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Book Review: A Man Called Horse: John Horse and the Black Seminole Underground Railroad by Glennette Tilley Turner

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

Abrams. Sept. 2021. 112p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781419749339.

Gr 6-9–This fascinating look at the complex life of Black Seminole leader John Horse, a warrior, diplomat, and champion for his people, follows his tireless search for freedom, safety, and home. Foundational background is given about Seminole Indians and Black Seminoles (descendants of Seminoles and free Blacks and escaped slaves) as well as the First Seminole War, the Indian Removal Act, and the Second Seminole War. It was during the Second Seminole War that John Horse, a skilled negotiator, interpreter, guide, and advisor, began to rise to leadership. Horses’s life and travels are detailed as he sought peace and security for his people through the southern United States, and eventually Mexico. Escapes, deportations, challenges, promises, possibilities, and perilous situations marked Horse’s quest. He worked determinedly to find a new home for Black Seminoles, who had unresolved and changing statuses during this time of the mid-to-late 1800s. Horse was constantly negotiating to encourage protection, treaties, land grants, and autonomy for his people.

Engravings, photographs, illustrations, and painting adorn most of the full-color pages, with chapters providing just enough information to feel thorough without feeling overwhelming. Well laid-out and engaging, this biography shows the significant impact John Horse had on the rights, recognition, freedom, and protection of Black Seminoles, who were considered slaves by Americans and Seminoles. The volume wraps up with additional information on battles, places of refuge, rescues, and expeditions. A time line, author’s note, chapter notes, bibliography, and index round out the book.

VERDICT An important examination of a historical figure who hasn’t been featured that often in books for young readers.

Adrift In Toxic Nostalgia, a guest post by London Shah

Despite being a detailed planner in my approach to writing, something I hadn’t considered beforehand in my Light the Abyss science-fiction series—The Light at the Bottom of the World, and Journey to the Heart of the Abyss—was the themes. One of the issues that emerged as I wrote is that of toxic nostalgia. My underwater world is drowning in such destructive sentimentality.

Of course, nostalgia can have important psychological functions, providing—among other things—comfort, meaning, and understanding. It’s harmless when it remains reflective and aware. But this beautiful, complex human emotion is also a great tool for comparing our present with the past, and thus is so often exploited by those who seek to control us. Politicians, and the media loyal to them, are all too aware of the power of nostalgia. Whenever a nation is struggling to reassert itself, its society is bombarded with accounts of their once glorious past. A seemingly harmless practice, logical even. But the problem is, it rarely stops at factual history.

What we witness instead, is a steady onslaught of past accomplishments that have been distorted and stripped of all context and cost to human life. A subtle bombardment of inflated facts and figures regaling a proud bygone era. A false representation. With the rhetoric designed specifically to capture our attention and rouse us, its effects are formidable. And, as we have recently witnessed in countless nations around the world, toxic nostalgia often has debilitating consequences. Hence why it’s always proved a favourite tool of the fascist.

The Light the Abyss series is set in 2099, deep underwater. But the society of my storyworld is entrenched, in every way possible, in life pre-floods. Everything connected with the era of dry land—everything about us, here and now—is viewed as a once utopian existence, and every facet of society harks back to the “good old days” before the catastrophic disaster relocated humanity to the deep. The fear of accepting their current circumstances, of moving on, is so great it’s frozen their compass. As always, the safest, most comfortable direction then is the familiar one—and so they look back. They cannot envision an existence in which the past does not play a dominant role. The very motto of the government is No past, no future. This is even as they enjoy the fruits of their time. Inspiring technologies are commonplace, gadgets and systems we can currently only dream of, but these items are widely identified by Old World terminology.

There’s no limit today to the ways and circumstances in which the powerful effects of nostalgia are exploited. The past is also regularly revived as a tool for distraction from current issues. Those in power will consistently choose to highlight a proud bygone moment, rather than tackle very real current problems. As if, say, adding another statue in the hopes of stirring some national pride, might deflect from the horrors of children going hungry, starving even.

At one point in my story, the prime minister announces a personal gift to all Britons: A referendum on returning the capital city to “its former glory” by renaming it Londinium—the Roman-era name for London. I wanted to express the (sometimes) utter ludicrousness of our obsession with the past. Where does it end? The most common recreation in my submerged society is role-playing pre-floods life in one of the countless re-enactment halls around the country. And not just marked occasions in history, but ordinary days and scenes, too. The fact they’re set in the Old World is reason enough to relive them, to find escape in them. Today, no matter the medium, we are exposed to an endless romanticising of past times. Even moments of great suffering, such as disease-ridden and poverty-stricken Victorian life, cannot escape the glow of our rosy lens. It’s no wonder then that the arts and recreation of my storyworld are overwhelmingly centred around life before the global flooding.

Those in my submerged Britain long for an imaginary, glorified version of ourlives here and now, just as our present-day politicians present to us dramatized and oversimplified versions of our own past. The irony is, it’s more often the very philosophies those in power believe and seek to enact, that cause us such discontent, yet apparently the answer also lies with this same group of people—as long as they’re able to retain/increase their influence, of course.

How our past is so often exploited is another argument for the importance of understanding our own history. It’s a strong shield against those who recall it selectively when it suits them, those who intentionally distort it, and also those who seek to rewrite it.

If we’re to move forward positively and successfully, we need facts. We need only truths—however unsavoury they might be. What will never serve us well, is some idealised past playing with our emotions, a history presented to us anew simply to secure someone’s political gains. And we already know all this, and yet still we fall for it time and time again; such is the pull of galvanising rhetoric and the need to believe there’s an answer to any present social grievances. Because sometimes those misrepresented past accounts can understandably feel like our only hope. Afterall, is it not better to feel that a more preferable way of life isn’t impossible, than to remain dissatisfied? Those seeking power know how desperate we are to believe things can improve, and that’s why at every opportunity for increased control and influence—whether elections, passing a new law, making a case for certain action, and so on—we are almost always made to suffer the same distorted and biased accounts of our past.

Attempting to manipulate a peoples’ understanding of their present, their collective memories, a nation’s past; to rewrite history—these things are not only unethical, but could spark grave and far-reaching consequences. We must remain aware of those who seek to exploit our very human tendency for nostalgia. Even when, such as in the Light the Abyss world, our way of life has altered radically.

Meet the author

London Shah is a British-born Muslim of Pashtun ethnicity. She has lived in Britain’s capital for most of her life, via England’s beautiful North. On any given day she can be found daydreaming of a different past, an alternate present, or some surreal future. She enjoys drinking copious amounts of tea, eating all the sweets and cakes, strolling through Richmond Park or along the Thames, getting lost on an evening in the city’s older, darker alleyways—preferably just after it’s rained—listening to punk rock, and losing herself in a fab SFF book or film. 

About Journey to the Heart of the Abyss

The sequel to London Shah’s thrilling futuristic mystery The Light at the Bottom of the World, perfect for fans of Illuminae and These Broken Stars

Leyla McQueen has finally reunited with her father after breaking him out of Broadmoor, the illegal government prison—but his freedom comes at a terrible cost. As Leyla celebrates his return, she must grapple with the pain of losing Ari. Now separated from the boy who has her heart and labeled the nation’s number one enemy, Leyla must risk illegal travel through unchartered waters in her quest for the truth behind her father’s arrest.

Across Britain, the fallout from Leyla’s actions has escalated tensions between Anthropoid and non-Anthropoid communities, bringing them to an all-time high. And, as Leyla and her friends fight to uncover the startling truths about their world, she discovers her own shocking past—and the horrifying secrets behind her father’s abduction and arrest. But as these long-buried truths finally begin to surface, so, too, do the authorities’ terrible future plans. And if the ever-pervasive fear prevents the people from taking a stand now, the abyss could stay in the dark forever.

ISBN-13: 9780759555075
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 11/16/2021
Series: Light the Abyss Series #2
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Playing with Time, a guest post by G. Z. Schmidt

In grade school, we were taught that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, and that the events always progress in a clear, chronological order. Me, I’ve always enjoyed stories that play around with time. Time travel, jumping across timelines, non-linear narratives. To quote the famous TV show Doctor Who, “People assume that time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.” The beginning and end for any story is arbitrary, if you think about it. 

My first middle grade novel, No Ordinary Thing, was a time traveling story. The book is told in a dual narrative, featuring two main characters. One lives in New York during the 1900s. The other lives in the same city a century later. Through the time traveling snow globe, the two characters meet at different stages in their lives.

Admittedly, writing such a book was a colossal challenge. I had to keep track of all the time jumps and dates, when the characters met, overlapping timelines, etc. This was in addition to the extensive amount of stuff that already needs attention when editing with a publisher, such as character development and pacing. Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. 

In addition, time travel has an inherent paradox. It doesn’t always make sense when you think about it. But that’s part of the appeal (or challenge). I like stories that are more open-ended, stories that don’t fill in all the holes and leave things open to the reader’s interpretation. I enjoy magic realism, where the rules of the magic are not explained. 

Still, once I finished revisions for No Ordinary Thing, I told myself, Okay, no more time travel stories again!

Ironically, my second middle grade novel, The Dreamweavers, also jumps around in time, but in a different way. This book was easier to write because the narrative was much more straightforward. The Dreamweavers takes place in ancient China and follows a city that has fallen under a mysterious curse. Folks around the city know it as the City of Ashes—a forlorn place of abandoned homes and empty streets. Once upon a time, however, the city had been full of life and laughter. Through flashbacks, The Dreamweavers explores the tragic events that had happened to the city, and how the effects ripple across generations to the present day. 

This device is used in many of my favorite stories. The book Holes by Louis Sachar, for example, also spans across multiple generations. The book follows both the main character’s life, as well as his great-great-grandfather’s storyline. We see how events that happened nearly a century ago affect the present. One of my favorite TV shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender, also explores this idea. The Avatar is a master who has been reincarnated continually through previous lifetimes. Throughout the show, we see flashbacks of his previous lives, and how the mistakes of past leaders have influenced the future. 

There’s a popular quote that I live by: “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” History is never truly in the past. You can zoom out thirty, fifty, five hundred years, and you’ll still find traces of the past in modern day life. Laws and concepts from ancient Rome are being applied even today. Government systems and landmarks are shaped from millenniums past. It’s impossible to live apart from the past, to view it as a forgotten relic.

That’s why I enjoy writing stories that explore how the past intertwines with the future. In The Dreamweavers, the mysterious curse that afflicted the City of Ashes is the same one that fell upon the descendants of a particular family line, due to a crime committed by one of their ancestors. The descendants are not responsible for their ancestor’s crime. At the same time, however, our actions do affect people in future generations. The Dreamweavers explores the nuances of this. No Ordinary Thing goes one step further such that future events impact the past, due to the implications of time travel, but the idea remains the same. All our moments in life are interconnected with other peoples’.  

Maybe one day I can be as skilled as Christopher Nolan, who brings non-linear storytelling to a whole new level in his mind-bending films. It might be a little while before I can write book in reverse.

Tenet (2020) - IMDb

Meet the author

A person smiling under a tree

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G. Z. Schmidt is the middle grade author of No Ordinary Thing and The Dreamweavers, which released in September 2021. She was born in China and immigrated to the U.S. when she was six. She grew up in the Midwest and the South, where she chased fireflies at night and listened occasionally for tornado/hurricane warnings. She received her BA in Economics from Wellesley College. She currently lives in Southern California with her husband and their tuxedo cat.

Website: https://gzwrites.com

About The Dreamweavers

Twin siblings journey through the City of Ashes and visit the Jade Rabbit to save their grandpa in this Chinese folklore-inspired fantasy adventure.

Since their parents’ strange disappearance several years ago, 12-year-old twins Mei and Yun have been raised by their grandfather, who makes the best mooncakes around using a secret ingredient.

On the day of the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival, the emperor sends his son to sample Grandpa’s renowned mooncakes—but instead of tasting wonderful, they are horrible and bitter, strangely mirroring the odd, gloomy atmosphere and attitudes that have been washing over the village in the last few days. Grandpa is arrested for insulting and harming the prince, and Mei and Yun realize they are the only two people who will come to Grandpa’s aid.

The twins set out on foot for the long journey to the emperor’s palace where Grandpa’s being taken, but a surprising stop in the eerie City of Ashes, a visit with the legendary, mystical Jade Rabbit, and an encounter with a powerful poet whose enchanted words spread curses, influence just how Mei and Yun will manage to clear their grandfather’s name.

ISBN-13: 9780823444236
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Talking With Kids About 9/11, a guest post by Saadia Faruqi

Most young people don’t really care about 9/11. It’s not surprising, since the attacks occurred twenty years ago and are considered ancient history by anyone who’s growing up in the age of TikTok music videos. They study about it in schools in a very perfunctory manner, or hear about it from adults on each anniversary of the attacks. If they come from a family that was personally affected, they will pay homage to the victims. Beyond that, 9/11 isn’t really something on most kids’ radars.

Still, I find myself talking and writing about this subject frequently. I discuss it with my own children, a high-schooler and a middle schooler. I write about it in articles and essays. I think about it more than I probably should. The reason: 9/11 wasn’t just the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, it was also a phenomenon that led to a deep change in our society, our laws, and how we view each other. The day after the attacks in 2001, we began to view a group of our neighbors, friends, and community members as suspicious because they shared the religious beliefs of our enemy.

This group, Muslim Americans, were harassed on streets, told to “go back home” and treated like enemies. Our government enacted regulations that targeted us, such as additional security at airports, secret surveillance, and racial profiling. Kids were affected then, and still are today. In fact, those who weren’t even alive during 9/11 still have to live in a world completely shaped by that time period. Think about the movies they watch and the video games they play, where the enemy is always someone who looks like me. Think about the taunts in the cafeteria and the playground, where the targets are always kids like mine. Think about teachers saying grossly inaccurate and even offensive things when they teach World History or World Cultures. This treatment is extended to anyone who is perceived as Muslim: brown people, Hindus and Sikhs, Arabs, immigrants, and more.

These are all the reasons why we need to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath. It’s a much bigger and more nuanced conversation that many adults realize. It’s about who was impacted by government policies, and how prejudice was institutionalized. It’s about how we treat our neighbors and classmates. It’s about which regulations are wrong, and how we can use civic action to make changes.

The good news: kids are very smart. They will understand and analyze this issue in ways that will amaze you. They just need the opportunity to learn and discuss.

In my book YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO, I explore many aspects of a post 9/11 world and how they affected my community. Yusuf is a sweet, nerdy sixth grader excited about starting middle school, and maybe winning a regional robotics competition. But his small Texas town is preparing for the 20th anniversary of the attacks, riled up by a white supremacist group called the Patriot Boys who want to run Yusuf and his Muslim community out. They bully the kids in school and the adults in neighborhoods, block the construction of a new mosque, and vandalize private property. From calling a kid a terrorist in the school hallways, to accusing another of bringing a bomb to school, the story shines an ugly but accurate light on our society today.

Yusuf learns more about 9/11 from his uncle’s journal, and realizes that the past informs the present and therefore affects the future. That’s what I hope from all my young readers. Learn about history, because how human beings react to events and incidents offers insight about what needs fixing. We need to treat others better, and with more respect. We need to make our communities and schools more welcoming. We need to look at people with love and understanding, not hatred and suspicion. When we start talking about 9/11 and everything that happened after that – politically, culturally, religiously – we will begin healing.

Meet the author

Photo credit: QZB Photography

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children. 

About Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Joy, Connection and Community: Finding Pride in Books During a Pandemic, a conversation between Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan

Robin: Tom and I are excited to be finally launching our co-written YA novel, just in time for Pride month 2021! Of course, when we started writing this book a few years ago, we could never have guessed what 2021 would look like. I was living on the west coast of Canada, and Tom had moved back to the east coast, and we missed hanging out together in person. So I sent him a text…

Tom: I woke up one day and checked my phone (Nova Scotia is four hours ahead of B.C.) and there was a text from Robin that said something like: hey Tom I just had a great idea, we should a big queer Canadian YA novel together! I didn’t have to think it over, I just texted her back and said obviously! and things went from there. We had a few phone calls to figure out a rough plot, and then we started writing. I wrote the first chapter and sent it to Robin, who wrote one and sent it back to me, and so on and so forth. It was a lot of fun, and a really smooth and rewarding experience. The plot and the characters evolved as we wrote, but we both knew from the start that we wanted it to be really queer in an intergenerational way.

Robin: Over the last few years, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to talk with teens about LGBTQ+ rights, identities and communities. At one event, a teen came up to me, visibly upset, and explained that they had not known anything about the queer history I had just shared. “It’s MY history,” they said. “It’s the history of MY community. And no one ever talks about this stuff.” It really brought it home to me that queer history isn’t usually passed on to kids by their parents and often isn’t taught in school either. In WYGTC, our teenage characters hear stories from people who came out forty years before them, and they also try to explain things to a much younger sibling–and in both cases, the learning flows in both directions. That very much fits with my experience: I have a huge amount of respect for the hard work done by the generations of queer people who came before me, and I have learned so much from the ideas and activism of today’s teens and kids as well.

Tom: I feel exactly the same way. It’s been such a joy and a privilege to meet and talk with LGBTQ teens since I first started writing YA, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from them. Queer people have always had to go out into the world to find family and community, which is what makes Pride such a central and important concept and event. We were actually supposed to launch this book last year, with appearances at Pride festivals and events around Canada and the U.S. and a launch at Toronto Pride, which has a very central role in the book. Because of Covid, we decided with our publisher to delay our launch by a year, and now we find ourselves in a similar situation. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we still can’t gather, and Pride festivals are being cancelled for the second year in a row. It’s a bit of a bummer, but we genuinely hope readers will find some of the joy and connection and community of Pride in our book!

Robin: Absolutely. I know a lot of people have felt very isolated during the pandemic, and I think this last year has been particularly hard for teens. They are at an age when many people want to be stepping out into wider worlds, having more freedom, meeting new people and exploring new places. Instead, most of them have seen their worlds shrink around them! And of course we all know that some LGBTQ+ teens are not able be out to their families and may not have a lot of support at home—so for many of them, not being able to gather with their friends and communities has been devastating. While books can’t replace other kinds of connection, they often do help many readers to feel less alone. Diverse queer representation is more important now than ever, and I am so grateful to everyone who is helping get these books into the hands of teen readers. One important part of Pride is how it makes LGBTQ+ identities and communities more visible, and Tom and I tried to do this within our novel. We wanted readers to feel seen, and we wanted to give them a glimpse of what Pride can be. We hope readers will enjoy going to Pride with Talia and Mark as much as Tom and I did! Happy Pride, everyone!

Tom: Happy Pride indeed! I know there’s a rainbow waiting for us all when these clouds lift, and I honestly can’t wait for the day when we can finally meet up in person and celebrate WYGTC the way we always meant to. It might not be the launch season we expected, but Pride is always worth celebrating.

Meet the authors

TOM RYAN is the award-winning author of six books for children and teens. His debut novel, Way To Go, was a nominee for the OLA White Pine Award, and made the 2013 ALA Rainbow List, as well as YALSA’s 2013 Quick Picks. Tom was born and raised in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Halifax with his husband Andrew and their awesome dog.

ROBIN STEVENSON is the author of more than twenty books for children and teens. Robin’s YA novel A Thousand Shades of Blue was a finalist for Canada’s highest literary honor, and her middle-grade novel Record Breaker won the Silver Birch Award, Canada’s largest reader’s choice award for young readers. Robin lives on the west coast of Canada with her partner and their son.

About When You Get the Chance

Follow cousins on a road trip to Pride as they dive into family secrets and friendships in this contemporary novel—perfect for fans of David Levithan and Becky Albertalli.
As kids, Mark and his cousin Talia spent many happy summers together at the family cottage in Ontario, but a fight between their parents put an end to the annual event. Living on opposite coasts—Mark in Halifax and Talia in Victoria—they haven’t seen each other in years. When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, Mark and Talia find themselves reunited at the cottage once again, cleaning it out while the family decides what to do with it.
Mark and Talia are both queer, but they soon realize that’s about all they have in common, other than the fact that they’d both prefer to be in Toronto. Talia is desperate to see her high school sweetheart Erin, who’s barely been in touch since leaving to spend the summer working at a coffee shop in the Gay Village. Mark, on the other hand, is just looking for some fun, and Toronto Pride seems like the perfect place to find it.
When a series of complications throws everything up in the air, Mark and Talia—with Mark’s little sister Paige in tow—decide to hit the road for Toronto. With a bit of luck, and some help from a series of unexpected new friends, they might just make it to the big city and find what they’re looking for. That is, if they can figure out how to start seeing things through each other’s eyes.

ISBN-13: 9780762495009
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Book Review: No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves by Lee Wind

Publisher’s description

“History” sounds really official. Like it’s all fact. Like it’s definitely what happened.

But that’s not necessarily true. History was crafted by the people who recorded it. And sometimes, those historians were biased against, didn’t see, or couldn’t even imagine anyone different from themselves.

That means that history has often left out the stories of LGBTQIA+ people: men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries. Historians have even censored the lives and loves of some of the world’s most famous people, from William Shakespeare and Pharaoh Hatshepsut to Cary Grant and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Join author Lee Wind for this fascinating journey through primary sources—poetry, memoir, news clippings, and images of ancient artwork—to explore the hidden (and often surprising) Queer lives and loves of two dozen historical figures.

Amanda’s thoughts

This book is a great and rather unique addition to the growing field of books on LGBTQIA+ history. It’s absolutely packed full of information about people throughout history who were, generally speaking, not out as queer. The book includes letters from the subjects and people in their lives, autobiography excerpts, interviews, articles, and other excerpts from writing (for example, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets), which provide “proof” and historical context. One of the big draws of this book, beyond the content, is the format, which includes lots of pictures, text boxes, bits of primary source materials, subheadings, and little explanatory notes about parts of the materials. Instead of opening the book and finding long blocks of text, these busy and lively pages will engage readers who may otherwise find this kind of historical stuff intimidating.

While certainly interesting and educational as a whole, and worth reading all of, this is also the kind of book that encourages readers to dip in and out, reading about someone who may interest them more than others, or an identity that may be more of interest. The book includes extensive source notes, recommended resources, and an index. At the beginning, Wind helps set the scene for the book by talking about hidden histories, how he decided who to include in this book, some general notes (like on the term “in the closet” bi erasure, acronyms, info on primary and secondary source materials, and more.

A really interesting read with a conversational tone, vibrant format, and so much historical information. A necessary addition to collections.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781541581623
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Series: Queer History Project
Age Range: 12+

Why I Wrote Strongman. Facts Matter. So Does History, a guest post by Kenneth C. Davis

What makes a country fall to a dictator? How does an entire nation follow an authoritarian leader –a Strongman—down a dangerous and deadly path? How does democracy die?

These are difficult questions in ordinary times. But in recent years, as the United States has confronted serious threats to its democratic institutions, these questions have become more pressing. It is no longer an interesting academic exercise to worry about democracy. It is a grave concern that involves the very existence of our most precious rights and freedoms.

Since I was a small boy, I have always loved questions, history, and books. No surprise then that I made a career out of writing books that ask questions about history. In the past, for instance, I asked the question: “How did the men who conceived and fought for the Declaration of Independence go back to lives utterly dependent upon enslaved labor?” That question became the basis for my book In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (2016).

Kenneth C. Davis in the studio, recording a part of the audio edition of More Deadly Than War (2018 Photo courtesy of PenguinRandomHouse Audio)

Later I asked: “How did a deadly war early in the twentieth century contribute to the worst pandemic in modern history?” The answer was explored in my book More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (2018).

But raising questions about dictators and the fate of democracy that form the core of my latest work, Strongman, may be the most difficult and important questions I have ever posed.

The book Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy profiles Benito Mussolini of Italy, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. My intent was to demonstrate exactly how these men were able to seize power. The book lays out the tactics and techniques they used to secure complete control over a nation – with murderous results.

For many people, these are merely names in history books. Certainly, they are notorious names. Yet who these men were and what they did is a vague memory. Today, some people make pilgrimages to the tombs of Mao, Mussolini, and Stalin – misguidedly believing them to be heroic leaders and honoring the memory of despots who caused such misery and death in their own countries and around the world. In writing Strongman, I wanted to raise awareness of what these ruthless men did. And I wanted to explore their lives and times to understand how they were able to bring millions of followers down such destructive paths.

Throughout my career, I have always contended that history is more than dates, battles, and speeches. It is the story of real people doing real things in real places. When we learn history as a human story it becomes less abstract and dry and far more meaningful. Not only does it help us to understand how the past shaped the present. But I also believe that the lessons of the past can guide us to make good choices in our own times.

Kenneth C. Davis in his New York City office during a recent webinar with school teachers.

Having written about history for some thirty years, I certainly was aware of the role these Strongmen played in shaping the modern world. But as I began to research their lives, I was surprised by how ordinary they were in many respects as young men. As a boy, Adolf Hitler loved stories of the American West and then dreamed of becoming a painter. Joseph Stalin was in a seminary school and worked for a time keeping weather statistics. Mao Zedong defied his father who had arranged a marriage for him at age fourteen and he later applied for work in a soap factory before becoming a librarian’s assistant. They were in many respects typical, rebellious teenagers who gave no clue of their vicious destinies.

My research took me down many dark roads filled with cruelty, torture, secret police, deliberate starvation, concentrations camps, and mass murder. The degradation and death that each of these men was responsible for became clearer in the horrific toll of destruction they left in their wakes. It is not an easy story to tell. But we cannot look away.

My research also revealed the way these men — and their legions of followers– were able to seize power using a playbook of tactics that many autocrats and tyrants rely on– propaganda, purges of enemies, elimination of the free press and other safeguards to basic rights, and ultimately stamping out dissent. In the process, they destroy any glimmer of hope for democracy.

For much of the thirty years since my book Don’t Know Much About® History was first published in 1990, I remained fairly optimistic about the future of democracy – both in the United States and around the world. At the time the book appeared, the Soviet Union was crumbling, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and South Africa’s apartheid system would be vanquished. As budding democracies took root around the globe, the world appeared to enter an exciting moment in history. U.S. President George H.W. Bush even pronounced a “New World Order.” Prospects for greater freedom and more human rights seemed brighter as dictatorships fell away, replaced in many nations by “People Power.”

Finalists for the 2017 YALSA Awards ALA Midwinter, Atlanta, GA.
Left to right: Linda Barrett Osborne, the late Karen Blumenthal, Kenneth C. Davis, the late John Lewis, Gareth Hinds, Pamela S. Turner.
(Photo courtesy of Macmillan School and Library Marketing)

Despite the acts of terror and financial crises that followed in the early years of a new century, that optimism appeared secure when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Like many Americans, I was surprised and gratified that the United States had made the great leap of choosing a Black man for the nation’s highest office. Whether one agreed with Obama’s political policies or not, many conceded that Barack Obama’s victory seemed to signal a new stage in American democracy.

But something changed. The steady progress toward widening freedom, especially in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European Communist-bloc, halted somewhat abruptly. The movement towards global democracy slowed and then went into reverse. Authoritarian leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, stepped into the breach.

That movement has only accelerated over the past two decades. Populist, nationalist leaders have secured power in several former Communist countries that had emerged as free market democracies and joined the European Union.  Authoritarian leaders also took power in nations in Asia and South America.

These growing global threats to human rights, basic freedoms, and democratic principles were the reason I considered it a crucial moment to focus on how an authoritarian dictator –- a Strongman – could take control of a country and quickly dismantle democracy. How does such a leader take power? How do they win millions of willing believers? What are the tactics and techniques they use to destroy the freedoms and rights that come with democracy? And could it happen here?

Meet the author

Author Photo Credit Nina Subin

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times–bestselling author of Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the “Don’t Know Much About®” series of books and audios.  He is also the author of the critically acclaimed In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four President, and Five Black Lives, a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award and a Notable Book of the American Library Association in 2017. His book More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of The Spanish Flu and the First World War wasnamed a Notable Trade Book for Young People by the Children’s Book Council and National Council for the Social Studies.

His latest book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, was published on October 6, 2020. It was named a “Best Children’s Book of 2020” by the Washington Post and among the “Best Young Adults Books of 2020” by Kirkus Reviews,

Davis has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Smithsonian magazine, among other publications. A frequent media guest, he has appeared on CBS This Morning, Today, CNN, and NPR. He was recently featured in the CNN documentary “Pandemic: How a Virus Changed the World in 1918.”

Davis enjoys both in-person and virtual visits with readers, teachers, students, librarians, and members of the general public. He lives in New York City.

Twitter: @kennethcdavis

Website: dontknowmuch.com 

Davis recommends buying books at Left Bank Books in Belfast, Maine.

© Copyright 2021 Kenneth C. Davis All rights reserved

About Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy by Kenneth C. Davis

From the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About® books comes a dramatic account of the origins of democracy, the history of authoritarianism, and the reigns of five of history’s deadliest dictators. 

Washington Post Best Book of the Year!

What makes a country fall to a dictator? How do authoritarian leaders—strongmen—capable of killing millions acquire their power? How are they able to defeat the ideal of democracy? And what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

By profiling five of the most notoriously ruthless dictators in history—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein—Kenneth C. Davis seeks to answer these questions, examining the forces in these strongmen’s personal lives and historical periods that shaped the leaders they’d become. 

Meticulously researched and complete with photographs, Strongman provides insight into the lives of five leaders who callously transformed the world and serves as an invaluable resource in an era when democracy itself seems in peril.

ISBN-13: 9781250205643
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years

Questioning Your History Lessons, a guest post by Diana Pinguicha

When we’re in school, we assume everything out teachers say is true. We are, after all, constantly evaluated on the knowledge they impart on us, so it must be right. But we’re never taught to question the narratives we’re presented. We’re never taught to wonder who wrote down the texts we take as fact, or why.

When it came time to write A CURSE OF ROSES, I first thought I wouldn’t need to do a lot of research. After all, I remembered pretty much everything from History classes, and I was setting the book in two places I knew very well. “I’ll just refresh my memory on how people lived and read more about Yzabel and Denis’s reign.” Since I wanted to include Enchanted Mouras, whose legends are spread throughout my home region of Alentejo, I also believed a simple brush up on the Moor Occupation would be all I needed. Just enough to make sure I got names, dates, and places right.

In what I can only describe as a very fortunate coincidence, I came across the work of archeologist Cláudio Torres. During his excavations in Mértola, he found evidence that the Moors weren’t solely Muslim as we’re taught in school. There were also Christian Moors, and Jewish Moors—but because they did not fit the narrative of the flawless Christian Reconquest, started by Dom Afonso Henriques, they were erased from history books.

Statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, founder of the Kingdom of Portugal

It’s much easier to digest that your first King, the man who created your country, was taking the land back from the Muslim invaders, rather than facing the fact that when he waged war against the Moors, he waged war against Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people alike.

Likewise, we were never taught that the Islamic Caliphate did not demand conversion, only vassalage. Thus, while many ended up converting to Islam, it wasn’t forced, but of their own volition. And while there were skirmishes between the Christian Kingdoms and the Caliphate, the Moor occupation didn’t necessarily happen by force. It could’ve happened through a change in alliances from the common people, who were not at all that well treated by their Christian overlords.

Mértola, which was at the time of the Moor occupation, one of the largest trading hubs in Portugal

Archeologist Cláudio Torres also said in one of his interviews that history is written by whoever was in power during that era. And since Kings were the ones paying scribes and monks to write down their deeds, the documents we take as fact come with a high degree of bias. Who wanted to write bad things about the King that paid them? And even when they did, such documents would later be burned so as not to damage the reputation of those who ruled us. Archeology, on the other hand, tells the stories that were never written down.

When you think about that, it makes sense that after the Reconquest, history would be re-written so people who looked at it years later, would see no fault with the Christian Kings, and all the fault with the Moors. The same goes for the cultural diversity of the Caliphate—by casting them all as Islamic, it was easier to other them and see them as an unfaithful enemy that must be defeated.

But historical revisionism isn’t as obvious as with the Discoveries. When Portuguese children are taught about that period, it’s done through these rose-colored glasses about how awesome we were, and what wonderful things we brought to the world when we found the maritime route to India. We talk about slaves, but only in passing, never being truly faced with the atrocities our ancestors committed. Instead, we’re told we were nice colonizers, which is a contradiction as there is no such thing as a nice colonizer. We’re told we brought science and culture to the peoples we enslaved and colonized, and not about all the things we erased off the map and, as a result, off history.

I’ve tried to bring these points up several times, and the answers are always along the lines of, “That was 500 years ago!”

But when it’s to look at the positive sides—how Portugal was rich, and advanced nautical sciences—the answer is, “Only 500 years ago, we ruled the world.”

Both can be true. Both are true. We did do great things for exploration and navigation. We also committed atrocities. These two sides should be taught in equal measure, or even with more importance given to what we destroyed. They are not. Instead, we erect monuments and worship the colonizers, and pay little attention to the rest. Instead, we celebrate figures like Padre António Vieira, for “educating” the Natives in Brazil and saving them from their pagan beliefs by converting them to Christianity, while also treating those who refused to comply in abhorrent ways.

Standard to the Discoveries

It’s not just terrible acts that have been erased, but also queerness. We’re told all our figures are straight, but just how much of that is also historical revisionism?

Infante Dom Henrique, whose studies and planning in navigation were what made the Portuguese able to sail the maritime route to India, was gay. He reportedly also had young male slaves repeatedly gifted to him—but such a narrative would not go over well in the 15th century, and it still wouldn’t go over well now. Most writings documenting these facts ended up burned to preserve the image of the country.

We also follow this myth with Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, long romanticized in our epic, Camões’s The Lusiads. Dom Pedro is painted as a virile, aggressively straight man in love with his wife’s lady-in-waiting who was so angry when she and their three children were murdered, he ate the hearts of the men who did it. But while Pedro and Inês love each other, there’s documentation that shows him as being bisexual, and also as conducting several affairs with knights and squires.

Dom Sebastião, whose death caused a dynastic crisis due to him dying without heirs, is another one of our kings who was likely queer. He was found naked with male friends after going for frolics in the woods, yet we’re supposed to believe they lost their clothes tussling with a boar.

Dom João IV is another example. In his case, he was known for throwing elaborate parties with sex workers of both genders, yet only fully consummated the physical relations with the men.

And, like them, I’m sure there were more throughout history. There is also a noticeable lack of queer women being portrayed. That, I believe, we can attribute to this almost infantilization of women that persists to this day. The acknowledgement of female sexuality and desire is relatively new, history-wise. Two women being together was often seen as nothing but friendship, because women, unlike men, weren’t seen as beings who could want, and enjoy, sex. And when there was a particularly promiscuous female figure in power, she was often cast as a terrible seductress that needed disposing of. Take Leonor Teles, wife of Fernando I. We know her as an ambitious woman who conspired against the Kingdom, but when we go looking, we discover she was not. When Fernando passed and she acted as regent, the country’s situation improved. But she was still painted as the villain who wanted Portugal to be part of Castela, and in need of being deposed for the good of the country.

Leonor Teles was ambitious, and conniving, and may or may not have slowly poisoned Fernando I. But she never wanted Portugal to be part of Castela, to the point that when the Castellan King betrayed the alliance she and Fernando made with him, she tried to have him killed. More importantly—she might’ve been a good Queen Regent if people had let her.

Dom Fernando and Leonor Teles

This isn’t to say everything in recorded history is wrong, and that we shouldn’t believe certain things happened, especially when there’s overwhelming evidence that they did. Rather, this is more to say that we shouldn’t take our history lessons as something that’s set in immovable stone, especially when our lessons go back hundreds and thousands of years.

We should instead take history lessons as a starting point and look for the narratives that should be there and are often missing. Look for the complexities that are uncomfortable to address, for the pain our ancestors tried to erase, for the people they did.

History, as it’s taught now, caters to a very specific gaze: that of the white, straight conqueror. It’s our job to question it, our job to search for the stories of those who couldn’t write their own. The farther back we go, the more likely we are to find distortion of events, or the erasure of people who did not conform to what was palatable at the time.

And when we find those stories, it’s our job to tell them. And if we’re not the right people to tell them, we find the voices who are right for those stories, and we amplify them.

Meet the author

Born and raised in the sunny lands of Portugal, DIANA PINGUICHA is a computer engineer graduate who currently lives in Lisbon. She can usually be found writing, painting, devouring extraordinary quantities of books and video games, or walking around with her bearded dragon, Norbert. She also has two cats, Sushi and Jubas, who would never forgive her if she didn’t mention them. Learn more at pinguicha.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @Pinguicha.

About A Curse of Roses

A Curse of Roses

Based on Portuguese legend, this #OwnVoices historical fantasy is an epic tale of mystery, magic, and making the impossible choice between love and duty…

With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.

There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain for years.

If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers intofood.

Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.

As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?

With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more.

She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.

A Curse of Roses includes themes, imagery, and content that might be triggering for some readers. Discussions of religious-based self harm, religious-based eating disorders, and religious-based internalized homophobia appear throughout the novel.

ISBN-13: 9781682815090
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Digging for the Truth, a guest post by Lilliam Rivera

Photo credit: Isabelle Santiago

If you’re like me, I try my best to avoid consuming the news all day. This is not an easy feat considering the world we’re currently experiencing. The reality is that to get to the truth about things takes more than just a quick glance at a headline. Our most “trusted” news outlets continue to fail us. How can we prepare ourselves when the established media institutions bend the truth? There is fake news and then there is also this idea of sugarcoating the truth. Why not use the words “white supremacy” or “racist” when you can use “racially tinged” and “racially motivated?”

However, this essay is not about linguistics or the history of how words are used to perpetuate the racial structure that so many benefit from. This essay is about High School history class. When I was attending High School in New York, I attended a public school specializing in secretarial studies and computer sciences. The goal was to prep students to enter the work force as assistants. I learned how to type and spent most summers temping in various offices around the city. The funny thing was that I loved history. I devoured books exploring the period between the late 1950s to the late 1970s. During that period, the world felt as if it was at a crossroads. Students and young people all across the United States were rising up to make their voices heard against a tyrannical government. I wanted so desperately to read about the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican youth movement who joined the Black Panthers to help aid their community. I wanted to read about the Chicano Movement, La Raza, and more.

Sadly, this wouldn’t be the case. The history books I was forced to read didn’t mention these Brown and Black social movements. And if I ever wanted to search anything tied to Puerto Rico, well, I was out of luck. Instead I cobbled together what I could, creating a mix match selection from the library which included memoir, fiction, and poetry. I read Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets right alongside Alex Healey and Malcom X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I read Bobby Seale’s Power to the People with Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find works on Latin America’s liberation theology or the Young Lords work in Chicago and the Bronx. It would be later in college when I would be able to connect with those periods. Perhaps this is the reason why I decided to find ways to incorporate history in my young adult novels. I’m not writing historical fiction but allowing these characters to explore their cities through a historical lens.

The Education of Margot Sanchez

In my first novel The Education of Margot Sanchez, I introduced gentrification and its effects on Brown and Black families. But my latest young adult novel goes further with this idea. In Never Look Back, I flip the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and set it in mostly in the Bronx, New York with two Afro Latino protagonists. Pheus is a wannabe bachata singer who meets and falls in love with Eury, a Puerto Rican displaced by Hurricane Maria and haunted by an angry spirit. The novel is a love story but it is also a story of how trauma infects each generation. Pheus is a fairly typical high schooler, one with the gift of musical talent. He is also a great history buff. Through Pheus, we are able to get insight, however short, into the colonization of Puerto Rico, the Young Lords occupation of Lincoln Hospital in the 1970s to help their community, and the traumatic effects of the military on young people. Pheus doesn’t just see a building, he sees the blood and tears imprinted on the walls.

Never Look Back

I love this idea of the school curriculums moving between fiction and history. High School English and US history are great places to have a robust conversation. In recent years, there have been wonderful works being produced in children’s book spaces. Why not pair Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano with The Young Lords: A Reader by Iris Morales? What about Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican with The Taste of Sugar: A Novel by Marisel Vera? A school guide has already been created for the award-winning New York Times’  1619 Project. What if the project was paired with Kekla Magoon’s Fire in the Streets or Renée Watson’s Some Places More Than Others

If a young reader is not into historical fiction, there are still a lot of innovative ways to introduce overlooked historical moments through young adult and middle grade novels. The excitement is not only discovering the pages can be mirrors but can also bring much needed light to a period times overlooked by our history books. Let young readers question the very text books being handed to them. Let them raise their eyebrows at what is left off the page and nudge them to present their doubts through the use of fictional characters who are also on a similar journey. The goal is to expand what is presented in approved texts and have them find the missing voices in between the lines because no one story book or newspaper holds the full truth.

Meet Lilliam Rivera

Photo credit: Vanessa Acosta

Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and the author of children’s books Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit, Dealing in DreamsThe Education of Margot Sanchez, and the forthcoming young adult novel Never Look Back (September 15, 2020) by Bloomsbury. Her work has appeared in The Washington PostNew York Times, and Elle, to name a few. A Bronx, New York native, Lilliam currently lives in Los Angeles. 


Never Look Back

Expertly blends reality and fantasy to explore what’s behind love and loss, what it takes to heal.” – Randy Ribay, author of National Book Award finalist Patron Saints of Nothing

Acclaimed author Lilliam Rivera blends a touch of magical realism into a timely story about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love.

Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria—and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there’s this boy . . .

Pheus is a golden-voiced, bachata-singing charmer, ready to spend the summer on the beach with his friends, serenading his on-again, off-again flame. That changes when he meets Eury. All he wants is to put a smile on her face and fight off her demons. But some dangers are too powerful for even the strongest love, and as the world threatens to tear them apart, Eury and Pheus must fight for each other and their lives.

Featuring contemporary Afro-Latinx characters, this retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice is perfect for fans of Ibi Zoboi’s Pride and Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper.

ISBN-13: 9781547603732
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Past as Present, Present as Past, a guest post by J. Anderson Coats

When I was fifteen, I got busted sneaking into a university library.

The security gate slowed me down, but I looked enough like a college student with my backpack and ratty jeans that I breezed right through—past the information desk, up the stairs, and deep into the stacks.

Ten minutes later, a librarian found me sitting on a stepstool in the medieval history section with a book open on my knees. She asked to see my student ID, and when I told her I’d left it at home, she said I’d have to leave.

“But I’m researching my novel,” I protested, “and you have books here that I can’t get anywhere else.”

She raised one eyebrow in a pointed oh really sort of way.

“No, see, I’ll show you.” I reached into my backpack, pulled out a folder, and fanned out my notes, along with a half-finished chart detailing the particulars of medieval criminal law for a scene in my sprawling, extensively researched but somehow still deeply inaccurate historical novel set in the thirteenth century about a Scottish girl who found herself in Wales and had to figure out her place in the community. A girl who’d had bad things happen to her, but was slowly—slowly—finding her way forward.

“I’m not here to make trouble,” I insisted. “I just need these books.”

The librarian was quiet for a long moment. Then she said, “Today only. It can’t happen again. That’s what interlibrary loan is for. Got it?”

I stayed till the building closed.

By seventeen I’d filled five binders with collected research that fueled six complete novels, including the one about the Scottish girl that ended up at an opulent 400K words. My research into the middle ages had long since expanded beyond any particular novel, though. I wanted to know just for the knowing.

Each binder was rigorously subdivided, organized, tabbed, and coded— region, topic, subtopic, chronological date. I collected maps, drawings, family trees, and accounts, and I made hundreds of charts, graphs, lists, and sketches. No one taught me to do this. Hardly anyone knew about it. But I could and did spend hours paging through what I’d made. Adding. Updating. Minutely rearranging.

I liked worlds I could control.

My interest in the past made me incomprehensible to most kids my age. I liked how they kept a cautious distance, not quite sure how to make fun of me if I already knew I was a freak. I liked how knowing uncommon, arcane things gave me power over almost any interaction I was likely to have. My charts and lists made me feel unusual, mysterious, and untouchable.

Becoming anything is hard. Rebuilding when the pieces are shattered so small is a whole different way of becoming.

I am thirteen. It’s my first week of middle school, and the boy I’m made to sit next to in art class is explaining in vivid detail how he’s going to trap me in the bathroom and feel me up. His language is emotionless and precise. He makes eye contact in the kind of intense, disturbing way that makes me certain he means it.

“I may not stop there,” he says. “I haven’t decided yet.”

The art teacher doesn’t look up from his newspaper. He refuses to let me change seats. He tells me to sit down and do my assignment and stop trying to get attention.

“You won’t know exactly when it’ll happen,” the boy goes on. “It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to a pig like you, though.”

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make him leave me alone. The guidance counselor gives me a secret, girls-only smile and says, “It’s probably because he likes you.” My mom reminds me that bullies will find another target if you ignore them.

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make them listen. How to make them understand what it costs me to walk into that classroom. Sit in that seat. Let it all happen.

Things just get worse.

Four of my binders have survived. They have endured two transcontinental moves and countless hours of flipping. They have almost—but not quite—been entirely supplanted by the internet.

The best part of the binders now is turning the pages one by one, remembering how each new entry, each photocopied map or genealogy table laboriously typed into some early version of Word is one more step I took out of the darkness.  

It was stories that finally coaxed me to breathe and look up, and because the present was so bleak, I looked to the past, because the past is nothing but stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things that happened.

The binders were a way to step into that past and make it my own. They were a way to imagine a future with something like potential, then construct one through fiction. To that end, I collected everything for my binders, even things I didn’t need at the moment. My research books came from libraries across the country through the magic of interlibrary loan, and I knew I might never have access to them again, so nothing was beneath my notice.

The whispers of Spindle and Dagger are here. Another story about a girl who’d had bad things happen to her, who could slowly—slowly—find her way forward. Tucked away amid the maps and charts, waiting till I was ready to come full circle.

Meet J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats has received two Junior Library Guild awards, two Washington State Book Awards, and earned starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, the Horn Book Review, and Shelf Awareness. Her newest books are Spindle and Dagger, a YA set in medieval Wales that deals with power dynamics and complicated relationships, and The Green Children of Woolpit, a creepy middle-grade fantasy inspired by real historical events. She is also the author of R is for Rebel, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, The Wicked and the Just, and the forthcoming middle-grade fantasy, The Night Ride (2021).


Web: http://www.jandersoncoats.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jandersoncoats

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jandersoncoats

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jandersoncoats/?hl

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About Spindle and Dagger

This rich literary novel follows Elen, who must live a precarious lie in order to survive among the medieval Welsh warband that killed her family.

Wales, 1109. Three years ago, a warband raided Elen’s home. Her baby sister could not escape the flames. Her older sister fought back and almost killed the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan, before being killed herself. Despite Elen’s own sexual assault at the hands of the raiders, she saw a chance to live and took it. She healed Owain’s wound and spun a lie: Owain ap Cadwgan, son of the king of Powys, cannot be killed, not by blade nor blow nor poison. Owain ap Cadwgan has the protection of Saint Elen, as long as he keeps her namesake safe from harm and near him always.

For three years, Elen has had plenty of food, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep in that she shares with the man who brought that warband to her door. Then Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her three children, triggering full-out war. As war rages, and her careful lies threaten to unravel, Elen begins to look to Nest and see a different life — if she can decide, once and for all, where her loyalties lie. J. Anderson Coats’s evocative prose immerses the reader in a dark but ultimately affirming tale of power and survival.

ISBN-13: 9781536207774
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Age Range: 16 – 17 Years