The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

The House of Dies Drear

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The House of Dies Drear


Author: Virginia Hamilton


Page Length: 279


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: At first Thomas isn’t too thrilled about moving away again. He likes being near his grandmother; but, when his dad begins dropping hints about the mysterious new house he has in mind, Thomas’s interest is piqued. Soon he learns of the legend of Dies Drear. Drear was a landowner known for helping slaves along the route to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Drear and two of the three slaves he had been hiding were found murdered. Thomas learns of the great past of the house, its secret tunnels, and its mysterious secretive caretaker. Thomas’s new home is thought to be haunted. Strange things begin to happen. Vandalism occurs. And, Thomas is caught up in a plot to find the culprits and preserve the legend of Dies Drear and the great history the house represents before it falls into the hands of the wrong people.

REVIEW: This book is an excellent look at slavery issues, the Underground Railroad, and prejudice and hatred among the uneducated. Historically, the author does a great job of giving young adults an understanding of the abolitionist era. The story is action packed and full of mysterious events that will keep the reader guessing and turning the page to find out the resolution to the story.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  sequence of events, cause and effect, character traits, making predictions, analogies, historical context, context clues

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: issues of prejudice, vandalism, bigotry

RELATED BOOKS: M.C. Higgins, the Great, Second Cousins, Bluish, Zeely, The Planet of Junior Brown

SLAVERY RELATED BOOKS: 47, Dear Austin, The Land, Nightjohn, Kip: His Story, Bull Run, To Be A Slave, Harriet Tubman Conductor of the Underground Railroad

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Gone With the Wind (1939)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

December 19, 2010

The First Woman Doctor

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First Woman Doctor by Baker: Book Cover

The First Woman Doctor


Author: Rachel Baker


Page Length: 210


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY: It’s the early 1800s and Elizabeth Blackwell is a fortunate young woman. She’s been born to a progressive father who believes staunchly in equal rights. He believes in educating both his sons and his daughters broadly rather than confining the girls to studies of the home. He is the greatest champion for his daughters’ future success. Elizabeth will take the courage and determination she inherited and persevere despite hardships. She will often be told no – but she will not take no for an answer. Elizabeth wants to be a doctor, a surgeon, and even start her own medical school. Nothing can succeed in the face of such determination.

REVIEW: This is an excellent book. I love what it teaches everyone about courage and perseverance – where there’s a will there’s a way. Historically this book is also a great look at women’s rights, slavery, and even the treatment of the social classes. This book is an engaging and intriguing look into what early medicine was like (including the use of leeches).

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  sequence of events, cause and effect, character traits, making predictions, analogies, historical context, context clues

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: issues of prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: Mary on Horseback, After the Dancing Days, The Story of George Washington Carver

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Blackwell Story (1957)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson: Book Cover


Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Page Length: 316

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Historical Fiction

Career Connection: Military service, undercover work

PLOT SUMMARY: The setting is the New England colonies, 1776; the characters are Isabel (13) and her younger sister, Ruth.  They are African American slaves whose mistress has just died.  They should be freed upon the declaration of her death, but their relatives choose to sell them to the Lockton’s who live in New York City and support the British Redcoats during the Revolutionary War.

Isabel is protective of Ruth, whom Madam Lockton uses as her “pet” to impress society friends from Britain.  Ruth suffers from epilepsy which Madam Lockton cannot understand.  The book covers an eight month time span where Isabel is separated from Ruth, beaten and branded, cooks and serves the soldiers of King George’s army, and spies for George Washington’s imprisoned patriots.

Her hope in life is built on the influence of Curzon, a young fellow slave, who is injured in the war and is housed at the local hospital; and, Lady Seymour, sister in law of the dreaded Madam Lockton.

Contrary to most African American slaves of the time period, Isabel can read. After reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and being discovered as a spy, Isabel realizes that she must find freedom or die at the will of Madam Lockton.  She bids the severely ill Lady Seymour good-bye; then, returns to the hospital prison to rescue Curzon, in the hope that they can cross the water from New York City to the shore of New Jersey and travel to Atlanta to find Ruth.

REVIEW: I found this book interesting in its historical recalling of slavery in the northern New England colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Written from Isabel’s point of view, I developed a sense of empathy for her as she related her feelings of loneliness and helplessness in the world of aristocratic hierarchy.  Unlike most slaves I have read about, the protagonist can read and is quite intellectual and informed for a 13 year old.

The author uses similes and metaphors frequently throughout the book. At the end of the book, an informative Appendix and a Reader’s Guide are included.  This would be an interesting class novel to read as a study of the Revolutionary War, slavery in the United States, or African American history.  The book would be appealing to girls who enjoy American history.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Recalling Details, Historical Context


RELATED BOOKS: Octavian Nothing, Forge


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 8, 2009


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Author: Walter Mosley

Page Length: 232

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: 47 is the slave number given to young boy on the Corinthian Plantation when he was determined to be off age. Branded with that number on his left shoulder, 47 must spend his days working the field picking cotton and his nights chained up in a group bunk house. The overseer is a constant threat who often tortures slaves, kills them, or even hangs them from the hanging tree. 47 has all but lost his way until Tall John arrives. Tall John inspires and is inspired by 47 – who one day he says is destined to lead the masses to break the chains of slavery and be free.

REVIEW: The story was riveting in terms of its depiction of plantation life in the south. The horrors and detrimental effects of slavery were well portrayed – for this reason alone the book is an excellent source for making connections with students and history. The idea that any one person could be the chosen one who has a destiny far greater than he or she can comprehend is a beautiful theme. This theme can reinforce for students their own potential and the need to question their “place” in society. The spiritual aspect of the book and the other worldly origins of Tall John were more difficult to grasp – as well as the idea that demon spirits were capable of taking over other people’s bodies. The truth about how dark skinned people were treated inhumanely is accurately portrayed in the book. Even if the whole class didn’t read the book certain excerpts would be excellent for classroom examination and discussion. Overall the book was interesting and unique.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, compare and contrast, character traits, timeline, cause and effect, historical connections

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: language – “niggahs” (page 155), “dragged to the wagon wheel and chained to it hand and foot” (page 154), and many more language issues

RELATED BOOKS: Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, Black Betty, Little Scarlet, The Long Fall, Fortunate Son

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

December 8, 2008

The Wave of the Sea Wolf

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The Wave of the Sea Wolf

Author: David Wisniewski

Page Length: 28

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The Tlingit people were Native Americans who lived upon the land. The young Tlingit princess, Kchokeen, who was admired for her beauty and intelligence, went out seeking fresh berries. Her mother warned to stay away from the mouth of the bay where Gonakadet, the Sea-Wolf, has drowned many before. Kchokeen does not take the canoe to mouth of the bay, but she ends up there looking for berries. An unfortunate accident happens and Kchokeen meets the Sea-Wolf. Will he spare her life or will she be his next victim?

REVIEW: This book has wonderful illustrations and an excellent story line. It seems typical of the average Native American tale. It’s a short read and a good look at Native American beliefs – reliance upon the land – and understanding of the cycle when Kchokeen’s father says “I refused, for animals cannot be hunted without mercy and reverence.” The book also shows the conflicts between Native Americans and explorers/ traders. Good story – great ending – probably geared more towards an elementary audience, but a great short introduction to Native American literature.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, cause and effect, plot, author’s purpose, dialogue, origins of legends, connecting text to self, connecting text to text (history)

RELATED BOOKS: Golem, Rain Player, The Warrior and the Wise Man, The Secret Knowledge of Grown Ups, Tough Cookie, Sumo Mouse

RELATED MOVIES: “Pocahontas”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

December 5, 2008

Dear Austin

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Dear Austin

Author: Elvira Woodruff

Page Length: 137

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Dear Austin is a story written in letters from one brother to another. 11 year old Levi is in Pennsylvania under the watchful eye of Miss Amelia until his healthy enough and old enough to travel. Levi’s adventures with his friends, taking those awful dance lessons, and witnessing the prejudice in his town are detailed. One day, Jupiter’s sister disappears. Everyone fears that she has been taken by slave traders. Jupiter and Levi embark upon a journey to save her before it’s too late. Undeterred by the dangers that lie ahead, they are determined to bring her back. Will they be able to find her or will they become victims themselves?

REVIEW: This book was an excellent look at what life might have been like for a young boy during the 1850’s. The language and habits of the townspeople are what one would expect from a rural setting. The author handles the topic of slavery well. The reader experiences first hand the prejudice and racist feelings of a lady in town; Woodruff also introduces the reader to what it would have been like standing on the auction block. The story is moving and the ending realistic. This book is a great tool for teaching about slavery and the Underground Railroad in general without examining the depth of the atrocities that took place.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, cause and effect, internal conflict, external conflict, foreshadowing, elements of plot, author’s purpose, connecting text to historical text, context clues

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: slave auction, racist remarks and treatment

RELATED BOOKS: Dear Levi, The Orphan of Ellis Island, The Mummy Maker, Children of the Longhouse, Night John

RELATED MOVIES: “Night John,” “Spartacus,” “North and South: The Collection”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Jip His Story

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Jip His Story

Author: Katherine Paterson

Page Length: 181

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Did you know that during the mid to late 1800s people who had no income might have lived together on a poor farm? Jip, a young boy, is the backbone of the poor farm on which he lives. He milks the cows, cares for the all the animals, and does more than his fair share of chores. Everyone relies on Jip; one day, the town lunatic is brought to the farm to be housed in a cage. Jip befriends Put and helps him enjoy his life on the farm and never gives up on him no matter how deep his darkness runs. One day, Jip is approached by a stranger who claims that he knows a man who just might be Jip’s father. Jip senses danger and avoids the stranger – until the day that the stranger and the man come to town. Soon Jip is on the run for his life. Can he get away before it is too late? Why does this man seek him and what might his “father” want from him?

REVIEW: This is an excellent book. The reader is completely absorbed in Jip’s acceptance of his life on the poor farm and how responsibly he shoulders the burden for everyone. We feel Jip’s angst at the stranger’s continued appearances and fear for Jip’s life when he learns of his past and must run to keep from being captured and taken to a life of slavery. Connecting students to text and historical contexts would be easy with this text. Engaging and recommended! Jip teaches everyone compassion and hope.

Of special interest in this story also is the role of the country school teacher. She teaches Jip to believe in himself and that he is not stupid as he has been led to believe by those who wish to keep him in a certain role. She champions Jip’s education and becomes an important part of his struggle for freedom.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical connections, cause and effect, sequence, author’s purpose, connecting text to self, point of view

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: the issue of slavery, slave catching, treatment of the town lunatic (locked in a cage), alcoholism, social status issues

RELATED BOOKS: Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, Nightjohn, Lyddie



REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

October 17, 2008


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Author: Gary Paulsen

Page Length: 98

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Nightjohn tells the story of slavery in the deep south. Sarny is a young girl being raised by old Delie who raises all the young slaves. Sarny’s birth mother was sold off as a breeder when she was young. Sarny knows of all sorts of human atrocities. She has seen and knows of people being whipped, beaten, hung, and even raped. Delie keeps sticks to tell how she old is (about 12) and worries about the trouble coming to her. One day, a new slave named Nightjohn arrives. Sarny can tell that he is different than all the rest. She soon learns out why. Nightjohn can read (something slaves are forbidden to do). Nightjohn begins to teach Sarny and the troubles begin. Sarny loves making letters and is caught drawing them in the dirt. What lengths will Waller go to in order to keep what he considers his slaves from learning to read? Will they be willing to pay the price for knowledge anyway?

REVIEW: What a great lesson this book is about the value of education. Students can begin to explore why the slave owners wanted their slaves to be illiterate. This story is graphic but historically sound. The characters and the events in the story are well developed and moving.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical context, creating a timeline, predictions, causes and effects, summarization, question the text, comprehending impact on point of view, sequence of events, setting

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: pg. 44 “every time there was somebody to be on the wall … and be whipped or other punishments we all had to watch”

Graphic descriptions of whippings and salt being put in wounds while the wounded was left tied up for the flies to infect the wounds

Graphic descriptions of a beating and toes being chopped off

Language “god damn you — don’t you lie to me” pg. 63

RELATED BOOKS: The Crossing, Brian’s Winter, Hatchet, Good-bye and Keep Cold, Fallen Angels, The Island, The Foxman, Tracker, Dogsong, The Foxman, The River Between Us

RELATED MOVIES: “Nightjohn” produced by The Disney Channel



REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 23, 2008

Harriet Tubman Conductor of the Underground Railroad

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Harriet Tubman Conductor of the Underground Railroad

Author:  Ann Petry

Page Length: 242

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Biography 

PLOT SUMMARY: This is the story of Harriet Tubman who was the daughter of Ben and “Old Rit” Ross, slaves in Maryland in the early 1800’s.  Harriet was hired out by her master at the young age of six to help with housework and care for a baby.  She was not good at this and eventually returned to her master.  As Harriet aged, she was a strong woman and worked well in the fields.  She enjoyed this work more than the domestic chores she had performed when she was younger.

Although her master was good to her parents and family, Harriet longed for freedom.  She married John Tubman, a free man, and wanted him to move North with her so that she could also be free.  John was happy in Maryland and did not want to move.  Harriet was befriended by a free woman who gave her information as how to travel North through the Underground Railroad.  By 1849, Harriet had made the trip North and was living in Pennsylvania. 

Harriet worked to save money so that she could return to Maryland and help other slaves move north.  She had to be very careful, because of the Fugitive Slave Laws and eventually had to move as far North as Canada.  Harriet dedicated her life to working as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.  She helped more than 300 slaves move northward and became a spokesman for the fight for freedom.  She was known by her people as “Moses” for leading so many out of the bondage of the South.

 REVIEW: This is the third book I have read about the life of Harriet Tubman.  I enjoyed this book the most as it gave a more personal view of the struggles that Harriet experienced in her fight for freedom.  Ann Petry created a realistic setting of the road traveled on the Underground Railroad.  This is a good book for studying pre-Civil War slavery.  The reader is given a realistic view of the life of a slave.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence, Setting and Character

RELATED BOOKS: Frederick Douglas, Passage to Freedom, Many Thousand Gone, Harriet and the Promised Land


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 6, 2008

To Be a Slave

To Be a Slave

Author: Julius Lester

Page Length: 160

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Non-fiction

REVIEW: This book is a compilation of letters, poems, and personal historical narratives from actual individuals who lived during the time of slavery, many of which were slaves. The author has taken time to research the written records of these individuals from sources such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, The Federal Writer’s Project, and the Archive of Folksong Library of Congress. The majority of the letters are from sources dated around the 1930’s. Imbedded in the letters and poems is the author’s interpretation of what the individuals were trying to convey based on true historical context. In doing so, the author paints a very different picture of slavery from that in the history textbooks.

I learned much from reading the words of the people who suffered and endured the harsh times of slavery. Before Africans were captured from their land and taken aboard ships to America, the new American colonists enslaved Indians, poor whites, prisoners, and debtors for 18 years. After that period, the first slave ship set sail for Africa hoping to seek out a larger, cheaper work force with which they could easily control and profit from. Upon arriving in Africa, the colonists, with the aid of some of the African chiefs, coaxed over 50 million Africans onto slave ships and sent them over to America. On their voyage from Africa to the New World, slaves ate only yams – and only minimal amounts at that. Many died from suffocation or suicide.

Upon arrival to America, many slaves were auctioned off and sent to live with their new owners. While on the plantations, not all slaves supported each other. Some of the slaves assigned to a slave owners house, would spy on the field slaves for his master. To pass the time and maintain high spirits, slaves would sing songs, dance, and gather for fellowship and religious services whenever they could. Such activities were looked down upon by the slave masters. Slave owners wanted to keep their slaves focused only on work and obedience. Any sign of human socialization and affection, was denied at every corner. The slaves were even denied their own names. Many times when a slave moved to a new owners property, he would receive a new name – or just an initial. When some slaves thought it was safe, or just plain could not stand being enslaved anymore, they would escape to the North where freedom was calling. Along the way many died or were captured and sent back to their owners. Some slaves escaped to live with the Indians fearing the white men of the North were no better than the South.

Slavery was not just created for a cotton field work force. It was a major driving force in the economy. Some have equated slavery to the stock market and it’s financial effects on the country. Many slave traders earned up to half a million dollars in revenue from their business dealings. Some individuals even took part in slave breeding, which primarily occurred in Virginia. However, only 25% of the south’s white population held slaves. But of that 25%, millions of dollars fueled it’s economy.

When slaves were actually freed by the government, many African-Americans did not know what to do. For years, slavery was all they ever knew. For some, they were born into slavery. When the country officially granted slaves their freedom, they did nothing to ensure that these new members of society would be self-sufficient. Many freed-slaves went back to their slave owners to work.

On page 155-156, Thomas Hall states that the country freed the slaves, but did nothing to help them afterwards.

America was not the first and only country to allow slavery, but it was certainly the cruelest. This book is a great example of how through letter writing/reading one can understand the effects of slavery on America’s history. This book is best read in small chunks. The teacher may be the best source to choose which sections to read out-loud to his/her students. The chapters are divided up nicely by theme. I highly recommend this book!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: compare/contrast Thomas Jefferson and George Washington’s slave houses (page 62-63), visualization, reading letters, reading a diary, & reading a poem

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: the use of the “N” and “B” word is prevalent throughout the text, slaves are referred to as “things” throughout the book

RELATED BOOKS: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Red Badge of Courage, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman, The Glory Field, Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman, & Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: “Amistad” (1997), “Glory” (1989), “Roots” (1977 – TV miniseries), “Gone With the Wind” (1939), & “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

July 7, 2008

The River Between Us

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The River Between Us

Author: Richard Peck

Page Length: 164

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Tilly, Cass, and Noah live with Mama in Illinois. It’s the year 1861 and the Civil War is brewing. Much of the town is divided between supporting President Lincoln and those who sympathize with the Southerners. Tilly and Noah are twins who have always been close. Cass is different; she often sits up high gazing down the river crying for the lives lost on it.

One night a steamboat comes ashore and brings on it two young ladies, Delphine and Calinda. Delphine is a beautiful young southern belle who turns all the boys’ heads including Noah’s. Calinda is her silent, dark complected traveling partner. The two have come mysteriously from New Orleans. As the war draws near, Noah enlists. Delphine’s presence raises suspicions among the townspeople. A fateful trip to find Noah leads to unexpected discoveries about Delphine and Calinda. Delphine and Tilly find themselves nursing wounded soldiers back to health; and, the dreadful effects of the war and loss devastate and forever change the lives of the entire family. Years later in the family line, revelations are made and the young descendants of the family come to shocking but comforting conclusions about their ancestry and the strength and love that have sustained their family line.

REVIEW: This book was a National Book Award Finalist. I found in interesting to experience the war from the women’s point of view. Reading about the custom of placage (‘white men fathering families with their mistresses who were free women of color”) was new history for me. The customs of the time and of the southern woman, so adeptly portrayed in Delphine’s character, are well presented. The reader really gets a since of the time and the struggles. The pain of Noah’s mother and her depression over her son being in the war is also masterfully moving. A good read for historical perspective and a good look at the inner strength of the women of the Civil War era.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: mood, tone, setting, conflict, compare and contrast (Delphine and Tilly), conclusions, predictions (Why hasn’t their father returned home in 2 years?)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: suicide, death in War, reading the cards, prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: A Year Down Yonder, Strays Like Us, Fair Weather, A Long Way from Chicago, The Teacher’s Funeral, Gone with the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, Girl in Blue, Cold Mountain, Across Five Aprils, Red Moon at Sharpsburg

RELATED MOVIES: The Red Badge of Courage, The North and the South, Shenandoah, Gone With the Wind, Gettysburg, Glory      


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

July 1, 2008

The Glory Field

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The Glory Field

Author: Walter Dean Myers

Page Length: 375

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This novel tells the story of generations of the Lewis family. The story begins in West Africa in 1753 when Muhammad Bilal is captured, bound, and taken on a ship. Young Muhammad longs for his family, watches many of his shipmates die, and wonders what his own fate will be. He longs for his freedom. Next we meet, Moses and Joshua Lewis on a South Carolina plantation in the year 1864. They too are on a dangerous quest for freedom no matter what the cost. The story continues across the family tree in each generation concluding in modern times. The Lewis family must summon all of their strength and courage to overcome hardships that continue to present themselves in different forms to each generation.

REVIEW: I enjoyed the historical perspective this book provided. Myers did an exceptional job of helping the read feel the struggles of each generation. He truly relays how arduous the struggle for equality has been for African Americans. Different generational stories are told by both the males and females of the family – making the book equally appealing for all students. The novel is rich with historical connections and would make an excellent teaching tool.

The one thing I found hard to follow at times – or really that I wish he had done differently would have been to follow one specific family line all the way through instead of taking different characters along the way. However, the stories are woven together well; sometimes, just glancing back at the family tree diagram helps the reader keep it all together in their mind.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: author’s purpose, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, compare/contrast, sequence of events, symbols (shackles),  point of view, causes and effects

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: whippings, slavery, prejudice, cruelty, drugs

RELATED BOOKS: The Color Purple, Gone With the Wind, Up From Slavery, If You Lived When There was Slavery in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas

RELATED MOVIES: “Gone With the Wind,” “Roots,” “The North and the South,” “The Color Purple,” PBS – “Slavery and the Making of America”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

June 2, 2008

A Family Apart

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A Family Apart

Author: Joan Lowry Nixon

Page Length: 162

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: It is the 1850’s and Frances Mary Kelly and her five brothers and sisters live in New York. Her father died in the past year and her mother is struggling to survive and support her six children. All of the children do their part around the house. Mike and Danny go downtown to shine shoes, and Mary Frances goes to work with her mother. The family struggles to survive; Mary Frances travels the streets without even a pair of shoes. Mike, the oldest brother, is caught stealing and a difficult decision is made. Mother sacrifices everything to save Mike and to provide for the rest of her children. She puts them on the Orphan Train to Missouri.

The children are devastated; they miss their home and their mother. As the train chugs closer to Missouri they each fear for their safety and what fate awaits them. Will they find a home? How will their new “parents” treat them? Will they be able to stay together? What will life in pro-slavery Missouri be like?

REVIEW: Nixon does an excellent job of bringing historical fiction to life. The reader can feel the struggles of the family and their love. Nixon portrays the anger and shock the children feel at their mother’s actions vividly. Historically, the mannerisms of the people, the tensions of slavery in the states, and the roles of women at the time are accurate. Hardships appear but the Kelly children persevere and May Frances begins to understand how much her mother truly loved them to have made the greatest sacrifice of all.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: summarization, theme, setting, characters, point of view, conflict, sequence, cause and effect (mother’s actions), author’s purpose

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: issue of being put up for adoption

RELATED BOOKS: Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Pollyanna, The Thief Lord, Oliver Twist

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS:  Bruce Springsteen – Songs to the Orphan, Annie, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables (movie and mini-series)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

May 28, 2008

Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman?

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Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman?

Author: Patrick C. McKissack & Frederick McKissack

Page Length: 182  

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY: Sojourner Truth was actually born and named Isabella Van Wagner.  She was born in 1797 and lived as a slave for the first 28 years of her life.  Isabella had a large physique and worked hard for her masters. However, she hated slavery and became an abolitionist, activist, feminist, and preacher.  The book chronicles her life as a slave, then, tells of her first experience with the law, as she helps her son be freed. The story not only tells of Isabella’s life and why she changes her name to Sojourner Truth, but gives a history of slavery, and profiles leading figures in the abolitionist movement.

REVIEW: Although this book was full of great information and historical pictures, I thought it was rather boring.  I think the authors try to write in a different style, by giving the history of slavery and other people, but it seemed to take away the focus of Sojourner’s efforts.  There is a quote from a powerful speech she made at a religious conference on page 113-115.  It was given the name “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech; and, opened the issues of racism and sexism in the early 1800”s. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Compare/Contrast, Sequence of Events, Historical Context

RELATED BOOKS: Frederick Douglas Fights for Freedom, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Story of Harriet Tubman


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

May 16, 2008

Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman

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Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman

Author: Ann McGovern

Page Length: 60

Reading Level: 4.5

Genre: Biography


PLOT SUMMARY: The story of Harriet Tubman began in 1820 when she was born on a plantation in Maryland to the Negro slaves, known as Ben and Old Rit.  At only the age of 7, Harriet was sold to another slave owner to take care of a baby.  When the baby cried, Harriet’s mistress beat her with a rawhide whip.  When Harriet found the opportunity, she ran away.  However, being so young and fragile, she soon returned to her owner who took her back to her original master. 


Although she was young, she knew she did not want to live as a captive slave all of her life. When she heard others talk of the Underground Railroad and freedom in the northern states and Canada, she knew she would one day be free herself. 


Harriet grew and became stronger.  She worked in the fields on the plantation.  She met a free man, John Tubman and they were married.  However, Harriet had the desire to be free and John was not willing to move north with her, so she left him after four years of marriage.


Harriet did make it to the north, but was not satisfied with just being free herself.  She longed to help her family and other black slaves find their freedom.  For the remainder of her life, Harriet helped black people get their freedom.


REVIEW: This book would be good to use as an introduction to slaveryand the conditions of the south prior to the Civil War.  It is a quick read and would be a good book for a lower level reading student who is required to read a book dealing with slavery, the Civil War, or Civil Rights.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events


RELATED BOOKS: The Story of George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


May 1, 2008

Across Five Aprils

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Across Five Aprils

Author: Irene Hunt

Page Length: 227

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Jethro Creighton is nine year old boy growing up on a farm in Southern Illinois during the time of the Civil War. His sister Jenny is in love with the young school teacher, Shadrach Yale. Jethro’s older brothers and cousin have gone away to fight – all but one of them for the North. Jethro’s family knows loss well – four children have already died. What will happen to three off fighting in the War?

When Jethro’s father becomes ill, Jethro must assume the duties of manhood before his time. Plowing the fields and caring for the animals falls on his shoulders. He and young Jenny must help their mother manage affairs. Attacks on the family begin in retaliation for his brother’s involvement on the “wrong side” of the war. One of the boys deserts and Jethro decides that President Lincoln is the only one he can turn to for help. Will the war tear his family and his country apart?

REVIEW: If you are a history buff, you will love this book. Commanders and battles are described in detail. Teachers could trace the battles recounted in the book and create a map of happenings as they occur during the Civil War and in sequence throughout the novel. Jethro is a strong role model who weathers the storm, accepts responsibility, and battles moral decisions. He takes action and is able to empathize with both sides of an issue and to see that often there is no clear black and white to any issue.

Personally, I found the book laborious to read. I would like to have been spared the minute details of battles and commander inadequacies and given an overall perspective. I would not recommend this book for struggling readers below a sixth grade level.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, setting, cause and effect, sequence, bias, inferences, summarization

RELATED BOOKS: Killer Angels, Gone with the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, Girl in Blue, Cold Mountain

from Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War—nonfiction by Emmy E. Werner

“Come Up from the Fields Father” and “An Army Corps on the March”—poems by Walt Whitman

“Tenting on the Old Camp Ground”—song lyrics by Walter Kittredge

from When Heaven and Earth Changed Places—memoir by Le Ly Hayslip

“Lament of Ben Hai River“—poem by Nhat Hanh (translated by the author and Helen Coutant)

RELATED MOVIES: Gone with the Wind, The North and the South, The Red Badge of Courage


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

February 27, 2008

Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

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Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

Author: Margaret Davidson

Page Length: 80

Reading Level: 3

Genre: Non-fiction


REVIEW: I have read several of Margaret Davidson’s biographies and find Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom as the best written.  The story of Frederick Douglass is graphic in the descriptions of the treatment of black slaves in the early 1800’s.


Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1817.  He lived his first few years with his grandmother but he knew it was a matter of time until he moved to Old Master’s house to begin his life as a slave.  Frederick was fortunate, in that he was sent to Baltimore as a young man to work as a slave in the city.  There, he served as a companion to one of Old Master’s brother-in-laws, Hugh Auld.  Not only did this give him the opportunity to be well-fed and live in comfortable accommodations but the lady of the house, Sophie, taught him to read.  She did not know it was against the law to teach slaves to read.


Frederick was smart and continued to teach himself to read.  He knew he did not want to spend his life as a slave.  It took two attempts but Frederick did escape and moved to the North where there was no slavery.  He became a spokesman for the abolitionists and a friend of Abraham Lincoln.  He wrote books and helped fight slavery for 25 years. 


He was the inspiration for those who fought for laws that would protect blacks, for schools for the blacks, and for better jobs for the blacks until his death on February 20, 1895.  Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D. C.


This book was informative of the real life slaves led and the fight for equality that did not come until the end of the Civil War.  It tells of the fight Frederick Douglas continued to lead for African Americans after the war.


Frederick Douglas was the inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr. who continued the fight for freedom over 100 years after Douglass began.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Students who enjoy history would like this book.  It would be a good book as a supplement to the study of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


February 15, 2008

The Slave Dancer

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The Slave Dancer

Author: Paula Fox

Page Length:  138 (including a brief Italian glossary)

Reading Level: 6


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: The Slave Dancer is an emotional and revealing book about the slave trading practices in the South. Set before the Civil War, the book is a graphic depiction of the atrocities of slavery. Jessie, a thirteen year old boy, is growing up in New Orleans with his mother, a seamstress, and a younger sister. During the daytime, Jessie roams about playing his fife. Although he’s been warned by his mother to stay away from the slave market, his fascination often draws him near. Sent out for candles so that his mother can do her work to support the family, Jessie ventures out to his aunt’s house to borrow some. On his way his home is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship. With no hope for escape and no way to get word to his mother, Jessie is doomed to make the fateful voyage with the crew.


The crew (reminiscent of Treasure Island) consists of a hardened group of men. There Jessie learns the harsh realities of sea life. He witnesses violence, whippings, fear, and intimidation. Jessie learns that his ship is to carry slaves and that he has been taken to become “the slave dancer.” Jessie will play his fife to dance the slaves and keep them fit. Horrors continue to unfold as the slaves are secreted to the ship, shackled, and packed in tightly among the holds. The inhumane treatment of the slaves, Jessie’s own sickness at having to witness their suffering and pain, and the crews’ views of superiority are carefully blended by Fox to reveal how bad human behavior can really be. The reader feels for the slaves and wishes they too could free them from their fate. The captain forges in on despite all for he has money in his sights and the people in his way are disposable. The story ends with the pursuit of the slave ship by American ships, lives hanging in the balance, and a storm raging upon the ship. Who will live and who will die? What will become of the slaves still captive on the boat? Will Jessie ever return home? Fox answers all of these questions and more.


 I would recommend this book for use with students who are mature and able to handle the content. The book is very graphic; one feels sickened and sad when reading it. After I finished reading it, I was even more discouraged at how dark and twisted human nature can be. With an insightful and mature audience, the possibilities with this book would be endless.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: After reading, one could compare the other atrocities committed against people throughout history. Higher level thinking skills could lead to the analysis of: why this happens, why people become commodities who are so easily sacrificed, and how we can prevent this pattern from repeating in the future? 






REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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