Friday, April 17, 2015

Historical Fiction: Catch Ya Later Traitor, The War that Saved My Life, and I'm Glad I Did

Reading historical fiction is my favorite way to learn history, but it is generally a tough sell with young readers. Colorado author Avi, who has been more successful than most in this field, has a new book Catch You Later, Traitor, which is about the Red Scare in the United States during the 1950s. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written a lovely WWII story, The War that Saved My Life, about two British children who find love when they are evacuated from London and end up with a grieving recluse. Grammy award winning songwriter Cynthia Weil, fictionalizes elements from her past in her debut novel I'm Glad I Did. These well-researched new novels offer up delectable bites of history, filled with rich period detail, as well as suspense.

 Catch You Later Traitor introduces Pete Collison, a seventh grader in Brooklyn 1951, who becomes an outcast when his father is suspected of being a Communist sympathizer.  Even his best friend Kat is forbidden from associating with him and an FBI agent is trying to get him to divulge family secrets.  Pete, a fan of hard-boiled detective stories, decides to take matters into his own hands to find out about his father's past and discover who would inform on him.  There are several elements to the book that are historically significant, one being the information about the Red Scare.  Another subplot involves the Dodgers' and Giants' rivalry and their famous playoff game.  Pete's hero, Sam Spade, was created by Dashiell Hammet, who was jailed for refusing to testify against communist friends.  Throughout the book there are digressions where Pete mentally rewrites mundane observations with hard-boiled hyperbole.  This element of the book could be a wonderful teaching tool for a mystery unit and really ramps up the suspense.

The War that Saved My Life by the author of Jefferson's Sons takes place in London during WWII. Ada, who was born with a clubfoot, has been imprisoned by her abusive mother in their one room apartment her whole life.  She longs for the freedom enjoyed by her younger brother Jamie, but her mother, who is embarrassed by Ada's disability hides her away. When the British government decides children should be evacuated from London, Ada sneaks out to accompany Jamie to the countryside where they are taken in by Susan Smith, a grieving recluse. Ada flourishes in this new environment where not only is she allowed outside, but she also teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, searches for German spies and discovers what it's like to be loved.  Although at first Susan is not sure she wants the responsibility, she learns to loves the children who give her a reason to get on with her life after a devastating loss. But will the kids' vindictive mother turn up and reclaim them, returning Ada to a life of emotional and physical abuse?

Cynthia Weil and her husband, who wrote alongside Carole King at the Brill Building, are known for writing such songs as "On Broadway," and "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" among others.  Having recently seen the musical Beautiful based on King's life, I couldn't wait to read Weil's  I'm Glad I Did, which, although not specifically autobiographical, incorporates a lot of Weil's insider knowledge about the songwriting business in the 60's. The summer of 1963 in NYC finds aspiring songwriter JJ Green accepting an internship in the Brill Building at Good Music Publishing.  Her parents, who want her to become a lawyer, have agreed she can pursue a songwriting career if she gets a song published by summer's end.  Enter Luke Silver, a boy with instant connection to her music and Dulcie Brown, a fabulous, but troubled, black singer who is now a Brill Building custodian.  Dulcie has just the right voice for JJ's music and Luke's lyrics, but before they can record their song, Dulcie is murdered. JJ and Luke, determined to find the culprit, discover shocking revelations about her music industry mogul uncle and Luke's father, who was his former partner, as well a the music industry itself.  Weil's eye for 60s detail and incorporation of historical figures such as Medgar Evers and Bob Dylan, make this romantic murder mystery something special.  Although the first two books are fine for middle level readers, I'm Glad I Did is more appropriate high school readers and adults.

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