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.
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.
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:
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?
Last month, I attended one of the Pipestone Civil War Days in nearby Pipestone, Minnesota. Highlights of this annual event include the re-enactors who dress in period-type clothing, demonstrate various 19th Century skills, and stage a mock battle.
This was only my second Civil War re-enactment I’ve been able to attend. But, I’ve learned something each time.
At my first one, years ago in Centerville, Iowa, my family played cricket. The sport was popular among Civil War-era soldiers. Modern Americans have the misconception that it’s a boring sport, but we found it fun to play!
At the Pipestone re-enactment, I realized how loud and smoky the cannons were. Even with wearing earplugs while a few cannons were fired, I could imagine what it must have been like during a real battle. The heat, smoke, noise, stench, would have been magnified. And the horrors of the wounded and killed soldiers and horses are almost beyond imagination.
Being able to experience some of those detail–in even a small way–helps me understand and appreciate what others’ lives were really like.
I also took home my own little (reproduction) piece of the 19th Century. I learned the shade felt wonderful, but the closed back of my straw bonnet trapped the heat. But the women wearing the straw hats (that sit on top of the head) with the wide brims benefited from both the shade and the breeze.
There are re-eactments of many different time periods and cultures (i.e. Roman-era, U.S. Colonial-era, etc.). Have you ever been to one? Have you participated as a re-enactor? What did you learn?
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.
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.
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:
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?
Charley Skedaddle, by Patricia Beatty, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 1988, and is my challenge book for this month.
Published in 1987, Charley Skedaddle is set during 1864-65. It opens with New Yorker Charley Quinn, a 12-year-old who is proud to be a member of the Bowery Boys Gang just like his older brother Johnny, who died at Gettysburg. Trying to honor his brother, Charley fights boys from the rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, and he likes it. But when Charley learns his soon-to-be brother-in-law plans to send him to boarding school, Charley runs off with the 140th New York Volunteers to fight the Confederates. Charley’s first battle isn’t what he expected and he runs–skedaddles–away.
I’ve read Civil War stories since I was very young, but there always seems to be something new to learn. In this book, Beatty introduced me to The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Virginia. I had heard the name, but knew little about it. The Wilderness was an area where the trees and undergrowth grew so closely together that it was easy for soldiers to get separated and lost–and hide. Beatty also described a touching scene where General Robert E. Lee tried to lead an infantry charge, but the soldiers were so concerned about his safety they refused to continue unless he remained away from the worst action.
Because Charley was so young, and musical, he became a drummer boy. The fact of drummer boys is not new to me, but Charley is about the same age as one of my sons, so the thought of a 12-year-old in battle hit home for me. Also, even though he was a frightened boy who ran from a horrible situation, he was still considered a deserter and could have been shot. In fact, Beatty mentioned in her author’s note that both the Union and Confederate boys Charley’s age were shot as deserters.
I noticed Beatty only let readers see through Charley’s eyes and experience, his point of view. For example, in the beginning, Charley was upset because his sister was marrying someone who he detested and who was planning to ship him off. His sister might’ve had a good reason for this, but we don’t learn what it is. We just see Charley’s bewilderment and resentment. Later in the book, an old mountain woman insulted him and locked him up. Again we see Charley’s resentment. Readers might suspect the woman had a good reason for doing so, but we don’t find out for sure until later.
In my own writing for kids, I’m aware that I shouldn’t be too kind to my adult characters. I need to focus on my protagonists’ incomplete knowledge and his or her reactions to the adults so the readers identify with the protagonist instead of the adults.
For more information:
My post introducing my three-year Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.
The Civil War Trust’s Website about The Battle of the Wilderness.
A Children’s Literature Network bio about Patricia Beatty.
Join me at the end of October to talk about the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award book, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages.
What is your favorite novel set during the Civil War? What Civil War battlefields have you seen?