Though I have a lot of issues with most modern historical fiction, there are a few authors that I just trust. Richard Peck. Christopher Paul Curtis. Karen Hesse.
I first became familiar with her through Out of the Dust, a book that ultimately won the Newbery. If I ever taught the 1930s, this book would be required reading. Nothing else sums up the Dust Bowl so eloquently and movingly. There are images in that book that will never with you. Read it with The Worst Hard Time (a non-fiction book about the people who stayed in Oklahoma) and you’ll be terrified every time a bit of dust blows in the wind.
Later, I read Witness, which is also a harrowing tale. It’s about the KKK in Vermont. So often, people assume that the KKK was only an issue in the deep south. Did you know Dallas was home to the largest KKK chapter in the nation in the 1920s? Part of what makes Witness so good is that it takes this complex history, a history that is usually simplified for fictional purproses, and keeps it just as complex. Hesse said the following about the process of writing this book: My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry. But there were also narrators who made my heart soar. Disabling my censor, allowing each character to speak his or her mind, I have, in WITNESS, attempted to piece together a mosaic of a community giving birth to its conscience.
So, I was kinda excited when I picked up Brooklyn Bridge. Though not as tough a story, it’s still a wonderful peak at immigrant life in New York at the turn of the last century. Joe’s parents have just created the Teddy Bear (yes, that teddy bear!) and life has gotten busier than ever. All he wants to do is go to Coney Island, but everyone is too busy working. Through in some wonderful aunts, a library in a window, and the children under the bridge, and it makes for a wonderful book. Though the story of the children under the bridge doesn’t connect with Joe’s story until the end, I loved the contrast between Joe’s life and theirs. This is what happened to kids and young adults when we had no social services.
Karen Hesse remains one of those authors I just trust. She doesn’t dumb it down. She tackles the tough issues with confidence. We could use a few more writers like her.