“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
Twelve year old Deza Malone has a decent life in Gary, Indiana. Her mother and father love her. She has a great teacher who believes in her and a wonderful best friend in Clarice Anne Johnson. Her older brother Jimmie may be annoying but his singing voice is that of the angels. There is only one thing. It is 1936 and her family is dirt poor. So poor in fact that her one pair of shoes are way too small and her decaying teeth are left untreated for lack of funds. Her decent life begins to fall apart when her father loses his job and finds that no one will hire a black man. Her father decides to take to the road in search of a job. Shortly after that, her mother loses her job as a maid and together they make the decision to leave Gary and go in search of their father. The family travels north to Flint, Michigan, her father’s home town and ends up living in a hooverville on the outskirts of town because the family they had hoped to find in Flint were no longer there. They cannot find their father, Jimmie leaves to try his luck at making money with a band and the police raid the hooverville and burn their tent to the ground. By the end of the story, the family is reunited but it is not without tragedy, a deep look at the causes and effects of poverty and the kind of grit and determination that give a girl like Deza the nickname, the mighty miss Malone.
While Curtis’ book Bud, Not Buddy is probably a better written story, there is something about the spunk, determination and hope of the Malone family that make The Mighty Miss Malone my favorite of all of his books. While the book stands as a sort of exposé on the ravages of poverty during the depression and the deep racism of the time that made it even harder on black families, Deza Malone is a masterful narrator who invites the reader to get to know the whole Malone family. With twists in plot and a great attention to historic detail, the reader will be drawn into rooting for the Malone family to find their father and for the family to find its way back together again. While the plot occasionally wanders down interesting paths that don’t add a lot to it, the overall story is quite good. It’s a great book to help readers enter into the challenges of the depression era. If you liked any of Christopher Paul Curtis’ other books, you’ll surely enjoy The Mighty Miss Malone.
- Age: 10 – 99
- Awards: None
- Pages: 320
- Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
By Aaron Myers
The best myths are not deliberately constructed falsehoods but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echos of deeper truths. Myths offer a fragment of that truth, not its totality. They’re like splintered fragments of the true light, yet when the full and true story is told it is able to bring to fulfillment all that was right and wise in those fragmentary visions of things.J.R.R. Tolkien
Duvy Greenberg is the son of NAACP lawyer Jack Greenberg, the close friend of Thurgood Marshall. But that doesn’t matter. While Duvy cares about what he sees on TV and what he hears whispered from his parents’ bedroom, he is far more interested in not making a fool of himself in Football than Civil Rights. In Selma Alabama, Dorthy Milton wants to vote, but as a black woman living in the segregated south, this is easier said than done. When she fails the ridiculous test that racist voting officials make up for her, Dorthy is determined to see change. She is ready for action and lucky for her, the Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is coming to Selma and she might just be able to help. An interesting blend of historical fiction and autobiography, this book alternates between the fictionalized childhood of the author, son of a prominent Civil Rights Lawyer, and the dramatized events that occurred in Selma Alabama, 1965.
The Tugging String is interesting because the author is the actual son of NAACP lawyer, Jack Greenberg. Using memories from his childhood and fictionalization of historical events, Greenberg weaves a masterful piece of historical fiction that brings to life the troubling events of the Selma Montgomery marches and American life in 1965. The book skips between Duvy and Dorthy’s perspectives and it is interesting because, unlike in most dual point of view (POV) books, the two main characters are completely different, both in their ages and their walk of life. On top of that, they never meet anytime during the story. The stories do not connect very much and while they are somewhat parallel, it’s a crooked kind of parallel. However, the dual POV sheds an interesting light on the riots in Selma, offering a close-up perspective with Dorthy while Duvy feels and sees the effects of the marches from afar. The book perfectly captures a national struggle with racism, fear and freedom. It brings to life a period of American history clearly and honestly. The book stays pretty close to history and is realistic in tone, yet the drama of the times is enough on its own to ensure a thrilling read. I would highly recommend The Tugging String by David Greenberg.
- Age: 9 – 99
- Awards: None
- Pages: 167
- Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
By Malachi L Myers
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.
C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism
Johnny Tremain is an apprentice silversmith and his career has nowhere to go but up. Already the most valuable apprentice in his workshop, Johny even begins to rival his master in skill. However Johnny wants more, things in Boston are brewing and Johnny can feel it in the air. It’s 1773 and the Sons of Liberty and British regulars occupying the city are clashing at every opportunity, change is in the air, fresh and smelling of freedom. On top of that, new revelations and old secrets surrounding the mysterious origin of Johnny’s family begin to resurface and the young silversmith is willing to do anything to get to the bottom of it. All around him, Johnny sees people making choices, carrying secrets; everyone is somehow caught up in the tumultuous activities that are pulling not just Boston, but all of the American Colonies, closer and closer into conflict with King George. As Johnny gets pulled deeper into the conflict he must question everything, his trade, his family, and his identity.
Johnny Tremain can take its place without question on the list of best historical fictions ever written. It encapsulates the thrilling years leading up to the Boston Tea Party and Battle of Lexington, bringing historic figures like James Otis, John Hancock and John and Samuel Adams to life with perfect clarity. The setting and characters are realistic, compelling, and relatable and the plot is fascinating and full of twists. Without a doubt, it is the best historical fiction written about the American Revolution; not only does it bring to light the events and historical figures of the era as a main element of the plot, but it also has an independent and completely fascinating plot line that runs parallel to the historical events. The character of Johnny is particularly riveting. Although advertised as a “children’s classic” the book in content and volume is probably more of a young adult read, with complicated plots and, as an older book, language that might be difficult for beginning readers to grasp. I would highly recommend Johnny Tremain.
- Ages: 10-99
- Awards: Newbery Medal
- Pages: 320
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
By Malachi L. Myers
When 12 year old Sam Gribly gets fed up with big city life and his family’s crowded New York City apartment, he hatches a plan to run away to his great grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. There he begins to live out every twelve year old’s dream; learning to survive in the wilderness. Sam initially realizes that his wilderness survival skills – learned from books at the New York City Public Library – aren’t nearly good enough but with the help of a new friend and a few lucky breaks, he soon begins to make a life for himself in the woods. He learns to build traps to catch small game, to fish, to forage for food and soon begins the big project of building a home for himself in the burned out interior of a giant hemlock tree. Along the way Sam learns to avoid rangers, makes friends with the local wildlife and tames and trains a peregrine falcon who becomes both a companion and a skilled hunter. The story wanders through the fall and preparations for winter and into the loneliness of solitude and the delight of unexpected friendships.
My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite books as a child. The author’s description of the mountain setting painted a picture of the glories of nature that thrilled my heart and made the story all the more real. While Sam’s character is far more mature than any twelve year old, his tenacity and can do spirit inspired me. Every page had a new adventure or a challenge to overcome and Sam was up for all of them. Characters pop up throughout the story at just the right time. Bill, Baron Weasel, Bando, Frightful the Falcon and many more wander in and out of Sam’s days on the mountain bringing him much joy and occasional grief. I loved My Side of the Mountain when I was a boy and I loved it still more when I read it again a few years back. It’s a great book for kids, filled with lessons of perseverance, courage and ingenuity. And it would be a great book to introduce to young boys who are reluctant readers.
- Ages: 10 – 99
- Awards: Newbery Honor; ALA Notable Book
- Pages: 177
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
By Aaron G Myers
Listen HereCaleb Woodbridge, “Imaginative Discipleship: How Imagination Reveals and Shapes our Hearts – English L’Abri Podcast
Stories shape us so chose your own enchantments wisely. Stories are powerful. They take us to other worlds and into other minds. They’re bigger on the inside, like the wardrobe to Narnia or Dr. Who’s police box. Time passes differently in stories like in Narnia and we can return from them having perhaps experienced years or lifetimes. A well told story can touch a heart, change a mind or maybe, redirect a life. So as Christians we should be thoughtful about what we chose to engage with and while it’s very easy to go to the end of extreme legalism where you can’t watch anything that’s more than a PG rating – Christians have complete freedom. We each need to apply wisdom knowing what impact the stories we engage with are having on our hearts. It’s not just looking at the content – something might be an R rating but it’s actually training and encouraging you to have a healthy attitude toward the maybe brutal realities that it is depicting. Or it might be a G or PG rating and it’s encouraging us to love really terrible things – think how much Disney catechizes us in the whole believe in yourself message. There are many ways they are encouraging a very self-centered attitude in stories that may otherwise seem rather innocuous. Of course we can’t cut ourselves off. Engaging with the stories of our culture is a way of loving our neighbors by listening to other voices. But we will want to have a healthy balance of good art. If we’re watching or reading some stories to engage with the culture, we’ll want to refresh ourselves with other stories that we know are training our hearts in helpful ways.
Before jumping into the synopsis of Just Like That, it should be said that there is much in this novel that will make more sense and be more impactful if you have first read Wednesday Wars as this story begins just months after Wednesday Wars ends.. This is not essential but would certainly be my recommendation.
Now, on to the story. When 8th grader Meryl Lee Kowalski is sent off to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in the fall of 1968, her world is already in turmoil. There she encounters the world of upscale privilege, boarding school tradition and the notorious “inner rings” of established groups driven by prestige, gossip and arrogance. Running north and parallel to Meryl Lee’s story is Matt Coffin, who finds himself surviving on the Maine coast near St. Elenes with a pillowcase full of $100 bills and the daily fear of being found by the criminal he took it from. When their paths cross under the watchful eye of the school’s mysterious yet kind headmistress, they both begin a journey toward renewal and growth – for them and for all those whose lives they touch.
Just Like That is another masterpiece from Gary D. Schmidt. Filled with adventure, mystery and deep lessons about friendship, accomplishment and what it means to be a good person, this book will surely be a family favorite for all who read it. Meryl Lee actions bely a heart tuned to truth and justice and her pursuit of all that is right and fair and good will be an inspiration to any who journey with her. She shows again and again the power of small acts of kindness. Exquisitely written, the story will suck you in so that you don’t want to put it down. Everything about this book is wonderful!
- Ages: 10 – 99
- Awards: None
- Pages: 403
- Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
By Aaron G Myers
Genevieve Foster was a children’s author and amateur historian who wrote through the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. Her “Genevieve Foster Collection” is her most famous work, and her most intriguing. The books included in the collection are George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Captain John Smith, The World of Columbus and Sons, and The World of William Penn.
A fascinating mixture – one part textbook and one part fiction – the collection is written in the third person from the point of view of various historical persons all around the globe living during the lifetime of the title character.
The books are divided into segments. For instance in George Washington’s World, the sections are:
- When George Washington was a Child
- When George Washinton was a Soldier
- When Geroge Washington was a Farmer
- When George Washington was a General
- When George Washinton was a Citizen
- When George Washington was President
The book covers the major historical events and figures that ran through Washington’s lifetime and draws connections and parallels between them. Some subjects are only brushed over, where more main events, including the timeline of the book’s namesake, are featured repeatedly.
In terms of an educational viewpoint, the books are a fantastic idea. They show, much better than any textbook, the way events and historical figures are connected and demonstrate that history is a story, a stream of events rather than a never ending trail of unrelated incidents.
The books also personalize historical figures in a way that makes them more relatable to readers. For instance, Augustus Caesar’s World starts off with a scene of young Octavius (later to become Augustus Caesar) stargazing with his friends. It’s a fictionalized account of Octavias showing him as a real person not just a colossus of history.
With this balance between fact and fiction some historic accuracy is undoubtedly lost but the main facts and dates of the era are accurate and the creative elements are informed by historical knowledge of attitudes and customs of the times. In this way, historical figures are shown to be real, tangible people, with some of the same problems all everyday people face.
The Genevieve Foster Books unlock history in a way that is interesting, fascinating, and very informative, not only picking up on main events but also on some lesser-known peoples, places, and incidents that are harder to find in mainstream textbooks. Each book is also filled with regular drawings and diagrams to help bring the content to life. In this way, the Genevieve Foster collection creates an avenue for learning history not often considered, but in my opinion, just as educational and much more engaging than the conventional textbook.
The Genevieve Foster Collection is a fantastic addition to any homeschool library and the perfect gift for any child who is a budding history lover.
- Ages: 8 – 99
- Awards: Four time Newbery Runner-Up
- Pages: 300 – 400 pages
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
- George Washington’s World
- Abraham Lincoln’s World
- Augustus Caesar’s World
- The World of Captain John Smith
- The World of Columbus and Sons
- The World of William Penn
By Malachi L. Myers