Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaille, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.
Kathryn Lasky has the difficult job of creating the young adult journal of Marie Antoinette, one of the most infamous queens in history, on her way to the throne of France, starting from the beginning in Austria, with stirrings of interest from the French, all the way to her arrival and entrenchment at Versailles. One of the most interesting things about this Royal Diaries series is that a lot of the times authors have to think of the question, “How do I make controversial or unlikeable rulers likeable to a young audience?”
Lasky does an admirable job with this book, though of course every one of these books needs to be taken with the grain of salt that we have no idea what the “voice” of these characters, and in this case, the young Marie Antoinette, was like. Despite that, Lasky details the Austrian’s court obsession with getting then-Antonia married to the Dauphin of France. Antonia’s voice is authentic, sounding exactly like a young girl would who’s getting married to someone she doesn’t know, who hates some of the formalities being thrust upon her, and who doesn’t really want to leave her family behind. Absent from all of her preparations is actual education, one of the factors cited in the historical notes as the reason why Marie Antoinette and her husband were so terrible at ruling. Instead, Antonia plays cards, rides horses, and complains about elaborate hairstyles, but never learns much about economics, politics, or the like. This continues even when she gets to Versailles, where time is taking up with detailing the ridiculous customs of the French elite, as well as Marie Antoinette’s feud with the King’s mistress. Lasky even briefly throws in a mention of Marie’s desire to live on a farm, foreshadowing, though not mentioned in the book at all, the hamlet she builds in the gardens of Versailles (which I’ve seen, and wow, it really puts into perspective Marie Antoinette’s views and her extravagance).
Also well described is the whole court scene of both Austria and France, and the ridiculousness of the French elite comes across clearly. Marie Antoinette is horrified by the lack of privacy at Versailles, and the splendor and decadence and underlying decay is shown very well. Done less well is, in general, the whole idea of Marie Antoinette as a spend-thrift, reveling in pretty things and clothes. She doesn’t really do much of that in the book, and Lasky spends most of her time just describing the political scene.
Marie Antoinette is an interesting book, and though it’s a bit long and doesn’t really establish very well the real character of the Queen as we know it in history, I think Lasky did an admirable job of communicating may other things, like royal life in France with its elaborate etiquette and extravagant styles, and the feelings a young girl might have from being transported from one country to another.
Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.
Dear America spawned multiple spin-offs, but probably the most interesting ones are the Royal Diaries, which chronicles the lives of young future queens around the world. I won’t be doing these in chronological order, as I did with Dear America, or by any other ridiculous measure of reading (like by region or country or whatever), but simply in the order that’s listed on the Wikipedia page (and only the ones my library has).
The immediate thing I noticed while reading Elizabeth I is how much longer it was than a standard Dear America novel, as well as how much more time it covered (1544-1547). Lasky tried her best to make Elizabeth seem as much as a normal girl as possible, though in the interest of the series she had to work in all the political intrigue and medieval information that corresponded with the time period. That means, unfortunately, casting a rather poor light on Princess Mary (“Bloody Mary”) who is only ever depicted as vindictive and deceitful (done so that children can realize that she wasn’t a very great queen later on, I realize, but a bit heavy-handed for me, though admittedly I know almost nothing of that time period nor anything about Mary beyond details about her reign that are still taught). It also means having Elizabeth proclaim almost from the beginning of the novel that she would never marry.
I do like how Lasky wove in all the information of Henry VIII and his wives. She played around a little with how Elizabeth must have felt to have a father who killed her mother, and who then married twice afterwards. Lasky is, perhaps, too nice to Henry VIII, but it makes sense in the light of a child’s view of her father.
I think the Royal Diaries is a concept is much more interesting than the standard Dear America novels, and I love political intrigue, so I’m looking forward to seeing where things go. I also know that RD covers a much broader range of cultures and time periods, as they are not limited to simply America, so it will be interesting to see how that is handled.
Christmas After All: The Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
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.
A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
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.
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.
Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
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.
The First Collier, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Outcast(but technically a prequel to the series).
First Collier is an interesting installment in the
Ga’Hoole series. It’s the first book in a prequel trilogy that details the
start of the legends of Ga’Hoole: the owl king Hoole and his war with the
hagfiends (and presumably his founding of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole). This
first book deals with Grank, the titular first collier, and how he comes to
receive Hoole’s egg and cares for it. Appropriately, the book ends with Hoole
Lasky really steps up the fantastic elements in this
one, with the owl-crow hagfiends and their yellow eye magic, Grank’s own
magery, and, of course, the ember of Hoole and the egg of Hoole. It’s also the
first Ga’Hoole book to be in first person, which actually helped out a lot. It
completely changed the usual ebb and flow of Lasky’s writing and helped make
things less stiff and clunky and cheesy. Rather than everything feeling stilted
and there being an abundance of telling rather than showing, the first person
narration lessened that a lot, though there were a few instances of rather
However, despite some of the new things, I think I’m
simply getting bored of the series. Every book feels the same. Lasky does not
do enough to change things up (the first person helped, as did some of the
elements of the world, but not enough); I feel as if I am reading the same
story over and over again. It reminds me a bit of Erin Hunter’s Warriors
series, another set of books that I ultimately got tired of as they were all
too similar. The First Collier had
interesting bits to it, but overall everything was done in the same delivery
and style—there was even an Otulissa replacement! The only thing that changed
was the terminology. I’m halfway through the Ga’Hoole series, but I’m not sure
if I want to finish or not.
The Outcast is full of cheese and fluff and represents a cheap version of a prophecy fulfillment story. The problems I spotted in The Hatchling return tenfold in this book, to the point where not even nostalgia could win the day.
Let’s start with Nyroc/Coryn. Coryn consistently
speaks in grandiose, cheesy statements, and is given advice that is also
grandiose and cheesy. He’s not as familiar or as memorable a protagonist as
Soren; in fact, he’s a rather flat character who is pretty much flawless in
every way. The only thing Coryn struggles with in this book is fear that other
people will confuse him with his mother. He does everything perfectly because,
as this book tells us multiple times, he is the next owl king and everyone
knows it and welcomes him and whoever doesn’t recognize that fact is evil.
The side characters also speak declaratively and
pithily. Even the introduction of the dire wolves and their clan system is
derailed by the clunky dialogue and lack of plot. Too much happens too fast,
and there wasn’t enough buildup to this whole idea of a new owl king for the
plot to be in any way coherent or believable.
Lasky tried to take this series in a different
direction, but the lack of adequate development and buildup, lack of
worldbuilding in terms of Hoolian knowledge (something she tries to rectify
with her three prequels about Hoole) and prophecies, and the awkward, cheesy
dialogue only make The Outcast a
chore to read and difficult to finish.
Growing up, I really enjoyed books seven and eight of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series. I liked the idea of a young owl overcoming his upbringing and seeking truth and new beginnings. The prophecy part was just an interesting addition for me. Now, of course, however many years later, I have different feelings about it (though the nostalgia factor is always there).
The Hatchling continues where The Burning left off—with Nyra and her egg. Nyroc is the son of Nyra and Kludd, and is destined, or so he is told, to be the next great leader of the Pure Ones. However, thanks to his friend Philip, a rogue smith, and his own firesight, Nyroc discovers the truth about his mother and the Pure Ones and runs away, eventually seeking to go Beyond the Beyond, a mysterious place full of wolves and volcanoes, to find the legendary Ember of Hoole.
As an adult, I can see many of the flaws and shortcomings of this book that I didn’t notice as a child. Nyroc’s change towards the Pure Ones is too abrupt and is handwaved away by his “strong gizzard” and by several actions taken by Nyra. A convenient enough reason for a children’s book, but too unsatisfying for me. The introduction of a random prophecy embedded into the Hoole stories is too sudden and not foreshadowed enough, although I liked that it is Otulissa, and not Soren, who discovers it and sets out on a quest.
But, I do like that Lasky is continuing to expand and build on her owl world, that she is introducing new concepts—however abruptly—and new places and new incentives for the characters. It’s exactly what an extended series should do, and she’s doing it (and she does it again in book 13). And, as I said, I didn’t notice any of these things when I was a child—I just enjoyed the story. So that’s a credit to Lasky.
The Burning, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Shattering.
The Burning is the last of the six-book fleck/Pure Ones/St. Aggie’s arc before Lasky takes the series into a different direction. As a last book, it wraps everything up as it’s supposed to: there’s tension and uncertainty to ramp the tension up before the final battle, the villains are defeated, and great acts of bravery are performed by multiple characters.
Yet there is still much left to be desired with this “closing” of the first Soren arc (for he comes back later on in the series). The time jumps are bothersome, leaving great swathes of character’s actions to be explained in commentary or as an afterthought later on. This includes Gylfie and Otulissa leaving the Glauxian Brother’s Retreat, Soren’s insistence on not teaching the St. Aggie’s owls to fight, and Gylfie’s appeal to the Northern owls parliament. In fact, Gylfie’s entire courageous arc, where she escapes from pirates and brings an army to help out the Guardians at just the right moment, is entirely overshadowed by a brand-new viewpoint character, and her most amazing moment is never even seen, though we get some of its effect later on when she meets back up with Soren at the battle.
In addition to those odd jumps, Lasky decides to have the battle between Kludd and Soren end in a rather strange way, though at least that decision makes more sense than the random jumps in time. We get a fight between Soren and his brother, but the end result is strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying. In fact, it seems to have been done purposefully to preserve Soren’s purity than for any other reason. Or perhaps it was to show how different Soren is from his brother—though that, of course, isn’t a necessary distinction to make since we already know that Soren is far and away the better owl.
Anyway, despite my grumblings, I still thought The Burning was a good end. It wraps up the Pure Ones arc very neatly, and it leaves room for some more growth to the series with the very brief reveal at the end with Nyra. The missteps and the strange choices are probably due to the fact that the last couple of books were published in the same year, so Lasky likely didn’t have a lot of time to really think about the choices she was making.
The Shattering as always been, in my eyes, the weakest of the first six Ga’Hoole books. I’ve always viewed reading it with a sort of dread, or exasperation. The tale of Soren’s sister and the trials she faces in this book just never piqued my interest.
Perhaps it’s the cheesiness of the dialogue and some of the scenes. These books have never been the best in terms of writing, but this book has too many moments where things felt too clunky, or too amateur, or something. It’s especially noticeable when Primrose is worried about her friendship with Eglantine, and during the mealtimes.
Important things do happen in this book, but they seem almost unimportant. There is quite big news concerning Nyra, foreshadowing books 7 & 8, and the big reveal at the end is appropriate menacing, but everything feels like such a throwaway, filler meant to take up a book.
In addition, even the plight Eglantine finds herself in feels weak. Things happen far too quickly, and Eglantine overcomes obstacles too quickly. Despite the threat of shattering, Eglantine seems more like a gullible kid than a victim of a devious plot. There is simply too much that wasn’t done in order to make things move smoothly and make the threat more menacing.
While moving the plot along in some directions, The Shattering mostly stalls, creating a threadbare plot that relies on cheesy dialogue and undeveloped characterization. Eglantine is more of an annoyance than a hero in the book, which is a shame since it’s so heavily focused on her. It’s a step in the wrong direction for Lasky and the Ga’Hoole books.