Announcement: Historical Fiction for Hipsters: Stories from the past that won’t make you snore!

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!

Berserker by Emmy Laybourne


In a small village in Norway in 1883, Hanne and her three siblings live a hardscrabble life. Their hopeless father drinks away what little money he makes from butchering, and their mother left long ago. There is no time for school, play or friendships. It is up to Hanne, and her brothers Steig and Knut, to keep the family farm afloat and care for their frail youngest sister Sissel. All of this would be difficult enough, but Hanne’s family also carries the burden of being Nytteson, descendants of ancient Vikings who are each blessed (or damned) with a special power. Knut is a stout Oar-Breaker, a strongman who can lift and carry many times his own weight. Steig is a Storm-Rend who can control the temperature and winds. And Hanne is a Berserker, a fearless warrior whose senses and physical strength become so heightened when anyone in her family is threatened that she can effortlessly kill grown men with her bare hands. And that is exactly what happens when a group of angry village men come to collect on her father’s gambling debt. Horrified at what she has done, Hanne flees and books passage to America with her brothers and sister in hopes of finding a distant Berserker cousin who may be able to train her to tame her deadly gift. On their way out West, they meet Owen Bennett, a kind young cowboy who offers to be their wilderness guide, and things finally begin to look up for the cursed family. But what they don’t know is that they are being pursued by the law in both countries, and by a mysterious scholar who holds the key to both their prosperity and their DOOM. Folks, I don’t mean to overstate my love here, but this shockingly original book is a full-on UNICORN. This singularly unique reading experience combines super-cool settings, real history and and jaw-dropping action sequences in a way that that is as rare as a pearl in an oyster and just as perfect. I have really enjoyed the author’s other books, but this is some next-level stuff. Darn you, Emmy Laybourne! You have spoiled the rest of my summer reading stack! You’ll be able to take this one-of-a-kind read for a spin yourself when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith



Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently  devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)

ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Andrea Offerman


Yvain, a little (ish) known knight from the court of King Arthur, wishes for adventure and gets more than he bargained for when he kills a local lord in battle and then promptly falls for the dead lord’s lady, Laudine. Luckily he is saved from this uber-awkward situation by Laudine’s maid, Lunette, who convinces her lady with logic to marry the lovelorn knight. But Yvain messes up royally again when he fails to return from adventuring by the deadline Laudine has set for him. Cast out of her castle, he roams the countryside seeking a way to win his lady’s heart back, encountering dragons, giants, and demons, and picking up a  pet lion in the process. With an emphasis on the importance and wisdom of the women who help school naive Yvain in the ways of the world, this sumptuous medieval graphic novel has a distinctively 21st century feel. Yvain’s journey is lushly illustrated by artist Andrea Offerman, who’s detailed watercolor & ink panels beautifully convey the opulence of the medieval courts and the dusty green of the mythical English countryside. My only quibble was that some panels were far too small to capture the lavish action captured within. Fans of Anderson’s rich historical fiction will enjoy this attractive venture into a new format, and can continue their exploration of King Arthur’s court by checking out Excaliber: The Legend of King Arthur and Here Lies Arthur.

Be True to Me by Adele Griffin


I don’t know about you teen peeps, but when the April thermometer stays stubbornly in the 30’s and 40’s and I’m ready for warmer weather, there’s no better antidote than sending myself to a steamy place via a book. And Adele Griffin‘s delicious new title about a love triangle set on Fire Island during the sultry summer of 1976 more than fits the bill! Jean Custis can’t stand “slinky, scrappy” Fritiz O’Neill, and it’s not just because Fritz had the nerve to beat her in Sunken Haven’s Junior tennis tournament last year. It’s because Fritz O’Neill doesn’t belong, she’s not a “Sunkie,” and never will be as far as Jean and many of the other Sunken Haven families are concerned. Fritz O’Neill doesn’t think much about Jean Custis, the cool, smooth girl with wealth and connections to spare that she beat in tennis last summer. The gorgeous, raspy-voiced Army brat is much more concerned with having the best summer of her life getting over the quarterback who broke her heart. When both stone foxes set their hearts on Gil Burke, a new edition to an old Sunkie family and a “real Ryan O’Neal type,” the heat is turned up on their simmering competition. Then a senseless tragedy gives each girl a raw, sorrowful understanding of what’s really important. Told in alternate, first-person chapters, Jean and Fritz emerge as complicated, fully realized characters, each full of burning desires and unfulfilled longings. And tortured Gil, as seen through the eyes of the girls who’ve fallen for him, is just as complex, navigating a world of wealth and privilege that he was born to but never allowed to take advantage of until now. Friends, I have fallen deeply for this juicy tome that feels like a inspired mash-up of all my warm weather favorites, including The Summer I Turned Pretty, Little Darlings, Nantucket Blue and Dirty Dancing, while still telling a timeless story about social class struggles in a groovy historical setting. It’s DYN-O-MITE! Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about this book is the title, which seems way too generic for such a hip historical fiction. Still, you’ll want to pack this book first in your beach bag or summer camp duffle when it sails into a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2017.

Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson


SPOILER ALERT! Before reading about the long awaited and eagerly anticipated conclusion to LHA’s wonderful, wrenching Seeds of America trilogy below, please make sure you have already experienced the awesomeness that is CHAINS and FORGE. Once you have read and fully absorbed Isabel and Curzon’s previous adventures, then by all means, READ ON.

Isabel is exhausted. She and Curzon have been searching for Isabel’s stolen sister Ruth for years now, and the endless journey has a taken a toll on them both. Even though Isabel has forged manumission papers for them, there is always the danger that they could be kidnapped and forced back into slavery. And their close friendship “lay in ashes,” after they fought bitterly over the justness of the Patriot cause. Now the only thing they share is a mutual resentment and desperate need to locate Ruth. Just when Isabel has given up all hope, she and Curzon stumble upon Ruth safe and sound on a farm in South Carolina. Helped by a slave couple who use the confusion of recent Patriot skirmishes to screen their escape, Isabel, Ruth and Curzon flee to Williamsburg, Virgina, where they hope to find food, rest and steady work. But soon they discover themselves on the doorstep of the war, and when Curzon again sides with the Patriots, Isabel is forced to choose a side as well. But which group of white men is she willing to gamble her and Ruth’s freedom on–the slave-owning Patriots or the promise-breaking British? And now that she’s found Ruth, is Isabel really prepared to lose Curzon, the only other person she’s ever trusted besides her family? Whether you love Hamilton or run screaming from the room when you hear the cast recording (I’m firmly in the former group) you will appreciate LHA’s as always meticulously researched milieu, spot-on period dialogue and detailed author’s note. Set during the exciting, unsettling days that lead up to the Battle of Yorktown, ASHES is a deeply satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary historical journey. NTBM! (Not To Be Missed)

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel


“If [my father] hadn’t belted Professor Cartland that night in the Academy of Natural Sciences, I wouldn’t have had the chance to see Rachel’s eyes up close.” The first time Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland meet, it’s over their fathers’ flying fists. Professors Bolt and Cartland are battling paleontologists, each determined to be the best at wresting centuries old dinosaur bones from the unforgiving rock of the American West. So when Professor Cartland challenges Professor Bolt’s latest find in front of a fascinated audience, the gloves come off and Rachel and Samuel are forced to wade in and pull their fathers apart. That’s their first memorable meeting, but it isn’t their last. Soon they are each on an expedition with their fathers that end up being only a few miles apart in the badlands of Wyoming. Against all odds, and unbeknownst to their mad dads, the two intrepid teens not only share information about their respective digs but soon fall in love. Adamant about being together, the lovers hatch a daring plan to discover and cash in on the greatest dinosaur find of all time–the Tyrannosaurus Rex–and leave their fathers behind in the desert dust. Meanwhile, their expeditions are being closely watched by a Sioux party who are none too happy about the fact that Rachel’s father desecrated one of their burial pyres. Can Rachel and Samuel find the fabled T-Rex bones before their fathers or the Sioux hunting party find them? More romance than adventure, this story moves a bit slower than some of Oppel’s other intriguing works, which range from a Frankenstein origin story to a steampunk pirate escapade. But what Oppel lacks in pacing, he more than makes up for in characterization, especially when it comes to headstrong Rachel. During a time period when women’s opinions were hardly considered, let alone valued, she is a brilliant, unrepentant scholar, determined to be acknowledged as a fossil hunter in her own right and unafraid to challenge the male authority around her (including Samuel’s) that threatens to stifle her dreams. Both she and Samuel are full of doubts and contradictions, still trying to understand who they are as individuals even as they try to define themselves as a couple separate from their greedy fathers. If you ever even just had a passing interest in fossil hunting, paleontology, American Indian culture or the Old West, you’ll fall hard for this super hip hist. fic. Coming to library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.

This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz



Three tweens walk into a tavern: a Christian, a Jew and an African. Too young to drink, they instead make miracles and take on the King of France with their devoted dog, a resurrected greyhound named Gwenforte. What sounds like the beginning of a classic joke or a superhero origin story is actually a fresh, irreverent all-ages take on the Middle Ages by A Tale Dark and Grimm author Adam Gidwitz. Jeanne, William and Jacob meet unexpectedly at a tavern in France when each has been expelled from their respective communities. Peasant Jeanne is arrested by mercenary knights who suspect she has raised her dog from the dead, monk-in-training William is forced to leave his monastery after losing his temper and splitting a solid stone bench many times his weight, and Jacob, a young Jewish boy with healing in his hands, is on the run after vengeful Christians burn his family’s village to the ground. Their talents are recognized by a giant red headed monk named Michelangelo di Bologna, who convinces the three miracle workers to join him on a secret quest to save thousands of copies of Talmuds, a Jewish holy book, that have been ordered to be burned by the Christian King of France. Can they do it? Three kids, a dog and a crazy monk? The only people who know the answer to that question are the folks gathered at the tavern bar who are taking turns telling the parts of the tale that they know or have witnessed. Lean in, pull up a ginger beer and listen close as they share the story of Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. This Canterbury Tales meets X-Men is a raucous, incredibly well-researched story that includes everything from flatulent dragons to meaningful and enlightening discussions about history and religion. With a detailed author’s note and gorgeous illustrations from artist Hatem Aly, you couldn’t find a better action/adventure intro to medieval religion than this book! (Except maybe this one🙂 Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet


Noah Keller, a pretty ordinary kid except for his “Astonishing Stutter,” is stunned when he comes home from school one day and his parents announce they are leaving their hometown of Oasis, Virginia and heading to one of the grimmest places on earth in 1989: East Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. While his mother explains that the family is going to Germany for six months so that she can study German children’s speech problems for her graduate degree, Noah is suspicious. If his mother is just conducting research, why do they all have to change their names? Why aren’t they allowed to talk about anything serious within the walls of their new apartment? And why can’t he go to school with other East German children? The less information his parents share, the more Noah’s doubt grows until he decides to investigate the strict boundaries of his new world on his own. With the help of his downstairs neighbor Claudia (who he dubs “Cloud”) Noah begins to ask some questions whose answers may put his entire family in terrible danger. Because in Noah’s new reality, no one is who they seem. Who are Noah’s parents, really? Who is Claudia? And how can Noah find out the truth without hurting everyone he loves? This unusual, fable-like mystery, set in the near past and chock full of fascinating facts about the claustrophobic, formally Communist East Berlin will captivate readers with it’s intriguing premise and cryptic characters. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.