Exploring American History Through Children’s Literature (by Catherine)

“ ‘This is not our fight’, the old man said. ‘British or American, that is not the choice. You must choose your own side, find your road through the valley of darkness that will lead you to the river Jordan. . . Look hard for your river Jordan, my child. You’ll find it.’”  –Chains, Laurie Halse AndersonImage

            For many Americans, July 4th means fireworks, celebrating American independence, and bbqs. But something crucial is missing from that list: A book from the historical fiction genre for children—namely—one set during the colonial period in America. What better way to celebrate the birth of our county than to become immersed in a gripping story set during the Revolutionary War?

That’s why the blog is going to focus on several historical books Catherine thinks are particularly good for this time of the summer, books that have received awards and good reviews from young readers. Certainly, we can learn about history from history books, documentaries, and films, but we think engaging with history through a well-written, engaging, and vivid children’s or young adult novel is just as exciting and informative. Of course, authors of historical fiction should write books that are historically accurate and reflect thorough research about the particular historical era in which that book is set. Not all works of historical fiction that are published will reflect historical accuracy, so the reader (or the adult selecting the book) should have some set of standards for evaluating that kind of fiction for children.

Chains (2008) by Laurie Halse Anderson is Catherine’s first pick. Set during 1776, the story follows the difficult journey of thirteen year old Isabel, a slave, who is sold, along with her younger sister Ruth, to a couple who take them to New York City. Isabel has a complicated task; she must look out for her sister who suffers from epilepsy, a disease that those in the 18th century hardly understood. Master and Madam Lockton support King George’s British rule of the colonies, and the girls endure terrible treatment at the hands of the Locktons. All the while, however, Isabel ponders and plans how to escape, and consistently questions the logic and justice of the idea that while a country fights for freedom for its people, it keeps a segment of its population in chains.

As a result, the novel offers readers the opportunity to consider the plight of the African-American during this crucial period in history. Additionally, Anderson’s detailed historical research paints a vivid picture of the tensions between those in the colonies who wanted freedom from King George and those who preferred to remain under British rule. The characters created by Anderson in Chains are superbly depicted, and readers will surely think about Isabel and Ruth after they have turned the last few pages of the novel. This historical novel was nominated for the National Book Award in 2008 and in 2009 it received the Scott O’Dell Award, which is given for the best work of historical fiction. It is also an ALA Notable Children’s Book for Older Readers (2009). Readers who want to find out what happens to the characters in Chains after it ends would do well to pick up the sequel, Forge, which will be reviewed on this blog in the near future.

If you read Chains and you would like to explore some links related to the novel, here are a few to get you started:

http://books.simonandschuster.com/Chains/Laurie-Halse-Anderson/9781416905851/

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781416905868

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