1946 Newbery Medal: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, was published in 1945 by Lippincott.

Strawberries—big, ripe, and juicy. Ten-year-old Birdie Boyer can hardly wait to start picking them. But her family has just moved to the Florida backwoods, and they haven’t even begun their planting. “Don’t count your biddies ‘fore they’re hatched, gal young un!” her father tells her. Making the new farm prosper is not easy. There is heat to suffer through, and droughts, and cold snaps. And, perhaps most worrisome of all for the Boyers, there are rowdy neighbors just itching to start a feud.

Rating: 4/5

If it were not for Lois Lenski’s foreword, you would think Strawberry Girl took place during the Western expansion—the Laura Ingalls Wilder vibes are strong. However, Lenski’s information about the late settling of Florida making it a frontier half a century after the “frontier age” makes it clear that, though the book reads as if it takes place in the nineteenth century, it actually takes place in the twentieth.

Strawberry Girl describes a series of events in the life of the Boyer family, with the tension between the Boyers and the Slaters as the underlying plot thread running throughout and bringing the events together. Along with Birdie, the reader experiences sympathy as well as anger as the Slaters are at times friendly, at times stand-offish, and at times downright hostile.

The idea of the “feuding families” is one that I’m not sure a lot of people think is based in reality. There’s always that one story of families who have fought for years over an event that has either been forgotten or one that has been grossly distorted—and the families are usually people from “the backwoods” as opposed to the prim and proper families of a more urban setting. Those stories always seem more of a critique or a ridicule of country living rather than anything based in reality. However, in the days when surviving meant living off the land and the actions of your neighbor (such as letting his cows eat your crops, which were both money and food) affected that survival, I can see that feuds may not be all that unlikely. And they more than likely took the form of something similar to what Lenski described in Strawberry Girl—a kind of “cold war” that escalates to killing livestock or even, in some cases, setting fires. In other words, Lenski does a great job of describing the tension between the Boyers and the Slaters so that the escalating feud makes sense—as does the eventual peace made between them.

Strawberry Girl reads very similarly to a Little House book, which isn’t surprising since even though the settings and the era are quite different, the circumstances are the same. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the book as I did. I also appreciated how Lenski made her characters memorable and thought that the escalation and resolution of the feud were well done. Strawberry Girl would appeal to any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Right here we’re fixin’ to set strawberries.”

“I mean! Strawberries!” Shoestring’s eyes opened wide.

“Yes, strawberries!” said Birdie. “Heaps o’ folks over round Galloway are growin’ ‘em to ship north. Pa heard a man called Galloway started it. So we’re studyin’ to raise us some nad sell ‘em.”

“You purely can’t!” said the boy. “Can’t raise nothin’ on this sorry ole piece o’ land but a fuss!” He spat and frowned. “Sorriest you can find—either too wet or too dry. Not fitten for nothin’ but palmetto roots. Your strawberries won’t never make.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2zSSm1o

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Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner, was published in 2017 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to A Conspiracy of Kings.

Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments, Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tired to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia. A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for an eager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead. Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kings of Attolia, Eddis and Sounis hang in the balance.

Rating: 4/5

I love Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels more and more every time I think of them, The King of Attolia being one of the best books I’ve ever read, and certainly the one book that I could read over and over and never get tired of. I’ve been waiting for Thick as Thieves for years—A Conspiracy of Kings was published 7 years ago—and it’s a tribute to Turner’s writing that I actually bought the book (along with the others) rather than getting it from the library (I actually rarely buy books, and when I do, they’re ones I’ve read before and loved).

The timeline of the Queen’s Thief novels is always hazy, but I believe that Thick as Thieves is set directly after A Conspiracy of Kings, if only because of what we learn has happened in Attolia towards the end of the novel (more on that in a moment). I’d like to thank the Goodreads reviews for filling in some things I didn’t know about the novel, such as that Turner considers it the second half of The King of Attolia.

In terms of style, Thick as Thieves is certainly much more like The Thiefthere’s less political intrigue than in previous books, Kamet and the Attolian (whose identity is fairly obvious but I will keep hidden as Turner does) are traveling on a quest of sorts, and it’s much more of an adventure subtype than the previous three books. In terms of quality, I would place it perhaps on the same level as A Conspiracy of Kings—not my favorite of the Queen’s Thief books, but it has its moments and I especially loved seeing Eugenides being as cunning as usual, as well as his “great king” aura.

What most disappointed me was that the plot was not as intricate or twisty as previous books. In fact, I felt a lot of the twists were fairly obvious—I knew the identity of the Attolian (which Turner perhaps purposefully made obvious) from the start, I knew who Kamet’s friend from the kitchens was from the start, I knew what Eugenides revealed at the end to Kamet about why Kamet was there from the start. There were only one or two minor things that I didn’t figure out almost as soon as it happened. From an author who has made my mouth drop open on numerous occasions, who has me saying “No way!” out loud, the plot complexity in Thick as Thieves was disappointing.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked Kamet and I liked his struggles as he adjusts to not being a slave. I liked the camaraderie built up between Kamet and the Attolian. I liked the jokes and the humor and the adventures. Even though I had already guessed the plot reveals, I enjoyed their revelation unfold in the book because of the character’s reactions. I’m not sure if I like this book better than A Conspiracy of Kings—the latter has far more of Gen in it and Sounis has great moments in that book—but I think I might grow to like it more, as I have Kings, upon rereading it (and Turner’s books beg for rereads).

I hope the next book has more of Gen and Irene in it, and I especially hope so because of the heartbreaking revelation that occurs in the last third of the book. Turner gives some hope afterwards that things will be all right, but that moment was the most shocking in the book for me.

Thick as Thieves does not really hold a candle to the fantastic The Queen of Attolia, the even better The King of Attolia, or even the first book, The Thief, but it’s engaging, funny, and while the plot reveals were disappointing this time around, they’re still delivered in the classic Turner style and perhaps not everyone found it as obvious as I did.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Immakuk and Ennikar are never seen again, but the floods recede and are never again so sever, so they must still be working the gates of heaven and protecting the city.”

“I’ve never heard of Immakuk, and Ennikar,” he said, and I wasn’t surprised. The Attolians are for the most part uneducated.

“I could tell you more about them if you like. There is a translation of the first tablet into Attolian.”

You can buy this book here:  http://amzn.to/2yvTwl7

1934 Newbery Medal: Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs, was published in 1933 by Little, Brown.

Biography tracing the fascinating life of Louisa May Alcott from her happy childhood in Pennsylvania and Boston to her success as a writer of such classics as Little Women.

Rating: 4/5

I’m glad that a biography won the Newbery Medal, since I think it’s important for children to read biographies as well as fiction books. And Invincible Louisa is written in such a way that it lacks the stuffiness and dryness (and all the footnotes) of many biographies written for adults, making it perfect for children to learn more about Louisa May Alcott.

I knew that Little Women was heavily inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s real life, but it wasn’t until I read Invincible Louisa that I realized how inspired it was. I knew that Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth were modeled after Louisa and her sisters, though I didn’t realize that almost every other character was also modeled after someone she knew, as well. Little Women is one of my favorite books (I am one of the rare people who agrees with Alcott not putting Jo and Laurie together; I laughed at her tenacious statement, “I won’t put Jo with Laurie to please anybody”) and, having now read this biography, it’s easy to see how many details Alcott included of her own life. It’s certainly not all there—Jo was never a nurse, nor do any of the March girls go near the fighting—but there is definitely more than just a casual influence.

I also didn’t know that Alcott’s family were on such close terms with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The mention of Transcendentalism got me excited, since one of the things I teach my students is Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Now I have some extra material to throw at them!

Invincible Louisa, as a biography, is certainly a different sort of book than has won the Newbery in the past. It’s hard to review biographies, but I enjoyed learning more about Alcott’s life and how it influenced Little Women. I also enjoyed learning more about Alcott than I ever knew before, including all the things her father did and the people that influenced her family along the way.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2z3BOCL

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi, was published in 2010 by Little, Brown and Company.

In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship breached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life.

Rating: 4/5

Paolo Bacigalupi shows off his worldbuilding skills in Ship Breaker, showcasing a rich, detailed world that is sketched out simply with little explanation yet still feels expansive. Rather than describe exactly how his world got the way it is (probably with lots of moralizing and/or political aspects shoved into the reader’s face), Bacigapuli merely states things as they are and leaves the reader to figure out the rest. This way, he still gets his point across but subtly, in a way that’s far more effective than blatantly stating it.

Having read a Bacigalupi book before, I was expecting this book to be good—usually authors who write adult SF/fantasy write well when they transition to young adult. And it was—the plot was tight and tense in all the right moments, the world, as I mentioned, was detailed and imaginative, and the characters were interesting. Some of the aspects were a little hard to buy, but I suppose that’s expected in this genre. I liked that Bacigalupi leaves things open-ended, a little bit, because another common theme in dystopian fiction is for the author to detail exactly how things get better at the end. Bacigalupi doesn’t do that. He’s definitely the more subtle type of author, which I appreciate.

Really, the only thing missing from this book for me is the “wow factor.” It was a good book, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t grab me and never let me go, making me want to read it over and over again (as with Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series). I thought it was a good young adult dystopian novel with a better-than-average setting that was well executed. I liked Nailer, I liked Lucky Girl, I liked Tool, I liked Pima, and I thought the conflict and character development of Nailer were great. I don’t have the desire to read Ship Breaker again, but that’s the only majorly negative thing I can say about it.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian

“You’re lucky,” Pima’s mother said. “You should be dead.”

Nailer was almost too tired to respond, but he mustered a grin for the occasion. “But I’m not. I’m alive.”

Pima’s mother picked up a blade of rusted metal and held it in front of his face. “If this was even another inch into you, you would have washed into shore as body scavenge.” Sadna regarded him seriously. “You’re lucky. The Fates were holding you close today. Should have been another Jackson Boy.” She offered him the rusty shiv. “Keep that for a talisman. It wanted you. It was going for your lung.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2k79CfN

1948 Newbery Medal: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, was published in 1947 by Viking.

When Professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a hot-air balloon, he intends to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Instead, through a twist of fate, he lands on Krakatoa, a legendary island of unimaginable wealth, eccentric inhabitants, and fantastic balloon inventions. Once Professor Sherman learns the secrets of Krakatoa, he must remain there forever—unless he can find a means of escape.

Rating: 4/5

The Twenty-One Balloons reminds me a great deal of the Dolittle books, or the Oz books, or The Pushcart War or any number of inventive, imaginative novels that describe a lot of things that somehow manage to keep being interesting despite the wealth of information. This book is a fond memory from my childhood and I enjoyed rereading it and remembering all the little bits and moments that stood out to me back then.

I wish the beginning of the novel was quicker-paced; it’s a little tedious and takes a long time to get into the meat of the story, which is William Waterman Sherman’s trip. It’s hard, especially with a book as descriptive as this, to start in media res without being boring. I mean, the beginning is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as Sherman’s journey.

I like that du Bois took a real event (the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa) and expounded a fictional story on that, as far-fetched as it is. I really do like “shipwrecked on an island” stories (aka The Black Stallion, The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.), or survival stories in general, and I feel like this was an especially common trope in the mid-20th century, for some reason (perhaps inspired by Robinson Crusoe or by shows such as Gilligan’s Island). Du Bois’s story, though unrealistic as I said, is fascinating, fun, and quite worthy of a children’s book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Wake up, wake up; you’ve got to get in the shade!”

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered, “this isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2jIuZnm

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald, was published in 1947 by Harper.

Meet Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle! She’s the kind of grown-up you would like to have for a friend—and all her friends are children. She is a little lady with brown sparkly eyes. She lives in an upside-down house, with a kitchen that is always full of freshly baked cookies. Her husband was a pirate, and she likes to have her friends dig in the back yard for the pirate treasure he buried there. Best of all, she knows everything there is to know about children. When a distraught parent calls her because Mary has turned into an Answer-Backer or Dick has become Selfish or Allen has decided to be as Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has the answer. And her solutions always work, with plenty of laughs along the way. So join the crowd at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s hose—and enjoy the comical, common-sense cures that have won her so many friends.

Rating: 4/5

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is one of the most beloved series of my childhood. I read those books over and over again (my favorite being Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic) and, rereading them however many years later, it’s like I never left. I still remember almost every word of the book and reading it brought me back to all the times I would read it growing up.

There’s bound to be a little bit of a culture gap with children who read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle today. The book was published in 1947 and so, while many aspects are the same or similar, the attitude is certainly different. This was especially apparent to me when reading the Selfish Cure and the Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure. While Dick is certainly a menace, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cure is something that certainly would not fly today, especially considering it was basically encouraging bullying as a way to get kids to share things. I do think shame or embarrassment, which is so often today considered something negative, can do wonders for character development (there have been many times when it has been shame over something I have done that has forced me to seek to better myself), but MacDonald exaggerates it to the point of cringe-worthiness, in my opinion.

In addition, the Slow-Eater cure was basically to let Allen not eat for a couple of days. I know today that certainly wouldn’t fly, considering how many arguments I’ve seen erupt over not giving children food (not in the extreme sense, as in truly neglecting them, but in the sense of “If you don’t eat your dinner, you will go to bed hungry”).

Now, of course Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is clearly exaggerated, but it still highlights the culture gap from 70 years ago. I enjoyed the book and I think kids today would enjoy it, too, but a lot of interesting questions would probably arise because of reading it—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommended Age Range: 6+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

“That’s what I called about,” said Mrs. Prentiss. “Can you suggest a way to make Hubert want to pick up his toys? His room looks like a toy store after an earthquake.”

“Why don’t you call this Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? I have heard she is perfectly wonderful. All the children in town adore her and she has a cure for everything.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2x95JeT

1931 Newbery Medal: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, was published in 1930 by Simon & Schuster.

This is the story of a little cat who came to the home of a poor Japanese artist and, by humility and devotion, brought him good fortune. Commissioned to paint the death of the lord Buddha for the village temple, the artist lovingly entered on his scroll of silk the animals who came to receive the blessing of the dying Buddha. The little cat sat patiently by, seeming to implore that she too be included. At least, the compassionate artist—knowing well that the cat alone of all the animals had refused to accept the teachings of Buddha—took up his brush and drew a cat, and thus brought about a Buddhist miracle.

Rating: 4/5

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a very short, but very sweet, book. It’s the story of an artist and his cat, but’s it’s also a story about Buddha and what he did. Basically, before the artist paints each animal, he imagines himself as that animal and how it relates to Buddha, so there’s a lot of information about the story of Buddha. The drawings (by Lynd Ward) are excellent and really capture the spirit of the book.

The book is short, so I can’t really say too much about it. I do think the title is Coatsworth trying to make the book more appealing to a Western audience, since heaven in Buddhism is much different than what an American in the 1930s would think it was, but the concept does get across even if the only thing you know about Buddhism is what you learn from this book.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is definitely the Newbery book that most fits the traditional “children’s book” vibe so far. A lot of the Newbery’s I’ve read fit more in a Middle Grade spectrum, at least in my opinion (then again, that division of genres didn’t exist back then, so maybe that explains it), but this book has a read-aloud feel to it with the length to match. Of course, reading this book might require a discussion of Buddhism, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve liked about all the Newbery Medal winners so far, it’s that they represent a wide-range of cultural and historical areas. The Cat Who Went to Heaven merely touches on a whole concept and culture, but it’s respectful and beautiful while it does so.

Recommended Age Range: 7+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“But where is the cat?” thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.

“Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,” he remembered, “and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vHfiNW

1998 Newbery Medal: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

A terrible accident has transformed Billie Jo’s life, scarring her inside and out. Her mother is gone. Her father can’t talk about it. And the one thing that might make her feel better—playing the piano—is impossible with her wounded hands. To make matters worse, dust storms are devastating the family farm and all the farms nearby. While others flee from the dust bowl, Billie Jo is left to find peace in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma—and in the surprising landscape of her own heart.

Rating: 4/5

I didn’t know going into Out of the Dust that it was written entirely in verse rather than prose, and I’m actually glad I didn’t know because I don’t particularly enjoy free-verse novels. However, Hesse does a really good job—I never thought the descriptions or details were sparse or vague and all of Billie Jo’s emotions and the things that happen to her come across in just the right way. And even though, towards the end of the novel, the culmination of Billie Jo’s emotions and decisions is a little abrupt, it’s still understandable why she does what she does.

My main complaint of free-verse novels is that they always feel so jarring and choppy. There never seems to be good enough transitions between the poems themselves so I feel like I’m constantly starting and stopping, starting and stopping. However, Hesse manages to mostly avoid this jerkiness, somehow. There are still poems that feel a little out of place, but for the most part they all function as a cohesive unit.

Out of the Dust is a unique novel, but its heartbreaking depiction of the Dust Bowl is in no way lessened because of its format.  This is one of the more gut-wrenching Newbery’s I’ve read, and not just because of what happens to Billie Jo’s mother. I found it a little choppy in places but overall the book is engaging and, despite its sad content, also manages to end somewhat on a happy note. Definitely a book for more mature readers, but it does teach a lot about the Dust Bowl.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Gruesome death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vWgIri

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

Son of the Shadows, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2001 by Tor. It is the sequel to Daughter of the Forest.

It is from [Sorcha’s] sacrifice that her brothers were brought home to Sevenwaters, and since then her life has known much joy. But not all the brothers were able to escape the spell that transformed them into swans, and even those who did were all more—and less—than they were before the change. It is left to Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, to take up the task that the Sevenwaters clan is destined to fulfill. Beloved child, dutiful daughter, she embarks on a journey that opens her eyes to the wonders of the world around her…and shows her just how hard-won was the peace that she has known all her life. Liadan will need all her courage to help save her family, for there are forces far darker than anyone could have guessed and ancient powers conspiring to destroy this family’s peace and their world. And she will need all her strength to stand up to those she loves best, for in the finding of her own true love, Liadan’s course may doom them all…or be their salvation.

Rating: 4/5

Son of the Shadows is almost as enthralling as Daughter of the Forest, marred only by the amount of plot convenience Marillier puts in. The story is gripping, the characters, especially Liadan and Bran, are memorable and well-developed, and the world is mystical and beautiful.

Son of the Shadows is not a fairy-tale adaptation, but rather a continuation of Marillier’s original world from the first book, expanding on the plot threads and conflicts and characters. I like the idea of setting up a world through a fairy-tale adaptation and then expanding on it with an original story later on. Though the plot is self-contained, there are definitely some more threads that will be picked up, presumably, in the third book, as Marillier has been setting up some sort of confrontation between all the different forces at work since the first book (though it’s much more prominent in this one).

I do think the title is a little misleading or misnamed. The person it seems to be referring to only shows up twice, and while the second time is rather a big reveal, I’m not sure if it warrants naming a whole book after him. Then again, there could possibly be multiple “sons of the shadows,” so maybe that’s what Marillier was going for.

The Sevenwaters books have been gripping and wonderful so far. I thought that Son of the Shadows had a few too many plot conveniences, but at the same time, Marillier did make them all work, somehow, though it’s still a little eyebrow-raising. Adult fantasy is always a hard genre for me to just pick up and start reading, so I’m glad that Marillier’s works have been a stand-out in that regard. I’m looking forward to reading the next book!

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, sexual situations, rape.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

“You are strong, Liadan. I cannot tell you if and when you may be called to use this gift. Perhaps never. It’s best you know, at least. He would be able to tell you more.”

“He? You mean—Finbar?” Now we were on fragile ground indeed.

Mother turned to look out of the window. “It grew again so beautifully,” she said. “The little oak Red planted for me that will one day be tall and noble, the lilac, the healing herbs. The Sorceress could not destroy us. Together, we were too strong for her.” She looked back at me. “The magic is powerful in you, Liadan.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vRKGdW

1958 Newbery Medal: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith, was published in 1957 by Harper.

Jefferson Davis Bussey is sixteen when the Civil War breaks out. He can’t wait to leave his Kansas farm and defend the Union against Colonel Watie, leader of the dreaded Cherokee Indian rebels. But Jeff soon learns that there’s more to war than honor and glory. As an infantry soldier, he must march for miles, exhausted and near starvation. He sees friends die in battle. He knows that each move he makes could be his last. Then Jeff is sent to infiltrate the enemy camp as a spy. And it is there that he makes his most important discovery: The rebels are just men—and boys—like him. The only difference between them is their cause. Passing himself off as a rebel Jeff waits for the information he needs to help the Union conquer the enemy forces. But when the time comes, Jeff finds himself up against a very difficult decision .Should he betray the enemy? Or join them?

Rating: 4/5

Rifles for Watie starts out with an author’s note that explains the historical research and interviews that Harold Keith conducted in order to make the book as realistic as possible. And that research shows in every area of this book, from the attitudes of the various people to the details of battles to the geographical locations.

It’s fascinating to read a book about the Civil War that is remarkably respectful to both sides (mostly the Confederate side). Nowadays, all you tend to get is “Confederates bad!” and other, more extreme iterations. Rifles for Watie, however, delves into some of the psychology of, at least, the Native American side of the war (many of whom fought for the Confederates) and has an empathetic, wonderful protagonist in Jeff, who realizes that people are people, not nameless pigs to be slaughtered, and that things are confusing in war when it seems that the side you were fighting against might, actually, have a legitimate reason for fighting you. In this case, keeping one’s property. And no, I’m not talking about slaves.

Land and the idea of owning your own property is really the driving force presented in the novel. Jeff is fighting to drive the bushwhackers out and to help his family keep their land without fear of being killed. The Native Americans on both sides are fighting to keep or reobtain their land. While there are slaves, there’s very little mention of slavery as a reason to fight, except when it came to the slave who runs away to join the Union’s all-black regiment. There is, maybe, just a tad too much of the “happy slave” idea, but Keith still treats the subject with respect (and, after all, this was a book for children in the 1950s).

Keith also depicts both good and bad sides of both forces. There’s looting from both armies; there’s corrupt Clardy on the Union side juxtaposed with charismatic Watie on the Confederate side; there’s the friendly Confederate cook; there’s the loyal Union friends Jeff makes; and, of course, Lucy, who is on the Confederate side but has respect (and deeper feelings) for Jeff, a Union soldier.

Overall, Rifles for Watie is a fabulously even-handed book on a war that pitted two ideologies against each other. There’s respect for the great leaders on the Confederate side, even when Jeff (and through him, the reader) disagrees with their ideas. Both the good and the bad of both the Union and the Confederate armies are shown or hinted at (let’s be real here; the Union army most likely did some terrible things to the people living in the Confederate south, looting their houses and taking their livestock being some of the more mild). Jeff is empathetic, does not simply dismiss the Confederates as “bad” or “racist” but recognizes similarities and respects them even as he seeks to combat them. Rifles for Watie can teach people today a thing or two about what it’s like to really put yourself in another person’s shoes and respect them even as you disagree with them.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“I’m lonesome,” David blurted, miserably. “I want to go home and see Ma. Goshallmighty, Jeff, I ain’t cut out to be no soldier. I was a fool to ever leave the farm.”

“Corn, Dave,” Jeff said, in alarm, “you can’t just walk off from the army once you’ve joined it. That’s desertion. You know the penalty for desertion. They’ll stand you up against a wall and shoot you.”

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