Hold onto your hats, I have a lot to say about this book. Mostly it is not good. Last week was a great example of the relaunched series. This week is not.
The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941, Kirby Larson, 2010.
This was the first new book in the relaunched series. It is not good. Kirby Larson is a fine author, but her work isn’t really to my taste. Yeah, I read Hattie Big Sky and it just didn’t do it for me. This is a long book, too, maybe the longest of the DA novels at almost 300 pages, but covering only a year and a half, which is fairly short for that much text.
The problem with the book is just the premise. It’s about Piper Davis, the daughter of a pastor to a Japanese Baptist congregation in Seattle, and they follow their congregation when they are interned in a camp. I really, really disagree that this is a story that needs to be told, because the bulk of the story seems to be “White girl feels really bad that her friends and neighbours are incarcerated.” My Name is America managed to do a decent job covering it, as did Dear Canada, but the difference was that both of those stories focused on actual characters who were being wrongly persecuted for their ethnic background. This story doesn’t have that impact, because Piper isn’t at any point incarcerated, and she seems more spoiled than anything else. I just really, really, really, really disliked this book. I will try my best to be fair. But no promises.
This is really the only book out of the Dear America relaunched series that I think is unequivocally excellent. Unfortunately, I hate the relaunched cover designs. I think they’re ugly as sin. Why did you have to go and muck with the traditional “detail of photo/painting with larger image behind it?” It worked!
With the Might of Angels: The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson, Hadley, Virginia, 1954, Andrea Davis Pinkney, 2011.
It’s mega depressing, and I would argue even more depressing than some of the books that are full of death (like, say, the Titanic novel, or the one about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) because it’s set in 1954 and yet it’s horrifyingly relevant. Nobody dies (thankfully), but it’s just incredibly bleak in the background. My only extremely minor nitpick about the book is that it starts out right with the “My name is X and I was born…” instead of letting it come out in the narrative, which is understandable in a book for kids but also led me to start out every single piece of writing that way for many, many years. (Also, Dawnie is named Dawn because she was born at dawn. Am I the only person who spent all of my youth wishing for a “meaningful” name because I spent all my time mainlining books like these where the protagonists were like “My name is Robin because just as I was born a beautiful robin began singing blah blah blah.” No one ever went “My name is Mary because my parents liked it.” I digress already.)
Anyway, Dawnie lives in Virginia with her parents and her younger brother Goober, who we learn in the epilogue has autism but throughout the novel is just generally termed “slow” or “special” because it’s the 50s. He’s obsessed with peanuts, hence his nickname, although he does have a real name—they didn’t put Goober on the birth certificate or anything. Her mother takes in laundry and her dad works nights at a dairy. And in her very first diary entry, on her birthday, she pastes in a newspaper clipping about the banning of segregation in high schools. Oh boy.
Dude, look at this cover. For a long time as a kid I was really confused about this cover because it looks like the character is carrying around a tray while the house is being slowly consumed by a fiery blaze, and she doesn’t know what to do. But there is no house fire in the book, so I think it’s maybe just a horrible design choice?
Finishing Becca, Ann Rinaldi, 1994.
Why do I remember Ann Rinaldi as being so much more interesting than she actually was? All of her books that I’ve reviewed so far fall somewhere between “super dull” and “what happened here in my memory?” They’re accurate, all right, but it’s like a combination between reading a very animated textbook and an extremely boring novel.
Becca, the titular protagonist, lives in the countryside outside Philadelphia with her mother and stepfather after her brother has gone off to fight for the Americans. When Becca’s father was alive, he was a master silversmith, and the family was in better circumstances, but now they live on a farm and manage to make ends meet, but just so. Her mother does dyeing and works as a seamstress for some of Philadelphia’s most elegant families, and tells Becca about all of the families and who’s related to who and all that. Becca internalizes this and feels that if she only had the trappings of a wealthy life (learning to dance and play music and speak French and all that), she could “finish herself.” Not in a Death Wish type way, in a completed way. Hence the title.
We’re into Deep Cuts territory with Dear America now, and this is the very last book of the “original flavour” series to be released. (I’ll get into the relaunch and newer books later. I have A Lot of Thoughts.)
Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, A Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909, Deborah Hopkinson, 2004.
Now, Deborah Hopkinson wrote a nonfiction book about life in the tenements in New York City, which was great, so this book is just bursting with colourful detail. This is a pretty strong note for Dear America to end on, with a really solid story—even if tenement life and the Triangle Shirtwaist story is relatively well-known, this is a nice addition. However, it shares a lot of similarities with the 2002 novel Ashes of Roses, which I will get to later, but I don’t think it’s close enough to really be that much of a problem, I’m just nitpicking.
The Royal Diaries series was launched a bit after the regular Dear America books, and while they started out with some of the most famous royal women in history, they did branch out quite a bit until about half focused on non-European women of colour. Which is a really terrific ratio for a YA book series, and I’m not about to trash them for that. But this one I happen to have out from the library.
Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria-France, 1769, Kathryn Lasky, 1998.
I think everyone knows the basics of the Marie Antoinette story—an Austrian princess who married the heir to the French throne, spent money lavishly and found herself at the focal point of court intrigue and revolutionary anti-monarchy sentiment, and was beheaded in 1793.