Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction for young people

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

Precious Bones by Mika Ashley-Hollinger is my favorite Advanced Reader Copy this year. It’s partly a murder mystery, and it’s partly a tribute to a natural world which is being lost. But there’s also a depth to Hollinger’s novel that goes far beyond either of these two elements. That’s the biggest reason I’m recommending Precious Bones to anyone who appreciates quality literature for young people.

In the summer of 1949, all is going well for ten-year-old Bones. Idyllic days have been spent with her best friend fishing, hunting, and exploring the swamp that borders her family’s land. This peace gets interrupted when two real estate agents start poking around the family homestead. Her father, Nolay, drives them off with a loaded gun. His actions seem innocent enough until Bones finds Nolay’s knife nearby a buried human leg and then discovers his red handkerchief is gone too. Within the space of just a couple of weeks, two murders occur for which her father is arrested as the prime suspect. Then not only does the sheriff, but also Bones herself, start to wonder if everyone is really who they say they are.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, author Mika Ashley-Hollinger grew up on a small East Coast community in Florida surrounded by swamp and forest. In the former, one might live with pigs and raccoons and run into snakes and alligators. One will also be surrounded by beautiful greens and golds. Silver rains will fall in the daytime and stars will twinkle at night. Hollinger saw nature at its finest during her childhood, a heritage to which she pays glowing tribute to in Precious Bones. Within that world, thanks to there not yet being television and internet, there is room too for Bones to imagine explanations for the odd smells and noises she encounters in nature. And so more mysteries develop. As do more questions about who people really are or want to be.

The depth of Precious Bones can be found in the answers to those questions. For example, is Miss Eunice otherwise known as Soap Sally really a witch who kidnaps children? That’s what Nalay’s wild stories have led Bones to believe. And if Bones is right, what will happen when Bones is no longer able to avoid her? Or what’s the real meaning behind the sometimes cryptic words of Mr. Speed? Are they simply the ramblings of a man broken by war? This is what Bones initially thinks. But then she realizes his words may hold a clue to the two murders. Speaking of which, why is Sheriff LeRoy taking so long to solve the cases? Does he really believe in Nolay’s innocence or does he just visit to take advantage of the family’s hospitality? As he fills his belly, is he collecting evidence for or against Nolay? Not all is as Bones thinks. Or what the neighbors think. And in this realization, Bones starts not only to figure out who she can really trust but also to mature.

Hollinger wrote Precious Bones to give justice and honor to a time and place that no longer exist. Not only do I believe that she has succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written the type of novel one often doesn’t have the joy anymore to encounter. Precious Bones is partly a slow-brewing mystery, and it’s partly a sweet lullaby of a quieter world. And it’s also a complex kaleidoscope of eclectic characters, who together help Bones piece together the puzzle of life.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Think back to the early 1900’s when cars were just becoming popular, the Wright brothers were opening their pilot school, segregation still existed, and women didn’t yet have the right to vote. All of these describe the setting in Holly Moulder’s newest historical novel for young people, A Time to be Brave. While I feel that too many issues were crowded into a story of less than 200 pages, I did enjoy reading about the adventures of best friends Theo and Macie in this time period.

A historical setting that I don’t see often enough is that of the suffragette movement. Not only does thirteen-year-old Macie hear about the fight for women to vote, she finds herself pulled into the drama. Her mother’s photo ends up on the front page of the local newspaper due to her active role in the movement. In addition, when Macie’s mother takes her to hear a feminist speaker, the two of them are among those arrested.

Prejudice of another kind also rears its head in A Time to be Brave. A group known as The Night-Riders spreads terror through Montgomery, Alabama. Twelve-year-old Theo suspects they are responsible for his dad’s death. He knows that they’re guilty of beating up his school teacher and driving him out of town. They might also have caused Macie’s grandfather to have his horse accident. Unfortunately, Theo doesn’t have evidence to back up any of his claims. That is, until he spies the Night-Riders with dynamite out at an old cave and overhears their plan to blow up his family’s funeral home.

While both of the above two situations make for intrigue, either issue on its own would have made for a tense and informative story. Unfortunately, except for being arrested, Macie never ends up being really impacted by the suffragette movement. Oh, there are some snide comments about female drivers when she and her mother lose control of a car, but there’s not much else. Moulder misses an opportunity to educate her readers on this critical time in history.

Racism is better addressed. In addition to the conflicts I’ve already described, Theo faces repeated threats whenever he ventures to take public transportation. He also must deal having his sister dating a white guy. In the early 1900s, this was against the law. Yet even this storyline feels muddied with issues not related to the theme. To name a few: Macie is unable to read due to a disorder known as word blindness. Her grandfather is treated for Alzheimers. And the doctor for reasons unexplained is disliked by the family.

While I could have done without the message-driven plot, A Time to be Brave does have a charm. I appreciated the excitement over the aviation school. The maturing relationship between Macie and her grandfather felt poignant. I also enjoyed seeing Theo squirm when his sister became his teacher. Despite its flaws, there’s much to enjoy about A Time to be Brave. Holly Moulder remains an author to watch.

If you haven’t already discovered the award-winning author, Holly Moulder, check out a book by her today. Her historical fiction titles to date are: Eyes of the Calusa, A Cord of Three Strands, Crystal City Lights, and A Time to be Brave. Moulder is an author to watch. I’ll review A Time to be Brave tomorrow. Save the date: November 19!

HollyMoulderALLISON: Describe a moment as a child when you gave into fear.

HOLLY: I remember when I was about 6 years old, I was participating in a summer camp program. I didn’t like the leaders (I don’t remember why!) and my best friend wasn’t there. One day we were supposed to walk to the town’s fire station, and I didn’t want to go. Too far, too many strangers. I pretended to be sick to my stomach, and the leaders called my mom to come get me. I didn’t like being away from my home and my family.

ALLISON: What was your bravest moment as a child?

HOLLY: When I was 8, my dad had a severe heart attack. He was in the hospital over Christmas. My brothers and I worked really hard to make Christmas nice for my mom, even through she was very upset and worried. I was terrified my dad wasn’t going to live through the holidays (he did!), but I had to be strong and brave for my mom. My brothers and I wrapped presents, decorated the house….we did anything we could to take the stress off Mom. We learned to be brave as we worked together.

By the way, the title of my fourth book, A Time To Be Brave, refers to the last words my dad said to me. He died four years ago, and the last time I saw him he told me to take care of my mom. Then he said, “Remember, Holly, now is a time to be brave.”

ALLISON: If you travel back in time and give your teen-self advice, what would you say?

HOLLY: Be confident, be proud of who you are, don’t listen to those who try to hurt your feelings or make you feel less special than you are. Your dreams are going to come true, but you’d better be prepared to work for them!

ALLISON: This is my second interview with you. Catch readers up on highlights from your life we talked in the winter of 2013.

HOLLY: Last summer, in 2014, I was invited by Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to present a program on Crystal City Lights. My husband and I traveled to two other bases in Germany and got to meet lots of soldiers and their families. We also got to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams: we spent a weekend in Paris! And, of course, there’s my new book, A Time To Be Brave.

ALLISON: Have you ever given up on a writing project? Why?

HOLLY: I haven’t actually given up, but I’ve put them off to the side for later. Lately I’ve been researching a book about the telephone girls of World War I, but I’ve been so busy with other projects that I’ve had to stop working on that one for a while. Hopefully I’ll get back to it after Christmas.

ALLISON: Airplane travel is part of A Time to be Brave. What do you like/dislike about it?

HOLLY: I am from a very aviation-minded family. My older brother was a pilot in the Navy and now has his own airplane. He’s a flight instructor. My younger brother is a hot air balloonist. And I took flying lessons years ago. I soloed several times, but never got my license. That’s still on my ‘bucket list!’ So, as you can see, I love flying!

ALLISON: Women’s suffrage is also part your novel. What is the most interesting fact you’ve discovered about this movement?

HOLLY: I was surprised that the suffragists had to fight so long and so hard to get the vote for women. I was surprised that so many were arrested and spent time in jail. I will never take this privilege lightly, and encourage all women to exercise their right to vote. Other women worked so hard to secure it for us! Also, I didn’t know that the movement leaders did not like the term “suffragette.” They thought it was demeaning.

ALLISON: You’ve now written four published books. How has your life changed since the first one?

HOLLY: I’ve learned so much about writing, publishing, and marketing my books. I’ve also learned how to take criticism without getting my feelings hurt. Usually the things readers say about my books help my writing get better. I’ve also become a little bit of a celebrity. It’s kind of fun to be recognized when I’m out in public, especially when I’m with my granddaughter (the original Macie!)


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