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

A Little House of Their Own by Celia Wilkins

A Little House of Their Own, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2005 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little City by the Lake.

Rating: 4/5        

The last Caroline book is also the most heartwarming, describing the (possibly fictional) events leading up to Caroline and Charles getting married, prefacing the events of Little House in the Big Woods. The sweet, sedate romance that unfolds is appropriate for a children’s book, and Wilkins manages to convey both the wildness and wanderlust of Charles Ingalls and the groundedness of Caroline. Charles’s voice sounds, at times, straight out of the original Little House series, as does Caroline’s.

When not describing the budding romance between the two, the book concerns itself with Caroline’s school teaching days. It’s not overly exciting, but Wilkins does a good job of staying true to the picture of Caroline that we receive in Little House, as well as provides for some explanation of her ways in those books. The Caroline of this series seems slightly spunkier than the one in Little House, but this last book does show her gentleness that is so prominent in her daughter’s books.

This has always been my favorite book simply because of the sweet romance, but it’s not the most interesting. I think On Top of Concord Hill wins that award, as the romance featured in that book is of a much more interesting kind (plus a few more exciting things happen). However, A Little House of Their Own is the perfect finale for the series, as well as a perfect setup for the Little House books.

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

Jesus Skeptic by John Dickerson

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 5/5

I was excited to read Jesus Skeptic before I even opened it, and I was even more excited about it after reading the first ten pages. I’ve read books like it before, most recently Unimaginable by Jeremiah Johnston, but this is the first book I’ve read that dealt with so thoroughly and with such attention to primary evidence.
By primary evidence, Dickerson explains that he means things like firsthand accounts or historical documents of the time period being discussed, similar to the evidence a journalist (which Dickerson is) would use in writing a story. So, the book explores the primary evidence behind science, education, hospitals, and the abolition of slavery to explore the question of whether Jesus’s teachings have helped further justice and progress, or inhibited it. It’s the question of whether Christianity has been good for the world or not, and Dickerson explores it thoroughly, diving deep into statistics and the people behind many important movements.

I knew many things that this book talked about already, but some I did not, and I enjoyed learning more about how universities were established, the origins of hospitals, and what life was like for the majority of people until about two hundred years ago. And the best part of this book is that Dickerson uses only the words of the people who were involved and facts and statistics that can be obtained by anyone. There are pictures and documents and tons of detailed footnotes. There’s even a website, which I peeked at briefly to see if it would be useful for teaching.

This book was especially helpful for times when I forget what an impact Christianity can have on people. Dickerson shared personal stories of his own, as well as stories of people he knew—again, all primary evidence that can be independently verified. And it will be especially helpful for when my students broach the exact question Dickerson is exploring in this novel. Even if you know this information already, Jesus Skeptic is a worthwhile read—but it’s a vital one if you are not aware of the evidence that is out there for Christian involvement in education, medicine, science, and the abolition of slavery.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

Little City by the Lake by Celia Wilkins

Little City by the Lake, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Across the Rolling River.

Rating: 3/5        

The most interesting thing about the Caroline books (and all of the prequel Little House books) is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of fiction. Though the original Little House books were fictionalized in many places, Wilder was drawing off of her own memory. Here, all we get is a brief author’s note at the beginning stating that some of the events were drawn from Martha Carpenter’s letters to Laura. Yet in this book, Caroline spends a whole 9 months away from Martha, so how much of what happens in here is true?

I don’t really mind one way or another, to be honest. Whether Wilkins is making this up as she goes along or if there’s some sort of letter or memory she’s taking pieces from, the book is still true to the Caroline of the past books, and I had to smile at all the little nods Wilkins gives to the Little House books, particularly Caroline’s delaine and the gold pin. Is this where she actually got the dress, or did Wilkins throw it in because it seemed plausible? While it doesn’t ultimately matter to me, or affect the book, it is something interesting that I pondered briefly.

Anyway, the book itself is fine. I enjoyed the look at Milwaukee and high-society life that it gives—it’s a nice refresher from the previous books. That look also serves to center Caroline as well as to seriously contrast her life with the life she could have had. There’s some deliberate juxtapositions drawn here, and it’s interesting to read this book knowing that Caroline, who (according to the book) could have gotten a successful teaching job in the society and moved into a higher class, chose to go back home and ultimately marry a farmer. There’s even the brief flirtation with James, a sort of “could have” moment that Wilkins explores.

Maybe the book was mainly experimental, maybe it was actually based on parts of Caroline’s life. Either way, while it’s not quite as good as some of the stronger books that came before it, it serves as a good contrast with the earlier books, and a nice bridge to the final book, where Caroline returns home to teach and ends up falling in love with one Charles Ingalls. That book’s probably my favorite because I’m a romantic at heart.

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

Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

I haven’t read a really academic book in a long time, so the plunge into Alister McGrath’s Narrative Apologetics was a rough one. However, the topic is one that I am deeply interested (and invested) in, as that was the basis of my graduate school studies and something I currently teach. McGrath puts forth his arguments for presenting the Gospel as and through narrative, rather than purely reason.

McGrath introduces the topic of narrative apologetics (basically, showing people God and the Gospel through story), offers practical application, and then uses various narratives, both Biblical and otherwise, to illustrate why and how narrative is so powerful. Using several powerful narratives from the Bible, as well as mentioning narratives from C. S. Lewis, Marilynne Robison, and Dorothy Sayers, McGrath lays forth his reasoning for leaning more on story to share “the relevance, joy, and wonder” of Christianity (to borrow the subtitle), as it reaches more people.

I will admit, the language of the book really did prevent me from delving into this perhaps as deeply as I should have. It is not written for the layperson at all, but rather for the expert in the field. McGrath expects you to know a lot of things already. This is not a criticism, as this is obviously the audience of the book—I’m just trying to explain why I struggled a bit with it (I’m technically an expert, but I’m too used to more casual books). The book is rich in research and footnotes, and McGrath methodically and expertly explains everything. What I liked most about the book was the last chapter where McGrath offers suggestions for how to use Biblical, personal, and cultural narratives in teaching and showing others the Gospel. As a teacher, my mind immediately started thinking of ways to incorporate those into my classroom.

The analytical language and the academic nature of the book did throw me for a loop, but Narrative Apologetics is a book that’s worth returning to in order to take it in more deeply. I feel like I only skimmed the surface and that lots more meaning and application will come out on another read.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

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

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 2/5        

The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’s books. It’s a non-serious fantasy about a rebellious princess (*shudder*) who, knowing better than all the adults around her (of course), sets off to complete the quest her father put in place for eligible suitors, thereby “winning her own hand” a la Merida from Brave.

It’s a good thing I recognized this as non-serious, fun fantasy early on, otherwise I would’ve spent the whole book wondering how the logistics of everything worked out. There’s no sense of scale, politics, or even world mechanics, and everything that happens just seems a little too unbelievable to be convincing that it would actually happen. It really starts to delve into melodramatic territory with the “angry parents” side plot.

I can see why a lot of people like this book. Meg is a rebellious, unconventional princess (a very popular trope) who goes against the status quo, befriends the lower class, and somehow knows a ton about the workings of society outside the castle despite never going out much. She’s oh-so understanding and friendly and remarkably capable despite, again, lack of knowledge and training. She knows better than anyone else what the correct way of things should be. Unluckily for me, I absolutely hate that type of character, especially combined with the overused rebellious princess trope.

For non-serious fantasy directed at a middle-grade audience, I suppose it’s a fine book. Again, many people would probably applaud the protagonist (especially considering the audience and everyone’s constant wish for strong female leads [or, at least, what they think a strong female lead should be]). Yet I found the whole book unbelievable, Meg annoying, and the jokes not funny. Coombs took one step too far and turned her non-serious novel into camp.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy


The Singing by Alison Croggon

The Singing, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2008 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Crow.

Rating: 2/5        

I’ve discovered why I’ve struggled to get through these books—there’s very little action. Perhaps that’s why The Crow, the book with the most action, was my favorite. The Singing is, as all the books are, far too long, and there’s too much talking and introspection and not enough danger and suspense. Even the final “showdown” at the end with Sharma was anticlimactic.

Maerad also develops far too much power too quickly. There is not a very good balance to her growth in magic; she goes from somehow defeating a giant Elemental (within the range of what we know about her strength) to a glowing person who leaks magic and can destroy bad guys with a single breath, after merely sitting for ten minutes and thinking—or something. I’m not sure what was happening because my eyes were glazing over.

I honestly think if the books were much shorter, and if there were only three books instead of four, the whole effect would have been much better. But there are whole chapters of this book that are unnecessary, or scenes that go on for far too long, and after a while Croggon’s writing style really starts grating. And it’s clear she doesn’t know how to write action, so she limits it as much as she can, which is why so much of the final confrontation is inward rather than outward—but because everything is delivered in the same exact tone, there’s no suspense or tension to the scene. There’s practically no struggle, either.

Hem remains the only interesting character; Maerad is too flat and boring, especially in this book. The problem with making your character super-powerful is that it also makes them super-boring without conflict or struggle to make them interesting. Hem, who was more normal, seemed more alive than Maerad, who spent most of the last half of the book in a daze that wasn’t really all that important to developing any part of her character.

The Singing, and the Pellinor series in general, tries so hard to deliver on epic fantasy, but falls short in terms of pacing, action, characterization, and intrigue. There’s no politics, barely any struggle, and there wasn’t enough editing done to help mitigate that. I’m a bit sorry I spent so much time on these books, honestly, but what’s done is done, and now I know that I can’t stand them (except for The Crow. That one was okay).

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy