Isabel, Jewel of Castilla

Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.

Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.

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This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.

Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.

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The Birchbark House

Why did I never get this book as a kid? I would have been full-on obsessed with this book. I feel like half this blog is me reading stuff I knew well as a kid and half of it is me discovering books and going “HOW IS THIS SO AWESOME? Some kids are so lucky!”

The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich, 1999.

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Man, Louise Erdrich is so great. Is there anything she can’t do? Her adult books are transcendentally wonderful, and I knew vaguely about the Birchbark House books but didn’t actually sit down and read them until, uh, last year. I know, shame on me. They’re so good! They’re usually compared to the Little House books, in that they’re stories about a young girl growing up and the details of her daily life, but they really pull no punches. In the Little House books you’re three or four books in until you really start to get a sense of some of the danger and fear in the Ingalls’ lives, but in Birchbark House? No such luck. Smack in the face with the hardship of life! No messing around!

But with all the really harsh harsh harshness, there’s Erdrich’s beautiful writing and some wonderful scenes that are just remarkably well put-together. Omakayas is such a fun and realistic little girl—she really wants to do good and help her family, but she’s like, eight, so she screws up and fights with her siblings and does other dumb kid stuff. It’s just so, so, so well put-together. Omakayas is actually adopted—her real family died in a smallpox epidemic when she was a small baby, and she was rescued by Old Tallow, the eccentric old lady who’s a friend of her family, and adopted by her parents.

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Pieces of the Past

Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.

Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.

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I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)

One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.

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War Nurse

One of my most absolute favourite things ever is when I get to discover new books that I missed as a kid! Granted, this one is because I did not grow up a child in the UK, but you know, details.

War Nurse: A Second World War Girl’s Diary, 1939-1940¸ Sue Reid.

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I totally adored this book. It’s sweet and heart-wrenching, and I think oddly enough that spunky is the word I’d put to it. It totally personifies that can-do, chin-up spirit that is so thoroughly and irrevocably associated with the Brits of the Second World War, and it’s blended so beautifully with sadness that it feels very real. It’s a book about an older girl targeted at younger girls, which can be a pretty tricky task, but it’s done fairly well here!

Kitty, whose friends and family call her Kitten, is a member of the VAD—Voluntary Aid Detachment, or a sort of emergency nursing corps who have been instructed to turn up as soon as war is declared. And we waste no time getting there on the very first page! Her brother Peter is joining up with the army, and she’s off to the military hospital at Standhaven, and while she thinks she ought to feel noble and brave, she’s mostly just scared and homesick and lonely without her best friend. Her roommate introduces herself only as “Nurse Mason,” and seems to be very tidy and serious—unlike the other girls who Kit went to nursing school with, who are all jolly and friendly and excited. Ugh, you just know it’s going to be tragic and sad, isn’t it? Of course it is, no WWII stories end well.

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