This post contains spoilers!
Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams
Fire in the Hills by Donna Jo Napoli
Sometimes, for me, historical fiction is hit-or-miss. With children’s novels, the right vibe seems harder to hit.
I’m beginning to think Scholastic dumbs down their books. The whole time I was reading Montmorency, I wished it was an adult novel. If it were, it would have been more thorough and without the touch-and-go descriptions of some characters and significant changes in plot.
For several chapters, I thought Updales was trying to put every Victorian British stereotype into this book. She thankfully pulled away from that to focus on Montmorency’s transformation from a thoughtful criminal to a thoughtful gentleman. Something about the narrative didn’t strike me as particularly period, but I might be a stickler for one of my favorite genres. What I found most interesting was the contrast between tolerances for sex and cussing; Updale describes ladies of the night only to write asterisks in place of curse words. This is why I believe the book should have been written for adults; if you give us one shock-value subject, what’s keeping you from accurately portraying another? The asterisks could easily have been replaced by more age-appropriate substance rather than this cop-out.
I’ll have to lend this to a fellow stickler and wait to hear what she thinks.
Out of the Dust was recommended by a friend, who read and loved it in middle school. As far as poetry novels go (and there aren’t many out there), I find Love That Dog to be more touching. As far as history is concerned, Out of the Dust does a good job of exposing the gritty detail of life in the Dust Bowl and farm life in the Great Depression. I recommend reading the book out loud because the poetry style makes it easy to feel each emotional emphasis. That accomplishment earned this title a Newbery medal.
Because I’d planned to do a post on fiction regarding WWII, the next batch of books cater to that subject. I’m not sure why I keep leaning toward this time period in historical fiction. Why is anyone fascinated by WWII? My reason is most likely because, as a Christian and a person of European ancestry, I feel a kinship with the Jewish nation and European history. Another, more probable reason—which I will deny—is that I have read so much WWII fiction as a child that these characters’ experiences have become part of my own memory and my empathy is actually intensified sympathy. (But I was there, man! I was there.)
To be completely honest, I read The Mozart Question because it was 66 pages and I was pressed for time. That time was sucked away by a book I didn’t enjoy.
Some online reviews I read said this book is good for 8-12 year olds to introduce them to the horrors of the holocaust without scaring them. I say: Shouldn’t they be scared? I certainly have been since childhood (freedom at the library, what-what!) and am glad I wasn’t introduced lightly to the subject (that I can remember). Any holocaust is a horrible goal, one we should warn children about as best we can because it’s horrible that such things happen life.
Given my expectations based on other quality fiction about this subject, The Mozart Question didn’t deliver. I’m not saying I think all books related to the Holocaust need to have violence or shock and awe. I’m just saying there’s a better way to research and present this information than what The Mozart Question did. At least the pictures were pretty. Nice job, Michael Foreman.
Number the Stars greatly made up for my displeasure in the last book and is an example of what I like in historical fiction; a sense of empathy.
I also like a little metaphor. It’s fiction, so why not? You can’t go wrong with Lois Lowry. It’s hard not to catch the metaphor here with the significance of Ellen’s necklace and the literal stars in the sky. I was especially moved by the scene in which Nazi officers are searching the home of our main character and Ellen, who is spending the night, struggles to remove her Star of David necklace. Annemarie rips off the necklace and, seeing no time to give it a proper hiding place, keeps it held tightly in her fist. After the officers leave…
“Annemarie relaxed the clenched fingers of her right hand, which still clutched Ellen’s necklace. She looked down, and saw that she had imprinted the Star of David into her palm.”
For her help, the symbol of her friend’s faith branded her—even temporarily—as a Jew. (If you’re in middle school, I just gave you a free essay topic. You’re welcome.)
In the end, I would have like to see a more personal goodbye between the two friends, but there isn’t much time for mushy stuff when enemies are watching your house and your knowledge of what is to happen next is uncertain.
The first time I read this book, I was surprised to find a protagonist who isn’t at first sympathetic to the side of good. During this second read, many years later, I was more surprised at how this portrayal was written. Korinna, an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, finds out one day that there is a Jewish fugitive family living inside the walls of her house. Although I was disturbed at the thoughts that could go through a girl’s mind given her political leanings, I wasn’t surprised at all to find that she didn’t turn in her parents like she said she would. It was her best friend who betrayed her, although everything turned out okay in the end. The two families escaped, minus some deaths from neighbours and friends, and Korinna learned that some girls are bitches. There was a much anticipated dramatic change of character because Korinna simply wondered what the Krugmanns did in her walls when she wasn’t home. Something more could have happened to change Korinna’s mind, like more influence from her sympathetic friend (her other friend), but I won’t sweat it because I wasn’t very invested in this book.
Williams tried very hard to address the violence of ruthless Nazis, but every little incident involving or not involving them drew blood and I got tired of it. The only character who didn’t bleed was the kitten, who was kicked. It was a PG attempt at some PG-13 and R ideas. I believe if there were no pictures (which lacked both skill and interest), I wouldn’t have lost my interest.
What the previous book lacked, Fire in the Hills definitely made up for in a more realistic way. If you’re squeemish, don’t read this book. It’s a much more violent (and therefore probably a most accurate) look at the war, but not so unlike other Holocaust fiction that it leaves out reflections on social impacts of the nations’ actions and philosophies. The novel starts with a bang, not spending much time for character development, but Napoli made up for it later in the book.
Other than Elie Wiesel, I can’t recall another male protagonist in children’s fiction about WWII (The Mozart Question doesn’t count). Most people tend to gloss over or altogether forget about Italy’s role in the war, so I was very glad to have had this experience through fiction. Some research is in my future!
Great historical fiction provides a well-written story and the yearning to research the true facts behind the novel. The former is a given (who wants to read a poorly executed story?) and the latter, especially, should never be left out.
Although this summer reading challenge is over, I’m still looking forward to reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare) and a fairly new Holocaust fiction publication, Ashes (Kathryn Lasky).
30 titles down, 22 to go.
Days left: 0.