(YA writing level – a good amount of violence, also several adult situations)
This book is set during the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. On the U.S. side of the border, skirmishes have broken out between Tejanos and the Texas Rangers, as the Rangers sought to trample the rights of the Tejanos through a war of terror. The main protagonist is Joaquin Del Toro, a Tejano who has fallen in love with Dulcena Villa. The plotline follows loosely along with the structure of a Romeo and Juliet romance (without the death of the two main characters), however, really the plot is more focused on the tension between the Rangers and the Tejanos.
Both Shame the Stars and All the Stars Denied are well written, and they do their best when they discuss the often untold history. Both stories cover topics that receive only a cursory glance in most American history classes. The first was more of a love story, while the second was a story about a family. My only issue was that neither really explain what life was like before historical events unfold. As result, I found it difficult to form a connection with the characters. Also, if a reader is unfamiliar with either topic, it’s would be really difficult for them to understand the historical detail. Beyond that, I thought that these books would make a great addition to any classroom library.More info →
(Middle Grade writing level – no content concerns)
Attack of the Turtle takes place during the Revolutionary War. Nathan Wade has grown up a Patriot and he is there when his cousin, David Bushnell (a real historical figure) invents the first submarine
With this story, the history was much stronger than the character development. The text was written with a fifth-grade mentality and a 7th-grade vocabulary. Really the kind of “gee-whiz” attitude of the main protagonist was a bit too peppy to seem real. Beyond that, the story was a bit thin for a full book. I think this book is great for that student who just loves anything about war, but it’s just a book for the classroom shelf. Place it on the shelf and hand it out to that student who keeps asking you when you’ll be teaching about World War II.More info →
(YA writing level – some violence, otherwise no content concerns)
A sequel to Shame the Stars, this book tells the story of a girl named Estrella Del Toro, who is living in Texas during the Great Depression. Estrella and her family are caught up in the deportations of Mexicans (both citizens and non-citizens) during that time. This book explores how the racist “repatriations” impacted a typical family. By delving into the details of the deportations of this era, this story covers a topic that receives only a cursory glance in most American history classes. The sequel focuses more on family and the love that binds a family despite the struggles they encounter. My only issue is that, like the first book (Shame the Stars), regular life is never really described to the reader before historical events unfold. As result, it's difficult to form a connection with the characters. Also, if a reader is unfamiliar with the topic, it’s would be really difficult for them to understand the historical detail. Beyond that, I thought that these books would make a great addition to any classroom library.More info →
(Middle Grade writing level – realistic violence, otherwise no content concerns)
This story centers on the founding of Jamestown and the struggles the first colonists faced trying to establish the colony. The main character is Samuel Collier, a real figure who traveled to the first settlement as a boy. Not much is known of his actual story, so that part of the story is a fictional account that surrounds the history of Jamestown. This book was excellent. It is a model of how historical fiction should be written. It really made me see the history between the early colonizers and the Native Americans as a relationship between real humans, and not two-dimensional archetypes. The historical information is well researched and incorporated into the novel in a way that reads naturally.
This book could be utilized as a full class reading, as a text with a series of historical texts for literature circles, or I could even see a teacher reading sections of the book to the class each day. There’s a lot of history to investigate surrounding this text, and it could center as a basis for an inquiry unit also.
The only issue I have is not really an issue with the book at all. Rather, it was that this book told a story that has been told many times before. I do hope to read more stories about Native American life that doesn’t center around their interactions with English colonizers. I’d love to see more stories that are written independently of that interaction. Still, that is not a criticism of this book, but more of the publishing industry in general. (If you have a suggestion, please let me know, and I’ll add it to my list!)
There is a sequel to this book (Poison in the Colony: Jamestown 1622) that I will definitely check out soon.More info →
Spies, Communists, the FBI, the McCarthy era, New York City, and an unhappy marriage... The main character is Katharina Edgeworth. She worked for the UN during WWII as a translator, and now she has settled down as a wife and mother. She is miserable in that role and wallowing in self-pity when she is recruited by the FBI to spy on a Communist organization centered in NYC.
This story is much more so about a woman that feels trapped in her marriage and motherhood. The history is there, however, it often reads like background noise to her personal story. She doesn’t really question the role she’s playing for the FBI, or whether Communism is really a threat. Really, she’s just excited to have a life outside of her apartment and away from her boys. I really wish the author had focused more on the history, as the setup for that history was really engaging. Instead, much of the book focuses on Katharina’s internal monologue.
If you’re looking for a book about motherhood and all of its trials, this is definitely a book for you. However, don’t pick up this book expecting to learn more about the McCarthy era.More info →
Adult Historical Fiction
This book takes place in the post-Civil War era. Libertie is born in Brooklyn, and she is raised by her mother, who is a physician. (This portion of the story is based on actual history. There was a black woman doctor practicing in Brooklyn during this time, and she did have a daughter.) Libertie is trained by her mother to become a doctor also, although her enthusiasm towards the practice is lacking. The darkness off Libertie's skin compared with the lightness of her mother's complicates the story also, as Libertie questions whether she also wants to practice medicine.
Although the topics of Reconstruction and the issues surrounding that era are a part of the story, they don't take center stage. Really, this book is more about the trauma of the boundaries that surround those who are legally free, and how it can manifest itself in many forms. The end of slavery didn't mean automatic happiness and "liberty" for Black people. Colorism, race, feminism... all these ideas push and pull the characters. I really enjoyed reading a book from the perspective of free Black people immediately after the Civil War, as it is not one that is commonly written. The way that language is used in this text renders it almost surreal and dreamlike. An imaginative, distinct, and absorbing read sure to land on many best books of the year list.More info →
Have you seen Honest History pop up on your Instagram feed? Their tagline is, "a magazine for young historians." I know that if this had existed when I was a kid, I would have read every issue cover to cover!
When I saw that a book had been released by Honest History I immediately requested a preview. History is Inventive does a deeper dive into the stories of several of the famous inventors and really lays out the complexity of that invention. (Spoiler ______ invented the _______ is never the whole story.) Knight pulls from a wide breadth of history and picks topics that will interest a wide variety of children. Surgery? Makeup? The telescope? Alternating current? All are discussed and each passage includes unique details that I've not seen elsewhere. If anything, this book will make kids want to know more about many of the topics, and do some more investigation on their own!
I'm also a sucker for well done graphic design and the layout of this book is quite appealing also. This book is perfect for a curious kid.More info →
This book traces the stories of the enslaved Africans who were owned by four of our founding fathers – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. I really enjoyed the stories in this book. Davis brings humanity to the people who surrounded our founding fathers. He includes fantastic details within those stories that really remove the barriers surrounding those men. Did you know that Dolly Madison didn’t really save George Washington’s painting (which was a replica anyway)? A White House slave named Paul Jennings is that forgotten hero of that story. He would go on to be a co-conspirator in an attempted slave rebellion in the nation’s capital.
There are dozens of stories like this in Davis’s book. They really caused me to reframe my understanding of the United States at that moment in history. Each story could be combined with any general discussion of the founding fathers.More info →
This book focuses on the children that resulted from the relationship* between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. It most specifically tells the story of two of those children – Madison and Beverly.
I absolutely loved this book. It’s a really good story, even though it doesn’t have much of a plot. I found myself picking up the book when I had a spare moment, even though it’s really a book for middle-grade children. By focusing on the children of Sally Hemings, it tells a story of slavery that discusses the unfairness of slavery, and the sadness of slavery, without exposing the horrifying brutality that slavery was for most. The author shows how the Jefferson children were treated differently than most other slaves at Monticello. It talks about a whipping at Monticello, a friend who was sold away, and about how some of the Jefferson children could “pass,” and some couldn’t. It’s really a story about a family, and how they dealt with the situation that had been handed to them by the color of their skin and their biological father.
Given that the author had to rely on a topic that was covered very little by official historical documents, the book really needs to be considered historical fiction. Still, I think the author created a very plausible narrative and an engaging story.
*(I recognize that many struggle with the idea of Hemings and Jefferson as a relationship. For the purposes of the term here, Jefferson did father her children. We don’t know what form that relationship took, and the book makes the assumption that Hemings had some agency. I think the book acceptably covers the topic at a middle-grade level.)More info →
This is a true story of Ona Judge, a slave of George and Martha Washington, who ran away from them while living in Philadelphia. As the title indicates, Judge was never caught, and she never returned to slavery.
This book combined several narratives in order to paint as clear a picture as possible of Ona Judge’s life. Her story is centered within the lives of the Washington family, and within the time period in general. Dunbar engaged in speculative writing in order to attempt to create a clear vision of what Judge’s life may have been like post enslavement. What I like best about this story was the agency demonstrated by Dunbar in her escape, and the help she received from the free black community.
Historians are often criticized for writing history with a narrative voice, and they are criticized for writing history with a more clinical and dispassionate voice. Dunbar combined both of those styles in this book, and I would argue that it made the story more appealing and compelling.
This book is best suited for high school students, as it deals with the issues of agency and sex more directly. Still, the writing makes the book engaging enough for a student who might also love historical fiction.More info →
This book appears to be geared towards teachers who are just entering the world of inquiry-based learning. There is considerable space devoted to a discussion of why inquiry-based learning is a best practice for Social Studies education. There are six specific three-day lesson examples, and each has its own chapter. Some of them remind me of the lessons from the Stanford History Education Group, and some even use the same documents.
I like the structure of the individual lessons, and the documents are reasonably modified for seventh-grade readers. The lessons each contain some background history to help teachers with historical context, and each also mentions videos that the students may watch to gain some context. I do wish that they provided historical context readings for the students in a handout form. The lessons do include student worksheets. They also provide an "IREAD" approach for students to access the documents.
The lessons are just individual lessons, and not centered within a unit. Therefore, the questions that guide each inquiry are very rather specific. I do think that they could be broadened to include more activities, but teachers would need to create those activities on their own. Each lesson is linked to the C3 framework and common core.More info →
(YA writing level – torture, violence, some suggestions of sexual harassment)
The first of two books centering around a pair of female protagonists during WWII, Code Named Verity is a fast-paced thriller with an unreliable narrator who keeps you guessing with intricate plot twists and details. All are woven within carefully dispersed tidbits of a heart-wrenching storyline. As Verity slowly reveals British secrets for her demanding Nazi captors, she also weaves in how she and Maddie (a pilot) came to be best friends.
Code Named Verity was a slow burn for me. I basically realized about 100 pages into the book that I needed to read more carefully to understand all the details coming in my direction. Although technically labeled YA, I would only present this story to a few high school students, as the text requires a bit of deciphering and patience. I still strongly like this book. I wasn’t brought to tears (as many reviews note), but I enjoyed the creativity contained in the plot. I've heard it's even better on audio, so you might want to check it out there.More info →