More Like Him: Remembering Richard Peck

Six weeks ago, one of my favorite historical fiction authors for kids and teens passed away at 84. He died in the middle of a pack of famous writer deaths, but his death made me far sadder than those “Great American Authors.” I haven’t read all of Richard Peck’s novels, but the ones I have read have been funny and spot-on historically and full of characters that seem real. He never fell into the trap of so many people writing history for children, trying to cram too many big ideas or big events into one story. The story always came first. (Previous rants here and here.)

People posted some lovely remembrances of him including this obituary in the New York Times which reminded us all that he believed in “the need for children to learn history through vivid storytelling.” There’s also this lovely piece, written by Betsy Bird, at the School Library Journal.

When he died, I looked back through this blog and realized that though I’ve mentioned Peck as a favorite, I hadn’t ever written anything about his work. It took some time due to other deadlines, but last week, I picked up the one book of his that sits on my shelf and settled in for a reread of Fair Weather. Tucked inside was a ticket and program from a lecture he gave at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2006. I don’t remember many details of what he said, just that it was delightful. However, I do remember what I said to him in the signing line.

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I don’t know if you have this problem too, but I never, ever know what to say when I meet an author who’s written books I love. Especially in a signing line, and especially when there are kids in line behind me that are Really Excited. They’ve heard it all before, right? Usually, I go with a quick “thank you” and move on. But with Peck, I told him “I’m a history museum educator, and thank you so much for making my job easier.” And he smiled, and we had a quick conversation about kids and history. Two of my favorite things.

Fair Weather isn’t my favorite of his novels, but it is about one of my favorite 19th century events–the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. And it may drift into that dreaded territory of too many delightful historical coincidences. But the characters are delightful. The amazement at traveling to a big city for the first time is there. It’s funny. And there’s that deeper story of “society” and the lines we draw between ourselves and others. Plus, there’s just enough history to encourage readers to dig a little deeper if they want to know.

Richard Peck was a charming, gifted writer who clearly loved history. But it’s perhaps his sense of humor that really makes his books stand out. We need more like him.

Make Your Own Feminist Winter

When a dear friend asks you to create a feminist reading list for his 16-year-old daughter, you squeal with glee. Or at least I do. But I had to share it with you. Links included, both to the goodreads reviews, as well as previous blog posts when applicable. It’s a very personal list (I’ve read and enjoyed every single one of these books, but obviously I haven’t read everything!) and shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. Also, I tried to keep the focus on teens. Had to limit it somehow!

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If you want to keep up with the latest in feminist fiction for young people, keep an eye on the Amelia Bloomer Project.

Books that I remember reading a long time ago that I know shaped my thoughts on women and feminism

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. A dragon slaying princess? I remember being completely blown away by this concept. Also excellent is the companion novel The Hero and the Crown.

Anything by L. M. Montgomery. If you’ve read any blog posts here, you know she’s one of my all time favorites. What I love about LMM is that she portrays women making their way in a wide variety of ways. The grownups aren’t all married, the teens are pursuing higher education or a career. If you want to read beyond Anne, The Blue Castle is also one of my all-time favorites. A single woman of a certain age (maybe 35? yikes!) gets a diagnosis and decides to really start living her life. Her moments of defiance are brave and funny. And yes, she ends up happily married in the end, but it’s just all so satisfying.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. On a certain level, this is a magical, romantic coming of age story–after all, the family lives in a castle. But the ending puts it over the top.

 

Young adult historical fiction that I’ve fallen in love with over the last several years

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. African American woman wants to join in the WWII fight, and joins the WASP, choosing to pass as white. All sorts of gender and race and history issues here. My thoughts here. And to continue with the flight theme, you can’t miss Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I don’t necessarily think of it as a feminist book, but it is an amazing piece of historical fiction. Incredibly strong female characters, friendship, flight and spying. And women breaking out of the mold.

Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters by Jeanine Atkins. I’ve loved Laura Ingalls Wilder longer than I’ve loved L. M. Montgomery. I first met Madam C. J. Walker during an internship at the Women’s Museum in college. And Marie Curie is one of those names you just know. Wonderful way to explore these lives–and a combination that is surprising and interesting and powerful. Additional thoughts here.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jaqueline Kelly and its sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate. Perhaps a little young for a 16 year old, but it’s so good. I just couldn’t leave it out! Set in the Hill Country of Texas, Calpurnia is the only daughter, has no interest in domestic things, and desperately wants to be a scientist. Throw in a passel of brothers and a grandfather that had a correspondence with Charles Darwin, and it’s a very different kind of historical fiction.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. More women scientists, but this time it’s at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Really explores well the tensions these women faced through the eyes of their children. Thoughts here.

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby. Not strictly historical fiction, as there are a few ghosts that make an appearance. But! An orphan girl takes the only job she can find–becoming nurse to the Elephant Man. Oh, and the ghosts of Jack the Ripper’s victims start visiting them at night. A fascinating mash-up of historical people, told through the eyes of a young woman with very limited options.

Nonfiction that is fun

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. I was definitely a Nancy Drew girl back in the day, though at times I really preferred the Hardy Boys because they had better adventures. The story of how these books were created–and how they shaped American culture. My rave review here.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip M. Hoose. Before Rosa Park, there was Claudette. But she wasn’t quite as pure–and her story reveals the many complexities of the Civil Rights movement.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America by Karen Blumenthal. Perhaps a little young for a 16 year old, but one of those situations where I thought I knew stuff about Title IX, but really I knew nothing. Great use of primary sources too!

Home Front Girl: A Diary of  Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America by Joan Whelan Morrison. Well written diary of a teenager that somehow knew she was living in interesting times. More thoughts here.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. Technically, not YA, but these women are just a few years older.  Closely based on their letters and written by a granddaughter, this is a tiny slice of personal history that has much larger meaning. It’s just delightful.

Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Coloby Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. A work of art and one of those great anthologies that does introduce you to some new folks. One of my favorite Christmas gifts last year. More thoughts here.

Contemporary/future feminist young adult fiction

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. First, you should probably know that I’m book club friends with Julie (even though she hasn’t been in ages because her career has taken off. The movie version of this comes out later this year with Jennifer Aniston playing the mom.) This is such a wonderful story of taking pride in your body, gaining confidence, and fighting the system. Plus, there’s a lot of Dolly Parton references.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King. Recent high school graduate sees the future. And it isn’t pretty.

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales. Such an amazing book–girl who doesn’t have a place finds a place as an underground DJ. So, so good. My only complaint–and it is very minor–is that this book didn’t come with an audio file for all the great music mentioned.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan. A near future retelling of The Scarlet Letter, which happens to be set in Texas. I listened to the audio version of this years ago, and it was one of the most gripping audio books I’ve ever listened to.

Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. From my goodreads review: Love, love, love. In a way, it’s a coming of age story with a twist–Frankie is far from perfect and is rebelling from people’s preconceptions of her. I love her analyzing and being smart about the whole high school relationship thing, even as she is trapped by the crush. I love this book now (and can think of a few teen girls to give it to) and I would have loved it years ago as well.

Bob, I hope she finds a few things she likes!

My Feminist Winter, Part 3

Expectations can be scary things. Feminism. Small town Texas. An author I already admired. So, yes, my expectations were super high for Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu. I was excited enough to buy the hardback as soon as I saw it. But then it set on my shelf for several weeks. Would it measure up?

I was first introduced to Mathieu’s work through volunteering at the North Texas Teen Book Festival. I moderated a panel on “stand alone” books and read Devoted to prepare for my session. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading it: teenager escapes super-conservative, Christian, homeschooling family and sets out on her own? Definitely not at the top of things I wanted to read. But I loved it. From my goodreads review:  “Mathieu treats the Quiverfull movement with respect and really explores the complications of faith, breaking free from family, and growing up. Loved that it wasn’t tied up into a neat package–want to know more about Rachel, but also deeply satisfied with the ending. That’s a tricky line to walk.”

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“One Story at a Time” Me with Adi Alsaid, Marisa Reichardt, Jennifer Mathieu, Maurene Goo, Ally Condie and Julie Buxbaum

While chatting with Jennifer at the festival, she mentioned her next book–girl gets tired of football team running the school (and behaving horribly) and fights back through an underground ‘zine. Umm, yes please! And then I started to wait very, very patiently. Early reviews were good. Lots of people mentioned the best dedication ever:

For all the teenage women fighting the good fight.

And for my twelfth-grade Current Topics teacher for calling me a feminazi in front of the entire class. You insulted me, but you also sparked my interest in feminism, so really,  the joke is on you. Revenge is best served cold, you jerk.

With an opening like that, somehow you just know this book won’t pull any punches. There was no wishy-washy feminism in the pages ahead.

In many ways, Moxie is an book of awakenings. Viv isn’t really a feminist when things get started. But she’s becoming increasingly annoyed at the many sexist traditions in her high school. And then she discovers her mom’s “My Misspent Youth” box, full of mementos from her mom’s Riot Grrrl years. Something snaps, and the book takes off.

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Though Viv’s mom and I are basically the same age (always alarming when you discover you’re the same age as the mother in a YA novel), I didn’t really do the Riot Grrrrl thing. In high school, my musical tastes were very main stream and my politics not so liberal. It never would have crossed my mind to do anything that Viv does. I believed in strong women, but never really thought about feminism, per se. But as an adult who’s tired of fighting the patriarchy, I want to hand this to every young, engaged woman I know so that maybe she’ll find the courage to get involved sooner.

This is certainly a book needed for these tumultuous times. However, I do believe it has staying power. There’s a great cast of characters, and it all just feels real. As someone who had way too much of my high school schedule dictated by football games (I was in marching band), it was so gratifying to see a Texas football team get taken down. And these are just a few of the many, many things I loved.

By the end, I was sobbing.   There’s been real growth and change in so many characters. New friendships are forged. Where I actually lost it was the walkout scene at the end–a walkout where no one is sure that anyone else will be walking.

We keep marching, our feet trampling over Principal Wilson’ threats and our teachers’ warnings. We are marching because those words deserve to be run over. Steamrolled. Flattened to dust. We are marching in our Converse and our candy-colored flip-flops and our kitten heels, too. Our legs are moving, our arms are swinging, our mouths are set in lines so straight and sharp you could cut yourself on them.

Maybe we hope you do.

I wish I had a book like this when I was younger.

 

My Feminist Winter, Part 2

Strong female character: check. World War I setting: check.  A little bit of romance: check. Suffrage movement: check. Honestly, for historical fiction, this is usually about all I need for a book to be a winner. It’s why I put Crossing Stones by Helen Frost on my to-read list so many years ago. But I deeply regret not getting to it sooner.

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This is a book in verse, in the vein of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (God, I love that book). Usually, that’s not a huge selling point for me. I read fast–I don’t pause and analyze and reflect the way you should with poetry. And I confess that when I started reading Crossing Stones, I was reading for plot, not the beauty of the language. It’s told from the perspective of three teenagers–Muriel, her best friend and neighbor Emma, and her brother Ollie. For some reason, about 50 pages in, I flipped to the back and noticed an author’s note on the form of the poetry. People–if you read this book, read the author’s note first! It completely changed the way I thought about the book. Suddenly, it made sense why Muriel’s poems were shaped so differently than Ollie’s and Emma’s. So, I slowed down and let the beautiful words wash right over me.

Muriel is a woman who just isn’t sure. She’s not sure about the war. She’s not sure she wants to be a homemaker. She heads to DC to pick up her Aunt Vera who has been picketing for suffrage at the White House, jailed, and in the middle of a hunger strike. She finds herself joining the movement and thinking about other options for her life besides farm life.

And then. there is the thread of her little sister getting influenza. Remember folks, it’s 1918.

A side note: I’m in the middle of reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It’s a little disturbing to read it in the midst of the worst flu season in years. And with the number killed and the horrible way they died, how do we not talk more about this moment in history?

Back to the story at hand: Muriel has just gotten back from DC, and she has a present for her little sister. She reads all of Anne of Green Gables at her sick sister’s bedside. And there is this moment that just brought tears to my eyes:

I stopped reading for a minute,

turned away, and she opened her eyes to ask

what happened next! I don’t know, Grace,

I’m reading it for the first time myself.

Mama said to wake her if there was any change,

but Grace insists, Keep reading, Muriel.

I think Anne really does like Gilbert, don’t you?

She keeps her eyes open, and I go on, as if

reading is breathing, and by reading I can

keep my sister breathing.

Honestly, it’s one of the best uses of another book in a book I’ve ever seen. But I may be biased since it’s Anne.

These are all characters that realize the world around them is changing, and they’re trying to figure out their place. I appreciated the hesitation and the fear and the questioning. Frost gracefully takes some of the big themes of 1917-1918 and weaves them together–suffrage, war, influenza, settlement houses. But it never feels forced. It’s easy enough to go to other sources to dig deeper on some of the topics, but not necessary. Her characterization is spot-on, and I never found myself thinking that Muriel was too modern.

I’ve always said that the story should come first in historical fiction, not the history. This is certainly a case where the words come before the history, but it still gives you plenty of history. I read this immediately after The Hired Girl and it was stunning how different the reading experience was. Refreshing, too. Frost hit all the right historical notes, but she also created deeply sympathetic characters–and to create them in so few words!

Definitely one of the best books I read last year. More of this, please.

Click here for My Feminist Winter, Part 1.

My Feminist Winter, Part 1

In this age of #metoo and constant headlines regarding sexual harassment, feminism isn’t quite the dirty word it used to be. Lately, several books I’ve read have approached feminism in some very different ways–usually successfully, but one not so much. Of course, it isn’t like my reading interests have taken a turn to feminism over the last several months. Since I could read, I’ve been reading books about strong girls and women. Women’s history has always been a passion of mine. But I have to admit that it’s kinda nice to see our ranks growing.

My feminist winter started with The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. It came out a few years ago, and many trusted friends adored it. Several friends mentioned that it reminded them of Anne of Green Gables, which if you know anything about me, you know that’s one of my all time favorite books. So, my expectations were high.

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Alas, I spent most of the book annoyed. Yes, Joan gets into scrapes. She craves books and opportunities for education. But I just didn’t like Joan. She serves in a Jewish household, and she almost immediately starts trying to convert them to Catholicism. She flirts with the sons of the house. And through all this, her employers make all kinds of accommodations for her, including ultimately sending her to a private school. It was all just too hard to believe.

The timeline of the book is only a few months, so I guess I shouldn’t expect too much character growth. But there seemed to be none. In all honesty, I think Joan felt very entitled to all of it–every adjustment made on her behalf, every acceptance of her truly bad behavior. And perhaps that’s why the comparison to Anne Shirley rankled so much. Anne never felt like she deserved any of the love given her by Diana and Marilla and Matthew. Though she earned her top of the class rankings and her entrance to Queens, I think she always held a bit of disbelief at her good fortune. Which is a big part of what makes  Anne so relateable still, 110 years after her debut.

I also felt that Schlitz missed some important historical opportunities. The movement of women into paid work outside of the home is such an important thread in women’s history. It started in the 1820s with the Lowell Mill Girls. It was hard, difficult work, but it was an opportunity to continue their education, earn their own money, and get off the farm. In the process, they were exposed to many different cultures and environments. One of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had at a historical site was at the Lowell Mills–I got to the museum when it opened (time was short!), and they asked if I’d like them to turn the machines on. There was a huge space and maybe a third of the machines (looms and more that I can’t remember) came on. The speed and the sound just took my breath away. And I started thinking about these young, young women who worked at those machines–and had probably never seen anything quite like it before.

Though this book takes place in 1910, I wish Schlitz had spent more time with Joan’s adjustment to a bustling city. It’s clear that Joan comes from a pretty small town. Where is the sense of wonder and amazement at the department store? The large buildings in Baltimore? When teaching people about the past, I think it’s important to get them to imagine the amazement at the many changes we take for granted today. At the museum where I work, we’re lucky enough to have both the log cabin the Miller family first lived in when they moved to Texas–as well as the giant mansion they built several years later. When working with kids, I always say “Imagine if that cabin was all you had ever known–and then you got to move into this house. What would it feel like?” Gets them every time. But I never felt that emotional pull of the wonder that real life Joans probably felt when they first arrived in the big city. Perhaps this is another effect of the sense of entitlement that Joan had.

One thing that Schlitz does very well is the portrayal of Joan’s mother. She married late in life, not for love but as the last remaining option. She encouraged her daughter to go to school. And most movingly, she tucked money into a doll’s skirt so that Joan would have a way to escape. The hard work of the farm ultimately killed her–a not uncommon story.

Though I understand why people liked this book so much, it wasn’t a book for me. I do applaud Schlitz for shining a light on this moment in history. And I loved that it was set in a Jewish household. Plenty of things to like, but not quite enough to love.

As I typed this, I realized I had a lot more to say than planned. So, call this the first of a three part series. Not bad, since I haven’t posted here in over a year. That darn job of mine keeps getting in the way of my hobbies! Look for part 2 soon.

 

My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Mrs. Rachel Lynde Would Not Approve

When a favorite book is adapted for the screen, I try to keep an open mind. I really, really do. And there were reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the latest Anne of Green Gables movie. The casting of Anne was more age appropriate. It was filmed on Prince Edward Island. And the granddaughter of author L. M. Montgomery was involved.

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But I was also smart. I knew I needed to watch with friends. And perhaps some sort of alcohol. On Saturday night, I made clam chowder and a few friends came over. Within the first few minutes, Ashley had already declared “Minus one point for Matthew falling into a puddle of manure!” Someone else declared “Half a point for it being filmed on PEI.” And then I said “Should we keep score? Do we even dare?”

For a little while, things were almost even. Not quite, but almost. And then it went straight downhill. At the end of the night, our score sheet read:

Points For: 14

Points Against: 317.5

So, what were our problems? In most cases, the casting and the characterizations just weren’t right. Matthew was too chatty and portrayed as a bumbling fool. Marilla was too soft. Anne was just way too happy. That streak of sadness and longing that is so critical to her character wasn’t there. Diana took the lead on the imagining (though she looked right.) Gilbert. Oh Gilbert. They lost 150 points for that casting decision. Rachel Lynde, Mrs. Barry, and Mr. Phillips were about the only casting decisions we thought they got right.

There were details that just weren’t right—and we can’t understand why certain changes were made. Sure, only a fan would be outraged that Anne told Marilla her parents died when she was five. But a key part of the books is that Anne had no memories of her parents, because they died when she was a few months old.

The pacing was very odd. We kept pausing and wondering how they were going to wrap things up in the time they had left. And then Anne suddenly fell through some ice and Matthew hopped on a sled to rescue her and we just lost it. At this point, I stopped the movie and got out the whiskey. I believe curse words were used. And one really shouldn’t curse while watching Anne. Rachel Lynde wouldn’t approve.

The movie ended with Matthew taking Anne back to the train station because the orphanage had found a better home for her—WHICH NEVER HAPPENED AND COMPLETELY CHANGES THE STORY. Rachel tells Marilla to chase after them. All are united in a hug and the credits roll.  Ummm, what? Of course, now that I’ve learned that they’ll be making 2 more movies, I sorta understand. But I’m still not happy.

My mom asked me if people would still recognize the story if they picked up the book. And the answer is probably yes. And she asked me if it was a good movie if I didn’t know the books so well. But I think the answer to that is no. So much cheese was crammed into a 90 minute movie. Parts of it was beautiful, but there was so little character growth. And Anne was just annoying.

I believe that classics like Anne are incredibly important, and movies can do so much to bring them to a wider audience. But please, for the love of God, respect the characters.

At the end of the movie, Ashley declared “I have to make sure my niece never sees this movie.” And then we popped in the Megan Follows version. Flawed though it is, our beloved characters are still recognizable. And I didn’t start cursing at Kevin Sullivan until the third Anne movie. . .