The politics of this year’s election have seeped into our classroom, and there are fierce feelings on all sides. Since I teach history (the end of the American Revolution to the end of the Civil War), current events are very much part of what moves our daily conversation as we ask: how do past events influence and foreshadow today’s events? Always, we try to focus on civil discourse: we can voice and explore our differences, we believe, without (in sixth grade parlance) “hating on each other”. I am proud of my students, because they work so hard to live up to this.
This year, as we begin our unit on historical fiction, I feel it’s more important than ever to present my students with books that illustrate the belief that people can come from very different backgrounds and perspectives and still discover their common humanity. And so it was with particular pleasure that I read Caroline Starr Rose’s Blue Birds, the historical basis of which is the Lost Colony of Roanoake – the first English settlement in Virginia, whose people vanished mysteriously and without a trace.
Here is a synopsis, from the author’s own website:
It’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.
Kimi and Alis make the journey from suspicion to curiosity to engagement and friendship in this beautifully written novel in verse. The alternating voices of each girl are exquisitely crafted to give the reader a sense of their individuality: Kimi, a proud Roanoake Indian who fears for her nation, and Alis, who sees that the ways of her English people are at odds with the land they mean to settle. Though every secret meeting is fraught with danger, the two girls are drawn together by all they hold in common: brave spirits, knowledge of loss, and a deep sense of connection to:
…land heavy with trees,
thick with darkness.
The mysterious island,
Even as the adults on both sides fall into enmity, suspicion, and murder, Kimi and Alis forge a powerful bond of friendship and trust. This is what I found so moving and uplifting about this story – that these children find a way to reach across many barriers to discover all that connects us as one people:
I was sad to come to the last page of Blue Birds, but I know that I will soon be immersed in it story once again as we read it together in our classroom.