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

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

Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

I haven’t read a really academic book in a long time, so the plunge into Alister McGrath’s Narrative Apologetics was a rough one. However, the topic is one that I am deeply interested (and invested) in, as that was the basis of my graduate school studies and something I currently teach. McGrath puts forth his arguments for presenting the Gospel as and through narrative, rather than purely reason.

McGrath introduces the topic of narrative apologetics (basically, showing people God and the Gospel through story), offers practical application, and then uses various narratives, both Biblical and otherwise, to illustrate why and how narrative is so powerful. Using several powerful narratives from the Bible, as well as mentioning narratives from C. S. Lewis, Marilynne Robison, and Dorothy Sayers, McGrath lays forth his reasoning for leaning more on story to share “the relevance, joy, and wonder” of Christianity (to borrow the subtitle), as it reaches more people.

I will admit, the language of the book really did prevent me from delving into this perhaps as deeply as I should have. It is not written for the layperson at all, but rather for the expert in the field. McGrath expects you to know a lot of things already. This is not a criticism, as this is obviously the audience of the book—I’m just trying to explain why I struggled a bit with it (I’m technically an expert, but I’m too used to more casual books). The book is rich in research and footnotes, and McGrath methodically and expertly explains everything. What I liked most about the book was the last chapter where McGrath offers suggestions for how to use Biblical, personal, and cultural narratives in teaching and showing others the Gospel. As a teacher, my mind immediately started thinking of ways to incorporate those into my classroom.

The analytical language and the academic nature of the book did throw me for a loop, but Narrative Apologetics is a book that’s worth returning to in order to take it in more deeply. I feel like I only skimmed the surface and that lots more meaning and application will come out on another read.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

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

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

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Rating: 4/5

Illuminae is one of the most unique books I’ve read in years. Not unique in terms of plot, which in this book, to be honest, isn’t anything groundbreaking or even unfamiliar, but in terms of format. The novel is told entirely through e-mails, messages, posters, reports, dossiers, transcripted surveillance camera footage, and the code of an oddly poetic artificial intelligence.

On paper, the plot is tired and old: planet is attacked, people flee for their lives, now they’re on the run with a mutating pathogen and a rogue AI to deal with. Yet, in this format, it transforms into a compelling, suspenseful story. Somehow Kaufman and Kristoff manage to pull off plot twist after plot twist despite the format (or perhaps because of it, as it is easier to get small details past the reader).

Plus, the conflict and moral dilemma at the heart of the novel is complex and not at all straightforward. Is AIDAN doing the right thing or the wrong thing? What about Syra Boll? This book emphasizes the fact that moral decisions are hard to make and that there’s more than one way of looking at things—something the authors tried to get across, I think, with their characterization of AIDAN, the AI who is trying to save everyone by killing everyone, or something. And the scary thing is that I get it. Almost everything Aidan (and Boll, and the other captains) does to try and stop Phobos from spreading—I understand. Do I agree? That’s a trickier question. That’s the great moral dilemma at the heart of the story.

And it’s a moral dilemma that Kady, the main character, tends to trivialize—one of the major reasons I disliked her. She was smug, self-righteous, always sure that her way of thinking was the right one. I mean, it’s basically a great portrayal of a teenager, but I could barely stand her even so. And the romance—ugh. The older I get, the less I can stand teen romance. There were so many more clever things that the authors could have done with Kady as a character and for the romance, but they chose to hang their hat on their format and add in a tired, stereotypical romance that was the main reason I didn’t rate this book 5 stars.

Another reason is that I got very confused at the end with why the percentage of Phobos afflicted was dropping (but by an incredibly small margin). Was it supposed to symbolize AIDAN malfunctioning or something??

What shines from Illuminae is the format, which transforms an average plot into something that even this science-fiction hater finds intriguing. I never thought I would be so involved in a YA SF book, but this book, even with its annoying main character and romance, proved that is possible—with the right set-up!

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

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

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

First Class Murder, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2017 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Poison is Not Polite.

Rating: 4/5

First Class Murder is a subtle tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I enjoyed the way Stevens paid homage to Christie’s novel in subtle ways, yet crafted a mystery entirely of her own making. A woman is murdered in her compartment and the ruby necklace around her neck has gone missing…as usual, there’s lots of suspects with plenty of motive, plus we get the added tension of Hazel and Daisy having to work around Hazel’s father’s strict ideas of what they should be doing.

As in the first two books, I didn’t really enjoy Daisy as a character—she’s far too blunt and rash. She does get a bit of characterization as she is continuing to deal with the aftermath of the mystery of the second book (which I’ve completely forgotten, but I remember took place in her own house), but most of the time she continues to be self-important and annoying.

Hazel gets a ton of development here, particularly in her relationship with her father. And, despite how I don’t like Daisy, I do like how Stevens frames it so that the reader clearly sees what each girl brings to the table and what each has that the other lacks. The difference in thought process and action in Daisy and Hazel lead to an effective detective team.

As for the mystery, it was a little too obvious for me—I knew during the body discovery scene what the murderer had done to navigate the locked room scenario, and I immediately picked up on most of the other clues regarding the murder. There were some side mysteries that I didn’t catch, though, and the final reveal did have some surprises, so I’m glad for that. I also enjoy that Stevens doesn’t have her detectives make awkward leaps in logic—they figure things out very naturally, which I appreciate.

First Class Murder was another enjoyable mystery by Stevens. Though still a little too obvious, Stevens did throw in some things that I didn’t catch right away, which meant there were still some surprises left by the end.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/3352baG