YA Historical FIC – Dreamland Burning; American Traitors; The Pearl Thief; Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue

Latham, Jennifer.  Dreamland Burning.  Little, Brown and Company, 2017.  978-0-316-38493-3. 371 p.  $18.99.  Gr. 8 and up.

In the early 1920s, Will Tillman is a teenage boy coming of age in Tulsa during the era of race riots and Jim Crow laws.  He wants to become a righteous man, but in order to do so, he must make some difficult decisions between the evening of May 31 and the afternoon of June 1, 1921, when white rioters loot and burn the African American section of Tulsa known as Greenwood.  Almost a century later, seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase begins asking questions when a skeleton is unearthed on her family’s property.  Through alternating narratives, readers learn how Will and Rowan are connected through time and how sadly, the negative attitudes of some people towards African Americans persevere even today.  THOUGHTS: This title is an excellent addition to any school where U.S. history is taught.  Not only does it present a gripping account of one of the most violent (and heretofore largely overlooked) racial conflicts in our country’s history, but it also raises monumental questions about how far we have come, or perhaps haven’t come, as a country.  While the book highlights the stark realities of the state of our country, it still manages to inspire hope and assure readers that the love and courage of a few unsung heroes far outweighs the evil and cowardice of others.  Pair this with other titles that expertly address the issue of racism, such as Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, Paul Volponi’s Black and White, or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Historical Fiction     Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area SD


Landis, Matthew. The League of American Traitors. Sky Pony Press, 2017. 9781510707351. $16.99. 256p.  Gr. 7 and up.

The League of American Traitors takes place in the present, but there’s an alternate reality that’s been happening for the past 240-years between two secret societies: The Libertines and The League of American Traitors. These groups are made up of the descendants of America’s traitors and America’s patriots since the Revolutionary War and most of society has no idea that they have been dueling to the death for the past 240 years. The Libertines are determined to end the bloodlines of America’s traitors, and, unfortunately for Jasper, he is the last direct descendant of America’s most notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold. The story and action begins with the death of Jasper’s dad, not only making Jasper an orphan, but also putting him next in line to be convicted and condemned for his ancestor’s sins, which he finds out the hard way. Jasper, and the reader, go on a fast-paced journey to try and clear Arnold’s name and avoid having to duel. There is attempted kidnapping, a violent clash on the streets of Philadelphia, a boarding school that doubles as a dueling academy, and lots of history that both Jasper, and the reader, learn about. THOUGHTS: This book is touted everywhere as National Treasure meets Hamilton. I can’t speak to that since I haven’t seen either, but that might be a selling point when book-talking this to students. The author is a Social Studies teacher in my district, and he includes notes at the end discussing the accuracy of the historical information included in the book. Despite the dark theme (gun violence, dueling, murder), the book also has light-hearted realistic teen banter that made me laugh. The League of American Traitors is a book I will recommend to my middle school students (7th – 9th) who are fans of action-packed books from authors like James Dashner, Dan Brown, and Richard Paul Evans or students who like some history with their fiction.

Historical Adventure      Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD


Wein, Elizabeth. The Pearl Thief.  Hyperion, 2017. 978-148471716-5. 326 p.  $18.99  Gr. 8 and up.

The Pearl Thief, a prequel to Code Name Verity, features Julie Beaufort-Stuart a few years before she became a spy. For Verity’s legion of fans, it is especially poignant to witness Julie’s coming of age, since it is impossible to forget her ultimate fate. For those who have yet to read Verity, the book works just fine as a stand-alone. Fifteen-year-old Julie, a minor noble, returns to her ancestral home for the summer holidays and quickly finds herself at the center of a mystery when she is attacked and wakes up with no memory of the incident.  The local police are eager to blame the “Travellers,” an ethnic group (similar and somewhat related to Romany peoples) native to Scotland. But Julie is adamant that they are not to blame; in fact, a Travellers family rescued her. Julie develops a strong attachment to Ellen, a Travellers girl her own age. Their relationship not only foreshadows the deep bond that develops between Maddie and Julie in Verity, but also offers a subtle but deep subtext on issues surrounding sexual preference and gender fluidity. The appearance of a (rather macabre) dead body and the disappearance of priceless pearls heighten the mystery element, but this book is much, much more than a whodunnit.  THOUGHTS: The writing is elegant, nuanced, and complex, and the subject matter is appropriate for younger as well as older teens. Recommended for fans of Code Name Verity and any reader looking for something meaty and thought-provoking; a strong purchase for high school libraries; an additional purchase for middle school libraries looking to acquire books for students with higher reading levels.

Historical Fiction, Mystery           Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD


Lee, Mackenzi. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017. 978-0-0623-8280-1. 528 p. $18.99. Gr. 9-12.

Eighteen year old Henry “Monty” Montague is no stranger to scandal. As the son of an earl, Monty’s flagrant vices do not quite fit the gentlemanly life that’s expected of him. His love for drinking, gambling and cavorting with both men and women have gotten him expelled from school and infuriated his mean father, who often takes out his anger with his fists. So Monty looks forward to a year away with his best friend Percy, who he also happens to have a massive crush on, as they venture on their Grand Tour of Europe. But trouble always seems to find Monty, and soon he, his sister Felicity, and Percy are caught up in political scandal, pirates, and alchemy as they make their way across Europe. As Monty explores the countryside and opens up to his friends, readers will surely see a part of themselves in Felicity, Percy or Monty. THOUGHTS: While this story may seem just like any other YA romance, this is one of the few mainstream teen books to feature a bisexual protagonist. Lee creates an incredible enthralling and fast-paced story that hooks readers in the first few pages. Not only does Lee explore gender identity in the 1800s, but readers will also learn about race relations, disability, and feminism during the time period as well. A delightful, well researched read.

Historical Fiction      Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School

Middle Grades Historical Fiction – Some Kind of Courage; The Inquisitor’s Tale; Isabel Feeney

Gemeinhart, Dan. Some Kind of Courage. New York: Scholastic, 2016. 978-0545-665773.  $16.99. 234 pp.  Gr. 4-9.
In Washington state in 1890, Joseph Johnson has lost his mother and younger sister to typhoid and his father to a wagon accident.  He’s left in the care of a miserable man who underhandedly sells Joseph’s last remaining link to his family, his horse Sarah.  This action emboldens Joseph to take his father’s gun and most of the money from Sarah’s sale to follow Sarah’s trail and retrieve her.  Moral and resolute, Joseph encounters quite a few setbacks in his long journey, but he never wavers.  He frequently remembers wise pieces of advice from his parents, and that advice guides him in his decisions, notably, the decision to bring along an orphaned (it would seem) young Chinese boy in a time and place where racism is relentless.  Despite being unable to speak one another’s language, Joseph and Ah-Kee develop a strong understanding and full respect for one another.  The journey and its resolution are rife with adventure, a longing for home, and heartache.  It is this mixture, lived through the morally steadfast Joseph, that makes the tale such a needed one for young readers. THOUGHTS: A strong second novel that has me seeking out Gemeinhart’s first (The Honest Truth) and third novels (the just-published Scar Island).  Geminhart expertly reveals Joseph’s character and makes believable the people and places he encounters.  Highly recommended.  
Historical Fiction        Melissa Scott, Shenango High School


Gidwitz, Adam. The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016. 978-0-52542-616-5. $17.99. Gr. 6-12.

In 1242, travelers gather over ale at a dark inn to hear the story of three children and their greyhound. Each traveler, from a wizened nun to a thieving jester, relays a chapter (or more) of their run-in with these children, who, during the course of the tale, go from enlightened thieves to cold-hearted criminals. The story begins with prophetic Jeanne and her faithful greyhound, Gwenforte, returned to life 10 years after her death. Accused of witchcraft and on the run, Jeanne runs into William, a larger than life monk-in-training with incredible strength and a kind heart, and Jacob, a gentle, thoughtful Jewish boy who can heal wounds with his hands. On their travels, the children run into malicious knights, a farting dragon, a kind-hearted king, an evil queen, and many others each as unforgettable as the last. While set in the Middle Ages, the story explores issues of race, religion, and sexism that are still relevant today. In a tale not unlike the famous Canterbury Tales, readers young and old will delight in the story of these young adventurers, and are treated to phenomenal artwork by Hatem Aly throughout.  THOUGHTS: This is a delight for readers of all ages. Aly’s illustrations, inspired by medieval illustrated manuscripts, add depth and humor to Gidwitz’s excellent story.

Historical Fiction               Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School


Fantaskey, Beth. Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 978-0-544-58249-1. $17.99. 334 pp. Gr. 4-7.

Nineteen twenties Chicago; a time of mobsters, prohibition, and murder, and ten year old Isabel Feeney is smack dab in the middle of it all.  A newsgirl for the Chicago Tribune, Isabel aspires to be a reporter, like the infamous Maude Collier, but for now, she must help her mother with the rent by selling newspapers.  One evening, after selling a paper to Miss Giddings, one of her best clients, Isabel hears a gunshot in the alley just past her news corner.  When she arrives, she sees Miss Giddings covered in blood, a gun, and mobster, Charles Bessemer, dead on the ground.  Isabel knows that Miss Giddings couldn’t have killed Charles Bessemer, her fiance, but Detective Culhane sees things differently.  As Isabel sets out to find the true murderer, she befriends her idol, Maude Collier, and the children of Miss Giddings and Charles Bessemer, who help with the investigation, but is also threatened by those who want Miss Giddings to take the blame.  THOUGHTS:  This is a fun historical mystery for middle school and upper elementary students.  Fantaskey does not rely too much on the history of the 1920s, but more on the girl-detective and female independence.  

Historical Mystery      Erin Parkinson, Beaver Area MS/HS

Diary of a Waitress…new Historical Fiction


Meyer, Carolyn.  Diary of a Waitress: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Harvey Girl.  Honesdale: Calkins Creek, 2015.  978-1-62091-652-0. 348 p.  $17.95.  Gr. 5-10.

The year is 1926, and Katherine “Kitty” Evans has just graduated from high school.  She is planning to go to college to become a journalist.  This dream is squashed, however, when her father tells her they do not have enough money to send her to college.  Instead, Kitty obtains a job as a Harvey Girl, moving away from Leavenworth, Kansas, to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.  She forms close friendships with some of the other Harvey girls and chronicles all of their lives in her diary.  She also continues to pursue a career in journalism, completing some writing assignments for local newspapers.  Because Kitty’s diary entries are so detailed, the book is packed with historical information, including references to Prohibition, flappers, the KKK, pilot Charles Lindbergh, actor Rudolph Valentino, journalist William Allen White, and more.  Black and white photographs from the time period are also dispersed throughout the book, and a selected bibliography provides readers with resources for further review.  This is a great read for those interested in learning more about this little-known part of American railroad history.

Historical Fiction       Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School

As a former social studies teacher, I found this book fascinating.  I had never heard of Harvey Eating Houses and found myself doing some research about these restaurants as I was reading the book.  The historical details in the book all seem to be accurate.  I will say, however, that this book might not be so fascinating for readers who are not interested in history.  The extensive details might seem boring, and the plot doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.  It follows Kitty and her friends as they pursue their dreams and find love, but there doesn’t seem to be any major conflict or turning point in the book.  I would probably only recommend this book to readers who are very interested in U.S. history.

Empire Girls…historic fiction for adults, but loved by young adults


Hayes, Suzanne, and Loretta Nyhan. Empire Girls. Don Mills, Ont.: Harlequin MIRA, 2014. 978-0-7783-1629-9. 285 p. $14.95. Gr. 10 and up.

Growing up in sleepy upstate New York, sisters Rose and Ivy Adams always found themselves at odds. Twenty-two year old Rose is a homebody who wants to spend her life at the idyllic family estate, while headstrong 21-year old Ivy longs for the excitement of New York City. It is the height of the Roaring Twenties, after all! When their father passes away suddenly, leaving the estate to a previously unknown half-brother, the girls travel to the city with only a photo to guide their hunt for the mysterious Asher Adams. Ivy is ecstatic to finally be in the heart of the city during the steamy summer of 1925, “letting [her] sister tag behind like a tin can bouncing from a newlywed’s bumper.” They rent a room at the Empire House, landing smack in the midst of a colorful cast of characters who seem to know more than they are letting on about Asher and his whereabouts. In alternating chapters, Rose and Ivy dive into New York City’s lively speakeasy scene and find first love where they least expect it, testing the bonds of sisterhood and family along the way.
Historical Fiction (1920s); Romance   Amy Pickett, Ridley High School
I learned about Empire Girls through a Booklist webinar, and it immediately appealed to me as a crossover title that might have strong teen appeal. The main characters are already in their early twenties, but they are also leaving home for the very first time. Although historical fiction is usually a hard sell with my students, the Prohibition era is among the more appealing time periods (speakeasies, flappers, and jazz do sound awfully fun). Both sisters fall into intense but sweet romances, but the book is not explicit, which sets it apart from so many “new adult” titles out there. It is a gentle, if slightly predictable, historical romance that will appeal to fans of the TV show Boardwalk Empire. I am excited to booktalk it with students in grades 10 and up!