The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady by Gerald Morris

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire’s Tale.

Rating: 4/5

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady is basically a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the established characters from The Squire’s Tale making appearances (or starring, in the case of Terence). It’s easy to tell, as an adult, how much Morris loves Arthurian legend and especially Gawain. I’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before, so reading this book was fun because I was able to piece what I remembered of that book with what was happening in this one.

There are more books in this series, but this book really seems like a last hurrah for Terence and Gawain—especially Terence, who accomplishes a lot in this book and ends up in a pretty triumphant place at the end. Though occasionally Terence seems more like an observer, there are plenty of times, especially towards the end, where he is able to step up and shine—and even outshine Gawain.

Morris’s humor is what really steps the book up. There’s an ever-present dry wit running throughout that makes the whole book fun to read. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, perhaps, but the humor keeps the book enjoyable and the characters interesting.

Though not, perhaps, a series I would return to, I enjoyed my foray into Morris’s loving retellings of Arthurian legend. I may continue on with the series, I may not—but I know if I do, I’m bound to have a pretty good time.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

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

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was published in 1917.

Rating: 4/5

Understood Betsy is a little bit Anne of Green Gables, a little bit Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but with lots more charm and humor than the latter and less drama and poetic language than the former. It probably reminds me the most of a book like Thimble Summer or The Moffats. It’s the story of Elizabeth Ann and her journey from timid wallflower child to the Betsy of the title—brave, clever, and with lots of personality.

Apparently Fisher was a huge proponent of the Montessori style of teaching, and apparently that style of teaching is prevalent throughout the book, perhaps most significantly in the school scenes. The afterword points out many of the parts of the book that were inspired by Fisher’s time with Maria Montessori. However, none of that is important in understanding and enjoying the content.

The book is cute and there’s a lot that it has to say about how much influence adults have on children, in addition to the environment the child is in. Betsy is timid and scared when she arrives at the “dreaded” Putney cousins because her aunt is a timid and scared woman. After spending some time with the more easygoing, vibrant Putneys, she becomes more vibrant herself. And while there are some shenanigans, they are there purely to describe how Elizabeth Ann is becoming more “Betsy”—and more of a healthy child—because of her decisions.

If I had read this book a little earlier in my life, I can definitely see it being as memorable and beloved in my mind as Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. It’s a little dated and I raised my eyebrows a few times, but overall Understood Betsy is a charming children’s story with a good message and some pretty decent character development (and not just for Betsy).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris

The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

I’ve never really enjoyed books about Arthurian legend—I think the only exception was a trilogy I read when I was younger that I still remember today—but The Squire’s Tale was surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, or even really witty, but there is an amusing side to it that I really enjoyed. Perhaps that why I enjoyed it—Morris didn’t try to take himself or the legends too seriously, but related them in a way that was both fun and respectful to the origin.

He also managed to weave together some of the more ridiculous things that happen in Arthurian tales, and medieval literature in general, into something that was actually believable, fairies and enchanters aside. The plot is fairly basic, but so much is crammed into it that the reader tends to forget that. Plus, there is a sort of overarching character arc in both Gawain and Terence that weaves all their adventure together.

One criticism is that Morris didn’t do a really good job of explaining the villain, and when that character is revealed, everything happens very quickly so it’s a little bit anticlimactic. However, there are four or five books in this series, and when a book is as short as this one, some things fall through the cracks to be (hopefully) caught up by the next book.

The Squire’s Tale made me actually enjoy medieval literature, so that’s a huge point in its favor, and overall the book is charming, fun, and decently plotted. The character interaction, especially between Gawain and Terence, is great, and Terence is a good protagonist, though perhaps a little too much of a passive observer in the beginning (though it makes for good development to have him become more and more active throughout the book). I’d read the next books in the series, that’s for sure.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

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

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5        

One Crazy Summer is an interesting novel. It’s set in Oakland in 1968 and the Black Panthers play a central role as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to one of their summer camps and experience a completely different life than what they’re used to. I liked that there was a bit of a role-reversal in that it is their mother they are visiting. Usually in books where children visit an estranged parent, the parent is the father. It was interesting to have it be the mother this time, though I suppose Williams-Garcia did that not for the role-reversal, but for some sort of statement about women, strength, and independence.

I enjoyed the voices of the characters, especially Delphine, and all of the sisters’ interactions were very well done. I liked that Williams-Garcia sort of showed both sides of the Black Panthers and multiple views of their actions—she didn’t glorify them, but strove to portray them as realistically as possible for a children’s book. It was still a bit weird for me because I’ve really only heard negative things about the violence they caused, but this book did teach me about their summer camps and all the ways they helped to improve the lives of the children in the neighborhoods.

The part that was the hardest to swallow wasn’t any of the Black Panther stuff; it was the actions of Cecile, the mother. Early on, Delphine remembers something that Big Ma told her, which is that Cecile left because she wanted to name Fern something else (“Afua,” we learn later) and wasn’t allowed—or something. Cecile kind of confirms this by refusing to call Fern “Fern” and instead calling her “Little Girl” (and later, by accident, Afua). She then tells Delphine that “she’d have to be grown before [Cecile] could explain why she left [because of a name].” Okay, but…did she leave because of the name or not? Was Garcia-Williams trying to imply there was more to the story, or was this supposed to be some sort of statement about Cecile?

Anyway, while I liked the voice and the characters, and I learned a bit about the setting, overall the entire novel just felt like I was missing something–which I probably was, to be honest. I simply felt as if I didn’t “get it,” like I was supposed to feel like Cecile was this amazing person when all I could think was that she seemed a bit self-centered (at first—she gets a little better, but I still don’t understand why you would leave your family because of a name). I might read at least the sequel to this book to see if we learn more about Cecile, since I did really like the characters. It was just some of the circumstances I couldn’t relate to, I suppose.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2017 by Dial. It is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

Rating: 3/5        

I didn’t get quite as swept up in The War I Finally Won as I did in The War That Saved My Life. While this book continues the healing process that Ada started in the latter book, I simply didn’t find it as immediately gripping. Bradley leaves nothing to subtlety and every emotional hurdle that Ada overcomes is plainly spoken so that the reader understands exactly what has happened. This isn’t a bad thing for a children’s book, I guess, but it leaves a lot to be desired for any older reader.

I suppose that’s my biggest complaint about this book: there’s far too much tell and not enough show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an interesting book, and Ada’s slowly defrosting heart and widening understanding of relationships, love, and family is heartwarming (no pun intended). Yet the delivery is too pat for me to be enthralled with the process.

However, if you left The War That Saved My Life wanting more Lady Thornton, Margaret, Jonathan, and, of course, Ada, Jamie, and Susan, then this book does do a whole lot in furthering each character’s relationship with each other. There’s dual mother-daughter relationships, with Lady Thornton and Margaret, and Susan and Ada, and then there’s Ada dealing with Lady Thornton in her life, who is an authority but not her mother. There’s the inclusion of a German girl, Ruth, who brings a whole new dynamic to the family dynamic. Of course, the book mostly focuses on Ada and Susan, but Ada learns a whole lot about relationships and getting along with other people, as well as the many facets of love.

The War I Finally Won is a good sequel to The War That Saved My Life, with lots of discussion about love, mothers, enemies, and courage. I had problems with the delivery of the ideas and the overall lack of showing what’s happening rather than merely telling, but overall the book showed lots of promise and had strong, relevant themes.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here:

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