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!
We’ve all heard the story of Joan of Arc: French teen girl hears voice of God telling her to save France from the English, chops off hair, learns to wield a sword and ride a horse, fights in a bunch of battles, gets captured by the enemy, and is burned alive as a heretic. But in The Language of Fire, Hemphill, master of the verse novel (Your Own, Sylvia, Wicked Girls) has unmasked the mythical martyr and revealed the stubborn, scared girl who challenged the religious patriarchy and led a skeptical country out of war.
In 1425, Joan, or Jehanne as she called herself, was only thirteen when she claimed to hear God command her to deliver France from English oppression. France and England had been fighting for almost a hundred years over the succession of the French crown, and now Jehanne believed she was being summoned by God to help put the rightful French king on the throne. There was only one problem. Who was going to follow an illiterate peasant girl with no knowledge or experience into battle? With utter sincerity and innocent piety, Jehanne slowly convinces powerful knights and land owning dukes that she is telling the truth. Impossibly, she manages to build an army large enough to challenge the occupying English troops and inspire the true French heir to come out of hiding.
Using spare free verse, Hemphill illustrates Jehanne’s short, intense life, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows imaginable. The greatest impression I was left with at the end of this book was how much the men who ruled Jehanne’s world were afraid of her. Afraid of a poor, young girl who might know more than they did, who was more favored by God than they were. And because she dared to question their authority–not for herself, but for the God she believed in–she lost her life. A detailed author’s note describes what Hemphill condensed or changed from the historical record, a chronology of the Hundred Years’ War, and a list of further reading.
Jo Kuan, aspiring milliner and essayist, has been called a lot of things in her seventeen years, most of them insulting. But as a Chinese American woman living in 1890’s Georgia, she’s forced to swallow her pride and not be a “saucebox” if she hopes to survive in Atlanta’s ruthless and segregated society. “Chinese people can’t afford to be sauceboxes, especially Chinese people who are trying to live undetected.” However, one label that she would happily accept is that of “writer.” So when the opportunity to author an anonymous advice column in the local paper presents itself, she dives straight in, writing caustically funny commentary that holds up an unflattering mirror to the white faces of Atlanta’s elite, causing chaos of the most unmannerly kind. As she tries to keep a lid on her secret identity, she’s also juggling her day job as a lady’s maid to a spoiled, vain debutante while attempting to keep a roof over her head and that of Old Gin, a poor but proud horse trainer and her adopted Chinese grandfather. It all comes to a head when Jo simultaneously uncovers the origin of her birth, has her identity unmasked by an unexpected ally, and falls in love. Can she keep all the threads of her complicated life securely knotted, or will they slip away like the velvet ties on her favorite hat? This utterly original historical fiction by Stacey Lee is an absolute delight, from its crackling humor and unusual setting, to Jo’s headstrong character and the slowly unraveling mystery of her genesis. Jo bravely and realistically challenges the restrictive norms of her time period, including women’s suffrage and the deplorable treatment of people of color in the post Reconstruction south. Jo Kuan reads like a diverse, divine incarnation of Jo March, and today’s teens couldn’t hope for a more audacious, assertive and all around awesome hero than the salient Ms. Kuan. Hats off to Stacey Lee, The Downstairs Girl is downright ingenious! Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you August 2019.
Prim Adele Joubert and brash Lottie Diamond could not be more different. Adele is green-eyed and rule -abiding. Lottie is blue-eyed and law-breaking. Adele tries to work within the system of their British boarding school, desperate to be friends with the “right” kind of girls, while Lottie gave up caring what people thought of her long ago. But despite their differences, they are both mixed race girls trying to survive in the strict, 1965 class system of the British protectorate of Swaziland. “We are one people divided into three separate groups: white people, mixed race people, and native Swazis. Each group has their own social clubs and schools, their own traditions and rules.” When Adele is dumped by her frenemies and forced to room with Lottie, she is shocked to discover how smart and funny she is, and ashamed of how she used to talk about her behind her back. The girls connect by reading aloud a precious copy of Jane Eyre to each other, finding comfort in the similarities between Jane’s situation and theirs–all of them trapped in a system of patriarchy and oppression that will not allow them to realize their full potential. But what’s more important is what Adele discovers the day Lottie takes her outside the school walls to visit a Swazi village. There she uncovers a secret about her mother’s past that causes her to question everything she’s ever believed about herself, her people and her country. The South African landscape is gorgeously realized in descriptive swaths of color and light. Malla Nunn’s vivid and atmospheric writing thoroughly incorporates timeless themes of family, friendship, class warfare and abuse of power into a ripping good story. Fans of historical fiction, boarding school books, and female solidarity will swoon over this summer read that takes you far way, while also bringing you home.
David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches, absolutely gutted me when it came out in 2009. Now he has published an equally wrenching graphic novel of small-town, 1950’s boyhood that utterly destroys, in the most cinematic and moving way possible, any nostalgic, rose-colored views of that turbulent time. Russell’s mom dumps his dad for another man, so Russell and his uncommunicative, alcoholic father leave Ohio for California, where his father hopes to bunk with his rich sister until he can get back on his feet. But Aunt June isn’t interested in her male relatives invading her clean, quiet mid-century modern home, and sends them packing pretty quick. After finally finding and renting a room from a kind Chinese couple, Russell’s father finds work at the local prison. Russell starts school and falls in with Kurt and Willie, brutal, bullying teens who smoke, drink and ogle waitresses at the town diner. As he slowly becomes accustomed to his new life, Russell finds himself confronted with a wide array of conflicting male role models. Should he be more like his drunk dad and Kurt: loud, rude and arrogant? Or is he more like like Mr. Mah, his gentle landlord who practices tai chi in the backyard or Warren, the quiet neighbor boy who lives with his grandma and loves all animals? Over the course of one long, savage summer, Russell finds himself mentally and physically tested by all these different versions of manhood as he tries to discover which one fits him best. Small’s evocative panels, full of frowning, sneering faces, dead pets and interior shots of dim, empty rooms grimly foreshadow Russell’s long, tragic journey to self acceptance. Deeply sad, but never despairing, Small’s work luminously captures the dark side of adolescence in a way that still manages to be forgiving. Coming to a library or bookstore near you September 2018.
This luscious collection of short stories that chronicles the dramatic, sometimes abbreviated lives of the famous medieval English king’s doomed brides is a delicious feast of sex, gossip and politics. Authored by some of the most celebrated of YA hist. fic writers, each Queen tells her story in turn (1. Catherine of Aragon=Candace Fleming 2. Anne Boleyn=Stephanie Hemphill 3. Jane Seymour=Lisa Ann Sandell 4. Anna of Cleves=Jennifer Donnelly 5. Catherine Howard=Linda Sue Park 6. Kateryn Parr=Deborah Hopkinson) followed by a short, often arrogant or peevish epitaph penned by Henry himself, as imagined by M.T. Anderson. While the whole royal assemblage is universally strong, the two standouts for me were Donnelly’s smart, blunt Anna of Cleves and Park’s saucy, sexy Catherine Howard. (This probably had as much to do with their exceptional characterizations as it did with the fact that I knew the least about these two cursed queens going in.) Each fascinating story will inform today’s young feminists about medieval Europe’s strict patriarchal society that forced women to scheme, flatter, manipulate and flat-out lie their way into having a say in their own lives. By turns naughty, bawdy and downright tragic, there’s not a story here that won’t capture the imagination or fire up the blood of any curious reader who turns the pages. And the most satisfying part of all? That despite all his cruel, violent machinations to secure a male heir, Henry’s throne still ends up passing to one of the most successful rulers of all time–his brilliant daughter Elizabeth I. Because this book is bound to lead you to many more about Henry and his wives, this is a perfect rabbit hole of a novel to throw yourself down this summer!
Three generations of Indian and Indian American women laugh, cry, break up and make up in this past-to-present story of mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins. Tara and Sonia Das begin life as dutiful Indian daughters, but soon veer off onto nontraditional paths after arriving in New York with their parents in 1973. Beautiful, insular Tara wants to pursue an acting career, while her younger sister Sonia becomes a feminist firebrand. When a personal tragedy transforms their lives forever, both girls find themselves at odds with their conventional mother, Ranee, who is confused and even offended by some of their life choices. Fast forward to the near present. When Tara’s daughter Anna joins forces with Sonia’s daughter Chantal at their exclusive Manhattan private school to create a safe space for modest girls, their mothers’ and grandmothers’ DNA shines through, proving that one can be a strong Indian woman AND a proud American at the same time. There’s also loads of romance, travel, cultural misunderstandings and identity epiphanies that any reader will be able to relate to. Mitali Perkins‘ emotionally resonant work could not be more relevant as our divided nation argues endlessly about tangled policies that will decide the uncertain future of our innovators, poets and Dreamers. Read it, and feel the distance close.
Now that THAT’S out of the way, let’s talk turkey, my equally obsessed Diviner fan peeps! The voluminous third volume of Libba Bray’s 1920’s fantasy/horror epic pulls together the disparate threads of the first two books while setting the stage for a sumptuous conclusion. Here, our intrepid Diviners begin formal training to sharpen their spooky skills for a showdown with the King of Crows (aka the man in the stovepipe hat) who finally introduces himself and reveals that he is mostly responsible for letting all those murderous ghosts into New York City. (I say mostly because, well, it’s complicated. You’ll see.)
Drawing strength from finally coming together, the united Diviners force Uncle Will and Sister Walker to reveal what they know about the mysterious Project Buffalo and the role of the US government, and… are immediately sorry they did. Because in this instance, knowing the truth not only doesn’t set them free but just might get them killed. And individually, they are wrestling with personal demons that are every bit as scary as the supernatural baddies they do battle with. Evie, Sam and Jericho are trapped in an impossible love triangle, Theta’s ugly past comes home to haunt her (and how!), Mabel is forced to decide between peaceful activism or rebellious violence, Memphis has his trust broken by two of the most important people in his life, Ling struggles with her sexuality and Henry hides a broken heart beneath his carefree swagger. Meanwhile, the Shadow Men are knocking off anyone and everyone who knows anything about Project Buffalo, Blind Bill is NOT who he seems, someone dear dies and someone we THOUGHT was dead may actually be alive. In addition, there are roller coaster romances, sexy encounters, ghosts with teeth and secret assassins with piano wire. And of course, Bray also manages to make some timely, thought provoking parallels between the 1920’s and the emotionally fraught, oppressive, deceptive time we’re living in now. I mean, come on. It really doesn’t get any bigger, better or more badass than this. Get all caught up and then grab this latest volume toot sweet!
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.
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, 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.
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.
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)
“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.
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.