Children’s book awards are one resource I use for choosing purchases for the library. For example the relatively new (started in 2006) Geisel award for beginning reader books has interesting selections—the recent Geisel honor book The Bear in My Family by Maya Tatsukawa is one. The oldest Children’s award, the Newbery Medal, was created in 1922 with the goal of challenging American authors to write high-quality fiction for children. This award can go to a book for any age audience of children but it usually goes to a middle-grade-level book. People sometimes question the Newbery Committee’s selections and the continuing relevance of this old award. This past winter I took a course, “The Newbery Medal: Past, Present and Future” taught by Kathleen T. Horning, an expert on analyzing children’s literature who was on the Newbery Medal Committee twice. As you can imagine, I read a lot of books for this course! Some of the books did make us students scratch our heads wondering why the committee chose to award them, but others were great discoveries, including some excellent historical fiction. I find that Montessori students especially enjoy historical fiction, possibly because Montessori education focuses on the real world, and these are realistic stories.
Jennifer Holm’s Historical Fiction
Before my course I knew of Jennifer Holm’s very good Sunny series of graphic novels (Sunny Makes a Splash is the newest), but I wasn’t familiar with her other books. She wrote three historical fiction works that each won a Newbery Honor, and in my course we read two: Our Only May Amelia, about a family of loggers and farmers in Washington state in 1899, and Turtle in Paradise, about a girl and her relatives in 1930s Key West, Florida. In these stories you learn about the location and time period and you enjoy wonderful characters: the main title characters and all the secondary characters, most of whom are siblings, cousins, and aunts and uncles (Holm’s research for her books included her own ancestors’ history). Turtle in Paradise is also very funny—for example, Turtle’s cousins run a babysitting service that they call The Diaper Club, and the leader of the club, Beans, has a best friend, Pork Chop, nicknamed because beans and pork chops go together, they say!
Other Historical Fiction
The Newbery Medal winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, is an unusual book: there are 22 characters who each give a monologue of a page or page and a half long, as the words are meant to be read out loud as performances. The author is ingenious in how she makes these monologues work as an engaging story. She includes some supporting material, such as a few paragraphs on the Crusades, and a little side box about falconry, and she collaborated with illustrator Robert Byrd whose illustrations evoke medieval art. I would not have been convinced this book would really capture children’s interest until I read it myself!
Lois Lenski wrote a series of historical fiction works called American Regional, for which she went to different parts of the United States and talked extensively to children and adults about their lives there, and then wrote children’s novels based on what she learned. Newbery Award-winning Strawberry Girl is about a farm family in Florida at a very interesting time in the state’s history when it was really a frontier, and farmers feuded with each other about methods of farming.
A historical novel written in narrative verse, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, is another Newbery Medal winner that I read and recommend highly. The characters’ lives in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression are very hard but the story is not too much to take and is very compelling—the author wonderfully conveys emotions in the spare blank verse. As a School Library Journal reviewer says, “Hesse uses free-verse poems to advance the plot, allowing the narrator to speak for herself much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose.”
New Books in this Genre
As I keep my eye out for more good books of historical fiction, I have two recently-published ones on my list that look especially good. They take place during World War II, a popular historical fiction time period with Aidan students. Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves by L.M. Elliott is about a family living on the coast in Virginia and their experience of the war which includes the lesser-known activity of German U-boats attacking ships along that coast. We Are Wolves is about three children orphaned or separated from their parents during the war, and while sometimes they get help from soldiers, often they must survive by themselves in the forest in East Prussia. We Are Wolves is by Katrina Nannestad, author of an older excellent work of historical fiction, When Mischief Came to Town.
Happy Reading, including, hopefully, some nice leisurely reading over the summer!