The War that Saved my Life

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Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015). The War that Saved my Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

This is one of my middle daughter’s all time favorite books. It is the story of a ten year old girl who is evacuated during the bombings in World War Two London, and how it changes her world forever. In addition to receiving the Newbery Honor, The War that Saved my Life was a New York Times bestseller, a Schneider Family Book Award Winner, and awarded for being one of the best children’s books of the year by the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Ada is an unusual character for children’s literature, the object of intense abuse by a mother who embarrassed by her clubfoot, never allows her outside of their London flat.  She knows nothing about the world except what her younger brother has shared with her. Secretly teaching herself to walk, Ada escapes the city with her brother, Jamie, and hundreds of other children. When they finally disembark the train, they are the only ones not chosen to be housed by the villagers.

Under much protest, Susan Smith is forced to take them in. Living alone and grieving the loss of her best friend, she is forced to admit that she doesn’t “know a thing about taking care of children” (p.38). Susan learns not only how to care for and teach Ada and Jamie, but to love them as well. Ada, who finds it safer not to rely on or love others, finds healing she never realized she  needed.

The changes in Ada and Susan couldn’t be more beautifully portrayed. It’s a page turner filled with surprises including an extremely late climax- ending unexpectedly and with a punch.  Were the kids and I ever thankful when we discovered that a sequel, The War I Finally Won was being released in October 2017. Together we began reading it aloud the day it arrived, scarcely able to put it down.  The following is from the sequel’s flyleaf:

“This masterwork of historical fiction completes Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity that began with The War That Saved My Life, and shows us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.” (2017)

We only wish it didn’t conclude the story of the characters we have truly come to love. While the heroines do have some misconceptions about faith and salvation, there is nothing objectionable and so much to learn from both novels. Together The War that Saved my Life and The War I Finally Won are a perfect introduction for upper elementary and middle school readers of the history of World War II England, but both are worth the read even if you’re not teaching this time period. As I mentioned in an earlier post (May 5th, 2017), Bradley is also the author of Jefferson’s Sons and Weaver’s Daughter, among other titles.

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The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad

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Greenwood, Barbara (1998). The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Scholastic: New York.

While there are many excellent resources for teaching children about the Underground Railroad and slavery,  the majority are geared toward upper elementary readers, and can be overwhelming in their intensity. Those geared toward younger students are often well written fiction, but leave out much of the historical knowledge we want our kids to learn. If I had to pick only one title for literature based instruction on this subject for an audience of second through fourth graders, it would be The Last Safe House. Barbara Greenwood’s story of a young girl whose family is hiding an escaped slave is beautifully interwoven between chapters with descriptions about the African-American experience in the mid-nineteenth century.

Suitable as a one to two-week unit study, nearly all curriculum areas can easily be incorporated with this one title. Students will learn several of the code words used in the Underground Railroad such as parcel, conductor, and stations. A map of North America in 1856 depicts the major escape routes and which states were slave or free. The origin of slavery in America, with the captivity of men and women on the west coast of Africa is explained. Historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Ross, Levi Coffin, and Mary Ann Shadd are introduced. Detailed illustrations of cotton plantations are provided as are what the roles of African-Americans on these were. The implications of the invention of the cotton gin and Lincoln’s  Emancipation Proclamation are discussed. Science can be incorporated through the finding of Polaris (The North Star). Projects include a recipe for gingerbread cookies and instructions on making a lantern out of a tin can. Additional reading skills which can be taught with this resource include using a glossary, an index, and a bibliography.

Canadian Barbara Greenwood also collaborated with illustrator Heather Collins on A Pioneer Sampler, A Pioneer Christmas, and Gold Rush Fever.

Jefferson’s Sons

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2011). Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

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This book fascinated me. While it is far from the first children’s book I’ve read on slavery, the uniqueness of it’s plot: what would become of the “secret” children of one of our founding fathers, coupled with the question of how a man remembered for penning the phrase “all men are created equal” did not recognize the atrocities of slavery on his own plantation, had me spellbound.

Jefferson’s Sons takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and it’s setting is almost exclusively at his farm in Monticello. Following the death of his wife, Jefferson fathers several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (In this time period it would not have been legal for him to marry Sally, however their relationship is only portrayed positively). Four of their children survive, and the story is told in first-person narrative through the eyes of two of the sons, Beverly and Maddy, and later another young slave named Peter.

This is a serious subject, and not a light-hearted story. Bradley eases the brutality for young readers by reserving the worst atrocities it depicts for the more minor characters. Just the same the main characters are witnesses to cruelty, injustice, and pain, and express what it feels like to not be free.

As a homeschooling mom I would not recommend this book even as a read-aloud for children younger than fifth grade. Slavery is hard to understand- especially when it’s nature contradicts the rights we have to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But this contradiction is thought provoking, offers an excellent written response opportunity, and fits in beautifully to any pre-civil war American history curriculum. We even connected it to Mendelian genetics, if you can believe that!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a wonderful writer and the author of one of my all time favorite books, The War That Saved My Life (soon to be featured on “The Homeschooling Mom’s Guide to the Best in Children’s Literature” as well). Other excellent titles by this author include Weaver’s Daughter, Ruthie’s Gift, and Halfway to the Sky.

Words by Heart

Sebestyen, Ouida (1979). Words by Heart. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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Words by Heart is a strongly written story about forgiveness, set in the racially tense South, in the early 1900s. Twelve year old Lena’s father chooses to move his family into a white community ,where she would have more opportunities than if they remained in their African American neighborhood in Scatterbrook. In the story Lena first becomes aware that she isn’t accepted based on the color of her skin.

Lena’s father is the person she most loves and admires. He is one of the most Christ-like characters to ever grace the pages of a work of fiction, children’s or otherwise. Not only does he continually forgive his enemies, but he chooses to do what is right even when he is afraid, and points his daughter to walk in love when nothing could be more contrary to human nature.

Words by Heart is a heavy story, which is likely the reason it hasn’t found much popularity in children’s literature. It is a shamefully realistic picture of what our country was like at the turn of the century. There is little to lighten it up: the subject matter, the fear of its characters, and some language (Lena’s father’s employer does a fair amount of swearing), make it most suitable for young adult readers. Just the same, it is a book families passionate about both faith and stories shouldn’t miss: a book that teaches more about loving your enemies than this one would be hard to find.

 

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Ouida Sebestyen’s first novel (incidentally, published when she was fifty-five years old) was awarded an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, was the winner of the IRA Children’s Book Award, and A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble

Dalgliesh, Alice (1952). The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

Dalgliesh, Alice (1954). The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

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Rarely are two of my favorite books for an age level by the same author, but Newbery honor books The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh are the exception.

In The Bears on Hemlock Mountain eight year old Jonathan isn’t so sure about going over the hill to fetch an iron pot from his aunt, as it is early spring:

 

“Me?” said Jonathan. “All alone? They say there are bears on Hemlock Mountain.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said his mother. “Many’s the time I’ve been over Hemlock Mountain and not a bear did I see.”

.                                                                                               (Dalgliesh, p. 15)

 

And I’m sure you can guess what happens…

This book is just plain fun to read. Based on a Pennsylvania “tall tale”, it depicts early American culture with humor and charm, and rewards both ingenuity and bravery. With unforgettable rhythm, Jonathan and his mother keep up their courage by telling themselves, “THERE are NO BEARS ON HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN, NO BEARS, NO BEARS AT ALL”, over and over, until young listeners are reciting this along with the story. Simple, and full of faith, I never tire of reading this to my kids.

The Courage of Sarah Noble is based on the true account of an eight year old girl who came with her father into the Connecticut wilderness in 1707. Far from her mother and her large family of brothers and sisters, Sarah must face fears of wild animals, Indians, and being separated from those she loves. In just fifty-five pages Alice Dalgliesh shows young readers that “To be afraid and to be brave is the best courage of all,” (Dalgliesh, p.36).

I love how this third person narrative shows not only a child’s perspective, but a loving father’s as well. And I especially appreciate the way it shows the love of a Christian home by contrast of another:

 

“Soon we shall have a fine house like Mistress Robinson’s.”

“No,” said Sarah. “Like our own.”

“And why not like Mistress Robinsons?”

“Because there is no love in that house,” said Sarah.

“You are too wise for your years.”

(Dalgliesh, p. 14)

 

Both The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble are sure to continue inspiring Christian families for years to come.

 

 

Heart of a Samurai

Preus, Margi (2010). Heart of a Samurai. New York: Amulet Books.

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Heart of a Samurai is the fictional account of a Japanese teenager’s unprecedented encounter with America in the mid 1800’s. Shipwrecked at the age of fourteen, Manjiro, (also known by his American name, John Mung), is rescued by a whaling vessel, along with four of his Japanese shipmates. After sailing for two years with the crew of the John Howland, Manjiro returns to the United States with Captain Whitfield, who later adopts him. In the book, Manjiro must address fears based on preconceived ideas,  homesickness, and choose between a myriad of opportunities placed before him.

To give you a taste of Pruis’ writing style, here is an excerpt that shows the inner struggle Manjiro is going through. He has just been informed by a Japanese shipmate that the choice to stay with the rescued sailors from his own country, or go on to America with Captain Whitfield, was to be his own:

“Manjiro opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Thoughts collided in his mind. To see America…but to possibly miss a chance to return home to his mother and family. To learn a thousand new things…but to go to a strange place where people might hate and reject him. To feel again the lift of his heart when the sails filled with wind and the ship seemed to soar over the ocean…but to have to say goodbye to his comrades with whom he’d shared so much…” (Pruis, p,74)

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In Japan Manjiro was being raised as a Buddhist. Not much mention is made of this, other than a reference to early missionaries trying to change not only the beliefs of the Japanese people, but their lifestyles as well. John Mung’s adoptive family must change churches twice before finding one accepting of their new son, but it is clear that somewhere along the way, he was presented with the gospel, for in his final letter to Captain Whitfield  before returning to Japan he writes:

“I hope you will never forget me, for I have thought about you day after day; you are my best friend on earth, besides the great God.” (Pruis, p.251)

In this her first novel, Margi Preus successfully weaves together a number of historical accuracies into creative writing. The book is informative in its descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, the codes of the Samurai, the  California Gold Rush, and Japanese and American perceptions of one another in the mid-nineteenth century. Heart of a Samurai is suitable as a read-aloud for any age, and as an independent read for grades six through eight. It could be used in conjunction with Commodore Perry and Land of the Shogun, perhaps reading  this aloud and having the kids read Preus’ book on their own. (Manjiro’s adventure, and consequent ability to counsel and interpret for the Japanese government, was instrumental in paving the way for the end to 250 years of Japanese isolationsism). It can also be connected to Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, as after returning to Japan, Manjiro translates his book The New American Practical Navigator into Japanese. (Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr. Bowditch was awarded the Newbery medal in 1956).

In addition to being a Newbery honor (2011), Heart of a Samurai made the Best Children’s Books of the Year lists for Bank Street College, the New York Public Library, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Beautifully done!

The I Can Read History Books

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Looking for an informal way to teach American history with six, seven, and eight year olds? The I Can Read series, home to the Little Bear and Frog and Toad books, is wonderful source of engaging, easy to read stories about our country’s earliest years. Beginning in 1635 with Roger Williams founding of the colony of Providence,  and continuing through the early twentieth century, historical fiction written from a child’s viewpoint is extremely well presented.

We learn the history of things we may have never given much consideration to: the origin of skis in Snowshoe Thompson, nineteenth century hot air ballooning in The Big Balloon Race, the race to find dinosaur fossils in Dinosaur Hunter, and traveling libraries in Clara and the Bookwagon. There are lessons in emigration and immigration (The Long Way to a New Land, The Long Way Westward), westward expansion (Prairie Friends, The Josefina Story Quilt, Wagon Wheels), and well known historical figures (First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers). In Clipper Ship we see young Meg and Jamie homeschooled (or should I say shipschooled?) and the amazing experiences they have as they sail with their captain parents around Cape Horn, journeying from New York to California. (Do you suppose using a telescope, chronometer, and sextant would count as technology class credit?)

Each book has it’s own entertaining twist to it. Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express includes notes to William Cody’s mother at the end of each chapter assuring her that “nothing much happens”, which the reader knows otherwise (Coerr, 1995). In The One Bad Thing About Father Teddy Roosevelt’s son describes how “Being President can practically ruin your whole life” (Monjo,1987). In Hill of Fire a Mexican farmer laments, “Nothing ever happens,”- until he witnesses the formation of a volcano right before his eyes (Lewis, 1971).

While this is not a specifically Christian collection of titles, the time period in which the stories are set was one where faith in God, imploring Him for protection, and adherence to higher laws, were the norm. Consequently you find parents encouraging their children to trust in God (Finding Providence), pray for safety (Indian Summer, Clipper Ship), and choosing to do what is right even when disobedience to man’s laws require it (The Drinking Gourd). In addition, you find resourcefulness, courage, wisdom, and a strong commitment to family. Other I Can Read historical titles include The Boston Coffee Party (not a typo!), The Battle for St. Michael’s, Sam the Minuteman, George, The Drummer Boy, The 18 Penny Goose, Six Silver Spoons (think Revolutionary War for all of these), Little Runner of the LonghouseSmall Wolf, Three Names, The Pig War, Snorri and the Strangers, Long, Tall Lincoln, How Far, Felipe?, and Chang’s Paper Pony. The I Can Read books also include some science titles including A Nest of Wood Ducks, Hidden Animals, Ants are Fun, and Greg’s Microscope, to name a few.

Written for grades two to four, these books make excellent read alouds for first graders, and shared or independent reads for second through fourth. The author’s note pages describe historical accounts and provide contexts following each story. The aforementioned titles have been published by HarperCollins, in various years, over the past quarter of a century. All are currently available on amazon.com.