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.
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 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:
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)?
This week marks the 70th anniversary of a momentous time for the world. On Aug. 6, 1945, the US dropped the atomic (uranium) bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A few days later (Aug. 9), the US dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. Japan’s surrender was announced Aug. 15. The formal surrender ceremony took place on Sept. 2 (VJ Day/Victory Over Japan) on the deck of the USS Missouri, officially ending World War II.
It was one of those “best of times, worst of times.” Yes, the war was over. But the bombs brought unheard of deaths and destruction, as well as the ongoing threat of global nuclear destruction.
Here are 10 kids’ books that describe the building of the bombs and the end of the war.
1. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr (1977)–MG–Based on a real girl, this story is about Sadako Sasaki, who survived the Hiroshima bombing when she was two, but succumbed to leukemia, caused by the radiation, when she was twelve. Before she died, Sadako began to make 1,000 origami cranes in hopes of getting well. After her death, Japanese children led the movement to finish Sadako’s 1,000 cranes, and to build a monument to honor Sadako, other victims of the bombing, and to promote world peace.
2. Hiroshima: A Novella by Laurence Yep (1995)–MG–Twelve-year-old Sachi and her classmates were clearing away houses to make fire lanes in Hiroshima the morning the atomic bomb obliterated her city. Sachi was the only one of her classmates to survive, but suffered from debilitating and disfiguring burns. A few years later she is chosen for treatment in the United States where she overcomes her fears of the Americans.
3. Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac (2005)–MG/YA–Ned, a young Navajo boy, is taught at his boarding school that anything Indian is bad, but when WWII starts the US military wants the Navajo to use their language to foil the Japanese. Ned joins the Marines and helps the US win the war.
4. The Gadget by Paul Zindel (2001)–MG–Thirteen-year-old Stephen joins his father at Los Alamos where his father is working on a secret project that will end the war. But, when Stephen finds his dad distant and distracted, he teams up with his new friend, Alexei, to uncover the big secret. He learns that neither The Gadget nor Alexei are what he expects.
5. The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (2006)–MG/YA–The scientists at Los Alamos were allowed to have their families at the secret base. The children went to school, played with friends, and learned to live with very tight security measures. Two girls–Dewey, a young math and science genius, and Suze, an artist–become unlikely friends in an unlikely place.
6. Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki (1980)–Picture Book–This book was first published in Japan and was classified as non-fiction. The story dramatizes a family’s experience during and after the bombing in Hiroshima. Although the book is based on the facts of an actual family, it seems to have fictional elements. Perhaps it would be considered historical fiction if it were published now. However, this book handles the horror of a young girl’s experience in a sensitive and truthful way that young readers can understand and handle.
7. The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb by Edward T. Sullivan (2007)–MG/YA–Sullivan thoroughly describes the development of atomic research, the building of the atomic bombs used during WWII, and the involvement of key scientists and military leaders.
8. J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Brain Behind the Bomb by Glenn Scherer and Marty Fletcher (2008)–MG/YA–This biography about Oppenheimer also describes the discovery of fission, the need for the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the bombings, as well as Oppenheimer’s efforts to keep atomic weapons from being used again.
9. The Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (2012)–MG/YA–America and Britain, with help from German and Jewish scientists and Norwegian resistance fighters, successfully raced the Nazis in building the first atomic weapons. No longer needing the bombs to beat the Nazis, the US used them against the Japanese. However, the Soviets stole many of the secrets of the bombs, and the new atomic weapon race became one between the US and the Soviets. This book explains why the security measures described in The Green Glass Sea were necessary, but unsuccessful.
10. The Secret of the Manhattan Project by Doreen Gonzales (2012)–MG/YA–This book also details how scientists discovered fission, the political and human situations leading up to and continuing throughout the war, the urgency behind the U.S. creation of atomic weapons, how the weapons were used, and how the atomic age affects us now.
For more info:
What other kids books should I add to the list?