Children of the Fire by Harriette Gillem Robinet.
Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon and Schuster, 2001. Originally published 1999.
MG historical fiction, 134 pages including author’s note.
Lexile: 590L .
AR Level: 4.0 (worth 4.0 points) .
In 1871 Chicago, Hallelujah wants nothing more than to watch one of the fires burning around the city, but has no idea how one of those fires will change her life.
I hadn’t been reading much historical fiction so I impulsively bought this. We’ve visited Chicago, so I thought it might make a good family read-aloud.
The cover was so irritating. Why did they include the rich white girl? Once I started reading, I also noticed that Hallelujah’s hair was wrong on the cover. In the book it specifically states that her sister redid it into loose braids, not twists (and the cover looks more like ponytail poofs to me) A large theme of the book is that Hallelujah is able to blend in with different groups because she wears a simple dress, but custom-made shoes, is the daughter of a slave, yet can read and write. Different people see her in different ways.
Even the white girl is wrong. When Hallelujah first meets Elizabeth, they don’t hold hands, and when she later meets her, Elizabeth does not have her doll. The cover also gives the impression that this book is for early elementary, when really it is aimed at a middle grade audience. There is so little historical fiction about black children that these details being so wrong on the cover irks me and does a disservice to the book.
Beyond the cover, the major problem I had with this novel was disliking Hallelujah. She reminded me of Veruca from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – whiny, spoiled rotten, and completely mindless of others. I get that the point of the novel is her growth as a person through a historical tragedy, but there needed to be a little bit more for me to like her at all.
Spoilers The scene where she spilled the family’s drinking water and told them to go get water from their well was maddening. When she then begins complaining about the firefighters taking breaks, I lost all respect for her. Even when she has had a bit of a change of heart and realized that her foster brother is out looking for her and could be dying as a result, she coolly goes to sleep on a feather mattress! End of spoilers
It was challenging for me to engage with this novel based on how much I disliked the main character. Over the course of the book, she gets more bearable, but I never fully connected with her.
Robinet does have a way with words. I enjoyed her descriptions and felt she was at her best when describing the scene around Hallelujah. She made a big effort to include many different characters including poor Irish Catholics, a Native boy, and a variety of white and black folks who are fleeing the destruction. I also appreciated that this was #ownvoice historical fiction.
There were moments that were infodumps of a paragraph or two. I often wished the information had been imparted more smoothly, but that improved as the book went on.
Not much historical fiction features black main characters, and I think the main reason for that is because it’s difficult. The author constantly has to choose – include historically accurate language or clean up the insults of the times? Portray deaths and illness realistically, or make it nicer for young people to read about? Many novels sidestep racial issues by simply ignoring them, which in turn makes a statement for young people to absorb.
Robinet does try to address these issues although lightly. Hallelujah experiences discrimination but uses her quick wits (her redeeming grace) to work around these moments and still get what she wants.
Children of the Fire includes the word nigger multiple times, typically in a derogatory context (although the first instance doesn’t seem to be intended that way but certainly is). The main character is also exposed to/participates in significant violence ranging from biting her foster brother to witnessing people get set on fire and die. She sees numerous dead bodies and burn victims. Another character refers to a woman giving birth in the burning city conditions. A man “went mad” in front of the girls after losing his family, home, business, and all of his possessions. At several points Hallelujah’s safety is physically threatened by the fire or the people around her.
Overall I liked this ambitious historical novel, but didn’t love it. Due to the historically accurate language, it’s not a good fit for either my family or school as a read-aloud, but I set it out for independent reading and we’ll see if the kids pick it up.