The last few books I’ve reviewed for School Library Journal have been in the historical fiction category. I’m a big fan of reading about the adventure and drama of the “olden days” so it’s been fun to read and get ideas for our students. If you know any middle grade kids who may be tired of dystopia and vampires, recommend these books to them:
My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp
Stan, the protagonist of DeCamp’s lively and folksy debut novel, lives with his mother in Michigan in the late 1800s when a mysterious envelope arrives that changes their lives. Eleven-year-old Stan (who is literally counting the days until he turns twelve) has always assumed that his “long-lost father” is dead, but with the arrival of the envelope-and Stan’s grandmother-he learns that his father is alive. Stan’s “near-death” adventures begin when he travels to his uncle’s logging camp where his mother and grandmother will cook for “real lumberjacks.” With his cousin Geri (older than Stan by “twenty-three months and three days”) as his guide, Stan navigates life with a group of colorful characters, using vivid language to describe the loggers and his campaign for his mother’s permission to participate in the annual logrolling event. While Stan helps with chores, forms friendships with the loggers, and feels uneasy about the interest several men express in his mother, his rich imagination finds an outlet in the scrapbook he fills with magazine ads and clippings, copies of which are scattered throughout the novel. More poignant is the life Stan imagines his father having while waiting for his young son to find him. “I imagine he’s out in the world doing something amazing, like mining gold or riding through the Wild West on horseback,” Stan thinks. A secondary plot about Geri’s interest in becoming a doctor enriches the story. Stan is a likable character with an exaggerated view of his abilities and a good heart. DeCamp’s novel is a solid choice for fans of Rodman Philbrick’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg.
River Music by Leigh Sauerwein
The music of Sauerwein’s new novel refers to the chorus of voices that narrate this elegiac story set in North Carolina in the years following the end of the Civil War. At the center of the story is Rainy, a 10-year-old girl who knows very little about her personal history. Abandoned on a doorstep as a baby, she lives peacefully with Will, a kind farmer, and his son, Ben. When a series of valuable gifts (that are seemingly meant for Rainy) begin to appear, she wants to know more. Using voices from people, both black and white, whose lives are inextricably tangled and period details to enrich her story, Sauerwein provides a glimpse into lives touched by war and displacement. The narrators include Gabrielle, Rainy’s birth mother who had a relationship with another man while her husband was fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness, and Robert Ray, an older man who befriends Rainy and knows the truth about the young girl’s life. The passages narrated by Will are especially moving. He is an inherently good and trustworthy person and his instinct to protect Rainy in the midst of his own despair is poignant. River Music is well constructed, but it requires a thoughtful and mature reader. Rather than being plot driven, this is a slim internal story that is primarily a meditation on loneliness, loss, and love.
One of our students recently read The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley, a novel that takes place in present day Turkestan (China). It’s about Mehrigul, a fourteen-year-old girl who makes beautiful grapevine baskets – like this one: