Reads and Reviews – July 2021

Shame the Stars

Shame the Stars

(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.

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Attack of the Turtle

Attack of the Turtle

(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.

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All the Stars Denied

All the Stars Denied

(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.

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Blood on the River: James Town 1607

Blood on the River: James Town 1607

(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.

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A Woman of Intelligence

A Woman of Intelligence

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.

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Libertie: A Novel

Libertie: A Novel

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.

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History Is Inventive

History Is Inventive

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.

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Copper Sun

Copper Sun

(Middle Grade Reading Level - a depiction of the reality of slavery including - violence, rape, death, and murder)

Copper Sun is a well-crafted story with impeccable research and accuracy. Amari is in her mid-teens when she is captured and sold into slavery along the African coast. She is shipped across the Atlantic ocean, sold to an enslaver, and gradually finds a place in the new reality she is forced to endure. This book is realistic in its depictions and traumatically sad as a result. One of the best aspects of this story is the awareness of the spectrum of freedom for women in this time. Amari is certainly in slavery, however, the other women she encounters - Polly, an indentured servant, or Mrs. Derby, the young wife of Amari's enslaver - aren't quite free either. Worthy of a read-aloud in any classroom, as long as students are made aware of the truth of the unflinching story that will be told.

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A Place to Hang the Moon

A Place to Hang the Moon

I have a weakness for any story centered around British children sent to live in the countryside during WWII. I know that it's a common topic, but I just can't help myself. Bedknobs and Broomsticks anyone? The Chronicles of Narina? Unlike those fanciful tales, A Place to Hang the Moon is firmly centered in reality. Yet, this story still held a magical nostalgia and charm that I adored. The three children at the center of the story - William, Edmund, and Anna - have been recently orphaned, and they're sent to live with a family as evacuees. There is hope in this decision that they will find a family that will adopt them after the war's end.

I absolutely devoured this story. The nostalgia, the sweetness, and the character development are all there. The children are incredibly sympathetic and realistic all the same. While this story is historical fiction, the history lies very much in the background while the children's lives and experiences take center stage. Still, there is much to learn about the experiences of young evacuees during WWII and the hardships of daily life during that time. I even enjoyed the descriptions of the meals the children ate. I'm not sure this story has a place in the classroom, however, it is the perfect story to read to your children at bedtime. Like me, you might enjoy reading it all on your own!

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Leaders and Thinkers in American History

Leaders and Thinkers in American History

Meghan's book is perfect for kids in the middle-grade level who might be curious about these individuals. It's also great for a teacher to utilize sections in the classroom. My favorite part of this book is that it was written by an actual middle school History teacher. Meghan has taught at this level for many years, and this book is written in a clever and engaging style that reflects that experience. There are many short biographies of famous Americans floating around the internet, however, Meghan's shines through the stack. The research she put into each biography and her experience teaching are reflected on every page.⁠

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