Category Archives: historical_fiction

The Giant Slayer by Iain Lawrence

giant slayer cover The last place Laurie Valentine’s father would ever want her visiting was the polio ward. It’s 1955, and he’s part of the team trying to find a vaccine for the epidemic, and because of his fear for her safety, Laurie leads a very sheltered life. Her only real friend is her neighbour Dickie. When she sees the ambulance outside Dickie’s house, she is sure the worst has happened—and it has. Dickie has polio, and her outgoing, rambunctious friend has been confined to an iron lung. Laurie’s father forbids her to go anywhere near the polio ward, but Laurie can’t abandon her best friend. She sneaks away while her father’s at work and goes to visit him. She can’t give him a healthy body back, but what she can do for him is tell stories. Before she knows it, Laurie is making regular visits to Dickie and the other iron lung patients. Because Laurie’s life is only half the book. The story she tells, of Jimmy, a boy wished into being small forever by his selfish father, a swamp witch, a giant and a destiny foretold, will have a profound effect on all the children who hear it. And when Laurie is prevented from finishing the story, her listeners take up the threads themselves, determined to find the best ending they can.

This is a fantastic book to lose yourself in on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Iain Lawrence, you rock my socks! On one level, you’ve got a tale of peril, adventure and fantasy, on the other, you’ve got a complex, nuanced coming of age story. It would also make a great read-aloud, at home or in a classroom. It’s on the shortlist for this year’s Rocky Mountain Book Awards, and the question came up, will it appeal to kids who’ve never heard of polio before? I think it will. It also has adult appeal too–one committee member talked about the memories of his school being closed through most of his grade one year because of polio. Laurie and Jimmy are both strong, appealing protagonists and I think the combination of historical fiction and fantasy will broaden the audience for the book.

Further reading: try Peg Kehret’s autobiography, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, In the Clear by Laurel Anne Carter for a sports story take (quintessentially Canadian–it’s a hockey story!), or a new one from Kathryn Lasky,, Chasing Orion.

There’s an interview with Iain Lawrence at Through a Glass Darkly, and you can also visit his own website and blog.

Reviews in the Globe and Mail, from Book Ends (the Booklist blog), and many, many book blogs: Eva’s Book Addiction, kidsread.com, Buxtolicious Blog O’Books, Kiss the Book, YA Books Central, Lindsey’s Library, Classroom Book of the Week, Book Trends…

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Danger in Dead Man’s Mine by Dave Glaze

Yay! Canadian kids’ historical fiction that doesn’t involved a) wilderness survival, b) immigrating and finding a home, c) time travel, and especially d) a boring cover. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of the aforementioned–except boring covers–but I have had my fill of them lately.

Danger in Dead Man's Mine cover This is a story about Mackenzie Davis, who is twelve, and visiting his aunt and uncle in Lethbridge, in 1912. His mom has come to stay and help out until her aunt has her baby. His uncle a coal miner and has been sick, and is waiting to be cleared by the mining company doctor to go back into the mines. The whole family’s hoping that it’s not black lung from years of breathing in coal dust, which would keep him out of the mines for good. (Annnd I’m not going to link to any pictures associated with black lung; you can google it yourself, or just trust me that it’s pretty gross.)

Even Mackenzie picks up on the family tensions right below the surface. Then, soon after he arrives, his older cousin disappears, and has most likely run away from home. His middle cousin Ruth resents having to do all the house work, and there’s something strange going on with his youngest cousin Francis, too. Francis keeps disappearing and comes home exhausted and dirty, but with everything else happening, Mackenzie is the only one who notices, and Francis isn’t telling him anything. The only one who can tell him more is the old fisherman who says he’s going back to the sea–which is quite the claim, from the middle of the prairies.

Although this is book three of a series, you can pick it up without having read the first two. There’s a lot of historical details about things like coal mining and the High Level Bridge (which turned one hundred last year!), but because Mackenzie’s new to the area, it makes sense in context that people would be telling him about all these things. It helps too that it’s the interesting sort of historical details like how afterdamp can kill a miner rather than what feels like a history lecture.

A nice touch of historical context comes from the 1912 newspaper excerpts from the Lethbridge Herald in between chapters, inserted straight from microfilms of the original newspaper to preserve the font and layout. I think kids will find it neat to see something that comes from almost a hundred years ago–I know I would have and still do! There’s a good sense of time and place, but first and foremost, this is really an adventure story–there are mysteries and cave-ins and rescue missions–that zips along at a quick enough pace to keep the book focused on the story rather than the background history. Give this one to grade four or five kids who want an adventure story, and might not read something historical otherwise.

Head over to CM Magazine and Prairie Fire for more reviews, and you can find the rest of the series on the author’s website.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear by Michael Morpurgo

Book four of the 48-hour Book Challenge binge. (I am currently up to seven books, but I need to let it sit in my brain fora  few hours before I can blog it.) Once I get this stack blogged, I think I need a break to eat. Or, find quick, easy food I can eat while reading.

warofjenkinsearid1mS0 Toby Jenkins starts every term counting down the days until he can leave again. He’s not Toby at school, he’s Jinks.And he always cries on the train. But this term, things are going to be different. First, there’s Wanda, the cook’s green-eyed daughter, who’s helping out her mother for the term. Even though he’s a toff and she’s an oik, he finds that just the thought of her makes school more bearable. And then there’s the new boy, Christopher. He’s not like anyone else at the school–he’s self-assured, a pacifist, and he questions things. Christopher always wants to know why. But what’s more than that, Christopher claims to have miraculous powers. His powers, and Jinks’ faith in him, are put to the test when Jinks inadvertently crosses over onto the territory of the oiks, the town boys, and starts a schoolboy war.

This is a totally unsentimental look at boarding school. (After hearing Michael Morpurgo speak at Kaleidescope last fall, it doesn’t surprise me.) This isn’t a jolly hockeysticks Enid Blyton story, but it’s not Lemony Snickett and the Austere Academy or Joan Aiken, either. The school itself reads like a pretty realistic depiction of shool life in the UK in the 50’s. Nobody’s starved, the schoolmasters aren’t deliberately cruel, but it’s a pretty harsh environment. (I think Jinks is about twelve or thirteen, and Swann, the youngest boy at the school, is only seven.)

It’s also a story about faith and belief. Chrisopher has visions, and is convinced that God speaks to him, and that he’s the next incarnation of Christ. He recruits Jinks and several other boys as his disciples, and proceeds to quietly try to do good. I’m still not quite sure what I think of it. It’s not a preachy story, or intent on disbunking anything. I’m sure it will offend some people, but if you’re comfortable with a different sort of story about religion, Michael Morpurgo is a hugely talented storyteller and this book’s no exception.

I’d planned on briefer blogging than I’ve been doing this weekend, but I seem to be reading books that I have things to say about. I’m not doing any editing though–so I hope I’m making sense!

(And at some point, I need to read The Butterfly Lion, which is based on the time the author ran away from boarding school–at least the beginning, anyhow.)

The Diary of Laura’s Twin by Kathy Kacer

Laura's TwinLaura is thirteen, and has just a few weeks left before her Bat Mitzvah. She’s been going to Hebrew classes for almost a year, and is ready to stand up in front of everyone in the synagogue and recite the prayers in Hebrew. She’s even taken on an extra project to make the experience more meaningful to her, raising money for the African Well Fund to provide clean drinking water for children in Africa. Then her rabbi tells her Hebrew class that they are going to participate in a twinning project, and each of them will research the life of a Jewish child from the Holocaust who did not get to celebrate his or her own Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Laura is resistant at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the diary of thirteen year old Sara Gittler.

Laura is a super involved and committed kid, and is a bit too perfect and rational about things. Her point of view verges on being didicatic–in one breath, Laura is fretting over her mom insisting on dropping her off to visit Mrs. Mandelcorn, an elderly woman her rabbi has suggested she contact about the project, and in the next she is reminding herself to be grateful to her mother for how much she does for her and how often she drives Laura and her friends places. When a Jewish cemetary is vandalized, the crime conveniently fits in thematically with what Laura is reading, and of course, has been committed by the older boys bullying one of her best friends, Adam. And her other best friend, Nix, also conveniently, was a witness to the crime. The writing style is very prosaic, much better suited to a retelling of historical events than middle school fiction.

However, the historical portion of the book is much stronger. Sara’s diary is a stark and straightforward account of the life in the Warsaw ghetto. The diary format works well to establish the character’s voice, and to tell Sara’s story without getting too grim for the intended audience. The author contrasts Sara’s memories of her life before, whether it’s going to school or cooking with her grandmother, with the bleak, hungry realities of life in the ghetto. Kacer doesn’t shy away from showing the adults as powerless, either. Sara’s grandmother slides further into depression, her father becomes a shadow of her former self, and her teenage brother channels his anger and outrage into working with the resistance.

One of the high points of this book is the bits of nonfiction. Sara’s story is illustrated with actual historical photos, and the book concludes with short biographies of a number of the young heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and several real-life stories of modern Jewish kids’ experiences with Holocaust twinning projects.

Laura’s story is only there to function as a parallel to Sara’s, and really only works as a framing device. This would have been a much better book if it were historical fiction and nonfiction, like Barbara Greenwood’s Factory Girl or The Last Safe House. Kathy Kacer’s written some excellent nonfiction like Hiding Edith and the The Underground Reporters.

The strong historical story and the appealing nonfiction parts of the book make this a decent supplement to the plethora of Holocaust literature out there, and it’s an approachable book for middle school kids who are interested in the Holocaust, but Laura’s story pales in comparison to something like Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, or books by Marianne Watts or Eva Wiseman. For a nonfiction story of modern kids relating to the Holocaust, I’m still going to go with Hana’s Suitcase every time.

Safe House by James Heneghan

This book opens with the line, “It was the perfect night for a murder.” It’s 1999, a year after the Good Friday peace accord, and violence and hate between the Protestants and Catholics still plague Belfast. Twelve year old Liam’s parents are the victims of the murder–they are gunned down in their bed as a retaliation killing. Liam escapes out the window, but only after he’s seen the face of one of the killers. The police move him to a safe house, but when Liam is betrayed and revealed to his parents’ killer, once again he is forced to sneak out through a window, on the run for his life. He’ll need his wits, his training as a gymnast, and every bit of courage he’s got to make it through the night.

In this fast-paced, nerve-wracking ride, James Heneghan still manages to get across the historical and political context of the troubles in Northern Ireland in as much detail as most middle school readers will need to understand the story. Never condescending or maudlin, there’s enough action to keep your adrenaline racing, and enough plot and backstory to keep you interested. A good pick for fans of Alex Rider and other action thrillers who are ready to try something with a bit more substance to it at the end of the day.

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale

The latest in a growing number of Victorian historical teen books. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Not a chance.

The protagonist is a petty thief. Upon pursuit by the police, he crashed through a skylight, and was patched back together by a physician with something to prove. He’s been the showpiece in a never-ending whirl of academic lectures for the past few years, and his jail time is nearly up. One lecture in particular caught his interest– the one on London’s brand-new sewer system. He’s nothing if not ambitious–this is going to be his ticket to a career as a master thief. And while he’s at it, he sets out to forge himself a new identity as the gentleman Montmorency.

It’s hard not to be admire the ingenuity of a story that revolves around the sewer system as a plot device. And even though Montmorency is undeniably and unapologetically a criminal, you’ll find yourself hoping he gets away with it all. This is definitely more of a plot-driven book than a character-driven one, but it’s a fast-paced and fun read, with an unpredictable yet satisfying conclusion. One of these days, I’ll have to pick up the sequels, Montmorency on the Rocks and Montmorency and the Assassins.

Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

Sixteen-year old Rose Nolan and her family arrive at Ellis Island from Ireland in 1911, ready to make a new life in New York. Things start to go awry right away, as her baby brother has trachoma, and is sent back to Ireland with her father. Rose, her mother, and her younger sister Maureen set out to their uncle’s only to discover that he has no idea that they’re coming, and his wealthy German wife objects strongly to their presence. When Rose’s mother decides to go back to Ireland, Rose talks her into letting the two girlssatay behind. Rose deals with sweatshops, and an abusive boss coming on to her, but things start looking up when she is befriended by her landlord’s daughter Gussie, a fierce young woman agitating for unionization. Rose finds a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, and all is going well, until the fateful fire that was a major force for labour laws at the turn of the century.

This starts out as just another American immigration story, but the politics and history of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was different enough that I picked up the book. It then promptly took me a couple months to get to it, because you know, given the subject matter, it’s got turn grim and tragic in the end. However, that’s more of a reflection on me than the story. The tragedy was vividly, heart-breakingly described–though Rose was a bit wishy-washy in parts. What I really wanted was to know more about Gussie, who was a fascinating character. Good, solid historical fiction for kids wanting to step up from the Dear Canada series.