My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE HONORABLE PRISON by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1989 winner, The Honorable Prison, written by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins.

In this young adult historical fiction set in the mid-20th Century, 17-year-old Marta and her family are put in house arrest at a remote military base because of her father’s stand against the dictator. The Latin American family suffers from exposure, hunger, illness, isolation, betrayal, and the constant threat of violence. They are the fortunate ones.

History Lessons:

Latin America–I appreciated The Honorable Prison because it covered a time period in a nation I knew little about.

According to this New York Times article, Jenkins’ story is set in Columbia around the middle of the 20th Century, during a time of much violence and repression, also known as “la violencia.” Jenkin’s father experienced some of that because he spoke out against a dictator in the 1950s.

It was enlightening to see Columbia through the eyes of a teen girl and not just through news headlines about a faraway place. It certainly helped make the place, time, and people alive to me.

For more information about Columbia:

National Geographic Kids

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Writing Lessons:

Vague setting–Jenkins wrote this story for American teens about a place that is very foreign to them. Yet, I believe she deliberately left out many of the setting details. Why?

First, Marta’s story–not the political details–is the first priority. Too many unfamiliar details could bog down the readers.

Second, I believe Jenkins kept things a little vague so the readers could imagine this story happening anywhere in the world where free speech is repressed. Readers can’t just say, “Oh, that’s a sad story that happened a long time ago a long ways from me.” No, the reader can imagine themselves in Marta’s situation.

Tense–It’s unusual that The Honorable Prison, as a historical fiction, is told in present tense. Often historical fiction is told in past tense because the story takes place in the past.

It’s also unusual because this book was published in 1988. Present tense YA books are popular right now, especially in fast-paced, adventure stories–think The Hunger Games trilogy.

Present tense was a great choice for The Honorable Prison! First, it adds a dimension of danger and tension to the story. As I read, I knew things were going to continue to get worse for Marta and her family, but because it’s in present tense, my subconscious couldn’t tell me that Marta makes it through okay.

The second reason the present tense works so well is that most of the story takes place while the family is under house arrest. They simply can’t go out and do stuff. Their interactions with other people are very limited. And, as the family sinks into starvation and despair, they become even more lethargic and even incoherent. Jenkins use of the present tense adds movement to the story that the plot on its own would have trouble doing.

Join me August 25 for my next Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book, the 2006 winner, The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

What kids’ historical fiction books about Latin America do you recommend?


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