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

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis, was published in 2007 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

The setting of Elijah of Buxton is the Buxton Mission of Raleigh, Canada, founded in 1849 by Reverend William King as a refuge for escaped slaves. Elijah, the protagonist, is the first child of the settlement born into freedom. What Curtis does so well in this book is to show the stark contrast between Elijah and the other people he encounters who were slaves. We have Mr. Leroy, working to gain enough money to buy his wife and children. We have the Preacher, a fast-talking swindler with a few hidden depths. We have the runaway slaves Elijah finds later in the novel, who mention how different Elijah seems to them—in fact, he becomes a symbol of hope for those slaves.

Speaking of Mr. Leroy, he and Elijah share some of the best “page time” of the book, starting with Mr. Leroy lecturing (to put it nicely) Elijah on the use of a racial slur that slipped out of Elijah’s mouth (“You thinks just ‘cause that word come out from twixt your black lips it mean anything different?”), teaching a valuable lesson about language, the way it can be used to dehumanize others, and how an important step in freedom is also freeing oneself from the use of words that were only used to malign. Then there’s the adventure Mr. Leroy and Elijah go on towards the end of the book, culminating in Elijah running into some runaway slaves, realizing how much different it is for blacks (slave or not) in Chicago than his life in Buxton. Curtis does a fantastic job of showing the stark contrast between slave and free.

The antagonist of the story is the Preacher, though there’s a good argument to make that the main antagonist is slavery itself. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued by the Preacher, a conman who immediately ditches his conning when his target reveals his racism (or, at the very least, his insulting pandering), but then steals his friend’s money and runs away to Chicago, where he proceeds to gamble it away. What happens to him is dreadful, and Curtis makes it clear that no matter the Preacher’s sins, he didn’t deserve what he got.

Elijah of Buxton is a fantastic book, showing stark contrasts between slave and free, black and white, that existed in the 1850s. The only reason I didn’t rate it a 5 is because of the pacing—the beginning is far too long, and the ending is far too rushed. The summary also didn’t help with my perception of the pacing, either, promising me a far longer adventure than what was actually delivered. I also didn’t feel as if the Preacher’s motivations were developed very well. However, Curtis manages that fine line between brutal and child-friendly in portraying slavery, though it’s probably not suited for kids below 10. 

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence, slavery, racial slurs

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2p7ZtlU

A City Tossed and Broken by Judy Blundell

A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, by Judy Blundell, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I debated whether to rate A City Tossed and Broken 2 or 3, but I decided it was probably my favorite of the revamped Dear America books that I’ve read so far, so I gave it a 3.

This Dear America tackles the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent devastating fire in 1906. Also, since these revamped books seem to focus more on an overarching plot than most of the older ones, there’s also Minnie pretending to be the daughter of the rich family she was working for after the deaths of the entire family.

For the historical aspect, I thought Blundell did a good job of showing the devastation of the earthquake and the fear that followed when fire destroyed half the town. She also hinted at, and explained further in the historical notes at the end, the corruption that ruled San Francisco during that time.

For the story aspect, it was…all right. I thought the story was rife with convenience and dumb decisions made for the plot, however. Like the whole Lily/Minnie switch, which rested entirely on a technicality and a very well-timed dress change. At least the buildup, and follow-up, to that was explained well. Then there’s Minnie’s time as Lily, which was okay—most of what she did was believable, up until the end when she said, “I’m going to tell Mr. Crandall,” and then never did for some reason that was never explained or shown.

I did like the overall theme of family and sticking together, and Blundell does a good job of showing the difference between trade/”new” money in society, and inherited “old” money, as well as class (and racial) conflict. However, A City Tossed and Broken is missing some sort of spark to really make it sing, to make it stand out and make me say, “Now that’s a Dear America book!” So far, I still think the revamped books are subpar at best.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31YL1eH

1996 Newbery Medal: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, was published in 1995 by Clarion.

Rating: 4/5        

This is it, folks. The last Newbery Medal left in the pile (until next year, that is). It’s taken me about a year and a half to get through them all, but I’ve done it. I remember at one point I was trying to go chronologically, but somewhere along the way I said “nah,” and just started pulling books off the Newbery shelf at my library. This particular reading goal is over, which means…on to the next!

There have been a few medieval settings in the Newberys that I’ve read. They’ve ranged from serious to silly to poetic. The Midwife’s Apprentice isn’t serious, but it’s not really silly, either. It’s the story of Brat/Beetle/Alyce, the titular midwife’s apprentice, and her gaining self-confidence as she learns that she isn’t just a waif found on the side of the road. Cushman’s take on the medieval setting accurately portrays a lot of things, like all the various jobs, the beliefs and customs of the time, though I’d argue that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is far more educational in that regard. The midwife’s antics are especially eyebrow-raising, but it shows just how unknowledgeable the medieval world was in terms of medicine.

I like how the midwife in the book isn’t a loving, sweet person. It’s a bit cliché to have Alyce learn to appreciate her strengths and skills in that setting. Instead, Jane Sharp belittles and degrades her, yet even so Alyce finds her place and seeks to be successful. It shows that even when the people around you aren’t the stereotypical kind and caring people, you can still grow and become kind and caring yourself.

Since this is the last Newbery, next week I’ll be posting a Top Ten list of the books I thought were the best of the best, the ones that really, truly deserved that award. To be honest, I think that might be a bit of a struggle for me, but we’ll see!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/30gPJGW

Dreams in the Golden Country by Kathryn Lasky

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I would rank Dreams in the Golden Country on the middle-upper scale of Dear America books. It accomplishes so much more than similar immigration stories like So Far From Home; it talks about immigration (and even describes, very briefly, the Northern Ireland and Ireland conflict, as well as Catholicism versus Protestantism), labor unions, factory work, and even suffragism. And of course, it deals with the transition from a predominantly Jewish culture to one that is influenced by many religions and cultures.

Not being Jewish, I don’t know how good Lasky was at communicating Jewish beliefs or history. It fits with what I’ve read and heard about, so nothing jumped out at me as being overwhelming inaccurate. I liked the way Lasky showed both the Jewish people, like Papa, who seemed to enjoy the freedom a new country gave them in their religion and the Jewish people, like Mama, who wanted to hold on to the traditions for as long as possible. It made for some interesting conflict as well as some potential for discussion over keeping traditions and culture in a new place.

The main flaw with this book is the way Lasky continually plays up the “golden country” aspect of the novel. I don’t doubt that many immigrants viewed it that way, nor do I necessarily disagree with that idea or with what Zipporah felt in the book, but the way it was handled in the book was clunky and felt a bit too orchestrated, like Lasky was putting it in there because of the “Dear America” on the title, rather than as a natural extension of Zipporah’s thoughts and feelings.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O4s5qu

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine, was published in 2015 by Egmont.

Rating: 3/5        

I like a good mystery, and the back cover of this book appealed to me immensely, with its invitation/advertisement style. The feel of the book is great, too—the front cover exactly exudes the department-store atmosphere that runs throughout the book, and I loved the setting. Though I must say that the hat descriptions that separated each part seemed out of place and didn’t really contribute anything beyond a pretty illustration.

However, the story itself was a bit tepid. The characters are not developed enough, and so though on paper the four of them are quite interesting, in “the flesh” they lack a little oomph. Sophie is spirited, but flat; Joe is mysterious, but flat; Billy is…something; Lil is funny, but flat…you get the picture. And it doesn’t help that the mystery is framed in such a way that all four characters have to do something that stretches just beyond the bounds of believability. At least in Sophie’s case, part of it is mentioned as part of the villain’s ultimate plan—the fact that she was able to figure out so much stuff was solely due to the fact that she was placed in the exact room with all of the information and the secret door leading to the hiding place of the stolen goods, something another character points out as suspicious for the villain to have done without an ulterior motive (and thank goodness for that because otherwise that would have been the epitome of plot convenience).

However, the others get no such excuse, and so we have Lil lurking in corners and somehow never being discovered despite her lack of ability to be nonchalant or secretive about anything, and Billy successfully switching papers because no one even bothers to check that the envelope he handed over was the right one, and Joe being…well, being not really anything at all except the person who tells them about the Baron.

I mean, I’m sure for the audience that is intended, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is probably quite exciting and sufficiently mysterious, and the characters are interesting (if flat). But for me, the solving of the mystery and a lot of the action relied way too much on plot convenience.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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

2008 Newbery Medal: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2007 by Candlewick.

Rating: 4/5

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a book of poems about the medieval time period, and Schlitz does an excellent job of capturing the voice and style. She also crams a whole lot of information into each of the “voices.” Each poem is from the point of view of a different person of the village, ranging from the lord to his villein. Sometimes the poems are connected, sometimes not.

I read a book a few months ago that described just how brutal the medieval life was, and this book captures that in a way that’s still suitable for children. Schlitz includes footnotes and other things for some of her references, but mostly the information is communicated directly through the poem, whether it’s the glassblower’s apprentice trying to blow glass, the glassblower’s daughters wondering whether they will marry said apprentice, a runaway villein, the miller, a knight…Schlitz expertly shows the hierarchy and class conflict that existed in the medieval days. Even religious tension is shown.

The book does do a great job of communicating lots of things about the medieval period, which means it’s full of dirt, dung, babies and mentions of birthing, the feudal system, and other things that may not be suitable for younger children. Schlitz also includes brief “essays” about various things in the medieval period, such as Jewish/Christian relations and the Crusades (which is unfortunately one of the worst takes on the Crusades I’ve read). Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is a good way to get an overview of the medieval period, and a much more interesting book of poetry than some others I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: See last paragraph.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

Across the Rolling River by Celia Wilkins

Across the Rolling River, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to On Top of Concord Hill.

Rating: 3/5

Perhaps it’s because I read them too far apart, or the author tried very hard to make a smooth transition, but I couldn’t really tell that a different author had written Across the Rolling River. There were a few things that felt slightly off, but not enough for me to really be jarred by the change in style.

Across the Rolling River introduces Charles Ingalls and his family to the series, and young Charlie is just as boisterous and expressive as Pa Ingalls from the Little House books. It also shows us his family, who end up so close to the Quiner family (there are three Quiner/Ingalls marriages in total: Caroline, Henry, and Eliza marry Charles, Polly, and Peter respectively). Also appearing in this book are Mr. Carpenter and his son Charlie (who marries Martha eventually), who haven’t appeared since the third book, Little Clearing in the Woods.

This book really is starting to accelerate Caroline’s development and love of learning. We see her desire to be a schoolteacher, with the influence of her teacher, Miss May, as well as her budding attraction to Charles Ingalls (though she’s only 12 in this book). We also see the pearl-handled pen of the Little House books, as this book details how Caroline came to get it.

I didn’t feel this book was as exciting or interesting as On Top of Concord Hill, but I liked the introduction of the Ingalls family as well as the exploration of Caroline’s desires and wishes. The author switch seemed smooth, which can be hard to accomplish even for a children’s book. All in all, not my favorite Caroline book, but one that sets up a lot of things for the next two books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KAIv8d

A Coal Miner’s Bride by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

A Coal Miner’s Bride has a terrible title, but the book is definitely one of the more relevant Dear America books, describing “mail-order brides,” immigration, mining, strikes, and labor unions, as well as taking place leading up to and during the events of the Lattimer massacre, where workers on strike were shot and killed by sheriffs.

“Mail-order brides” is perhaps not the best term to use for this particular marriage arrangement described in the book. Bartoletti describes how many immigrant coal miners would marry off their daughters to fellow workers—when their daughters weren’t even in America. Anetka is in Poland, with its culture steeped in Judaism and arranged marriages, when her father promises her hand to another worker in Pennsylvania.

Besides being one of the more interesting historically, A Coal Miner’s Bride also has one of the better protagonists with a good development throughout. I loved Anetka and her determination, her courage, and her desire to love and be loved. Her attempts to make her marriage to Stanley be a happy one despite the lack of love are poignant, and all of her feelings that come about before, during, and after the major events of the novel are relatable and realistic. I have a soft spot for protagonists who want to love and want to be loved in return, yet who doubt that they will ever truly find joy.

I do wish that some of the things that happened at the end had been delivered a bit better. The book’s last quarter is very quick, with strikes and unions and retaliations happening one right after the other. The author also spends a lot of time in the historical notes talking about an event that didn’t even show up in the book, as if that was the real story she wanted to write and she was stuck writing this one instead. However, after a few disappointing Dear Americas, A Coal Miner’s Bride shone, with its relevant and interesting look at immigrants and coal mining and its delightful protagonist, Anetka.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Anetka is married, but manages to wave away certain particulars of married life by claiming privacy. 

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GRZ6lt

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was first published in 1903.

Rating: 3/5

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is like Anne of Green Gables, except with less charm and less fun shenanigans. Rebecca is imaginative, spunky, lively, and bright; everyone seems to love or admire her. She daydreams, speaks (and writes) poetry, has a forceful personality, wins people over with her charm, and is all together dazzling. Wiggin attempts to give her flaws, but those are quickly brushed aside in order to emphasize all of her good qualities.

I speak as if I didn’t like the book, though I did. I simply think Anne of Green Gables came along a few years later and accomplished what I think Wiggin meant to accomplish with this book. Despite the fact that Rebecca is practically perfect in every way, I found the book charming and sweet. I especially adored Adam Ladd, and Rebecca and Aunt Miranda’s relationship.

Speaking of Adam Ladd, I thought for quite a long time that the book would end with some sort of romance. The book is old and dated, so for many people the age gap and the circumstances might be bothersome. However, I’ve read too much Jane Austen—and I know that Wiggin is representing reality back then (girls got married young, and sometimes they got married to men far older than they). So, I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or pleased that the book ends with almost a destruction of the Adam/Rebecca relationship: not through a fight or anything like that, but simply through Adam’s realization that Rebecca was still a child (though there is a hint that in the future something could happen).

I read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and almost immediately thought of Anne of Green Gables, which perhaps wasn’t quite fair to Wiggin because I expected wit and charm along with my dreamy protagonist (though Rebecca isn’t quite as dreamy as Anne), and got a little bit of charm with no wit or comedy. The book takes itself very seriously, and though I enjoyed the story, it did start to grate towards the end and I started wishing for something fun to happen.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Adam Ladd is 34 at the end of the novel, and Rebecca is 17, but the romance is presented in such a way that it will probably fly right over younger readers’ heads.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/32VTwaX