Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

Scholastic, 1997

227 pages

I first read Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust several years ago (maybe around 2005?) and remembered it as an inspiring book, good fodder for Read Like a Girl. What I didn’t remember is that it’s also one of the rawest, heaviest books I’ve ever read.

If you have family members who came of age during the Depression, you know that it was the kind of event that induces a sort of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Depression generation is notorious for its reactionary frugality, and many members suffered long-term ill health as a result of Depression-era hardships.

In my family, my grandfather was known for his refusal to throw things away. He fed his hunting dogs off old tin pie plates and used fish heads for fertilizer; when it came to fancy occasions, he wore the same silk trousers and Chelsea boots for more than 60 years.

My grandmother was much the same. She liked to spend money more than my grandfather did, but she never got rid of anything. When she died (of skin cancer caused by her Depression-era work as a fruit-picker), she left behind two sheds full of clothing and household goods dating back to her teen years.

Out of the Dust is a brutally honest book that helps teens and tweens understand why the Depression left such an imprint on survivors. Through the voice of 14-year-old heroine Billie Jo, the book covers this period as a multi-faceted disaster: environmental, familial, economic.

Added to the national suffering is Billie Jo’s private agony. Her family’s Oklahoma wheat farm is on the verge of collapse; a horrifying accident has killed her mother and unborn brother and left Billie Jo badly burned; and her father, who never wanted a daughter in the first place (hence her masculine name), has checked out on her emotionally.

I told you it was raw and heavy. But my memory didn’t fail me completely–it is inspiring, too.

Billie Jo is perceptive, frank, and (most importantly) just hopeful enough. Without succumbing to destructive escapism, she keeps looking over the horizon, telling herself something better is coming, feeding her own hope bit by bit as rain slowly returns to the Dust Bowl.

When her need to find something new becomes unbearable, she has the courage to pursue it–but also to admit that a homecoming is what she really needs. Her initiative (and her absence) jolt her father into really connecting with her for the first time in her life, and through her encouragement he finds a way to heal.

This is a girl who simply won’t be destroyed by one of the most destructive set of circumstances our nation has ever known. She shows today’s girls that really living isn’t about ease, material abundance, or even the love others give you–it’s about being strong, clinging to what matters to you, and loving yourself.

And here’s a little bonus: the text itself is also inspiring. Hesse’s format–a story told through free-verse poems–isn’t just a parlor trick. The language is gritty, spare, and beautiful. Billie Jo’s no-nonsense temperament, tinged by her romantic love of music, comes through in every line.

It’s the perfect introduction to the idea that true art can take unexpected forms, that a writer (or painter, dancer, or actor) doesn’t have to create along the same lines as everyone else. This is the kind of novel that can open girls’ eyes and minds to new creative possibilities.

I’ll leave you with an a little story, to illustrate what I mean. I came into the living room the other day to find my daughter completely absorbed, Out of the Dust open in her lap. Forgetting that she is now a proficient reader who will attempt anything with a cover (especially when there is a child on it), I had left the book within easy reach. When I explained that it’s not appropriate for her now (she’s just six), but will be in a few years, she grudgingly handed it over.

“But, Mummy,” she said, “I love the poems. Can we please find another book with poems like these?”

That, my friends, is an inspired girl.

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Goin’ Someplace Special

by Patricia C. McKissack; ill. Jerry Pinkney

Atheneum, 2001

40 pages

Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve become painfully sensitive to the idea of parenting under hardship.  My heart twists around itself every time I think of families who are living through famine, war, oppression, or crushing poverty.

This sensitivity reaches back into history, too.  I find myself on the verge of tears when I read about 19th-century street “urchins”; I’m devastated by the bareness of post-Holocaust Jewish family trees.

Living in the American South, where the toxic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still seeps to the surface of daily life, I also find myself thinking about black families in the pre-Civil Rights era.  How did they build family unity when they could be sold apart any day?  How did parents fill their children’s hearts with love and confidence when the world was filled (literally) with signs telling them they were inferior?

As hard as it is, I want my daughter to think about these things, too.  I want her to know about the realities and injustices of life so she can better understand the importance of fighting them–and better appreciate the beauty of the people who live with dignity despite them.

Patricia McCissack’s Goin’ Someplace Special is a great way to introduce a young girl to this kind of information, and to the ways people bloom regardless.

This book is the story of young ‘Tricia Ann’s first solo journey to the public library, the only integrated public building in her 1950s Southern town.

She leaves home excited and energetic, but her enthusiasm begins to flag as she encounters reminder after reminder of the race hatred that permeates society at large.

She has to stand in the “Colored” section of the bus when there are empty seats up front.  She can’t sit down to admire the park fountain her grandfather helped to build–the surrounding benches are all marked “Whites Only.”  When a celebrity-watching crowd sweeps her into the lobby of a whites-only hotel, the manager yells at her and kicks her out.

At the same time, however, ‘Tricia Ann meets members of her own race who speak encouragement and empowerment.  A woman on the bus tells her, “Carry yo’self proud.”  A young man on the street admonishes, “Don’t let those signs steal yo’ happiness.”  And just as ‘Tricia Ann is about to give up, an old woman reminds the girl of all the love and strength her grandmother has poured into her.

So she makes it to her destination, where she finally sees a good sign: “Public Library: All Are Welcome.”

My daughter was mesmerized by this book.  She admired ‘Tricia Ann’s bravery, fumed over the “meanies” who mistreated her, and gaped with delight at the “surprise” ending (we’re rather into libraries at our house).

And when she learned that the book draws on the author’s childhood experiences in Nashville, Tennessee (where the public library integrated all its facilities in the late 1950s), she was just plain inspired.

I think it was primarily the idea that a real girl, one not much older than herself, could be brave and persistent enough to do what ‘Tricia Ann does–run the ugly gauntlet of white supremacy and emerge victorious in her own spirit.

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by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2011

639 pages

When I was growing up, book fairs were one of my favorite things about school.

Every year, I waited with baited breath for those little catalogs to show up on our desks.  And though I never got to buy all the books I wanted (which was only every single one in the entire catalog), book-delivery day was as big as Christmas for me.

So you can imagine how excited I was when my daughter, who is in kindergarten, brought home a little note announcing family book fair night.

I didn’t really ask her if she wanted to go–and we got there early, like Black Friday shoppers (though I controlled myself enough to enter the school library in an orderly fashion).

I was halfway down the wall of displays when I saw it: Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick’s followup to his stunning hybrid graphic/text novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

If I hadn’t been conditioned into silence by a lifetime of library visits, I would have squealed out loud.  As it was, I grabbed for the book so, um, vigorously that it’s a good thing no one was standing between me and the shelf.

I didn’t buy Wonderstruck that night (I let my daughter spend all the money), but a quick skim was enough to send me straight to the public library’s “I want this book” list as soon as I got home.

And, once again, Selznick did not disappoint.  Wonderstruck is not a sequel to Hugo Cabret, but it is a worthy successor–and ideal fodder for this blog.

The book consists of two tales, initially told separately but later intertwined in a somewhat predictable but entirely elegant way.

For me, the inspiration is in the story of Rose, a 12-year-old living in 1920s New Jersey.

Born into a wealthy family, Rose is a deaf-mute whose parents confine her to the house and subject her to private lessons in speech and lip-reading.

Fed up with the isolation and shame, Rose runs away to New York City, where she moves in with her older brother.  She begins to make a new life for herself and, much later, helps another young runaway do the same.

Almost from her first appearance in the book, Rose inspired me with her uncompromising spirit.

She knows who she is and believes she has the right to be that person.  She won’t settle for anything different, or anything less, even through bewilderment, deep fear, and heartbreak.

And the story validates her difficult decisions.  Fifty years after her journey to New York, Rose is a confident, fulfilled woman.  She’s had a satisfying life, with no regrets.

When she meets runaway Ben, also deaf, she seizes the opportunity to pour that confidence and fulfillment into his life.

She opens her life to Ben so he can have a living, breathing example of the validity of pursing dreams and living to his full potential.

By sharing her story with him, she helps him find peace–with himself, with his history, and with the missing pieces of his life.

What a great message for girls: Define your identity from within, not from without–and be courageous yet vulnerable enough to show others your true self.

The reward? Not just fulfillment for your own life, but (even better) a connection to and legacy of inspiration for the next generation.

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Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings

by Deborah Hopkinson; ill. by Terry Widener

Atheneum BFYR, 2003

40 pages

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1980s, a good decade for Southern California baseball.

My grandparents were Angels fans, but the Dodgers were the team of choice for me and my dad.  No one in my family is terribly competitive, but I think our domestic harmony still benefited from the fact that the two teams never had to play each other.

I have many happy memories of sitting on the sofa with Daddy, listening to Vin Scully narrate as Tommy Lasorda telegraphed signals from the dugout steps.

And then there were the weeknight meals at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, with everyone eating off trays in the living room because the Angels game was due to start halfway through dinnertime.

I loved watching baseball so much that, when Daddy offered me a special day doing anything I wanted, I asked him to take me to a Dodgers game.  I still have the miniature blue batting helmet that came with my ice cream that day.

So kids’ books about baseball are an immediate draw for me.  And so much the better (especially for the purposes of this blog) if they’re about girls and baseball.

Like Deborah Hopkinson’s Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings.  This picture book tells/imagines the story of Alta Weiss, a turn-of-the-century Ohio girl who was born to pitch.

After a childhood spent aiming her fastballs at hay bales and local boys, the 17-year-old Alta talked her way onto a local minor-league team.  A men’s minor-league team, that is.

She was an instant, well, hit, giving up only four bases and one run in her five-inning debut.  As she continued to best the league’s batters, her reputation spread.  She eventually became so popular that the area railroad ran special trains from Cleveland just for her games.

Alta continued to play baseball off and on for 15 years, with time off to attend medical school (paid for with baseball earnings, of course).  The only woman in her graduating class, she became a physician in 1914.

It’s an inspiring story, one of supreme determination and the joy of fulfilling a dream.

One of my favorite moments is when Alta faces down the Vermillion Independents’ gruff head coach.

He seems rock-hard in his refusal to add her to the roster, but she’s just as determined to play.  So she slyly points out that having a girl on the team will be a lucrative publicity-maker–and the coach puts her on as starting pitcher.

I also love the way Alta handles her moments of self-doubt–when her girlfriends tell her it’s time to put away the glove and settle down, or when she takes the mound for the first time and almost chokes.

At these moments, she wonders whether her dream is worth pursuing, or whether it’s even the right dream to have.

But then facing her doubts only solidifies her resolve.  Through confronting her second thoughts and assessing them honestly, she’s able to really own her dream, to remind herself why it’s hers (and, more importantly, why it’s worth pursuing).

And she maintains that confidence and determination, even as her dream grows and changes.

The takeaway: you’re never too young to have a big dream, or to be dedicated to that dream.  And when your dream grows and changes, just as Alta’s did, you can still find a path to fulfillment.

More Information

Alta Weiss on Wikipedia

Girls of Summer

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Here Lies the Librarian

by Richard Peck

Dial Books, 2006

145 pages

Think back to your teen years, to the times when you sought advice on friendship, dating, college, even choosing your path in life.  Maybe you confided in a favorite teacher, picked up a teen-oriented magazine, or even asked your parents for input.

How many times did you get the response, “Just be yourself”  or “Follow your dreams”?

A lot, I’m guessing–both phrases seem to be quite popular among those who give advice to teens.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Teens need encouragement to be themselves, to develop an authentic identity and pursue their passions.

But that’s not an easy process under the best of circumstances.  And, when a teen’s identity and/or passions are at odds with cultural norms, the process gets even harder.

This is the quandary Richard Peck tackles in Here Lies the Librarian, a funny but perceptive take on issues of teen identity, personal destiny, and social expectations.

Peck’s heroine, 14-year-old Eleanor “Peewee” McGrath, lives with her older brother Jake in rural Indiana.  The two operate a small garage out in the country, and Peewee would like nothing better than to spend the rest of her days indulging her passion for combustion engines and greasy overalls.

Problem is, it’s 1914, and girls just don’t do that sort of thing.

Now that Peewee’s on the verge of puberty, Jake is threatening her with dresses, high school, and Home Economics classes.  And the only gender-bending role model Peewee has is her neighbor Aunt Hat, who’s been pushed to the literal and figurative outskirts of society.

In short, Peewee’s world is falling apart, and she sees no way to “be herself” and still hold a functioning place in society.

Then Irene Ridpath and her friends motor into town.

Impeccably dressed and covered in social graces, they appear to be the epitome of proper ladies.  But, as Peewee quickly discovers, they drive their own cars, literally and figuratively.

The daughters of progressive, wealthy industrialists, these young women are all enrolled at Indiana University–and they’re there for the education, not to find husbands.

When they apply as a group to run the town’s recently reopened public library, they (and their progressive ideals) become a fixture in Peewee’s life.

Through their mentoring, she learns that femininity and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive, that wearing a skirt doesn’t mean giving up her dearest ambitions.  And most importantly, she learns that, if a way forward is not readily apparent, she can blaze her own trail.

As Irene firmly points out, “They don’t let women be anything, Eleanor.  You have to give yourself permission.”

So that’s what makes this book inspiring.  What makes it good is Peck’s signature blend of memorable characters, lively storyline, and rambunctious humor. 

Sometimes it’s riveting action, like the climactic dirt-track auto race; other times, a more quiet kind of drama, like the young librarians’ showdown with a patronizing board of trustees.

Then there are the sly little asides that pepper Peewee’s narrative (“Colonel Hazelrigg stumbled in next . . . Luck was with us because he had his pants on.”) and the descriptions that make you think, “There’s no better possible way to say that.”

Every page you turn, Peck somehow cracks you up and makes you think at the same time.

Throughout, the novel is authentic, confident, and engaging–much like Peewee herself by story’s end.

True, girls today don’t face the degree of social restriction Peewee encounters.  But, as I’ve written before, a confident, aggressive girl is still likely to find herself on the wrong side of cultural norms.

And, as almost any woman will tell you, there are still plenty of glass ceilings to break.  Medicine, politics, law enforcement, even the arts: they (and many others) are all fields still dominated by men.

But there are girls out there who dream of being doctors, governors, police officers, filmmakers.  And a host of other things that, even in our society, women typically don’t do.

A book like Here Lies the Librarian is ideal for those girls.  It acknowledges the challenges–and sometimes heartbreak–of going against the grain, but it also shows that unconventional dreams are perhaps the ones most worth fighting for.

What has inspired (or still inspires) you to fight for your unconventional dreams?  How do you pass that inspiration on to the girls in your life?

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Nim and the War Effort

by Milly Lee; ill. by Yangsook Choi

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997

40 pages

American history is far from spotless.  Particularly where immigrants and people of color are concerned, our nation has often struggled to fulfill its founding promises of freedom and equality for all.

During World War II, for instance, the federal government relocated and “interned” more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans.  Most were American citizens; many came from families that had been in the U. S. for generations.

And, while the federal government officially targeted only ethnic Japanese, many rank-and-file citizens weren’t so selective in their discrimination.  Throughout the war with Japan, anti-Asian discrimination plagued communities across the country.

Milly Lee, growing up in San Francisco’s WWII-era Chinatown, felt this discrimination at work against her own family.  Nim and the War Effort is not her autobiography, but the book was inspired by her childhood experiences.

Nim, the protagonist, is an ethnic Chinese girl who lives with her extended family in Chinatown during the war.  Her grandfather and many of his friends wear special lapel pins–crossed Chinese and American flags–“so they will not be mistaken for the enemy.”

Born in the United States, Nim is desperate to prove her patriotism by winning her school’s newspaper drive.  As the story opens, she’s running a close second to Garland Stephenson, a bully who likes to steal his papers from the vendors in Chinatown.

Nim, however, insists on acquiring her papers honestly.  So, with the contest deadline looming, she walks alone to wealthy Nob Hill to canvass the large apartment buildings there.

Predictably, her strategy pays off, and she wins the contest.  But that’s not really the point of the story.

What makes this book inspiring is Nim herself, and the way she leads her stern, traditional grandfather into a wider understanding of the meaning of family honor.

Instead of being paralyzed or divided by her dual identity as Chinese and American, Nim has the insight to blend the two heritages, drawing on the best of both.

On the Chinese side, she draws strength from a traditional focus on family honor.  Devotion to family honor fuels her integrity as she collects papers for the contest.  And it drives her to see the contest through to the end, even when she thinks Garland is certain to win.

On the American side, she draws motivation from her patriotism.  She doesn’t just want to participate in the contest, she wants to win–for the good of the country’s war effort and to prove that she’s a “real” American.  So she pulls her squeaky wagon far out of her way to visit Nob Hill, and she risks her grandfather’s wrath to make sure the winning papers are delivered to her school on time.

Above all, she shows the kind of grace that immigrants and other marginalized groups have been showing our nation for hundreds of years.  Despite discrimination, they insist on believing that the founding promises are true, that we as a nation are better than our prejudices (and sometimes our laws) would indicate.

And that inspires me–and, hopefully, the next generation of women–to redouble my own efforts to make sure those founding promises hold true.

Is there a book that inspires you and the girls in your life to be better citizens?

More Information

American People and Family History gallery at the National Archives

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives at the University of California

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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The Year of Miss Agnes

by Kirkpatrick Hill

Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002

113 pages

It’s a common scenario in juvenile literature: misunderstood, marginalized kid meets sympathetic, unconventional adult, and epiphanies/personal growth/life changes ensue.

In The Year of Miss Agnes, the kid is 10-year-old Fred(erika), an Athabascan Indian living in a 1940s Alaskan bush village.  The adult and title character is Agnes Sutterfield, a progressive Englishwoman who comes to teach at the village’s one-room school.

Miss Agnes is the latest in a string of teachers who have held the post.  None of the previous occupants has stayed more than a year, and now the government is threatening to close the school.

No one, it seems, thinks it worthwhile to educate Fred and her peers. No one, that is, except Miss Agnes.

Under her guidance, Fred and the other village children finally learn to read, write, and do math with some proficiency.  They learn about their own history and geography and that of the wider world.

And, of course, they learn about their own potential, something no other teacher has cared to recognize, let alone develop.  As Fred says, “Before Miss Agnes came, we didn’t know people like us could learn that much . . . It was in my head then, that I could do something really big.”

But, while this kind of trajectory is a familiar one, The Year of Miss Agnes stands out from its peers on several counts.

First, there are few juvenile novels about modern American Indian life, let alone the pre-statehood Alaskan bush. Hill, a native Alaskan and longtime bush teacher, obviously draws on firsthand experience as she incorporates Athabaskan and bush customs, life rhythms, and social structures into the very fabric of the novel.

Then there is the authenticity of Fred’s voice, her clipped tone and lilting colloquialisms.  And there is the depth of the characters–everyone has a backstory at least one, sometimes two or three, generations deep.  For a book of barely more than 100 pages, the sense of layering is impressive.

My favorite part of the book, though, is the way it points girls not only to what they might become in adulthood but also to what they can be right now.

“Miss Agnes was different in some way,” says Fred, and, in the context of the book, that’s obviously a good thing.  She flouts conventions of femininity, education, and cultural hierarchy.  Yet she’s creative, influential, well-liked, strong.

Obviously, any young girl can benefit from encountering a woman–even if she’s just a character on a page–whose differences are the very qualities that enable her to choose and live out a life’s mission.

Even better, however, is when a young girl encounters a peer who realizes that her differences are something to celebrate.  A peer who is already rising above obstacles that observers would call insurmountable.

When The Year of Miss Agnes begins, Fred is poor, barely literate, tremendously insecure, and almost completely ignorant of anything beyond her tiny village.

When the book ends, she’s still poor, still struggling academically–but she feels good about who she is and what she’s accomplished and, most importantly, feels that she has a future.  That “something really big” is in her head as almost a fait accompli.

I don’t know about you, but that inspires me.

Is there a Miss Agnes in your history?  How do you make sure there are Miss Agneses in the lives of the girls you parent/teach/care for?

More about:


Alaska: tourism and general info, history

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