Archive for History

March: Book Three

Written by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
Illustrated by Nate Powell

It’s so easy to see why this volume has won so many awards and gotten so much attention. Packed with emotion and written by one who was there, it never steps outside of John Lewis’ experience and always speaks to how he felt at the time. It’s written in a way that draws in even the most reluctant reader.  

By September of 1963, John Lewis was coordinating the efforts by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register blacks to vote in Mississippi and Alabama. As a student, he’d spent prior years with the Freedom Riders just trying to gain the right to ride public transportation and eat and sleep as a regular citizen. When the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in 1963, killing four young girls, even more people were inspired to register. Time after time, long lines waited while the clerks and police devised more ways to deny them the right. No lines on the sidewalk. Only four in the courthouse. Impossible literacy tests. They fought an uphill battle against the FBI, an uncaring Washington, and those within the movement who would respond with violence, but fight they did. They even fought the Democratic Party, who refused to recognize the delegation from the Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, at their convention. Eventually, after many years of beatings and other violence, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. And, of course, John Lewis went on to become a Congressman and to see an African-American President.

It’s so difficult to underestimate the importance of this book. It’s a must read.

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  • Title: March: Book Three
  • Author: John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
  • Illustrator: Nate Powell
  • Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 184 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Graphic memoir
  • ISBN: 978-1-60309-402-3

To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

Written by Skila Brown

By focusing on one member of the Donner party, the author makes one of the most mysterious episodes in American history come to life. Written in verse, the story comes across well as the voice of the real nineteen-year-old traveler.

Mary Ann’s father decided to move the family from Illinois to California in 1846, just as the gold rush and the Mexican-American War were beginning. They set out with husband and wife, nine children, a son-in-law, and a hired hand. Seemingly, they planned well and took along sufficient supplies. It was a few mistakes, the decisions of others on the trail, and the very early winter that proved to be the party’s downfall.

Due to the unusually harsh nature of the story, this book is not recommended for younger children.

From Father (p. 218)

If there was a final moment,

last glance,

thick sigh as all the air left his lungs

for good,

I missed it.

However, the reality of the situation and learning about the fragility of life can be important for young adults. The author takes a matter-of-fact attitude and is open about the natural revulsion present in the cannibalism that did occur. Most of the story is about the long, long journey prior to the great snowstorm, with the heat of the desert and lack of water, plus many other factors.  

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  • to-stay-aliveTitle: To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
  • Author: Skila Brown
  • Published: Candlewick Publishers, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Novel in verse, history
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-7811-1

Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad

Written by Martin W. Sandler

There was a lot more to building the transcontinental railroad than can be packed into those four words. Certainly a lot more than you’re taught in history class.

Sandler did extensive research for this great new book and includes many sidebars with details of various aspects of the project and biographies of important players, as well as numerous photographs and maps from the Library of Congress and other archives.

The brain child of Asa Whitney, distant relative of Eli Whitney, the plan began in earnest in 1845. After several proposals to Congress, the Central Pacific, starting from the west, and the Union Pacific, starting from the east, finally won the approval to lay rails from Omaha to Sacramento. It wasn’t until 1869 that the last spike was driven at Promontory Summit. Facing labor shortages, company corruption, extremes of weather, shortage of funds, just plain difficult terrain, and other hardships, the construction itself took more than six years.

The real value to sixth graders is as reference material, but Sandler does a great job of relating the true impact on the workers – Irish, Chinese, Mormon, and other – and on the indigenous residents of the American West. The story is compelling, well-told, and riveting.

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  • Iron RailsTitle: Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad
  • Author: Martin W. Sandler
  • Published: Candlewick, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 Up
  • Genre: History, Biography
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6527-2
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Timeline, Source Notes, Bibliography, Photography Credits, and Index

When the Earth Shakes

Written by Simon Winchester

The Smithsonian Institution, with its massive research and museum complex supported the work of Simon Winchester, already a well-known and often awarded writer of nonfiction. He knows well the world of geology and writes smooth and engaging account of the excitement he feels when looking at the pictures of the bulge on Mount St. Helen before it erupted. But explaining the “how” of an eruption, as well as, all the other events put in motion by an eruption is a big job.

Grade five, six readers and far beyond will be fascinated by all the photos from worldwide Geological Societies, as well as the maps, diagrams, and sketches from around the world to depict tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Winchester is able to capture the excitement and wonder of such phenomena while still instilling readers with the respect such natural dangers require.

Students can fulfill core curriculum in the areas of science, history, and literacy. After completing this well-written volume, readers can find other books, websites and listening recordings of sounds captured from under the ocean

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  • When the Earth ShakesTitle: When the Earth Shakes
  • Author: Simon Winchester
  • Publisher: Viking/ Penguin, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 72 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-670-78536-0
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Grade level: 5 Up
  • Extras: Index, recommended books, recommended web sites, photographs and photo credits

Mark of the Thief

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Riding on the back of a griffin flying over ancient Rome, Nic escapes only to fight again. Without knowing it, the first time Nic saw, Caela, the griffin, deep in the gold mines, it scratched his back leaving the mark of the Divine Star. It gives Nic the powers of Diana, one being his ability to talk to animals. Magic travels through that mark, but even more magic strengthens Nic through the bulla of Julius Caesar that he found and kept for himself.

This is the first in a new series by the New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Ancient Rome comes alive through its treatment of slaves in the mines to its treatment of the animals being put to death for entertainment in the arena.

There are factions of senators trying to overtake the emperor and sometimes it all becomes quite entangled, just as it does in real life. The poorest of the poor hide Nic in underground water tunnels to keep him safe from those chasing him. They want his power, his bulla and the precious jewels hidden within it. But at the end of book one, the last laugh belongs to Nic. Except, of course, that it isn’t really the last laugh as even he realizes his battle has just begun.

Fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and those beyond will strengthen their literacy skills while also finding out what ancient Roman life and government was like. History standards can be met by discovering and discussing this new knowledge.

It is an exciting new series. Many teachers, librarians and parents will be looking forward to the publication of book #2.

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  • Mark of the ThiefTitle: Mark of the Thief
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 339 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-56154-9
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy, history
  • Grade level: 4 to 7


Like a River: A Civil War Novel

Written by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Have you ever heard of the steamboat, Sultana? No? Well then it might surprise you to find out when it exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1865, more people died than died on the Titantic.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman has done excellent research into this mostly unknown event of the Civil War. In like manner she has studied the Andersonville prison daily life. Her ability to take the findings of her studies and turn it all into a compelling story is commending.

Her main characters are well developed and face authentic problems of the day. The tension begins early and draws the reader in quickly, keeping them focused and always wanting to continue to read that one more chapter.

Grade five and grade six students will become enthralled with this story and look for others like it. Teachers and librarians can use the text to fulfill core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, American history, historical fiction, character development, comparison of fiction and nonfiction as well as the effects of war.

The explanation within the Author’s Notes pertaining to what is true and what is fiction is valuable. Photographs from the Library of Congress add a richness to this difficult story. This book would be a superb addition to elementary, middle school, and public libraries

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  • like a riverTitle: Like a River
  • Author: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
  • Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-62979-209-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 8
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Selected Bibliography, Photographs, Picture Credits

The Cure for Dreaming

Written by Cat Winters

If I said this is Dracula meets Susan B. Anthony, would it sound weird? Maybe, but Cat Winters makes it work. There is enough of Bram Stoker’s opus to pique the reader’s interest without giving away the entire story or being overly graphic. There is enough of women’s rights without being preachy. All the while, the author weaves in hypnotism and the power of words.

In 1900 Portland, Oregon, Olivia Mead turns seventeen only to have her father panic about her independence and strong mind. She attends a show by a hypnotist, Henri Reverie and becomes his main subject, unwittingly allowing him to turn her into a board that gets walked on. Her father decides Henri can make Olivia a more demure, subservient woman. The result is she sees monsters and can’t fight back, even in the face of real danger. She attributes this in part to her love of Dracula, but maybe there really are monsters. Meanwhile, the father of her suitor writes an editorial about why women don’t need the right to vote. Olivia anonymously submits a letter to the editor refuting all his claims. When the letter gets published, a firestorm results. Her own father thinks a man wrote the letter because it was too well written. Everything goes from bad to worse as Olivia and Henri get to know each other and plot to work things out. In the end, Olivia’s father pushes so hard, she is forced to find her voice (literally) and declare her independence.

Sixth grade readers will learn about Bram Stoker, life in 1900, women’s rights, and mesmerism.

  • Cure for DreamingTitle: The Cure for Dreaming
  • Author: Cat Winters
  • Publisher: Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Fiction, women’s suffrage, Dracula, hypnotism
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1216-6


Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal

Written by Tonya Bolden

Capital Days is a stunning new look at the beginnings of our Capital City, Washington D.C.  This goes beyond a regular history of the Capital building and city because this is a personal view of what was happening day by day on the streets as experienced by one man.

Many of the excerpts come from the diary of a finally freed man named, Michael Shiner. He wrote what he saw, felt, and believed. The primary research undertaken by Tonya Bolden, a highly awarded nonfiction author, is very well done. Everything in the book is backed up with actual photographs and explicit citations. Primary sources are quoted throughout.

Readers are treated to an inside look at daily life from the early to the mid-19th century. In Michael Shiner’s last entry in his book, he noted that he had witnessed eleven Presidents take office.  He witnessed the burning and rebuilding of Washington, the labor disputes, the slave struggles to become free, Lincoln’s inauguration, even the workmen dropping the cornerstone for the Washington monument into the river by accident. The inclusion of real photographs from the time, as well as newspaper clippings, will help readers keep in constant mind this is about things that really happened.

From his work inside the Navy yard Michael sees and hears things that others would not. He witnesses an early labor strike and is affected when workers are not allowed to take their lunch baskets into the yard because of too much theft. Michael is not afraid to write what he sees. It is, after all, just a book for himself, to help him remember what happened. But now, generations later, we can see through his eyes our Capital struggling to be built.

After his retirement from the Navy yard he continues to work within the city as a contractor himself until he is infected with smallpox and dies. It is no small miracle that his personal book is and has been in the Library of Congress since early 1900. We are all fortunate that it was found by Tonya and used to create this marvelous, readable nonfiction narrative.

Throughout the book, a timeline of the Capital is included. While many of the points have to do with the Capital building itself, such as inaugurations and passed bills, it also includes news from around the city like the burning of the theater or the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington monument.

Abrams published this volume with heavy, glossy paper, clear reproductions of lithographs and woodprints from hundreds of years ago.  It is a stunningly beautiful volume worthy of the high level of scholarship that went into its creation.

The end papers contain a marvelous collection of selected source material, glossary, index, author’s note and chapter by chapter notes. This book can be used to meet all the core curriculum standards in history, nonfiction reading and research. It would be very useful to grade five and grade six readers and beginning researchers. Teachers and librarians will be thrilled to add this to their collection of American history books.

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  • Capital DaysTitle: Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal
  • Author:  Tonya Bolden
  • Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 96 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-4197-0733-9
  • Genre: Nonfiction, History, Washington D.C.
  • Grade level: 4 to 7
  • Extras: Glossary, Index, Author Notes, Selected Sources, Notes (chapter by chapter)

Fleabrain Loves Franny

Written by Joanne Rocklin

Pittsburgh, 1952. Recovering from polio, Franny Katzenback listens to the sounds of her friends playing outside as she lies in bed and wishes her legs would move. With only books for comfort, she falls in love with the newly published Charlotte’s Web. If only she had a Charlotte in her life, she thinks. Her wish comes true when she receives a mysterious letter written in blood-red ink. The author happens to be a highly intelligent flea named Fleabrain, who lives on her dog’s tail.

The two strike up a correspondence. Fleabrain shares with Franny a love of literature as well as music and languages. Not only can he talk, but his saliva contains superpowers, which allow him to take Franny on all kinds of fantastical adventures based on his extensive reading. He flies her around at night on a magical horseback ride, he miniaturizes her á la Alice in Wonderland, and he zooms her around the globe to tour the Seven Wonders of the World. Their relationship strains, however, when she learns he cannot use his powers to cure her of polio. Issues of social injustice are touched upon when Franny faces discrimination upon her return to school.

Sixth graders will likely find the historical elements of this story interesting as it paints a solid picture of the polio scare during the 1950’s and what it was like to be on the receiving end of that terrible disease. While there certainly is enough advanced vocabulary and thematic elements to enhance one’s comprehension and literacy skills, the overreaching plot and fantastical elements may leave readers scratching their heads just like the poor dog who hosts Fleabrain.

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  • FleabrainTitle: Fleabrain Loves Franny
  • Author: Joanne Rocklin
  • Publisher: Amulet Books / Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1068-0
  • Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction


September 17

Written by Amanda West Lewis

War, as seen from the eyes of 10, 13 and 15 year olds is quite different from that of adults. In this carefully researched historical fiction we find that many children being sent away to Canada from England on a large cruise ship see it as an adventure.

This startling tale is about a time when England was so sure it would fall to the Nazis that a plan was established to send away a whole generation of children. Some would be sent, supposedly, to Canada. Others would go to Australia or New Zealand.

The alarming rate of bombing in London caused parents to make very fast decisions under duress. Children were sent away with only a change of clothes and, if lucky, one packed lunch.

Unfortunately, the title of the book is the date that one such ship carrying a group of over 90 children was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazi U-boat. There were survivors, but very few. Perhaps the most breathtaking part of the story is the several days that one group of children spent in a tiny lifeboat dreaming of survival. One of the things that still kept the children going was their thought of having an adventure at sea with real sailors.

Core curriculum standards for history, geography and literacy skills can be met for grade 6 readers and beyond whether the book is used in a classroom, library or book club setting. It is history we have not read before and it is provided in a fascinating narrative style that puts the reader right in that scary frigid water.

Buy on Amazon

  • September 17Title: September 17
  • Author: Amanda West Lewis
  • Publisher: Red Deer Press, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Paperback, 313 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-88995-507-3
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 6 and up
  • Extras: Afterward, Recommended Reading, Interview and Photograph of the Author
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