Christmas After All by Kathryn Lasky

Christmas After All: The Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5        

Christmas After All would have been rated a 4 if it hadn’t been for the extremely cheesy ending. As a specifically Christmas-themed Dear America, I suppose I should have expected that Lasky would have gone for the same sort of theme as a Hallmark Christmas movie, but the inclusion of all that “Oh, it is a Christmas after all!” at the very end ruined the whole book for me a little.

It’s a shame because this DA book has one of the strongest voices. It reads far more like an actual girl writing in a diary than someone who is simply narrating a sequence of events, as has been the case for past novels. Perhaps the shorter period of time (most DA books take place over months—this one took place over days) and a more general historical event helped focus the whole novel on the character voice, as this was one of the most realistic I’ve read. I was actually quite shocked that Minnie came from Lasky, who I’ve criticized before for her writing in Guardians of Ga’Hoole. This writing was so unlike the Lasky that I’ve read; it was a very pleasant surprise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the very end. As I said, the voice is fantastic, and though Lasky doesn’t really communicate all that much about the Great Depression, it’s at least clear that it was a bad time for lots of people (which is really understating it, but that’s the general feeling in the book). And, thinking about it, that’s exactly how a child might think of it at the time, so perhaps it was the perfect way to discuss it! Everything, after all, is filtered through Minnie’s eyes, so we are seeing her impressions and descriptions, which may not mean they are strictly historical ones.

Christmas After All is a perfectly themed Dear America book, with a memorable voice and good historical detail interwoven. The Christmas theme does come across way too strongly at the end, which ruined the book for me a little, as I prefer strong finishes and this finish felt trite and cliché. I’m also really disappointed in the epilogue and historical notes because I’m a nerd and I care about those things. It’s one of the more unique DA books, though, so it’s a stand-out regardless.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Color Me Dark by Patricia C. McKissack

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Patricia C. McKissack tackles so much in Color Me Dark: Jim Crow laws, the KKK, the Great Migration, race riots, class disputes, and Chicago’s infamous “Red Summer.” There’s also a fair amount of city vs. country and North vs. South tension, as well.

McKissack gives a great job of showing all different types of people in this book. We have, of course, the protagonist, Nellie Lee, who is determined to show the world that her skin color doesn’t matter. There’s her sister, Erma Jean, who has her own obstacles to overcome when she hears the story of how her Uncle Pace died tragically after returning home from WWI. There’s the parents, who have to navigate the business world of Chicago where the only way to succeed seems to be to pay other people to give you what you want. My favorite part was that all of these people were truly different types of people. The rich people weren’t all greedy, the white people weren’t all racist (okay, well, only a couple that are named, but the rest were all historical characters). There were black people with differing social classes and racial opinions. This was one of the most well-developed, nuanced cast of characters that I’ve seen in a while.

McKissack also shows how, even though people like Uncle Meese and, in the end, the Love family, were prosperous and succeeded, they still were seen as inferior by other people. Unfortunately, most of that information comes in the epilogue and in the historical notes. Honestly, I think she could have made the point even stronger in the story as a whole, but what she does have is still great even so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Little House of Their Own by Celia Wilkins

A Little House of Their Own, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2005 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little City by the Lake.

Rating: 4/5        

The last Caroline book is also the most heartwarming, describing the (possibly fictional) events leading up to Caroline and Charles getting married, prefacing the events of Little House in the Big Woods. The sweet, sedate romance that unfolds is appropriate for a children’s book, and Wilkins manages to convey both the wildness and wanderlust of Charles Ingalls and the groundedness of Caroline. Charles’s voice sounds, at times, straight out of the original Little House series, as does Caroline’s.

When not describing the budding romance between the two, the book concerns itself with Caroline’s school teaching days. It’s not overly exciting, but Wilkins does a good job of staying true to the picture of Caroline that we receive in Little House, as well as provides for some explanation of her ways in those books. The Caroline of this series seems slightly spunkier than the one in Little House, but this last book does show her gentleness that is so prominent in her daughter’s books.

This has always been my favorite book simply because of the sweet romance, but it’s not the most interesting. I think On Top of Concord Hill wins that award, as the romance featured in that book is of a much more interesting kind (plus a few more exciting things happen). However, A Little House of Their Own is the perfect finale for the series, as well as a perfect setup for the Little House books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, by Lois Lowry, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Like the Willow Tree has a fairly unique (and odd) setting/focus. Most Dear America books focus on events, like the Great Depression or World War I, or periods of time (factory work, immigration, etc.). This book has a brief mention of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and even briefer mentions of WWI, but the main focus is a on a group of people, not an event: the Shakers.

No, not the Quakers. The Shakers, thus called because they used to “shake” and dance during worship, are a sect of Christianity founded around 1747. Today, there are only two Shakers remaining (and at Sabbathday Lake, the setting of the book).

It’s like Lowry was enthralled by the Shaker life (as evident in the Historical Note) and wanted to write a book about it, so she contacted Scholastic and asked, and Scholastic said, “Okay, but you have to throw in something else relevant so it seems like a normal Dear America book” and Lowry went with the Spanish flu.

I did learn lots of interesting things about Shakers (like how many inventions they were responsible for: the clothespin, a type of washing machine, and the circular saw, to name a few), and this book is a really good way to learn about a little known religious sect, but since no other DA book focuses so strongly on a group of people (I am not counting any of the Native American books, since those were about events/periods in that culture’s history with information about the group intertwined. This book focuses on the group, and has events intertwined), it just seems odd and out of place.

Plus, the story itself wasn’t that interesting. Lydia is merely a mouthpiece for and an observer of Shaker ways, so she assimilates quickly and spends the rest of the book describing and thinking about Shaker life. Again, if you want to know about Shakers, then Like the Willow Tree is great for that. But if you want a good story, with interesting characters, then maybe look elsewhere.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Little City by the Lake by Celia Wilkins

Little City by the Lake, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Across the Rolling River.

Rating: 3/5        

The most interesting thing about the Caroline books (and all of the prequel Little House books) is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of fiction. Though the original Little House books were fictionalized in many places, Wilder was drawing off of her own memory. Here, all we get is a brief author’s note at the beginning stating that some of the events were drawn from Martha Carpenter’s letters to Laura. Yet in this book, Caroline spends a whole 9 months away from Martha, so how much of what happens in here is true?

I don’t really mind one way or another, to be honest. Whether Wilkins is making this up as she goes along or if there’s some sort of letter or memory she’s taking pieces from, the book is still true to the Caroline of the past books, and I had to smile at all the little nods Wilkins gives to the Little House books, particularly Caroline’s delaine and the gold pin. Is this where she actually got the dress, or did Wilkins throw it in because it seemed plausible? While it doesn’t ultimately matter to me, or affect the book, it is something interesting that I pondered briefly.

Anyway, the book itself is fine. I enjoyed the look at Milwaukee and high-society life that it gives—it’s a nice refresher from the previous books. That look also serves to center Caroline as well as to seriously contrast her life with the life she could have had. There’s some deliberate juxtapositions drawn here, and it’s interesting to read this book knowing that Caroline, who (according to the book) could have gotten a successful teaching job in the society and moved into a higher class, chose to go back home and ultimately marry a farmer. There’s even the brief flirtation with James, a sort of “could have” moment that Wilkins explores.

Maybe the book was mainly experimental, maybe it was actually based on parts of Caroline’s life. Either way, while it’s not quite as good as some of the stronger books that came before it, it serves as a good contrast with the earlier books, and a nice bridge to the final book, where Caroline returns home to teach and ends up falling in love with one Charles Ingalls. That book’s probably my favorite because I’m a romantic at heart.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

When Christmas Comes Again by Beth Seidel Levine

When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer, by Beth Seidel Levine, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Rather than having the protagonist take a backseat and be a passive observer of the Historical Event of the Book, When Christmas Comes Again does something that only a few Dear America books (or more than a  few—it’s hard to remember them all!) have done : the protagonist is an active part of what is taking place. It would be tempting, especially when dealing with World War I, to have the protagonist simply take note of what is happening at home. A Time for Courage did that—while several of Kathleen’s friends and family took part in the war, she mainly observed what was happening, even with the main event, suffragism. However, When Christmas Comes Again has Simone go right into the action and be a “hello girl,” one of the many female switchboard operators that helped send messages to and from the war front. It also manages to convey some of the more horrific aspects of WWI, though only a front-line view could fully capture that (I think the spin-off series, My Name is America, which has male protagonists, tackles that). And, while Levine doesn’t go into what it was like for the “hello girls” coming back home in the story, she does mention it in the Historical Notes.

My one main criticism of the story is the Deus Ex Machina ending. It reeks of convenience and, to be honest, historical inaccuracy. Far more realistic would have been for the sad, bittersweet ending that seemed to be happening to actually happen, as opposed to the fairy tale ending that did occur. However, Levine obviously felt the need to end happily in a children’s book, and I suppose there may be some sort of historical precedence, if nothing more than the idea that wartime communications suffer and that oftentimes no one knows what truly happens to other soldiers.

Now that we’re getting to the 20th century, I’m really excited for what’s coming. So many significant things happened during this century, and I’m looking forward to seeing if the World War II Dear America book that I remember being my favorite (One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping) is still as good as I remember.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Time for Courage by Kathryn Lasky

A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

A Time for Courage is the first Dear America book in a while that hasn’t focused on any one particular day in history (or maybe not–I don’t really remember…). Instead, it’s much more episodic, detailing the women’s suffrage efforts in Washington, D.C., as well as the start of the US entrance into World War I. In addition, Kathleen is a unique protagonist in that she is the first one in a while that is at least upper-middle class. Kathleen’s struggles have nothing to do with poverty, hunger, crowded apartments, or low wages—instead, they have to do with her mother and aunt going to the picket lines and being arrested, her cousin being taken away by her uncle, and the effect suffragism and WWI has on her family. She herself is a rather normal girl, which makes the events that go on around her stand out that much more.

Lasky describes in detail the attitude towards the suffragettes and what they endured, from standing out in all kinds of weather to being force fed in a workhouse. It’s a great reminder (or lesson) of what these women endured in order to achieve their goal, as well as ripe of opportunity for discussion. Also working its way into the novel is the Zimmerman note and the US’s response, as well as some description of how women volunteered as ambulance drivers and also went overseas. In fact, the only male occupation that’s really described at all is Kathleen’s father’s job as a doctor. Everything else is purposefully women-focused.

A Time for Courage describes several important areas of American history, mostly suffragism, the reaction in D.C., and the Occoquan scandal. Kathleen is a great protagonist, and though Lasky at times is, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed with her topic, she deals with events starkly, without pulling any punches or making things inappropriate for children, making the entire book memorable and powerful.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Voyage on the Great Titanic by Ellen Emerson White

Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, by Ellen Emerson White, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Dear America is at its best when it is focusing on a singular event rather than a broad historical time period (like western expansion). Voyage on the Great Titanic is a straightforward, accurate look at The Titanic’s ill-fated trip to New York.

White does a great job of explaining the richness and decadence of the first class. That richness is made even more apparent by the protagonist, Margaret, who is a working class girl brought into upper society by becoming the traveling companion of a rich woman. She, like the reader, gapes at the décor and admires all the advantages first class has to offer. Plus, the historical note at the back of the book gives more explanation into the different classes and the strict societal rules that were in place.

White also does a good job of simplifying and explaining all of the events that happened after the ship hit the iceberg. She (perhaps wisely) leaves out the controversy of The Californian, but other than that, she manages to communicate the lack of lifeboats, the fact that the lifeboats were launched while only half-full, and the ship breaking in half with the bow and then the stern going under. She also shows, once again, the societal rules, where all the men let the women and children go into the lifeboats first (with a few exceptions, and, notably, the book A Night to Remember—which I highly recommend—brought up the point that only first-class women and children went first). The whole event is shown for the catastrophe it was, but it’s also communicated in a way appropriate for children.

Voyage on the Great Titanic is perhaps one of the bleakest Dear America books so far, ending with Margaret in shock and distress, even after reuniting with her brother. White does manage to inject some hope into the ending, but even the epilogue emphasizes the mark such an event left that lasts a lifetime.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, was published in 2014 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in free verse about the early life of the author, Jacqueline Woodson. It won a ton of awards, including the Coretta Scott King and the Newbery Honor. To be honest, if I liked free verse novels better, I might have enjoyed this book more, but despite all of its accolades, I struggled to get immersed in the book.

Perhaps it’s because not too much happens. The blurb makes the book seem much more exciting than it actually is, and while there are certainly trials and tribulations that Jacqueline must overcome, things like segregation and the Civil Rights Movement aren’t nearly as prominent as the blurb suggests (or maybe I missed a TON of subtle things, which could also be true). Instead, the book is much more involved with family affairs, as well as Jacqueline figuring out what she enjoys and what she wants to do. I suppose I should have expected that, since this is a memoir, but going into it I didn’t realize it was one, so my mind took some time to adjust (and perhaps this is why I didn’t really enjoy reading it).

And, well, I found it a bit boring. There simply wasn’t enough going on to hold my interest. This is a book that is really meant for the reflective reader—slow, character-focused, with lots to think about—and I’m not one of those. I did like some things about it, like the interesting religious focus (you don’t often get books about Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the focus on family. I think the book was deserving of all of its awards, but it simply wasn’t my cup of tea at all.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2J1Kwsy

Hear My Sorrow by Deborah Hopkinson

Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, by Deborah Hopkinson, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

Hear My Sorrow is very similar to Dreams in the Golden Country, detailing the lives of an immigrant family (Italian rather than Jewish) in New York City right after the turn of the century. However, while Dreams was a bit more of a hodge-podge in regards to its balancing of key events and ideas, Hear My Sorrow really brings those ideas to the forefront while still retaining an individual feel to the voice of Angela.

Hear My Sorrow discusses labor unions, the clash of cultures in NYC and the representation of those cultures in the unions, factory work, and, of course, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. It also deals with family, as well, with the tight-knit Denoto family and their Italian background.

Hopkinson highlights many reasons why girls (and other workers) joined strikes, as well as why they became “scabs”—strike breakers who went back to work during a strike. This is especially apparent in the tension between Angela and her sister Luisa, and with the rest of her family, as Angela stays on strike while Luisa returns to work to help provide for the family. Hopkinson also touches on the conflict between school and work as she describes how many girls had to drop out of school to earn money so their families could survive.

The description of the fire itself is brutally clear for a children’s book. Hopkinson only barely softens the edges by leaving out graphic details; otherwise, every horrific moment is described through the eyes of Angela, who can barely realize what is happening (another softener, but again, just barely). The descriptions of the girls jumping out of the windows because there was literally no other option for them also brought to my mind the memory of the World Trade Center burning on 9/11. Not an image Hopkinson was consciously trying to bring to the surface, probably, but the resonance made the scene even more powerful.

In terms of describing history, Hear My Sorrow is one of the more successful Dear America books in its detail and depiction of the period. There’s a little bit lacking in terms of story and voice, but the book packs a lot of punch and is one of the more vivid and memorable entries in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2OQeWSr