Here are two YA novels that I save for read alouds during our Civil War unit:
Rodman Philbrick’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is a fantastic readaloud. Here’s the jacket copy:
The year is 1863. Homer P. Figg of Pine Swamp, Maine, is suddenly thrust into the turmoil of the times when his older brother, Harold, is sold into service as a Union soldier by their evil uncle, Squinton Leach. Determined to rescue Harold from a likely death on the battlefield, Homer runs away in search of him and is soon captured by bounty hunters tracking down runaway slaves. A kindly Quaker, Jebediah Brewster, whose house is a station on the Underground Railroad, rescues Homer and sends him off again on his quest to find Harold. After an adventure on a steamboat and a stint as the “amazing pig boy” in a medicine show, Homer takes flight in a hot-air balloon and lands in the middle of the Confederate Army.
With a combination of heroism and foolhardiness, Homer steals a pony and rides through the rebel lines straight into the Battle of Gettysburg. He finds Harold and the two fight side-by-side in a bloody charge that helps the Union forces win the day. After the war, the two brothers return to Maine to live with the Brewster family. As Homer says at the end of his mostly true adventures, “We’re all of us haunted by yesterday, and we got no choice but to keep marching into our tomorrows.”
Homer is a wonderful character to follow along with – he is funny, sympathetic, and insightful as he moves from one adventure to the next, one flashpoint in Civil War history to another. Philbrick does a masterful job of weaving history into this entertaining story, so that I can pause from time to time to pose questions from our history lessons, and teach something new. There are many perspectives explored in this story, which makes for wonderful discussions about how the Civil War touched the lives of so many Americans.
Alice McGill’s Miles’ Song beautifully tells the story of so many important aspects of slavery that we need to address in any unit of study of the Civil War: the deplorable conditions slaves were forced to live under, their longing for freedom, and their will to do what they could to better their lives. Here’s the jacket copy of my text:
The year is 1851. Miles is a slave. By the shrewdness of his Mama Cee, he was assigned at an early age to work in the great house on the Tillery Plantation. Like the other servants-in-training, Miles is proud to wear soft wool knee britches and to use the speech of the great house. Each day he helps to provide the creature comforts of a well-run mansion. Until he is caught looking at the open pages of a book. As a punishment, twelve-year-old Miles is sent to the breaking ground. There he experiences what it really means to be a slave. With the help of a mysterious man named Elijah, Miles learns to read and forms a pact to escape. Watching and waiting, Miles takes risk after risk to gain freedom for himself and Mama Cee in a story that will inspire readers of all ages.
Miles’ Song is a wonderful alternative to Gary Paulsen’s Sarny and Nightjohn – two powerful books about slavery that I have shared with my students over the years, but have found not always appropriate for a sixth grade audience. Miles’ Song covers much the same territory, so that its reading becomes at once a powerful experience as well as an opportunity to review and reinforce what has been taught and discussed in our history lessons. I loved the way McGill developed the relationship between Miles and Elijah – the way the longing for freedom and knowledge was passed from one generation to another. Miles’ Song is an important book to share with our students, and it, too, inspires meaningful conversations about slavery and the human will to survive.