Tagged: My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge

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?

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.

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE ART OF KEEPING COOL by Janet Taylor Lisle

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge book for this month is the 2001 award winner, The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle.

This middle grade novel is set during 1942 on the coast of Rhode Island and begins with cousins Robert and Elliot watching the military transport huge guns (think cannon-type) through their town to the fort on the coast. The boys soon get to know a German-immigrant artist who becomes suspected of being a Nazi spy.

In My Award Challenge posts, I don’t do an actual book review. I don’t say whether or not I like the book. I usually stick to the things I’ve learned from the book, both historical and writing.

However, this time I want to point out how relevant this historical fiction novel is to the present. The year this novel–which deals so much with the human nature of fear after an attack–won the Scott O’Dell Award was the same year the United States reeled from the 9-11 attacks. Since then, we’ve been attacked often enough that discerning between healthy fear and unhealthy fear is an ongoing struggle.


History Lesson:

WWII Defenses on East Coast–I knew there were Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast during the war, but it was a bigger problem than I knew, especially in 1942 as the United States was mobilizing and heading to the European Theater. I knew coastal residents watched for enemy aircraft and covered their windows at night, but I hadn’t given any thought to secret and camouflaged coastal fortifications.

In her author’s note, Lisle wrote that she based the opening scene from the novel on a historical event. Big artillery guns were transported through her town in 1942. Although she didn’t witness the gun transport, she did remember, as a kid, seeing the ruins of a WWII fort and defenses.

Writing Lesson:

Memoir-style–There is a major difference between a kids’ book with a child protagonist and an adult book with a child protagonist. In kids’ books, the protagonists live the story or adventure as the readers read the story, even if the story is written in past tense. This means the kid protagonists don’t know how their stories end.

In adult books that have kid protagonists, adult narrators are telling about their childhood experience, but also elaborating on that and telling what those experiences meant. This is memoir-esque.

Most kids’ books do not use this memoir writing style because kid readers like to experience the story with the protagonists. Generally, kids don’t look back over their lives. They focus on the now and the future.

Kid readers want to experience the story with the protagonist. They want to learn things on their own. They don’t want adults telling them what the adults learned through the experience.

Lisle does use the memoir style for this novel. Yet it still works for a kids’ book. Why?

First, because she uses the memoir-style sparingly through most of the book, either to set the scene, to show the passage of time, or to show Robert realizing Elliot sees life differently than he does. But then, Lisle seamlessly moves into a scene where readers see the story unfold.

Second, although Lisle ends the story with a grown-up Robert, he is a young man. He is still more relatable to the readers than if Robert were looking backward as an elderly man. Kid readers can more easily picture themselves as young adults versus elderly adults. Also, with Robert looking back as a young adult, he has matured some, but he doesn’t know it all. He’s still a work in progress.

Lisle does a good job of letting adult Robert give some extra insight into the situation without telling us what lesson he learned.

For more information:

Janet Taylor Lisle

A Brief History of the Coast Artillery Corps

The True Story of a Family Caught in a WWII U-Boat Attack

Join me Tuesday, July 26, to talk about the lessons I learned from the 1984 O’Dell Award winner, The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.

What other kids books are set on the East Coast during WWII? Do you know of other kids books that are written in a memoir-style? How did the author make it work?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: BULL RUN by Paul Fleischman

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge Book for this month is the 1994 winner, Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman.

This young middle-grade novel follows multiple protagonists, both children and adults, from the beginning of the Confederate attack of Ft. Sumter in April 1861 through the first battle of Bull Run three months later.

Writing Lesson:

Multiple protagonists–In my last award challenge post, I mentioned that it is unusual to find kids’ historical fiction with multiple protagonists, with the exception of romances or verse novels.

Bull Run is neither.

In Bull Run, each protagonist has his or her own first person point of view chapters reoccurring throughout the novel, and each protagonist has his or her own story arc.

There are a lot of protagonists–16, in fact. They represent both the North and the South, soldiers and civilians, young and old, male and female, black and white, slave and free. In other words, Fleischman is giving readers a thorough overview of the battle.

Fleischman also structured this novel this way to be used as a play or readers’ theater text, which makes it a good story to spark classroom discussions.


Photo by Deb Watley

History Lesson:

The First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas Junction)–This battle took place on July 21, 1861, and was the first major battle of the Civil War. Soldiers were inexperienced, and many on both sides of the war expected to quickly win the war.

Although the Confederates won this battle, they were not able to follow through to end the war. Both the Union and Confederates realized it would not be a short war.

Bull Run is probably one of the most well-known battles of the war for me, and yet many of the websites I looked at for more info focused on the decisions of the generals and movements of the groups of soldiers.

Novels, such as Bull Run, include many of those battle details, but also give readers insight into the motivations and experiences of the individuals involved.

I think hooking kids into stories about historical people is a very effective way of getting the kids interested in learning more about an event.

For example, one of Fleischman’s protagonists is a free black man from Ohio who is frustrated at not being able to fight with other free blacks against slavery, so he hides his identity and joins a white regiment. Another one of Fleischman’s protagonists is an orphan from Arkansas who decides to join the Confederate calvary just so he can have a horse of his own. Then there’s the artist who plans to record the battle and ends up joining it.

For more info:

Paul Fleischman

Civil War Trust: Bull Run

Join me June 28 to discuss the 2001 Scott O’Dell Award Winner, The Art of Keeping Cool, by Janet Taylor Lisle.

How did you get interested in history? What other kids’ historical fiction have you read that shows lots of viewpoints of the same event?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: TWO SUNS IN THE SKY by Miriam Bat-Ami

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction is an annual honor given to an outstanding kids’ historical fiction set in the Western Hemisphere. Each month I read one of the award winners and point out things I learned or things of which the book is an excellent example.

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2000 award winner, Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami.

This young adult historical fiction novel is set in Italy and Oswego, New York, during the last couple years of World War II. It features two protagonists: Chris, an Irish Catholic girl from Oswego who wants to break free of her life and join the war effort, and Adam, a Yugoslavian Jewish boy who is a refugee from the Holocaust.

Adam and part of his family are brought to the Emergency Refuge Shelter at Ft. Ontario (just outside Oswego), the only U.S. refugee camp during the war. The two teens fall in love, but neither one of their families approve.

This novel contains some mild sexual content.

Writing Lesson:

Multiple point-of-view protagonists–Most kids’ historical fiction I’ve read have only one protagonist. In fact, the only kids’ historical fiction I can think of off-hand with multiple protagonists are verse novels–and next month’s challenge book.

However, lots of young adult (and adult) romances also have multiple protagonists. Although Two Suns in the Sky is not a true romance–it’s more like the Romeo and Juliet kind of romance–the story is told from both Chris and Adam’s first-person point-of-views.

This works well in a suspense or mystery when the author wants the reader to know more than the characters do. But it also works well in showing differing viewpoints of the shared events.

Previously, authors may have had multiple protagonists, but they told the story from an all-knowing narrator’s point-of-view. Now, more often, each protagonist narrates his or her own story (sometimes in first-person, sometimes in a very close third person), with each getting his or her own scenes or chapters. This allows readers to experience the story with the protagonists.

However, each protagonist must have his or her own story arc and undergo some type of change or growth by the end of story. In a nutshell, the author is giving the reader two intertwining and interdependent stories.


Historical Lesson:

Two Suns in the Sky opened my eyes to a situation I knew nothing about–the Emergency Refugee Center at Ft. Ontario, outside Oswego, New York, at the end of World War II. Much of the U.S. population did not know the extent of the horrors of the Holocaust until late in the war. Many who did know that the Jews in Europe were being persecuted wanted the U.S. to help Jewish refugees. Finally in 1945, President Roosevelt ordered the opening of one refugee camp, Ft. Ontario, to about 900 refugees (mostly Jewish) from Europe.

The refugees were told this was a temporary situation; they would be returned to Europe when the war was over. But, apparently, no one had made clear to the refugees they would be kept in a camp and not just “let loose.” When they arrived in the U.S., put on trains, and taken to a fenced-in military fort, many had visions of the Nazi concentration camps and understandably panicked at first.

However, the children were allowed to attend the local Oswego schools, and some Oswego locals supplied food, clothing, and friendship to the refugees. In fact, some of the locals testified to and lobbied the government to allow the refugees to stay and become citizens. The government did allow the refugees to immigrate to the U.S. without having to go back to Europe.

For more information about the Emergency Refugee Center:

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

National Archives–Refugees Registering at the Fort Ontario Refuge Camp

Barbed Wire Haven

Join me Tuesday, May 31, to talk about the 1994 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award, Bull Run by Paul Fleischman.

Do you prefer stories with one or multiple protagonists? Have you heard of the WWII Emergency Refuge Shelter in New York? Do you know of other books about the refugees who lived at the shelter?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse


Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for my personal Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1998 award-winner, the middle-grade verse novel, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. This novel also won the 1998 Newbery Medal!

Before I began my challenge to read and learn from each of the Scott O’Dell Award books, I thought I had read a lot of historical fiction. Yet, I realized I’d read only four of the award books. Out of the Dust was one of the few I had read previously.

I’m glad I re-read it, though. I had forgotten much.


In this novel, 14-year-old Billie Jo and her family live on a farm in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s–The Dust Bowl.

Billie Jo loves to play “fierce piano” and earns dimes by performing with local musicians. Meanwhile, her parents try to keep their wheat and their two apple trees alive amidst drought and dust storms. But, when an accident injures Billie Jo’s hands and leads to the death of her mother and baby brother, Billie Jo and her father struggle to survive their grief and heal their own relationship.

History Lesson:

Dust Bowl dinosaurs–I have read a lot about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but Hesse’s story mentioned one detail that was new to me, yet one that has special appeal in my family.

In 1931, the fossils of a dinosaur–an apatosaurus–were discovered very close to the setting of the novel. From 1935-1942, the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program funded the excavation of thousands of fossils from the Black Mesa area. The program provided jobs for area men, but because of the lack of funding and the involvement of paleontologists, most of the fossils ended up in storage until the mid-1980s.

Writing Lesson:

Verse novels–This was the first, and so far, the only verse novel selected as a Scott O’Dell Award-winner. I believe it was also the first verse novel I ever read. Since then I’ve read other verse novels–some contemporary, but many historical fiction.

A verse novel is a complete story comprised of a poem, or collection of poems. The poetry may take various forms, such as concrete poems, sonnets, haiku, free verse, etc.

Verse novels are often spare in description, and heavy in white space. This gives a fast pace to the novels that appeals to many readers, especially to readers who are intimidated by reading–whether through struggling with reading or learning a new language–but also readers who are put off by long chunks of text.


The ratio of text to white space is inviting to readers.

Verse novels are a wonderful vehicle for historical fiction. As a generalization, historical fiction introduces readers to a past time period, unknown events, unfamiliar lifestyles, and different ways of thinking. Therefore, historical fiction tends include lots of description so readers can immerse themselves in the worlds of those novels.

But with verse novels’ emphases on the central story and imagery/poetic language, the story draws the readers in without them realizing it.

For example, Hesse drops lots of details about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but she gives few explanations. She focuses on how it affects Billie Jo thinks or feels about it, and gives just enough info for the reader to understand what Billie Jo is saying. These little hints may also pique the readers’ curiosity, causing the readers to research on their own.

Also, much of the imagery of Billie Jo’s story is centered on dust, so readers don’t really need a lot of description of the dust. They “see” the dust through Billie Jo’s point of view and poetic voice.

I don’t think like a poet. Poetry intimidates me. But, I enjoy reading verse novels. It’s the stories and imagery that grab me, and later I marvel over the poetry.

For more info:

Karen Hesse

Secrets of the Dust Bowl Digs by Holly Wall

What is a Verse Novel? by Gabriela Pereira

Why Verse? Poetic Novels for Historical Fiction, Displacement Stories, and Struggling Readers by Terry Farish

Field Notes: “This is Too Much!” Why Verse Novels Work for Reluctant Readers by Dorie Rebuke

Interview: Caroline Starr Rose, author of BLUE BIRDS, Crafts Verse Novels Quilt Square by Quilt Square

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan–The 2010 Scott O’Dell Award book also set during the Dust Bowl.

Join me April 26 for my next challenge book, the 2000 winner, Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami.

What kids’ stories of the Depression have you read? How about historical verse novels?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE HIRED GIRL by Laura Amy Schlitz

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is this year’s (2016) winner, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press, 2015).

In this young adult historical fiction, set in 1911, 14-year-old Joan is willing to give up school and put up with cooking and cleaning for her father and four brothers, if she could have a little spending money. She goes on strike.

But when her father retaliates by burning her three precious books, Joan flees to the big city of Baltimore, where she is hired as a servant by a Jewish family. In her quest to better herself and help the family who has been kind to her, she often unknowingly brings trouble on herself and hurts the people she’s learning to love.

History lessons:

Jewish family–I believe this is the first Scott O’Dell Award book that features a Jewish family–at least of the ones I’ve read so far (about two-thirds of the winners). I appreciated getting a look at a Jewish family in a time other than Biblical or Holocaust-era.   It’s good to be reminded that Jewish lives were not limited to those two time periods.

Housework in 1911–This book is also the first Scott O’Dell Award book set in the early between 1900-1920, so it was interesting to read about the early 20th Century.

I’ve read lots of books set in the 19th Century or before, where women spent all day growing their food, cooking and cleaning, and making and mending their clothes. They had to use candles, make their own soap, keep fires going, fetch water from a well, heat water, empty chamber pots, etc.

In The Hired Girl, Joan leaves her farm home where she didn’t have any conveniences–except store-bought fabric–and she is hired by a family that has electricity in its home. The family has an electric toaster, two refrigerators, and two gas ranges. They have indoor plumbing and hot water. The family even has a manual carpet sweeper and later purchases an electric vacuum.

I enjoyed reading about the details of taking care of a family when electricity and other labor-saving devices were beginning to give women more time for other things, such as education and pleasure-reading. I’m also grateful for electricity and natural gas! Without those things, and the devices they power, I wouldn’t be able to spend hours each day reading and writing.

Writing lesson:

Epistolary novel–This books is comprised of Joan’s journal entries, which means Joan is telling the reader what happened. Modern authors are advised to show and not tell, because the showing will draw the reader into the story better.

As I was reading the book, I’d be aware at times of Joan’s narration, but soon her journal entries had me picturing the scenes. How did Schlitz accomplish that?

First, because the book is comprised of diary entries, we see everything through Joan’s senses. It’s in first person point of view. Through Joan’s words we quickly learn what her personality is like, and we identify with her wants and feelings. We also see that she’s mature, yet still a child; educated, yet ignorant in many ways; and has many good qualities, yet she is open about her faults.

Second, Joan has this original and fun voice. She has some education and refinement about her, yet she is also a practical farm girl, so her descriptions and metaphors are beautiful and earthy–and appropriate for her. Joan often “tells” how she is feeling, but she’ll also describe it in fresh, interesting ways.

Take this paragraph as an example:

“It’s past midnight and I can’t sleep. I can’t lie still. My face aches and I can’t stop hating Father. These past two hours, I’ve done nothing but toss and turn. I’ve been plumping and folding my pillow, trying to make it cradle my head, but it won’t. My hatred has crawled into the pillow slip and made a lump.”

I can picture Joan plumping, and pounding that pillow. And the metaphor about hatred crawling into her pillow slip is awesome!

For more info:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/J2AbHL2r-7w“>The Hired Girl Book Trailer

School Library Journal interview with Schlitz

Jewish Book Council interview with Schlitz

Join me March 29 to discuss my next challenge book, the 1998 winner, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

What books with Jewish characters have you read that were set in other times besides Biblical or Holocaust-eras? What epistolary novels have you loved? What is your favorite labor-saving device or invention?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for my three-year Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2011 winner, One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia.

In this middle-grade novel, set in 1968, 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonette and Fern, are sent by their father from Brooklyn to Oakland, Calif., to get to know the mother who had abandoned them years earlier. While in Oakland, Delphine becomes involved in the Black Panther movement and begins to understand her mother.

Historical lesson:

Summer 1968–The sisters are sent to Oakland the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated April 4 in Tennessee. But two days later, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy named Bobby Hutton was killed by the police in Oakland, CA. Hutton was a member of the Black Panther Party. In fact, he was the treasurer and the party’s first recruit. His murder sparked rallies by the Black Panthers in Oakland that summer. The Oakland rally organizers also sought the release from prison from one of the Black Panther leaders, Huey P. Newton.

Writing lesson:

A series–Often historical fiction books are stand-alones. They do not always have a sequel, and even fewer are part of a series, featuring a sequential story with the same characters. One Crazy Summer did have a resolution and could be a stand-alone book.

But, there are so many questions about Delphine’s parents that are left unanswered, it left me unsatisfied. However, I knew there are two books following One Crazy Summer–P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama. So, I have hope my questions will be answered.

How does an author write a self-contained story, yet set up a larger story that will not be completed until the end of a trilogy–or an even longer series?

The first book is the set up. We are introduced to the characters and some of their deep desires and questions. While a few questions are answered, many are not.

That can be hard for authors. We want to reveal all we know about our characters, but it will hold our readers’ attention if we don’t tell them everything we think they should know. We need to keep some secrets and not reveal them until it’s absolutely necessary. However, we do have to plant some hints along the way so the reveals make sense.

I don’t know if Williams-Garcia knew she’d have a couple sequels, but she did a good job of withholding information that I wanted to know until I needed to know it.

For more info:

Rita Williams-Garcia

Hutton killing shakes Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Join me Feb. 23 to talk about this year’s Scott O’Dell Award winner, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Do you have favorite kids books about the Civil Rights or Black Panther movements? What other stand-alone (at this point) books beg for a sequel?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE RIVER BETWEEN US by Richard Peck

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2004 award winner, The River Between Us by Richard Peck.

The young adult novel begins in 1916 when a teen boy, his two young brothers, and their father travel to visit the father’s elderly parents and aunt and uncle in southern Illinois. The boy meets his extended family for the first time, learns what happened to them during the first part of the Civil War, and how their war-time experiences fifty years earlier affected his life.

History Lessons:

Travels by car in 1916–One of the fun things about this story was seeing what it would be like to travel by automobile in 1916. The family packed extra cans of gas, endured multiple flat tires, and camped overnight at the side of the road–such a different way to travel than most of us experience.

For more information about life with the early autos, see the Henry Ford website. It offers fun diary entries of a fictional girl in 1919 whose family purchases their first car and takes their first major trip.

Reason for learning family history–One of the protagonists, Howard, states the reason well:

“Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn’t picture it. Even at the age of fifteen I knew but little about who he was and where he’d come from. And so I knew but little about myself.”

Writing Lessons:

Narrators looking backward–A convention of children’s literature is that protagonists (and the reader) experience the story as it happens. This is one of the ways to tell if a story with a child protagonist is a children’s story or an adult story. In the latter case, the child protagonist usually narrates from a more mature point of view, giving comments about what he or she learned, or what event was yet to come.

In this book, Peck breaks that rule. He has two narrators who tell their stories, both from a future perspective. How does he do this and still appeal to child/teen readers who don’t like the lessons of memoir? He uses mystery, conflict, and a wonderful voice.

Here’s an example of one character describing another in an interesting, fresh, and just plain fun way:

“Noah was his silent self. Most times, he could make a tree seem talkative.” –Tilly

Two stories within the story–Peck frames the Civil War story with the 1916 story of the boy meeting his family. As I read I wondered why he began with the boy/extended family story. I thought the Civil War story was great and could stand on its own–the protagonist had her own, complete story arc.

Then when I read the last part of the 1916 story, I understood why. The Civil War story had more depth when we see how it affected the 1916 story, and Howard could not complete his story arc in 1916 without learning the Civil War story.

Join me Jan. 26 for my next challenge book, the 2011 winner, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia.

Have you ever ridden in a Model T? What’s the most adventurous mode of travel you’ve tried? What other books do you love to read because of the author’s voice? What other books frame a complete story within another complete story?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL by Patricia MacLachlan

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1986 winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan. This middle grade historical fiction also won the American Library Association’s Newbery Award in 1986.

In the story, Anna, and her younger brother, Caleb, already love the spirited mail-order bride, Sarah, who has come from Maine to visit them and their father. The children hope Sarah will stay on their prairie farm, marry their father, and become their mother. However, Sarah, misses the sea, and Anna and Caleb fear she will leave them to return to Maine.

History Lesson:

Mail-order brides: I’ve loved frontier stories since I was a young girl, and a common character in many frontier stories is the mail-order bride. I liked the adventure and romance involved in such stories. I didn’t realize until more recently how terrifying it would be to be a mail-order bride.

As white settlers pushed into the American west, there were many more men than women. So men seeking wives would often place newspaper ads back East, and single women would send a letter, starting a mail correspondence with the suitor.

Some women might have been seeking the adventure and the freedoms available in the West, but I suppose most were caught in such horrible circumstances they were desperate enough to go west to marry a stranger.

Can you imagine the risks for both the men and the women? There was nothing to keep them from lying to each other in their letters. They could end up in a love-match, or in an abusive situation, dire poverty, family dysfunction, or like in Sarah, Plain and Tall, an isolated farm.

These mail-order brides weren’t bought, but it would have been an easy step to turn the voluntary matchmaking into trafficking/forced prostitution such as we see today throughout the world–and the U.S.

Writing Lesson:

A simple plot/spare detailsSarah, Plain and Tall is an example of a short, simple novel that packs an emotional wallop. The plot is simple–the children love Sarah and want Sarah to be their mother, but Sarah misses the sea.

MacLachlan didn’t pad the story with unnecessary details. She didn’t state the exact location or the exact time period. All we know is that it takes place on a farm on the prairie in the American West, probably in the late 1800s.

Most of the descriptive details are about the animals and landscape of the prairie, showing Anna’s (and MacLachlan’s) love for the prairie, but also showing the contrast of the prairie to the sea, which Sarah loves.

The lack of other details focuses our attention onto the prairie, the sea, the relationships between the children, their father, and Sarah, and shows the great emotional stakes involved, especially for the children, if Sarah leaves.

For more info, see:

Mail-order brides

Patricia MacLachlan, profile by Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews

Patricia MacLachlan, interview by Publisher’s Weekly

Join me November 24 to talk about my next challenge book, the 2004 Scott O’Dell Award winner, The River Between Us by Richard Peck.

Do you have any mail-order brides in your ancestry? Do you know their stories? What other books have you read that might be called simple, yet touch on a deep emotional need, such as the yearning for a mother?