(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 – 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 →
(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 →
(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 →
(Middle-Grade reading level - a very small amount of drug use at the beginning, vandalism)
All We Have Left tells the story of two girls impacted by 9/11. Alia's story is told from the day of 9/11 while Jesse's story takes place 15 years later. Alia is a Muslim girl who is also very much a teenager. She's not sure about her direction in life and is rebelling a bit as a result. The book starts as she faces punishment for getting caught with a joint in the bathroom at school. Jesse is also acting out, but her reasons are different. Jesse's brother died during the terrorist attack from that day, and her family unit has crumbled in the aftermath.
This book has a YA sensibility, however, it's written with middle-grade language, so younger readers could access the text also. The story is decently engaging (albeit a little predictable), however, it does its best when it examines Muslim culture and the Islamaphobia that came about as a result of the attacks.More info →
(YA reading level - death, mild romance, and some mentions of alcohol abuse)
There are some books that just capture your interest from the first page. Hope and Other Punch Lines is one of those books. Buxbaum tells the story of sixteen-year-old Abbi, whose whole life has been overshadowed by 9/11. Although she was only a toddler when the towers fell, her escape from the World Trade Center was made famous by a photograph taken on that day. In the image, baby Abbi stood at the center of several survivors, clutching a red birthday balloon.
Nicknamed "baby Hope," the symbolic photograph has overshadowed Abbi from that day forward. Now a teenager, she befriends a boy named Noah, who holds his own secret connect to that same image.
The writing in this book just sparkles with authenticity and humor. I found myself reading her sentences out loud as they were both laugh-out-loud funny and so creatively descriptive. This is one of those YA books that is both for teenagers and adults.More info →
(YA reading level - there is some racism and the use of racial slurs, beyond that, the book is very clean)
Valora Luck is the daughter of a white mother and a Chinese father. She and her brother have been trained as circus performers, and both parents are deceased. Luck decides to disguise herself as a well-off widow and is able to finagle her way onto the infamous Titanic shortly before it leaves that harbor. She then finds her brother aboard and is able to entangle herself in many dramatic plotlines, as she attempts to pass herself off as both a male Chinese circus performer and a widowed first-class passenger.
My main criticism of this book is that it didn't need to take place on the Titanic. Much of the plot could have taken place on any ship crossing the Atlantic during this time. I understand that Lee wanted to explore the history of the Chinese men who survived the Titanic, but a fictional female character was the main character of the story. I think the struggles Luck faced (racism, poverty, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc) could have been better explored if the story just took place on a ship - no ice needed. I spent much of the book waiting for the ship to hit the ice, as then all of the stories that led up to the sinking wouldn't really matter. That was really my struggle with this book. I knew that all of the plots would be stressed or demolished towards the end, so I never really found myself invested in the stories of the characters. I do look forward to reading more Stacey Lee books, as I really enjoyed her writing, just not the plot structure of this particular tale.More info →