Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the Nutcracker MenReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 640
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.

The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.

The cover of Lord of the Nutcracker Men gives you a pretty good idea about what the story will be about: a little boy, death, nutcracker men, war, Britain, and letters. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s one of those that I’ve come to appreciate after I’ve finished it, even though it wasn’t entirely gripping as I was actually reading it. So yes, I was pretty bored sometimes, but that’s partially me not liking war stories.

Lawrence does an excellent job of communicating the horrors of war, specifically WWI. Through Johnny’s dad’s letters, we watch the dad transformation as he fights in the trenches. We also see Johnny growing up. When he first read about the horrors of war in his dad’s letters, he’d be excited and go play “war” with his wooden soldiers. As time passed, he began to understand that real people were suffering and dying. He also grew up as he took his education to heart and began to hate his aunt less and less.

The element of mystery is what kept me going: was Murdoch a ghost or not? Were the games Johnny played impacting of the actual war? There was just enough magical realism for both of these scenarios to be true.

The reading level is low, but there is a lot of sophisticated and out-dated vocabulary, making it not best suited for ELLs. I would recommend the book to kiddos who enjoy war books and/or historical fiction. It really is a powerful book, but it takes some perseverance because it’s not jam-packed with action. It’s more suited to middle schoolers because the main character is pretty young and the reading level is low, but it could easily be enjoyed by high schoolers, too.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men is my tenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

The slave dancerReading level: 6.4
Lexile: 970
Genre: Historical fiction,
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Jessie Bollier often played his fife to earn a few pennies down by the New Orleans docks. One afternoon a sailor asked him to pipe a tune, and that evening Jessie was kidnapped and dumped aboard “The Moonlight,” a slave ship, where a hateful duty awaited him. He was to play music so the slaves could “dance” to keep their muscles strong, their bodies profitable. Jessie was sickened by the thought of taking part in the business of trading rum and tobacco for blacks and then selling the ones who survived the frightful sea voyage from Africa. But to the men of the ship a “slave dancer” was necessary to ensure their share of the profit. They did not heed the horrors that every day grew more vivid, more inescapable to Jessie. Yet, even after four months of fear, calculated torture, and hazardous sailing with a degraded crew, Jessie was to face a final horror that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Ug, not a good time. I found The Slave Dancer to be quite boring. I stuck it out ’til the end in hopes that I would get into it, but that never happened. 90% of the setting is on the ship where very little happens that I cared about. I just couldn’t get into Jesse’s character or the other men on the ship.

Since I thought it was dull, students may think the same. I would recommend the book to students who like pirates and historical fiction. The book got generally good reviews, though, so maybe there’s something to this book that I missed.

The lexile is fairly high, and the vocabulary is pretty sophisticated, so it’s not particularly ELL-friendly. It’s better suited to middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers being appropriately challenged with it, too.

The n-word is used a few times, but it’s not excessive. While it’s unpleasant to hear or read that word, the men who use it are juxtaposed by Jesse who knows that slavery is horrible and morally wrong. There are some instances of the sailors drinking alcohol, but those are the only two parts that might be inappropriate.

The Slave Dancer is my eighth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

the apothecaryReading level: 5 (??)
Lexile: 740
Series: The Apothecary book 1
Genre: historical fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster.

This book was recommended to me by my fabulous cooperating teacher, and I loved it. Five minutes have passed since I finished it, and I’ve already begun the sequel.

Being a history lover, I was naturally intrigued by the setting, both the location (London, at least for a while) and the time period (1955). The Apothecary is a perfect blend of believable historical fiction with some magic thrown in there. I was completely drawn into the world Meloy had created, not to mention the lovely characters. Janie and Benjamin (and their parents) were a breath of fresh air after the maddening characters in the Divergent series that I just finished. Janie is intelligent, careful, bold, brave, and shy all at once while Benjamin is much the same with some rebellious qualities. Oh, and Pip. I wasn’t sure about him at first, but he’s sure adorable, if not a stereotypical Dickens-esque pickpocket. I’m curious to see what role he will have, if any, in The Apprentices (the sequel).

The romance is adorable and beautifully done. It isn’t soppy or inappropriate, and you can’t help but root for them. The real test of Benjamen’s love is when he has to say goodbye. Oh man, that ending…

It could find a place in both an English or social studies classroom, and it would be an excellent companion while studying WWII or the Red Scare. It’s got too much mysticism to be read as a class text for the purpose of studying history, but it would be an excellent way to get kids interested in history by doing a booktalk or using it in a book club. Something to point out, though, is that Germans, Russians, Japanese are cast in a negative light by the Americans and English, as they were at this time period. To students, I might explain why there was such negative sentiment towards these groups of people but that it’s never good to generalize or stereotype. In fact, the Russian spy and his son were an example of people trying to do “good” while so many people assumed they were evil simply because of their heritage.

Some of the beauty of this book comes from the message of peace in a time when humans have created weapons to destroy each other, Mutually Assured Destruction. The characters believe so strongly that the world can be saved from such weapons that they risk their lives so that everyone else may live. It’s an interesting look back at history and the Cold War as well as the issues we continue to face as countries around the world hold (or are suspected to hold) nuclear weapons.

The Apothecary isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because there are names in different languages as well as a pretty fantastic vocabulary, which helps add to the book’s magic. I think it would be an acceptable challenge to advanced or transitional ELLs as well as native English speakers. I disagree with the reading level being 5th grade because the vocabulary is rather complex throughout. I’d estimate it being at a 7th or 8th grade level, if not 9th.

I read somewhere that the book is written for middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers getting into it too. It wasn’t childish or too complex for younger readers to understand.

The book can certainly stand alone, but there are so many questions left unanswered, and I desperately want to see Janie and Benjamen be reunited, although it’s implied at the end of the book that they will see each other again, although we’re unsure of the circumstances under which they will meet.

Oh, and the illustrations are beautiful.

Fever 1793 – Laurie Halse Anderson

FeverReading level: 7.6
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

I have fond memories of reading Fever 1793 as a middle schooler, thinking I was so smart and sophisticated reading something historical, especially since my grandfather was a doctor. While I didn’t get the same thrill reading the book as a 20-something-year-old, I was able to appreciate it all the same.

I loved the historical aspects. There is a great deal of fact from the characters to the actual epidemic. Further facts are explained in the back of the book, at least in my old copy.

The character of Mattie Cook is pretty impressive. She fights Yellow Fever and wins, cares for her grandfather and an orphaned girl, fights off robbers, helps run a coffee shop, and doesn’t lose her cool while her world is falling apart. In my eyes, she’s right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, two of my favorite heroines.

I took particular interest in the Free African Society and the character of Eliza, a free African American woman. I wasn’t sure until half way through the book if Eliza was African American or a white indentured servant because the dialogue didn’t reveal a different dialect as it usually does. Near the end, one African American man mentions that people don’t look very kindly on African people. The notes in the back of the book even explain that despite all the charity the Free African Society did for fever victims, people still spread slander against their work. That was the only hint of racism I saw, even though I’m sure it was a big part of life back then. I did, however, appreciate the love between Eliza and Mattie. I wonder if this would have been an exceptional relationship back in 1793.

There are a handful of words used throughout the book that are pretty specific to that time period, especially in relation to clothing, which may be confusing for students, especially ELLs. The context clues make it clear enough, though. All in all, it’s a good book for ELLs if they can get past a small bit of strange vocabulary. It’s definitely a middle school book and probably just fine for grades below 7th grade, despite the reading level being 7.6.

Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman

Catherine_Called_Birdy_coverReading level: 7.5
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

This book has the makings of something pretty spectacular: it’s a Newbery Honor Book, has rave reviews, is set in 13th century England, has an unconventional and intelligent heroine…

But I didn’t finish it. And I make a point to finish all books that I start, but I was so dreadfully bored. I felt like I was wasting my time, so I quit.

Since I own the book, I’ll put it in my classroom. Students may really love it. It’s written in diary-style and is kind of funny (sometimes – a little). The premise of Catherine falling out with her friend Aelis, not getting along with her dad and brothers, and generally rebelling (she’s 14 years old) is something many middle schoolers may enjoy.

Parents might object to the prevalence of the almost permanent state of male drunkenness. But even Catherine is continually annoyed with it, and drunkenness isn’t glorified or anything. I came across 1 curse word and about 5 fart jokes in the 82 pages I read. I don’t think we’re in danger of enraging any parents, here.

The beginning of the book sees Catherine being scared of the Jews. Then she meets them and finds they are kind and like all other people. She laments that they are being expelled from England. That was the only remotely interesting or meaningful part, although I did only get to page 82.

I was kind of weirded about by Catherine’s apparent crush on her much older uncle. I know it was normal for women to marry much older or younger men (apparently Aelis marries a baby?) at this time, but she really seems to have a thing for him. There’s a difference between being forced to marry an older man because your dad says so and having a crush on your uncle.

The author’s note at the end was both helpful and interesting. It should have been placed at the beginning, I believe, to set the stage.

The language is…medieval…as it should be, but that means it’s just not good for ELLs. I could even see strong middle school readers becoming frustrated because the words are so different from what we’re used to. And it is a middle school book, I think. The interest level according to Scholastic is 6th grade.

Lastly, I fully acknowledge that many people adore Catherine, Called Birdy. And good for those people. Hopefully my students have more luck with this book than me.

Double Eagle – Sneed B. Collard III

imagesReading level: 8.5

Genre: Mystery, historical fiction

ELL-Friendly: No

Library recommendation: Middle school or early high school

Let’s just take a moment and chuckle at the author’s name.

I randomly bought this book for $0.25  on a whim, and to my surprise it was a pretty awesome work of historical fiction. Score!

I learned a lot through Double Eagle:

  • coin-collecting terms and other awesomeness
  • perspectives of southerners about the Civil War War Between the States
  • other cool facts about the Civil War regarding forts and minting

The book begins with Mike, 14 years old, drooling over a pretty college girl. I was afraid that it would soon turn into something inappropriate, but it really didn’t. The two “inappropriate” parts were Mike’s friend Kyle saying “he-ell” frequently as well as Kyle’s cigarette habit. Smoking and swearing weren’t glorified, so I’m not too worried.  Also, two characters have an affair but the “worst” of it is just them kissing.

The reading level is pretty high due to academic words for coins, place names, and other jargon related to sailing, minting, fishing, and the like. Amazon.com says the book is good for readers ages 10 and up, but I could see youngsters getting lost in some of the language. I think that the content is great for middle to lower high school, but it’s a bit juvenile for older readers. I could see Civil War junkies (and/or coin collectors) being quite interested. I also wonder if my Civil War interest made me breeze through this book, which wasn’t that eventful until the end with the hurricane. It might be pretty boring for some students.

The book might appeal, at least in a small way, to students whose parents are divorced and who are shuttled around from parent to parent.

The book isn’t for ELLs for reasons listed above. Also, Kyle and other characters speak with a southern accent, which would make the dialogue difficult to comprehend.

Lemme just say that I love old Mr. Dubois. He’s a minor character, but I fell in love with him, his secrets, knowledge, and willingness to help out two teenage treasure hunters.

The War Within: A Novel of the Civil War – Carol Matas

the war withinReading level: 6.1

Genre: Historical fiction

ELL-Friendly: No

Library recommendation: Middle school

The War Within chronicles General [Ulysses S.] Grant’s General Order #11 that forced Jews in Mississippi out of their homes, which actually happened. Far from being a reflection on the situation of Jews at the time, the book also reflects on the morality of North vs South and slavery.

I found the narrator, Hannah, hard to like because of her ignorance throughout most of the book, but that was the point. It’s all about her changing her life views, albeit slowly although realistically. What I really didn’t like was the submissiveness of the women who kept saying that they needed men, they would only listen to men, etc. However, the females in this story, including Hannah, her mom and sister, and their slave Jule, were pretty strong female characters and could (and did) hold their own, despite stating their submissiveness at times. To be fair, I suppose that was how society functioned in the 1860s.

There should be no problem putting this on middle school shelves, but it might prove difficult for ELLs due to the Civil War era writing and dialogue – very prim and proper. High school students may also like it too, but the book is definitely written for ages 10-14.

God is mentioned frequently in this book as it relates to the Old T estimate/Bible because the narrator and her family are Jewish. It’s not preachy, though, and I don’t think parents would have an issue with it. As a non-religious person myself, I found the God references important because Hannah struggled to see how God would create all people equally or not, and how God would want humans to treat one another.

My hope is that those who read this book may think about their attitudes towards those who are different from them, be it gays and lesbians, the homeless, or people of a different ethnicity. The War Within doesn’t state the “correct” way to think or act but points out that we must keep an open mind and to remember that we are all equal.

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