In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gripping historical fiction for older kids

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oddly enough, the book I'm reading with my book club fits into this conversation, albeit on the older YA end of things. The library has labeled it "YA" on the spine (though they've also labeled it "Assignment," a surefire way to get more kids to pick it up).

The book is Kindred, by Octavia Butler.


It's a time-travel novel: Dana, a contemporary (1976) African-American woman, is transported back in time to the antebellum South in order to save the life of a white boy who turns out to be one of her ancestors. He's accident-prone, and she is called back several times, with some of her visits lasting months, though very little time elapses in her real life. On one trip, her husband (a white man) is pulled back with her, and has to pose as her master for the safety of both of them. It's a gripping read, giving you a real sense of the historical situation of and relationships between slaves and plantation owners. Dana is an articulate and conflicted observer, trying to make sure that her family line will be started, repulsed by the situation she finds herself in, and slowly starting to accept it as normal at the same time.

Earlier this year, I came across another YA series which completely obsessed me: the Sally Lockhart Mysteries, by Philip Pullman. I'd read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) several years ago, and loved them; I think I like Sally Lockhart even better.

The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery

In The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is 16 years old; in the later books (The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, The Tin Princess), she's in her early and then late 20's.

All four books are set in Victorian London, and are beautifully written, nail-biting mysteries packed with historical detail that enriches the plot without getting in its way. You find yourself learning about the opium trade, the plight of European Jewish immigrants, and Victorian property law, among other things. Above all, I adore Pullman's characters, especially his women; Sally is smart and tenacious and feels very real all the way through. I gulped these books down, reading them the way I remember reading as a kid, carrying them from room to room with me and reading in every spare second.

Of course, I found all of these books as an adult, and don't have a good sense of exactly when they'd start to be appropriate for kids: what's your thought on this? And what are some of the great new YA books you've discovered recently?

Love, Annie

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