Deb Caletti: One Great Lie – Historical Fiction

Lynn: One Great Lie by Deb CalettiThe cover and the initial plot of Deb Caletti’s newest, One Great Lie (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) could lead readers to think this is a light sweet story of a summer spent in beautiful Venice. A college-bound aspiring writer wins a scholarship to a writing program being held in Venice, Italy. For Charlotte, the biggest thrill is that it is being taught by her favorite author, Luca Bruni.  Readers will be in for a surprise but really, shouldn’t we know that Deb Caletti always offers a lot to think about?

There is a smoldering anger in Caletti’s writing here as she builds a fire made of historical evidence of how women were treated in the Italy of the 1500’s. Outspoken women, women of intellect or artistic ability or simply young women who were inconvenient to their fathers, brothers, or spouses were casually disposed of to convents or prisons. Along side these embers, Caletti adds the fuel of a modern story of casual dismissal, appropriation, and shaming for young women at the hands of a powerful man. It is a scorching story of historical injustice that continues today and no one reading this story will miss the heat or fail to build their own fire of anger.

There is a lot happening here. A compelling family mystery, a first deep love, a story of sisterhood, coming of age, and taking a stand. All this is set in the watery ancient beauty of the city of Venice. I am a long-time fan of Deb Caletti’s books and and this is one that demands much of the reader. I needed time to process the story when I finished it and I know it is one that is going to stay with readers for a long time.

Just Like That: Schmidt Does It Again

Lynn: Gary Schmidt has done it again. His new book Just Like That (Clarion, 2021) is another gem of a middle-grade novel. He makes a startling Just Like That by Gary D Schmidtmove with an event that takes place just prior to the book’s opening. A reader-favorite character, Holling Hoodhood, dies, leaving his best friend grappling with the grief and despair she terms “the Blank.” Unable to face returning to their shared junior high school in the fall, Meryl Lee is sent by her parents to an elite private boarding school in Maine, St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls. Placed in a room with 3 hostile girls from wealthy privileged families, Meryl Lee feels even more alone and adrift.

In a concurrent and very Dickensian story line, young Matthew Coffin has also landed in the area. On the run from a Fagin-type character and in possession of a cache of money stolen from him, Matt is also adrift in loneliness, guilt and grief. He works the fishing boats, avoids authorities, and fights to stay unnoticed. But Dr. Nora MacKnockater, head of St. Elene’s, sees both teens, their qualities and their struggles. Both story lines intersect as Meryl Lee takes on pearl-wearing roommates, class discrimination, Shakespearean sonnets, dissection, and field hockey. A catalyst for change, Meryl Lee alters the lives and paths of everyone around her—including her own. Heartfelt, insightful, very funny, and deeply moving, this memorable story is Schmidt at the top of his game. Stellar in every way, this book is a gift to readers of all ages.

Cindy: I started reading this in print but then had to be on the road so I bought the audio version and what a treat it was to hear this story read aloud. The 1968 Vietnam War era is well-infused into this story, sometimes in grief-stricken ways, and others more light-hearted, like the ill-fated luncheon when Vice President Spiro Agnew visits the school. Meryl Lee has a bit of Anne Shirley in her, she means well, but unfortunate things just happen sometimes. Dr. MacKnockater is the kind of teacher every kid needs at some time in their journey and both Meryl Lee and Matthew benefit from her wise counsel that also encourages them to figure out what they need to for themselves. Gentle nudges and loving support. Growing up is hard enough, growing up while grieving is even harder. Like last year’s fabulous Pay Attention, Carter Jones that we posted about, the grief is palpable and informed by Schmidt’s own journey, but his humor scenes show that life continues between the blanks. Obviously this is for fans of Schmidt’s connected novels, The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but Kate DiCamillo fans will embrace these vivid characters and their story too. 

Curse of Specter Queen: Book 1 of a New Fun Series

Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny MokeCindy: We haven’t even told you anything about this novel yet, but by the time we do, you’ll be delighted to know that Curse of the Specter Queen (Disney/Hyperion, June 8, 2021) by Jenny Elder Moke is the start of a new series, because your younger teens are going to want to continue to adventure with this crew. Samantha Knox is the quiet star of the cast that includes her wealthy estranged best friend, Joana and her brother Bennett, Sam’s childhood crush. When a mysterious ancient diary arrives in the mail at the antique book shop where Sam works, it sets in motion a reuniting of these friends as they  begin a high stakes version of the puzzle-solving ciphering they did as kids for Jo and Bennett’s father. Sam always took that play seriously but now she may be in over her head. The mystery, set in the 1920s during Prohibition takes them to Ireland, where Jo is more interested in the pubs than the monastery in the country where they are to stay. Her sarcastic banter and love of fashion provides some lighter moments to counter the dangerous and frightening situations the teens face while trying to find an ancient relic to stop a world-threatening curse. This will make a great read-alike series for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

Lynn:  This book was such a treat! Reading it was a welcome escape from the ongoing stresses of our current situation. Curse of the Specter Queen is packed with just the sorts of elements I relish most in a book: a smart book-loving but self-effacing and insecure heroine who finds her strengths, an ancient curse, a twisty plot full of mysterious clues, a great setting, and lots of red herrings! Who could want more? Besides the compelling plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the depictions of the long-time friends whose had friendship had foundered on misunderstandings and that of the bickering siblings. I can’t resist a book with ciphers and codes and this one delivered!

I appreciate the many books being published today that take on world-crushing issues and portray situations that have been historically oppressive. Those are badly needed. But we also need books that entertain, that lift us beyond difficult and challenging times. We need treats in our lives just as much as we need the meat. Curse of the Specter Queen is just such a treat for so many readers. Huzzah for Samantha Knox and her adventures to come.

 

Turtle in Paradise as Graphic Novel

Turtle in Paradise the Graphic Novel by Jennifer L HolmCindy:  Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbery Honor historical fiction Turtle in Paradise (Random, 2010) is getting a new graphic novel edition (RH Graphic, May 4, 2021) with art by Savanna Ganucheau and colorist Lark Pien! I couldn’t be happier as it is sure to bring new young readers to the story, perhaps in both formats. The cover is painted in wide swaths of Key West seaside-inspired hues that are used throughout the panels inside as the story of 11-year-old Turtle’s time with her aunt and boy cousins unfolds. I read the original novel on a Florida beach in 2010 and in a post we wrote for the Booklist Reader, I said:

This book, like a conch shell, slowly builds on itself as each episodic story is added. The boys (Beans, Slow Poke, Kermit and Pork Chop) call themselves the Diaper Gang and earn candy by watching babies for weary neighborhood mothers. The story, set in 1935, is a fun and touching look at a tough time for both Turtle and the Key West community she’s been dropped into.

It’s a fun trip to read it again in this new format. 

Lynn:  What a treat to meet Turtle and the Diaper Gang once more! I have to think that the Diaper Gang would be in huge demand today with exhausted pandemic families! Maybe some enterprising young readers will seize the chance.

The story has moved seamlessly into graphic format and illustrator Savanna Ganucheau and Colorist Lark Pien have used the perfect palette of warm island colors to evoke the setting of this charming story.

A wonderful addition to this GN version is the new back matter. Jennifer Holm writes of her family connection to Key West. Her Conch Great-Grandmother emigrated there in the 1800’s and Holm has memories of visiting there as a child. Included are some wonderful photos of Key West in the 1930’s. There is also a note from Illustrator Ganucheau.

If you’ve read the original, don’t miss this charming new version and if you are new to Turtle’s stories, be sure to read both formats!

 

Literary Wardrobes, a Cat, and Kids saying, “Whoa!”

Lynn and Cindy: We LOVE books that get kids talking and there is nothing like time travel or portal travel and ambiguous resolutions to make that happen! If you love that too we have such a treat for you. We have two new books that are wildly different from each other but who share some important connections. Yup – wardrobe portals to other times or places, lots of references to well-loved books in the genre, compulsive plots and endings that are guaranteed to make kids say, “Whoa!”

Lynn:  Da Vinci’s Cat ((Harper/Greenwillow, 2021) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is an enchanting and intriguing story set in the 1500s and also the present, featuring a noble young hostage to the Pope, a modern young girl just moving into a new house, famous artists a mysterious cat and cabinet that connects them all. Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly. Sympathetic characters are at the heart of this story but the mindblowing aspects of time travel power the plot and enhance the tension. Readers walk with Federico and Bee as they explore the puzzle of the cabinet, sharing in the initial puzzlement, then giddy excitement, and finally in the horrifying realization of the future altering consequences.

There is plenty of humor provided by the two protagonists’ encounters with each other and with centuries of differences in culture, manners, and clothing. The introduction of the famous art and artists is one of the highlights here – who knew Michelangelo shunned baths! This fascinating item and more will certainly send many young readers to look up the artists and their works involved in the story. Juno, Da Vinci’s cat with an intriguing connection to Schrodinger’s Cat, and the time-traveling closet are such clever devices and Murdock incorporates them into a compelling story in a brilliantly effective way.

Cindy: I’m sorry that we are tempting you with a book that won’t publish until May 25th, but know that we are as eager as you are to see the finished book with “Decorations” by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. Federico is based on a boy hostage of Pope Julius II, who, according to the author’s note, in the galley lived in “the papal palace for three years, befriending artists and attending countless banquets.” The story that Murdock spins from this and her research of Raphael and Michelangelo is fascinating but told well for her young audience who may need an introduction to the players and the times. Like her Newbery Medal novel, The Book of Boy, Murdock says this is “fantasy grounded in fact.” And, it’s a fact that this novel is fantastic.

The galley blurb promises that Da Vinci’s Cat is recommended for readers who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. Coincidentally, David Levithan’s introduction in his new book mentions both of these titles as inspiration for writing his own middle-grade book with fantasy elements.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)  (Knopf, 2021) is quite different from Murdock’s book, but it’s also quite different from Levithan’s previous books, and not just that it’s written for a younger audience than his previous teen titles.

A tale of two brothers, one of whom disappears, is a page-turner from the very beginning. Lucas’ older brother Aidan just vanishes one day and a police search begins. Six days later he shows up and his answers to questions about where he’s been are hard to believe. The adults all think Aidan is covering, but our narrator, Lucas, is determined to get to the truth. Is there a place with fantastical beasts and green-colored skies? If there is, why does his brother want to return there so badly and leave this world behind? I don’t want to give away much more, it’s more fun to journey with Lucas through his investigation and ponderings while innocent. One thing is sure, David may have changed his target audience and paid tribute to the novels he loved as a tween, but his themes of love and acceptance shine through brightly and aren’t hidden behind any doors, be they on closets or magical wardrobes. I only wish that Levithan could jump into Da Vinci’s time-traveling wardrobe and take a copy of this book back to his 12-year-old self. I’d like that kid to tell adult David to keep writing middle grade books as well as teen and adult.

Lynn: I loved David’s book too! The voice of Lucas, the younger brother and narrator was simply terrific—a thoughtful observer of events and interactions around him, is spot on, believable and compelling. Lucas’ story is the device that raises the issues, spots the inconsistencies and then assesses the reactions. Lucas reports both what he sees and hears but what is also unsaid or remembered—beautifully increasing the feeling of uncertainty and doubt. This is both an urgent, can’t-put-it-down story and a thoughtful set of powerful observations that require a pause to consider—not an easy combination to pull off. What is truth, what is the impact of truth on the listener when what may be the truth is unimaginable? Should the truth always be told and when and why would you alter it?

David skillfully plants seeds of doubt everywhere in Lucas’ narration, leaving the reader always feeling slightly off-center. Often young readers dislike open-ended stories but those stories motivate them to have instant conversations and that is a powerful thing. Some readers of both of these books will race through them and more sophisticated readers are going to discover so much to consider. All readers are going to find that both stories linger long after the pages are finished. And one more terrific quality of both of these books is that they are absolutely perfect read-alouds for classrooms or to use as book club books. Brace yourselves for LOTS of conversations!

Prairie Lotus – Another Side to the Little House Story

Lynn: Linda Sue Park, like so many readers, was a childhood devotee of the Little House books. Also like many, she was bothered by some of what was said and what was left out in terms of race but she loved the stories deeply. As she says in her wonderful Author’s Note, Park wrote Prairie Lotus (Clarion, 2020) “as an attempt at a painful reconciliation.” I think she does a wonderful job of honoring what so many young readers loved about the LH books while making a very successful job of including another important side of the story.

Hanna is racially mixed, white father, Chinese/Korean mother, in a time when anyone other than white is despised and has to deal with ugly and systemic discrimination and restrictions both legal and cultural. After the death of Hanna’s mother, her father moves them to the western territories, seeking a place to set up a Dry Goods store. Hanna dreams of designing and creating women’s dresses and of graduating from school but she faces enormous obstacles to both dreams. Readers of the LH books will recognize many of the elements they loved: the details of daily life on the prairie, finding food and creating meals, building a home on an often hostile land. I loved Park’s descriptions of dressmaking, the fabrics, sewing, and details of the dress goods store.

Hanna’s voice is wonderfully crafted and her hopes and dreams, struggles and heartbreaks are so vivid and have a deeply authentic feel. Park tells an important story here but she never allows the compelling story to be slowed by her intent to show a more realistic story of pioneers, Native people, and the settling of the west. Kids will read it for the engaging story and come away with a new understanding of the time, the people, and the issues.

Cindy: Like author Linda Sue Park, Laura was an imaginary friend of mine as I read her books again and again in the late 60s and early 70s. I still have a fondness for the stories and for what they meant to me growing up. While I pretended to explain the wonders of microwave ovens and electric lights and the bounty of children’s books to Laura, I remember admiring how happy the Ingalls were with any small treat. An orange and a penny for Christmas, for instance. The orange appears in Hanna’s story as well, as does the theme of being satisfied with what you have.  I hated Wilder’s scenes with Nellie Oleson as she was so mean spirited; her spirit lives on in Park’s book in many of the prejudiced characters who are offended by Asian American Hanna living in their midst. From tactless questions about her ability to see well through her slanted eyes, to discriminatory acts to prevent her from attending school with the white children, Park tells another story of our country’s struggle to accept people who they feel “don’t belong.” That many of the hateful acts are drawn from Park’s personal experience makes the story all the more important for a new generation to read. Hanna’s spirit is indomitable and readers will be rooting for her success at school, with a friend, and with her dressmaking profession in this little insular town on the prairie.

Broken Strings – Healing Hearts: A Middle Grade Holocaust Tale

Lynn: Veteran authors Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer have joined forces in their new middle-grade novel, Broken Strings (Penguin/Puffin Canada, 2019) and the result is a complex, layered and very moving story that shouldn’t be missed.

There is a lot going in this book! Set in 2002 in the aftermath of the attack on the towers, Shirli Berman, a 7th grader, is disappointed to learn that she has been cast in the role of Goldi instead of Hodel in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli rallies though and goes looking for possible costumes and props in the attic of her grandfather’s house. There Shirli is shocked to discover an old violin and a poster showing her grandfather as a young boy with what looks like a family group all posed with instruments. Zayde had never allowed music in the house nor had he ever attended any of Shirli’s recitals or performances. When she takes her discoveries down to her grandfather, he is deeply shocked and then angry. Confused and hurt, Shirli goes back a few days later with her father and then for the first time, Zayde begins to talk about his family and his past.

Slowly over the course of the next few months, the family learns about their Polish family who were a traveling Klezmer band, moving from village to village. When the Nazis took over Poland, the family managed to stay unnoticed at first and then hid in the forest until they were eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz. Stubbornly carrying his violin during the capture and transport, Zayde was conscripted in a camp orchestra and forced to play as each new transport arrived and the Jewish prisoners were sorted with most sent to their deaths. Shirli’s Zayde was the only survivor from his family and after the war, he put music aside forever until Shirli’s discovery opened the door to the beginnings of healing.

The authors do an outstanding job of providing this history for young readers, connecting it to the history of the Sept. 11th attack and examining issues of prejudice, hatred, and oppression in a way that is never heavy-handed but thoughtful and relevant for today. Plot threads of the middle school musical production and a sweet first crush provide a bit of lightness and help keep the interest high. The role and power of music is also a theme that flows throughout the story and young musicians will find much here to think about.

This piece of Holocaust history was new to me too and with Fiddler on the Roof being a personal favorite, I too learned and was deeply moved by the story. An Author’s Note at the end provides additional historical information.

Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.

“Following the Bend in the Road” – Michael Morpurgo and WWII in the Camargue

Lynn: One of the things I love most about the world of books—and children’s books in particular—is the way authors keep crafting new stories from the past that connect deeply to the events of the present. There is no better way for readers to learn about history and its driving forces and to realize that those same forces impact us still. Michael Morpurgo’s new book, The Day the World Stopped Turning, (Feiwel, 2019) is a shining example of that. There have been thousands of books written about WWII (and we have read a LOT of them) but Morpurgo tells a story that is fresh and unique and one that shines a beam on today’s issues in a way that will resonate with young readers.

Morpurgo uses an unusual structure for a book for middle schoolers. The framing story is that of Vincent Carter, an adult over 50, looking back briefly at his youth and then at his decision as an 18-year-old to leave home and travel to the south of France, following the path of the artist who inspires him, Vincent Van Gogh. He is further motivated by a childhood story about the wisdom of following the bend in the road to wherever it takes him. While walking in the isolated marshy area of the Camargue, Vincent falls seriously ill and collapses. He is rescued by an autistic man, Lorenzo, and taken back to a farm by the beach where Lorenzo and his companion Kezia nurse Vincent back to health. It is here that that heart of the story lies. As Vincent gradually regains his health, he becomes curious about his rescuers and their mysterious history. The narration then shifts to Kezia as she slowly relates their story that begins in 1932, of Lorenzo and his farmer parents and of Kezia only child of Roma parents who moved from town to town with their beautiful carousel. As Kezia grew older, her parents decided to stay in the town near the farm so she could go to school. The war is on, France has been defeated and the Vichy government rules the Camargue but for the most part, the war has left the area relatively untouched. All that ends one day when the Germans roll into town to set up fortifications on the beach and to stay. Lorenzo’s parents know that Roma people are being rounded up and they offer to hide Zezia and her family on the farm. This decision will forever change the lives of the two children, their families, and the town. And the story, as Kezia tells it, will forever change Vincent’s life as well.

This is a quiet tale and although there are great tension and suspense, the story allows time for readers to absorb and to reflect. It is a story about the issues of racism and hatred, of war and fear. But it is also an uplifting story of the greater power of friendship, kindness and love, courage, and the enduring nature of doing what is right. The setting will be unfamiliar to most American students but the lyrical writing brings this remote and beautiful place to life. The narratives are an interesting blend of adult and child perspectives with the framing voice adult and the WWII sections of the book in young Kezia’s voice. This device brings added emphasis to the central story and puts readers firmly in the shoes of the children experiencing the events of the occupation.  The parallels to issues in the headlines today are stark and kids will readily make the comparisons and come to their own conclusions.

This book is not for every kid but it offers rich rewards for a mature and curious reader ready to try something different.