Book Reviews and More

Hi! This blog is for my classes at Texas Woman's University.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Genre 5 - Historical Fiction reviews

Review for Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
* This review is coursework for LS 5603 at TWU

Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010. ISBN 978037585829.

            12-year-old Abilene Tucker has been a wanderer all of her young life, riding the rails with her father from town to town. But in the summer of 1936, her father sends her to his hometown of Manifest, Kansas, while he works on the railroad line.  While getting settled into her new home with family friend Pastor Howard, Abilene discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos from 1918. When Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, start digging into Manifest’s past, they discover the town has secrets that it’s not ready to share. Abilene starts visiting Miss Sadie, the town diviner, and the mystery begins to unravel; but will the stories lead to the town’s further decline or to redemption? As Abilene realizes her father’s role in the town’s history, she has to wonder – will he return for her, or is his past something that he will hide from forever?

            In Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool takes readers on a double journey into the past. This novel begins in 1936 with the struggle of the main character, Abilene, as she tries to find her way in a new town. Once she begins to investigate the town’s past; however, the story shifts to 1918, and the new characters of Jinx and Ned appear with their own story. Vanderpool weaves the two stories together, combining mystery with history.  Stylistically, the story is told with two different fonts – one for 1936 and one for 1918, which is helpful for readers to keep the story straight. There is also a list of characters included in the novel to help readers keep track of the many different people in the story. From the beginning, the setting of the book, Manifest, Kansas, is almost a character of it’s own. The town has an interesting history as a true “melting pot” of immigrants from around the world, many who have come to work in the coalmines. When entering the town in 1918, visitors are greeted by a sign that says “Manifest: A Town With A Rich Past And A Bright Future”, but in 1936, then faded sign only says “Manifest: A Town With A Past.”

According to the publisher, the reading level is ages 9-12, but older children can easily enjoy the book as well. Kirkus recommends it up to age 14, and Library Media Connection suggests up to 16. In the novel, Vanderpool explores themes that should appeal to readers of those ages, dealing with belonging, family, and forgiveness. Abilene’s inquiries help the town to take a look at its history, forgive itself for the past, and offers hope for the future. Rich details and word choice from the time period of both the Depression and World War I eras helps to create an authentic and nostalgic feel to the novel. In addition, the author’s note includes a glossary of some of the terms and historical events within the book to help clarify parts of the story based on real historical events or places. A list of sources and suggested reading is also included in the novel’s back matter.

Moon Over Manifest won the 2011 Newbery Medal, making Vanderpool the first author since Joan Blos in 1980 to win the award for their debut novel. Moon Over Manifest was a New York Times bestseller, a Junior Library Guild Selection and an NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Kirkus’ starred review said, “The absolute necessity of story as a way to redemption and healing past wounds is at the heart of this beautiful debut, and readers will cherish every word up to the heartbreaking yet hopeful and deeply gratifying ending.” Booklist starred review states, “With believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place, and well-developed characters, this rich and rewarding first novel is ‘like sucking on a butterscotch. Smooth and sweet.’”

Moon Over Manifest covers the time periods including the Depression as well as World War I. Topics such as immigration, coal miners, prohibition, and the Spanish influenza are introduced, so a range of opportunities for exploring history are opened up through the novel. Other Newbery winners touching on some of these topics include Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Year Down Under by Richard Peck, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. Other selections include Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss, Theodore Roosevelt: Letters From a Young Coal Miner by Jennifer Armstrong, the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan, the picture book Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression by Katie Lied, and the DK Eyewitness Books: World War I. Classroom or library activities could include researching the history of a student’s hometown or having readers make their own memento box of special items.

Quote from Clare Vanderpool: “I came across a quote from Moby Dick. ‘It is not down in any map: true places never are.’ That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be fore someone who has never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time?”


Donovan, Mary. "Moon Over Manifest." Moon Over Manifest. (accessed April 6, 2014).
"MOON OVER MANIFEST." Kirkus Reviews. (accessed April 6, 2014).

Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.

Review for The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
* This review is coursework for LS 5603 at TWU

Cushman, Karen. The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books, 1995. ISBN 9780547722177.

            The Midwife’s Apprentice begins in an unusual place – a dung heap. The main character, who has only known the name ‘Brat’ in her 12 or 13 years of life, is trying to stay warm by sleeping there. She is discovered by the village midwife, who calls her ‘Dung Beetle’, which quickly becomes her new name. Beetle is cold, starving and homeless, and is taken in by the midwife, Jane Sharp, as an assistant. Thus begins Beetle’s journey from waif to apprentice in the small medieval English village. Despite having a floor to sleep on, and small pieces of bread and cheese to eat, Beetle’s life is still difficult. She is the brunt of village boys’ jokes and often the target of their cruelty. Jane Sharp is a difficult and demanding woman, who worries about Beetle learning too much and surpassing her role as midwife in the village. Beetle befriends a cat, who becomes her constant companion, and eventually stands up to the boys who were taunting her. She begins to pay attention and learn the trade of the midwife. One day at the village fair, Beetle is mistaken for a girl who knows how to read – and she decides to take the girl’s name ‘Alyce’ for her own. When things go wrong during a delivery, Alyce runs away to a nearby inn; but after a while, she realizes that what she wants most is a “full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world,” and she returns to the village to make that happen.

            The Midwife’s Apprentice tackles an unusual subject for a children’s book – midwifery. Set in a medieval English village, The Midwife’s Apprentice rings true to the period with its setting, language, characters and intricacies of village life. Great detail is given in describing the daily life and routines of the cast of characters who inhabit Alyce’s world. Medieval medicines and herbal remedies are given in particular detail, especially those that apply to assisting childbirth. Cushman paints a realistic and sometimes crude picture of life during those times. While not delving into too much graphic detail, Cushman does depict the medieval practices of childbirth. While fascinating, it may not appeal to some younger readers who are confused or uncomfortable by the descriptions. Questions may definitely arise about some of the practices used by midwifes of the period, and Cushman provides an Author’s Note to explain some of the history of midwifes and their techniques.

            Throughout the book, it is enjoyable to watch the character of Alyce as she develops and grows from a homeless waif to a young lady with a goal and a purpose. Her journey to find her true self and her place in the world will most likely ring true to its tween and teen readers. Alyce’s strength in the face of adversity, and even cruelty, creates a memorable character.

            The Midwife’s Apprentice won the Newbery Award in 1996. It was an ALA Best of the Best Books for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the language of the book, “simple, poetic, and funny.” Horn Book calls it a “fascinating view of a far distant time.” School Library Journal highlights the “Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children’s literature.”

            Readers who enjoy The Midwife’s Apprentice should also try Cushman’s Newbery Honor winning book Catherine Called Birdy, as well as her other novels such as Will Sparrow’s Road and the Alchemy and Meggy Swan.  If the medieval life captures their attention, try other Newbery winners, Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi, The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Other nonfiction books with a fun twist include How Would You Survive in the Middle Ages by Fiona MacDonald and David Salariya, MacDonald also has several in a fun series of nonfiction history books including: You Wouldn’t Want to be in a Medieval Dungeon, You Wouldn’t Want to Work on a Medieval Cathedral, or You Wouldn’t Want to be Sick in the 16th Century by Kathryn Senior. For interactive activities, try Knights and Castles: 50 Hands-On Activities to Experience the Middle Ages by Avery Hart and Paul Mantell.

Quote from Karen Cushman: “I'm so proud and so moved when readers write me to tell me what a book meant to them or how it helped them or what it reminded them of in their own life.”


Cushman, Karen. The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.

Lane, Kirby. "Kirby's Lane: A Place for Readers and Writers: Karen Cushman." Kirby's Lane: A Place for Readers and Writers. (accessed April 8, 2014).

"Midwife's Apprentice." The Midwife's Apprentice. (accessed April 8, 2014).

Review for Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos – Audiobook
* This review is coursework for LS 5603 at TWU

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.
ASIN B005MM7FIG (Audible Audiobook – Macmillan Audio 2011)

            Dead End in Norvelt tells of all that can happen to an almost 12-year-old boy one summer when he is “grounded for life”. The character of Jack Gantos (attesting to some of the autobiographical elements of the novel) lives in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. His mom still loves the town, but ever since returning from the war, Jack’s dad wants to fly to Florida for a new start in life. The town is quickly disappearing off the map, as many of the original Norvelt residents are starting to pass away at an alarming rate. Jack is allowed to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, write the obituaries, and for each one, she adds a bit of history. Things around town get even worse when an autopsy shows that the residents have been poisoned, and everyone looks like a suspect. By the book's end, the mystery is solved and Jack finally gets un-grounded; but once he goes for a ride in his dad’s refurbished airplane against his mom’s wishes, he may just be back where he started.

            Dead End in Norvelt is a zany tale filled with all kinds of outlandish characters and situations. The character of Jack Gantos is a sympathetic and likeable boy, who quickly draws in the reader (or listener) into his world. Norvelt is more than just a town, it is truly a way of life. The town was developed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a community with affordable housing. The city of Norvelt and its future become a major focus of the book, as more and more residents are moving away or dying off. The author Gantos does a remarkable job of weaving history into the book. Readers will close this book having learned about much more than life in 1962, but also about centuries of the past. The author cleverly touches history through his creative incorporation of historical facts through Miss Volker’s obituaries, her “This Day in History” columns, and Jack’s own reading while he’s grounded.  However, readers never lose sight of the fact that they are firmly in 1962. The author’s details about the time period, from the types of cars driven to the types of storage bags used (wax folded bags) truly give the story an authentic feel.

          One word of warning though for the faint hearted, the book definitely has some cringe-worthy moments. Throughout the story, Jack has a problem with chronic nosebleeds any time he gets upset or excited about something. Well, with all the crazy things going on in Norvelt, Jack gets A LOT of nosebleeds, and the author spares no detail in describing them, as well as the rising body count at the funeral home. Despite the more macabre moments, the author manages to pull off charm, sensitivity, humor and heart throughout the story.

            The Macmillan audio version of the story (2011) is read by Jack Gantos himself and is an excellent way to experience Dead End in Norvelt. Gantos seamlessly switches between the voices of the characters. Most distinctive, of course, is Jack Gantos’ version of Jack Gantos, which rings true as a 12-year-old boy. At the end of the audiobook, there is an interview with the author. Gantos helps explain how much of the story is completely original, and how much is based on his own upbringing in the town of Norvelt.

            Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2012. Horn Book starred review states, “There’s more than laugh-out-loud gothic comedy here. This is a richly layered semi-autobiographical tale, an ode to a time and place, to history and the power of reading.” In the Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac, Anita Silvey says, “Norvelt weds slapstick comedy to historical fiction and a mystery novel, an unusual blend of elements that keeps readers guessing about what is really happening in town until the final pages.”

            Fans of Dead End in Norvelt will be happy to know that the sequel From Norvelt to Nowhere is now available. Readers may also like Gantos’ popular Joey Pigza series, including National Book Award finalist Joey Pigza Loses His Key and Newbery Honor Joey Pigza Loses Control. Older readers may want to read Jack Gantos’ autobiography Hole in my Life. Readers who want more historical fiction with male protagonists can try The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Other authors who write strong male characters include Gordon Korman’s books such as Ungifted and Schooled, Louis Sachar’s Holes and The Cardturner, and Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot and Chomp. Activities based on Dead End in Norvelt could include creating a ‘Day in History’ column and making a timeline of all the historic events mentioned in Miss Volker’s obituaries.

Quote from Jack Gantos: “The main reason that I’m a children’s author is that I know that kids are the best readers. You know how to live in books, how to imagine books. You can travel emotionally and mentally into books. You are the most absorbent readers there are. I feel lucky to have you.”


Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

Gantos, Jack. "Jack's SECRET TIPS for Aspiring Authors." Jack Gantos RSS. (accessed April 9, 2014).

Silvey, Anita. "Book-A-Day Almanac." BookADay Almanac RSS. (accessed April 9, 2014).

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