Fascinating figures from twentieth-century history

The lives of these fascinating figures should engage young adult readers while providing unique entry points into twentieth-century history.

In Torpedoed: The True Story of the WWII Sinking of "The Children's Ship," Deborah Heiligman tells the riveting tale of the SS City of Benares. Carrying two hundred passengers, half of them children, the ship was torpedoed on September 17, 1940 in the North Atlantic; many perish in the night from exposure to the cold and stormy weather. Heiligman skillfully juggles various points of view, heightening the narrative tension while remaining scrupulously faithful to the historical record. Black-and-white photographs and illustrations are incorporated throughout. (Holt/Godwin, 11–14 years)

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit (1878–1942), a Jewish doctor, author, and orphanage director who famously championed children’s rights and who perished at the Treblinka extermination camp. A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin explores the man's life, with various digressions into such topics as Polish history and politics, WWII, and the Jewish diaspora. Marrin both illuminates history and provides occasional respite from the unrelenting (and often vividly described) cruelty of the Holocaust. (Knopf, 12–16 years)

In Sarah Miller's The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, the "miracle" was the birth of the sisters in 1934, the first time quintuplets were known to survive. The "tragedy" is pretty much everything else about their story. As much exposé as biography, Miller's book is a propulsive account of what life was like for the girls, who served as both science experiment and tourist attraction. Miller avoids a sensationalizing tone, allowing the facts to speak for themselves. (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 12–16 years)

Ace historian Steve Sheinkin turns to the subject of early American women pilots, using as his organizing principle the first women's cross-country air race, in Born to Fly: The First Women's Air Race Across America. Early chapters introduce the individual contenders; the book then chronicles, in detailed, dramatic fashion, each of the eight days of the derby, beginning in Santa Monica and ending in Cleveland. The tone throughout is lively and engaging, incorporating lots of dialogue plus Sheinkin's own conversational voice. (Roaring Brook, 12–16 years)

From the January 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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