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Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

by Amanda MacGregor

Jefferson High School, Davisburg, Virginia. 1959.

In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, it’s been two years since the Supreme Court said all schools must integrate. The people in Davisburg have done everything they can to resist this order, including entirely shutting down their schools for months.

High school senior Sarah Dunbar is about to make history. She is one of ten black students who will begin attending an all-white school. Sarah and the other students arrive to find a large crowd of angry white people screaming at them, bellowing hateful words, and spitting at them. Sarah knew integration was going to be hard, but she had no idea it was going to be terrible. Day after day, Sarah and her friends are bullied, harassed, threatened, and attacked. The teachers don’t make it any better, choosing to ignore the way the white teenagers are acting, and usually being overtly racist and hateful themselves. Sarah, an excellent student who was on the college prep track at her old school and will attend Howard in the fall, is placed in remedial classes. In fact, all of the black students are in remedial classes, because of the assumption by the administration that the black students are intellectually inferior and have no place in more challenging classes. Through it all, Sarah is determined to hold her head high. She knows the movement is counting on her, that she can’t let it show that people are hurting her. She’s been told to look straight ahead, not talk back, not be caught alone, and just keep walking.

One of the most outspoken white students is Linda Hairston, who writes editorials championing segregation for the school newspaper. Linda mostly just mimics everything she’s heard her father, who is the editor of the local paper, say. When Linda and Sarah (along with Linda’s friend Judy) get paired up to work on a class project, Sarah begins taking Linda to task on her ideas and behavior. Unafraid to be outspoken, Sarah accuses her of not thinking for herself, suggests that deep down she doesn’t really share these same viciously hateful feelings that her father espouses. Sarah isn’t wrong. Suddenly, Linda is starting to feel shameful about the thoughts she’s been having about integration. She realizes she sort of likes and admires Sarah, but justifies these feelings by thinking that Sarah is special, that she’s better than the rest of “her people.” I don’t think characters need to be likeable or have redeeming qualities, but I will say that I initially balked at the narrative switch to Linda taking over the story. Talley does a fantastic job of getting in the mind of this young woman and letting her be hateful, ignorant, uncertain, curious, and complicated.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to another piece of this plot: Linda and Sarah’s growing attraction to each other. Sarah gives many hints early on that she’s been struggling with her sexuality. When she first notices Linda, she reminds herself that she’s supposed to force those feelings down, to act normal. When she thinks about kissing, she’s worried she’ll think the wrong things. Meanwhile, Linda has been spending a lot of time thinking about Sarah. But they’re just thoughts Anyway, Linda will marry Jack, her 22-year-old boyfriend, as soon as high school is done, escape her father’s house, and everything will be fine. Or at least that what she keeps telling herself, until she realizes that she can’t keep lying. She thinks, “I want Sarah the way I’m supposed to want Jack.” Both girls can only fool themselves for so long. When Sarah kisses Linda, their worlds break open. Suddenly, Linda and Sarah are questioning everything: their feelings for each other, their futures, the school integration, even the expectations from their families.

To call this novel powerful is an understatement. Told in alternate narration, the views Sarah and Linda give of this time in history are poignant. The unrelenting racism and violence is difficult to read, which is hardly surprising. The story is just as much Linda’s as it is Sarah’s. Both extremely stubborn girls confront their many preconceived notions. Both learn, change, and grow. Neither seems there simply to “teach” the other about the opposing side. Talley does an excellent job of showing how two young women do what they think they are supposed to do and act how they think they are supposed to act, only to discover that carving out their own futures might be possible. This book is an essential read. Talley tackles a lot in this novel, combining history, diversity, intersectionality, GLBTQ characters, family dynamics, and so much more. In less skilled hands, it would have been overwhelming. In Talley’s hands, it’s just masterfully knit together and moving.

An author’s note about this era in history and the research Talley did for her writing is appended, as is a section of Common Core-aligned questions for discussion.

Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 9/30/2014
Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss

The #SVYALit Project Historical Fiction Google Hangout is Happening TODAY

Here’s a look at today’s discussion in the #SVYALit Project. Today’s topic is historical fiction and we’ll be discussing MAID OF SECRETS and MAID OF DECEPTION by Jennifer McGowan, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY by Sharon Biggs Waller and GILT by Katherine Longshore.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfMQtsqndt0]

Here’s a link to the Cuddlebuggery post on Sex Positive YA that is mentioned.

Here’s a link to the School Library Journal article I wrote on Slut Shaming with an example of a new sex positive YA title

Here are our lists of sex positive YA mentioned: Karen’s List  Christa’s List  Carrie’s List

Also, want to know more what we mean when we say Edwardian or Victorian or Tudor historical fiction? Jennifer McGowan and I wrote an article on YA Historical Fiction which will appear in your August 2014 issue of VOYA Magazine. We break down the various time periods and give you examples in our YA historical fiction reading timeline.

Take 5: 5 New Titles Coming from Simon & Schuster

Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine

Publisher’s Description:There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her … for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her … and she might go down with it.”

Note: Historical fiction, ghosts,and a good book to add to help us all meet our active goal of trying to make sure our collections and TBR piles have more diversity.

Publishes by McElderry Books on August 5, 2014. ISBN: 9781442483583

Rumble by Ellen Hopkins

Publisher’s Description: “Eighteen-year-old Matthew Turner doesn’t believe in much. Not in family—his is a shambles, after his brother’s suicide. Not in so-called friends who turn their backs when the going gets rough. Certainly not in some omnipotent master of heaven and earth, no matter what his girlfriend, Hayden, thinks. In fact, he’s sick of arguing with her about faith. Matt is a devout atheist, unafraid of some Judgment Day designed by decidedly human power brokers to keep the masses in check. He works hard, plays hard, and plans on checking out the same way. But a horrific accident—one of his own making—plunges Matt into a dark, silent place where the only thing he can hear is a rumble, and eventually, a voice. And what it says will call everything Matt has ever disbelieved into question.”

Note: I recently mentioned that one of the authors I hear YA librarians they have to replace a lot is Ellen Hopkins. She writes very gritty, realistic novels – in poetry. This latest title deals with a teenage boy who proclaims atheism as his belief system. The topic of atheism has been getting more coverage in the press, so this is a timely novel. And no doubt for many it will be controversial. In other words, awesome and classic Hopkins.

Publishes on August 26, 2014 from Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 9781442482845

In Deep by Terra Elan McVoy

Publisher’s Description: “Ultracompetitive Brynn from The Summer of Firsts and Lasts craves swimming victory—and gets in over her head—in this irresistible novel from Terra Elan McVoy.


Nothing else matters to Brynn as she trains her body and mind to win. Not her mediocre grades and lack of real friends at school. Not the gnawing grief over her fallen hero father. Not the strained relationship with her absent mother and clueless stepdad. In the turquoise water, swimming is an escape and her ticket to somewhere—anywhere—else. And nothing will get in her way of claiming victory.

But when the competitive streak follows Brynn out of the pool in a wickedly seductive cat-and-mouse game between herself, her wild best friend, and a hot new college swimmer, Brynn’s single-mindedness gets her in over her head, with much more than a trophy to lose.”

Note: I was at a S&S event last year at ALA annual where I watched teens vote between two covers for this title. This is the cover that won.

Publishes July 8, 2014 from Simon Pulse. ISBN: 9781481401364

Trouble by Non Pratt

Publisher’s Description:In this dazzling debut novel, a pregnant teen learns the meaning of friendship—from the boy who pretends to be her baby’s father.

When the entire high school finds out that Hannah Shepard is pregnant via her ex-best friend, she has a full-on meltdown in her backyard. The one witness (besides the rest of the world): Aaron Tyler, a transfer student and the only boy who doesn’t seem to want to get into Hannah’s pants. Confused and scared, Hannah needs someone to be on her side. Wishing to make up for his own past mistakes, Aaron does the unthinkable and offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah’s unborn baby. Even more unbelievable, Hannah hears herself saying “yes.”

Told in alternating perspectives between Hannah and Aaron, Trouble is the story of two teenagers helping each other to move forward in the wake of tragedy and devastating choices. As you read about their year of loss, regret, and hope, you’ll remember your first, real best friend—and how they were like a first love.”

Note: Received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly 5/01/2014

Publishes June 10, 2014 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9781442497726

The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher by Jessica Lawson

Publisher’s Description: “In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

Becky decides that she and Amy need a bag of dirt from a bad man’s grave as protection for entering the Widow’s house, so they sneak out to the cemetery at midnight, where they witness the thieving Pritchard brothers digging up a coffin. Determined to keep her family safe (and to avoid getting in trouble), Becky makes Amy promise not to tell anyone what they saw.

When their silence inadvertently results in the Widow Douglas being accused of the graverobbery, Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again and fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way . . . if that tattle-tale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.”

Note: Received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly 5/05/2014, for Middle Grade readers ages 8 to 12.

Publishes July 22, 2014 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9781481401500

Memorial Day Reads

Today is Memorial Day.  Today is a day to honor the men and women who have served and died in the U.S. Military. I come from a military family, the Air Force. Every three years we moved to a new military base. Twice members of my family were stationed overseas. My brother was born on an Air Force base in Japan. Thankfully, no member of my immediate family ever served in a war. But I do have a couple of friend’s whose husbands served in our recent wars. Those men, they came back haunted. Some of them are missing body parts. But they all seem to be missing a piece of them, they all seem so different. I have seen those marriages end as these men (and in this case, they were men) tried to re-adjust back to life as a civilian. Some of them were depressed. Some of them were angry. But they all seemed haunted in one way or another. We don’t do enough to honor our commitments to those who serve, especially in regards to their mental health. So when you pick up a book to read today, read one of these YA titles and get a look into life for the people who have served and the people that love them.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Hayley’s dad is so haunted by memories of Iraq that he can’t find a place to stay, a place where he feels safe. This means a lot of moving around for Hayley. But then the return to her dad’s hometown, a place that may help him heal – or make everything worse.

If I Lie by Corrine Jackson

Quin has kissed a guy who isn’t her boyfriend, the local hero Carey. Carey is serving in Afghanistan. Now everyone is telling secrets about Quinn, shunning her for her betrayal, but they don’t know the truth. Secrets, shame, and small towns take center stage.


In Honor by Jessi Kirby

Honor receives her brother’s last letter 3 days after she learns he has died in Iraq.  He sends her on a quest to tell his favorite singer, Kyra Kelly, that he was in love with her.  A touching road trip through grief.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Travis returns from Afghanistan to to find that his parents have split up, his brother has stolen his girlfriend and his car, and life just isn’t the same. In fact, Travis isn’t the same after losing his best friend and suffering from PTSD. This is Travis journey to creating a life that might be something like normal.

Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick

Private Matt Duffy wakes up in a military hospital and is awarded the Purple Heart.  But the memory of a young boy’s death haunts him.  He worries that he is somehow responsible.

Personal Effects by E. M. Kokie

Matt’s older brother is killed in Iraq. When he gets his brothers personal effects, he makes a shocking discovery that rocks his world and makes him question everything he thought he knew.

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

Even if you give it a fancy name, a patriotic name – say Operation Iraqi Freedom – to the soldiers fighting on the front lines it’s all still the same. No matter what you call it, it’s still a war. And for those soldiers fighting that war, even your war with a fancy inspirational name, it’s still gunshots and fear and sometimes even death. These men and women on the front lines, like the young man named Birdy from Harlem, sometimes after they get there and see what war is really like, sometimes they’re not sure they really want to be there. Because as they say, war is hell, no matter what kind of a name you give it.

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

Levi’s brother Boaz has returned home from the war, but things are not okay. Boaz is different. These are the things a brother just knows. So when Boaz leaves again, Levi follows him. Together they learn things that only a brother knows.


All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg

Matt Pin was airlifted out of Vietnam during the war.  He now lives in the US with an adoptive family.  But he is haunted by secrets.  A powerful, moving debut from 2009.


If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

There are 2 things I really loved this book: 1) It has a very spot on depiction of poverty and the emotions and barriers that a child living in poverty face and 2) it has a very accurate depiction of what military life is like for the child. I particularly related to the getting orders and having to move quickly feelings expressed. This is also a really compelling story about friendship, discrimination, and the life of a boy growing up on a Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975.

And One to be on the Lookout For . . . 

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

This book is not out until later this year, but make a note. Sean Norwhalt is navigating his senior year of high school. His family is falling apart, he’s been dumped, and he knows that there aren’t a lot of good options out there for him. His only hope seems to be the Marine Corps, which no one believes he will really join. Well, that, and this thing happening with Neecie Albertson, whatever this thing may be. Mesrobian is the Morris finalist for her debut novel Sex & Violence, which won a ton of accolades and appeared on a lot of best of 2013 lists. PGWB captures the voice of a lost young man perfectly. It also provides some very detailed insight into the journey into military life. I have a lot of teens that come in asking for books about the military and I thought this captures the emotional and technical journey into military life quite well. This book resonates emotionally.

What are your favorite titles about soldiers and the military?  Share with us in the comments. You can find some additional lists here, here and here.

Past is Prologue: Take 5 Historical Fictions for Dystopia Fans

Evil governmental oppressors, secrets, spies and deception, a roiling underclass yearning to break out of bondage and one true hero who finds the way to do it – this is the stuff we love in our dystopian novels. But these are not only features in dystopia. We can look to history for plenty of examples of unjust governments, evil regimes, oppressed people seeking freedom, and plenty of heroes.  Below are five novels drawn on events, attitudes, and situations from the past that were all too real, and also employ many of the same appeal elements as dystopian novels. 

Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

Marina is born of privilege. Her mother, Sveta, is the Soviet Union’s prima ballerina: an international star handpicked by the regime. But Sveta is afflicted with a mysterious second sight and becomes obsessed with exposing a horrific state secret. Then she disappears. 

Fearing for their lives, Marina and her father defect to Brooklyn. Marina struggles to reestablish herself as a dancer at Juilliard. But her enigmatic partner, Sergei, makes concentration almost impossible, as does the fact that Marina shares her mother’s “gift,” and has a vision of her father’s murder at the hands of the Russian crooks and con artists she thought they’d left behind.  

Now Marina must navigate the web of intrigue surrounding her mother’s disappearance, her ability, and exactly whom she can—and can’t—trust.

Soldier X by Don Wulffson

Sixteen-year-old Erik Brandt barely knows what Germany is fighting for when he is drafted into Hitler’s army in 1944. Sent to the killing fields of the Eastern Front, he is surrounded by unimaginable sights, more horrific than he ever thought possible. It’s kill or be killed, and it seems clear that Erik’s days are numbered. Until, covered in blood and seriously injured, he conceives of another way to survive. Filled with gritty and visceral detail, Soldier X will change the way every reader thinks about the reality of war.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

One ordinary afternoon, fifeen-year-old Lilo and her family are suddenly picked up by Hitler’s police and imprisoned as part of the “Gypsy plague.” Just when it seems certain that they will be headed to a labor camp, Lilo is chosen by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to work as a film extra. Life on the film set is a bizarre alternate reality. The surroundings are glamorous, but Lilo and the other extras are barely fed, closely guarded, and kept in a locked barn when not on the movie set. And the beautiful, charming Riefenstahl is always present, answering the slightest provocation with malice, flaunting the power to assign prisoners to life or death. Lilo takes matters into her own hands, effecting an escape and running for her life. In this chilling but ultimately uplifting novel, Kathryn Lasky imagines the lives of the Gypsies who worked as extras for the real Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, giving readers a story of survival unlike any other.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson

It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother — a princess in exile from a faraway land — are the only persons in their household assigned names. As the boy’s regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments — and his own chilling role in them. Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson’s extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
A gothic tale becomes all too shockingly real in this mesmerizing magnum opus by the acclaimed author of FEED

Sekret by Lindsay Smith

An empty mind is a safe mind.
Yulia’s father always taught her to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive the harsh realities of Soviet Russia. But when she’s captured by the KGB and forced to work as a psychic spy with a mission to undermine the U.S. space program, she’s thrust into a world of suspicion, deceit, and horrifying power. Yulia quickly realizes she can trust no one–not her KGB superiors or the other operatives vying for her attention–and must rely on her own wits and skills to survive in this world where no SEKRET can stay hidden for long.


Book covers and descriptions from the publishers.

Going Back in Time: Middle School-Style – Booktalks by Kearsten LaBrozzi

This month, my middle school book club and I talked historical fiction, naming titles, authors, and six words or phrases to describe the books.  As we shared our past month’s reads, two themes featured prominently: required reading is not always their favorite (e.g., My Brother Sam is Dead and Hound of the Baskervilles) and yes, they, too, read fanfiction!   

Here are just a couple of the books we talked about.

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay.  7th grader Galadriel recommends this collection of “bad girls” throughout history using these words/phrases: innocent or guilty, historical, women, interesting, and Typhoid Mary.  Each woman’s story is told, and then followed with a short comic of the writers, mother and daughter Jane and Heidi, arguing about each woman’s guilt or innocence.  Galadriel found Typhoid Mary’s story the most interesting: a cook who served up peaches and cream with a possiblyunintentional side of typhoid fever, and didn’t seem all that remorseful about the many infections (and several deaths) she caused. 

The Book Thiefby Marcus Zusak. Death, our narrator in The Book Thief, is tired. He’s carried many souls from here to…somewhere else, and doesn’t usually notice the survivors. Sometimes, however, the truly extraordinary make him care. Liesel, a young orphan in Germany in 1939, is one such case. Death checks in with her over the years, as she steals books and cherishes the words inside, and he collects the dead throughout Europe during WWII. Last month 7thgrader Annalise recommended that I read this one (I’d put it off for years, afraid I’d sob through it. I did), and I used these words/phrases to describe it: words, beautiful, World War II, fear, family, and devastating.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Maybe you have a hankering for the detective life, or are more than a little obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. If so, why not try the original Holmes?  In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Watson investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. His death appears to have been caused by a very large dog, which family lore claims haunts the Baskerville grounds. But is that just a convenient cover for a more dastardly plot? 8th grader Ayonna, who read the story for class, started out with slow as one of her six words/phrases, but followed with mystery, surprising, murderous, moorland and convicts.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.  Octavia E. Butler was a wicked good, award-winning science fiction author, and it shows Kindred.  In it, 26-year-old Dana is swept back and forth in time, from the present day to America’s slave-owning past. In the past, she struggles with life as a slave while trying to ensure that the slave owner, Rufus, survives…as she’s discovered that he’s her ancestor. The words/phrases 7th grader Jordyn used to describe Kindred were scifi, slavery, historical fiction and time-travel.

My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier.  Revolutionary War, death, family, taverns, grief, and Lobster Backs (the British); these are the words and phrases 7thgrader Annalise used to describe this story of the Revolutionary War. Tim lives a quiet life with his British-supporting family until 1775, when his beloved older brother leaves the family to fight against the British. In a bout of teen-irreverence, Annalise referred to this required read as “My Bro Sammy Kicked the Bucket.”

Bonus: while I’ve heard a lot about fanfiction from many of my high school teens (I’ve been handing out Rainbow Rowell’s fantastic Fangirllike crazy), I hadn’t realized how many 7th & 8thgraders were reading – and loving – fanfiction! The middle schoolers in my book club recommended I try out Wattpad (http://www.wattpad.com) for both fanfiction and unpublished works. The site also offers a free mobile app, so these kids can read their Hetalia(a manga/anime in which world countries are argumentative and very attractive teens) fanfiction anywhere.

Karen’s Historical Fiction Challenge Update: Tarnish by Katherine Longshore

So, I have now read the 4th out of 5 books in my personal historical fiction challenge.  That book was Tarnish by Katherine Longshore.  So, let’s chat.

We all know I am not awesome at history, that’s the reason for the challenge.  This book is about Anne Boleyn, and even I know who she is.  I loved her in this book because she was the anti-thesis of everything that I struggle with as a historical fiction nonreader: she is strong willed, intelligent, and refuses to be put in the pretty, pretty box that a lot of women are forced to be in.  But she suffers for it in reputation, when we first meet her she has just returned from being sent away for a previous thing.  Longshore creates a strong, admirable female character while remaining authentic to the time period.

Anne is trying to seek the favor of the king in court and she strikes up a deal with the devil, in this case the devil is named Thomas Wyatt.  Everything about their bargain is interesting as they both try to remain true to their character, win, and to up their station in court.  The one thing they can’t do is to allow themselves to fall in love.  That would be bad and put both of their stations in jeopardy.  Plus, Wyatt is already married.  But marriage isn’t much of a deterrent in this time period because almost all the men have mistresses and very few of the people marry for love.  That in itself is a very interesting aspect of this world.

Like The Rose Throne (which is technically fantasy, not historical fiction) and Maid of Honor, there is a lot of action taking place here in court.  And I don’t mean the throw the book at them court, but the we are all part of the king’s (or queen’s) inner circle jockeying for position court.  If you like that type of historical fiction, then you will find this to be an excellent read.

The one thing I really struggled with was the YA aspect of this:  I am not sure that it really has a teen voice.  Anne is supposed to be around 16 in this book, and of course she wouldn’t talk like a modern day teenager, but her voice was really mature and sophisticated.  That’s probably correct for the time period, but I don’t know how well my teen readers would embrace it.  Also, there was a lot of very frank, mature discussion of sex.  For example, Anne’s sister is a mistress to the king and often refers to herself as a whore.  So while I thought it was a really well developed and written story, it didn’t necessarily read as YA to me.

So, things that are done well and I really liked:

The characters are richly developed
The deal with the devil and the plan to catch a king, with all of its emotional complexity
The behind the scenes look at a well known historical character and incident
The thoughtful look at what it means to fall in love and some people are willing to sacrifice that for status
There was a lot of interesting family stuff in here that I didn’t mention

Things I am on the fence about:

To me, it didn’t read “young adult”.  It would work just as well in the adult section and I think find a much bigger audience there.  But then, this type of historical fiction is not as popular with my teens as it is with adult readers.  That’s how it read, to me, an adult book that teen readers of the genre would also love.  But I read a ton of reviews on the title and I am the only one who says this so I must be doing something wrong.  But then, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction (hence the challenge) so I have nothing really to compare it to.

School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave it favorable reviews.  It is well written, engaging, and definitely fills an important collection need.  Add it.  Longshore’s first title is Gilt, a novel about Catherine Howard’s marriage to Henry VIII.

The One Long Epic Story That is History, a guest post by Christina Hicks

When I was in the 5th grade I had a history teacher who told us that his idea of Heaven would be to sit in a movie theater and watch all of history like it was one long, epic movie. That was he wanted, well that and really buttery popcorn! Much later, I went on to study history in college. When I think back, it’s that little story that partly inspired my love of history. 

Rather than think of history like a movie, though, I’ve always considered history to be one long, epic story. And I love stories. So historical fiction has always fit in perfectly with my interests. I enjoy many different genres but historical fiction has always given me a sense of understanding of and connection to the past. Whether its Vikings or pioneers. Servants or princesses. Ordinary people living ordinary lives or famous people changing the world. Through these books I have lived hundreds of different lives in hundreds of different times, it’s not unlike time travel. But, unlike other types of fiction they not only transported me to another time and place, they sometimes helped me in class! 

Even though I loved most of my history classes in school, I’ll be the first to admit that they could also be boring at times. But reading historical fiction made those dates and battles, kings and queens relevant because they affected the characters in the books I read. And often, I learned more about the cultures and societies that motivated people’s actions through fiction of those time periods than I could through dry text books. 

Here are a few historical fiction novels that I have loved, among them you will find different genres and even different formats, which I think proves that anyone can find something to love in historical fiction! 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

 Kit struggles to fit into life in a Connecticut colony after growing up in the vibrant Caribbean. Her Puritan relatives live a much stricter life than she is used to and everything she does seems wrong. When her only friend in the town is accused of witchcraft, Kit is also suspected.

My mom suggested this book to me when I was in junior high and I still reread it regularly. Kit’s outsider perspective gave me a lot of insight into the time of the Salem witchtrials and Puritan values. Kit’s adventurous and independent nature and its tendency to get her into trouble are always thrilling to read.

The Agency series by Y.S. Lee

In 1850’s London, Mary Quinn has been sentenced to hang for theft. Luckily she is rescued and offered the chance at an unusual education. At Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary is taught all the things a proper Victorian young lady should know. She is also trained to be a part of the elite and secret team of female investigators known as The Agency.

I love this series. Mary begins her story as a starving thief in the poorest streets of London, travels into some of the richest households, and also disguises herself as a boy. The mysteries are nice and twisty and there is plenty of suspense. Plus Mary’s ethnicity reveals issues in English history that aren’t talked about much in history classes. The third book The Traitor in the Tunnel just came out!

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Grounded for firing his father’s World War II era rifle, Jack spends a summer working with his neighbor who just so happens to be the small of Norvelt’s Medical Examiner AND obituary writer.

Okay, that’s not a great description, but believe me there is so much going on this book you don’t want to get me started talking about it. This is a semi-autobiographical account of Jack Gantos’ childhood. Parts of his real life are just as ridiculous as anything fictitious, so have fun trying to figure out what really happened and what he made up! There is a sequel coming out in September 2013 called From Norvelt to Nowhere.

A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori

“Amir Halgal is a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her.”

A Bride’s Story is a historical manga series, it is beautifully written and drawn. Arranged marriages are such a foreign concept to American minds, and they’re usually seen as two people being forced together. This story shows how that is not always a horrible thing and watching Amir and her husband get to know one another is really sweet. But then her village decides they want her back!

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell

“This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.” 

This is another graphic novel and the art brings the story to life. This semi-autobiographical story was particularly powerful for me, as I grew up near and still live in Houston. And yet I knew nothing about these incidents (they took place almost 20 years before I was born, but still!). Learning about struggles over civil rights that took place in my own hometown definitely gave me different perspective and opened my eyes a lot.

I hope you find something new to try within these recommendations or are inspired to give historical fiction a try!


Bio: Christina Hicks is the Young Adult librarian for the Friendswood Public Library in Friendswood Texas. She has been described as practically perfect in every way. She blogs at http://friendswoodlibrary.blogspot.com/

Take 5: Read about your “Mummy” (and Egypt)

Today we are going “Beneath the Surface” for the Collaborative Summer Reading program and talking about Mummies.  Earlier, we shared some movie and programming ideas. But you’ll definitely want to share some good reads as well.  For example, you can’t go wrong with a John Bellairs mystery, can you?  Here you have Johnny Dixon searching an abandoned house for a missing will . . . with the undead at his heels.  Also kicking it old school, R. L. Stine has a good mummy story with Goosebumps #5: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb.  Tween readers STILL ask about Goosebumps and Fear Street at my library, so don’t be afraid to use them!  Speaking of Goosebumps, do check out Chris D.’s love letter to the Goosebump series.

Here are 5 more Mummy/Ancient Egypt books to share with your tweens and teens . . .

Mummy by Caroline Cooney
Emlyn plots with some co-conspirators to steal a mummy from the museum. 2000.

Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbuy
Trapped in the structured life of the pretty girl parade of a debutant in 1815 London, Agnes unwraps a mummy – and unleashes a secret that could change her destiny.  Party 1 of a series.  2011.

Sphinx’s Princess by Esther Freisner
Nefertiti was more than just a pretty face.  She was also a pawn for a power.  And a woman who tried to rise above what her world tried to make her be.  Book 2 is Sphinx’s Queen. 2009.

Lights of the Nile by Donna Jo Napoli
Kepi must travel alone to the city and stand up to the great pharoah Khufu after she and her beloved pet are captured and separated. 2011.

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
Dr. Kane accidentally unleashes the Egyptian god Set who banishes him to oblivion and forces his children, Carter and Sadie, to flee for their lives.  The Gods of Egypt are waking, and they have their sights set on the Kane family.  Book 1 of the Kane Chronicles. 2010.
Do you have some more titles to add to our list?  Share them in the comments.

My Historical Fiction Challenge, an update (Book Reviews for Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan and The Rose Throne by Mattie Ivie Harrison)

When I was in the 8th grade, my parents received a mysterious letter in the the mail.  I soon would learn it was called a “Progress Report”.  In this particular case, it was reporting the fact that I was not making very good progress in the subject of history.  In fact, I was failing. There was punishment involved. And tears.  Eventually, I passed 8th grade history and went on to pass all other history classes. But a hate affair was history was born.

But this only partially explains my struggles with reading historical fiction.  I am an accidental though not apologetic feminist.  One thing that stood out to me in my travels through the history timeline is how prone we are to treating others different, often less than, ourselves.  And as a woman, it stung to learn that there was a time when my parents may have traded me to a man for a cow in marriage.  For the record the man would have married me, not the cow.  Or that I didn’t have the right to vote.  Or that I couldn’t get my tubes tied to prevent myself from dying in pregnancy without my husband’s permission.  So I came to realize that part of what I struggle with in reading historical fiction is how it (sometimes) romanticizes the past and the subjugation of women (or others).  Not all of it, of course, but there is a tendency in historical fiction to have a romantic bent and, in all honesty, I am not very romantic and I don’t find the oppression of any people group romantic.

BUT . . . last year I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which literally knocked my socks off.  See my naked toes wiggle.  Here was a strong, confident, take charge woman rising above the cultural norms. Two of theme even!  And it was just an amazing book.  So this year, I decided to challenge myself and read 5 historical fiction titles.  You can read about that challenge here: Take A Step Back in Time.

So, how am I doing and what do I think? Why, I’m glad you asked.

“themes of empowerment woven into its tapestry of Tudor-set intrigue” – from Between the Covers, on Maid of Secrets

The first title I read was Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan.  It is part one of a new series called Maid of Secrets.  When we first Meg, she is part of an acting troupe/gang of thieves.  Interestingly, women couldn’t act in this time period so she is sent out to work the crowd and is a master thief.  Ironically, she is also a great actress.  Meg was awesome because she is very nontraditional; see, for example, master thief.  She is eventually caught and forced to be a spy for the Queen. She is one of many, each of whom have different skills they bring to the table.  There is crossing and double crossing and a threat around every corner.  And sometimes fancy dancing. Also, there is a murderer.  So, as you can see, this was not at all what I was expecting and was a very interesting read.  I thought Meg was a strong female character, there were many others, and there was a lot of nice twists here.  It is a compelling read.  I did have problems tracking some of the characters and their titles, but I am pretty sure that is a reader issue and not a storyteller issue.  I will actually continue to read the series to find out what happens, which is high praise indeed.  This is a must have and I think readers of mysteries and thrillers will be happy reading this title along with historical fiction readers. I give it a 4 out of 5 stars for strong character development, and intricate and thrilling plot, and empowering females while still being realistic to the historical setting.

“There are some secrets worth killing for.  And some deaths that are worth keeping secret.” – Maid of Secrets

Two princesses, two kingdoms, and ancient prophecy . . . 

The second title I read was The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison.  The first thing you should know is that this is not actually historical fiction, it is fantasy.  But like a lot of fantasy, it has a medieval times sort of feel to it.  Here we meet two princesses from neighboring kingdoms: Ailsbett and Marissa.  They live in a world where men have a certain type of magic and women another, except one of the princesses has no magic in a world that esteems magic more than anything.  Both of these women are forced in various ways to hide their true thoughts and feelings and put in a variety of roles that often make them miserable.  In short, they were forced to be everything I hate about historical fiction, but it IS authentic to what life like that back then would have been (and it is authentic to this fantasy world).  It just makes me ragey (and thankful I was born in the 20th century).  They do grow and make amazing choices, but often at great cost.  I thought that this book was a little slower in its storytelling and incomplete in its world building.  However, my mom borrowed and read the book and she loved it.  It has its charms, for example, I was invested in both the princesses and wanted them to break out of this oppressive life to pursue their passions, but I think it really was a case of wrong reader.  It has 48 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 3.29 and I would give it a 2.5 largely in part because I felt it was slow to develop and I would have liked a bit more world building, which may come in the sequels.  Also, the language was a little stilted and formal for me.  My mom, however, would give it a 3.5 and is looking forward to reading more.  I must add, one of the Kings in this story is such a good dad and the other is truly barbaric.  Games of Thrones fans may appreciate another look at Kings and kingdoms wrestling for power.

“I assure you, if I had been in control of myself, I would not have done it.  I would have been safe instead of courageous.” – The Rose Throne

It is interesting to me to even compare the covers.  Maid of Secrets, we see a strong, confident female with her head up and holding a knife.  Everything about her screams power and confidence.  Make no mistake, she is not entirely powerful as she is being held a prisoner by the Queen and forced to serve as a spy, but she has an inner power and confidence that allows her to still have some autonomy.  With The Rose Throne, we see a girl looking down, her head bowed.  One of our princesses, in particular, is very much forced to be in subjugation to the prince that she is betrothed to and his father the king.  In fact, she is in love with another man and must work hard to hide this secret out of fear of what will happen if others learn; It’s a very Romeo and Juliet doomed, star crossed love affair.  So your romantic readers should eat it up (remember, that is so not me.)  And there is romance in Maid of Secrets, so don’t despair.

I have had a lot of teens come in lately and ask for historical fiction.  Demand has been increasing it seems in my area.  Are you seeing the same trend?

Next up, Tarnish by Katherine Longshore.  It comes highly recommended so I am excited.  How about YOU?! What historical fiction have you been loving and why?  Let me know in the comments.