1980 Honor: The Road From Home – The Story of an Armenian Girl

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

In the 1980 Newbery Honor, The Road From Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, author David Kherdian retells his mother’s story of surviving the Armenian Genocide.

The book begins with the early years of Veron, who grows up among a respected upper class family. When the Armenian Genocide begins in 1915, Veron and her family are deported and forced out of their homes by the Turkish government. After years of trying to survive and escape the atrocities done to her people, Veron eventually leaves for American as a mail-order bride and hopes for a brighter future.

The book reads very much like a memoir. Veron is shown to be a strong and courageous person and is forced to survive incredible hardships and suffering. Her strength is, without a doubt, the highlight of this piece. The genocide that is depicted is chilling and horrible to read about, but somehow I found my attention drifting throughout the story as the writing style lacked a sense of urgency and true horror. On top of that, it was hard to connect with the characters as the narrative stilted the character’s emotions and development.

For those interested in learning more about Armenian culture and this historical era, this book has a lot to offer. On the other hand, if you are looking for a compelling narrative, don’t bother with this book, as it is a bit of a disappointment.

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2006 Honor: Show Way

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson is a children’s book which tells the history of Woodson’s family; it situates members in their historical context and does a great job of showing how individuals make history.

The story begins before the Civil War, with a great grandmother’s great grandmother. She made quilts to help escaping slaves follow the Underground Railroad. They called these Show Ways, because they showed the way to a particular destination. If you’d like to learn more about this, National Geographic has an interesting article on it. Through generations, the women in the family continued to find inspiration in quilting. Quilt squares helped calm and reassure two aunts who participated in the 1960’s struggles for Civil Rights. Despite how much the author’s life has changed from that of her predecessors, quilting, together with the drive to read and write shared by more recent generations, helps tie together the past and present.

Honestly, the pictures are the real star of this book. I’ve posted a number of them, like this to our Tumblr. The history heavy panels use a lovely collage/mural of pictures and newspaper articles talking about the event, with illustrations of the relevant character standing in front of the mural. The quilts included are very colorful; I particularly love an illustration towards the end that integrates the text of the entire book into a quilt square.

This Newbery Honor winner is aimed at younger children, probably about kindergarten age. For me, this was worth picking up primarily for the pictures. The story is fine and absolutely one that should be told; it just didn’t grab me as strongly as the images.

2006 Honor: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow was a 2006 Newbery Honor. Its title is fairly self-explanatory. The book draws on the stories of a number of people who were affected by the Hitler Youth; Bartoletti uses individuals to tell the broader story of the major role Hitler Youth played in Hitler’s rise to power and in WWII.

Bartoletti chose a roughly chronological organization, which emphasized the changes Hitler brought to German society. As Hitler consolidated power, Hitler Youth became first recommended and then required, with a corresponding repression of all other youth organizations. The attendant brainwashing was greatly beneficial, as you saw children reporting their parents to authorities and a tightening of control over society.

Following the declaration of war, Hitler Youth and the girls’ BDM were set to taking over much home front labor to free up troops for combat duty. They dug trenches, provided additional labor on farms and in nurseries, and much more. Later on, the troop age was lowered further and further, with elite units of Hitler Youth serving as shock troops; because of their ideological devotion, many continued fighting even when it was clear that they had lost.

One thing that struck me while reading this was how well the author explored the motivations individuals had for their actions, even delving into the emotions behind some of their choices. The need for belonging was a primary motivator for those who became involved with Hitler Youth. Her inclusion of people who opposed Hitler, like Sophie Scholl, as well as those who changed their minds later, created a fuller picture of the youth landscape in Germany.

The author drew on both previously published accounts and personal interviews with those participants who were still alive. This story-driven narrative made for interesting (in a good way) reading, even for someone like myself who is fairly well versed in this epoch in history. Hitler Youth is recommended for Grades 2-5. I believe that students on the older end of that range, more like Grades 4-6, would get the most out of this. The language is a bit challenging for the younger end of the age range and the subject matter, by its nature, on the moderately disturbing side. While Bartoletti doesn’t use overly-graphic narration, she does describe the films and inmates which the Hitler Youth were forced to view and work with after they lost the war, as part of the attempt to undo their brainwashing. This book is a great teaching tool and a perfect addition to the collection of anyone who enjoys learning about WWII.

 

1988: Lincoln, A Photobiography (Lincoln through the lens)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman details the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

The biography was written in a well-balanced way, with humorous and thoughtful quotes littered throughout the text. The author covers Lincoln’s philosophy on slavery throughout the war and discusses how his contemporaries viewed him. Don’t bother reading this book if looking for information about the battles of the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln is the major center point of this work. Additionally, information is included on the major historical sites and houses related to Lincoln’s life.

As a nonfiction work, this biography supplements the details of his life with plenty of portraits and pictures of important people and events during the Civil War era. The pictures are useful in getting a better sense of what life was like back in the 1800’s, as well as showing how Lincoln changed throughout his presidency. Through historical anecdotes and stories, the author creates a vivid portrait of Lincoln as a real person – instead of just a person from our past.

Overall, this was a concise and quick read on one man’s struggle to unite a divided nation during the Civil War. Children could easily read and find information about different parts of Lincoln’s life as the narrative was simple to follow. Adults can also find enjoyment in this book if looking for a quick refresher on United States history.

1988: Lincoln A Photobiography (Lincoln: the quotable parts)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Lincoln A Photobiography, the 1988 Newbery Medal Winner, is one of the few nonfiction Newbery books. The nonfiction to this point has been an unqualified disaster, either horrifically racist or incredibly tedious. This was a surprisingly decent exploration of Abraham Lincoln; it provides context on external events for those new to the topic but employs enough interesting primary source material to retain the attention of those who do have some background in history.

Freeman balances the time he spends on each segment of Lincoln’s life, putting a slight emphasis on the presidential years but also discussing Lincoln’s early life, his entry into politics, and his family life. Lincoln’s changing view of and approach to slavery is one of the themes highlighted by Freeman. In Freeman’s account, Lincoln always disliked slavery but originally believed that, as long as its spread to the newly opened western territories was prohibited, it would die a natural death. As late as the first years of the Civil War, Lincoln favored reparations for slaveholders. Only later in the war did he champion abolition as a military necessity, coupling that with a hard-line view of slavery as a moral evil. I appreciate Freeman’s even-handed approach to his subject; he cautions the reader about the dangers of turning a historical figure into a hero and avoids that temptation himself. He also discusses the sources which he used for each section of the book. As an archivist and a historian, citations are my favorite 😉

I’d highly recommend this for late elementary or early middle school readers interested in history. It’d also be great for time-pressed adults who want to brush up on their U.S. history. I found the book quite readable and accurate within its scope.

 

 

Non-Newbery: The Donner Dinner Party

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Because I work at a university whose primary focus is on education, the library has a substantial children’s book collection. I spotted Donner Dinner Party on the new books shelf and couldn’t resist. When I was in elementary school, I went through a history/ historical fiction phase, which included reading a LOT about the Donner Party.

Donner Dinner Party cover

This graphic novel is an entertaining addition to the fairly extensive literature on the Donner Party. The history is well researched and the writing entertaining but not overly gruesome. The narrator is Nathan Hale (the patriot, and a pun on the author, who shares the name). Hale tells the story of the Donner Party to his hangman and the British soldier guarding him. All interject at various points in the story.

For those unfamiliar with the history, the short version goes like this: Families leave the Midwest (mostly Illinois) bound for California. They make bad choices and end up way behind schedule. Most of the party gets trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. They resort to cannibalism. Rescue parties eventually get the survivors out. This is the portion of the story (the cannibalism) on which most books focus. However, Hale does an excellent job explaining how things got to be so bad, focusing on James Reed’s prideful errors and refusal to listen, as well as the internal rifts within the fairly fluid “Donner” Party.

The hangman provides great comic relief. He is completely unfazed by cannibalism (he himself participated when shipwrecked), but gets worked up over animal deaths, refusing to believe that Billy the pony starved to death after the Reed family left him to wander. The book even includes a panel drawn by the hangman, showing the lovely meadows in which Billy and the family dog ended up.

This is a great book to interest kids in history. The Donner Party has the appeal of goriness, but the book moves beyond shock value to capturing the challenges posed by the trip itself and the fracturing of group dynamics in which it results. Because of the graphic novel format, even relatively marginal readers can get something out of the book. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for an engaging non-fiction read.