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.

Starfish – James Crowley


Reading level: 6.9

Genre: Historical fiction

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: Middle school, although I’m keeping it off my shelves (see below)

I read this book about a year ago, and I don’t remember much except for being bored. Upon reading other reviews, I found that other people found it quite dull while others loved it. What concerns me isn’t whether the book is exciting (students can always stop reading and find another book) but the historical inaccuracies that it apparently has. Not many reviewers commented on the book being factually inaccurate, but some people did, and that’s enough to get my attention. I mean, the book is published by Disney (which publishes books, now?), and we all know how well Disney does with historical facts.

The story follows the adventures (using “adventures” very loosely here) of two Blackfoot Natives (Lionel and Beatrice, brother and sister) as they flee their boarding school/reservation. The story opens with a frozen, drunken Native. While alcoholism among Natives is “epidemic” as Sherman Alexie has said, it is also rather insensitive to open the book with this image. But that’s up for debate.

What I don’t want is Native students reading the book and being upset due to inaccuracies. And I don’t want parents being mad at me, either. What are the lies in this story? I don’t know. I really have no clue, and I doubt many students will know, either. This lady goes into detail in her blog, if you are so inclined.

I think I’ll be donating this book to the library so that it doesn’t find its way into my classroom. It doesn’t sound like this book has the endorsements from any Native community or any Native reader I could find on the Internet. It also has a scene where the young kids get drunk. Again with the “drunken Indian” stereotypes. Okay, that’s enough. Not in my classroom. Lastly, according to my vague memory and several online reviewers, the plot just stops after a while. Not problem = no plot = not interesting.

Here is a link to a list of age-appropriate books about American Natives (I avoid using the word “Indians” unless it is in reference to people from India). Or search the Internet for “American Indians in Children’s Literature.”

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