Tag Archives: historical fiction

Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1990-1999

It’s kind of hard at this point to know just what children’s literature of the 1990s will have staying power in the distant future, so I’m choosing a few books and authors who had a real impact on the decade or that had a strong body of their work published in the 1990s and which I know kids are still reading today. It’s hard for me to realize that many of these books were written over twenty years ago because, well, the 1990s doesn’t seem so far in the past to me! It may have become clear to readers by now that I am particularly fond of historical fiction and fantasy titles, but I have a few picture books and realistic fiction titles included in my list, and if you notice any glaring omissions from the decade, chime in below.


A sampling of some significant events in history for the decade (including a number of which I actually remember!):

1990–Nelson Mandela freed
1991–Collapse of the Soviet Union
1992–Los Angeles riots after Rodney King verdict
1993–World Trade Center bombed
1994–Nelson Mandela elected president of South Africa
1995–eBay founded
1996–Unabomber arrested
1997–Pathfinder sends images of Mars
1998–U.S. President Bill Clinton impeached
1999–Euro becomes new European currency

Newbery Medals for the decade are:

1990–Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
1991–Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli
1992–Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1993–Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant
1994–The Giver, by Lois Lowry
1995–Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
1996–The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman
1997–The View From Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg
1998–Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse
1999–Holes, by Louis Sachar

Caldecotts for the decade are:

1990–Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China, by Ed Young
1991–Black and White, by David Macaulay
1992–Tuesday, by David Weisner
1993–Mirette on the High Wire, by Emily Arnold McCully
1994–Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say
1995–Smoky Night, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz
1996–Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann
1997–Golum, by David Wisniewski
1998–Rapunzel, by David O. Zelinsky
1999–Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

Product DetailsAndrew Clements: I don’t know if I’ve expressed how much I love Andrew Clements’ books (I have, a few times), but I do very much love Andrew Clements’ books! Suitable for readers as young as third or fourth grade, they usually have a school-based setting, have a varied cast of characters and conflicts, and you never have to worry that the content will be inappropriate for young readers despite some of the issues they tackle. My first and always favorite is Frindle (1996), his first novel for children, but Extra Credit (2009) and About Average (2012) are up there, too, for different reasons. (I consider him the Joan Bauer of children’s literature…and Joan Bauer is the Andrew Clements of YA literature–always appropriate to recommend!)

Sharon Creech: Sharon CreechProduct Details doesn’t write series books, but my classroom library when I taught fifth grade had quite a long Creech segment anyway! My personal favorites are Love That Dog (2001) and Granny Torrelli Makes Soup (2003). Her characters are also real and relatable, and she doesn’t shy away from hard topics. I would recommend most of her works for fifth grade and up, actually, because of the topics and age of the protagonists, but my two favorites can work for slightly younger students. Walk Two Moons (1994), the story of a young teenage girl who is dealing with her grief over the loss of her mother in her own particular way, won the Newbery in 1995. Absolutely Normal Chaos (1990), another book for upper elementary to middle school readers, was published first in the UK and again in the US after the success of Walk Two Moons.

Product DetailsChristopher Paul Curtis: Because they were both published after I had begun high school, I read the Newbery medalist Bud, Not Buddy (1999) and Newbery runner-up The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 (1995) as an adult, but I think if they had been around when I was in grade school, they would have been just as impactful, and I hope a teacher would have exposed me to them! (They were certainly both in my classroom library when I taught fifth grade, but our history curriculum didn’t teach those eras in my grade level, so I didn’t use them in class.) Historical fiction is my favorite way to learn (and teach!) about the past, and a well-researched novel is, to me, the most immersive and moving way to learn about an era in history from the point of view of a character who is a part of a group to which I don’t belong. My historical knowledge of these eras (Great Depression and Civil Rights Movement) is embarrassingly weak, but these characters pulled me in and made me feel for them and with them, those little girls in their Sunday best and that trumpet-playing, jazz-loving boy, characters who were like me in as many ways as they were unlike me, and that is a definite mark of a well-written story! Because of the very tragic (and very real) climax of The Watsons Go to Birmingham:1963 (the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church which killed four little girls), I’d suggest it for upper elementary and middle school aged readers, but Bud, Not Buddy and more recent works, like Elijah of Buxton (2007) and The Mighty Miss Malone (2012) (both now on my reading list!) might be suitable for readers in the middle to upper elementary grades.

Kevin Henkes: Kevin Henkes Product Detailshas been publishing since the early 1980s, but his works that are most familiar to me, like Chrysanthemum (1991) and Julius, the Baby of the World (1990), were written in the 1990s and later. My children own a number of his mouse-based books (Owen’s Marshmallow Chick (2002) was one of GirlChild’s favorites when she was but a wee lass, and it still comes out every Easter!), and the Henkes shelf gets a lot of circulation at both the public and school library locally. His characters (despite usually being animals in this period of his writing) are realistic with recognizable childlike qualities (both good and not so good), and children really identify with the emotions his characters express. He is both author and illustrator, and his first black and white picture book, Kitten’s First Full Moon (2004), won a Caldecott in 2005.

Product DetailsPatricia Polacco: Patricia Polacco’s picture books are a staple of primary school libraries, and she published quite a few during the 1990s (and beyond). Some of her best and most famous works include Thank You, Mr. Falker (1998), Chicken Sunday (1992), and Thunder Cake (1990). (I reviewed Babushka’s Doll in my Themed Third Thursday: Dolls and Toyland post.) The author weaves her heritage and personal history into her books, including her Russian Jewish and Irish family stories and style, and her art is engaging and easily recognizable.

J.K. Rowling: Product DetailsIf we’re talking in terms of popularity, visibility, and continuing impact on culture, I’d have to say J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) made the biggest splash of the 1990s. (It even made it onto the history timeline I reference for my events of the decade portion of the post!) My first introduction to the series was in a children’s literature class for my education degree, and I soon caught up on the series and waited like so many others for each next book to come out. (I’m a pre-order kind of fan, not a Barnes-and-Noble-at-midnight-in-costume kind of fan…) While GirlChild has not yet read the series, all of her older cousins have, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. (I’m pretty sure that if I introduced GirlChild to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as a character right now, she’d never finish the books (or forgive me!), so I’m not going to ruin that for her!) Readers enjoy the well-developed fantastical elements of the stories, of course, but also the realistically portrayed, flawed, and lovable characters, the relatable emotions and themes, and the complex and interwoven plot lines. Not only has this series spawned a hugely popular movie series, but even books within the books are now being published and made into movies of their own!

Product DetailsJerry Spinelli: Looking at Jerry Spinelli’s extensive publication list from the 1990s, I realize that I was growing up with these books! I turned eleven as this decade began, so I spent my early adolescence picking these up as they filtered into the library. My youthful memories include Maniac Magee (1990, 1991 Newbery Medal), There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock (1991), and that literary classic Who Ran My Underwear Up the Flagpole? (1992). GirlChild recently read Fourth Grade Rats (1991) in school, and my fifth grade classroom library included Wringer (1997, 1998 Newbery Honor), The Library Card (1997), and Picklemania (1993). Spinelli has continued to publish children’s and YA literature to the present.


What Do We Do All Day’s list had very little overlap because she aims for lesser-known works, and this list is her last to compare. I’m going to venture into the 2000s and even future favorites of the 2010s, so I’m on my own now!






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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1980-1989

The 1980s were my childhood decade. I went from infant to tween in the space of those ten years, and it seems obvious that the books of the decade would stick with me since I was both an early and indiscriminate reader.


Here’s a sampling of the historical events of which I was probably completely unaware while I was being a child:

1980–Pac-Man video game released
1981–First woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke at my university years later!)
1982–E.T. released
1983–Cabbage Patch Kids popular (now this I remember!)
1985–Titanic wreckage found
1986–Chernobyl disaster
1989–Berlin Wall falls, World Wide Web invented

Newbery medalists of the decade include a number that I remember reading (but not all), and the honor books (some of which I’ll address later in the post) were also standard fare:

1980–A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos
1981–Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
1982–A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard
1983–Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voight
1984–Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
1985–The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley
1986–Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
1987–The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman
1988–Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
1989–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman

Caldecott medalists, including some of my most remembered illustrators (like Trina Schart Hyman, Stephen Gammell (whose more recent work I didn’t connect to these books), and Chris Van Allsburg):

1980–Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
1981–Fables, by Arnold Lobel
1982–Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg
1983–Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown (French text by Blaise Cendrars)
1984–The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, by Alice and Martin Provensen
1985–Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1986–The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
1987–Hey, Al, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Richard Egielski
1988–Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
1989–Song and Dance Man, by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

While a number of the above titles have stood the test of time, my personal favorites will show up again in the reviews below!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book EverRichard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever: New Revised Edition, by Richard Scarry (1980): Okay, I know that this was not published originally in the 1980s, but it was such a giant in my vocabulary development as a wee lass that I had to include it! My brother, born in the previous decade, had the 1963 version for his edification, but I learned about the bear twins’ clothing, shapes and colors, and parts of the body with a few more females in male-dominated fields and a few more gender-neutral job titles (fire fighter as opposed to fireman, for example). Love, love, love this book. My mom made sure to get each of her sets of grandchildren a copy so they, too, could examine each page diligently as they grew!

Fables, by Arnold Lobel Fables(1980): This book of one-page original fables was a favorite of mine as a child. I’m not sure where I got my paperback copy–either a book fair or a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) give-away, I think–but I treasured it! It was a Caldecott Medal winner, and each fable has a large, detailed illustration to go with it. Each fable comes with its own explicitly stated moral, such as “Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves” and “Advice from friends is like the weather. Some of it is good; some of it is bad.” It would be a great mentor text for writing stories with a moral (or even just a message), and I might suggest covering the morals up, reading the fables aloud, and letting the class brainstorm what each moral might be. Because the animal characters are so silly, the fact that there is a message to each one won’t ruin the fun!

If You Give a Mouse a CookieIf You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (1985): I apparently missed this as a kid, but the Kohl’s Cares reprints and accompanying toys were a big hit with my children when they were smaller! (In fact, this particular title was the one we didn’t own, and BoyChild–age 5–discovered how much he loves it when he found it sitting with our library books and made GirlChild read it to him!) It’s a cause-and-effect story that has just enough silliness to disguise the fact that it is a great literacy learning tool!

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan Sarah, Plain and Tall (30th anniversary edition)(1985): This Newbery Medal book tells the story of a father and his children who are hoping that the father’s advertisement for a wife will bring songs back to their home and hearts. Sarah from Maine answers the letter and comes to the plains for a trial period. Anna and Caleb hope that Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall, will learn to love their home and stop missing the sea. When she goes into town alone one day, the children are worried that she has decided against staying and is buying a train ticket home to Maine. However, Sarah returns with special gifts and tells them that although she misses the sea, she would miss them more. The book is a fast, simple read and would be a good choice for historical fiction for middle grade readers starting around third grade. I’m going to give it to GirlChild to try! (The book flap says the story is based on “a true event in [the author’s] family history”–always a great way to get story ideas!)

The Whipping Boy (updated cover)The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1986): Our cat, a kitten we rescued from the storm sewer on our street, was named Jemmy after this book; it’s one of those that my mom read aloud to us in that memorable way (where she used different voices for different characters but didn’t even realize it) that made the book come alive! An orphan named Jemmy catches rats in the sewer to earn money. He is snatched from the streets to live in the castle as the whipping boy for Prince Brat (not his given name). When the prince tires of Jemmy’s stoic response to whippings and his father’s lack of attention, he makes Jemmy help him run away. There is a circus bear, a pair of kidnapping highwaymen, and a chase through a city sewer–all the ridiculousness and excitement a middle grade student needs! This historical fiction book (quite possibly more popular with boys but obviously something I quite enjoyed!) won the Newbery Medal.

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones Howl's Moving Castle(1986): I have to admit that I checked this book out and still didn’t get a chance to read it! So many of my fantasy-loving friends have mentioned it, however, that when I discovered it had been published in the ’80s, I had to include it. I have read another of her fantasy titles for young adults, The Dark Lord of Derkholm (which is not quite as dark as the title might imply!), and Wikipedia (that monolith of solid information!) says that she has been compared to Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman, both authors whose books I have loved (although I can’t read Coraline and look at the illustrations at all!), so I am going to keep my borrowed copy of this book until I actually get it read! It was made into a movie in 2004, so we’ll see if I have to look that up, too, after I’ve finished!

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (updated cover)Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by John Steptoe (1987): Steptoe retells a folktale first recorded in published form in 1895. The moral points out that being kind and caring is more important than being beautiful (and reaps better rewards), but the illustrations that earned it a Caldecott Honor are worth the purchase price of the book even without the story! Another positive aspect of the book is that the author clearly did research, not only citing the first printed version of the story that inspired his book but also the origins of the names he chose, the inspiration for the scenery in the illustrations, and the people (and related institutions) that assisted him in his research. Additionally, unlike many books where there is a king seeking a bride, there is actual mutual consent and respect shown between the king and the woman he asks (not just chooses!) to be his bride. Definitely a lasting title great for any home, school, or classroom library!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen Hatchet (updated cover)(1987): When I discovered many years ago that my husband had never read this Newbery Honor book, I actually read it aloud to him while we traveled! It’s the kind of book I can’t believe a boy in the ’80s would have missed! So many things from the book still linger with me, and the survivalism depicted–both his physical survival and emotional survival–could be empowering to modern readers as well. I’m sure some of the aspects of the story haven’t aged well–Brian would have had a cell phone handy, for one thing, although he might not have gotten a signal in the woods!–but the overall themes and internal struggles still ring true. Gary Paulsen is a master of realistic survival stories (and has lived a rather adventurous life to get the credibility and experience needed to do them real justice), and this is a classic. I think the youngest reader I’d suggest would be probably fifth grade, but the protagonist is thirteen, and there is real meat to the story, so middle and high school readers are likely to get the most out of it.

The MittenThe Mitten, by Jan Brett (1989): I’ve blogged about Jan Brett’s books before, and part of it is because she has just written so very many! The exquisite detail in her illustrations, her lifelike but anthropomorphic animal characters, and her gravitation toward snowy scenes and retellings of traditional tales make her the quintessential author for a primary school library. Because of the way part of the story is told in words and part in pictures, (particularly the images featured around the borders of each page, in this case made to look like decorations pinned to a birch bark panel), readers get several layers of story when the story is read versus when they are able to spend time examining the illustrations. Another great thing about Ms. Brett is that her website contains links for pages to color among other things! The Mitten–the story of how a variety of cold animals squeeze into one lost mitten–is one of her most well-known and loved books.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, True Story of the Three Little Pigsby A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (1989): I’m not sure if I’ve said this before (I’ve said this before), but I love Jon Scieszka! While my first introduction to his work was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, this book was actually his first picture book! Fractured fairy tales are a genre I have always enjoyed, and this title is a great example. In it, Al Wolf (from his prison cell) defends himself against the claims that he cold-heartedly ate the first two little pigs when what he really did was have a sneezing fit while trying to ask to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny’s birthday cake (and then eat the pigs when their homes fell down so as not to let them go to waste!). He has been framed! Like much of Scieszka’s work, young readers will need to have somewhat sophisticated reading skills to really get the story independently, but these books are also great to share and discuss with kids (and then let them explore them alone to see the nuances and clever details that might be missed in a first read-through)–great for discussing inference, voice, and point-of-view!

Number the StarsNumber the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1989): Set in Denmark in 1943, this Newbery Medal book tells how a young Danish girl helps her Jewish friend during the Nazi occupation of her country. The family’s determination, inventiveness, and bravery in spite of reasonable fear are clear throughout, and I know that my mother has used this book as a literature supplement to her history lessons in her sixth grade classroom. (Another World War II historical fiction book I can suggest for upper elementary and middle school aged readers would be Michael Morpurgo’s Waiting for Anya (1990).)

I obviously have quite a few favorites from the decade, and the bloggers over at What Do We Do All Day? had a list with even more forgotten favorites on it! (My kids just finished listening to the Wayside School books on audiobook during our summer travels this year!) I do notice a few common threads on both our lists: silly/slapstick, folktales, and historical fiction. I don’t know whether these things were just en vogue at that time and really dominated children’s literature or if we bloggers just have similar taste in our ’80s books!

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Themed Third Throwback Thursday: 1920-1929

(I need you to pretend this was published on Thursday; our power was out for 17 straight hours when I would usually be getting the post ready to publish, and I got set back too far to get it up in time!)

[1920 to 1929 book list]

Here’s our about.com-based summary of events of the decade to find our place in history:

1920–women in the United States earn the right to vote

1921–Bessie Coleman becomes the first African-American female pilot (list of children’s books about Bessie Coleman–they look pretty neat!)

1922–King Tut’s tomb discovered (here’s a brand new article about some recent (potentially) exciting developments regarding the tomb!)

1923–Time magazine founded

1925–Balto the sled dog’s historic run (list of children’s books about Balto, including the Magic Tree House one)

1927–Babe Ruth sets the home run record

1928–penicillin discovered

1929–the stock market crash sets off the Great Depression


The John Newbery Medal was first awarded in 1922. Here’s a list of this decade’s winners (some of which have made it into the post)!

1922–The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

1923–The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

1924–The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes

1925–Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger

1926–Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

1927–Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James

1928–Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

1929–The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly

The Voyages of Doctor DolittleThe Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting (1922): The book has next to nothing to do with the Eddie Murphy movie version (which I actually liked, too!), and it has a lot of the absurdity of many of the fantasy works of that time. (Building a believable alternative world that was to be taken seriously, like many epic fantasies since that time, was clearly not the object.) Doctor Dolittle himself is a kind of impractical man, a human doctor by trade, who gets into the care of animals by the suggestion of the Cat’s-meat-Man and the animal-language tutelage of his parrot, Polynesia. The Voyages story takes place later in the series, and it is told in first person from the point of view of Tommy Stubbins, the 10-year-old son of a local cobbler, who apprentices himself to Dr. Dolittle in order to join him on his adventures. After helping Luke the Hermit beat a murder accusation in court by translating for his dog, the only other witness, Doctor Dolittle and Tommy set out on what is to be a random naturalist trip, and Tommy just so happens to select a moving island, Spidermonkey Island, as their destination, a destination which is also the last-known location of another respected naturalist, Long Arrow (who is referred to as a Red Indian, what I assume to be the British term of the era to distinguish between natives of India and Native Americans (the latter of which Long Arrow is, from South America)). Apart from this kind of distasteful or out-of-date terminology, there appears to be a general appreciation of the contributions and cultures of different humans as Doctor Dolittle seems to have a mind that appreciates the value of all people and animals. Still, I can understand why modern versions take the general idea of the book (a man who can talk to animals) and goes ahead with a completely different plot. Upper elementary and middle school readers could enjoy this episode in the Doctor Dolittle saga with the right presentation, but I encourage you to read through your edition and the story you pick to make sure that either you are okay with the early 19th century portrayal of different races (or if yours is edited and updated, which is possible) or your child is mature enough to separate the wheat from the chaff in an otherwise fun story. This story was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1923.

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten (1923): Bambi: A Life in the WoodsThis book kind of horrified me, actually. I mean, I think my mom read it to us when we were young, but I remember nothing of the completely frantic, hopeless feeling I get from it reading as an adult! The little tagline above the title on my copy–“The classic tale of a young deer and his animal friends”–does not even begin to actually describe the fullness of the contents. It starts out much like you’d expect it to (and I can only vaguely remember the Disney version, so I won’t reference it in comparison): young Bambi is born, and his mother leads and teaches him about the forest and about danger. He meets a few animal friends (mostly adult animals who, for some reason, he is somewhat disdainful of, and with whom he never has a close, mutual relationship), and he meets Faline and her twin brother, Gobo. So far, so good: a book for young children. From the moment He (a group of hunters, actually) surrounds the animals as winter takes its toll on them, things get pretty dark and despairing pretty fast. Bambi’s mother, of course, dies. Faline’s twin is assumed to have died, but he comes back in the spring, confident, healthy, and wearing a collar; he ends up being killed because he thinks He is no danger to them and takes no precautions. It starts feeling like a very fatalistic allegory. The characters display both what appears to be a very realistic anthropomorphism (the descriptions of the squirrel, especially, feel like what a squirrel would really be like if it could talk) and distinctly human emotions and philosophical questions (like Bambi’s disdain for the animals beneath him, his misunderstanding with the old stag, and the kind of morbid revelation (over the dead body of a human poacher, apparently) that He wasn’t really the all-powerful being in their world as they had assumed, that there was Another over them all). The shift from youthful cautionary tale to full-on life-and-death-and-despair comes pretty quickly, and the vocabulary actually seems to accelerate in complexity (propitiate, anyone?) as the book gets darker. While older readers would possibly be turned off by the childishness of the first few chapters, young readers might be easily confused and traumatized by the middle to end of the book. I did really like one chapter, though, and it wasn’t even about Bambi; it was chapter eight, a conversation between two leaves as autumn and its unpredictability have taken many of their companions, and they ponder and comfort one another in their uncertainty as winter comes and one of them is carried away suddenly in midsentence. The author was an Austrian Jew living in the aftermath of World War I (and beyond, after this book’s publication, with all that entailed), so I suppose he had every right to be despondent; I’m just not entirely sure how this came to be considered a classical work for children!

Winnie-the-PoohWinnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne, with decorations by Ernest H. Shepard (1926): I thought I wouldn’t like this book because I’m not much fond of the animated Pooh (perhaps it’s just his voice…I know I can’t be the only one!), but I was kind of wrong! It’s a little like a Toys Go Out or Raggedy Ann Stories for the 1920s, and I actually found the exposition, the part where the author sets up how the Pooh stories get started, pretty funny. As much as it was always torture sitting through one of the videos (and we had to ban Pooh’s Grand Adventure because Owl’s warnings were too scary for GirlChild), I think I would enjoy reading this aloud to my kids! (I recognized several of the stories from animated versions, though, and the written ones were much more clever, in my opinion.) Pooh is perennially popular, and even my children have quilts with images based on the original decorations, copies of a few videos (given to us, though, not purchased), and a stuffed Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger. There are Pooh toys, books, or accessories in almost every daycare or nursery setting I’ve visited, and I can’t help but think of one of my best friends from middle school to college who had all manner of Eeyore paraphernalia in her dorm room! (He even showed up in my Bookworm Gardens post!) If you’ve not read the original, give it a try with your early elementary listeners, or hand a copy to your Toys Go Out loving reader for independent reading!

The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure, by Franklin W. Dixon (1927): The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure (book 1)This copy of the book may not be completely faithful to the original text, but there is enough of the ’20s left (including their style of dress, speech, and blunt characterizations) to be a little unwieldy for modern readers. That said, my brother and sister read all of these books, one by one, from our local library growing up in the 1980s, so there’s enough there to continue to intrigue new readers. (I never got into them; Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were more up my alley.) From what I can tell, there continue to be additions to the series and other media portrayals enough to keep people interested! While I think it would probably take a high schooler to have enough understanding of the era to really put the story in context, the maturity of the story line is suitable for younger readers, and high school readers might find the stories too basic and predictable. That said, however, I felt a distinct lack of ability to get into the mystery because I didn’t feel like there was enough information (or enough comprehension on my side, perhaps!) for me to begin guessing at the solution, and my personal preference is to be guided through believable steps without any deux ex machina from private investigator fathers who provide key clues derived from off-screen (so to speak) encounters. I imagine that the Hardy Boys (ages 17 and 18 in this book) get more independent as the series progresses, however, so the mysteries may not continue to be as choppy and dependent on fortuitous intervention from their dad for the plot to thicken, and they may improve as the series develops. Or you might like them as they are!

The Trumpeter of KrakowThe Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly, with decorations by Janina Domanska (1928): I’m actually kind of surprised that I hadn’t read this book yet because the title, with its reference to a trumpeter like myself, would have been a draw (and I know I have heard of it!), and I’ve always appreciated historical fiction. This is a little different than a lot of historical fiction I’ve read, and perhaps part of that is because the setting is a little different than most: Krakow, Poland, in 1462. The other part is the vast amount of historical information the author interrupts the story to provide (probably because his readers even in the 1920s weren’t particularly familiar with the setting). While that could be distracting, it was actually pretty helpful in my overall understanding of what was going on in the story! I feel like I could recommend this for upper elementary readers and above; it’s not too difficult to understand for younger readers because of the frequent historical reminders (including where the world was in terms of understanding alchemy and whatnot), but it’s not overly simplistic either, and it could definitely be used as a part of a European or Asian history class. The main character (who is actually not the official trumpeter!) is a fifteen-year-old Ukrainian boy with Polish roots who is coming to Krakow with his parents after a suspicious fire that destroys their home and farmlands. While the reader might originally think they are just refugees, eventually it is discovered that the boy’s father is hiding something valuable that his family has sworn to protect and to return to the king of Poland when its location is no longer able to be kept secret. Joseph, the boy, discovers this along with the reader, but we are privy to other information throughout the story that he still is not. The boy and his father both demonstrate the bravery, honor, and dependability that the villains in the book lack, and the story wraps up neatly with a simple “ever after” summary to follow the main story’s resolution. This story won the last Newbery Medal of the decade.

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field (1929): Hitty, Her First Hundred YearsI blogged about Hitty in my Dolls and Toyland post, so here’s the link instead of a re-review! She won the Newbery in 1930, too.

Besides these titles, check out the related list on What We Do All Day, where I discovered that the original publication of The Box-Car Children was in 1924, and the version we know today was edited and rewritten for publication in the 1940s! Here’s a link to the Project Gutenburg copy of the original.

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Fun Fourth Friday: Jacqueline Woodson

The first Jacqueline Woodson book I read was Locomotion. The previous teacher had moved to younger pastures and had left this book behind as part of her classroom library, and it was one of the few books there that I hadn’t yet read, so I picked it up during testing week so I’d have something to do while I walked around the room supervising my students. (This, at least, is the story I remember about finding it. These fifth graders are now in college, so my memory might be faulty!) I didn’t finish it during the day, but it was so compelling that I had to keep reading it after school until I was done. My heart ached for Lonnie (the main character), and I could see parts of him reflected in so many of my students that year. I would see the author’s name on different library lists and book recommendations, but I didn’t personally happen across another of her books until Each Kindness showed up at the book fair when GirlChild was a kindergartener. Another heartbreaker. Then I found Peace, Locomotion as an audiobook for my Y treadmill distraction. Every book made me fight back tears, her characters so real and so fragile, the endings often leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction, the knowledge that things aren’t perfect or completed, and there is something left for the reader to do. Last month, I was looking up a Newbery Award year, and I noticed her name as an honor recipient. And then again. And again.

And I decided I needed to do a blog post on some of her works for young readers. [Jacqueline Woodson book list]

Pecan Pie BabyPecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2010, early to middle elementary): Gia is sick and tired of all the talk about the “ding-dang baby”! It’s been just her and her mom for so long, and now there’s a new baby due to arrive “by the time the first snow’s on the ground,” and it’s all anyone can talk about–her aunts, her uncles, even her friends! Her mom tells her that the baby loves pecan pie, just like she and Gia do, but Gia just thinks the baby is being a copycat. At Thanksgiving dinner, she’s had about enough, and her angry outburst shocks everyone and gets her sent to her room. When her mother joins her later, she shares that she, too, will miss the fun they had, just the two of them, and that Gia will have to tell the baby all about “the good old days.” When Mama says that the weatherman is forecasting snow, the two of them go to have some dessert before “that ding-dang pecan pie baby” comes, and they laugh because Gia knows her mother knows, like she does, “how much the three of us loved ourselves some pecan pie!”

Each Kindness, illustrated by E. B. Lewis Each Kindness(2012, early to middle elementary): This picture book evokes similar feelings to those brought up by The Hundred Dresses. Maya is the new girl in school, and Chloe and the other children look disdainfully at her shabby clothing and refuse to return her friendly smiles and other overtures. She continues to make her attempts at friendliness and accept the unwarranted rebuffs with grace until one day in the spring when the children laugh outright at her pretty but secondhand dress, and she goes off to jump rope alone without asking anyone to join her. The next day, she is absent, and Ms. Albert teaches a lesson on the ripple effect of kindness, saying, “Each kindness…makes the whole world a little better.” Guilt over her behavior toward Maya grips her, and Chloe is desperate for an opportunity to return Maya’s smiles. However, Maya never returns; her family has had to move. In the end, Chloe tosses stones into the river and thinks about how each kindness “done and undone” makes its mark.

Visiting DayVisiting Day, illustrated by James E. Ransome (2002, early to middle elementary): It took me a while to figure out that Visiting Day wasn’t a custody arrangement visitation or maybe a hospital visit that the little girl (never named) is anticipating with such excitement, but I’m thinking a child who has experienced an incarcerated parent might pick up on it right away. The little girl and her grandma are up early preparing–Grandma frying chicken and humming, braiding the little girl’s hair, and getting items from a neighbor who can’t afford the trip to bring them to her son. They board the bus along with other visiting families, and they all share a picnic on the ride. The little girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until they arrive at the “big old building where…Daddy is doing a little time.” One page spread is dedicated to the time she spends with her father, and the very next shows their separation again, Grandma reminding her that “it’s not forever going to be like this.” Then the girl and her grandmother return home again, already missing and planning for their next visit, and anticipating even more when her daddy will be home again with them. I absolutely love the art in this one; there are subtle bits of information half-hidden in the background–blurry photographs of a man and a girl all around the apartment, hints at an institutional setting when the father is first shown, expressions so real and so telling that they speak as much as the words do.

Coming on Home Soon, illustrated by E. B. Lewis Coming on Home Soon(2004, early to middle elementary): This Caldecott Honor book is set during World War II, and Ada Ruth’s mother has gone to Chicago to work for the railroad and support the family. Ada Ruth writes to her often, but a long time goes by without a response or any money sent back, and Grandma tells her to keep writing and that her mother will be “coming on home soon.” Winter comes, and with it a small black kitten that her grandmother insists can’t stay–but is allowed to anyway. Whenever the postman passes without stopping, they are both disappointed, but one day, after hunting for small game in the snow, they finally get the long-awaited letter that contains not only money but the promise that Ada Ruth’s mother will be “coming on home soon.” In the last pages, Ada Ruth relaxes in feelings of peace and remembering her mother’s love and her promise that she’s returning, and the very last page has no words but shows her mother, suitcase in hand, approaching their home through the snow.

Show WayShow Way, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (2005, early to middle elementary): Listed on her website as having “autobiographical content,” this tells the story of her family’s history as it was passed along through the female line. The first is her several-greats-grandmother who is sold at age seven and went to live in another state. There, the resident “grandma” taught the children stories of getting to freedom and showed them how to sew quilts that held a sort of coded map to help slaves escape. That woman grew up and taught her daughter how to sew, and that child was sold at age seven, and she both sewed clothing for the “big house” and the other slaves and also the same quilt maps–what they called a “Show Way.” Her daughter, Soonie, was born free in 1863, and she was told the old stories and taught to quilt, and she sewed the quilts to make a living. Her daughter Georgianna was a quick learner, and she had twin daughters named Ann (the author’s mother) and Caroline. When they were seven, they participated in civil rights marches, gripping pieces of one of the old quilts to help them be brave. When the author was seven, she “didn’t have to work in a field or walk in any Freedom lines,” but she learned to sew and learned the stories of her heritage as a kind of personal “Show Way.” And the author, too, passes these stories and this legacy of bravery and love to her own daughter.

Locomotion (2003) and Peace, Locomotion Locomotion(2009, upper elementary to middle school): I had recently finished reading Love That Dog with a group of students, and this book parallels that one in a lot of ways. Firstly, the main character, the narrator, is a boy who has a knack for poetry if not an automatic respect for it. Their teachers prompt them to continue to explore the different forms of poetry, and each uses poetry to work through a traumatic event from his past that continues to impact his life. Where the narrator of Love that Dog is mourning the loss of his pet, Lonnie is working through the loss of his parents and the realities of his life in foster care, separated from his little sister. The sequel, Peace, Locomotion, features letters Peace, Locomotionthat Lonnie writes to his sister (always signed “Peace, Locomotion”) but doesn’t send, and he is working through his resentment that she has seems to forget their parents in her eagerness to have a mama who is right here with her (her adoptive mother) as well as the internal struggles with his perceptions of Miss Edna (his adoptive mother) and the war that harmed one of her sons. I wasn’t able to get a copy of either of these books to reread, but the stories have stuck with me! While her books for younger readers touch on tough subjects, too, these books for the upper elementary and middle school crowd dig deeper and force readers to face difficult topics head on but still in an age-appropriate way.

Feathers (2007, upper elementary to middle school): FeathersSet in the 1970s, when a new boy joins Frannie’s all-black classroom, his appearance (white with long, curly hair) and demeanor (gentle but unafraid of confrontation) earn him the nickname “Jesus Boy” and a whole lot of rejection and harassment. Frannie’s dealing with her own problems with the stigma that her deaf brother faces, her increasingly religiously zealous friend Samantha who seems to almost idolize the Jesus Boy, and the fact that her 40-year-old mother is facing a difficult pregnancy after already experiencing the loss of a baby before her two living children were born and several others since then. Still, she comes to see the Jesus Boy as a person, and some other pigeon-holed  classmates like one, too, as she thinks more deeply about the complexities of living. The line of poetry she had loved the sound of but hadn’t understood becomes more clear, as well: “Hope is the thing with feathers” becomes “Each moment is a thing with feathers” to her. Each moment of life holds hope. This book was a 2008 Newbery Honor book.

I Hadn't Meant to Tell You ThisI Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1994) and Lena (1999, upper elementary to middle school): The subject matter of these two books is pretty bleak, to be honest, but it is dealt with in such a delicate but forthright way that I feel the books will enlighten as many as they help through tough times. I’m pretty much going to just lay out the issues addressed in the book: cancer and death, racism, abandonment, neglect, molestation, and runaways. I actually read these two books out of order, not knowing they were companion books, but it worked out fine that way, too. I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This is told in first-person from the point-of-view of Marie, a black girl who is the only child of a professor and whose mother has left them to travel the world. When Lena, a girl Marie’s father and many classmates refer to as “whitetrash,” comes to her school, Marie is assigned to help her get acquainted with things. Marie can see a brokenness in her, and she befriends her and her younger sister. Lena eventually confides to Marie that her father began touching her after her mother died of cancer. When he turns his attentions to her younger sister, she begins preparing to leave in order to protect her. The book ends somewhat abruptly with Lena calling Marie to tell her that they’ve left, and Marie seeing their empty house Lenaand hoping that they have found their safety and happiness. Lena is told from Lena’s point of view, and it chronicles what happens as she and her sister Dion hitchhike away from their father (with whom it’s revealed they weren’t supposed to be living after Lena first told someone about the molestation and they were removed from the home and separated). They are trying to get to their mother’s hometown in Kentucky, hoping that their relatives will take them in, but reality sets in as Lena realizes that if this family didn’t bother to respond when they were notified of her mother’s death, they likely were either all gone or didn’t care. When a kindly woman takes them in for the night after seeming to believe their story that they were trying to get to their mother who had just had a baby, Lena gets the courage to call Marie and tell her what is happening. In the end, perhaps contrary to what would likely happen in reality, Marie’s father, once he discovers what has really been going on with the sisters, wants to bring them home to live with him and Marie.

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming (2014, upper elementary to middle school): In a style that expands on that found in Locomotion, the author tells her personal story in free verse. A story that reveals the turmoil and transitions that characterized the world in which she grew up and her world at home as she grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, this Newbery Honor book helps the reader see how the author became the writer she is, how her childhood successes and disappointments, joys and trials, gains and losses, and her family relationships shaped her life and her work. With contents much more engaging than a typical autobiography, there are also family trees and a number of old photographs of Ms. Woodson and many of her family members.

Jacqueline Woodson has written many other books for younger readers that I wasn’t able to get my hands on or finish in time, and she has written a number for older teens that have content too mature for the scope of this blog. She has a way of telling things how they are and making readers question if that’s how they should be, and I find her work to have an important place in children’s and YA literature. Her readers always have to think, and then they have to decide what to do with what they’ve learned about themselves and the world.

And, depending on the book, they may weep.

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Themed Third Thursday: This is Series-ous

As school wraps up in the next couple of weeks, there are the long days of summer stretching ahead of most families. While I hate to suggest that you force daily education down your children’s throats in their downtime, I do strongly suggest you get them interested in a good book! Sometimes, though, kids read one book they like and then fizzle out, and that’s no good. If a kid gets hooked on a series, however, you’ve got picking a book made simple! Here you will find a great variety of series for a great variety of kids!

Cat the CatCat the Cat and Elephant & Piggie books, by Mo Willems (preschool/early elementary): I reviewed these series in a previous post about Mo Willems’ works. While the Cat the Cat books provide great verbal practice and plenty of repetition, the Elephant & Piggie books provide a fabulous chance to practice expression (both the verbal sort and the facial sort). Both make fantastic read-alouds for preschoolers and up, and both are good starter books for independent readers. The Cat the Cat series is a bit simpler than the Elephant & Piggie books, almost like Dick and Jane (with the limited, repetitive, rhyming vocabulary) but TONS more fun! I personally prefer the Elephant & Piggie books, Elephant & Piggieprobably because I love to read aloud dramatically, and Elephant Gerald is just so dramatic! It’s also a great series for shared reading since the books typically feature just the two characters, and all the words are either spoken dialogue or sound effects (and color coded so it’s easy for the readers to know which line belongs to which reader). These are perfect first series books for early readers!

Fancy NancyFancy Nancy, by Jane O’Connor (preschool to middle elementary): Fancy Nancy stars in books from picture books to early leveled readers to stories for middle elementary readers. Fancy Nancy not only likes a lot of glitz and embellishment in her appearance, but she loves to use fancy words, too! (She defines each of her “fancy” words in parentheses after she uses one, so that helps with comprehension if your reader’s vocabulary isn’t the same as Nancy’s.) Great for celebrating chronic girliness and a well-developed vocabulary, these books appeal strongly to little girls like GirlChild who have a bigger vocabulary than they know what to do with but still love the glitter and sparkle of dress-up and decor. (The website, in addition to having lists of the books and printables for crafts and word activities, also has a great page of tips for the adults of aspiring Nancys with entries about planning birthday parties, tea parties, sleepovers, and encouraging reading.)

Junie B. Jones, by Barbara Park Junie B. Jones(early elementary): I have to start with this caveat: Junie B. is a terrible role model! Her grammar is iffy, her vocabulary is often impolite (she uses “stupid” and “hate,” if you’re concerned about your child picking up such things), and her behavior is something not to be emulated. I personally wouldn’t turn GirlChild loose with these books at this point just because we’d be less likely to discuss the implications of Junie B.’s choices (and it must always be Junie B.!), and GirlChild is kind of into pushing the boundaries right now, but they really are kind of hilarious books. Junie B. is like a less-responsible Ramona Quimby (and I would definitely suggest the Ramona books as a series, too–GirlChild just finished reading them and then listening to them on audiobook this year!), and everything is told from her point of view, so you can almost see why she would say or do the outrageous things that she says and does! (I actually read Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business to my third-graders to help announce my pregnancy with GirlChild way back when!) Once you’ve established that your child isn’t going to be easily led astray by Junie B.’s example, I think you’re safe to let your reader enjoy her! (Although Junie B. is in kindergarten and first grade in these books, many of my fifth graders actually loved reading about her! I think age and perspective enhances the humor since an older reader isn’t in the middle of the kindergarten angst that Junie B. is living in her stories, and the fact that they’re a quick and easy read made them attractive as well.)

Fly GuyFly Guy books, by Tedd Arnold (early elementary): My first Tedd Arnold book was Green Wilma, but I had a good collection of Fly Guy books in my classroom when I taught third grade! Completely silly, easy to read, and complete with covers that catch the eye, these are the kind of easy reader that older kids aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading but aren’t intimidating to younger readers. I have to note that GirlChild refuses to read any of these books because she thinks flies are gross, so you might want to save this suggestion for the less squeamish among your young readers. They would probably appeal to the same sort of kids who would like Jon Sciesczka or Dav Pilkey later in life…

Young Cam Jansen mysteries, by David A. Adler Young Cam Jansen(early elementary): The Cam Jansen books with which I’m most familiar are written for older kids (Cam is starting fifth grade in one of them, and they’re recommended for grades 2-5), but this series is just perfect for early elementary readers. Cam (her nickname, based on “Camera,” because of her photographic memory) and her friend Eric solve simple mysteries based on observation and memory. This series has an Easy Reader Level of 3 (transitional reader), and the Guided Reading range is J-M. Because of the nonthreatening mysteries and Cam’s tendency to talk through the clues, young readers can feel like they have mystery-solving skills and might even work on their observational skills in real life! In addition to the books in the Young Cam Jansen series, the original series can help extend an interested reader’s book list once they have become more confident readers.

LuluLulu books, by Hilary McKay (early to middle elementary): Lulu is “famous for animals”; her cousin, Mellie, is famous for losing things (among other things). They are both in Class Three (3rd grade, perhaps?) at school. (The author is British, and the school is presumably also in the UK.) Lulu’s parents have rules about her pets (pretty much that she can have as many animals as she wants as long as she cleans up after them), and her teacher does, too: No. More! (She’s not really an animal person.) Each book in this series is about Lulu having an animal adventure either with her own pets or an animal she finds. The author has also written a series about animals that features a boy protagonist, Charlie. (The author says one of her favorite parts of being a children’s writer is reading letters from kids, so maybe having your children use the Contact Me page on her website or maybe try her publishers (since I can’t find a direct address for her) would be a good extension idea!)

Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall Ivy and Bean(middle elementary): Seven-year-old Bean has no intention of making friends with boring, well-behaved Ivy across the street just because her mother says she should. Ivy (who we come to find out is not nearly as boring or well-behaved as she appears) feels similarly about wild-and-crazy Bean. When circumstances intervene (Bean tries to escape punishment when a prank on her sister goes too far, and Ivy helps her hide), they realize that they are well-suited for friendship after all. Ivy has aspirations to become a real-life, potion-making witch (although none of her spells have worked out so far), and Bean is happy to contribute to Ivy’s ever-changing room set-up with its activity zones. (Bean’s mom sets some ground rules for their potion-making plans, including no poisons or explosions, but she is happy to have them play together.) And this is how Ivy and Bean begin their unusual and loyal friendship!

Adventures of the Bailey School KidsThe Adventures of the Bailey School Kids, by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones (middle  to upper elementary): While I inherited several of these from the fifth grade teacher who had my classroom before me, I had never actually read one!  They are pretty solidly middle grade level readers, but the amount of “education” happening in the pages (in the one I read, Werewolves Don’t Run for President, readers get many only-slightly-subtle lessons in government, and there is an appendix with additional facts as well) means that there is content for older readers, too. It’s not surprising that the authors are a teacher and librarian team who used to work together in a school! I wouldn’t try to extol the virtues of the educational aspect to your young readers, but they might end up learning something in spite of themselves. The series begins with the Bailey School Kids (two boys and two girls) in third grade, and they believe their teacher, Mrs. Jeepers, is a vampire. Each book has a similar scenario: 1) Adult behaves oddly. 2) Children believe adult to be some mythical creature. 3) Children solve some issue but never clearly prove or disprove theory about mythical creature. The authors use a lot of loaded figurative language (“howled with laughter,” “Mr. Youngblood stalked across,” “voice was as low and growly as a Doberman pinscher’s”) to support the characters’ assumptions. For a teacher wanting to use these books, the aspect of using loaded language and perspective to influence a reading audience is something that can definitely be used with older students.

The Time Warp Trio, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith Time Warp Trio(middle elementary): These books are deceptively short in that they pack a lot of educational value (and silly, silly stuff!) into their brief pages. Joe’s uncle, a magician, gives him a special book for his birthday: The Book. The Book has the power to transport Joe and his friends Sam and Fred anywhere in time (and, in a couple cases, myths and their summer reading list!). Scieszka and Smith’s quirky humor can make delving into the Wild West, King Arthur’s court, or the Stone Age a hilarious way to pick up tidbits of information about history that might spark further investigation (and we all know that historical and speculative fiction are gateway books to nonfiction research!). Perfect for that hard-to-engage reader with an unconventional funny bone!

Boxcar ChildrenThe Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner (elementary): I read the first Boxcar Children book aloud to both kids, and they were enchanted from the start. Now they play Boxcar Children on a pretty regular basis (GirlChild is either Jessie or Violet, and BoyChild is always Benny!), watch the movie on Netflix regularly, and GirlChild has gotten into the mystery series that follows. While none of them stack up to the original, the extremely lengthy series has been pretty popular in my classrooms (and you don’t get over 100 titles in a series without there being a market for them!). It’s been a long, long while since I had read any of them, so I went ahead and reread Tree House Mystery (#14) just to get a feel for them, and the kids have already aged enough that Benny (the  youngest, just learning his alphabet in the first book) is older than ten, and Henry (the oldest) is driving. More recent additions to the series (like #132, Mystery of the Fallen Treasure) seem to be a modern reboot: Benny is six again, and Henry Googles things on his cell phone. (This is decidedly odd in that the originals were set in the ’30s or ’40s, so the unaccompanied minors living on their own in the woods thing wouldn’t have been as strange as it would be were it happening in the 2000s!) The mysteries are typically pretty mild and the children well-behaved and conscientious. This might be a good series for the kind of child who wants to read mysteries but is sensitive to frightening things or situations (like GirlChild) or as high-interest, low-reading-level series for those who can tolerate well-behaved children and simple mystery stories. And the first book, at the very least, is a good read for any child! (For the truly dedicated, there’s a Boxcar Children Museum in Connecticut in the author’s hometown, and Patricia MacLachlan has even written a sort of prequel!)

Clubhouse Mysteries, by Sharon M. Draper Clubhouse Mysteries/Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs(middle to upper elementary): By the Coretta Scott King award winning author of many YA books and the Sassy series for tween girls, this series has a cast of four black preteen boys from Ohio who, out of boredom after their neighborhood basketball court is destroyed, create a club they call the Black Dinosaurs. They build a clubhouse using old fence sections, and when they dig to bury their club treasures, they discover a buried box full of bones. (This is where the first mystery comes in!) While the slim volumes and attractive but somewhat juvenile cover art make these books look like they are geared toward middle elementary (the kids on the cover look to be second or third graders to me), the characters are actually just out of fifth grade (and are illustrated as such on the inside illustrations), and many references in the book are to historical events and topics that are likely not studied (in school, at least) until fourth or fifth grade (like knowing who the Tuskegee airmen were to better understand a reference to Tuskegee University). GirlChild enjoyed the book, actually, and asked for the next one in the series, but I am fairly sure she didn’t get anything deeper out of it than that some kids made a club and found a box of bones. This six-book series was apparently first published under the title Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs and had more realistic cover art, and I can definitely see it as a teaching tool (for introducing some of the topics brought up in the books) for younger students or as a high-interest/lower-reading-level book for upper elementary (although I think the original covers would make the series more marketable to older kids than the current ones).

Secrets of the ManorSecrets of the Manor, by Adele Whitby (middle to upper elementary): Each book in this historical fiction series focuses on the girls from a noble family based at Chatsworth Manor in the English countryside. The first Elizabeth and Katherine were twins, and the eldest daughter from each following generation is named after the matriarch of that family line. The first Elizabeth’s family line remains at Chatsworth Manor, and Katherine moved to America upon her marriage, so her family line lives at Vandermeer Manor in Rhode Island. As suggested by the title of the series, this is, in part, a mystery series…like American (er, and English) Girl meets the Boxcar Children (but with more money). While the storyline in the first book seemed pretty predictable and slightly anachronistic in regards to attitudes and behaviors, I am not entirely familiar with the time frame in which these books take place (1848-1934 for the first six books in the series (and not in chronological order!)), so I could be stuck thinking of Regency manners and unaware of progress in that area. GirlChild adores these books (the peerage is a step down from royalty, I guess, but it’s close enough for her!), and I’m sure she’ll be excited to read the new ones (set in Paris) that are just coming out, too!

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony SnicketA Series of Unfortunate Events (upper elementary/middle school): Another quirky series best enjoyed by readers who revel in wordplay and a bit of Gothic parody, I am feeling a distinct reminiscence for Northanger Abbey as I reread the first pages… If your child is sensitive and will take these books seriously (like GirlChild at this point in her reading life), they probably will not enjoy these books at all. If, however, they seem to the sort to really enjoy Monsters Eat Whiny Children and anything by Jon Scieszka, this is more likely their thing. (I’m hoping GirlChild will grow into them, and I see BoyChild as a future fan!) The Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, live a life which is, in fact, a series of unfortunate events from the time of the mysterious death of their parents and their subsequent placement in the care of an unscrupulous relative, Count Olaf. Written from the point of view of a man who is following their trail and reporting their misfortunes, these thirteen books are full of well-meaning but bumbling adults, perilous events, last-minute saves based on Violet’s inventions, Klaus’ intelligence, or Sunny’s sharp incisors (Really.), sly humor, and fabulous vocabulary. If your reader is the sort to tent his or her fingers and plan devious plots (but not actually the sort to go through with them–that’s too far!), he or she might find this series worth a try! (I think the characters in Ivy and Bean might like these books when they’re a little older, actually…)

Who Was...?Who Was…? books (elementary): These biographies are the perfect sort to keep in an elementary classroom. They are written as narratives with occasional inserts of background information on the times or events being discussed. They are written chronologically, are easy to follow and interesting, and the more difficult aspects of lives are not gone into in gory detail, but they are discussed. (For instance, Who Was Ronald Reagan? discusses his father’s alcoholism, his divorce, the assassination attempt, and his Alzheimer’s disease.) Although these books are not written for research purposes, they would make great first-reads for someone needing to write a biographical report because they introduce topics about the person’s life that the reader can then use to guide and inform their further research. (Also includes What Is…?/What Was…?/Who Is…? books for other nonfiction reading!)

Other series previously reviewed/mentioned:

Topsy and Tim

Themed Third Thursday: Princess Possibilities: Princess Posey and The Rescue Princesses and The Royal Diaries

Themed Third Thursday: My Bin of Books: How Do Dinosaurs…? and Pigeon and Llama Llama and Magic Tree House series

Themed Third Thursday: An Incidental Christmas: most of the titles, so click through to the post to find links for the series!

The Very Fairy Princess

Rainbow Magic Fairies (Christmas) (and all the rest on Amazon)

Fun Fourth Friday: Andrew Clements: Keepers of the School

Themed Third Thursday: Anthropomorphic Animals: Geronimo Stilton and Warriors

Themed Third Thursday: The Naughty List Edition: Horrible Harry and Artemis Fowl

(And that’s not all! I just got tired of linking! Search “series” in the search box on the right sidebar to find more!)

What series books would you recommend for summertime reading for kids? Leave your suggestions in the comments!

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Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky (Day 10)

Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932 (Dear America), by Kathryn Lasky (2001)

Minnie Swift and her family are dealing with the effects of the Great Depression. Set between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1932, this book tells how Minnie’s father seems to be withdrawing from family life, spending more and more time in his room with his typewriter. After losing his job at Greenhandle Scrap Metal, he disappears while the family is out, leaving a note that only her mother has read. Minnie’s cousin Willie Faye has come from Texas to live with them after her own parents die, and her lively personality and ingenuity help Minnie and her family cope through a time that is difficult for everyone.

The Great Depression is a topic that is hard to broach in children’s literature; this book is no exception. Job loss, homelessness, suicide…these are tough topics for any age, and it is particularly difficult to address them in a children’s book and still maintain a positive overall message. Part of this book’s success in doing so is that the story is written as the diary of an eleven-year-old child, so the discussion of these topics is dealt with on a level that a child might understand and with some of the vagueness of a young girl not wanting to think about the horrors around her. I think that the context of the book and the reading level make it (like many of the Dear America series) best for upper elementary and middle school aged readers. In addition to the heavy topics related to the Great Depression, there is some crassness and other potentially touchy material (potty humor from the younger brother, the uninhibited comments of an eleven-year-old in a diary she doesn’t expect anyone else to read) that might be inappropriate for less mature and discriminating readers. Tidbits about life in that time period–from gathering as a family to listen to radio dramas or the news to the expressions and daily experiences of the day–help to set the scene and can get attentive readers interested in the history behind the story but could be distracting and confusing to younger readers. (The American Girls series is probably a gentler way to get younger readers into historical fiction, and each doll has a Christmas story!) Despite the many harsh realities depicted in this book, the story ends well for Minnie’s family–her father returns just in time for Christmas with a steady job as a writer for a radio show, she and her family make do and have enough to help others, and they learn during their times of trouble what family really means.

Additional titles:

Product Details(by the author)

Kit's Surprise(American Girl story set at Christmas during the Great Depression)


Filed under review, theme

A Christmas Like Helen’s, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Day 6)

A Christmas Like Helen's

A Christmas Like Helen’s, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian
(2004, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-23137-4)

Dedicated to the author’s grandmother, this book shares what Christmas was like for the recent descendants of Scottish immigrants in the Vermont hill country many years ago.

“To have a Christmas like Helen’s you’ll need to be born on a Vermont hill farm, before cars, or telephones, or electricity, and be the youngest of seven children.” Each turn of the page in the book addresses a new thing that you would need to have a Christmas like Helen’s long ago: work horses, parents who tell their stories (or your grandparents’ stories) of Scotland, a barn, a love for animals, and so on. It tells of skating on the pond, riding into town in a pung (“a boxlike sleigh”) for the Christmas Eve service and wondering why Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a room. And it tells how in the middle of the night, when your father brings you to the barn to see a foal born and holds you close, you won’t be thinking about all the treats and gifts that Christmas Day will bring; you’ll be thinking that a barn is “not such a bad place to be born after all” and that you have “everything you ever wanted, or ever will want…right there on that farm.”

As the author tells what you would need to have or do or like or what might happen around Christmas, she is actually sharing her grandmother’s memories of growing up in the far northeastern United States and of a couple specific Christmases (such as the one when she got skates and the one when the doctor was afraid it might be her last one because of her scarlet fever), so this is a great book for kids interested in what life was like long ago! The illustrations are “woodcuts, hand-tinted with watercolors” (according to the book’s front matter) and give that old-fashioned feeling without being dreary or dated.

GirlChild’s Reaction: As the story progressed the second time we read it, GirlChild caught on to the repeated line “To have a Christmas like Helen’s” and said, “I want a Christmas like Helen’s! But we can’t…” (Well, we’re in Texas; very little of what the book describes is possible around here!) She was mildly dejected for a few pages, but she definitely perked back up at the ending lines about having everything you ever want and added to the last line, in her sweetest, most sing-songy voice, “My family!” She asked several questions about games and other things they mentioned with which she wasn’t familiar (like fox and geese and crack the whip (as seen on the Charlie Brown Christmas special!)), and I can see this book as an entry into historical fiction for younger children that would lead to other books like Little House on the Prairie and Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (historical fiction through the eyes of a doll) later on. Best suited for early elementary students, interested preschoolers and older children will also enjoy this simple story of times long past.

Additional titles:

The Bear That Heard Crying (Picture Puffins)

Hitty Her First Hundred Years

The Complete Little House Nine-Book Set


Filed under review, theme