Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Ellen Emerson White

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, by Ellen Emerson White, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? is the last Dear America book chronologically. It’s a shame the series stopped with the Vietnam War, since I’m sure there’s lots of other interesting events in the 70s-early 2000s that the series could have covered, but I suppose there was never really an opportunity.

Molly is perhaps one of the most opinionated and feisty protagonists, but it fits with the era. White manages to throw in at least some nuance to the Vietnam controversy, though I wish more mention had been made of the thousands of refugees the war created, and Molly communicates her confusion and uncertainty quite well, with being caught between pride that her brother is fighting for his country and her unease with America fighting the war. White also covers a lot of other issues, such as the many assassinations that took place during that time period, riots, second-wave feminism, and even baseball. It’s a nice cursory glimpse at the Vietnam period, though it’s much more concerned with the American view of the war during a small window of time as opposed to a broader overview of the entire war. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it prevented the book from getting too drawn out and sluggish.

My foray into the Dear America books has been interesting and very nostalgic. I won’t do a favorites or ranking for this series, but I must say, I wasn’t expecting so many of the books to be so boring and mediocre. I only had a few stand-out favorites, and a few hanging on merely for nostalgia’s sake. Now that this is done, I have to give myself another crazy reading goal! Such as…all of the Royal Diaries?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney

With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

Of the revamped Dear America books, this book is the best of them all, and definitely in what I would consider the top tier of all of them. With the Might of Angels is about desegregation/integration after Brown v. Board of Education and about the lead-up to the Civil Rights Movement. There’s also an extensive historical and author’s note at the end, where Pinkney addresses all the real things that happened, as well as what was fictional and what tweaks to time she made.

Part of what makes this book so great is not only the topic, but also the way Pinkney makes Dawnie’s voice shine through. My favorite DA books have always been those that remember that they’re not just recounting history, but making the narrator seem real, like this was a real person living in those times. And sometimes that means the narrator isn’t concerned at all times with the particular historical event the book is focused. Sometimes it means she’s thinking about pogo sticks, or how much she loves (and yet is annoyed by) her younger brother, or how she really wants to be a doctor when she grows up. It means sometimes she’s a bit whiny, sometimes a bit angry, sometimes a bit confused, and sometimes courageous and strong. And yes, Dawnie is all of those things.

The book is less brutal and hard-hitting than a book like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but Pinkney doesn’t pull any punches, either. Dawnie and her brother are called all manner of racial slurs. Goober is beaten up. The family receives prank telephone calls, gets bottles of milk thrown at their house, and finds a drowned raccoon in a barrel of milk on their porch as a response to the black community’s boycott of Sutton’s Dairy. Dawnie is belittled and overlooked at school. There’s mentions of lynching. Yet Pinkney manages to keep the book hopeful and light, despite the heavy material.

 There’s no Dear America book on the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but With the Might of Angels does a whole lot to cover many of those topics. It shows all the immorality and hate implicit in the time period, but without making it too dark for children. That being said, there’s plenty in this book to unpack, and it’s likely not suitable for children too young to understand or at least discuss everything going on in this book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Racial slurs.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

My Secret War by Mary Pope Osborne

My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, by Mary Pope Osborne, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America has a LOT of WWII stories. And with the exception of One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping, they all take place around the same time frame and detail the beginning of the US’s entrance into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. An important piece of history, definitely, but after reading it four times, it starts wearing a bit thin.

My Secret War tries to be different from the others by detailing, perhaps the best out of all the WWII DA books, the fervor and excitement to help the war effort. Rationing, children’s clubs, spying, secret codes, and anonymous tips are all covered in this novel. There’s even a brief mention of Madeline’s mother working at a factory to help in the absence of the men who usually worked there. We also get a little bit of author’s indulgence through the inclusion of a true story of Nazi saboteurs who landed on Long Island and were caught—how they were caught, in this novel, is what I’m referring to as the author’s indulgence. Harmless, but it did warrant an eyeroll from me.

Unfortunately, My Secret War suffers from being the last of a long line (or so it feels) of WWII books, and since it doesn’t cover a more specific look at WWII, as One Eye or The Fences Between Us did, I was simply in a rush to finish it because I felt as if I’d read it already. Honestly, I’m really glad DA is jumping forward a few years because though I love WWII as a setting for historical fiction, I’m tired of reading about the same thing for the last few books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis,by Kirby Larson, was published in 2010 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I think I’ve actually read The Fences Between Us before, though I barely remember it. I knew going in that it was about Pearl Harbor/Japanese internment, and I was curious, after reading a few books about that subject last year, how Larson’s account would hold up to those.

I really enjoyed the perspective given of a pastor’s kid whose father’s decisions profoundly affect her life. The characters in the book are based off of real people, so while Piper is completely fictional, her father was inspired by Pastor Emery Andrews, who moved to a Japanese detention camp to follow his congregation. A lot of books I’ve read that have Christian characters make them very flat, even stereotypical, so this book was a nice breath of fresh air. One thing I can’t fault the Dear America books on is their portrayal of religion; it’s always been interwoven (with some emphasizing more than others), not ignored as with other books.

I think Larson handled the topic very well, though I think the book itself goes on for far too long. To her credit, Larson includes everything from Pearl Harbor to the tension between Japanese Americans and their neighbors to Executive Order 9066 to the actual move Piper and her father make, all of which is important and necessary…but that’s a whole lot to cram into a book, not to mention all the extra things she includes, like Piper’s first boyfriend and her activities at school. The book, therefore, is hefty and starts to really show its length towards the middle/end.

The Fences Between Us is good, and definitely one of the better revamped Dear America books. However, it’s so long that it starts to drag and I started losing interest when things continued at a slow pace.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Early Sunday Morning by Barry Denenberg

Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

I feel like it’s a bit of a running joke by now, my dislike of Denenberg’s Dear America books. They’re just so shallow and bland compared to some of the others. Early Sunday Morning is too short, doesn’t delve deeply enough into the aftermath of Pearl Harbor (for my tastes, but even so, I think Denenberg was a bit tame considering everything he talked about in One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping), and has a main character that’s a little too self-centered.

Bad things aside, I did actually enjoy the voice/tone of the book. It reminded me of the voice in Lasky’s Christmas After All, which was delightful. That voice did grate on me after a while (after Pearl Harbor, when Amber is just like “Poor me” all the time), but the set-up to Pearl Harbor was interesting (though far too long) even if the conclusion came too quickly.

Early Sunday Morning is good for a brief look at the Pearl Harbor event, but there are other books—like Under the Blood-Red Sun—that deal with the topic so much better. I always try to go into Denenberg’s DA books with a blank slate, but every time either I fail or he continuously disappoints. Luckily, the books are marketed to children, not me, and this book fits the bill for a simple glance at a major event in America’s history that is appropriate for children.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping by Barry Denenberg

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was nervous going into this book thinking that I would hate it, since I’ve strongly disliked Denenberg’s other Dear America books. I was especially nervous because this was my favorite DA book growing up. I’m not fond of having childhood favorites dissolve into mediocrity as an adult, though I’ve accepted it (and even welcomed it) for some. And I knew going on that I likely wouldn’t enjoy the book as much I remember.

The main flaw with this book is really that it’s dreadfully unbalanced. There’s the powerful, gut-punch of the first part, detailing the German invasion of Austria and the subsequent degrading treatment of the Jews. Denenberg implies very strongly that something terrible happened to Julie’s mother, though whether he’s suggesting rape or something else is up in the air. He does a fantastic job of describing exactly how terrifying and horrifying a time it must have been; every page is filled with panic and desperation.

Then, once Julie gets to New York, everything sort of falls apart a little. Suddenly, everything is theater, theater, theater. The tonal dissonance is jarring. And, okay, I suppose Denenberg was trying to tame the book down from the first part, and trying to suit the book for its audience with a bit less focus on terrible things, but I would have liked a little more remembrance of Austria and everything that happened there than what we got. It’s like Denenberg forgot he was writing a WWII book and instead was writing about theater in NYC. (Although, to be fair, the book is set in 1938, before America entered the war.)

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping is no longer my favorite DA book. I think it’s the best one Denenberg has written so far, though, and certainly miles better than many of them. But the jarring change of tone between the first and second halves of the book and the lack of any good closure or discussion of what Julie went through in Austria are the biggest letdowns of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, anti-Semitism, death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, by Katelan Janke, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was going to start out this review completely differently, but then I flipped to the back of the book to find the author’s name and found something out completely stunning: Katelan Janke was in some sort of Dear America writing contest and won, so she got to turn her contest submission into a manuscript.

She was fifteen years old.

Like S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, Janke is proof that you can actually have novel-worthy writing at a young age. I did notice throughout the book that everything felt a bit too stale and that the writing didn’t seem as good as some of the other DA books. Well, now I know why, and I can’t really hold it against Janke.

Janke does an admirable job of showing both the Dust Bowl and the situation for the migrant workers in California, who were treated terribly and were all called “Okies” despite only some of them being from Oklahoma. She doesn’t do as good of a job explaining the reasons for the Dust Bowl, with only some vague references to plowing and farming, though it was described more in-depth in the Historical Notes in the back.

There is a little too much show and not enough tell, and everything is just a little too pat and ends a little too nicely, and overall there’s some really boring parts, but towards the end of the novel the book gets more interesting. Props to Janke—she’s the most inexperienced DA writer, and I thought this book was better than some of the other DA books written by more experienced writers. Once a lot of the rough patches are over, and you get more used to the style of writing, Survival in the Storm was far from the worst DA book I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall by Barry Denenberg

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5        

It’s not a good sign for my proclaimed favorite Dear America book (One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping) that I’ve strongly disliked all of Barry Denenberg’s DA entries so far (Denenberg wrote said favorite). It’s not the setting, or the topic, that I dislike so much. It’s that Denenberg has so far failed at making any of his characters interesting.

Bess has barely any voice or personality in this novel, and what we do see of her is contrasted awkwardly with what her sister says of her. In fact, most of Bess’s character is described through her sister’s eyes, and yet we see none of what her sister mentions in Bess’s diary entries. Bess spends more time talking about the people around her and what they are like than doing anything remotely involving connection with the reader. So, while the reader might get awfully attached to Eva, or even Amanda, Bess is left as merely the speaker through which all of this information is coming.

Also, Denenberg writes terrible epilogues, and I absolutely hated how he name-dropped his other Dear America entry, When Will This Cruel War Be Over?, in this one. You can tell he thought it was so clever and funny to do so, but it just seemed self-centered to me.

I’m not rating this a 1 because a lot of the information about the Perkins School for the Blind was pretty interesting. I do like how Dear America can sometimes focus on little things like a blind school in the immensity of American history and events. And setting it in the Great Depression helps communicate some of those issues, as well, though that’s merely a backdrop. So, no problems with the setting or the topic—just with Denenberg’s writing and characterization.

I’m now nervous that One Eye Laughing won’t be as good as I remember. Here’s hoping Denenberg has a few last surprises to give me before I give up on him completely.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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