Living through history

While living through their own turbulent times, today’s middle graders and middle schoolers can look to historical fiction to learn about the past — and to take those lessons into the future. See also Five Questions for John Cho and Sarah Suk about Troublemaker.

The Door of No Return
by Kwame Alexander
Middle School    Little, Brown    397 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-316-44186-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-44206-0    $9.99

Alexander’s (The Crossover, rev. 5/14; The Undefeated, rev. 3/19) latest verse novel, the first in a projected trilogy, is historical fiction set in 1860, in an Asante Kingdom village. Kofi Offin learns about the world through his storyteller grandfather Nana Mosi: how he came to be named after the river; the origin of the rivalry with neighboring Lower Kwanta; and the history of “the wonderfuls,” the white colonials who have claimed dominion over their nation of Ghana. While Kofi’s school teacher has an affinity for all things British (he’s “on a mission to capsize our culture,” Nana says), Kofi is content to learn from his grandfather, even as his own highly engaging story play out through interactions with those around him. There’s Ama, Kofi’s childhood friend and the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen; his best friend Ebo; and the cousin who torments Kofi. And there’s his older brother Kwasi, the newest athlete to compete in the village games during the Annual Kings festival. When a wrestling contest results in tragedy, the tentative peace with Lower Kwanta is broken. As a result, Kofi is taken captive, and the book now becomes a searing chronicle of the terror that will carry him to “the door of no return” and far from home. A master storyteller himself, Alexander has taken great care to incorporate familiar West African sayings, folklore characters, and rituals. Themes of conflict within and between cultures, and of war and peace, hate and love, despair and hope are deeply embedded throughout this gripping tale that forefronts the humanity of those who were forced into slavery. EBONI NJOKU

by Avi
Middle School    Clarion/HarperCollins    352 pp.
2/22    978-0-358-63332-7    $16.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-358-63332-7    $9.99

“On this day, my father was murdered because he said a prayer.” So begins the saga of thirteen-year-old Noah Cope, who becomes caught up in the American Revolution. Noah’s father had been a pastor and a Loyalist in the (fictional) town of Tullbury, Massachusetts. Upon his death, Noah’s family moves to Boston, where the teen gets a job at the (nonfictional) Green Dragon tavern, spying for the British. There a coworker, Jolla, who is Black, becomes Noah’s friend. He challenges Noah to think more about freedom, and Noah comes to realize how “tangled” everything is: “The rebels claimed they fought for liberty but tyrannized those who disagreed with them, such as my father. The British said they upheld English rights but denied them to others. Both sides supported slavery.” At story’s end, Noah and Jolla are loyal to each other, and for them, that is enough. Avi’s narrative, told through dated entries beginning on April 1, 1774, and concluding on March 17, 1776, ebbs and flows with the tides of war, gaining intensity as the Battles of Lexington and Concord loom and slowing down during the doldrums of the long siege of Boston. The story is spiked with lively dialogue, especially effective as Jolla and Noah sort out how they feel about “being in a place where there are all kinds of slavery.” An extensive author’s note points out how the ideals of the American Revolution and definitions of the words patriot, traitor, and loyalty are still being debated today. DEAN SCHNEIDER

by Amina Luqman-Dawson
Intermediate, Middle School    Little, Brown    416 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-316-05661-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-05674-8    $9.99

Many accounts of the Underground Railroad mention that enslaved Blacks would stick close to swamps as they made their way North, as the topography proved problematic for slave catchers. A lesser-known fact is that from the 1700s through the Civil War, hundreds of African Americans remained in the swamp and established thriving communities. One such area, the Great Dismal Swamp, serves as the inspiration for Luqman-Dawson’s engrossing, multi­perspective debut novel. Twelve-year-old Homer is on the run with his seven-year-old sister, their mother having turned back to save his friend, Anna. Homer has no idea how to survive in the swamp; the answer arrives in Suleman, a Black man with knowledge of both the swamp and the surrounding plantations. Suleman leads them to Freewater, an established community with a whole generation of children who have only known freedom. Homer makes the hard choice to go back to his old plantation (accompanied by his new friends) to free his mother, but she and Anna have their own plans for freedom, supported by an unexpected source: Nora, the youngest daughter of the plantation owner. When they all converge on the night of a wedding, sacrifices from each of them bring the story to an explosive and cathartic conclusion. Every chapter begins with a character’s name and records their journey, successfully developing a multidimensional cast. The author’s note contains a brief history of these communities formed by both Indigenous and self-emancipated Black people. EBONI NJOKU

We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963
by Shelia P. Moses
Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    176 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-593-40748-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-59340-749-3    $10.99

Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 was “a city that little children brought to its knees.” Residents were tired of poor housing, poor pay, poor schools, and the lack of voting rights. So they protested, with children leading the way. Thousands of young people poured into the streets to protest segregation, and over three thousand were jailed. Moses leads readers into the scene through the eyes and voice of eleven-year-old Rufus Jackson Jones Jr., rooting these historical events in a memorable family story. Rufus’s mama and stepdaddy tell him and his little sister, Georgia, that they are too young to join the protests, but Rufus does anyway. After witnessing beatings and police dog attacks, he faces Bull Connor’s fire hoses; he wonders where the fire is but realizes that the protesters “were the fire,” a fire the police intend to extinguish, but also a fire igniting the passions of citizens seeking justice. This is a good match with Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (1995), though Moses’s novel ends months prior to the horrific church bombing, allowing her to highlight the protests’ successes, including desegregation of the city (though much work remained). Moving and memorable for such a brief novel; and the author’s note is important reading in its own right. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Playing a Dangerous Game
by Patrick Ochieng
Intermediate, Middle School    Accord/Norton    208 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-324-01913-8    $17.95
e-book ed.  978-1-324-01914-5    $17.48

Growing up in 1970s Nairobi — and Railway Estate in particular — offers plenty for four young boys to do. Ten-year-old Lumush, whose railway-worker father has just gotten a promotion, is being sent to “snobby” Hill School, without Odush, Dado, and Mose. But the boys manage to stay best friends, hanging out by the old wrecked Zephyr car sitting up on stones behind the Estate, playing a game of chance called pata potea, wandering the neighborhood, climbing trees, stealing fruit, and watching the sprayers manage the mosquito population. They are especially drawn to the mystery of the “ghost house,” where a white woman and her daughter died years before. Lumush ignores his mama’s oft-repeated warning about sticking his nose in other people’s business, and, indeed, spying on that “evil house” almost costs him his life. Ochieng’s debut novel for young readers offers a richly realized setting, four well-drawn protagonists, and a neighborhood mystery that’s also tied to the politics and economics of the time and place. Four ordinary boys, a creepy puzzle to solve, and a fumbling route to heroism add up to a rewarding read. DEAN SCHNEIDER

My Own Lightning
by Lauren Wolk
Intermediate, Middle School    Dutton    320 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-525-55559-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-55560-5    $10.99

This sequel to Newbery Honor Book Wolf Hollow (rev. 7/16) starts with a bang as protagonist Annabelle McBride is hit by lightning during a summer storm. That event leaves her in a state she describes as “senses wide open.” In addition to gaining hypersensitivity to smells, sounds, and touch, Annabelle finds herself able to “read” the feelings of animals. However, the story never tips over into the paranormal, staying firmly grounded in concrete details of 1940s Pennsylvania farm life. The lightning strike ignites a series of four related mysteries. Who was the Good Samaritan who saved Annabelle’s life by administering CPR and then disappeared? What’s in the Edelmans’ barn? Is that urbane stranger in town up to no good? And what has happened to Buster, the family dog? Common to all these threads is Annabelle’s shifting relationship with Andy Woodberry, the hateful bully of the original book. This is historical fiction for middle-grade readers who relish a warm family story with an energetic plot; a character who comes into her own; and a fully realized, sensory-rich setting (including delicious descriptions of farm meals). SARAH ELLIS

From the July 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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