About a year ago I challenged myself to read all the winners of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and to blog about the history and writing lessons I learned from each book. At one book a month, this challenge will take me more than three years, but I’m about one-third of the way to my goal.
This month’s book is the newest winner (named in February 2015): Dash, written by Kirby Larson.
After the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Mitsi’s best friend Dash, her dog, is her only friend, until she meets a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker. Mitsi wants life to get back to normal, but soon the government declares that she, her family, and the rest of the Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast must leave their homes for relocation camps. To make things worse, Mitsi is not allowed to bring Dash with her.
Relocation: I was somewhat familiar with the incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the U.S. during WWII. However, it was eye-opening to see the camps through Mitsi’s eyes. For example, housing was terrible–some families lived in old horse stables.
However, Larson also showed how brave some of the Nikkei (those with Japanese ancestry) were, how they tried to establish a normalcy (schools, newspapers, landscaping), and how they looked out for each other. I was also thankful to see, again through Mitsi’s eyes, that some Americans remained loyal to the imprisoned Nikkei and tried to help them.
Author’s note and acknowledgements: I’ve said it before that I love it when historical fiction authors include an author’s note detailing historical context and additional information. In Larson’s, she reveals her novel was based on a factual Mitsi (Mitsue Shiraishi), who although an adult during WWII, was separated from her dog, Chubby.
Then, in her acknowledgement page, Larson included a website by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, which provides lots of information, first-hand accounts, as well as suggestions for educators. The website also included a terminology section which was very helpful to me, because sometimes official vocabulary used at the time of an event is not accurate. So I learned why, and with what, some of the old terminology should be replaced.
For example, during WWII, the places the Nikkei were sent were called Internment Camps. But, according to Densho, internment is a term for imprisoning non-citizens during wartime. However, two-thirds of the Nikkei “interned” were American citizens. The camps are more accurately named incarceration/prison/concentration camps.
Plot Twist: This is trickier to talk about because I do not give away spoilers. But, there is a plot twist near the end of a story done so well I can think back and recall the trail of clues.
Since I’ve been studying and writing fiction, I can often predict a book or movie ending. However, Larson surprised me. How? She planted clues throughout earlier parts of the novel that suggested one thing, but ended up meaning something different. I can’t say anything more!
Author’s Note/Acknowledgement Page: Not only did Larson tell how she learned factual Mitsi’s story, but Larson also wrote about how Mitsi’s story made her think how she hates to be apart from her dog, Winston. This led to her wondering how difficult it would have been for Nikkei children who were separated from their beloved pets. Those thoughts led to Dash.
Therefore, when I’m developing story ideas, I should ask myself “what if”-type questions, such as how would this situation impact a child? How would I respond?
Finally, Larson thanked people who helped her with her research. It is confirmation to me to keep asking for help. People often go out of their way to aid researchers and writers share stories that need to be told to the next generation. In fact, Larson has agreed to help me! Join us next Tuesday for an author interview (and a book and swag giveaway) with Kirby Larson about Dash!
Larson is also the author of other historical fiction for children, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever After, The Friendship Doll, Dear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website.
For another Scott O’Dell Award winner about a Japanese American WWII experience, see my post about Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
Have you been separated from a pet for a lengthy time? How did you cope? What other children’s books about the WWII Japanese American experience can you recommend? As historical fiction writers, especially for children, how do we include the vocabulary of the past, yet be honest and respectful?
My Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction book for this month is the 2014 winner, Bo At Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill and illustrated by LeUyen Pham.
Hill’s novel portrays a year in the life of Bo, a little girl in the 1920s Alaska. Bo was abandoned by her mother, and was taken in by a couple of gold miners who team up to raise her. The unusual family settled in a mining camp next to an Eskimo village, and the villagers and other miners became Bo’s extended family.
Bo at Ballard Creek is set in a time period and place I’ve never read about before. Any Alaskan historical fiction I’ve read has been about rural teachers or dog sled dogs. But this is about the gold miners after the heyday of the late 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. According to Hill’s website, many of these miners had found they liked Alaska and decided to stay, some marrying Eskimo or Indian women.
Hill, who lives in Alaska, has many miners in her family ancestry, and lived in a mining camp when she was the same age as Bo, said members of her family and other people she knew inspired many of the characters.
The story is also very descriptive about the mining process. I learned the miners dug while the ground was frozen so the shafts wouldn’t collapse, but they used steam to warm up the soil enough to actually dig it out of the shaft.
Also, the characters in the book preferred Alaska in winter, versus the summer, because traveling was so much easier in the winter. In the summer the ground was swampy, and people relied on boats to get around. But in the winter, when everything was frozen, people travelled by foot or dog sled much quicker. Of course, now, many travel in Alaska by plane. But in Bo at Ballard Creek, Bo and the villagers were excited to witness the first airplane land at their village.
It’s cool to see how Bo and the villagers may be in the wilderness, but they stay as current as they can. For example, everyone subscribed to at least one magazine, and they traded them back and forth so everyone could read them. They also loved music and played the latest records on their Victrolas. And many of the females wore their hair in the short styles of the 20s.
The blurb on the back of the hardback is from the Horn Book review and compares Bo at Ballard Creek to Little House in the Big Woods. It’s an apt comparison. Like Little House, Bo at Ballard Creek has lots of description of Bo’s daily life and the people she visits in and around the village. It’s also a quiet story. Although there are some sad and serious events, Hill describes them gently. This is not an action adventure or edgy book. It’s refreshing to see a major publisher (Henry Holt) offer a “quiet” book.
Bo at Ballard Creek is unusual to current books in another way, yet still similar to Little House in the Big Woods. Both books are considered middle grade books and are targeted to fourth through sixth graders, yet both protagonists, Bo and Laura, are very young, like about four years old.
Generally protagonists would be close to, or just a little older than the targeted readers. However, four-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read this book, nor would they understand many of the descriptions. Yet, it works really well to see this story through a four-year-old’s eyes. We see the innocence, the love, and the joys/frustrations in Bo’s daily life that we might not see if she were 11-years-old.
For more information about Kirkpatrick Hill and Bo at Ballard Creek, see Hill’s website.
Also, here is a link to more info about the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.
Join me Sept. 30, for my next challenge book: Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty, the 1988 award winner.
Have you read Bo at Ballard Creek? What do you know about post-gold rush Alaska? Do you know any gold miners? Do you prefer quiet books or adventure/edgy books? Why?
This month’s selection in my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson. Jip, His Story won the historical fiction award in 1997.
Jip is an abandoned boy who knows nothing about his background, other than he was left on the road. He lives at the local poor farm and takes care of everyone else. But, when a mentally disturbed man is sent to the farm, Jip’s life begins to change.
Somehow I missed the date at the beginning of the book, so it took me a long time to figure out that it is set in the mid-1800s. I knew it was either 19th Century or very early 20th, but I couldn’t narrow it down until the last half of the book.
And you know what? I was okay with that. To be fair, the cover image helped me. But, Paterson hooked me with her characters and gave just enough details so I could picture what was happening. I didn’t need to have paragraphs upon paragraphs of setting details. When Paterson did give details, they were pertinent, like the teacher giving Jip the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
So my takeaway–only use relevant details as seen through the character’s experience. Sometimes, that will mean lots of description, sometimes it won’t.
As for character, Jip has a hard life, but what endears him to me is his love for his friends and for animals. He has a very unusual capacity for compassion, especially for someone who has experienced so little. But as Jip loves his friends, we see they love him in return. And it’s his love for his friends and his sense of responsibility for them that gives him his purpose in life, as well as puts him in the most danger. Very well done.
There are lots of historical things to talk about in this book, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. So I’ll focus on the thing that was new to me–the poor farm.
Poor farms were very common in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If a person could not take care of themselves, had no family to provide for them, and church and charity funds were exhausted, people could be sent to these poor farms that were funded by local taxpayers. Able-bodied people were to raise food to help offset the costs, but often the residents were elderly, very young, or mentally handicapped or disturbed.
In Jip, he is the most able-bodied and responsible, and he’s only 12ish. One of his dear friends was “simple” and another was a “lunatic.” But they helped him as they were able.
Poor farms were not great places, but sometimes they were an improvement over some of the previous ways of helping the poverty-stricken.
The novel also showed how vulnerable people were economically. One of the families who came to Jip’s poor farm was the widow and children of a drunkard. Once the father died, they had no way of providing for themselves. This vulnerability flew in the face of conventional wisdom of the time. People often thought poverty was self-inflicted, possibly by laziness or immorality.
For more history of poor farms, check out these sites:
When I was researching Katherine Paterson, I saw she had written a book called Lyddie (1991). Jip’s teacher was named Lyddie, and it turns out the book is about Lyddie’s early years as a Factory Girl in a textile mill in Lowell, Mass. However, a really cool thing about both Lyddie and Jip, His Story, is that both main characters listened to someone read Oliver Twist, and they became so involved in the story that it actually helped them survive their tough circumstances, and then to move beyond survival. What great examples of how important Story is to us!
For more information about my Scott O’Dell Challenge, see this post.
Join me the last Tuesday of August for the 2014 award winner, Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill.
Have you read Jip, His Story? What endears a character to you? What do you know about poor farms? When has Story helped you survive or thrive?
This month’s book for my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2010 winner, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009).
The Storm in the Barn is set in 1937 Dust Bowl Kansas where 11-year-old Jack feels weak and useless. He’s picked on by bullies. He disappoints his father because he’s too young to help much on the farm. And he is totally powerless to cure his sister’s dust pneumonia. However, in an abandoned barn, Jack finds something strange, wet, and menacing that could bring back the rain.
1. Wizard of Oz books. One of the cool things about this book is that Phelan uses the Wizard of Oz books to connect to Jack’s story. The famous movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy hit the theaters in 1939, but the series of books by L. Frank Baum had been out for decades. The children of the 1930s would have known these stories. I love the connections Phelan made. For instance, Jack’s sick sister, Dorothy, is reading Ozma of Oz (1907) where the character Dorothy finds a desert, a familiar landscape to a Dust Bowl child.
2. Jack Tales. Phelan also used another literary, albeit oral, tradition in The Storm in the Barn. The fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer/Slayer, are two examples of a Jack Tale. These folktales came from Europe to America, especially Appalachia and the Ozarks. Jack Tales follow a distinct pattern where Jack represents the ordinary boy who uses pluck, trickery, and often magic, to defeat his foes, often giants or wind kings.
3. Dust Bowl jack rabbit drives. Growing plants was extremely hard during the Dust Bowl because of the lack of rain. Then the jack rabbits would eat the plants, competing with people for food. So people would organize a drive where they would corral and kill the rabbits. Necessary, but brutal.I first learned about the jack rabbit drives only a year or so ago and, until now, have never seen them included in a children’s book. I was impressed at how Phelan handled the topic and showed how it impacted the people involved, including Jack.
The Storm in the Barn made two firsts as a Scott O’Dell Award winner.
1. It is the first graphic novel to win the award.
2. It is the first not-strictly historical fiction book to win this historical fiction award. The Storm in the Barn is also part fairy/folk/tall tale. But, it’s faithful to the spirit of America’s folklore.
It’s another example of an author/illustrator using an unusual way to successfully tell a touching and powerful story.
For more information:
Next month’s selection will be the 1997 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson.
Have you read The Storm in the Barn? What other Jack Tales do you know? What is your favorite Dust Bowl-era children’s book? What other historical fiction graphic novels have you read?
Each month I read a book from the list of Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winners. The award honors children’s books, written by American authors, that deal with the history of North or South America. This month I’m discussing the 1984 winner, The Fighting Ground (1984, Lippincott/Harper Collins) by Avi.
The Fighting Ground takes place in rural New Jersey during the Revolutionary War and begins with 13-year-old Jonathan helping his wounded, ex-soldier father on their farm. Jonathan longs to become a soldier and fight, and he defies his parents to join the local militia to stop the oncoming enemy Hessian soldiers. However, during the skirmish, Jonathan is terrified, runs away, and is captured by the Hessian soldiers. He learns his enemies are human, and sometimes his allies act like monsters.
Just like any war, motivation and pride can get in the way of principles. War brings out the ruthlessness of some and the compassion of others.
Specifically, for this story, it was interesting to note how long it took people to go from place to place during the 18th Century and how isolated people could be. There were small villages three or four miles from Jonathan’s home that he’d never visited.
Unlike during modern wars, Jonathan also met his enemy. However, he couldn’t understand the German the Hessians are speaking, and that added to his fear of them. The soldiers are also frightened because they get lost in “enemy territory,” and they don’t speak English. It showed the human side of the boy’s enemy and the reality of combatants who don’t speak each other’s language.
On Avi’s website, he wrote that that his idea for The Fighting Ground came from reading a historical marker in New Jersey about a fight between some Hessians and the militia and how insignificant it was in the grand scheme of the war. However, Avi thought that skirmish was significant for the people involved.
This was a very focused story. It starts about 10 a.m. one day and ends just over 24 hours later. It’s less than 160 pages long and doesn’t have chapters. In fact, it’s broken up into time segments of various lengths. Some are multiple pages, and some are only a paragraph or two. So, it’s an encouraging read for someone who might get bogged down in lots of descriptions, backstory, or large blocks of text.
Avi used third person, but I felt like I “was” Jonathan. In fact, I had to double-check because when I finished the book and was thinking about it, I thought it actually was in first person.
I also liked how Avi used the setting to affect and reflect the actions in the story and Jonathan’s state-of-mind. Before the skirmish, storm clouds gather, and then after the fight, rain, fog and mist cover the land, adding to and mirroring Jonathan’s confusion. In Avi’s blog, he mentions he doesn’t purposely add symbols. He just wants readers to enjoy reading his books and read into it what they see for themselves. However, I think he purposefully did use the weather, very effectively, to set the mood.
On a side note, Avi will be in Sioux Falls Sept. 26-28 for the South Dakota’s Festival of the Book. For more info, see http://www.sdbookfestival.com. Also, check out Avi’s website at http://www.avi-writer.com.
Join me June 24 for my next book in my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan, which earned the 2010 award.
Have you read The Fighting Ground? What lessons did it teach you?
The book I’m featuring this month is the 2013 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction: Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper Collins in 2012. Chickadee is the fourth book in Erdrich’s Birchbark House Series and is the second one of Erdrich’s works to be given the O’Dell award. Her first O’Dell award was in 2006 for The Game of Silence, book two in the Birchbark House Series. In fact, Erdrich, who belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the only author to have won the award twice.
In Chickadee, set in the 1860s, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) boy named Chickadee and his family live in a forest near the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota. A kidnapping forces the family to leave the forest for the Great Plains, causing them to adapt to new ways of life. And with the help of the bird he is named after, Chickadee discovers his own strength and resourcefulness.
History I learned:
1. The Ojibwe. This was the first book, fiction or non-fiction, I think I’ve read about the Ojibwe, who lived in the woods and lakes regions of northern Minnesota. I found it interesting how the Ojibwe family adapted to life on the prairie. For example, in the woods, they would make containers from birchbark, but on the plains they had to make-do with the one wooden bucket they had. Some of the family members also learned how to ride horses so they could join buffalo hunts on the plains.
2. The Metis. They were of both Ojibwe and French-descent and had their own distinct culture.
3. Ox cart trains. Before the railroads came to the frontier, these caravans of ox carts, mostly driven by Metis, brought furs and other goods down to St. Paul to trade and then take back to Pembina (North Dakota). The carts were very noisy. Here is a link to a website that has a sound clip of just one cart. (Scroll down.) Imagine what a line of 200 carts sounded like.
4. Mosquito swarms. At one point, a giant swarm of mosquitos descend on Chickadee, his Uncle Quill, and the ox cart train. It is not an inconvenience. Both humans and oxen are in great danger of being killed . Many of us have experienced mosquitos, but never in such a degree. That is one of the things from the past that I’m glad is gone.
5. Female Ojibwe hunter. An aunt of Chickadee’s is a hunter and warrior. Pretty cool! I had never heard of a North American Native American woman who did that. Have you? Was it common?
Story/writing lesson I learned:
Sometimes it’s okay to buck the trends and/or conventional wisdom in literature. For example, Chickadee’s family is a loving, functional family. I know there are lots of families like that in stories, especially children’s stories, but there are also an awful lot of dysfunctional families. And there should be, to reflect reality and to give a story it’s conflict. However, it was nice to see a loving family.
Another conventional wisdom rule Erdrich broke was to include lots of Ojibwe vocabulary. It did make the story a little harder to read, but the context around the Ojibwe words explained the meaning, and Erdrich includes a glossary at the end of the book.
Finally, Erdrich switches point of view a lot, even within a chapter, and that’s rarely done in children’s books.
I will eventually read Erdrich’s first O’Dell winner, as well as read all the books in her Birchbark House Series. But, in an attempt to alternate between the newer and older winners, for my next O’Dell Challenge post, on May 27, I will feature the 1985 winner, The Fighting Ground by Avi (Lippincott).
Previous posts about my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge:
Have you read Chickadee? What did you learn?
Since I love both historical fiction and children’s books, I recently challenged myself to read all the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction winning books. But, to start things off, I read O’Dell’s first children’s book, and possibly the one he’s most known for, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
O’Dell had written non-fiction, short stories, and novels for adults. But once Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960 and then received the Newbery Award, one of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature, he continued to write more historical fiction for children and earned the Newbery three more times.
At the beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is 12 and lives in a village on a small island. A ship full of Aleuts, captained by a white man, comes to the island to hunt sea otters. The captain makes a deal with Karana’s father so the tribe can share in the results of the hunting. But the captain and the Aleuts double-cross the villagers. In the resulting battle most of the tribe’s men are killed. The hunters leave, and the villagers survive for months on their own. However, their elderly leader knows they need help, so he takes a canoe to the land far to the east. Eventually a ship comes for the villagers, but the weather is bad and the ship only stays long enough to load the villagers and what they can carry. In the hurry and confusion, Karana sees her little brother is left alone on the island. She jumps overboard and swims back to her brother. But the ship sails on and doesn’t return.
Not only is the book set in a historical time-period, but O’Dell based the story on a real woman’s experience.
There really was a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, for 18 years (1835-1853). People on the mainland knew about her, though, and a priest at the Santa Barbara Mission asked Capt. George Nidever to watch for her when he was otter hunting at San Nicolas. Nidever did find her and brought her back to Santa Barbara. He thought she was about 50 years old, but apparently they could communicate only through sign language. Unfortunately, the woman lived less than two months after coming to the mainland, and she was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.
San Nicolas is now a base of the U.S. Navy, and archeologists have worked on the island for years. But recently, some archeologists found a cave where the woman may have lived or used for storage. Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times article about that potential find: “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found”.
O’Dell used the facts for inspiration, but he changed things for the sake of the story.
For example, Karana probably wasn’t on the island as long as the actual woman was, and Karana was much younger than the woman. This last detail made Karana’s story work for kids. However, according to the Scott O’Dell website, O’Dell didn’t realize his story would appeal to kids until children’s author and friend, Maud Lovelace, admired the manuscript.
And although he fictionalized the story, O’Dell was respectful of both the woman and her culture.
When I read Island of the Blue Dolphin as a kid, I don’t think I focused on the history aspect. In fact, I only found out it was based on an actual person within the past few months. I thought it was a story about a girl who figured out how to use what she had to survive on her own. That seemed to be a theme in many of my favorite childhood books.
Finally, there is very little dialogue in the book, yet it works.
Other than her pets, Karana is alone for much of the book, so there are many pages with no dialogue. Perhaps that was more common in books 50 years ago, but now that would make for a hard-sell. The current trend for novels (and not just kids’ novels) is lots of action and a fast pace. But, Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of action. Karana battles the elements, fights wild dogs, tries to sail in a leaking canoe, hunts a devilfish, and makes a few friends (one human and many non-human). These may not be big-explosion-type actions, but they are actions that have huge stakes for Karana.
O’Dell used the first person point of view, too. So, although Karana may not be talking to others a lot, it feels like she is talking directly to me, the reader.
The next book I read for the challenge will be Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, 2013 winner. Join me, and we’ll talk about it April 29.
Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? What did you learn from it?