Category: Story

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE BOMB by Theodore Taylor

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1996 winner, The Bomb, by Theodore Taylor.

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is awarded each year to a children’s book by an American author, usually set in the Western Hemisphere.

In The Bomb, a teen boy named Sorry is one of the 167 people living on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean who are moved to make way for testing the new atomic weapons in Operation Crossroads immediately following World War II.

This young adult novel begins with Sorry and his family and neighbors living under Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Americans take control of the atoll as they advance toward the Japanese mainland. Uncle Abram listens to radio reports and keeps their neighbors informed of the progress of the war, including the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, soon after the war, the U.S. military pressures and manipulates Bikini residents into leaving their home because the U.S. has decided their atoll is the best place to test atomic bombs.

Sorry determines to stop the test.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

Bikini Atoll and Operation Crossroads–My knowledge of this was rudimentary, at best. I appreciated learning about the residents of Bikini.

The U.S. dropped two bombs in the first round of testing. One detonated in the air and one in the water. There were many further tests during the next decade.

Although Taylor wrote in his author’s note that his novel was loosely based on the people moved from Bikini, he had personal experience with Operation Crossroads. He was a sailor on the USS Sumner, the ship which headquartered much of the operation’s early implementation. In Taylor’s epilogue and author’s note, he also wrote about what happened later to Bikini’s “nuclear nomads.”

Writing Lesson:

Two Stories in One–Taylor used a interesting structure to tell two stories at the same time. The text of the novel is Sorry’s story. However, Taylor also interspersed between chapters a short nonfiction narrative of the history of atomic research, weapons, and Operation Crossroads.

In nonfiction books or magazines, this is called a sidebar. I’ve seen these in picture books, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a sidebar like this used in a novel. This was an effective way of giving the reader historical context without bogging down the story.

Join me Feb. 28 as I talk about the history and writing lessons I learn from the 2002 award winner, The Land by Mildred D. Taylor.

For more info:

Theodore Taylor

Operation Crossroads

A Ground Zero Forgotten

What do you know about Bikini’s nuclear nomads? Have you seen nonfiction sidebars used in other novels?

Classic Stories and Manga



Photo by Deb Watley

A couple of my recent reads were manga versions (in the Manga Classics series) of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The Scarlett Letter was adapted by Crystal S. Chan and illustrated by SunNeko Lee, and Pride and Prejudice was adapted by Stacy King and illustrated by Po Tae.

Past posts about manga:

Stretching My Reading Habits: Manga

Manga and the Emmas

Because I began 2017 ill, I’m now very behind. For the next couple weeks I will focus on some other writing/teaching projects, and my next blog post will be on Jan. 31.

What have you read recently?




History: “Storied Road of Time”


“But soon history no longer seemed a clutter of dates and names in some dim, cold antiquity but became a storied road of time when dad told her old tales of wonder and the pride of kings. When he told the simplest incident with the sound of the sea in his voice, it seemed to take on such a coloring of romance and mystery that Jane knew she could never forget it. Thebes…Babylon…Tyre…Athens…Galilee…were places where real folks lived…folks she knew. And, knowing them, it was easy to be interested in everything pertaining to them.”

Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

This is pretty much how I feel about history. What about you? What makes people from the past become people you know?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: SHADES OF GRAY by Carolyn Reeder

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1990 Scott O’Dell Award-winner, Shades of Gray, by Carolyn Reeder.

In this middle grade novel, set in Virginia after the conclusion of the Civil War, 12-year-old Will is the son of a Confederate officer who was killed in battle. Will has also lost the rest of his family to violence and illness and is sent to live with his aunt–and her husband who refused to fight in the war.

History lesson:

Shenandoah Valley–Some of the more well-known battles of the Civil War took place in eastern Virginia. However, some lesser-known, but important battles took place in the Shenandoah Valley in the far western part of the state.

What I previously knew about the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War came from the Jimmy Stewart movie, Shenandoah, in which farming families suffered at the hands of both sides–Union and Confederate.

In fact, the valley was an important geographic area. The farms supplied food to the South, and the valley was an access point into the North. The two sides fought each other in the valley multiple times, with each side occupying at alternating times. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1864, Union forces went in again to retake the Valley, cut off the Confederates access into Union territory, and destroy food sources for the Confederacy.

Union General Philip Sheridan achieved all those goals, and his troops laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley.

In Shades of Gray, Will is from the city of Winchester, where there was major fighting in the 1864 campaign.


Writing lesson:

Lack of dialect–This book is set in the post-Civil War South, and Will lives with his poor, lesser-educated relatives. Yet, because Reeder didn’t use the phonetic, heavy dialect that books such as Tom Sawyer used, her novel is very readable, especially for young readers.

However, Reeder used enough Southern vocabulary to give readers a sense of the setting, and she occasionally used either vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar to show some of the characters had less education than others. Here are a couple examples:

“I’ll make a stew to go with the poke greens Meg cut along the road this afternoon.”

“That must smart right bad.”

For more info:

The Civil War Trust

Shenandoah Valley Battlefields

Carolyn Reeder

Join me Jan. 31 to talk about the 1996 Scott O’Dell winner, The Bomb by Theodore Taylor.

Have you read about or visited the Shenandoah Valley? Have you visited Civil War battlefields? Do you have family stories connected to the Civil War?


Always Winter? No, Aslan Is On The Move!

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

stocksnap_mx34y6nemc photo

“I’ve come at last,” said [Father Christmas]. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

–Excerpts from one of my favorite books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.


Merry Christmas!

Gingerbread Houses Have Historical and Literary Connections


CH Patisserie, a bakery in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., displays this wonderful–and very large–gingerbread house. (Photos by Deb Watley)

Gingerbread houses are a fun, wintery decoration. Yet, they are also a fascinating bit of food craft, architecture, artistry, history, and literary tradition.

In the 1500s–in what’s now Germany–the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel featured an edible house. The story may have come first, or the gingerbread houses may have been an inspiration for the story. But, the story and the making of gingerbread houses seem to be linked.

Gingerbread dates back thousands of years ago. The ginger root was grown in China. But, a couple thousand years before Christ was born, the Greeks were using ginger to make gingerbread. This would have been a hard-style of gingerbread they used in religious ceremonies.

By the 11th Century, Europeans were making gingerbread shaped like people, animals, flowers, etc. Gingerbread was a festival food. In fact, some of the festivals were called gingerbread fairs.

Americans have adopted the hard-type of gingerbread for cookies and houses, but Americans also historically had a cake-like version of gingerbread. Both George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were known for their cake-like gingerbread.


The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook contains Laura’s gingerbread recipe.

But why are the houses a winter tradition? I’m not sure, except of course, the frosting looks like snow, and the candies and gingerbread epitomize the sweets we eat at Christmas.

There is one other reason of a very practical nature alluded to in the book, The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chairman. The hard gingerbread stays hard in the dryer air of winter and furnaces (in the northern hemisphere). In a humid environment, the gingerbread would soften, and the houses wouldn’t be able to hold their shapes.

Sources and more info:

The History of Gingerbread (and a recipe)

Gingerbread: History, Traditions and Where to See the World’s Sweetest Artwork

A Brief History of Gingerbread


One of my kids’ favorite winter/Christmas picture books.

Do you like to eat gingerbread? Have you ever made gingerbread people and/or houses? What other literary and/or historical links are there to gingerbread houses?



Recently I was in one of my local book stores looking for several particular books. I didn’t find them.

Instead I found a book I didn’t know existed–and that I’m loving!

The World of Little House by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Ericksson caught my attention as I browsed the children’s history and biography sections.

It uses colorful illustrations by Garth Williams and original ones by Deborah Maze, including maps, diagrams of the various Little Houses, recipes, activities, and lots of information about Laura’s life and the world of the 19th Century pioneers.

One fun (or slightly gross?) fact I learned is that the pioneer women ironed everything, including undergarments, not just for appearance sake, but also for hygiene. You see, the heat from the ironing would eliminate insects and germs that washing alone didn’t do.


Another fun thing I learned was that Ma once made a square Thanksgiving Day pie. I was taken aback–a square pie? Why not? Ma used the pan she had available, and that was her square pan she normally used for baking two bread loaves at a time.


I also liked the timeline at the end of the book that put events of Laura’s life in perspective with events happening in the United States.

This is a wonderful book for any Laura fans or anyone wanting to learn more about the daily life of pioneers.

What was your last unexpected book find?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: MORNING GIRL by Michael Dorris

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

For this month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, I read Morning Girl by Michael Dorris. Morning Girl won the 1993 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This very short novel could be considered a chapter book for young, independent readers–probably second and third graders. The two, young protagonists, Morning Girl and Star Boy, are siblings who live with their parents on a tropical island. The two children see their world in different ways and alternately love and pester each other.

I don’t do traditional book reviews in this series of articles about the Scott O’Dell Award books. Instead, I share at least one history lesson and one writing lesson I learned because of each book. This article is an exception. I will not have a history lesson this time, and you’ll see why not.


Writing Lessons:

Two protagonists–This novel has a couple structural things that make it unusual for early readers. First, Morning Girl has two protagonists who each tell their own stories in alternating chapters. I think this isn’t done much because young readers are still focusing on the skill of reading and just learning to connect with one major character. But, because this story isn’t complicated, I think it works.

Withholding important information–The second way this books is different from most books, for any age of children, is that Dorris withheld major information–the where and when of the story–until the very end.

I hate spoilers, so I won’t spoil the ending for you. However, this structure worked well for this first-person point-of-view story because the two main characters live a very small, sheltered life and have little concept of a larger world. The story is really about the children, and it feels complete. The younger readers probably won’t know the significance of the ending, but older readers may have an “ah-ha moment.”

Connecting the characters and the readers–Although many early readers will not be familiar with Morning Girl’s and Star Boy’s culture or way of life, they will readily connect with both characters because Dorris focused on something every young sibling understands–sibling and family relationships. The readers will quickly feel Morning Girl’s annoyance with Star Boy as well as Star Boy’s pleasure in annoying his sister. Dorris connected his characters’ world with his young readers’ world.

Imagery–Dorris did a wonderful job with Morning Girl and Star Boy describing their world to the readers in fresh and lyrically beautiful ways. Here are some examples:

“I don’t know how my brother came to see everything so upside down from me. For him, night is day, sleep is awake. It’s as though time is split between us, and we only pass by each other as sun rises or sets. Usually, for me, that’s enough.”

Can’t you just feel the sibling love?

“I closed my eye and concentrated on being a rock. I sank so deep into the ground that no digging stick could roll me from my hole. I became so hard that no tree or bush could take root on my surface. I slowed my thoughts until the quietness of the earth wrapped me in its heavy cotton.”

What other books for very early readers do you know of that have multiple point-of-view protagonists?

Join me Nov. 29 to discuss the 1990 award-winner, Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder.


Welcome back! Vacations are ending, schools are starting, and next Monday is Labor Day! For some of us, this is the time we get back into our “normal” routines and dig into work. For gardeners and farmers, the summer growing season is winding down and the fall harvest will soon begin.

To help us commemorate Labor Day, Erin Hagar, author of the soon-to-be released picture book Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America, has joined us to talk about some amazing history connecting labor, women, and World War I.

Doing Her Bit cover

Thanks for joining us today, Erin! Please tell us about your book.

Doing Her Bit is based on the true story of Helen Stevens, a New York City college girl who spent the summer of 1917 training and working as a member of the Woman’s Land Army of America, colloquially known as “the farmerettes.” These women provided crucial farm labor at a time when there were worldwide food shortages and many men were leaving farms to fight overseas or work in factories.

During her training, Helen learns to plow, plant, work with livestock and tend to general farm upkeep. But she’s frustrated that her capable team can’t get hired. Whether a farmer will hire them, and how they’ll do when given the chance, is the central question of the book. (SPOILER ALERT: They get the chance, and they nail it!)

What drew you to writing about WWI and the Woman’s Land Army?

You could have filled a thimble with what I knew about farming and WWI combined. But when I heard Elaine Weiss talk  about her wonderful book Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America In World War I on my local NPR station, I was completely hooked. I had two thoughts: 1) How could I not have heard about these women before? and 2) Kids are going to love this “can-do” story.

Women participated in the war effort in multiple ways, but what made the WLA so amazing? 

The size, scope, and the level of organization of the WLA was truly incredible. There were state and national offices, partnerships with colleges and universities, and grassroots efforts to connect with garden clubs and other social outlets. It involved politics and recruitment and fundraising and training and PR and logistics. And it all came together within a year and a half or so. To think about this level of organization in the days before instant communication is mind boggling to me.

How is the WLA connected to labor issues and reform?

The WLA was built on the backbone of the suffrage movement, the labor movement, and other progressive causes. One concrete way this played out was with the farmerettes’ wages. The leaders of the WLA wanted the women to get hired, so it was tempting to consider charging a lower daily rate for their work then men would have charged. But this could have caused men’s wages to decline when the war ended, and they didn’t want that. They decided to have the Farmerettes earn the same daily rate as the male farmhands, usually about two dollars a day. Some of that money went back to the organization (for food and other logistical support), but most of it were wages.

In my story (and this part is fictionalized), the team agrees to work for one day with no pay, to show the farmer what they’re capable of. At the end of the day, the farmer haggles to get another free day. The image shows the two sides staring each other down as the sun sets around them. The text reads, “Helen dug her boots into that hard, packed earth. Men’s work deserved men’s wages.” It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book.

What is your research/writing process?

Well, I devoured Elaine’s amazing book and anything else I could find about the Farmerettes. I learned about the food shortages of the time, the debate about the U.S. entering WWI, volunteer efforts on the home front, and the social justice organizations (like the ones fighting for women’s suffrage) that agreed to temporarily shift their focus to support the war effort.

And I read Helen Stevens’ 1917 account of her summer in the WLA published in the New York Times. It was primarily a PR piece, designed to highlight the Farmerettes’ accomplishments and drum up enthusiasm for the next year’s recruitment efforts. I didn’t think too much about this account at first, though, because in the early drafts I tried to have a generic group of Farmerettes at the heart of the story.

Soon, though, it became clear that one of these women needed to be front and center, and of course it had to be Helen. Her NYT piece had so many rich details that I added to the story: her fear of snakes, the smelly turnip plants, the fickle Model-T that often refused to start. It was such fun to rediscover that piece with new eyes, when I was ready to take the draft in a different direction.

What was your publication journey for Doing Her Bit?

Soon after I learned about the WLA, I started the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I worked on this manuscript with two advisors there. I tried to write about the Woman’s Land Army as a longer nonfiction piece, but it seemed so ripe (pardon the pun) for a picture book that I settled pretty quickly on that.

An early version of the manuscript won a prize at the school, which gave me some confidence and some really helpful feedback from a publishing house. Based on that feedback, I revised and submitted it to Charlesbridge. It is the perfect home for this story, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with the great team there.



Erin Hagar

Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in Baltimore with her husband, two children, and a few too many pets. Erin works in curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more about Erin and her books at

Thanks, Erin!

Doing Her Bit will be released Sept. 13.  A great place to preorder/order a copy of the book is The Ivy Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Erin’s neck of the woods! I did!

Do any of you have family who participated in the Woman’s Land Army?


My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER by Elizabeth George Speare

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1984–and the first–award-winner, The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare. This novel was also named an Newbery Honor Book that same year.

O’Dell began his award to honor American authors, especially newer authors, who wrote kids’  historical fiction set in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve challenged myself to read each one and write about the history and writing lessons I’ve learned or been inspired to research from each book.

In The Sign of the Beaver, Matt and his father have carved out a new home for their family in the woods of Maine in 1768 or ’69. Matt’s father then leaves Matt to take care of their growing garden while he returns to Massachusetts Colony to help Matt’s mother and younger siblings move to the new homestead.

While alone, Matt is robbed of his rifle and gets stung by bees. He is nursed back to health by a Native American man and his grandson, Attean. The grandfather requires Attean to supply Matt with meat, while Matt must teach Attean to read English.

The two boys start as enemies. Matt soon learns to see life through each Attean’s eyes, and he tries to earn Attean’s trust and respect.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

History of Maine–I’ve read other books that have piqued my interest in Maine, but I’ve never visited the state and know little about it. This novel gave me a snapshot of what it was like for settlers and Native Americans during the time between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

These days I think about Maine as an idyllic vacation spot and a good place to eat inexpensive, fresh seafood. But, during its Colonial and Revolutionary Eras, it was a violent place. There were many battles between whites and Native Americans, the English and French, and later the Americans and English.

Europeans had visited Maine since the late 1400s, trading and fighting with the Native Americans. In 1607, the same year as the English Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, there was another English try at settlement–the Popham Colony on the Maine coast. However, this didn’t even survive a couple years.

Maine entered the United States as part of Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1820 that Maine broke away from Massachusetts and became a full-fledged state of its own.

Writing Lesson:

Writing cross-culturally–At the time of publication, Speare was well-known for her research skills. However, the themes of understanding and respect in The Sign of the Beaver are now overshadowed by Speare’s seemingly incomplete research, especially in Native American culture.

A major fault, especially for a book aimed at elementary-age readers, was her usage of the word s–w for a Native American woman. Yes, it was a common term used by whites at the time, but it was also very derogatory. And in the novel, Attean (one of the “good guys”) uses that word.

According to Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s 2011 introduction to the novel, Attean probably would have used a different, non-derogatory, word for woman. Bruchac added,

“In 1983, when The Sign of the Beaver was published, it was widely known by everyone connected in any way with American Indians just how problematic the word squaw is.”

The usage of this word by Attean was not true either to the time of the publication or to the time of the setting of the book.

Speare died in 1994, so we can’t ask her about her research process, but perhaps she hadn’t talked with any Native Americans from Maine to learn their perspective which is difficult to learn from the writings of non-Native Americans.

The Sign of the Beaver has become a cautionary tale: writers need to make sure they accurately represent any culture they write about that is different from their own.

For more information:

The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maine

Penobscot Bay History

Maine Secretary of State Kids: Detailed History

Maine’s First Ship: History of the Popham Colony

New York Times Obit of Elizabeth G. Speare

When I get to visit Maine someday, where should I go and what should I see/experience? What Maine books have you read? What are your favorite well-done cross-cultural books (where the author writes about a culture other than his or her own culture)?