England, Africa, the Flu and Felines….a Classic Adventure!

Back in 2005, Gloria Whelan wrote Listening for Lions, this week’s Flashback Friday feature. It is a tale reminiscent of many classics, with an enthralling story line, settings worthy of a painting and characters deeply ensconced in their desires, whether good or evil. Living in East Africa in 1919, Rachel is but 13 when her parents, missionaries, die of influenza, as does Valerie Pritchard, their neighbor’s daughter. Rachel dearly loves Africa and has no desire to leave. Finding herself in the care of the Pritchards, Rachel feels desperate. As the plot thickens, the Pritchards devise an immoral, if not downright evil, plan. Since they have burned their bridges with the wealthy grandfather of their family, they planned to send Valerie to live with this patriarch in failing health, win him over and have them reinstated in his will. With the death of Valerie, their revised plan becomes to send Rachel, also a redhead, in her place, tricking grandfather in an attempt to still accomplish their greedy goal.  Rachel wants to refuse, but relents, traveling to England and forming a strong bond with their frail grandfather despite the deception.

Scene descriptions bring the settings to life and readers will feel for the predicament in which Rachel has found herself.  Will good win over evil? Will Rachel return to Africa? If you’ve read The Secret Garden and similar classics, give this story a go and you will once again experience the satisfaction of a good story, well told.

Written by Gloria Whelan

Copyright 2005

Accelerated Reader Level 5.7

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Just Dance!

Okay, today’s Flashback Friday is a bit of a trick and Halloween’s over! Hmmm….anyway, I’ve featured a flashback as well as a new release by the same author. Guess that just means she’s been and continues to be a talented writer!

Patricia Maclachlan is the quintessential writer of short, richly worded stories that warm the heart.  Many of them are historical in nature, like her 1985 Newbery Award Winnng gem, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and the ensuing books in its series: Skylark, Caleb’s Story, More Perfect than the Moon and Grandfather’s Dance.  But, of late, MacLachlan has been spinning short, touching yarns about other topics. In White Fur Flying, Philip is a nine-year-old boy who is sent to live with his aunt. Although the dogs in her rescue operation come and go, one dog, Kodi, is her permanent resident. Philip, who is nonverbal with everyone else, talks to Kodi. It is, like all of MacLachlan’s tales, heart-warming with a satisfying ending. Her most recent release is my current scout: Just Dance. In this country story, Sylvie lives on a farm with her parents and younger brother, Nathan. Sylvie has a talent for noticing details, processing them and transferring them to paper. Despite her efforts, however, there is one piece of her life she just can’t seem to puzzle out. When her parents fell in love and married, her mother, a gifted soprano, gave up performing to raise her family on the farm. Her mother seems at peace with singing to the cows and sheep rather than a human audience, but Sylvie can’t comprehend why anyone would give up glitz and glamour for plain old life on a farm. When Sylvie gets the chance to ride with the sherriff and write about her observations of local crime and town life, she gains a bit of local fame herself. But it’s not until James, a former performing partner of her mother, arrives in town for a show that Sylvie finally understands how even a successful singer can happily choose family over fame.

MacLachlan’s sweet, simple-yet-impactful tales are a great fit for readers just entering the world of chapter books.

Written by Patricia MacLachlan

Copyright 2018

Accelerated Reader level 3.5

I just finished scouting out the latest survival tale by Lauren Tarshis: I Survived the Children’s Blizzard, 1888.  As with her other survival novels, she effectively transports readers back in time, bringing a period of history alive through the dangerous events experienced by young characters..

In this offering, John, his parents and sister Franny move from Chicago to Dakota Territory. It’s 1887, and Mama and Papa are thrilled to take the government up on its offer of 160 acres of free farmland. Frontier life, however, is initially not so idyllic for John, who enjoyed his city life, friends and the not-as-extreme temperatures of Chicago.  Here, he endures the sweltering summer, the bitter-cold winter and his family’s rustic home made of sod, which occasionally leaks and frequently contains bugs and mice. Over time, however, John becomes part of a tight group of friends and wants to attend school. After a winter cold snap keeps them homebound, John and Franny return to school only to be caught up in a massive, quickly-approaching blizzard. The story pace  quickens equally.  Franny becomes missing, John risks his life and needs to be rescued, then he and his friends find themselves abandoned in deadly conditions. Readers will root for John and friends as they fight to survive the lethal blizzard.

By the time readers get to the end of the story, they’ll want to learn more about this historic blizzard that took the lives of 100 children. Thankfully, Tarshis includes a thorough Questions and Answers section following the conclusion of the story.

The straightforward simplicity of this story  makes it most suitable for third, fourth and some fifth-grade readers.

Written by Lauren Tarshis

Copyright 2018

Accelerated Reader Level 4.3

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If you’re not familiar with the I Survived series, it’s time to start your collection of these high-interest historical fiction books!

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My Kind of Courage

You could say that Joseph Johnson is on a run of bad luck. That would be an understatement. True to the times, 1890, Typhoid has taken many lives, among them Joseph’s mother and young sister. His father dies in an accident, leaving Joseph in the care of an unscrupulous man who sells Joseph’s cherished horse, Sarah, to horse traders. This is Joseph’s breaking point. At age twelve, he sets out to rescue Sarah. He is not alone for long, though. He soon adds an unexpected companion, a Chinese boy who speaks no English.  On their horse-trader chase around Washington State, the two encounter characters ranging from villains to kind strangers, gruelling physical challenges and continual danger. Through it all, a touching kinship is formed between the boys. The fast-paced action will keep readers engrossed all the way to the gratifying ending.

A boy facing tough odds, solely focused on saving Sarah, with gritty determination and unwavering bravery.  Some Kind of Courage is my kind of story. Yet, the ultimate review is a one-liner from a fifth-grade boy who is a bit of a reluctant reader. Imagine him holding up the book with a wide grin and saying, “This book is the best!”

By Dan Gemeinhart

Copyright 2015

Accelerated Reader Level 4.8

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Thar’s Gold in Them Thar’ Pages!

Once again, it’s flashback Friday and do I have a gem fer ya!  The author, Karen Cushman, is a wizard at creating strong female lead characters  and placing them squarely in interesting hitorical fiction story lines and settings. She clearly demonstrates this ability in her 1996 publication, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Born California Morning Whipple, she promptly changes her name to Lucy when her widowed mother uproots Lucy and her siblings from perfectly-good Massachusetts,  to the rough and dusty town of Lucky Diggins. Set at the time of the Gold Rush, Lucy finds the inhabitants, their gol’ dern language, living conditions, and life with a domineering mother more than she bargained for. She saves every penny she makes selling apple and vinegar pies to finance her trip to escape back to Massachusetts and her grandparents.. But it is life in California that becomes Lucy’s real journey, and through her struggles and triumphs, she not only discovers who she is, but also where she belongs.

This is a great story to accompany a study of the Gold Rush. Cushman deftly illustrates in words life in a Gold Rush town, requiring steely resolve, optimism and the ability to perservere in the face of disappointment and loss.

Written by Karen Cushman

Accelerated Reader Level 5.8

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Like Historical Fiction? Try out  Cushman’s books set in Medieval Times: Catherine, Called Birdy or The Mid-wife’s Apprentice.  These books are best for 5th and 6th grade readers.

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Two Langstons and Poetry

After the loss of his mama, eleven-year-old Langston is uprooted from his home in Alabama.  His father needs to escape the painful memories of the death of his wife and to seize the opportunity in Chicago to earn a better living. For Langston, being transplanted only exacerbates his grief. Not only is he in mourning, but he deeply misses all of what Alabama means to him: a loving grandma, aunt, cousins, friends, rural life, kind folks and southern cooking. In Chicago, Langston is bullied by three boys, only one neighbor speaks to him, people, trash, even buildings are tightly stacked and his dad’s cooking is awful. Respite comes when Langston stumbles upon a library.  In 1946 Alabama, libraries are not accessible to blacks. But, in this Chicago branch, all residents are welcome. A librarian guides Langston to the poetry section and the works of Langston Hughes. The writing of Hughes connects on a soul level with Langston and launches events that help young Langston understand more about the people in his life from bullies, to family to himself. A well-crafted story of love, loss and compassion. Lesa Cline Ransome  has designed a chapter book short in length, but long on complex characters and powerful messages.

Lesa Cline-Ransome follows her novel with an Author’s Note. In it, she provides background on the time period, from the 1940’s through the 1970′,s during which a steady stream of blacks relocated from the South to the North in search of increased liberties and the ability to financially prosper. The author also expands on the library central to the story, a Chicago landmark, conceived by and named after Dr. Hall, an influential black doctor and community leader. The Hall Library showcased the lives and work of successful black writers and was the actual spot where Langston Hughes spent time drafting his own life story.

This would make a great read-aloud, particularly as part of celebrating Black History Month!

Written by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Copyright 2018. Accelerated Reader Level 4.5

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One okie dokie story about the Okefenokee!

Some of my favorite stories are the ones that have rich, deeply-developed settings. The Okefenokee Swamp (it’s a real place) provides such a setting in the latest book I’ve scouted: Elsie Mae has Something to Say. Elsie Mae’s sisters dream of someday marrying, but not Elsie Mae. She dreams of the swamp. Her parents send her there every summer to spend time with grandpa and grandma.  Uncle Owen, in whom she finds a kindred spirit, and Uncle Lone, a grumpy, mean sort,  live nearby. Two additional summer residents unexpectedly join their island farm.  A stray dog, Huck, is given to Elsie Mae. She is over-the-top thrilled, even though he is mischievous, and they become fast friends and constant companions. Henry James, her 10-year-old wanna-be-preacher cousin, with his judgmental ways and overzealous Hallelujahs, starts out as a thorn in her side. These relationships give depth to the story and help the reader connect to the complicated Elsie Mae.

It’s clear that Elsie Mae considers herself a “swamper”, loving her hours spent on the water, fishing and absorbing the sounds of wildlife. So, when a shipping company proposes to build a canal through the Okefenokee, Elsie Mae knows she must act. She writes a heartfelt letter to President Roosevelt, hoping he will end the company’s plan. Her motives are not pure, however, and the story reveals Elsie Mae’s selfish desire to become a hero. The action speeds up when hog bandits steal valued pigs from island farms. Elsie Mae, Huck and a reluctant Henry James set out to solve the mystery, secretly suspecting the involvement of Uncle Lone. Cavanaugh crafts characters with strong voices and the enticing setting comes alive with action, suspense and revelations. The result is an evolution in the relationship between Elsie Mae and Henry James, their growth as individuals and a message that we can all relate to: some family relationships are sweet, others are sour and, once in awhile, a sour one becomes sweet. The story illuminates the difference between people of faith and folks that are fake and the importance of honesty and integrity. The ending is as satisfying as a sunset over the Okefenokee!

Although historically based,  Cavanaugh in her Note from the Author tells the real tale of FDR and how the Okefenokee was given National Wildlife Refuge status.

Copyright 2017, Accelerated Reader Level 5.7

Written by Nancy J. Cavanaugh

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And then things got serious…

My husband loves history and the pain and pride of the decisions and events that created it. When I scouted out An Eagle in the Snow, by Michael Morpurgo, I knew at once that as a twelve-year-old reader, my husband would have been enthralled. The tale is a story-within-a-story.  It’s World War II and Benny and his ma have lost their home on the coast of England. The two, traveling by train to the countryside, meet a kind, fellow passenger. A sudden bomb attack by German planes stalls the train, leaving their car trapped in a tunnel. Benny is a strong boy, but his fear of the dark has been lifelong and severe.  The stranger has only a few matches to ease Benny’s panic and when the dark envelops them, the man decides to tell Benny and his ma a story, one he claims to be true. The story is about he and Benny, a tale of two orphans, and their friendship. The two meet in an orphanage, eventually deciding to join the army and see the world.  Billy, an artist,  chronicles their time in Africa and entrance into World War I through his sketches. Early in the war, Billy is traumatized when he comes upon a girl sitting on the side of the road, dazed and grieving.. Billy throws her over his shoulder, delivering her to safety. He can’t forget the girl, named Christine, and keeps her image in his memory through his sketches. Billy’s fellow soldiers become his family and Billy becomes relentlessly motivated to end the war for his this new family and Christine. To this end,  he takes incredible risks, demonstrating bravery that earns him every commendation medal offered by the British military.  In his final battle, Billy’s troop is victorious. Then, one lone German soldier stumbles into the clearing..  Billy looks the soldier in the eye. The opportunity to shoot was obvious. Still, Billy knows the war is over and allows the soldier to walk away. Many years later, Billy suspects that the soldier to whom he gave mercy may have been Adolph Hitler.  Suspense rises as Billy takes action to right what he perceives as his wrong.  Finally, the train reaches the station, the tale reaches its conclusion and Benny and Ma discover an intriguing secret about the stranger/storyteller. This layered story is captivating for history fans. The AR level is 5.2, but the raw emotions and realistic events of war make this book one for only the most mature junior historians. I suggest readers who’ve reached the age of 11, 12 or older are the most appropriate audience.

In the Afterward, Morpurgo discusses Henry Tandey, the real Billy, and the possibility that this story may be more fact than fiction.

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History-obsessed readers will get hooked on Morpurgo’s writing. Here are a couple of other pieces of his writing that I recommend.

War Horse is a modern classic. It recounts the special relationship between Joey, the horse, and Albert, his first owner.  It draws the reader into the action as Joey faces war, capture and reunion. It’s a powerful tale that pulls at the heart strings!

You can order the book or DVD through Amazon by clicking on the picture. (I love comparing books and the movies based upon them!)

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Kensuke’s Kingdom is an intriguing tale of a boy shipwrecked on an island that’s inhabited by just one person…a Japanese man who took refuge there during World War II. The man speaks no english and is not aware of the war’s end. The beauty of this book lies in their relationship,  beginning as a struggle and transforming over time.  This one is  interesting, entertaining and stuck with me, such a creative concept!  AR level 4.7.

Historical fiction so alive, you can almost feel its heartbeat!

This book, published in 2015, is incredibly well-written historical fiction that many of my students who read at a 4th or 5th grade level considered one of their favorite stories ever!  Set in WWII London, Ava, an eleven-year-old girl born with a club foot and her younger brother, Jaime, are in crisis. Their mother, a broken woman with a cruel streak, intends to save Jaime from the dangers of war by sending him north, leaving Ava, to whom she is physically and emotionally abusive, and herself behind. But Ava is determined, despite her disability, to accompany him. Once up north, the children are provided for by Susan, a woman who is standoffish, due to her own struggles.  Ada, who feels undeserving of love, finds comfort in a kinship with Butter, a horse. This story of strife and triumph is filled with depth through its well-crafted characters and highly dramatic events. It is a not-to-be-missed slice of historical fiction!

Written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, AR level 4.1, Newbery Honor Award.

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Not often is the sequel to a book equal to it’s predecessor, but this one is pretty close. In it, Ava’s foot surgery transforms her physically, but emotionally she still struggles to define her place in her surrogate family and reconcile her identity. With the war still raging, Susan, Jaime and Ava are forced to move to a small guest house with Lady Thorton, Maggie, her daughter, and Ruth, a bright Jewish girl from Germany.  In these tight quarters, tempers flare, fears are voiced and a tragedy affects them all. By book’s end, relationships are transformed, family is redefined and Ava finally wins her war within.

This book does contain a death from war. The AR level is 3.7, but the material is mature. Don’t let the lower level dissuade 5th or 6th grade readers from picking up this novel!

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