A Picture of Freedom

I have been putting off this book for a long time and I don’t know why! It was one of my favourites as a kid, despite its extremely depressing plot, almost entirely due to the fact that it has a Scrappy Underdogs Win plot (well, sort of) plus Love Against The Odds, which I am a sucker for and clearly have been ever since the age of ten.

A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, A Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859, Patricia McKissack, 1997.

clotee

Patricia McKissack is a great author, and I love her writing, and I love that Dear America had her do three books (plus a Royal Diaries book!), but I just wish they had branched out to include some of the other fantastic YA writers of colour. Bigger, better question: why aren’t there more YA and children’s authors of colour out there? That is too big of a question to get into here, but I’ll settle for saying that Patricia McKissack is great and everything she writes is worth reading, and this is no exception.

I always felt kind of bad about the cover styling of this book, though. The cover portrait is from a Homer portrait, The Cotton Pickers, which is of two young black women picking cotton (duh), and it’s a lovely picture, but I feel like the detail in particular is a little….lacking? I mean, now that I’ve sat here examining it for a while I can see that the girl in question is wearing a high-necked dress, but at first glance the abstraction of the portrait leaves the cover looking a little bit on the drab side. Maybe I’m crazy. Am I crazy? Look and tell me.

Also, if I’m not mistaken, I wonder if the name “Clotee” is derived from “Clothilde?” In a sort of roundabout, Southern-accented, slave-name kind of way? Feel free to tell me I’m insane, I’m just spitballing wondering now.

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Constance

I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.

Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.

constance

Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.

Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.

I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.

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Sarah Anne Hartford

Does anyone else remember these books? If my cursory Googling is anything to go by, the answer is no. These were a cheap knockoff of the Dear America books, except the main differences were that the DA books were actually in diary format! What on earth is the point of a series called “American Diaries” if the entire book is a regular old book with a 3-page diary entry at the beginning and end? Cop-out! The other difference is that the DA novels dealt with issues with grace and humour and occasionally really excellent writing, while all these books…..do not. Anyway, my childhood library had scads of these books and for some reason I owned one, but I had no idea there were so many of them! There’s nineteen! They’re all by Kathleen Duey, whose work can be described as “workmanlike” at best and downright strange at worst! (She did write the outstandingly bizarre Louisiana Hurricane that I reviewed here.)

Fine, let’s see. This is a rare example of a book I haven’t reread since buying it, since most of my childhood books are splayed open, stained with crumbs, or otherwise bear conspicuous signs of love. This book could be new. It’s a first edition, which means I got it new in 1996 when it came out, and the price on the spine is $3.99. Wow, remember when new paperbacks cost only $4? That was great.

American Diaries: Sarah Anne Hartford, Massachusetts, 1651, Kathleen Duey, 1996.

sarah hartford

This book is 142 pages long and contains maybe 6 pages worth of actual plot. Every single thing that happens is streeee-e-e-e-e-etched out with wildly dull descriptions. There’s like a whole chapter devoted to “Sarah cooks dinner.”

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Catherine: The Great Journey

What an odd choice for a YA novel. And…interestingly executed, we’ll go with that.

Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia 1743, Kristiana Gregory, 2005.

catherine the great.jpg

This is the last installment in the Royal Diaries series (before the halfhearted relaunch), and it’s…different. It’s much shorter than most of the other books, and it’s such an odd choice since Catherine the Great is associated so strongly with licentiousness and autocratic Russian rule. (Even more so than Anastasia, I’d argue, since that story has acquired a lot of romantic cultural twists.) Even though it’s not true that Catherine the Great died in flagrante with a horse, she certainly did have a bunch of lovers and more or less did as she pleased after the death of her husband. And before his death. And while possibly being involved in his death. While I wouldn’t say that her story is inappropriate for younger teens, I would say that her story is infinitely better suited to an adult audience where you can take advantage of all the ready-made drama. Much like the Tudor court.

But since this is a novel about her youth, that doesn’t come into play so much, and what we’re left with instead is a bit on the meek side. A little short, and while it has a lot of interesting points, it feels a little wanting. And similarly there’s very little indication of the very strong personality Catherine had—she was an immensely powerful and intelligent ruler, but the Catherine in this book come off as a bit on the weak side. Part of that is due to her position, but because the epilogue is so short and wimpy it loses a lot of its potential.

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Anacaona: Golden Flower

Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about Caribbean history in general and Haitian history specifically, but wow. How outstanding was this book???

Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490, Edwige Danticat, 2005.

anacaona

This is such an interesting novel in a period that is almost never ever ever a focus for any type of fiction in English: pre-Columbian-contact in the non-North American Western Hemisphere. Seriously. Name one other work of fiction for any age range that deals with any part of Central or South America pre-Columbian contact. Totally pre-contact, not “the white people show up at the end.” (Apocalypto doesn’t count.) Why so ignored? It’s so fascinating, and Danticat does such an excellent job of descriptions that it comes alive even for people like me who are (sadly, pathetically) pretty uninformed about Haitian history or indeed Caribbean history in general.

This is one of those interesting books in the series where the diary style is used with a culture that didn’t have a history of written language, so we need to handwave a little bit of that, but once you get past the initial dating system (season, phase of the moon, day, e.g. “The sunny season, first quarter moon, day 1”) it isn’t a distraction any more. Honestly, I think it works really well even discussing cultures that didn’t write, because by allowing the narrative to flow in this way is such a great way of delving into the narrator’s thoughts rather than a recounting of events. Anacaona is sixteen at the outset of the book and about eighteen by the end of it (if I’m counting correctly), and is married with a child by the end as well, so it’s definitely a bit more on the more mature end of things than, say, the Elizabeth I novel. But I would venture a guess to say it’s actually better, and I enjoyed it more afterwards.

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