Wednesday, March 7, 2018

New Trade Books for Kids Who Love History (and the teachers that teach them)

Fleming, Candace (2014) The Family Romanov:  Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia  New York:  Schwartz and Wade.

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Opening line:  “On the night or February 12, 1903, a long line of carriages make its way through the Imperial Gates of St. Petersburg’s Winter palace.”. 
            There are moments in history when everything turns upside down.  When Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra began their rule of Russia, they were following a long line of predecessors into what seemed a predictable reign.  Alexandra bore three daughters and, after much waiting, a son, Alexei, who would turn out to suffer greatly from hemophilia.  Then follows wartime troubles and Alexei suffers from more bouts of hemophilia-induced internal bleeding and the pain that accompanies it.  The Tsar and Tsarina eventually put their trust in a peasant mystic named Rasputin.  Rasputin, many allege, not only brings about the downfall of the Tsar, but would be indirectly responsible for Nicholas’s abdication of the throne, and eventually the death of his whole family. 
            Fleming carefully unwinds the narrative, paying attention not only to the Royal family, but to the peasants as well.   She paints Nicholas and Alexandra as partly naïve, party disinterested monarchs who more than anything want to escape the burdens of leadership and raise their family without interruption.  This is a tragic moment in history and it is fascinating to see it unfold.
            Strong fourth and fifth grade readers could make sense of most of this, but it is probably ideal for middle school and high school readers.  The book does cover the murder of the royal family in a matter of fact way and makes vague references to Rasputin’s  womanizing, but there is little here that could offend or trouble parents. 

Haskins, James (1977) Barbara Jordan.  New York: Dial Press.

Opening Quote:  “If there are any patriots left, I am one.”  --Barbara Jordan.

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            One thing history can do is remind us that things were not always the way they are now.  Somehow in the last forty years, the word politician became a bad word.  When Barbara Jordan became one of the first black women elected to US Congress,that was not so much the case.  Jordan was skilled at the art of compromise, of crossing the isle and finding the common ground of justice and helping the American people that let the legislature get things done.  She was organized and passionate, feisty and a good friend, principled and a good bridge-builder.  This book chronicles her hard work in law school, her hard work running for office, and her phenomenally hard work once she was in office.  This biography is not only an interesting portrayal of Barbara Jordan, but also a fascinating portrait of a time in our country's istory when compromise across the aisle was the ay we got things done.  
And she did all this as a black woman running for office in Texas.  Texas at the time seemed to have a very different sort of identity than it does now.  Although the biography probably skews in the direction of being overly positive toward her life, it does not omit the criticism of her being an Uncle Tom, or forgetting her people.  It acknowledges those criticisms and offers her response, then lets the readers decide.
I stumbled upon this book because it was a Coretta Scott King Award winner.  Although I believe it is out of print, websites like can be relied on to have a used copy usually for under six dollars.

Moss, Marissa (2017) Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective.  Creston Books.

Image result for kate warne pinkerton detective

Opening Lines:  “Kate read the newspaper advertisement for the third time:  Wanted: Detective.  Must be observant, determined, fearless, and willing to travel.  Pinkerton Agency 353 Michigan Ave.  Chicago.  She had no experience at all, but the job called to her.”
Okay, yes, this is a picture book, but it is a wonderful one.  Moss tells the story of Kate Warne, the first woman detective in America.  Moss describes how Warne convinced Allan Pinkerton to hire her, even though he had never hired a female agent before.  She describes Warne’s first case, a theft of $40,000 from a locked pouch in a safe.  Warne took on a disguise, befriended the suspect’s wife and found out where the money was hidden.  An extensive author’s note at the end of the book fills in some details including how Warne served in the Secret Service, how she died, and where she is buried.
April Chu’s illustrations do a lot to bring the reader into the dusty sepia-toned world of Chicago in 1856.  Moss’s writing engaged the reader in the story, but also makes sure they will be interested in the history of it as well.  And extensive author’s note at the end will fill in some of the gaps for the interested reader.
I was going to say that this would be a great picture book for kids interested in history or detectives or law enforcement.  But as I think about it, this is the sort of book that might take a kid who doesn’t yet realize they are interested in these areas and start an interest that could make a huge difference.  I suppose the book is probably targeted at first through third grade – but I would use it up through middle school and high school as a way of getting students interested in a topic.  Check this one out.