Cluster Review #3 (Historical Fiction Children’s Books, Multilingual)

Welcome to Cluster Review #3! Here’s why I ended up reading all of these historical fiction children’s books in quick succession: after Spring Break, I was planning on starting a historical fiction unit with my 6th grade Spanish literacy class. However, the week before Spring Break is when the quarantine began. I didn’t know when I’d be back in my classroom, but I figured the least I could do was read as many historical fiction books as possible with my unexpected additional week of Spring Break so that I would feel really prepared when we returned in-person (which, of course, we never did. Oh well…). I was also glad to have the opportunity to read some of these selections in Spanish, since I’m still a slow reader in Spanish (that is something I’d like to get better at). Although I didn’t end up getting to use these with my students, I was still really glad to have read them! I often enjoy reading children’s books as an adult because although they are quick reads and maybe not as impactful as novels written for adults, there are often important themes and really creative uses of language “hidden” in these novels (I say hidden because these are things I likely wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated if I had read them as a kid!). If you are a teacher and/or a parent, I hope these reviews will be especially helpful to you. And if not, I hope it inspires you to give one of them a try if you haven’t read a children’s book in a while! *You also may notice that a couple of numbers are missing from my list. That’s because there were a couple of non-children’s books that I read during this time, but I will be including these in my next cluster review.

Once again, the summaries included in these reviews come straight from the publisher (in this case from the Scholastic website). Also, I tried to include the name of the translator when applicable and possible. However, these books are in my classroom right now (which I don’t have access to), so if I couldn’t find the information online, I couldn’t include it here. I’ll go back and add it in once I have access to the physical copies of these books again!

11. “The Dreamer” by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Dreamer: Ryan, Pam Munoz, Ryan, Pam Muñoz, Sis, Peter ...
  • Year of Publication: 2010
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

“Much to his father’s disappointment, Neftalí is not like other children. Frail and painfully shy, he spends most of his time alone: collecting treasures, reading, writing, and daydreaming — pastimes his authoritarian father thinks are for fools.

Neftalí finds beauty and wonder everywhere: in the oily colors of mud puddles; a lost glove, sailing on the wind; the music of birds and language. The natural world and his native Chile and the painful injustices Neftalí witnesses there move him equally. While his father plans to build him into a robust doctor, Neftalí has other longings. Against all odds, Neftalí prevails against his father’s cruelty and his own crippling shyness to become one of the most widely read poets in the world, Pablo Neruda. How Neftalí reconciles his own dreams with his father’s is at the heart of this inspiring, radiant, and profoundly moving story of self-discovery.”

  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Individuality. Self expression. Stay true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Stand up for what you believe in. Discrimination. Government/politics.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Chilean landscape, culture, and history. Authoritarian father. Step mother. Active imagination. Bullying. Chronic illness.
  • Overall Thoughts: I really wanted to like this one, but, to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. I thought it was so cool to find a children’s book set in Chile inspired by the life of the poet, Pablo Neruda, but the story itself fell a little flat for me. It’s beautifully written and the illustrations are intriguing, but the plot was slow and disappointing. The majority of the prose is spent in the imagination of the main character, and there’s not much action. I didn’t mind being let into the inner workings of this imaginative child’s thoughts, but it would have been nice if there had been a little more action to balance things out. I also felt disappointed by the fact that this is technically a historical fiction novel, but the historical context wasn’t clear to me. I love historical fiction because it takes me back in time and teaches me about the past, but this novel only seems to hint at it. I felt that if I wanted to learn more about the historical context (specifically the conflict involving the Mapuche tribe), I would have to do my own research. This is fine, but the story didn’t really inspire me to go above and beyond to do this.

    From a teacher perspective, I think children would require a lot of support when reading this in order to get the most out of it (unless the child is older or a more advanced reader). It’s an interesting character study and it poses some interesting questions through the themes that it presents, but this means that discussion while reading would be imperative.
  • Recommendation: For teachers or parents, I do recommend this book for children as long as it can be read with an adult in some capacity. It would be great as a read-aloud or as part of a book club/literature circle since both of these formats include a lot of structured discussion. For teachers, I would also recommend including this alongside a unit about figurative language (since the novel is written so poetically), and/or a unit about indigenous groups/colonization. Because the historical context was kind of weak, I think children would benefit from having that extra background knowledge before (or during) the reading of this book. For adults, if you’re interested in Chile or Pablo Neruda and you don’t mind a somewhat meandering plot, you might want to check this one out too!

13. “Kira-Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata

Kira-Kira: Kadohata, Cynthia: 9780689856402: Amazon.com: Books
  • Year of Publication: 2004
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop them on the street to stare. And it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future. Luminous in its persistence of love and hope, Kira-Kira is Cynthia Kadohata’s stunning debut in middle-grade fiction.”
  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Resilience. Perseverance. Find the silver lining. Positivity/optimism. Hard work. Family. True friendship. Grief. Hope.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Racism/discrimination. Bullying. Poverty. Cancer. Loss of child/sibling. Adolescent friendships/relationships. Sibling relationships. Japanese-American (main characters). Georgia 1956.
  • Overall Thoughts: I discovered this book when researching historical fiction books for children that were available in Spanish. When I read the premise, I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this one before! It sounded really interesting and engaging. While I felt the plot moved a little slowly at times, I didn’t really mind. The book is fairly heavy and there’s a lot to take in, so I thought it was good that the reader has time to absorb and really think about everything that is happening.

    I also really love the phrase “kira-kira” that is repeated throughout. It’s a great motif; it literally means “glittering” or “shining,” but is a strong reminder of the deeper meaning/theme to always find the good in things, people, and situations.

    This book broke my heart at the end, but it was a special and unique story that will stick with me.
  • Recommendation: For teachers, I recommend this book for use in book clubs/literature circles (probably no younger than 5th grade). For parents, I recommend you read this book with your child to foster more meaningful conversations about discrimination and loss. I definitely wouldn’t go much younger than 5th grade, though, unless your child/student is a really mature reader. It’s a middle grade novel, but it includes some more mature content that might be difficult for younger children. I also recommend that teachers be careful about to whom they assign this book, as some of the events could be triggering if students have experienced something similar.

14. “Sobreviví el naufragio del Titanic, 1912” (“I Survived: The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912”) by Lauren Tarshis

Sobreviví el naufragio del Titanic, 1912 (I Survived the Sinking ...
  • Year of Publication: 2010
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “Ten-year-old George Calder can’t believe his luck: He and his little sister, Phoebe, are on the famous Titanic, crossing the ocean with their aunt Daisy. The ship is full of exciting places to explore, but when George ventures into the first class storage cabin, a terrible boom shakes the entire boat. Suddenly, water is everywhere, and George’s life changes forever.”
  • Format: Paperback (Translated by Indira Pupo)
  • Themes: Family. Courage. Bravery.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Titanic. Classism. 10-year-old boy (main character).
  • Overall Thoughts: This book was special for me because it was the first book I ever read in Spanish! I’ve read a lot of articles and portions of books during my studies of Spanish, but never a book in its entirety. I thought this was a great, short, and accessible historical fiction novel. It portrays the events of the sinking of the Titanic in a way that conveys its severity and how tragic it was without being too heavy for children. It also includes an energetic and creative little boy as a main character, and I think a lot of children reading the book would relate to him.

    The side story of the little boy and his quest to find secret treasures/hidden secrets in this giant boat is engaging and entertaining, and creates a nice juxtaposition with the more serious and historic aspects of the events of the Titanic. I think this would be great for beginning readers, children interested in historical fiction, and children who struggle to enjoy reading. It’s a great book to capture their attention and maybe keep them reading since it’s part of a series!
  • Recommendation: I recommend this book to children of any age and any reading ability. It’s engaging and informative, and it’s sure to keep kids reading since it’s part of a series. It’s also available in Spanish which is cool for those wanting to improve their Spanish literacy skills!

16. “La casa del árbol: Terremoto al amanecer” (Magic Tree House: “Earthquake in the Early Morning”) by Mary Pope Osborne

La casa del árbol # 24:Terremoto al amanecer / Earthquake in the ...
  • Year of Publication: 2001
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “Jack and Annie find themselves in San Francisco just as an earthquake is hitting the city. The children have to hurry to find the last writing needed by Morgan to help save Camelot before San Francisco is ruined by fire. The many factual details about 1906 disasters make this a great addition to your social studies curriculum.”
  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Community. Perseverance. Courage.
  • Windows and Mirrors: 1906 San Francisco. Natural disaster.
  • Overall Thoughts: This was a quick read. It was very intense in the beginning as the natural disaster strikes, but other than that, it was fairly light on both themes and historical information. That being said, it’s another book that’s great to introduce children to a historical topic, and a great way to get kids interested in reading since it’s short, accessible, and part of a series.
  • Recommendation: I recommend this book for young/beginning readers. For teachers, this would be a great supplement to a social studies curriculum, but it’s not very useful on its own since there’s not much to it (and that’s okay!). It’s also great for beginning Spanish readers since it’s available in Spanish!

17. “La casa del árbol: Búfalos antes del desayuno” (Magic Tree House: “Buffalo Before Breakfast”) by Mary Pope Osborne

La casa del árbol # 18 Búfalos antes del desayuno / Buffalo Before ...
  • Year of Publication: 1999
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “Hello, buffalo! That’s what Jack and Annie say when the Magic Tree House whisks them and Teddy, the enchanted dog, back almost 200 years to the Great Plains. There they meet a Lakota boy who shows them how to hunt buffalo. But something goes wrong! Now they need to stop a thousand buffalo from stampeding!”
  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Courage. Pride. Faith.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Lakota tribe. Great Plains. I wish I could say it was a “window” into colonization and mistreatment of indigenous groups in North America, but alas…
  • Overall Thoughts: This book was…interesting. I will say, there are not many historical fiction books for children that are available in Spanish, so I was glad to at least have this as an option to help develop Spanish literacy.

    That being said, this book had strong “white savior” vibes. Rather than teaching about authentic Lakota culture and history and delving into the devastating impacts of colonization, the story focuses on the main characters (two white children) who go back in time and save the day before swiftly returning home. I believe there’s a way to keep the story short and accessible without shying away from important topics and themes that go along with learning about indigenous groups in North America (and elsewhere). Especially considering the author is white, it would have made more sense to focus more on the negative effects and tragic history of colonization, rather than her lack of expertise regarding Lakota culture.

    I think it’s important for children to have literature that highlights indigenous people and culture, and it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more books out there that do this, but this one likely does more harm than good.
  • Recommendation: While the Magic Tree House books are great for beginning readers, I can’t say that I recommend this particular installment in the series. It’s not culturally responsive and ignores what indigenous people went through during the time this book is set.

18. “Sobreviví los ataques de tiburones de 1916” (“I Survived: The Shark Attacks of 1916”) by Lauren Tarshis

Sobreviví los ataques de tiburones de 1916 (I Survived the Shark ...
  • Year of Publication: 2010
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “In the summer of 1916, ten year-old Chet Roscow is captivated by the local news: a Great White shark has been attacking and killing people up and down the Atlantic Coast, not far from Chet’s hometown of Springfield, New Jersey. Then one day, swimming with his friends, Chet sees something in the water…”
  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Friendship. Family. Trust. Bravery.
  • Windows and Mirrors: 1916 New Jersey. Small-town life. Coastal town community. 10-year old boy shenanigans.
  • Overall Thoughts: I have to say, I actually liked this one a lot more than I thought I would! When I saw that it was about a shark attack, I was immediately turned off. Especially considering I was particularly looking for historical fiction, I just didn’t think this one would be very relevant. However, the historical context and facts included were great and portrayed very clearly. The story kept my attention the whole time, and the characters were well-developed considering how short the book is.
  • Recommendation: Once again, I would recommend this book to children of any age and any reading ability. It’s engaging, informative, and sure to keep kids reading since it’s part of a series. These are the only two books I’ve read in this series, but in the future I’m going to try to read more! If the whole series is as great as these two books, then it would be a wonderful option to get kids interested in reading and especially in historical fiction.

19. “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy (Thorndike Press Large Print Mini-collections ...
  • Year of Publication: 1999
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

    “It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but he’s on a mission. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: posters of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression! Bud’s got an idea that those posters will lead to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him.

    Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful characters, hitting the high notes of jazz and sounding the deeper tones of the Great Depression.”

  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Family. Friendship. Racism. Poverty. Hope. Courage. Standing up for yourself. Home. Belonging. Ingenuity. Resilience.
  • Windows and Mirrors: The Great Depression. 1936 Michigan. Black, ten-year-old boy (main character). Poverty. Foster care. Jazz music/musicians. Loss of mother.
  • Overall Thoughts: I’ve been wanting to read this book since I read “The Mighty Miss Malone” last year. I absolutely loved that one, so I was glad to finally get to read about Bud! This was one of the longer middle grade books that I read for this project, but it definitely did not disappoint. It was a great look into Depression era Michigan, and the intersectionality of race and poverty during this difficult time in history.

    One of my favorite things about this book was the character development. Bud, in particular, is funny, clever, and resourceful. His growth throughout the story is heartwarming and engaging. I was also fascinated by all of the friends and strangers he encounters during his journey. The theme of how most people are still kind and willing to help others even amidst their own personal struggles was one of the more interesting themes in the story.

    I did feel that the story moved a little slowly at times, and it took me a few chapters to get into it, but it was worth it in the end. Bud goes through a lot on his journey, and I appreciate that the author took the time to create a vivid portrait of the characters and historical context (which is, for me, one of the most important parts of historical fiction: the ability to be transported back in time).
  • Recommendation: I absolutely recommend this book for readers of all ages (well, probably 4th grade and up). That includes adults! It was a great story, and I loved how Bud didn’t allow himself to be held back by any of the barriers in his life. This book would especially be great in the classroom as a book club/literature circle selection because students would definitely benefit from a lot discussion surrounding the events of this book.

20. “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising (Scholastic Gold): Ryan, Pam Muñoz: 9780439120425 ...
  • Year of Publication: 2000
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

“Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico, and that she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstance; Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.

Pam Muñoz Ryan eloquently portrays the Mexican workers’ plight in this abundant and passionate novel that gives voice to those who have historically been denied one.”

  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Family. Hard work. Hope. Friendship. Perseverance. Justice.
  • Windows and Mirrors: Immigration. Mexican girl (main character). Wealthy Mexican family. Great Depression. Depression era California. Farm labor camp. Discrimination/racism. Loss of father. Family separation.
  • Overall Thoughts: I actually can’t believe I hadn’t read this novel until this year considering how well-known it is. It definitely lived up to its reputation; this was probably my favorite of the historical fiction books I read to prepare for this unit. It’s a really interesting “riches-to-rags” story, which made it different than what I thought it would be. Esperanza is a really relatable and flawed character, and her growth throughout the story was really compelling. It’s beautifully written, poignant, and emotional. The injustice that Esperanza and her community face is eye-opening, and sparks the question: has much really changed?
  • Recommendation: I absolutely recommend this book for adults and children alike. It’s very well-written, eye-opening, and would spark great conversations. I love when children’s books can make these themes and content accessible for children, so that they can participate in these important conversations.

How often do you read children’s books? What has your experience been like reading them as an adult? Also, do you ever read books in a language that isn’t your first language?

Keep an eye out for my next cluster review featuring some YA fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, and a contemporary classic.

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