Cookies & Milk by Shawn Amos

Cookies and Milk by Shawn Amos

Information

Goodreads: Cookies & Milk
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2022

Summary

Eleven-year-old Ellis Johnson just knows his summer is going to be terrible when he learns that his recently divorced dad expects him to help open a new chocolate chip cookie store. Who ever heard of store that sells just chocolate chip cookies? And they only have six weeks to do it, right in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Despite Ellis’ reservations, however, he soon begins making friends and learning that a little bit of kindness–and some really great cookies–just might be able to transform a neighborhood. Set in 1976, this middle grade historical fiction is loosely based on the author’s own experiences growing up with Wally Amos, founder of the Famous Amos cookies.

Star Divider

Review

Cookies & Milk is a fun historical fiction based on the author’s experiences growing up with the founder of the Famous Amos cookies. Though at time the writing lacks fluidity and the structure is not entirely cohesive, younger readers will likely find the story humorous while some older readers will delight in the nostalgia of reliving the 1970s. One thing is for sure, though: this book will leave readers wanting chocolate chip cookies!

The premise of Cookies & Milk initially drew me in, promising me a cute coming-of-age story complete with one of my favorite things–dessert. However, the book is about much more than opening a storefront. It also deals with Ellis and his dad’s attempts to navigate through divorce; the revelation of family secrets and heartbreak; Ellis’ journey to finding his identity as he meets Black musicians, works on his Afro, and is inspired to wear a dashiki; the experience of being one of the few Black kids in a predominantly white neighborhood; and the power of kindness to create a community. In other words, there’s a lot!

Unfortunately, though I loved all these elements, sometimes the book showed itself to be a debut effort as the elements do not all seamlessly come together. The story feels like it skips and jumps a bit, moving from Ellis’ childish antics that result in ruined cookie ingredients, to his admiration of the mysterious DJ Wishbone, to his serendipitous meetings with a down-on-his-luck homeless man, a surfer dude who is all about the love, and a motherly neighborhood lady (all of whom, of course, turn out in the end to help make the cookie business a success). It felt a bit like the author knows the ingredients to a heartwarming middle grade story, but just needs a bit more practice to blend them all together.

The most joyful part of this story for me, though, was all the great 1970s references, and Ellis’ exuberant embrace of them all. Watching him discover the “funk” at a local radio station, make his Afro fabulous, and delve into his family history to decide who he wants to be was all a delight. It seems like the author thinks of the 1970s very fondly, even as the book does not shy away from depicting how difficult it could be to live in a mostly white neighborhood. The end message is positive, though: spreading kindness can make a world of difference.

Cookies & Milk admittedly does read rather like a debut book, one that could use a little polishing. However, the premise is fun and I think the humor will still appeal to younger readers. Pick this one up if you are looking for a historical fiction with a sweet twist!

3 Stars

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity

Information

GoodreadsCode Name Verity
Series: Code Name Verity #3
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Official Summary

Oct. 11th, 1943 – A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Harrowing and beautifully written, Elizabeth Wein creates a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other. Code Name Verity is an outstanding novel that will stick with you long after the last page.

Star Divider

Review

Code Name Verity is one of those rare, sparkling books that seems to come only a few times in a lifetime. It is the type of story that feels so real, so intimate, that it hardly seems it could be fiction. The type of story that is so original, it takes the breath away. The type of story that possibly an author gets only once. Long after I’ve finished the book, Code Name Verity continues to haunt me.

Code Name Verity is so special, that I fear to say much about it, lest I give too much away. Much of the story’s beauty comes from its unfolding. Readers do not know how much is truth and how much fiction. They do not know how this story will end. Hope and fear mix together, for it seems impossible that the story could possibly end well–and yet, it must! It must because Verity and Maddie are the types of characters one cannot help but fall in love with. Their courage, their commitment, and their suffering make them live and breathe on the page. That that breath would stop is unthinkable.

What this story achieves is remarkable, on so many levels. It provides an intimate look at the people who experienced WWII, zooming in from the battles and the political maneuverings to focus on two girls’ lives. The war changed things drastically for them, upending their school dreams, separating their families, but also providing hitherto unthinkable possibilities. Verity is a spy. Maddie is a pilot. They both rise to the challenge–but only a global war forced society to let them prove themselves. Watching the two transform is an incredibly moving experience. It reminds readers that, at the center of history, there are always people. Just people. Ones who have hopes and dreams, romances and friendships, homes and families. Some of them will never get those things back.

And what a wonderful story to reclaim the history of the women of WWII! Code Name Verity, of course, is not a story that encompasses the multitude of experiences and stories (How could it?). But it is a triumph in that it celebrates just a few of the stories that still need to be told. Female pilots? Female spies? These are not the typical stories that are shared in school or in documentaries. Elizabeth Wein draws back the curtain, just a little, to show that work remains to be done. And she does it with such skill, such talent!

Wein’s story works in part because she mixes the beautiful, the hopeful, and the humorous along in with the darkness. The girls’ fates seem sealed, and yet, because they are human, they cannot always wallow in misery. Verity still manages to fight back–physically, sometimes, but also sometimes by telling jokes, or by sharing memories. This contradiction is just so utterly, completely human that it hurts.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. It moved me to tears at times, but it also inspired me. Not often do such books come along. It is important to treasure them when they do.

5 stars

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel by Jennifer L. Holm & Savanna Ganucheau

Turtle in  Paradise Graphic Novel

Information

Goodreads: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Life isn’t like the movies. But then again, 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple.

She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to live with relatives she’s never met. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before though. It’s hot and strange, full of ragtag boy cousins, family secrets, scams, and even buried pirate treasure! Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she’s spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Filled with adventure, humor and heart, Turtle in Paradise is an instant classic both boys and girls will love.

Star Divider

Review

I have not read the original novel on which this graphic novel is based, so I cannot compare the two or judge how well Turtle in Paradise succeeds as an adaptation. As a graphic novel for tweens, however, I expect it will succeed very well. The illustrations are colorful and appealing, while the unique historical setting will no doubt interest readers. I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, and heartily wish there were a sequel!

Though I not read the original novel for this particular book, I have read a fair number of graphic novel adaptations and I can guess how this one might veer away from its source material. The chapters seem more like vignettes than like connected parts of a whole. And some of the darker matter–Turtle’s inability to stay with her dreamer mother, her mom’s estrangement from her own mother, an apparent lost love, the poverty of the inhabitants of Key West–are only hinted at, ever explored. I imagine that the original novel expands upon the ways in which Turtle’s mom fails to be a reliable parent due to her dreaminess and naivete, and that it explores Turtle’s family background more in-depth. However, the fact that book seems to gloss over a lot of the negative aspects does not have to be a negative for the book itself. Rather, it makes the graphic novel into an almost idyllic look at a lost way of life.

A great deal of the charm of this book comes from the clear love the creators have for Key West and the research they performed to depict a community from the 1930s. Turtle and her friends have fascinating adventures as they hunt for buried treasure, fish for sponges in the sea, and agree to babysit crying infants in exchange for candy (since no one has money with which to pay them). They meet characters such as an alleged rum runner, and a smooth-talking encyclopedia salesman. The book is a homage to a bygone era and, though some parts of life are clearly difficult, the characters never seem to dwell on things like their inability to buy shoes or the need for their relatives to find work far away from home. Instead, they go about their lives, finding fun and friendship where they can.

Turtle in Paradise is a charming read, the kind that draws readers into its world, making it feel real and immediate. I enjoyed reading about Turtle and her friends immensely, and I never wanted the story to end. I would love to return to Turtle’s Key West one day–and I only hope that Jennifer L. Holm decides to write more of her adventures!

4 stars

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee

Luck of the Titanic

Information

Goodreads: Luck of the Titanic
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Official Summary

From the critically acclaimed author of The Downstairs Girl comes the richly imagined story of Valora and Jamie Luck, twin British – Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic on its ill fated maiden voyage.

Southampton, 1912: Seventeen-year-old British-Chinese Valora Luck has quit her job and smuggled herself aboard the Titanic with two goals in mind: to reunite with her twin brother Jamie–her only family now that both their parents are dead–and to convince a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus to take the twins on as acrobats. Quick-thinking Val talks her way into opulent firstclass accommodations and finds Jamie with a group of fellow Chinese laborers in third class. But in the rigidly stratified world of the luxury liner, Val’s ruse can only last so long, and after two long years apart, it’s unclear if Jamie even wants the life Val proposes. Then, one moonless night in the North Atlantic, the unthinkable happens–the supposedly unsinkable ship is dealt a fatal blow–and Val and her companions suddenly find themselves in a race to survive.

Stacey Lee, master of historical fiction, brings a fresh perspective to an infamous tragedy, loosely inspired by the recently uncovered account of six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent.

Star Divider

Review

Inspired by the lost stories of eight Chinese passengers on the Titanic, Luck of the Titanic brings a new perspective to a well-known tale. The book centers around teenaged Valora Luck, a girl in search of a new life in the United States after her employer dies. Her plan is simple: pretend her employer is still alive, board the Titanic as a servant, find her twin brother Jamie (who is working at sea), convince him to try out for the circus with her, and then go to America. Unfortunately, however, Valora has never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which 30 years earlier had barred the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. and prevented Chinese individuals from obtaining citizenship. Still, undeterred, Valora hatches a daring plan to impersonate her employer and also try out for a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers. The premise is fun and will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction focused on the relationships between the classes.

Although Luck of the Titanic is, of course, another Titanic book, the most interesting parts of the story arguably occur before the ship hits the iceberg. Valora may not be very good about coming up with solid plans, but she is determined and daring. It is entertaining to watch her impersonate her former employer, hiding behind a veil and pretending to be a grieving widow. She, of course, make allies in order to keep up the charade, and ends up wearing clothes to advertise an up-and-coming designer also on board–a plot point that helps to highlight the glamour of being a first-class passenger on board a luxury ship. Readers will revel in the details of all the elegance the lucky few were able to enjoy.

However, because Valora also must visit her brother and his friends in third class, Valora gives readers a unique window into the relationship between the classes on board. When she appears in first class behind her veil as an assumed white woman, Valora is treated with respect and gets to experience fine dining and other luxuries. When she disguises herself as a Chinese man, however, she experiences both classism and racism. Things as simple as requesting that the waiter bring bread to the table become a struggle. Her struggles highlight the challenges that the third class passengers faced to be treated with dignity, even on board a ship they had paid to be on. Readers no doubt will think of plenty of parallels in the modern-day world, where some still struggle to be treated equally.

Valora’s wild plans both to keep up her disguises and to try to convince her reluctant brother to join the circus with her are what really keep the plot engaging (even if Valora herself can come across at time as a bit self-centered). Once the ship actually hits the iceberg and the story becomes one of survival, the book begins to struggle a bit. Titanic stories have been done many times, and it can be difficult to make the story feel new, even with all its tragedy. Frankly, I kind of stopped caring about the plot once the characters just started running in circles around the ship. Even the ending failed to move me, though I recognize that it is probably supposed to part of some great character revelation for Valora.

Ultimately, however, Luck of the Titanic is an engaging novel sure to delight readers looking for a historical fiction that focuses on the little-known tales of the past. The interesting premise, combined with Valora’s amusing disguises and subterfuges, will keep readers turning pages, even if they know how it all must end.

4 stars

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells

Information

Goodreads: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2020

Summary

Paloma (Loma) lives in the judería of Alcalá de Henares, where she dreams of one day becoming a mother and having children of her own. But her abuelo wants her to travel with him, to see the king and the queen of Spain, and to help Jews across the country. Loma agrees, because her abuelo insists it is for the good of the Jews. But, as the years pass, she wonders if she will have to give up her dream forever.

Star Divider

Review

Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, is a historical fiction set in the Spain of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It follows young Paloma–known as Loma to her family–from the age of eight to the age of sixteen, as she travels with her grandfather, a man who works tirelessly for the good of the Jews. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern what age range this book is meant to appeal to, and the characterization of Loma is not strong enough to make her seem particularly interesting. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does draw attention to a period of history not often covered in middle grade books. However, while the premise is intriguing, the execution ultimately falls short.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells has a slow start, covering the days as they pass Loma by in the (relative) safety of her home. The plague visits her family and she witnesses some anti-Semitic action in the neighborhood. As a child, however, she is mostly concerned with the household, and obsessed with her all-consuming desire to one day be a mother and have children of her own. To that end, she always volunteers to look after her nieces and nephews, as well as her mother’s new babies. This peace is finally interrupted when her abuelo declares Loma a smart girl who must travel with him “for the good of the Jews.”

Here the book exhibits a flaw: Loma’s grandfather insists she is unusual and that her traveling with him is of the utmost necessity. However, as the book progresses over eight years, Loma exhibits no incredible talents, no quick thinking, no exceptional intelligence–until the final chapters of the book. Most of the time, it is unclear why she is traveling at all. The reality is simply that her abuelo likes having her around; Loma is not doing anything directly to help her people, except being a comfort to her important relative.

This dynamic introduces the main conflict of the story. Loma desires to have children, but her grandfather insists that her “work” with him is more important. I think readers will largely appreciate Loma’s selflessness, her desire to do good for others. Unfortunately, to build up this conflict, Levine relies on one of her signature writing moves: the constant repetition of a single trait to define a culture or a character. In this case, Levine wishes to define Loma as child-loving, so Loma spends the entire book obsessing over children. She notes every time she sees one, every time she wishes to speak with one, every time she gets to share a bed with one on her travels. A lot of people like children and many people want to have children. But I don’t know anyone who can’t see a child pass by in the street without obsessing over their extreme desire to be wed and finally be a mother. It’s just…weird.

Because the book covers eight years, it is a little difficult to determine who the audience is. Loma starts out as an eight-year-old and ends as a teenager. She starts as a naïve child who believes in magic amulets and ends as an almost-woman who worries over what unsavory men might do to her on her travels. Annoyingly, however, despite this change, her voice remains exactly the same throughout the book. One can only assume Loma is meant to be narrating years later, though this is never specified. This large gap, along with the slow pacing of the story, makes the book rather unusual for the modern market. Older titles such as Little Women have covered the transition from girlhood to womanhood, of course, but I cannot say that A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does so with the same fluidity.

Ultimately, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells will probably appeal to readers who love Gail Carson Levine and readers looking for a historical fiction set in Spain–something not commonly found on the market today. However, I admit that, even though I am a fan of Levine, I do not believe A Ceiling Made of Eggshells lives up to her previous works like Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It was interesting to see what Levine is up to today, but I am not overly impressed.

3 Stars

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy

Information

Goodreads: I Will Repay
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel Publication Order #2 (Chronological #3)
Source: Library
Published: 1906

Summary

Ten years ago, Juliette Marny swore an oath to ruin the man who killed her brother. But then she falls in love with her sworn enemy. Can she risk her soul–and that of her brother’s–to protect the man she loves?

Star Divider

Review

This melodramatic sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel is just the kind of high stakes, over-the-top drama I expect from a Baroness Orczy title. Young Juliette Marny has sworn an oath to her now-dead father to avenge the death of her brother by ruining the man who took his life. But, when she meets the man, Paul Déroulède, ten years later, she unexpectedly finds him to be a good man–one whom she loves. Juliette then has to decide. Is it right to be the cause of a good man’s death? Is it wrong to break an oath sworn to God Himself? I Will Repay is a riveting story, sure to please readers who enjoy a book that never takes itself too seriously.

The plot of I Will Repay is all very contrived, of course, and perhaps modern readers will not feel as strongly as Juliette the gravity of breaking an oath that so obviously seems perverse. However, Orczy tries to let readers into the mind of Juliette, suggesting that her youth, combined with a Catholic fervency, has primed Juliette to be extremely impressionable, especially to heighted emotions and circumstances. She has sworn an oath that asks her brother’s soul never to find peace if she does not ruin the man who killed him. Naturally, if she believes this oath to be true, she will be hesitant to break it, even for the man she loves.

Juliette’s battling emotions are the backdrop against which the story is set, and they find a fitting counterpart in the heightened emotions following the French Revolution. The country has essentially been given over to mob rule, and Juliette and Paul must figure out how to offend no one, even though their wealth and lineage mark them as prime enemies of the state. Their balancing act adds yet another layer of drama to the story, and sets the stage for the entrance of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that bold Englishman who snatches men and women from the jaws of the guillotine.

Readers who enjoy Sir Percy may be disappointed to find that he plays only a small role in I Will Repay, but, for me, the focus on new characters is part of what makes the story interesting. Juliette and Paul’s little drama somewhat mirrors that of Percy’s and Marguerite’s in the first book. Orczy loves a star-crossed romance, and she truly puts Paul’s love to the test as he must decide whether the woman who betrayed his trust is worthy of forgiveness. This journey proves important for the story, however, which can read as a little dated with its depiction of men and women. Juliette’s fall from grace serves to take Juliette down from the pedestal Paul has placed her on and show her to be a living, breathing human with flaws.

Baroness Orczy specializes in dramatic action stories, where everything seems just a little over the top. However, her ability to write dynamic characters, combined with a fast-paced plot full of danger and romance makes her storytelling absolutely riveting. Some may find the gender stereotypes depicted off-putting. However, if one is willing to accept that Orczy was writing in a different historical context, her instinct for drama is second to none.

4 stars

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Ill. by Brian Pinkney

Loretta Little Looks Back

Information

Goodreads: Loretta Little Looks Back
Series: None
Source: Received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Published: September 2020

Summary

Three children narrate their experiences growing up under the sharecropping system from 1927 to 1968. Illustrated by Caldecott honoree Brian Pinkney.

Star Divider

Review

Loretta Little Looks Back is a moving account of one family’s history from sharecropping to mobilizing to help people register to vote. Spanning the years from 1927-1968, it begins with Loretta’s account of picking cotton and ends with her niece Aggie B’s experiences with SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement. Bridging their stories is Loretta’s brother Roly, a boy who likes to move slowly and take his time. His daughter’s boldness, however, will show him that, sometimes, the time to take action is now. Told in a multimedia format with spoken word poetry, first-person narratives inspired by oral history, and stage directions, Loretta Little Looks Back is an immersive story that asks the readers to sit back, listen, and learn.

The narration is one of the most powerful elements of the book, bringing Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s stories to life through their distinctive voices. Each one gives their own perspective on how racism affects their lives, from Loretta’s days spent picking cotton for a man who never honors his agreements to Roly’s inability to make his farm successful, due to vengeful neighbors, to Aggie’s determination that unjust laws will not stop her from registering her family and friends to vote. Though they face many hardships, each one perseveres in the best way they know how, ultimately making the story one of hope and personal triumph. Readers will be inspired the characters’ strength and determination, as well as their love and care for one another.

Andrea Davis Pinkey presents an important story that focuses on a little-taught moment of U.S. history, the Jim Crow era. Readers of historical fiction will want to pick up this book to learn more about the lives of Black Americans during this time period. The end note explains that the book is based on real events, inspired by interviews and oral histories given about individuals’ experiences under the sharecropping system. References to real historical figures and events add to the educational aspect of the work. Readers who want to know more about these figures can refer to the end matter, which includes several historical notes as well as a bibliography for further reading.

Loretta Little Looks Back delivers a unique reading experience that will draw readers into Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s story. The heartbreak of living under a system designed to keep them down is palpable in their words, but so are their everyday delights and triumphs. Readers searching for a historical fiction sure to have an impact will want to pick up Andrea Davis Pinkey’s work.

4 stars

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods

Information

Goodreads: Little House in the Big Woods
Series: Little House #1
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

It’s 1871 and four-year-old Laura Ingalls is growing up in the Big Woods in Wisconsin in a log cabin. Join her and her family for many fun adventures!

Star Divider

Review

I cannot remember the last time I read the Little House books, but I knew I wanted to return to them. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series is beloved by many, even as some argue that they should no longer be taught in schools because they focus on a white family unrepentantly moving west onto the lands of Native Americans. Others take offense at the ways in which the books depict the white character’s views of Native Americans. I did not remember any of this from when I read the series as a child. I, presumably like many, simply recalled that the books focus on a little girl growing up on the prairie–a lifestyle that continues to intrigue with how different it is from life in the United States today.

Upon my reread of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, I was struck immediately by how little dialogue the story contains. Even though Laura is the protagonist, readers hear very little from her. Instead, they are treated to scene after scene of growing up in the wilderness. Readers learn how to churn butter, how to thresh wheat, how to prepare a log cabin for the winter, and so on. Chapters are very often simply detailed explanations of what would have been common practices for settlers in the West. Writing in the 1930s, however, Wilder clearly knew that her childhood and its way of life was a thing of the past–and she tries to preserve it in the pages of her book.

This is exactly what I imagine has drawn many readers to the Little House series. Wilder presents what appears to be a simpler way of life, attractive in its “naturalness” and its “connection to the earth.” Even though it is clear that Ma and Pa work hard, and get very little time to relax, Wilder, too, is evidently enchanted by the settler lifestyle. She admires her mother at work hulling corn, learns to make straw hats by watching her Ma, and celebrates simple moments like listening to her father play the fiddle or getting a rag doll for her birthday. She also emphasizes her family’s values, insisting that children should work hard, be obedient, and never lie. If they do misbehave, they certainly deserve what’s coming to them. Even though life in the Big Woods is by no means easy, Wilder writes as if it somehow uncomplicated and therefore ideal. No wonder readers still like to imagine they are going on adventures with young Laura!

Readers may be wondering, however, if every book in the series is unapologetically racist. In this one Pa sings a song with lyrics that readers today will no longer find appropriate. Native Americans, however, are largely missing from this particular book. What some readers find inexcusable about the series is not always how Native Americans are presented, but sometimes the fact that Laura and her family are settled on land that first belonged to the Native Americans–and they don’t care. Some readers would prefer that the books present something other than white history and that they acknowledge that the Wilders are settled on stolen land. From a historical perspective, it is not surprising that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not seem to hold these same views. However, readers looking for a book set on the prairie that discusses more of the history of westward expansion, and that presents Native Americans in a positive light, can check out Linda Sue Park’s new middle grade novel Prairie Lotus instead.

At its heart, Little House in the Big Woods seems written primarily to serve as a record of a little girl growing up in the west in the late 1800s. In this respect, I think it succeeds very well. The book serves as a historical testament, not only to a way of life, but also to a way of thinking. Parts of the book will be uncomfortable and offensive. But the book does force Americans to confront the past unfiltered. And that confrontation can open a way to change.

4 stars

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Information

Goodreads: Prairie Lotus
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

It’s the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and Hanna is looking forward to settling down in a new town. Her dream is to graduate high school and then open her own dress shop. But people east of California are unaccustomed to having a half-Chinese girl in her midst. Hanna will have to be strong if she wants to make friends and forge a new life.

Star Divider

Review

Prairie Lotus is Linda Sue Park’s response to the popular Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which, though popular, has recently come under fire for depicting racist views towards Native Americans, especially through the character of Laura’s mother. Set in 1880 in the Dakota Territory, Prairie Lotus follows Hanna, a half-Chinese girl, as she attempts to build a life for herself in a new town, even though many of the residents do not welcome her. The book provides a valuable new perspective into a little-told part of history.

Prairie Lotus seeks, in a sense, to open up the historical record by pointing out that many Chinese immigrants were present in the United States in the 1880s. Though the book acknowledges many were present in California, and fewer made it far east, Park explains how she grew up reading Wilder’s books and imagining herself playing with Laura and having adventures on the prairie. The only problem was, Asian people were not likely to be welcomed, or treated fairly, in such a setting or such a time. So she wrote a book to explore one girl’s story on the prairie.

Prairie Lotus describes the prejudice a girl like Hanna would have faced in the late nineteenth century in the Dakota Territory. It also, however, seeks to correct Wilder’s books by depicting Native Americans in a more positive, and more culturally correct, light. Park’s Native Americans are women and children, with whom Hanna connects and whom she seeks to protect against the law. She feels strongly that their land has been stolen from them and that they are wronged, just like her (though she admits she herself is living on their stolen land). So she learns more about them. This is admittedly not a viewpoint many Western settlers were likely to have held, but modern readers would probably object to having a main character espouse views we today find repugnant. Park has other characters, such as Hanna’s father, espouse more disagreeable views, much like Laura’s mother held views Laura herself seemed to disagree with.

Park details some of her research about her Native American characters at the end of the book, explaining why she felt it was important to include their language as a counterpoint to depictions of Native Americans in which they speak only pidgin or broken English. She also notes she had readers correct her depictions prior to publication, explaining to her that her characters should point with their lips and not their fingers. Readers who were hoping for a more sensitive depiction of Native Americans will be heartened to know that Park tried to do the work to provide that.

The story itself will likely draw in readers who love Wilder’s books or books set during Western expansion. Hanna is a likable character easy to cheer on and there are plenty of interesting details about prairie life to satisfy those who, like Park, dream themselves into their own nineteenth century adventures. So, if you are looking for new historical fiction to delight and engage you, don’t hesitate to pick up Prairie Lotus.

4 stars

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Information

Goodreads: Our Castle by the Sea
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Eleven-year-old Pet’s world is turned upside down when WWII begins and her small community accuses her German-born mother of providing the enemy with maps of the coast. With her mother now in an internment camp, Pet is determined to uncover the real traitor in their midst.

Star Divider

Review

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange has an almost classic feel to it.  It recalls an older style of writing, when stories were somewhat slower-paced and focused more on introspection and the coming-of-age of the characters, rather than on fast-paced plots.  Readers who used to edge-of-their-seat excitement, as well as twists and turns, may find it difficult to adjust. However, those who love a good character-driven story with a hint of mystery will find much to enjoy in Strange’s sophomore novel.

Describing the feeling of Our Castle by the Sea almost seems like a challenge, even though it is simultaneously obvious to me actually what it evokes.  It is reminiscent of children’s books published in the 80s and 90s, in which the protagonist had to solve a mystery that is not quite a mystery.  That is, the protagonist spends a bit of time spying and some time trying to find evidence, but, altogether, things just sort of happen to her until the truth is revealed.  The truth seems almost a little too out of left field, but also necessary because, really there are not very many characters who could be in the culprit, in the end.  I suppose readers who have read these books will know what I mean.  Others will have to accept that my main point is that Our Castle by the Sea feels like it might have been written twenty years ago–but that is something that makes it feel new and fresh, rather than outdated.

Perhaps the older feeling is due in part to the fact that historical fiction used to be far more popular.  Now everything is fantasy, with a bit of contemporary thrown in, but, back in the day, one could expect a wealth of novels such as this, set in earlier times. WWII books are, of course, perennially popular, and so I can easily imagine Our Castle by the Sea coming out decades ago, teaching young readers about prejudice and how to fight it.

Our Castle by the Sea will appeal to readers who enjoy reflective, character-driven stories, as well as those who love historical fiction.

4 stars