The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, was published in 1937 by Viking.
For generations the tribes of Huns and Magyars had moved relentlessly westward, obeying the voices of their pagan gods, which compelled them to follow the elusive white stag to their promised homeland. They swept Europe, all the while pursuing their vision of the stag. Their leader was called Attila, and the land Hungary. Here is the epic story of their tribal migration and their fierce leader—known to us even today.
The White Stag is a fairy-tale-esque narrative of the Huns’ migration from Asia to Europe. Seredy states from the beginning that she is more concerned with story than fact, and the narrative she unfolds rings very much like a mythic tale. The imagery of the book is quite striking, and the story flows well and has beautiful description.
The story focuses on three leaders of the Huns, though I believe only Attila has been historically confirmed. The first leader is Nimrod, of biblical fame, who has twin sons, Hunor and Magyar. Hunor’s son, Bendeguz, is the second leader, and the third is Attila. Seredy weaves mythological elements into the narrative in order to emphasize the importance of Attila—fiery portents, the White Stag, Moonmaidens, prophesy, sacrifices, a flaming sword, and eagles.
However, despite the beauty of the writing and the whole mythological aspect, I did find it hard to relate to the book. Seredy’s grand overtures in her heralding of the coming of Attila was a bit hard to take. I get that Attila was an important historical figure, but the godlike way he’s described in this book is too much. Seredy is trying to portray it from the Hun’s history, of course, but a downside of that is that it does make the book seem wildly over-the-top and grandiose. It also makes it seem as if Seredy is extolling Attila beyond what he deserves.
I ended The White Stag a little disgruntled, since the way Seredy portrayed Attila sat wrong with me. There was too much hero and not enough reality, not to mention the fact that none of the book is historically grounded beyond brief sketches. And I do understand that Seredy wanted to get away from fact and go back to the mythological, imaginative way of telling history, but I feel as if she took it too far in that direction. A good balance between the two would have been much better.
A few hours after nine-year-old Garnet Linden finds a silver thimble in the dried-up riverbed, the rains come and end the long drought on the farm. The rains bring safety for the crops and the livestock, and money for Garnet’s father. Garnet can’t help feeling that the thimble is a magic talisman, for the summer proves to be interesting and exciting in so many different ways. There is the arrival of Eric, an orphan who becomes a member of the linden family; the building of a new barn; and the county fair at which Garnet’s carefully ended pig, Timmy, wins a blue ribbon. Every day brings adventure of some kind to Garnet and her best friend, Citronella. As far as Garnet is concerned, the thimble is responsible for each good thing that happens during this magic summer—her thimble summer.
I don’t think Thimble Summer is quite as strong as Enright’s Melendy Quartet or Gone-Away Lake (which must have had much stronger competition when it was published, as it only received a Newbery Honor and it’s arguably a stronger book than this one), but that’s understandable since this is one of Enright’s first books. It still has all the lovely Enright charm to it—she can make descriptions of one girl’s summer sound more exciting than a book about pirates and stolen treasure.
You can see the shaping here of what Enright really loved to explore in her books—the day-to-day, the small adventures that take place over the course of a day or a summer, the boundless joy of children, their desire for new things battling with their desire to keep things the same. Things never get too dark or too scary in this book, yet there are times when even Enright recognizes the need to express when things are serious. One of my favorite moments in the book was when Garnet goes off to a neighboring city without telling anyone where she’s going, and when she gets back she’s confronted by her neighbor, who gently chides her and reminds her that she has people who care about her and who worry if she disappears, and that what she considered an adventure was not felt that way by other people. It’s delivered in such a way that readers can definitely tell that Garnet did the wrong thing, but it’s done gently and woven well so that the story still keeps its lightheartedness and its joy.
Thimble Summer simply highlights how much better Enright will get in her writing: the good things in this book are amplified and better developed and executed in her later works, the flaws and weaknesses in this book are better reined in or gotten rid of altogether in later books. This is not my favorite Enright book, nor do I think it is her best, but it’s still charming, and so full of joy and life that you can’t help but read it with a smile.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Garnet saw a small object, half-buried in the sand, and glittering. She knelt down ad dug it out with her finger. It was a silver thimble! How in the world had that ever found its way into the river? She dropped the old shoe, bits of polished glass, and a half dozen clamshells she had collected and ran breathlessly to show Jay.
“It’s solid silver!” she shouted triumphantly, “and I think it must be magic too!”
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
In the diary account of her journey from Ireland in 1847 and of her work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, fourteen-year-old Mary reveals a great longing for her family.
So Far From Home recounts not only the Irish potato famine that ravished Ireland (that killed about one million people), but the harsh work environment and living conditions that awaited the Irish immigrants in America. Denenberg also offers a look at the “cradle” of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills.
Denenberg only superficially sketches a picture of the desperation and determination of some immigrants—desperate to work, determined to send money home for the families—and how business owners used that to their advantage. He does capture this well, though this Dear America book is weaker than others. I wish he had also focused on the way the Irish were treated beyond work environment—there is next to no mention of Catholicism (a strange religion to Protestant New England) and though there is some mention of Mary being bullied by other girls, there is no indication that it is her ethnicity that is prompting it.
Denenberg mostly focuses on the textile mills and their dangers, though I feel he could have done much more. It seems in his determination to portray as much as possible of that time period, he missed out on depth and richness. Mary is a phlegmatic protagonist, there only as a vehicle for the viewer to experience the time period. She has no characterization, no “body,” no memorability. This is further accentuated by the epilogue, which is the most depressing and least developed epilogue of a Dear America book so far. It seems even Denenberg didn’t know what to do with Mary.
It’s hard for me to believe that So Far From Home is written by the same author who wrote One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping (one of my absolute favorite Dear America books). So Far From Home is good for a general look at the Irish potato famine, Irish immigration, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but Denenberg misses many opportunities for lasting impressions and Mary is a forgettable character.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.
I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.
There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.
Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.
Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros, by Sherry Garland, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
María Rosalía is a Mestizo servant in a Spanish home. Orphaned years ago, she and her brother Domingo work on a ranch run by the stern Señor Medina. María’s writing captures the intense tradition and culture of the Spanish as she observes the war that Alta California ultimately loses to the Americans.
I love the time period of Western Expansion and the pioneering age, but I’ve rarely gotten to read about what it was like in those territories before people from the East started moving there. Valley of the Moon fills in some of that missing information. I knew from my American Girl doll books growing up (Josephina) about the strong Mexican/Spanish culture that stretched from Texas to California, but it’s not really something I consider when I read books about the Gold Rush or whatever. This Dear America book fills in all those gaps, and also addresses the plight of the Native Americans to an extent.
María is half-Indian and half-Spanish, and although most of the book depicts the Spanish culture, some aspects of it address the declining Indian population. The book is vibrantly, unapologetically Spanish (what today we would call Mexican, but that term is never used in the book—Spanish is the word used to describe the californios). That may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is, but I haven’t read many books set in that time period that really describe the Mexican culture of the time, especially not for this age group.
This is a long Dear America book, but for the most part I didn’t notice the length. Garland does a good job of interspersing tension, historical information, and continuation of plot so that the pace is even throughout. While most of the book is dedicated to everyday activities (a combination of cultural and religious events and María’s own development), a bit of it is dedicated to the moment when California, briefly, became a republic and then was claimed by the United States. That part may be the weakest part of the book, actually, although the revelation of María’s father is also pretty weak, in my opinion, if only because of how convenient it is.
I’m not sure if Valley of the Moon is the best book for describing how California became part of the United States, or even if it’s a good book for describing the Mexican-American War. However, it’s a great book for describing the way the Mexican way of life infused the culture of California at the time, how the Indian population dwindled because of the settlers, and is a great starting point for a discussion on what aspects of the Mexican culture we can still see today, and what has been lost over time.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
Lupita does not trust the norteamericanos. She says they are supposed to become loyal Mexican citizens, learn to speak Spanish, and become Catholics in exchange for land. But not all of them do as they agreed. She especially dislikes the foreigner Johann Sutter, who encourages other foreigners to come to California illegally without permission from the Mexican government. There are already squatters on Señor Median’s lands. Lupita thinks they will take over Alta California before long.
Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk, was published in 2017 by Dutton.
Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar. Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.
Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was one of my favorite books of 2016, so I was excited to jump into her new book, Beyond the Bright Sea. And it’s as memorable and powerful as her first book, combining a tough, yet still child-like protagonist (whose moments of “Would a child really say or do that?” are mitigated by the time period and the circumstances) with a gripping plot and an interesting historical context.
Crow learns important lessons about family, bravery, and identity throughout the book, lessons that are subtly done and are interwoven well with the plot. I do have issues with Osh’s statement of “What you do is who you are” because it too closely intertwines behavior with self, leading to the belief that if one hates a behavior, they must therefore hate the person doing that behavior, which isn’t true in the slightest. Luckily, it isn’t dwelt on very much in the book, nor does that statement seem to be Wolk’s main focus, so I was able to put aside my disgruntlement.
For people who love diversity in books, this one checks off all the boxes: both Osh and Crow are non-white; Osh is presumably a Native American (or possibly Inuit? It was very vague), while Crow is (again, vague) described as “dark,” presumably with African heritage. There’s an interesting conversation between Osh and Miss Maggie about Osh’s origins, which in comparison to, say, the extreme heavy-handedness in Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth a Stranger, was lightly critical without getting preachy. There’s also a fun scene where Crow sees someone of her own race and is both shocked and delighted.
Beyond the Bright Sea’s plot doesn’t have particularly unique or new twists and turns, but it is compelling; the story is powerful and gripping, the messages are good and executed well, and the characters are interesting. Wolk blends talking points with natural flow very well, making things less preachy, and at the end of the book her message about family stands strong.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
I pulled up on the twine and found a ring nestled in the fold of cloth. I held it up in the light and was surprised to see the gleam of a red gemstone.
It was too big, even for my biggest finger.
“Do you think I’m from Newport, then?” I whispered. “From a rich family?”
Cusi, a modern Inca boy, leaves his home high in the Andes mountains to learn the mysterious secret of his ancient ancestors. Accompanied by his pet llama, Misti, he slowly discovers the truth about his birth and his people’s ancient glory—now he must prove himself worthy to be entrusted with the fabulous secret from the past.
Secret of the Andes tells the story of an Inca boy, Cusi, and the adventure he goes on to learn the history of his people. It’s a gorgeously detailed book, describing the majesty and beauty of the Andes, the way of life and culture of the Incas, and the history of the Incan Empire and their conquest by the Spanish. The main plot is loosely based on history, and though Clark does take some liberties, she does a fantastic job of conveying her main message: the preservation of one’s culture.
The one thing that stood askance to me, amidst all the descriptions of Incan/Andean ways of life, was the continual reference to the Inca as “Indians.” Cusi calls himself and other Incas “Indians,” though there’s no reason for him to be using that name at all. Clark is clearly using that name as one that would be familiar with her audience, but it’s still jarring to hear Cusi, who given his circumstances would probably never have heard the word “Indian” in his life, call himself one.
Fun fact about this book: it beat out Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal. Apparently one of the judges picked this book over E. B White’s because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America, a case where uniqueness, rather than quality (Charlotte’s Web is much more memorable and lasting than this book, and, arguably, a better book), won the day.
Secret of the Andes reveals the secret of the title slowly, and isn’t all together clear, either, about it, though the ending did a much better job of explaining things than I initially thought. The book itself has a quality that I can only describe as “majestic” and Clark does a great job of briefly, but clearly, explaining the way the Spanish conquest of the Incas has left them as a people. It’s a rich book, though its lasting power and memorability is not as strong as some others.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
Cusi was left to entertain the visitor. “Our mother llamas never carry loads,” he told the minstrel importantly.
“I know,” the man answered. “You keep them for shearing.”
“And to have their babies,” Cusi added.
The minstrel nodded. “That Misti fellow of yours is a good one,” he said. “Did you know that in the days of the Inca Kings a black llama like yours was always the first to be sacrificed to the Sun?”
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, by Sherry Garland, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
In the journal she receives for her twelfth birthday in 1835, Lucinda Lawrence describes the hardships her family and other residents of the “Texas colonies” endure when they decide to face the Mexicans in a fight for their freedom.
Having lived in Texas for the past 4 ½ years, I’ve come to a better appreciation of the history of Texas, especially the Alamo. And it was nice to read A Line in the Sand and be able to identify the landmarks and visualize the basic area in which the story takes place.
As the topic might suggest, this is not, at its heart, a happy story. It’s a retelling of a time when families struggled to live off the Texas land, struggled to reconcile their Tejano neighbor with their Mexican enemies (which Garland conveys superbly, by the way, by detailing how intermingled the cultures were and how Mexicans fought alongside “Anglos” to repel their own leader, whom they feared), and struggled to hold back the Mexican forces at the Alamo—a fight they failed at, with devastating loss of life.
The end of the book cannot be described as happy. It does depict the final victory of the Texans over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, but the news comes after the horrifying details of the Texans’ flight across Texas in front of the advancing Mexican army. If anything, the ending of the book is a bittersweet resolution as the Texans realize the fight is over, but realize how much they’ve lost. It’s a survivor’s ending, basically.
A Line in the Sand does a great job of depicting the culture of the time as well as the various tensions and opinions of the people. The buildup is slow, and the ending is quick, but it matches the bewilderment that the settlers must have faced when they heard the news of the Alamo and had to flee for their lives—a flight which cost many more lives. It’s not a happy story, but it’s sorrow is countered by the hopeful note sounding at the end in the determination and relief of the Texans. This is one of the Dear America books I had never read growing up, and I’m glad that I got to finally read it now, especially as someone living in Texas now.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
This evening, about one hundred and fifty Texians crossed the river by ferry. They decided they would not wait for Mexican soldiers to attack Gonzales, but would find them and attack first. With heavy hearts we said farewell to Willis and Uncle Henry. I think every woman was silently weeping, though we cheered and tried to show courage and act like ladies. It is eerily quiet now. After she fed Papa, I saw Mama go behind the smokehouse to Baby Mary’s grave. That is where she always goes to be alone with her thoughts and to have a good cry.
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him: He has his own suitcase full of special things. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!! Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.
While watching the film Coco, about ten minutes into the movie I thought, “Wow, this movie is a little bit like Bud, Not Buddy.” Don’t worry, I won’t spoil Coco, or this novel, but both function around the same premise: boy searches for lost family member tied to music.
Basically, Bud runs away from an abusive foster home to search for his lost father, who he believes is connected to the posters his mother had of a jazz band. Along the way, he runs across a “redcap” who is trying to help spread unionization, and gets involved in the world of jazz. There’s also references to Hoovervilles, as well as racial tension at the time.
It’s a book I read as a child, and one I remember quite well. Bud is a plucky, courageous protagonist, whose politeness is a breath of fresh air after reading books with rude main characters. The story is heartwarming, but also very bittersweet, especially the ending, or at least I thought so. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but this book has the capability of hitting readers very hard with Bud’s circumstances as well as what he finds out about his family. It’s a happy book, or at least it has a happy ending, but there’s still a note of poignancy that makes it far more reminiscent of reality than a stereotypical happy ending.
Bud, Not Buddy, is bittersweet, with an ending that’s almost too sudden, yet somehow fits perfectly with the overall mood of the book. Bud is a great protagonist, and he reads more like a real person than most protagonists do, in my opinion. The message is powerful and poignant and the best part about the book. It’s a memorable Newbery, one that stuck in my mind for years after I first read it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
“Where’s your momma and daddy?”
“My mother died four years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s OK, she didn’t suffer or nothing.”
“So where’s your daddy?”
“I think he lives in Grand Rapids, I never met him.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Shucks, she held right on to my hand when she said that. I squirmed my hand a-loose and said, “That’s OK too.”
Deza said, “No it’s not, and you should quit pretending that it is.”
“Who said I’m pretending anything?”
“I know you are, my daddy says families are the most important thing there is.”
Abigail Jane Stewart returns in this brand-new sequel to The Winter of Red Snow. The Revolutionary War toils on, but the Stewart family can no longer avoid getting involved. Abby’s father joins the Continental Army, while Abby, her mother, and her siblings become camp followers. They face daily hardships alongside the troops and continue to spend time helping the Washingtons. Filled with romance and adventure, Abby’s frontline view of the war captures the heartache and bravery of the soldiers, as well as the steep cost of freedom
Cannons at Dawn is part of the reboot of Dear America, where Scholastic revamped the covers and commissioned several new stories. It’s the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow, and as far as I could tell/remember, it accurately recounts the further adventures of Abigail Jane Stewart as told in the epilogue of the first book.
That’s really the main problem with this book—The Winter of Red Snow, and any Dear America book in general, are ill-suited for sequels since each book has an epilogue that tells what happens to the characters after the events of the book. Cannons at Dawn is a useless book in terms of characterization; since we already know what happens to Abigail and her family, the book gives us nothing new. The only purpose the book serves is to describe more of the Revolutionary War: the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, the French support, the Battle of Yorktown. It’s puzzling as to why Scholastic chose this book to serve as a sequel and why no other book was given one. It also highlights the weaknesses of sequels in a series like this in the first place.
The best part of Dear America is its “day-in-the-life” quality. Extending that in as forced of a way as Cannons at Dawn lessens the impact and makes each book less special—especially the sequel, since there’s nothing special about a story that we already heard at the end of the first book.
I don’t know if I’m making any sense as to my feelings, but basically, I think that for a series such as Dear America, sequels are a bad idea. Needlessly extending one historical event to tell us the continuing story of someone for whom we already know the continuing story makes for a slow, dull book. Not even the historical aspects make Cannons at Dawn appealing to me—not when it goes against the “one and done” aspect of the series in general, as well as makes everything long and drawn-out. Gregory is one of my favorite Dear America authors, but I’m going to pretend this book doesn’t exist in the series.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Abigail becomes pregnant, but the book ends before she delivers the baby. Children’s books don’t usually include things like this, so that’s why I’m stating it as a warning.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Were you with the soldiers at Stony Point?” I asked.
His green eyes flashed with pride. “Drummer, first class. From the court of King George.”
We stared at him. It took a moment for us to understand.
“You’re a Redcoat!” Sally cried.
He seemed surprised. “You are loyal to the King, yes?”