Review: Code Talker

“But I had no idea, even in my wildest dreams, that the very language those bilagdanaa teacher tried to erase – the way you wipe words from a blackboard – would one day be needed by important white men.” page 27

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Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac.
Speak, Penguin Group, New York, 2005.
Historical fiction, 231 pages.
Lexile:  910L  .
AR Level:  6.4 (worth 9.0 points)  .

This novel follows fictional narrator Ned Begay through his life, focusing particularly on his experiences as a Navajo code talker.

Code Talker resized

The framework of this story is that it is a story that a grandfather is telling to his grandchildren.  This idea is presented in the introduction and mentioned sporadically throughout the novel as well as in the final chapter.  I was a bit iffy about this device, but Bruchac used it beautifully.

Although the majority of this book deals with the fictional narrator’s time as a code talker, he begins the story when he went to boarding school, since learning English and being able to balance his own culture with the white American norms forced upon him have a lot of bearing on who he became and how he was able to navigate both worlds.

While the narrator is fictional, almost everything else is real, in particular the other code talkers mentioned are real historical figures, and all of the battles and troop movements mentioned are as they actually occurred.  This was one of my few quibbles with this book, it did occasionally give a little too much information.  On the other hand, a student particularly interested in WWII would probably soak it up.

If the world of diverse historical fiction is already lacking, the selection is even more meager when searching for diverse historical fiction to appeal to boys.  I know of only two authors consistently writing in this field – Christopher Paul Curtis and Joseph Bruchac (if you know of others, please leave a comment).

Speak is best known for YA fiction, sometimes quite intense reads.  So I was pleasantly surprised that this is a family-friendly read-aloud.  Of course there are moments that the story gets intense and the violence of WWII is represented, so as always, pre-read for younger or more sensitive children.  If you have very young listeners you may want to skip over some of the scenes involving death and injury.  But there was no explicit content and the story could be enjoyed by upper elementary school students up to high school.

There were a handful of areas where Bruchac laid on the facts and figures about WWII too heavily, but overall this was far more engaging than the last book we read by him.  Given the unexpected violence in the last book, this one was much less surprising since it actually took place in a war.  I’m looking forward to reading other historical fiction he’s written.  This book even had a good amount about Ira Hayes, which was great since we’d just learned about him another way.

There are some serious injuries and deaths, as would be expected in a novel about the action in WWII.  Ned also faces frequent bigotry and sometimes outright abuse due to his ethnicity.  While Bruchac definitely includes those moments, he doesn’t focus on the violence.  Only one of the descriptions felt too gruesome for me.  (I’m sure it was accurate, just a little more than I would want to read aloud around the little ones.)

The final section includes several pages on Navajo history, the code talkers in particular, and how Bruchac (who is Abenaki, not Navajo) came to write this book.  I appreciated that he gave thanks to the Navajo elders and code talkers who shared their stories with him but took full responsibility for any errors in the book.

I’m happy to recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Bruchac’s historical fiction.

Review: Tapenum’s Day

“The Wampanoag culture is a living culture. Today there are many Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.” p. 37

Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times by Kate Waters, Photographs by Russ Kendall.
Scholastic, New York, 1996.
Informative fiction, 40 pages.
Lexile:  680L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 0.5 points)  .

The story of a Wampanoag boy in the 1620s.  While others in this series follow an imaginary day in the life of a recorded person, this book aims to show what daily indigenous life was like at the time and place of the Plimoth settlement.

Tapenum's Day Cover resized
Tapenum’s Day by Kate Waters, photographed by Russ Kendall.

It was with great relief that I found and read this book.  Diverse books about Thanksgiving are in short supply, and it is one of the holidays always in demand from both families and teachers.

Before reading it, however, I was sorely disappointed in many of the reviews.  Quite a few people made basic errors despite having supposedly read the book.  Some confused the time period, assuming it takes place in the present day.  Others confused the location, assuming that this one story about the Wampanoag people in what is now Massachusetts/Rhode Island represents an entire continent of indigenous peoples.

The errors in reviewing made it very difficult to determine if I should buy this, so to clarify – this is very clearly a book about Wampanoag life in the 1620s.  The one confusion I could see is that a specific date is not given on the title page.  However there are four pages of notes outlining the historical and geographical setting so even a cursory glance should clarify when and where this book is set.

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Review: The Underground Railroad

“His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.” p. 124

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile:  890L  .
AR Level: not yet leveled

Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him.  Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) resized

It took me a good while to get to this one.  I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this).  Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.

Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away.  It’s a very difficult book to classify.  Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.

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Historical Fiction Roundup & TBR

One of my 2018 goals is to read and review more historical fiction.  When I set this goal, I knew I had approximately 10 books in the genre waiting.  So I decided to make a TBR.  After gathering all the books from around the house, I was shocked to see that I had 30 books to review!

Before we get started, I should probably state two things.  First, this is not a recommended list – just what I’m planning to read.  Second, I wrote this list quite a while ago (it was challenging to get cover pictures for all the books and still the whole list won’t load all the photos…) so since then I’ve found a few more.  I’ve even written reviews for a few on this list! Continue reading “Historical Fiction Roundup & TBR”

Review: Secret Keeper

“Asha paused to flick the sweat from the crook of her elbow. Suddenly she caught sight of a face staring at her through the coconut leaves.” p. 31

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins.
Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2009.
Historical fiction, 225 pages.
Lexile:  800L  .
AR Level:  5.3 (worth 7.0)  .

Asha’s father has gone to America to look for a new job, leaving his family in the care of his older brother’s family.  Already saddened by the move from Delhi to Calcutta, Asha, her beautiful older sister Reet, and their mother wait and try to fend off marriage proposals, rebukes from the other women, and a life of servitude and confinement.

Secret Keeper Mitali Perkins resized

Asha’s mother suffers from depression and fits that her daughters describe as visits from the Jailer, when her face and mind go blank.  She attempts methods of coping such as knitting or cooking, but as their life circumstances deteriorate, she’s unable to function, leaving Asha in charge of their physical safety and everyday needs.

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2017 Favorites – Fiction

Favorite fiction reads of 2017, from picture books to adult novels.

Yup, I’m not posting this until well into 2018.  In 2017 I reviewed 98 books (plus 10 board books) and so many of them were so good.  It took me a month just to narrow it down this far…  I just love all the books!

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Review: Fried Green Tomatoes

“By now the name of the cafe was written on the walls of hundreds of boxcars, from Seattle to Florida.” page 30

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.
Random House, 1987.  My edition McGraw-Hill, New York, 1988.
Adult fiction, 403 pages including recipes.
Lexile:  940L  .
AR Level: 5.6 (worth 15.0 points)  .
NOTE: Although the reading level is low, this is an adult novel.

This is going to be a complicated review.  There are two main threads to the storyline, which covers events in the fictional town of Whistle Stop, Alabama (just outside of Birmingham) between the early 1920s and the late 1980s.

Fried Green Tomatoes

The story is told through four different elements.  Evelyn Couch is struggling with her weight, her marriage, menopause, and an inevitable feeling of doom.  She accompanies her husband on visits to his mother’s nursing home every Sunday, but can’t stand to sit and watch TV, so she finds herself in the visitor’s room with Ninny Threadgoode.  At first she just wishes the old lady would shut up so she can eat her candy bars in peace, but then she gets interested in the stories and they forge an unlikely friendship.  When the novel was first published, these scenes would have been roughly contemporary – it’s now historical fiction.

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