Book Reviews: Historical Fiction

Penny from Heaven

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Bibliography:

Holm, Jennifer L. Penny From Heaven. 2006. New York. Random House. ISBN 037583687X

 Plot:

In 1953, 11-year-old Penny Falucci looks forward to her summer.  She loves butter pecan ice cream, swimming, and is a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan.  Penny lives with her WASP mother and maternal grandparents, but splits her time with her late father’s family.  The father’s Italian family has a host of remarkable characters, including a whimsical uncle who lives in his car and likes to wear slippers instead of shoes.  Her mother’s side of the family is a bit on the overly cautious side. Polio outbreaks are common and Penny’s family tries to protect her. “An iron lung can’t be any worse than living like this! I can’t go to the movies! I can’t go in the pool! You won’t let me do anything!” While the families don’t seem to get along, Penny is allowed to hang around with cousin Frankie, her Italian uncle’s kid, getting into mischief, delivering groceries, discussing life, and doing the things best friends do. This story about family dynamics is sprinkled with insight about how life was in post-World War II America for the Italian born and the families who loved them.

Critical Analysis:

Newbery Honor-winning Author Jennifer Holm’s novel, Penny from Heaven, is historically accurate and full of details that guides the adult reader happily down memory lane. Ms. Holm based her story on her Italian grandparents’ lives and interviews with historian Lawrence DiStaci. Sources consulted are listed in the acknowledgements, and in the last pages of her work, Ms. Holm includes a well-done family photo album. Unfortunately, as a novel with an elementary-school-aged target audience, the story misses the mark.  The cover design, featuring Craig Nelson’s 1950’s style painting of Penny and Frankie, seems generic and dated. 

The characters are well developed, and the setting paints a realistic picture of New Jersey life in 1953. Engaging and witty dialogue brings smiles to the reader’s face as she easily relates to the events of daily life. However, the plodding plot would not capture the interest of most young readers. The storyline follows Penny and Frankie around town, sometimes getting into mischief, and sometimes talking about comic books and crime novels. The first person narrative relies solely on context clues to define items that today’s child might not be familiar with. “[Me-me] got it into her head to give me a Toni home perm at the beginning of summer.” Other references to commonplace occurrences such as doing laundry on a wringer washer and listening to the Dodgers on a shortwave radio are key foreshadowing elements to the story, which will be missed if the reader doesn’t understand their importance in every day 1950’s life. Chapters are often disconnected from each other as Penny moves between her two family units. “Freddy, so wrong, what happen to my boy. Those bad men. Non è giusto. Non è giusto.” Even though Penny is not told how her father died, her grandmother’s sadness and the air of mystery surrounding the death of Penny’s father is not developed clearly enough in the novel.

Penny’s self-realization and the way she comes to grip with who she is becoming as a person is perceptive. Another redeeming quality of this novel is that it reveals a well-hidden piece of history regarding the evacuation and limitations placed on Italian Americans during the post-World War II era. in one of the closing chapters Penny’s mother explains, “All of a sudden everyone was suspicious of foreigners…If you were Italian…you couldn’t have radios with a shortwave band, or flashlights, or cameras, or I don’t know what else.” The ardent student of American history will enjoy this peek into 1950s life, but the average elementary-aged child will find this book to be lackluster and difficult to finish.

Reviews:

“Penny, almost 12, is caught between two extremes: her mother’s small, uptight, WASP family, and her dead father’s large, exuberant, Italian one. Summers, she moves freely between them, mediating as best she can between the two. Her best pal is her cousin Frankie, with whom she delivers groceries from her uncle’s store, worships at the shrine of the Brooklyn Dodgers and gets into trouble. No one talks about her father’s absence, and that’s beginning to bother her more and more. And even worse, her mother has begun dating the milkman. Holm has crafted a leisurely, sprawling period piece, set in the 1950s and populated by a large cast of offbeat characters. Penny’s present-tense narration is both earthy and observant, and her commentary on her families’ eccentricities sparkles. Various scrapes and little tragedies lead to a nearly catastrophic encounter with a clothes wringer and finally the truth about her father’s death. It takes so long to get there that the revelation seems rather anticlimactic, but getting to know Penny and her families makes the whole eminently worthwhile.”  Kirkus Book Reviews

Against the backdrop of these contrasting 1950s households, the author of Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia (1999) charts the summer of Penny’s twelfth birthday, marked by hapless episodes as well as serious tensions arising from the estranged families’ refusal to discuss her father’s death. Penny is a low-key character, often taking a backseat role in escapades with high-spirited cousin Frankie. However, Holm impressively wraps pathos with comedy in this coming-of-age story, populated by a cast of vivid characters (a burping, farting grandpa; an eccentric uncle who lives in his car—“not exactly normal for people in New Jersey”). Concluding with a photo-illustrated endnote explaining Holm’s inspirations in family history, this languidly paced novel will appeal most to readers who appreciate gentle, episodic tales with a nostalgic flavor. Hand selling may be necessary to overcome the staid jacket illustration.” Booklist Book Review

Connections:

Read this book aloud to a class of 4th or 5th graders, and then discuss the differences between life then and now. (Wringer washers, radios, and Toni home perms)  Ask what future historians may think of the things we have today that may seem foreign to them. (iPods, smart phones, Xboxes, etc.)

Discuss racial profiling.  Does it really occur today?  How does the treatment of Italian Americans differ with Homeland Security’s treatment of Americans with Mid-Eastern ancestors?

For older students: Talk about the first-person style with which the book was written.  What could the author have done differently to move the story along and increase the intrigue about why the father died?  Is this a story that needs to be told?  Why or why not?




One Crazy Summer

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Bibliography:

Williams-Garcia, Rita. One Crazy Summer. 2010. New York. HarperCollins.
ISBN
9780060760892

Plot:

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern fly all by themselves to Oakland, California from Brooklyn to visit a mother who wants nothing to do with them.  Their Pa thinks they should spend the summer with their mother, Cecile, and so off they go.  1968 is a tumultuous time and the girls are thrown into a strange place where Black Brothers wear berets and sport afros.  All summer the girls have to fend for themselves as their days are spent at a camp run by the Black Panthers.  Political unrest looms while the girls, especially Delphine, learn a lot about themselves, the revolution, and how to stand up for themselves.  This is a poignant telling of the story of turbulent times in America from an eleven-year-old girl’s point of view.  This telling, coupled with a child’s understanding of how and why her mother acts the way she does, is a great family read-together book.

Critical Analysis:

Rita Williams-Garcia is a prolific author for young adults.  Her book, Like Sisters on the Homefront, won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award, and this novel does not disappoint.  History has recorded the events of 1968 from the adult point of view.  “I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change. Yes. There were children.” Williams-Garcia fulfilled her mission in this masterpiece of contrast and insight. 

The story begins with three unaccompanied young girls flying from Brooklyn, New York to Oakland, California with the admonition of their grandmother not to make a “grand Negro spectacle” of themselves ringing in their ears.  The description of a first plane ride is sprinkled with peeks into the girls’ personalities and sets the stage for the dynamics that will play out within the family. As eleven-year-old Delphine strained to look out the window at the Golden Gate Bridge, “Being stuck in the middle seat, I was mad at myself…This was the only way it could be.” Delphine knew her younger sisters would only pick at each other if they sat next to each other for the long ride. 

The sisters’ memories of conversations with Pa and Grandma provide glimpses of life in Brooklyn, while the new places and experiences the girls encounter in Oakland with the Black Panther organization are gems rich with historical detail.  Delphine tells the reader, “My sisters and I became expert colored counters…we also counted the number of words the [black] actors were given to say.” Upon arrival in Oakland, when their absentee mother, Cecile, doesn’t want to acknowledge them, much less care for them, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are required to depend on each other. As the girls spend every day at the Black Panther Summer Camp, they hear plans for the Revolution and stories of Little Bobby, the youngest Black Panther to die for the cause.  Each evening, as they stay out of Cecile’s way, they ruminate about the days events.

As an older sister, Delphine’s motherly instinct enables her to see her siblings growing up before her eyes.  Observing how her seven-year-old sister was dealing with the loss of a favorite doll, Delphine muses, “Not that I wanted Fern to be heartbroken.  I didn’t want her to love someone all her life and then not love or want them at all.  Even if her someone was a doll.” With this statement, the reader understands Delphine’s unspoken fear that when Cecile left the family, her mother forgot all about her and her sisters.  When Cecile finally opens up and tells Delphine about her history, healing is able to begin.  The final airport scene gives the reader hope for even the most dysfunctional family.

The cast of supporting characters are well developed and paint a rich portrait of life in Oakland.  The Asian restaurant owner where the girls buy their nightly take-out dinner, the rude and judgmental playmates at the summer camp, the Japanese boy with the Black father, the White tourists who gawk and try to take pictures of the cute little colored girls instead of the Asians in Chinatown, and the militant Black Panthers being hauled away in cuffs are carefully portrayed with historical accuracy.  This photograph of racial change in America during the 1960’s is taken through the lens of a child’s camera and will help today’s African American child understand what her grandparents’ lives were like.

Awards:

Coretta Scott King Award Winner, 2011; Newbery Honor Book, 2011; Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction, 2011; National Book Award Finalist, 2010

Reviews:

“Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent’s love.”  Gillian Engberg, Booklist Book Review

“A flight from New York to Oakland, Calif., to spend the summer of 1968 with the mother who abandoned Delphine and her two sisters was the easy part. Once there, the negative things their grandmother had said about their mother, Cecile, seem true: She is uninterested in her daughters and secretive about her work and the mysterious men in black berets who visit. The sisters are sent off to a Black Panther day camp, where Delphine finds herself skeptical of the worldview of the militants while making the best of their situation. … The depiction of the time is well done, and while the girls are caught up in the difficulties of adults, their resilience is celebrated and energetically told with writing that snaps off the page.” Kirkus Book Review

Connections:

Have 4th through 7th grade students read this book and then write a compare and contrast essay on racial injustice in the twenty-first century.  Pose questions like, “Why didn’t Delphine want people to take pictures of her sisters?“  Ask, “What did Delphine mean when she said, ‘My heart thumped fast.  It was happening. That bad thing that happened to kids who went on excursions without their mother (p. 162)’” Talk about how things have changed and how they are either better or worse. Would children dare to ride a bus into San Francisco alone in this day and age?

Discuss the racial changes that took place in the 1960s.  Contrast the lives of the girls at home in Brooklyn and in Oakland.  Why were they different?  How were they treated as they drove from New York to Florida?  Discuss the fact that gas stations and hotels didn’t serve everyone, and how it would feel to spend the night in a car—not because you were poor, but because you weren’t white.

Download a copy of the Negro Motorist Green Book and explore how different trip planning would be today if segregation were commonplace.




Willow Run

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Bibliography:

Giff, Patricia Reilly. Willow Run. 2005. New York. Wendy Lamb.
ISBN
9780385730679.

Plot:

It’s 1944, and young Margaret ‘Meggie’ Dillon’s life in Rockaway, New York will never be the same.  Her brother is serving in the military and fighting in Europe.  Her German grandfather’s house is targeted by hoodlums armed with red paint, and her father is out of work.  When the father finds work in a factory building B-24 bombers, the family is uprooted from New York to a Michigan factory town named Willow Run.  “A kindergarten kid could have drawn it: a long low box that stretched from one end of the paper to the other, no paint, no color. And if you divided the box into tiny sections, each family would have one to live in.” Life in Willow Run’s mass produced, rabbit hutch-like apartments leaves nothing to the imagination as the paper thin walls enable Meggie to hear everything that goes on in the homes around her. Missing her brother and Grandfather more than words can express, Meggie tries to be tough and realize that this is “just for the duration.” She continues to be an avid letter writer and keeps up with her hobby of entering essay contests. Friendships form, lessons are learned, uncertainty looms, and as the time passes, the reader is able to get a glimpse into what living in a factory town was like in World War II.

Critical Analysis:

Patricia Reilly Giff writes this as a companion novel to her Newbery Honor book, Lily’s Crossing.  This time she takes a look at an American family with German roots during World War II.  Chapter one clearly sets the stage as Meggie drags a rusty wagon containing an iron clock statue to town. “Big Bertha was going to war. Mr. North at the junkyard would give me a quarter and Bertha would be melted down into bullets. Poor Bertha.” The next scene depicts Meggie defending her grandfather’s windows from bullies who are painting a red swastika on them. “Grandpa who had cried when he…talked about the terrible things that were happening in Germany. What would he say if he saw that swastika?” After running the older boys off, Meggie finds some turpentine and tearfully cleans up the mess before going home, late for an important family dinner.

This novel recounts the way World War II affected main stream Americans.  Artistically throwing families from different socioeconomic lifestyles together in a small apartment building in Willow Run, the author weaves a story of everyday life in 1944. For example, whispering “I never had a pair of shoes before,” Patches was exposing Meggie to a reality that she never had considered. “We never had the money until now.  Most of the kids I knew [back home] didn’t have shoes, either.” Other characters such as Ronelle, a young wife and mother who works in the factory because her husband only has six missions to go; Harlan, the kid who carries a folded up dollar bill in his pocket that his late uncle gave him before going off to war; and the ice cream vendor who the kids call “Arnold the Spy” are portraits of unique ways of life.

Although she doesn’t include an acknowledgement page, the story has an air of authenticity and the book’s events can be verified through outside sources.  Details such as the color of the star hanging in each window of a serviceman’s home and references to rationing provide launching points for further study. Meggie’s private thoughts are revealed through the letters that she writes and the notes that she makes for the essay contests entries. Interactions between the children and Meggie’s interpretation of events move the storyline along. The cover art brings to mind covers of similar books such as The Diary of a Young Girl and Number the Stars and will appeal to girls who enjoy reading about this period of history.

Reviews:

“This is a rare, vivid glimpse of the wartime sacrifices of American families who stayed behind during WWII. Eleven-year-old Meggie Dillon’s story begins in 1944 in Rockaway, N.Y., just as her family’s moving to Michigan’s Willow Run so her father can work in a B-24 bomber factory. Meggie imagines a great adventure, but without the accompanying trauma. For one thing, the family leaves her often-embarrassing German-born grandfather behind, and she feels guilty for being secretly glad. She misses her best friend Lily Mollahan of Lily’s Crossing (1997), her new home is as ugly as a rabbit hutch and worst of all, she worries about her brother Eddie, off fighting in Europe. Giff expertly captures Meggie’s genuinely childlike free associations, her dry sense of humor and her moral development, as Grandpa’s words sink in: “You have to dig deep before you judge a person.” Spam and spies, 1940s songs and Victrolas and a lively cast of characters make wartime America pop to life in this finely wrought story of cowardice, courage and digging deep.” Kirkus Book Review

Connections:

Read some of Meggie’s letters aloud and have the students respond. Ask questions about the reason the author included the letters. Pass out stationery and have them write a letter to someone they care about.

Talk about how it feels to have a brother, aunt, or parent fighting in a war. What symbols are used today to let the neighbors know about those serving, and what does society currently do to support our servicemen?

Compare and contrast belt-tightening measures taken by American war-time families then and now.