Resilient girls

The young female protagonists of the following six historical fiction novels demonstrate strength and resilience when faced with family challenges, societal limitations, and dramatic world events. March is Women’s History Month. For more, click the tag Women’s History Month and follow #HBWomensHistoryMonth on Twitter and Facebook.

Letters from Cuba
by Ruth Behar
Intermediate, Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    272 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-525-51647-7    $17.99

In 1938, eleven-year-old Jewish girl Esther is the first of her siblings to emigrate from Poland to Cuba, joining her father, who went three years earlier. Her letters to her sister, kept in a notebook to be shared later, form the narrative of Esther’s new life in Cuba. With the help of her skill as a clothing designer, Esther and Papa save money to bring the rest of the family over, as rumors build of the worsening situation for Jews in Europe. The story is in some ways refreshingly optimistic: both Papa and Esther adapt fairly easily to life first in rural Agramonte and then in Havana. Behar creates a welcome portrait of a warm, diverse community — one that supports the family members when they do face local antisemitism, and as a result creates an Anti-Nazi Society. But the novel doesn’t paint an overly sunny picture — realistically, adjustment isn’t as easy for other members of Esther’s family when they arrive (or, in one case, choose not to come). An author’s note cites connections to Behar’s (Lucky Broken Girl, rev. 7/17) family history and to Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rifka (1992). SHOSHANA FLAX

War and Millie McGonigle
by Karen Cushman
Intermediate    Knopf    224 pp.    g
4/21    978-1-9848-5010-2    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-9848-5011-9    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-5011-9    $9.99

Cushman (The Ballad of Lucy Whipple) sets her WWII home front novel in 1941 San Diego, where feisty and headstrong Millie McGonigle is coping with…a lot. Grief at the recent death of her beloved grandmother. Gloom over the state of the world, “full of war and death.” Jealousy of her sickly younger sister, who takes up all their mother’s time and attention. Right before Gram died, she gave Millie a notebook and told her to use it to “remember the good things in this world…Things that seem lost or dead — keep them alive and safe in your book.” Millie turns the journal into “The Book of Dead Things,” recording every loss she hears about, every dead sand crab she finds on the beach, in an effort to avert disaster and keep her worst fears from happening. A new friendship, a growing warmth between Millie and her little sister, and a revised understanding of Gram’s advice — not to obsess about death, but to recognize and embrace life — begin to ease Millie’s pain. ­Cushman offers readers a sympathetic, spirited heroine and a vividly evoked setting, chock-full of ­sensory detail. “I…sniffed deeply of the rich, salty, fishy smell of the mud. Gulls screeched like rusty hinges as they soared above me, and flocks of curlews and sandpipers scratched for bugs for breakfasts. There was plenty of life on the bay but a peaceful stillness, too, that ­comforted me when I needed comforting.” Hand this to fans of books such as Jennifer L. Holm’s Our Only May Amelia (1999) and Turtle in Paradise (rev. 5/10). MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

In a Flash
by Donna Jo Napoli
Intermediate    Lamb/Random    400 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-101-93413-5    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-101-93414-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-101-93415-9    $9.99

Narrator Simona is eight years old in 1940, and her younger sister five, when they leave their home outside Rome for Tokyo — their father has been hired as chef at the Italian embassy. The girls must quickly learn a new language and new customs — and although they come to love Japan, as Westerners their friends are few. As WWII approaches and then intensifies, life in Tokyo deteriorates, with food and clothing scarcities; classmates’ brothers and fathers lost to war; school concerned with propaganda rather than learning. Then, in 1943, Italy surrenders — and Simona’s family is now the enemy. From here, the novel becomes a survival story. The girls are separated from their father and sent to a starvation-level internment camp; escape and are rescued by a household of anti-war activists; they return, after the women’s home is raided, to Tokyo, where they find refuge with a blind washerwoman; and finally, fatefully, end up in a Catholic mission in Hiroshima. Throughout, what saves them are Simona’s strength and determination but also the sisters’ assimilation into and respect for Japanese culture: at the camp, their politeness earns them life-saving tidbits from the kitchen; needing to buy train tickets back to Tokyo, they speak the language so well they pass for Japanese. Simona’s eight-year-old voice is the same as her adult voice (the novel ends with a final chapter set in 1965), but readers may overlook this quibble as they immerse themselves in Napoli’s story, told with immediacy, compassion, and nuance. A note describing the author’s research and an extensive bibliography are appended. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. by Brian Pinkney
Intermediate, Middle School    Little, Brown    224 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-316-53677-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-53676-9    $9.99

Spanning roughly three generations, covering the years 1927 to 1968, this lyrical oral history of the fictional Little family gives insight into the complex African American experience of Jim Crow and the long fight for voting rights. Loretta Little, affectionately called ’Retta by her father, grows up in Mississippi a generation or two removed from the Civil War, when enslaved Black Americans were technically freed. However, the practice of sharecropping often led to other forms of servitude, so much so that ’Retta’s father said the family had less freedom than the chickens that roamed the land. Quick-witted and determined, ’Retta perseveres through the injustices and reaches out to celebrate joy when and where she finds it, including an unexpected addition to the family. Found and adopted by ’Retta and her sisters, toddler Rollins (a.k.a. Roly) is a Night-Deep child — left in the woods by parents who’d lost hope in their own circumstances. After the family acquires a small piece of land, the Littles are closer to finding hope, and Roly commits his life to patiently encouraging that hope to grow, first with the family land and later as the father of Aggie B., a spitfire who, when she sees voter suppression and intimidation in her community, becomes a fierce advocate for the right to vote. Divided into three movements, Pinkney’s “monologue novel” immerses readers in the first-person accounts. Through a mix of drama, gospel, and rhythm and blues, and with great immediacy, Pinkney introduces readers to an extraordinary family and provides a compelling testimony of resilience. Moving spot illustrations reinforce the brilliance and strength of the Littles’ “truth-talking.” Back matter includes author’s and artist’s notes, details on the dramatic form, information about sharecropping, and suggestions for further reading. EBONI NJOKU

Trowbridge Road
by Marcella Pixley
Middle School    Candlewick    310 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-5362-0750-7    $17.99

Narrator June Bug Jordan watches “beanpole” Ziggy Karlo, with his “unruly mop of red hair,” arrive at his grandmother’s house on idyllic Trowbridge Road in the summer of 1983. The two loners quickly become friends, finding solace in the imagined magical “ninth dimension” they explore behind Ziggy’s house. In reality, their lives are complicated, unhappy, and full of secrets. Ziggy is bullied for his appearance, extensive vocabulary, and active imagination; and he’s staying with Nana Jean because of his mother’s struggles with parenting and an abusive boyfriend. June Bug is hiding the fact that her mother suffers from mental illness and debilitating grief over her (closeted gay) husband’s death from a misunderstood new disease called AIDS; Mother never leaves the house, rarely eats, and obsessively cleans everything with bleach — including June Bug — because “clean meant safe.” As Ziggy and June Bug painfully learn, sometimes mothers haven’t “figured out the right way to love,” or they “don’t know how to make it stick.” Pixley (Ready to Fall, rev. 3/18) tackles difficult topics from the heartrending perspective of a girl slowly realizing that her family badly needs help. Descriptive language vividly renders settings and feelings, as June Bug contends with revealing the truth plus her own guilt and grief over her father. Give this emotional read to thoughtful tweens who can handle the serious subject matter. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Three Keys: A Front Desk Novel
by Kelly Yang
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    288 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-338-59138-5    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-4328-8326-3    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-64816-4    $10.99

In this sequel to Front Desk (rev. 7/18), eleven-year-old Chinese American Mia Tang continues helping to run her now family-and-worker-owned motel in California. Business is going well, but negative political ads demonizing undocumented immigrants occupy the media landscape. At school, Mia forms a club where she and other marginalized classmates find validation and share instances of racism in their daily lives. Mia’s best friend Lupe reveals a long-kept secret, describing being undocumented as “being a pencil, when everyone else is a pen…You worry you can be erased anytime.” Matters intensify when Lupe’s mother struggles to return from Mexico after attending Lupe’s abuelita’s funeral, and then her father is threatened with deportation. Yang’s writing is engaging and earnest, making issues of discrimination, class, poverty, cultural identity, and gender roles accessible to young readers. Mia is a creative and determined activist, using her voice to combat injustice while uplifting the voices of others. An author’s note details extensive research on American immigration laws and their impacts on immigrant families in the 1990s. KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

From the March 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.