The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

Swedish traveler Frederika Bremer, young slave Cecilia, and daughter of the Cuban gentry Elena, are three young women who have had their lives very specifically laid out in front of them by society’s expectations.  Frederika and Elena, as girls brought up in wealthy families in the 1850s, have enjoyed the many privileges that their class offers, but have been constrained by the many restrictions and few opportunities available to women at the time.  Frederika reacts to these restrictions by leaving her family and blazing her own path as a feminist and traveler, while Elena accepts her position without complaint or question.  Cecilia, who was sold into slavery by her father as a child, has not accepted her circumstances, but has never had an opportunity to channel her anger and homesickness.  They are brought together when Frederika leaves her home country of Sweden, traveling without a chaperone, to explore the Cuban countryside and tell the stories of the women and slaves in Cuba, in the hopes that “stories can lead to a change in laws” (pg. 27.  Quoted from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Frederika and Cecilia are based on real people, and Engle has clearly used their real-life situations, feelings and conversations, as recorded in Frederika’s published diary, to inform and flesh out these characters.  Frederika Bremer was a feminist and a traveler, and she spent three months exploring Cuba along with her real-life translator Cecilia.  They are compelling women, and Engle’s spare free verse poetry mixes their current circumstances and memories from childhood in ways that illuminate both.  Elena is the only major character who is not based on an actual person, and you can feel it.  Her story, of an aristocratic young woman who at first fears and distrusts the strange feminist who comes to her house, but gradually comes to agree with her, is neither original nor especially well told.  Elena eventually makes a choice that is lovely, but does not ring true – I did not feel that I had seen her character go through the growth that would be necessary to make that choice.

The short chapters alternate between the viewpoints of these three women, with a few brief interjections from Cecilia’s husband that did show another side of life in Cuba, but did not especially add to the story of Bremer’s visit.  Engle is at her best when she stays close to the story of Frederika and Cecilia.  It is the moments where these two women discover each others’ history that are most illuminating.  Despite their wildly different circumstances, they forge a connection based not on similar life experiences, but on the similar feelings of loneliness and constraint that their experiences have engendered.  Cecilia’s chapters, which are very straight-forward in their telling of her unimaginable life, are the most moving.  The spare form, which did not allow Engle to fully show Elena’s transformation, is much more effective in telling Cecilia’s story, where the reader benefits from having time and space to consider Cecilia’s stories and make connections between them.  When Cecilia’s chapter on her forced marriage and pregnancy is ended with a few short lines imagining that she is free of all her attachments, the simplicity of the poetry allows her thoughts to shine through and lets the reader to feel their resonance.

This short novel in verse is a very quick read and would make a great choice for reluctant readers doing historical fiction projects.  But it’s a carefully constructed story that will also appeal to curious readers who will want to follow this story’s characters and themes further – it has certainly inspired me to learn more about the life of Frederika Bremer.  Several books about Frederika’s life and Cuba in the 1800s are listed in a welcome reference section, although it would have been nice to include some materials in this list that are more accessible to middle grade readers.

Margarita Engle on the web

Reviewed from advanced copy received from publisher at ALA Midwinter.


One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine is old for an eleven-year-old.  You’ve met these kids before – serious girls who seem to take the weight of the world onto their small shoulders.  When her mother was still around, she taught Delphine to be unselfish, silent, and self-sufficient – not the most childlike qualities.  And ever since her mother took off and left Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern alone with their father, Delphine has taken on a lot of responsibility for her younger sisters.

And now, in the summer of 1968, the three girls are on their way across the country to Oakland to spend a summer with their absentee mother.  The younger girls arrive with dreams of hugs and kisses from mom, sunny days on the beach, and trips to Disneyland.  Those hopes are dashed pretty quickly – instead it’s going to be greasy take-out food, a mother who resents their presence in her house, and days spent at the free summer program led by the local Black Panthers.

As a historical novel, one of the strengths of this story is that it makes the political into the personal.  Instead of dropping these three girls into a major historical moment from the history of the Black Panthers, as is the temptation in historical fiction, Garcia-Williams instead gives us a family story that takes place within the context of day-to-day life among the people who made up the movement.  The story shows a side of the Black Panthers that doesn’t get a lot of attention now, and as Delphine points out didn’t get noticed even at the time – the free community breakfasts and peaceful rallies instead of the confrontational tactics that are usually remembered.  Their sudden relationship with the Black Panthers does change the girls significantly, making them take a closer look at their own identity as well as the social change that is happening around them, but never in a way that is didactic.  It just grows out of the story. 

Williams-Garcia also manages to make the late-sixties setting always present, slipping in details about television shows or clothes, without making it feel too distant.  The details she chooses are evocative enough to give a sense of time, but relatable enough that kids won’t feel alienated in that capital-H Historical Fiction kind of way.   As with any great historical fiction, the center of the novel is not the history, but instead a universal story, in this case a family story about both the struggle for the love of a parent and the search for a personal identity.

Cecile is not like any mother that these girls have ever seen – her kitchen is used for writing and printing poems, not for laundry and making dinner.  In a children’s story where three little girls are sent to stay with their distant, uncaring mother, it is easy to expect the kind of trite sea-change that would lead to Cecile suddenly turning into a maternal figure.  Instead, she seems to develop a grudging respect for the three girls – a growth arc that is both more interesting and more true to the character than what could have been a stock character reversal. 

The family dynamic between the three sisters is a treat to read.  These are three very different girls – responsible almost-grown-up Delphine, dramatic and needy Vonetta, and set-in-her-ways Fern who notices things around her.  While they bicker and argue between themselves, as siblings do, they are also fiercely loyal to each other, especially any time that they step outside of the primarily-black community where they live.  When they go on the offensive they present a hysterical united front to the world – these girls will batter down any takers with a wall of little-girl patter coming from three sides.  Their relationship is a big part of what makes this book such a delight.

Rita Williams-Garcia on the web.

Seattle Blues by Michael Wenberg

seattle-bluesSeattle Blues

It is the summer of 1970, and thirteen-year-old Maya is being forced onto a Greyhound bus by her mother.  The destination of the bus is Seattle, and the grandmother she has never known.  Maya is being sent away for the whole summer, and on the ride up the coast she’s already plotting ways to escape – it’s really only a question of whether she will run away or just annoy her grandmother until she is sent home.  At first, Seattle and grandma live up to every one of her dim expectations.  It’s always rainy and she has to go to church on Sundays.  But every once in a while Maya’s grandmother does something completely unexpected, and there are some mysteries about the older woman – why doesn’t she speak to her only daughter, and what happened in 1938?

There is a lot inside this fairly short volume, and it jumps from anti-Vietnam protests to family drama to learning about autism to civil rights history.  And sometimes it does feel like a lot has been shoved in – some of these topics should either have been explored in greater depth or cut from the book, instead of having them brought up in passing.  A few of the books’ plot points shine through the mess of issues – the importance of family and family history, and a deep love of music.  It is not a surprise to learn that the author is the CEO of the Walla Walla Symphony.  He is clearly as passionate about music as Maya becomes.

Maya and her grandmother are well-drawn, engaging characters.  Maya swings realistically from tetchy teen to sweet, curious kid as she opens up to her Grandmother.  And Grandma Ruby shines especially bright, particularly when pieces of her past surface.  She is very capable of surprising both her recalcitrant granddaughter and the reader.  However, the book’s secondary characters are not particularly fleshed out.  Tommy, Maya’s autistic neighbor, is around just long enough to find Maya’s grandfather’s trombone and convince her to play – after he has served his purpose he all but disappears from the narrative.

This novel could be a good match for tweens looking for more recent historical fiction, especially readers who don’t mind a “quiet” book.  The author’s note, which guides readers to further information on several of the book’s major themes, will be especially useful for kids who choose this book for historical fiction projects.  The story also involves Maya coming to terms with her father being Missing in Action and assumed dead during the Vietnam War, a subject that is topical for many children from armed forces families.

As a side note for those like me who enjoy a great library description, I’ll end with one of my favorite passages from the novel.  Maya and her grandmother spend a few mornings a week at the Seattle Public Library, which Maya describes like so:

“Whatever the reason, the smell of well-aged books, combined with the faint, almost imperceptible hum that I had decided long ago must come from all those eyeballs flitting back and forth across all those pages, had come to remind me of a friendly beehive.” (page 114)

Seattle Blues on the web.

Michael Wenberg on the web.

Review copy provided by the author.

A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A Curse Dark As GoldThis is not a simple re-telling.  Rumplestiltskin serves as the barest bones for the tale Elizabeth C. Bunce builds in A Curse Dark As Gold.  She picks at the nagging questions and inconsistencies that are at the heart of the disturbing fairytale – what could possess any person to give up their own child?  why does Rumplestiltskin want the baby?  what is so important about a name? – and finds answers.  She fills in the gaps, and with what she finds in between those gaps she crafts a fully realized story.

On the death of Charlotte Miller’s father, she suddenly becomes responsible for the Stirwaters Mill.  And since the Mill is the livelihood of almost every person who lives in the town of Stirwaters, being responsible for the Mill means being responsible for a lot of people.  Charlotte is a very young woman, but she is resourceful, persistent, and above all, stubborn.  When her sister asks whether the Mill will be closed, Charlotte’s reply is only “‘Is it Sunday?’  I asked, and when she shook her head, I gave my answer: ‘Then we do not close'” (page 6).  She is single-mindedly determined to save the Mill, and the town.  Charlotte is also decidedly lacking in superstition, unlike most of the townspeople in Stirwaters, who whisper about a curse on the Mill.  No male heir has ever lived to inherit Stirwaters, and the Mill seems to have its own mood and desires.  Charlotte’s resistance to acknowledging the Miller curse slowly crumbles in the face of insurmountable evidence as she realizes that she must confront the curse before it destroys her family and her home.

The magic in this story creeps in gradually.  It is tied closely to local tradition and superstition – the corn dollies that are found in every house, the herb bundles delivered by the midwife – but the curse itself is built on the tragic history of the Mill.  I wish I could talk about the curse’s history without giving away the story, but suffice to say that this is a world where actions have true consequences, both in everyday life and in the story’s magic.  Bunce tells the story behind even the most reprehensible characters and their actions.

I did have one major complaint about the book: if the most unbelievable thing in a fantasy novel is the love interest, you may have a problem.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved Randall. He’s sweet!  He’s rich!  He’s supportive of nontraditional gender roles (you know – for the 1700s)!  He wanders into Charlotte’s life at the perfect time!  He’s completely incapable of doing anything wrong!  Yup – didn’t believe him for a second.  I did, however, appreciate that their marriage is far from perfect as it strains under the weight of the many secrets Charlotte keeps from Randall.  It is shown as something you have to work at – even when married to someone as ridiculously accommodating as Randall.

The book’s greatest strength is its setting.  Bunce has clearly done her homework – the details of life and work at the mill are precise, and they provide a wonderful sense of time and place.  I came away from the story with a more clear picture of Stirwaters than of most of the characters.  And that is fitting – the Mill is as important as any character in the book, and it has its own personality and presence.  Sometimes that presence is protecting, and sometimes it is malignant, but it always hangs heavily over Charlotte and her actions.  Even after finishing the book, it is difficult not to feel concern for Stirwaters and its residents.  Early on, Bunce gives a glimpse of the developing industrial revolution when Charlotte visits a steam-powered mill, and it is grim.  This is what lingers over the people of Stirwaters, curse or no curse.  It is a tribute to Bunce’s storytelling that I genuinely care whether the town can survive and thrive in the new world that is being created.

Elizabeth C. Bunce on the web. (Check out her excellent booklists!)

A Curse Dark As Gold on the web.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R.L. LaFevers

theodosia-and-the-staff-of-osirisTheodosia Throckmorton is in even more trouble than usual.  And as readers of her first adventure, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, know, trouble is one of the many things that find Theodosia on a regular basis.  Among the other things that seem to find their way to Theo: ancient Egyptian curses, power-hungry madmen seeking to control the world, mummies that walk the Earth, and the most terrifying thing of all: Theodosia’s Grandmother.

During her previous adventures, Theodosia was introduced to the nefarious Serpents of Chaos, an organization that seeks to engulf the world in chaos and violence.  And when Theodosia accidentally reactivates the Staff of Osiris, an ancient Egyptian object with mysterious power over the dead, the Serpents of Chaos want in on the action.  It will take all of Theo’s considerable ingenuity and spunk to stop their evil plan – but first she’ll have to get away from the many governesses hired by her grandmother.

The second book in the Theodosia Throckmorton series delivers with nonstop action, good history, sly humor, and a delightfully precocious protaganist.  A few characters from the first book are not who they seem – and is Theodosia’s grandmother actually showing signs of – gasp – humanity?

These books aren’t just a load of fun – they’re also beautifully made with great attention to detail.  The cover art is striking, and the spine is designed to look like an old leatherbound book.  The old-book look is continued with the thick stock of the paper, slightly old-fashioned typeface, and an uneven deckle edge.  Finally, if you peek underneath the jacket you’ll find an old map of London where a curious reader can follow Theodosia’s adventures.

This is a great choice for Percy Jackson readers who are chomping at the bit waiting for the final book, or for anyone who likes their heroes smart and sassy.  I’ll be looking forward to more from Theodosia.

R.L. LaFevers on the web

R.L. LaFevers’ blog

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris on the web

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy

When Bud is sent from the orphanage into yet another abusive host family, he has finally had enough. He runs away with only the clothes on his back and his battered suitcase, using a few small clues to search for the father he has never known. Bud hikes and hitches his way from Flint to Grand Rapids, meeting colorful characters and having a few adventures along the way. Bud eventually finds the man he believes to be his father, band-leader Curtis E. Calloway, who is cranky and distrustful of Bud. While Calloway does not turn out to be Bud’s real father, he finds a home with Calloway and his traveling band, and learns about his real family in the process.

Curtis’ evocation of African-American lives in Depression-era Michigan is masterful, and Bud’s narration is funny and frank. This is definitely a middle grade novel, with a ten year old main character. However, Bud’s wise-beyond-his-years narrative voice may win over some older readers, especially readers who are interested in this period of history or who enjoy historical fiction. Bud’s story and his voice are both affecting, as demonstrated by the book’s status as both a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King Award winner.

Before We Were Free, by Isabel Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Anita de la Torre is just trying to navigate the confusing world of school and first crushes. But life is more complicated than that, because Anita lives in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s under the dictator Trujillo. People are disappearing, the Secret Police are everywhere, and many of Anita’s friends and family have already evacuated to the United States. But Anita and her family stay behind, and Anita eventually learns that her father, her uncle, and their friends are plotting a revolution. Day to day life is tense, and everything in Anita’s life changes suddenly and drastically on the day that Trujillo’s body is discovered by the secret police in the trunk of her father’s car. But the intended revolution is unsuccessful, and when her dad and her uncle are taken away by the Secret Police, Anita and her mother must go into hiding and eventually escape to the US.

Anita’s story is moving, and would make a good introduction to the terrors of this and other South American dictatorships from the recent past. And in fact, the story barely feels like it is set in the past – aside from a few references to poodle skirts the novel feels modern, which will make it accessible to more teens. Anita’s story is not only about politics and revolution, but is also a very tender coming-of-age story. Alvarez deals with all of these issues with a light touch, filtering the horror of the dictatorship through Anita’s young eyes. Anita is only twelve years old, but this book has definitely been marketed to a YA audience, from the beautiful teenage girl on the cover to the awards for YA literature. Readers will see Anita mature as she begins to understand the true nature of life in her country.

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly


Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.

Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.

The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.