is difficult and easily offended. And finally, what about school? Joan longs to return to her education, but now that she’s passed herself off as eighteen to gain employment, how can she ever go back? Because Joan has big dreams of being a teacher like her mother wanted. And cleaning houses isn’t going to cut it. “The truth is, most of the time I don’t think of myself as the hired girl…After all, I’m not going to be a servant all my life.” Can Joan escape the tight constraints of her narrowly defined station? Or will she find a way to break free of her hired girl status and make her mother’s dream come true? This delightful homespun tale, comprised entirely of Joan’s earnest, unintentionally funny journal entries, is powerfully reminiscent of old and new classics like Little Women and A Northern Light. This ode to the power of the written word and the strength and ingenuity of women past and present is as warm, witty and wise as all of award winning Laura Amy Schlitz‘s other works, and I predict that lovely sepia cover will be sporting a bright medal or two come January ’16. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2015.
After fleeing a murderous sneak attack from a rival tribe, a prehistoric girl stumbles upon a spiral marked on the wall of a forgotten cave. A grieving psychiatrist is deeply moved by a mentally ill poet who fears nothing except the tall spiral staircase that rises in the middle of the sanatorium. After being accused of witchcraft, a medieval cunning woman is thrown into a river where she glimpses a spiral carved into the rocky underwater bank. A lonely astronaut alters his course when his ship discovers signs of intelligent life in the form of a broadcast signal of the number phi, which is also the ratio of the Fibonacci Spiral. Each lyrically wrought quarter of this multi-layered novel, which author Marcus Sedgwick claims can be read in any order, revolves around this mysterious shape that appears over and over in human history, folklore and nature. Figuring out how each story relates to the others is a puzzling treat and I can’t imagine any reader not giving a gasp of delight and satisfaction when reading the very last paragraphs, which cunningly come around full spiral. As cleverly constructed and delightfully complex as Sedgewick’s award-winning Midwinter Blood, I predict Ghosts of Heaven will score just as much critical love in 2015!
It is 1899 in New York City, a thriving metropolis teeming with the hopes and dreams of thousands of newly arrived immigrants. Among them is Chava, a chaste Jewish widow who keeps to herself and works tirelessly in a lower East Side bakery, and Ahmad, an aloof Syrian tinsmith who wears an iron band on his wrist and makes beautiful figurines out of precious metal. Each of them is hiding a terrible secret that if discovered, could lead to their destruction. Chava can plunge pins into her own skin and not feel pain while Ahmad can raise them temperature of an entire room by just entering it. Because beneath their ordinary exteriors, Chava is a golem formed from clay, while Ahmad is a jinni made of fire. Neither of them requires sleep, so they each roam the young city’s streets alone at night, Chava yearning to fit in with her human peers, Ahmad longing to escape from them. When they finally meet, they recognize the strangeness in each other and form a mystical bond that is tested when a mysterious figure from Ahmad’s ancient past appears with a plan to enslave them both forever. This impeccably researched, lushly written novel of identity, faith, free will and unlikely friendship will appeal to readers of all ages and any card-carrying member of the history or folklore fandom. It’s also a stunningly good New York story. I spent a very happy week immersed in the smoky, sooty atmosphere of the turn of the century Bowery and Lower East Side learning how to braid challah bread in a Jewish bakery and mend kettles in a Syrian tin shop. If you are seeking a book that will transport you far from the stinky bunks of your summer camp or overly-air conditioned office of your summer job, LOOK NO FURTHER. Summer reading satisfaction guaranteed!