ITEM 2015: Historical Fiction & Graphic Novels

Four days from now, at the ITEM Conference in St. Cloud, MN, a number of our Mackin Librarians will present top titles for school libraries across multiple interest levels and genres.  My two areas this year are historical fiction & graphic novels for the MS/HS crowd.  Here is a sneak-peak at the titles I will be discussing…

MS/HS Historical Fiction:

yard  torch  woodford  footsteps  story  moon  seas  road  sky

Yard War by Taylor Kitchings. 9780553507546. 2015. Grade 4-6.

In 1964, 12-year old Trip Westbrook just wants to play backyard football with the guys. While seemingly a simple pursuit, it turns out to be anything but when living in Jackson, Mississippi and discovering that the colored boy down the street has the best arm on the block. What begins as an innocent game of neighborhood football turns into a clashing of societal and prejudicial beliefs that threatens to tear the community apart. “Yard War” author Taylor Kitchings is able to tell a micro-story (the day-to-day life of Trip), a macro-story (casual racism in the small-town South), and have them fit together perfectly. The football themes will draw readers in, but the startling social themes will stick with them.

The Girl In The Torch by Robert Sharenow. 9780062227959. 2015. Grade 4-6.

At the dawn of the 20th century, young immigrant Sarah is on Ellis Island—the doorstep to America—when her mother unexpectedly passes away. Instead of accepting deportation, however, Sarah “jumps ship” (quite literally) to go it alone. Her first stop is Liberty Island, where she finds shelter atop Lady Liberty while gaining courage to strike out for the mainland. “The Girl In The Torch” is a great YA story because it allows readers to root for the protagonist. The characters are so intriguing and well-developed that youngsters will quickly become invested in their fates. With short chapters (4-5 pages at most) and a plot that always keeps moving forward, even so-so readers won’t get bogged down in this one.

Woodford Brave by Marcia Thornton Jones. 9781629793054. 2015. Grade 4-6.

Cory Woodford is a typical 11-year old boy in 1940s America: He chums around with his baseball-obsessed pals, writes letters to his soldier father, and suspects the neighbor of being a Nazi spy. When bad news arrives from overseas and a girl of German heritage moves in down the block, however, Cory’s perceptions of heroism and bravery are challenged to their core. Author Marcia Thornton is able to excel in two distinct areas: First, the dialogue and interactions feel authentic, and second, themes like bravery and heroism directly effect and change the perceptions of the main characters. All the characters have their beliefs questioned from beginning to end. I would highly recommend this title for children with parents serving in more recent military conflicts.

Serendipity’s Footsteps by Suzanne Nelson. 9780385392129. 2015. Grade 6-8.

In one of the most unique fiction pieces I’ve ever read, author Suzanne Nelson weaves a multi-generational epic about the unlikeliest of objects: a pair of shoes. The story switches between two narratives: In 1930s Berlin, the daughter of a cobbler is forced from her home and into a concentration camp. In the present, two teen orphans are on the run with hopes of a new start. The distinct stories may seem completely unrelated at first, but as the story unspools their divergence sets up an emotional and surprising conclusion. For those who like a “slow burn” novel, where the tension continues to increase until the very end, this book’s use of flashbacks and parceling out of character back-stories will be a welcome treat.

I Don’t Know How The Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney. 9781492609445. 2015. Grade 4-7.

Everyone likes going to the movies. But what were the movies like 100 years ago? Readers find out in the story of young Isobel Ransom, uprooted by WWI and set down in southern California. With a newfound pal and her little sister in tow, Izzy is determined to make the next “great American motion picture”. Bolstered by the excitement of a burgeoning Hollywood, “I Don’t Know How The Story Ends” also manages to be a poignant read, what with its examinations of wartime themes and how the bonds of family are changed and challenged by those fighting overseas.

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo. 9781250042040. 2015. Grade 6-8.

Some YA novels can get caught up in predictable tropes or themes, forgetting that a solid story is at the core of any good novel. “Listen To The Moon” has no such problems. In WWI-era England, a mute girl is found on a deserted island near an English fishing community. Is she an innocent victim of the war…or part of an enemy plot? Besides the mystery of the lost girl, themes of wartime paranoia and blind patriotism play heavily in the story. This was probably my favorite piece of historical fiction this year, primarily because it defies genre. I wouldn’t know which section of the library to put this in, and I’ve found that those titles usually end up being the best books.

Into The Killing Seas by Michael P. Spradlin. 9780545726023. 2015. Grade 4-7.

After the incredible success of “Unbroken”, wartime survival stories are en vogue. The characters of “Into The Killing Skies” are purely fictional, but the event described (the WW2 sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis) was quite real. Author Michael P. Spradlin does an admirable job of creating a plausible situation that could have happened filled with characters that could have existed. From the torpedoing of the ship itself to the nights on the water with the circling sharks, this is a great adventure/survival novel that will thrill readers and give them a bit of history in the process. Plus, of all that books I am presenting here, “Into The Killing Seas” easily had the most intriguing and satisfying ending.

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman. 9780544466388. 2015. Grade 9-12.

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. 9780399168031. 2015. Grade 9-12.

Though the Western may be a floundering genre for younger crowds, these similarly-themed novels bring the Old West back to life. Both stories are told from the perspective of young women who must strike out in unforgiving terrain…both physical and societal. “Vengeance Road” is a revenge story, where 18-year old Kate sees her Pa hanged over a dispute about hidden gold. With no family left and a burning desire for revenge in her heart, Kate disguises herself as a boy and begins to hunt down her father’s murderers. In “Under A Painted Sky”, Samantha loses her father to a suspicious fire and must flee, partnering up with a black slave, to hook up with the Oregon Trail. While “Vengeance Road” skews darker and “Painted Sky” has a more hopeful tone, both novels portray the hardships of women during that time period. For youngsters new to the genre, this duo represents Western themes well.


MS/HS Graphic Novels:

inside  bully  jobs  honor  arc  drown  ink

Inside Out: Cinestory Comic by Michael Arndt. 9781926516875. 2015.

The film and literature mediums are often pitted against each other. Fortunately, a cinestory comic like this finds much middle ground by novelizing “Inside Out” using screenshots from the film itself. The plots, characters, and emotions in this adaptation are just as poignant and funny as they were on the big screen, and I really like the idea of using the popular Disney/Pixar brand to promote reading for fun. I could see this book being used in a “read the book and then see the movie” scenario, or attracting the eye of young students who want to re-live the magical experience.

Star Wars Jedi Academy: The Phantom Bully by Jeffrey Brown. 9780545621267. 2015. Grade 3-6.

Middle school can be rough on anyone. Now, imagine going through it “A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away” , thus also dealing with Jedi mind tricks, light saber battles, a strange little green professor who “talks backward, he does”, and another who just might be an evil Sith Lord. That is what life is like for Roan as he completes the last year of his Padowan Jedi training. Because Star Wars is so instantly recognizable, the storytelling possibilities here are endless, and author Jeffrey Brown takes full advantage. The pages are brimming with all manner of Star Wars characters & locales, while still managing to tell an exciting individual story that can even be read independently of the previous two in the series.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. 9780307982957. 2015. Grade 8-12.

Every day, thousands of children stream through schools with smart devices in their pockets. But, do those students know the history behind those devices? That is where this graphic bio of tech icon Steve Jobs shines, as it provides students with an easily-accessible glimpse into the life of the genius inventor. At over 200 pages, “Insanely Great” is long enough to give some real insight about Jobs and his many projects, yet the large text and great illustrative work make the book seem to go by in a flash. It can easily be read in a single sitting and has instant appeal to reluctant readers. Whereas textbook history will sometimes fail to inspire young students, a graphic novel like this can make it come to life. Add in the culturally-relevant subject matter and you have a title that will be in high demand.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash. 9780763673826. 2015. Grade 9-12.

“Honor Girl” carves out its own niche in the graphic novel genre by dealing with homosexual themes and presenting itself as a memoir. It has a very “real” sense to it, as its characters seem down-to-earth and realistic. It takes a great deal of talent from author Maggie Thrash to take real-life interactions and make them interesting and entertaining to others. I also appreciated that “Honor Girl” doesn’t exclusively market itself as an LGBT title. Instead, Thrash allows an engaging story to unfold before hitting the hard issues, not leaning on the LGBT label to generate intrigue. A wonderful coming-of-age story bolstered by its base in the reality of its author.

Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee. 9780763676148. 2015. Grade 7-10.

Joan of Arc is one of the most important figures in world history. Yet, because her story took place so long ago and is filled with so many names, places, and dates, Joan sometimes gets pushed aside in favor of newer or more accessible subjects. In “Messenger”, Joan’s story is told in a fashion simple enough to enjoy, while also historically encompassing enough to feel as if learning is taking place. This book is more exciting narrative than history lesson, which will help suck young readers in. It is a story filled with epic battles, adventure, high drama, and even some prudent issues regarding the role of the church in everyday life.

Drowned City by Don Brown. 9780544157774. 2015. Grade 5-8.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There is a now a growing generation of students that may not have much (or any) comprehension of its magnitude. As such, “Drowned City” is a wonderful introduction and history lesson to the topic. The hallmark of this graphic novel is its spot-on tone: melancholy, to be sure, as befitting a tragedy, yet also infused with a sense of hope and even some appropriate wry humor to spell the more tragic sections. For an event that was so visually gripping, the graphic novel is a perfect venue to tell the basic story of Katrina and what it meant to American history.

The Inker’s Shadow by Allen Say. 9780545437769. 2015. Grade 5-8.

All Allan Say ever wanted to do was draw. However, being Japanese in post-WW2 America provides some serious obstacles to overcome in pursuit of that dream. Say’s story is one that epitomizes the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction”, as a Hollywood script writer could not have crafted a tale with more twists and turns, or as much inspirational material. Multiple times in his life, Say was left with no one to lean on and no more than a few dollars in his pocket. In each of those instances he managed to persevere, and that is the primary reason “Inker’s Shadow” is such an engaging, important tale. Also, with the usage of so many different graphic styles, there is definitely nothing boring about the experience. Each turn of the page offers something a bit different.

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