Book Review: Historical Fiction

At last, I have read through the pile of picture books I’d brought home to sort through and decide which to add to my collection of mentor texts for the new school year.  Here are some keepers:  

And Picasso Painted Guernica  is one of those picture books that can be used as a mentor text for so types of mini lessons and subject areas.  Part biography (Picasso’s early life, and the briefest sketch of his adult life) and part art history (his influences, artistic experimentation and growth), this gorgeously illustrated book centers on the creation of Guernica.  Alain Serres, the author, does  a wonderful job of tracing Picasso’s development as an artist, examining and explaining the process and thinking behind some of  Picasso’s most well known paintings and sketches: “Anything is possible. Even being poor. Even being blue. Even living side by side, gazing in different directions. Even showing both the left-hand and the right-hand sides of a face in a single image.”  
The events in the larger world intersects Picasso’s artistic evolution when the Basque city of Guernica is bombed in April of 1937. Picasso’s fury and anguish at the suffering he learns of  in newspaper accounts leads to the conception of Guernica: “How to make an image more powerful than the blast of 50 tonnes of bombs? How to make it live on long after the dust and the debris have settled? How to make it linger in the mind’s eye even when people have stopped looking?” That is the challenge Picasso sets for himself.  Serres explains each of the powerful images in the painting – why it was chosen, what it represents, how Picasso played with its form.  This would make for powerful discussions in class about imagery – both in art as well as in literature.
The book closes with some of the more joyful paintings of Picasso’s later years, and the message of peace: “Picasso never gave up his dream of an Earth without war.  The dream of an earth where the only violence allowed is the struggle that’s needed to create and never stop creating.”
What will I use this book for?  I think I will use this one in our Civil War unit, when we deal directly with war and its effects.  This would make a great introduction to a project that focused on how citizens respond to war – what is the human cost of war.  Guernica was Picasso’s response – perhaps my students will choose between art, poetry or something of their own choice.  I am so glad I came across this book!

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero   is Marissa Moss’ fscinating account of one courageous young lady who spent part of the Civil War as Frank Edmonds, soldier, nurse and spy for the Union Army.  Sarah’s most dangerous mission as a spy was to sneak her way into the Confederate fortifications at Yorktown and report her findings (if she could make it there and back alive, that is) to the waiting Union Army.  Amazingly, she is able to accomplish this task – using quick thinking to maneuver herself through many a dangerous encounter.  I love that the hero of the book is this plucky young lady who sticks to her convictions and finds a way to get the job done.  The real Sarah Edmonds goes on to do great works after the Civil War, and becomes the first and only woman to be recognized as a veteran Civil War – deserving of a pension and back pay for her services. Hooray for Sarah!  The expressive illustration by John Hendrix make this a good selection for a read aloud – I may also simply add this to our collection of “experiences of the Civil War” reads which my students pick through for their “What was life like in the Civil War?” investigation.

Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon , written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Michael Dooling  is the true story of  a pioneering fossil hunter.  That she was only eleven when she makes her first discovery on the shores of Lyme Regis, England at a time when little if anything was known about prehistoric life, makes her story all the more remarkable.  For many years, my children and I would visit my parents in London every summer – the Natural History Museum took up two days of our month-long visits, and Mary Anning’s   
Ichthyosaurus and other “finds” were top of the lists of items to see and re-see:
Atkins has woven a story that traces the beginnings of Mary’s career on a grey and lonely stretch of  beach, when Mary comes upon something.  Her father’s belief that:  “Everything starts from something living, if you look hard you can see the tree that’s in a table,” is strong within Mary, too. She perseveres through a cold and bleak winter, working to help support her widowed mother, and uncovers more and more of this strange creature buried within a flat rock on the beach. I love the way Atkins writes about Anning’s process of discovery, the dawning realization that she is uncovering something remarkable: ” How long ago was long ago? What was here before us?”  Eventually, the scientific world learns of Mary’s discovery, and the fossil  Mary has worked so hard to carefully chisel from the beach, is removed and sent on for further study.  When Mary is asked if she will now “settle down to a normal life?” she responds: “I have work to do.”  After all, “There were creatures no one had ever thought existed. There were worlds no one had ever dreamed of.”  And Mary does go on looking, just as her father her urged her to do.
I think I will use this book as part of the launch to our biography unit  – Atkins skilfully shares that part of Anning’s life story which explains her driving interest, her motivation to follow her dream.  This is a theme we study closely in our biography unit, as well, and using this book as a read aloud will help us discuss this together as a class.
Anne Hutchinson’s Way  also written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Michael Dooling, is a fictionalized story  based on a real family’s experience in the early days of the Puritan colonies. From the jacket copy: “In 1634, young Susanna Hutchinson travels from England across the Atlantic with her parents and siblings, finally landing in the New World.  There the family hope to practice their religion as they see fit. But Anne Hutchinson, Susanna’s mother, does not like the minister’s manner.”  She has good reason – the minister believes it is against the law for a woman to preach, and, to Anne Hutchinson, “keeping her beliefs to herself would be like keeping food from the hungry or medicine from people in pain.”  As a punishment, Anne is sent  to prison, far away from her young family.  Upon her release, mother and children make their way on foot to  from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to New York, where Anne Hutchinson could have the freedom to practice her religious views – the freedom for which she had crossed the Atlantic in the first place.    
Atkins gives us a glimpse of early colonial life – the strength of personal faith, the hardships people were prepared to endure and the sacrifices they were willing to make.
Where will I use this book?  I love the way Atkins writes – how she is able to sketch daily life and events so as to show a culture as a whole – what it was like to live in those long ago days.  I may also use this book in our Social Studies class, when we talk about the Bill of Rights, and the debates about religious freedom at the time of the Constitutional Convention.  This story would be a wonderful link to this debate even in the very earliest days of our nationhood – I could envision many discussions around the situation Anne found herself in among the leaders of her new community.

So…some fabulous new finds for my ever expanding “mentor text” basket! 


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Historical Fiction

  1. Tara, thank you for the kind words! It's great you visited the wonderful Museum of Natural History. Shortly before I started writing Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, there were no credits to Mary, but just to the owners of the fossils. I'm so happy that changed. And hear than you can now even listen to a Mary Anning impersonator!

  2. Yes! I took my little niece to see this lady – very informative and entertaining. It's great to have women represented and lauded in science…we need more of this!

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