How many stories do you know of that deal with severe disfigurement and war injuries? This one! I promise it’s way, way better than the summary I just gave you.
Brothers Far From Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, Uxbridge, Ontario, 1916, Jean Little, 2003.
Now there aren’t a lot of books that cover the First World War with the grace and fluidity that this one does, and there’s vanishingly few other books that cover disfigurement and the postwar experience for a YA audience. I love Jean Little, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many thousands of times before to anyone who will listen, and her own experience with disability really gives this book an aspect of gravity and beauty that I don’t know if it would have had otherwise.
This is a pretty heavy book (as are many First World War books, since as you know there was a great deal of death involved), but it manages to have its moments of comedy without going overboard with it. It’s a remarkably well done little bit of literature. Let’s get going.
Eliza is in the middle of seven children who belong to a minister and his wife in Uxbridge, which is actually not too super far from where I live (which has nothing to do with anything other than being a interesting fact for myself). You know, I feel like the trope of Lonely Middle Child has been somewhat abandoned in recent years, since families with a LOT of kids don’t show up in a lot of literature anymore. Eliza suffers from “not old enough to be with the older kids, too old to be with the little kids,” and has to share a room with her older sister Verity, whom she hates—mostly because Verity sees her as a little kid. It’s hard as an adult not to sympathize with Verity a bit, though—she’s seventeen and hanging out with their brother Jack, who is on his last leave before heading overseas, and his best friend Rufus, same. This is one of those things where as a kid, you’d be on fire with righteous indignation, but having been through the misery of your late teenage years, you completely, completely understand.
I will never, ever, ever learn. These books are tragic and they’re all the same!
Impetuous: Mattie’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
This book has a lady dressed in suspiciously well-cut and ladylike men’s clothing, including FRINGED PANTS. Unforgivable. So you know that right away this is a Girl Dresses In Dude’s Clothes kind of story, and it’s going to involve a shoddy romance plot at some point as well. Realistically that’s all you need to know, but I’ll go through with it anyway.
I already know I’m going to hate it when Mattie is one of those horrible YA protagonist who’s all “I hate frilly feminine things!” and packs herself up to move to California by herself at sixteen. I normally don’t like to critique how historically realistic these books are, but this is not. It’s just not. No 16-year-old girl who was as gently raised as Mattie is said to be would sail to California, by herself, with no escort, before the Civil War. This is already appalling on zillions of levels. But okay. Whatever. So Mattie and her older sister, Ivy, opted to go to that mining town and become miner’s brides, although it’s never fully explained why a 16- and 17-year-old girl wanted to do so in the first place. But whatever, they’re there, and Ivy is “a newspaperwoman,” and Mattie does odd jobs hauling….stuff in a wagon? But she doesn’t even own her own so she just borrows them from friends to haul stuff? This is all so weirdly and poorly explained.
Now that I’m looking back on my copy of this book, which I got in 1999 when it came out and I was precisely in the target range for these books: this cover illustration seems a little inappropriately seductive for 11-year-olds.
Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, Egypt, 57 BC., Kristiana Gregory, 1999.
A couple of things—I would have thought that Cleopatra would not be at the top of the list for a series about female rulers, given her sexualized legacy, but this is a series that also did Catherine the Great, so whatever. Given that, one of the places where the diary-style novel tends to fall down a little bit is when you’re depicting a culture where a diary is a little hard to swallow. So the premise here is that Cleopatra, at twelve, is writing on papyrus scrolls to record her days. I can live with that in the interest of writing a book set in 57 B.C.
Also, I know almost nothing about ancient Egypt (does this even qualify as ancient? See how little I know about this time period?) besides what you can glean from Wikipedia, so I have no idea whether any of this is accurate at all.
One of the only subjects to have a Dear America, Dear Canada, and My Name Is America book each on the topic is Japanese internment. However, the way it’s treated in each book is vastly different. Last week we did the (horrible) Dear America relaunch, and last year we did MNIA. Let’s see how Dear Canada does with it. (Spoiler alert: This is the best of the three.)
Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941, Susan Midori Aihoshi, 2012.
The fact that Canada interned its Japanese citizens is one of its most horrible chapters, but there are very few books focusing on it for a youth audience. This is Aihoshi’s first novel, and she’s really doing yeoman’s work in producing a great and engaging novel without descending into melodrama. She is a third-generation Japanese Canadian herself, and her own grandparents and parents were interned during the war, which lends it a certain poignancy. It’s head and shoulders above either of the other attempts at novels on internment, and even the really minor quibbles I have with it have nothing to do with the central message of the book.
The protagonist, Mary, is twelve years old and lives in Vancouver with her parents, grandfather, and five siblings. She’s very bubbly and outgoing, which is nice to see, expressly because lots and lots of YA protagonists are bookish, shy, and nerdy. (I get why—that is their primary demographic, and I was a bookish and shy kid myself—but it’s really nice to see a character who’s super outgoing for a change!) She has three best friends (one Japanese, two white), and she gets a bunch of cool presents for her birthday: bobby socks and pencils and sparkly barrettes and Maple Buds (that’s a candy, American friends) and a Hollywood magazine and a little camera. Her parents have agreed to let her go berry picking over the summer to earn money to go to Girl Guide camp, and it generally seems that life is pretty damn perfect for her.