If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.
In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.
Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.
The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.
If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.
Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard.
This trilogy of children’s adventures is a longtime favorite of mine, but I find it difficult to categorize. Libraries shelve it in juvenile fiction, which is misleading, as it has more tragic deaths than Game of Thrones, plus an ironic style that would likely whoosh over the heads of most children. It certainly did mine. On the other hand, it made me cry like a kid when I was in my thirties…
Three volumes with a Dickensian ensemble cast, from monarchs to street urchins, cover several years of political upheaval in the imagined countries of Westmark and neighboring Regia. Theo is the viewpoint character, a printer’s assistant who is driven from his livelihood by an increasingly despotic government bent on censoring the press. He takes up first with a traveling ensemble headed by showman and charlatan “Count” Las Bombas, where he meets Mickle, a streetwise apprentice thief, ventriloquist, and (unknown to anyone, including herself) missing princess. The escapades grow more serious when Theo falls in with a cell of student revolutionaries headed by the charismatic pragmatist Florian, a dashing figure in a soldier’s greatcoat. Now Theo is loyal both to the next monarch of Westmark and to the soldier-philosophers who want to abolish the monarchy.
Theo’s adventures present him with several moments of split-second decision making followed by self-doubt—is his hesitation to take a life a moment of conscience or of cowardice? Ideals are tested to the breaking point in the second book of the trilogy, The Kestrel. As Regia invades, the young are betrayed by the old, and fighting in the countryside intensifies, conscience seems ever more a luxury. Readers who thought this would be a light and fast-paced adventure will instead be traumatized by the sharp turn the series takes into harrowing warfare. The third book, The Beggar Queen, sees the survivors dealing with the legacy of their decisions, their lives further complicated as former enemies and worshipers of fallen heroes try to shape their country to different ideals.
The Westmark books are crowded, packed full of characters and events, and yet they aren’t long books. Alexander’s style is so streamlined, not a word is wasted; like a caricaturist, every line counts either to sketch a character or further the action. The books are fast-moving and dramatic, with characters and situations reminiscent of the French revolution, the Three Musketeers, or other Ruritanian adventures like The Prisoner of Zenda. There’s a lot of overlap between devotees of this series and fans of the gallant, doomed student revolutionaries of Les Mis. With well-drawn characters and moral complexity, it’s also a natural choice for readers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, starting with The Thief.
Check the WRL catalog for Westmark.
Scottish author-illustrator, Alison Murray has written another first class picture book. It is based on the old nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock. This latest book was first published in the U.S. in 2014. It has Murray’s bright characteristically vivid colors and illustrations. Rufus is the goofy dog in the story. Rufus follows his owner, Zack, to school one day! “Hickory, Dickory, Dock. A dog, a boy, a clock! The day’s begun it’s time for fun! Hickory, Dickory, Dock.” Unlike the lamb in the nursery rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb, Rufus is allowed to stay in school. Rufus joins in at band practice, dress up time and painting time. “The clock strikes eleven. It’s make-a-mess heaven. Hickory, Dickory, Dock.” Rufus joins in for lunch at school and garden time and THEN he is taken home! “Higglety, pigglety, pup It’s time to clean you up! The clock strikes five Slip, slide, crash… dive! Higglety, pigglety, pup.” Then it’s time for the end of the rhyme and the reader sees Zack and Rufus fast asleep in bed. This is a great story for toddlers and pre-schoolers with simple, rhyming text.
Check the WRL catalog for Hickory Dickory Dog.
In the course of one spectacularly bad week, Margaret “Peggy” Fitzroy is forcibly engaged to a man she’s never met, assaulted in a greenhouse by the same young lout, and rescued by an enigmatic figure who claims that her late, lamented mother was not just another pretty face in the English court, but also actively supplying intelligence to he and his associates. When Peggy refuses to marry as told, she’s thrown out on the streets, and therefore throws herself upon the mercy of this man who knew her mother. Peggy agrees to be made over as his ward and placed as a maid of honor to Caroline, Princess of Wales, where she can report back on the doings of the court. To this end, she’s given a new identity and trained in the skills she’ll need as a lady in waiting: flattery, witticisms, cheating at cards, and sizing up someone’s wealth by the quality of the cloth and lace in their outfit.
Peggy has somehow forgotten to ask one important question: Hanover or Stuart?
Are her mysterious employers loyal to King George I and the House of Hanover, or are they among the rebellious supporters of exiled James II, “king over the water”? Between unexpected suitors and unexpected enemies among the royal household, it’s pretty likely that Peggy will be found out, and while being unmasked will certainly mean disgrace, being unmasked as a spy for Jacobite conspirators will get her beheaded for treason.
Peggy Fitzroy is a vivacious narrator, particularly when skewering ladies’ fashion. Being imprisoned in a mantua plus a ton of ribbons and furbelows makes it difficult to break into houses and run for her life! Fortunately Peggy is a great improviser with whatever weapon comes to hand, be it a ladies’ fan or a fireplace poker. Her adventures would be a good bet for readers of Y. S. Lee’s Agency series or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.
Check the WRL catalog for Palace of Spies.
The series continues with Dangerous Deceptions.
Laura Ingalls was my first heroine. Despite her tales of crop-destroying grasshoppers and bitter winters and wolves howling outside her door, there was something in her spare, vivid writing that made me want to live in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
Pioneer Girl is a handsome volume, compiled with love and scholarship by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. It presents Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first, handwritten memoir, which was later reworked by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, into the beloved “Little House” series.
Many of the episodes will be familiar to readers who followed the Ingalls’s westward migration from Wisconsin to De Smet, South Dakota. Other incidents, memorably the death of a nine-month-old baby brother, never made it into the children’s series.
The manuscript has been annotated with microscopic attention to detail, cross-referencing Wilder’s recollections with census records, land records, old family photographs, and news articles. Footnotes sift fact from fiction and fill in some historical context: why were Indians hanging out in Ma’s kitchen, helping themselves to the food? Because the Ingalls were homesteading illegally on land still belonging, by treaty, to the Osage tribe.
You may not need to know the exact species of leech from the infamous incident in which Laura led her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, into the bloodsucker-infested waters of Plum Creek (Erpobdella punctata). You may not want to know that Nellie Oleson herself is a fiction, a composite character made into a villain to give the narrative a stronger structure. (Life, so frequently, lacks a strong narrative structure.) But if you are interested in these details, or in the process by which a novel is made out of memories, then this is a worthwhile book to browse through on a cold winter day.
Check the WRL catalog for Pioneer Girl.
Downton Abbey is all well and good, but what about the folk who weren’t living (or working) in the big manor house? This captivating series from the BBC documents one year in the life of an Edwardian farm, as recreated by historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands.
The team has a ready-made backdrop for their endeavour, which is filmed in the historic port of Morwellham Quay, on the Tamar River, in the county of Devon, UK. Its mild climate in southwest England and natural resources made it a center for fisheries, copper mining, and market gardening of crops like daffodils and strawberries as well as crop farming. Each episode covers a month of the year, beginning with fall’s preparations for winter and carrying on through all stages of planting a cereal crop, raising livestock, and celebrating the turnings of the year.
The crew pull this project off with infectious enthusiasm, making the audience part of their successes and failures and reminding viewers that their experiments with, for instance, building a hayrick to keep the cattle feed dry, could make or break a farmer’s livelihood. Ruth Goodman is illegally cheerful even when getting up in the pre-dawn dark to lace her Edwardian corset and scrub the stone floors, and given her share of chores—stewing the sheep’s head, mucking out the pig, lime-washing the privy—it’s no wonder she’s practically giddy when she gets to escape on a bicycle to film another segment on something like the old cottage industry of Honiton lace. Meanwhile, the archaeologists can be found chasing livestock about, fossicking for copper left behind in the mines, or firing up a lime kiln to prepare ten tons of fertilizer. Even the usually taciturn Peter Ginn is adorably beside himself when his handmade trout hatchery, against all odds, yields three tiny trout.
It’s an interesting time period, 1901-1910, horse-drawn plows and steam railways working side by side until traditional ways give way to steam-powered machines like the newly-invented tractor. For those traditional crafts, Goodman, Ginn, and Langlands learn from a parade of experts: coopers and farriers, miners and horse whisperers, lacemakers and hazel wattle hurdle makers. Other supporting “characters” include the beautiful Devon landscape and a variety of native livestock including Red Ruby cattle, beautiful Dartmoor ponies and Shire draft horses, and assorted chickens and pigs.
Edwardian Farm is one of a series of recreations including Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Wartime Farm. Sadly, none of the others have been released yet in the United States. Even if it doesn’t inspire you to get out there and lay a hedgerow, it will certainly renew your appreciation for hot running water.
Check the WRL catalog for Edwardian Farm.
This is another story by Jane Cabrera inspired by a favorite nursery rhyme – this time the rhythmic, story of Row, Row, Row Your Boat! I read it aloud and also sang it to a very large group of toddlers at Williamsburg Library. The children enjoyed the rhythm and the very bright illustrations of the different animals. Jane Cabrera involves the different animals in the interactive story.
Row, row, row your boat
Splish! and Splash! and Splatter!
If you see the monkeys swing,
Don’t forget to chatter-
Row, row, row your boat
through the narrow gap.
If you see a crocodile!
Don’t forget to Snap! Snap! Snap!
This interactive and rhyming book has become a favorite book to share at story time especially for those times when you lose the toddlers’ attention.
Check the WRL catalog for Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
Congressman John Lewis has spent almost the entirety of his life fighting for justice and civil rights in America. March is a trilogy that brings to life his experiences and struggles in a deeply personal account that is both inspiring and riveting. The first volume was published in August 2013, and the second was just released in January 2015.
The story bounces back and forth in time between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and Congressman Lewis’ own history, starting when he was a young child in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. This serves as an effective juxtaposition between how far African-Americans have come and where they were just a short lifetime ago. Congressman Lewis weaves his narrative adroitly, using stories like his experience being in charge of his family’s chicken coop to build a foundation for his ongoing dedication to non-violence. His eagerness for education sometimes chafed against the needs of his family’s farm, but Lewis pressed on in his quest for learning. Along the way, he also got an education on the social injustice that tried to keep the worlds of blacks and whites separate.
Early on, his path crossed with the older, more established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reader knows what the young John Lewis does not: that this initial meeting is between two men who will become icons. This part is intentionally quiet; the reader silently follows Lewis on the journey to King’s church for the meeting, feeling their nerves get tighter and tighter in anticipation along with the narrator’s. It is an exceptionally well-executed scene.
Lewis eventually joins a local pacifist group committed to non-violence in their quest for desegregation. A larger group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had published a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story which helped serve as guidance and inspiration for their work. Although this item is no longer available in print, it is obtainable in full-text online through Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. As an avid reader of graphic novels, this was a fascinating piece of literary history.
Nate Powell is a talented illustrator and took up the daunting challenge of depicting major historical figures with particular sensitivity. He is a previous winner of the Eisner Award for his book Swallow Me Whole and his work is always worth a look just on its own merits. March, was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014 for co-authors John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.
Recommended for readers of American history, social justice, African-American history, and biography.
Check the WRL catalog for March, Book One.
The simple story is about a child named Lucy who decides to draw a monster one night when she can’t sleep. She and the monster play and play, but when Lucy decides that it’s time for bed, the monster says, “No,” and proceeds to make every excuse that every child has ever used for staying up.
First, he’s hungry. So Lucy draws him a mountain of meatballs. “Chomp, Chomp, Chomp!” He eats them all. When he wails that he is thirsty, she draws him a bucket of water, which he drinks with a, “Glub, glub.” Lucy’s crayons get lots more work, as she draws him a bathroom, pajamas, a teddy bear and more.
Children enjoy guessing what Lucy will draw to satisfy her funny green friend. That makes it a fun interactive book for story time. For a child who is afraid of monsters under the bed, I think this book could encourage that child to draw the monster, and then draw the things that “their” monster wants in order to fall asleep. A monster that needs a teddy bear isn’t so scary, after all!
The sparing text makes this book suitable for a child as young as three. But it is engaging enough for a kindergartener. The illustrations are large enough to use with a group.
Check the WRL catalog for Go to Bed, Monster!
In 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.
What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.
Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.
Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.
Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
You get the same sort of fun without the calories with a read-aloud of Fortune Cookies. The little girl in the story eats one fortune cookie a day for a week. Inside each cookie illustration is a small tab that children can pull out to read that day’s fortune. The next day that fortune comes true!
This is one of my favorite interactive books to use with older children. Naturally, they love pulling out the fortunes and reading them. But they also enjoy guessing how that fortune will turn out. There are only a few words on each page, and the illustrations by Raschka, a Caldecott Medal winner, are simple and wonderfully expressive.
As long as I’ve gotten approval beforehand, I like to follow this story with a special treat—a fortune cookie for everyone.
Check the WRL catalog for Fortune Cookies.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been repeated, revived, and reimagined countless times in literature, in addition to TV and movies. Whatever dreams Arthur Conan Doyle had for his creation, I doubt he could have foreseen the wild success and immortality his work has achieved. As a mystery lover and a graphic novel lover, I was intrigued by the combination of my two favorite genres, and I love a good twist on a classic.
In this iteration, writer Karl Bollers conceives both characters as modern African Americans living in New York’s Harlem district. Watson, not yet a doctor, is an Afghanistan war vet working in a clinic. Sherlock is a dreadlocked, fedora wearing PI who steps easily into the storied role from the first “Elementary…” that passes his lips. The game is indeed afoot.
A seemingly unconnected string of murders and kidnappings brings the two together. The duo dash through the streets of New York, chasing clues and hoping to stay one step ahead of their increasingly desperate quarry. The Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance, as well as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, although he quite understandable prefers the nickname “Mike.”
Why does Watson join Holmes in his quest? I think this is the crux of any successful remake of Sherlock: tying the two characters together not only in their interactions with each other, but making their collective motivations realistic and sympathetic to the reader. As this volume only covers the first arc of the series, much of the interaction between the two characters is a slow buildup of that relationship, and the acknowledgement that sometimes what drives you can’t be easily explained, even to yourself.
My only issue with this title is that the author did such a fantastic job of echoing Sherlock’s unique way of speaking, that I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head with an English accent, which jarred against the setting. However, since this is such an intrinsic part of the character, I can’t really knock the authors for being too successful.
The art in this series has a rough quality, with some lines still maintaining the attributes of a sketchbook rendering. At times the faces of characters are executed in detail, at others they are kept fuzzy as the viewer’s eye is pulled back to take in more of the scene. The coloring is downright phenomenal, with scenes moving fluidly from night to day or outside to computer-screen lit inside. I eagerly look forward to a second volume.
Recommended for readers of mysteries, graphic novels, and crime fiction.
Check the WRL catalog for Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black.
While the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.
The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”
Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.
The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.
Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.
Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.
In this simple, toddler-friendly story, Cookie knocks plants off the windowsill, gets stuck in a kitchen drawer, upsets the trash can and even falls in the toilet. Each disaster happens on a different day of the week, so the book can be used to teach the days of the week, although it’s too fun to save for just that purpose.
DePaola’s illustrations frequently only show bits of the rambunctious cat, such as one back foot and a tail poking out from under a wok. This provides opportunities for discussion. I also like to encourage storytime kids to say, “Silly Cookie!” with each mishap, though that isn’t part of the text.
It is simple enough for tiny ones, but I would even use this with kindergarteners as a break between longer stories. I’ve used a big book version of this in story time, but because the illustrations are clear and simple, I think the smaller sized book would work with a group.
Check the WRL catalog for Cookie’s Week.
Calling the life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige remarkable seems an understatement unworthy of its subject. But how else could you describe a man who, though held back by the bitter shackles of Jim Crow, embarked upon a baseball career that lasted six decades and earned accolades from fans and competitors alike. Joe DiMaggio called Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Rather than a straightforward biography of Paige, the author chooses to present the story through the eyes of a man named Emmett, an African-American sharecropper from Alabama who has baseball aspirations of his own. Emmett’s story overlaps with Satchel Paige’s every few years, starting in 1929 with Paige’s early days in the Negro leagues through 1944, which is four whole years before Paige becomes one of the oldest rookies ever in Major League Baseball at age 42.
Emmett’s life and experiences as a sharecropper are filled with reminders of his place in society: daily doses of disrespect and not-so veiled promises of violence if he steps out of line. He watches Paige, a talented, cocky, showboating athlete who doesn’t seem to show the weight of society’s injustice on the mound. In this biography, Paige lets his pitching do the talking for him, tightening up his form and getting strikeouts when it matters most, whether it is in a Negro League game or a white team vs. black team barnstorming game.
This story is a well-paced, easy read, and although categorized as a children’s book, it is approachable by readers of all ages. The art is clean, although the characters aren’t particularly expressive; this serves to keep the emotional focus of the story on the narration.
Recommended to readers of history, specifically sports history and civil rights history.
Check the WRL catalog for Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
The Ticky-Tacky Doll, by Cynthia Rylant, tells the story of a little girl and her best friend, Ticky-Tacky Doll. They have been inseparable ever since the little girl’s grandmother created Ticky-Tacky but now, the little girl is starting school and her doll cannot come with her.
This book is great for any child who has a special stuffed friend. It would also be good for any child starting Kindergarten. This book would be ideal for children grades K-3.
If your child enjoyed this book he/she can also try William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow or Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki.
Check the WRL catalog for The Ticky-Tacky Doll.
The 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.
The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.
Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.
Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.
While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.
The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps
Evoking elements of The Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, even what was good about the silly old Saturday morning show The Land of the Lost, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner isn’t completely original–it couldn’t be in the crowded field of young adult dystopias–but it’s a fun read that deserves the attention of those who love dystopian action fiction.
The protagonist is a teenager who startles awake to find that he is riding some kind of elevator. At the top, he finds himself surrounded by other teenage boys who seem more interested in taunting than helping a new arrival. It turns out that they are the inhabitants of a small clearing they call the Glade. The Gladers (as the residents call themselves–they have developed a whole new argot) have to grow and raise all of the food they eat, supplemented only by a few supplies that arrive, sometimes with a new resident, via the elevator. It’s a tough existence, and one that has created leaders and outsiders, fast friends and bitter rivals among the boys.
They’re trapped in the Glade, which is surrounded by sheer cliffs. During the day, the cliff walls shift via some hidden mechanism, and openings allow a way out of the Glade, but only access a shifting maze that seems to go nowhere. The elite among the boys, called Runners, spend their days dashing through these mazes trying to map them and find a way out. But even the attempt is perilous. The walls shift again at night, trapping anyone who isn’t back by nightfall, when Grievers, biomechanical horrors, come out and sting or destroy anyone who hasn’t returned to the Glade.
As Thomas, the protagonist, slowly emerges from an amnesiac fog he recalls snippets of memory, in particular that the boys are part of some kind of grand experiment. Dashner unspools a twisting plot rapidly after the opening setup, and readers will find it hard to guess what is coming next. The arrival of the next person to the Glade changes all the rules and raises the stakes for Thomas, his friends, and his rivals.
The Maze Runner is followed by The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure in a trilogy. There’s also a movie series under way, which I found good at capturing the details of the terrain, but perhaps less successful at capturing the story’s suspense or character development.
Check the WRL catalog for The Maze Runner
Or try The Maze Runner as an audiobook on CD
Tom Franklin is a logical heir to William Faulkner, or more recently, Cormac McCarthy, powerful writers who explore the violent world of the American South through character-driven historical fiction. Perhaps even more than those other two greats, Franklin derives his tales from real historical events.
The subject of Hell at the Breech is the Mitcham War, fought in rural Alabama in 1897. Comparatively wealthy townfolk had been exploiting sharecroppers, and the resulting resentment boiled over into violence when Arch Bledsoe, a man-of-the-people political candidate, was mysteriously murdered. This killing was used as an excuse for violence by the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, a secret society of thugs who had been terrorizing their sharecropper neighbors into compliance. They went into town in a series of robberies and brutal raids, which in turn inspired a vigilante posse from town to ride roughshod into the countryside, attacking anyone unlucky enough to fall in their path.
Franklin’s novel is given extra dimension by wonderful characters. Tooch Bledsoe is a country Machiavelli, a gifted manipulator of men who leads the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Mack Burke is a 15-year-old, apprenticed to Tooch under mysterious circumstances to work at his country store. He’s trying to do the right things, but unsure of what those are, and he carries the weight of a secret about the murder of Tooch’s step brother Arch. Billy Waite is the aging, decent sheriff–one of the few power figures from town who isn’t out to exploit the sharecroppers–sent into danger to investigate Bledsoe’s murder. These are the lead characters, but Franklin populates his story with a great variety of larger than life ne’er do wells.
This isn’t for everyone. Franklin will challenge your conception of ethics. There are no easy answers and nobody in his novel is blameless. Violence is a way of life for these people. You know you’re in for a dark ride when the opening chapter concerns a boy being instructed by his mother to drown a sack full of puppies. If you can handle that kind of darkness, you’ll find this a rewarding read, a believable if operatic look at the dark heart of the wild days of early America.
Check the WRL catalog for Hell at the Breech
Coolies, by Yin, is a historical fiction picture book about the immigrants who left China for America in the mid-1800s as a result of widespread famine and the Taiping rebellion. These immigrants were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad Company to help build the transcontinental railroad. Coolies follows two brothers, Shek and Wong, as they join up to work on the railroad.
This book would be great for a child interested in history. This book would be ideal for children grades 3-6.
If your child enjoyed this book he/she can also try Only One Year by Andrea Cheng or The Iron Dragon Never Sleeps by Stephen Krensky.
Check the WRL catalog for Coolies.