The page-turning past

An engrossing story can help you see history in a new way. In these four novels for middle- and/or high-school readers — including realistic historical fiction as well as fantasy — moments in the past come alive.

Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla
by Alexandra Diaz
Middle School    Wiseman/Simon    336 pp.
9/23    9781534495401    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781534495425    $10.99
Spanish ed.  9781665911191    $17.99

Fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1960, Victoria’s family is sure they will be in Miami for only a few weeks — a few months, max — until the United States helps topple Castro’s regime. Still, soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Victoria is devastated to leave her home country and her “prima hermana,” Jackie, behind. Diaz alternates focus between the cousins to describe this fraught moment in history. For Victoria, life in America is not easy, and she has to take on adult responsibilities to help feed her family. When communication with Cuba is almost completely cut, Jackie fears that Victoria has forgotten her. Jackie is eventually sent to live in Miami through Operation Peter Pan, and the girls struggle to deal with the challenges of their new reality — which, it increasingly becomes clear, will be permanent — as well as navigating the social landscape of junior high. Using personal interactions among Victoria, Jackie, and their new peers, Diaz does not shy away from addressing intertwined issues of the time period, including school integration, Cold War anti-Russian prejudice, and racial and gender dynamics within the family. The book’s ending, if somewhat far-fetched, allows for a happy, hopeful reunion in Miami with Jackie’s parents and baby brother and the girls’ grandmother. An author’s note and extensive Spanish glossary are appended. Spanish-language edition, Hasta siempre Cuba, mi isla, forthcoming (12/23). MONICA DE LOS REYES

Song of Freedom, Song of Dreams: A Novel in Verse
by Shari Green
Middle School, High School    Andrews    256 pp.
3/24    9781524881139    $21.99
Paper ed.  9781524881122    $16.99

In this novel in verse set in 1989, sixteen-year-old Helena lives in Leipzig, East Germany, during a period of oppression when citizens inform on their neighbors. But times are changing, and peaceful protests against the government are gaining momentum. Helena finds solace in music and begins to fall in love with a fellow piano student, but she’s pressured to spy on him and reluctantly reveals his plans to escape. As weekly peace prayers at the Saint Nicholas Church turn into a massive march, Helena chooses to confront her betrayal and her fears, and act: “There comes a time / when every voice / must cry out, a time // when every person must lean / into their fear, spread their wings / and rise up. // That time / is now.” Green conveys Helena’s anxieties and hopes in equal measure in lyrical free-verse passages that flow together like a musical composition. She balances discussion of the political upheaval of the time just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall with a sensitive exploration of Helena’s personal struggles and emotional growth. An author’s note with historical background, a glossary, and selected sources are appended. SYLVIA VARDELL

Wrath Becomes Her
by Aden Polydoros
High School    Inkyard    336 pp.
10/23    9781335458032    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780369736628    $9.99

Vera, the first-person narrator of this historical horror novel, awakens in 1943 Lithuania and understands that she is a golem. Her creator, Ezra, has made her from the body of his teenage daughter, Chaya (a partisan fighter who was shot and killed a few months earlier), for the purpose of avenging Chaya’s death. Vera can access Chaya’s memories and emotions, and she is bound to follow her creator’s commands. As Vera meets Akiva, who loved Chaya, and as she completes her mission, she and others wrestle with thoughtfully presented questions about where Chaya ends and Vera begins, and about Vera’s desire for more autonomy. This dark tale grows even darker by book’s end, but with its portrayal of proactive Jewish characters during the Holocaust and its emphasis on vengeance — and on emet, the Hebrew word meaning truth carved into a golem’s forehead — it acknowledges that anger can be valid, especially in extreme situations. A glossary defines relevant terms, including those from the Jewish folkloric concepts the novel incorporates. SHOSHANA FLAX

An Echo in the City
by K. X. Song
High School    Little, Brown    352 pp.
6/23    9780316396820    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780316397025    $10.99

In this page-turning drama, two teens from different backgrounds forge a brief romantic connection amid the tumultuous 2019 Hong Kong anti-government protests. Phoenix Lam, sixteen, comes from a wealthy shipping family. Zhang Kai En, seventeen, an amateur painter who has been living in Shanghai, returns to Hong Kong after his mother’s death to reunite with his estranged father and enroll in the police academy. The two protagonists meet by chance at a restaurant and connect after they accidentally swap cellphones. Apolitical Phoenix follows her brother into protesting. Kai joins their student group while secretly undermining their efforts. Tension builds as the teens grow closer, peaceful protests turn deadly, and Kai’s betrayal is discovered. The novel succeeds in using the lens of young love in an undercover thriller to capture a significant historical moment. Song does a strong job with her vivid descriptions of the cosmopolitan city in peaceful moments and in realistic, chaotic protest scenes, including examples of police and protester violence. She also manages the difficult balancing act of exploring various characters’ viewpoints on the China/Hong Kong political situation with nuance, whether they see the pro-democracy protests as necessary, destructive, or futile. In her author’s note, Song emphasizes that her novel is “not representative of the entire Hong Kong population…there is a vast range of perspectives.” A short list of recommended nonfiction books and documentaries is also appended. MICHELLE LEE

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

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