Across so many years

These four historical novels for intermediate and middle-school readers bring to life the journeys of female protagonists from a wide range of points in history. See also “Learning from history” from the January 2023 Notes issue and “Living through history” from the July 2022 issue, plus our Women’s History Month tag and Women’s History Month 2024 coverage.

Across So Many Seas
by Ruth Behar
Intermediate, Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    272 pp.
2/24    9780593323403    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780593323410    $10.99

This welcome historical novel traces a Sephardic Jewish family whose members travel from one country to another with first-person narrators from four generations and spanning centuries. In 1492, Benvenida and her family leave Toledo, Spain, for what is then Constantinople to escape the Spanish Inquisition. In 1923, Reina sneaks out at night and sings for a group of boys against her father’s wishes and is sent from Turkey to Cuba for an arranged marriage. In 1961, Alegra teaches literacy as a brigadista but then flees Cuba for Miami with Operation Pedro Pan. And in 2003, Paloma and her family travel back to Toledo and learn what they can about their long-ago family history. The family saga provides glimpses of several moments in world history and gives readers opportunities to spot connections among the generations, sometimes knowing details about the past that the characters can only guess at. (An overly earnest tone in narration and dialogue sometimes detracts from the characters’ believability.) A Ladino song and the oud that it is played on add echoes from one section to another. The author’s note provides context and personal connections; back matter also includes source notes with accessible explanations. SHOSHANA FLAX

 One Big Open Sky
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Intermediate, Middle School    Holiday    240 pp.
3/24    9780823450169    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823457496    $10.99

In 1879, Lettie’s African American family begins a westward journey from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nebraska, where her father seeks a better life for them. “We can’t live free / on someone else’s land / picking someone else’s crop! / I need something to call my own.” Eleven-year-old Lettie, her parents, and her two younger brothers load all they can into a wagon and join a caravan of ten families journeying on flatboat and on foot. Cline-Ransome’s spare free-verse narrative centers three skillfully developed female voices: Lettie; her mother, Sylvia; and eighteen-year-old Philomena, on her way to her first teaching job in Nebraska. Lettie keeps track of the miles and spending on supplies while Sylvia does her best to keep the children’s spirits uplifted. Philomena joins the family in Missouri, gaining passage in exchange for help with cooking and laundry. The treacherous terrain, extreme weather changes, and unforeseen tragedies are overwhelming at times, but the sense of community among the travelers offers a prevailing sense of hope. This is a captivating story about African American homesteaders and their claims to land promised them after the Civil War. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

A Season Most Unfair
by J. Anderson Coats
Intermediate    Atheneum    288 pp.
6/23    9781665912358    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781665912372    $10.99

In this bright, engaging tale set in medieval England, Coats lightly interweaves medieval craft and culture with deeper questions about work, value, and getting around the status quo. Tick has long helped her father make the tallow candles and beeswax charms that are their livelihood. Now that Papa’s losing his eyesight, her work is essential. She loves her sense of expertise and responsibility; especially, she loves working companionably with Papa. Then comes Henry, a boy apprentice, and Papa shuts Tick out. You will soon be changing, she’s told, and chandler work isn’t suitable for women. But Tick is named for St. Scholastica, patron saint of “just because something is so, doesn’t make it right.” She concocts her own plan to make and market beeswax charms at the annual Stourbridge Fair. Coats is a lively, capable storyteller and intelligently dovetails historical detail with issues — and a self-aware expressiveness in this first-person, present-tense narrative — that resonate today. Her plot twists, turns, and hinges on a pleasing, convincing mix of medieval practices and unusual but realistic circumstances that provide for a hopeful ending. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

I Am Kavi
by Thushanthi Ponweera
Intermediate    Holiday    272 pp.
9/23    9780823453658    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823457274    $11.99

At ten years old, Kavi has already experienced her share of trauma and heartbreak. Her father spent a decade at the front lines in the Sri Lankan civil war and returned to their rural home an amputee, only to die of a sudden heart attack. Kavi’s mother remarries and becomes pregnant, leaving a still-grieving Kavi certain her mother no longer loves her. When she earns a scholarship to a prestigious school in the capital city, Colombo, Kavi jumps at the opportunity but soon feels ashamed of her poor, rural roots in a school full of wealthy city kids. The novel, set in the late 1990s, is a superb study of the Sri Lankan class system and the lengths to which someone might go to fit in. Convinced she will have to change to make friends with the rich, “cool” girls who have fancy new clothes, cars, and servants, Kavi pretends to be wealthy and creates a web of lies she soon gets caught in, ultimately revealing what really matters. A moving coming-of-age story written in verse about understanding and embracing who you truly are. The war acts as a highly charged political backdrop to Kavi’s struggles to accept her family. Back matter provides context on the Sri Lankan civil war; in an author’s note, Ponweera reflects on her own experiences growing up during the war. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

From the February 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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