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

Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry

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

Rating: 2/5

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

When Christmas Comes Again by Beth Seidel Levine

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Time for Courage by Kathryn Lasky

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Voyage on the Great Titanic by Ellen Emerson White

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

Rating: 4/5

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

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

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

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

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

West to a Land of Plenty by Jim Murphy

West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, by Jim Murphy, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

West to a Land of Plenty is the third or fourth Western expansion Dear America novel, this time telling the story of an Italian family going to Idaho Territory. It’s more like All the Stars in the Sky than like Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie (the best of all of them): less memorable, more boring, with too much emphasis on travel rather than on community and settlement (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie did both).

However, West to a Land of Plenty does do at least one groundbreaking thing: having more than one person write in the “diary.” Teresa is joined by her sister, Netta, and they both end up recording the journey. It’s a new thing for the Dear America books, and it makes this novel stand out just a little bit more. Also different is the fact that the family is Italian, so emigration and culture play a small role, as well.

To be honest, I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t been reading the series in chronological order and hadn’t read three other wagon-train books before this one. It’s really not that bad, and the joint writers make the novel more interesting than some others. But in the order I read them, I was already tired of wagon-trains and traveling books, so unfortunately that affected my opinion of the novel and that’s why I gave it such a low rating. I’m ready to read about a new topic in these Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Y90JRv