Learning from history

These seven historical fiction novels for middle-grade readers introduce a variety of important and engaging topics from different places and time periods in the last century.

by C. C. Harrington; illus. by Diana Sudyka
Intermediate    Scholastic    288 pp.
9/22    9781338803860    $17.99

This novel, set in 1963, consists of three narrative strands. Londoner Maggie, nearly twelve, lives with a stutter. Her halting speech makes school a misery, and she’s facing the threat of being sent to a boarding school for the disabled that has a frightening reputation. A visit to her grandfather, a doctor who lives in a small Cornish village, provides a temporary reprieve. Running alongside this story is the dramatic tale of Rumpus, a young snow leopard bought at the exotic pet department of Harrods department store and then abandoned in a forest adjacent to the same Cornish village. Finally, we follow the fate of that ancient forest, the property of Lord Foy, a truly malevolent villain who plans to raze it for development. In a suspenseful and neatly-worked-out plot we see how Maggie’s deep connections to animals and the natural world are her greatest strengths, enabling physical bravery and creative problem-solving. The theme of diverse varieties of communication braids the narrative together and deepens its impact. Generous back matter alerts readers to resources on stuttering, big-cat conservation, and reforestation efforts worldwide. Chapter decorations and the occasional pen-and-ink illustration add to the richness of this immersive experience. SARAH ELLIS 

The Star That Always Stays
by Anna Rose Johnson
Intermediate, Middle School    Holiday    224 pp.
7/22    9780823450404    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780823452897    $10.99

In her debut novel, Johnson (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) combines family history with an homage to such classics as Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Pollyanna, offering up her protagonist’s memorable perspective on life in the early twentieth century. When their divorced mother remarries, young Ojibwe teen Norvia and her siblings are uprooted from their home on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to Boyne City, Michigan. Not only does that mean adjusting to life with a new stepfather and stepbrother, but she and her siblings have been warned by their mother not to disclose that they are Ojibwe. Norvia had loved learning about her family’s history and traditions from her grandparents; denying that part of her heritage feels wrong. She finds comfort in reading and longs to be a heroine like the girls in her favorite novels; she uses the stories from her grandfather, caring advice from her new stepfather, and the books she reads, along with her faith in God and the Bible, to become the heroine she wants to be. An author’s note details Johnson’s research process; a glossary, pronunciation guide, and family photos provide additional context for this engaging work of historical fiction. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY 

We Own the Sky
by Rodman Philbrick
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    208 pp.
9/22    9781338736298    $18.99

Twelve-year-old Davy Michaud and his older sister Josephine face dim prospects in 1924 Biddeford, Maine, after their mother’s burial. A lung ailment caused by work in a cotton mill led to her death; their father died years before in a mill accident. Then their mother’s cousin, famous aviatrix Ruthie Reynard, comes to the rescue, inviting the two to join her flying circus for the summer. Davy and Jo find their places in the diverse circus community, but it’s that diversity — French Canadians, Italians, Jews, Blacks, Irish, and Catholics — that draws the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which has already attracted one hundred thousand followers in Maine. Since the small Black population of Maine provides few targets, the northern Klan attacks immigrants, especially French Canadians who have come to work in the mills. The tale balances the soaring dreams and courage of early female flyers (including Jo’s new success as a wing walker) and the basest prejudices of the Klan. Philbrick’s fast-paced, action-packed narrative includes deeper layers of difficult history that still resonate today. Pair with Karen Hesse’s verse novel Witness (rev. 11/01), also about the Maine Klan. An author’s note and suggestions for further reading are appended. DEAN SCHNEIDER 

A Seed in the Sun
by Aida Salazar
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    273 pp.
10/22    9780593406601    $17.99
e-book ed.  9780593406618    $10.99

In this lyrical verse novel set in 1965 California, Lula has lost her voice. She can only speak in “a whispery rasp” that doesn’t help when she has to call out in the fields where she picks grapes with her family of migrant workers. It doesn’t help when her father becomes angry and accuses her of not doing her part for the family’s survival. And it doesn’t help when there is danger and she needs to protect her siblings. With a stronger voice, she would make her case for attending school, but now that her mother has been stricken by a mysterious illness, that’s not possible. When the exploited farmworkers start organizing and a woman named Dolores Huerta urges them to strike, things begin changing. Will her father be receptive to these ideas? Will her mother get medical assistance? Will Lula and her siblings return to school? Salazar seamlessly combines historical events of the farmworkers’ rights movement and the 1965 Delano grape strike with a sensitive portrayal of a girl trying to make sense of the world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story filled with evocative language, memorable characters, and apt nature imagery. A lengthy author’s note tells more about what Salazar calls “one of the greatest labor justice movements undertaken in United States history.” ALICIA K. LONG 

Weird Rules to Follow
by Kim Spencer
Intermediate    Orca    192 pp.
10/22    Paper ed.  9781459835580    $12.95
e-book ed.  9781459835603    $9.99

Mia, a Tsimshian tween, is growing up in the 1980s in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. She describes not only making giggly prank calls and getting ill-advised perms but also microaggressions and racism. When her best friend Lara’s bike goes missing, Lara’s father says, “It must have been the Indians.” Prejudice cuts both ways; one Native girl criticizes Mia for having white friends. Spencer goes a step further and addresses internalized racism as well: Mia’s mom, who is Tsimshian, does not let Mia take thick-cut bologna sandwiches to school — “Only Indians and poor people eat this kind of bologna” — and Mia’s aunt tells her cousin “not to marry an Indian.” Mia is surrounded by rules that feel “like an order rather than a suggestion” and that come from all sides: her family’s traditions; mainstream society’s restrictions. But Mia does not allow herself to be limited by other people’s “weird rules.” She also feels pride in her family and her people, enjoying salmonberry-picking season and attending the All Native Basketball Tournament, for example. The book’s chapters are connected bite-sized vignettes, easy to read but poetic and focused. Spencer (Ts’msyen First Nation) specializes in creative nonfiction, and this story, while fiction, rings true. LARA K. AASE 

Island of Spies
by Sheila Turnage
Intermediate    Dial    384 pp.
9/22    9780735231252    $17.99

For this freewheeling detective story, Turnage chooses a particular and intriguing setting: Hatteras Island off the coast of North Carolina in 1942. In the early stages of the American involvement in WWII, German U-boats were stationed off this coast, a fact largely hidden from the public. These conditions of secrecy, threat, and espionage make a perfect backdrop for an elaborate tale in which twelve-year-old Stick and her sidekicks, Rain and Neb, tackle a cluster of mysteries involving — among other tropes — spies, double agents, strategic eavesdropping, code-breaking, clue-solving, secret messages in lemon juice, explosives, an attempted arsenic poisoning, and a fatal snake bite. The pace slows very briefly for more naturalistic plot points such as Stick’s father being missing in action and the endemic racism directed toward Rain and her mother, but the narrative is mainly tried and true: plucky kids outwitting the adults. An added bonus is that our narrator, Stick, is a keen reader of the encyclopedia and of potboiler fiction and has mastered both a wide-ranging compendium of scientific facts and a quippy tough-guy argot, with its delicious metaphors, all appropriate to the period. Her sister’s boyfriend has “dimples deep enough to back a Ford into.” Funny, crisp, and clever. SARAH ELLIS 

The Sky We Shared
by Shirley Reva Vernick
Intermediate    Cinco Puntos/Lee & Low    256 pp.
6/22    9781947627529    $22.95
e-book ed.  9781947627543    $22.95

Vernick’s absorbing historical World War II novel alternates between the perspectives of two teenage girls: Nellie Doud in Oregon and Tamiko Nakaoka in Japan. Nellie misses her Pa, who’s in the service; has a crush on friend and neighbor Joey, whose brother was recently killed in action; and narrowly escapes being killed by the Japanese bomb that takes six lives in her small town. Orphan Tamiko worries about her older brother when he joins the Imperial Army; is initially excited when the girls at her school are enlisted to help the emperor; then survives terrible conditions while making paper for the balloons that will carry bombs to America. Both girls just want the war to be over, and both think deeply about the complexities of blame, guilt, forgiveness, and compassion while navigating their own country’s racist propaganda. Readers may want to follow up this engrossing novel with Tanya Lee Stone’s Peace Is a Chain Reaction (rev. 9/22); each book greatly enhances the other. (Marc Tyler Nobleman’s earlier picture book Thirty Minutes over Oregon, rev. 11/18, covers similar material for younger readers.) Appended are extensive notes on the true events behind the story, further information about World War II, research sources, and a glossary. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

From the January 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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