Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Day 179 – Island Boy


“Island Boy” is another charming tale of historical fiction from one of our favorite author/illustrators, Barbara Cooney.

Matthais is born on Tibbets Island, Maine and his life is inextricably tied to the sea. After traveling the world as a young man, he returns to the island to marry his sweetheart and raise a family. The story crosses generations, sprinkles in some Maine history, and also includes a fascinating map in the back for children and parents alike to pore over. The ending is a little bit sad, but the book is as charming and beautiful as you would expect from Ms. Cooney. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

Day 158 – Hattie and the Wild Waves

Another month, another theme, and another wonderful Barbara Cooney book we are able to work into our calendar. For June, we have departed (figuratively) for the beach, and today we came across “Hattie and the Wild Waves”, a beautifully written and illustrated story about a free-spirited little girl named Hattie who is inspired by the wild waves on the beaches of Long Island.hattie

Hattie is the youngest child in a German-American family living on Long Island, presumably around the turn of the century. Hattie’s father is a very successful home-builder, and her parents frequently host big parties for all their German friends and relations. There is plenty of food, including potatoes galore (clouds of mashed kartoffeln), followed by a retreat to the parlor where Mama keeps her two greatest treasures: her rosewood piano and a grand painting called “Cleopatra’s Barge”, a masterpiece by Opa Krippendorf…Hattie’s grandfather. Hattie’s brother Vollie is determined to be a successful businessman alongside his father when he grows up, and her sister Pfiffi has plans to become a beautiful bride. However, when Hattie tells her siblings of her wish to become a painter, they burst out laughing “Dummkopf! Little stupid head! Girls don’t paint houses.” but Hattie is not thinking of houses when she says she wants to be a painter. She is thinking of “…the moon in the sky and the wind in the trees and the wild waves of the ocean.”

With her tiny hands, Hattie is not able to excel at piano (her mother says will never get past The Happy Farmer), her needlework is uneven and her french knots are grimy. Standing still to be fitted for dresses, while her sister preens in the mirror, is particularly trying for restless little Hattie. “Trying to be pretty is a lot of work,” she confides to the cook’s daughter, Little Mouse. What she does love is making pictures – especially during the summer, when Hattie and her family go to their beach house in Far Rockaway. While she is at the beach, Hattie can draw, and wonder what it is that the wild waves are saying. One summer, however, Papa buys a new vacation house called The Oaks – larger and grander than Far Rockaway but nowhere near the beach. Hattie’s siblings, Pfiffi and Vollie are both very excited, but Hattie is unsure. The Oaks is nice; Hattie has a tamed macaw who can fetch tennis balls, and she and Little Mouse can walk arm in arm in the deer park and talk about what they will do when they grow up (Little Mouse will teach and Hattie will paint). But The Oaks isn’t Far Rockaway, and Hattie finds herself wondering: what will the wild waves be saying this summer?

Eventually, Pfiffi is married, Vollie becomes a successful business man, and Papa and Mama and Hattie all go to live in a hotel that Papa has built. Sometimes Hattie can draw, but often (too often) her time is taken up with shopping or playing cards with her mother. One night, however, Hattie sees a woman at the hotel sing her heart out on stage and realizes that it is time for her to paint her heart out. The next morning, a stormy day, Hattie goes to the Art Institute and then to Coney Island. The rides are shut down, but the fortune teller booth is open, and Hattie’s fortune card tells her that she will make beautiful pictures…and then the wild waves crashing on the beach tell her the same. When Hattie tells Mama and Papa what she will do, Mama smiles and says “Just like Opa”…but Hattie replies “no, just like me”.

We love this book, both for the beautiful old-timey illustrations we have come to expect from Ms. Cooney, and for the inspiring nature of the story. Not only does the book remind listeners to be true to themselves, but it stresses the importance of family and paints Hattie’s story against the backdrop of an immigrant family reaping the rewards of their hard work and living out the “American Dream.” After studying German for many years in high school and college, I also enjoyed reading aloud all the German words and phrases that Ms. Cooney worked into the text…it’s an acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it…it’s fun!

Day 140 – Boxes for Katje

We have been fortunate this year to have come across all kinds of outstanding read-aloud books; I have to keep a tab open on my browser for just to keep track of all the different ways to say “wonderful”! Today’s book, Candace Fleming’s “Boxes for Katje,” is no exception. Based on real-life events in the life of Ms. Fleming’s mother, “Boxes for Katje” is an uplifting tale of generosity – of strangers working together and reaching across an ocean to share some of their own good fortune with those in need.katje

After World War II, the country of Holland, like much of continental Europe, was devastated. What might otherwise have been considered basic necessities (soap, socks, clothing without holes) became extremely rare. Imagine the excitement in the Dutch town of Olst when Postman Kleinhoonte pedals up one morning with a package for little Katje Van Stegeran. In the box are woolen socks, a cake of soap, a chocolate bar (!), and a letter from an American girl in Indiana, named Rosie. Katje writes back to Rosie thanking her for the socks and the soap, but most of all for the chocolate: “Sugar is not found in Holland these days, so anything sweet is precious,” she writes. Several weeks later, a new box arrives from America – full of sugar! “No sugar? Yikes!” says the enclosed note from Rosie. The two girls continue their correspondence, and as Rosie learns more about the needs of Katje’s neighbors and friends she rallies her entire town to send increasingly large care packages of meat, powdered milk, socks, shoes, scarves and winter coats. After weathering a particularly cold winter with the help of their new winter clothes, the people of Olst – led by Katje – prepare a special care package for their American friends: a box full of Dutch tulip bulbs.

This sweet and inspiring story about basic human kindness was a delight to read together. I was particularly moved by the unbridled joy with which the people of Olst reacted to their gifts from America. The colorful and exuberant illustrations by Stacey Dressen-McQueen, which cover every page of the book, do a wonderful job of conveying that sense of joy and excitement. I recommend taking a minute as well to read the author’s note – “A True Story About Boxes” – at the end of the book for some of the real-life background for the story. We were fortunate enough to hear Ms. Fleming discuss this tale on an online author event at Read Aloud Revival. I thought it was especially neat to hear her discuss how this book was intended as a “thank you” to her mother for sharing all of her stories…and the pressure that Ms. Fleming put on herself to tell this story in a way that would do her mother justice. Well – it seems to us like she succeeded; this one is a treasure.

Day 101 – A Book for Black-Eyed Susan

Sunday April 10 was National Sibling Day in the U.S., and we marked the occasion with a touching story about family ties and the abiding connection between sisters. “A Book for Black-Eyed Susan” by Judy Young and Doris Ettlinger is a poignant work of historical fiction that manages at once to be heartbreaking and inspirational. The pages are filled with gorgeous watercolor illustrations that capture candid snapshots of pioneer life and panoramic views of the Great Plains.susan

As Ms. Young tells us in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, traveling on the Oregon Trail was not easy for the pioneers. Many families faced separation and one in every seventeen people died at some point along the journey west. Ten-year-old Cora must cope with tragedy on the very first page of the story when her mother dies giving birth to her little sister. Cora and her Pa rely on assistance from Cora’s Aunt Alma to care for the little baby, for whom Cora suggests the name Susan – inspired by her little sister’s black eyes and the Black-Eyed Susans which were her mother’s favorite flowers. One stormy day while Cora is inside the wagon taking cover from the rain, she pulls out her mother’s sewing box. Looking through the collection of scraps, Cora is reminded of experiences from her life in Missouri, of her extended family whom they had to leave behind, and of her mom. Realizing Susan will never know these precious memories, Cora decides that she will sew the scraps into a cloth book – a tangible bridge to the past for her little sister to better understand where she came from. When Cora’s Pa explains to her one day that he has asked Aunt Alma and Uncle Lee to raise Susan, Cora is heartbroken; Susan will be heading off to California, while Cora and her father will continue on to Oregon. Suddenly, Cora’s project takes on a new urgency, as she frantically works to complete her book before they reach the fork in the trail that she believes will separate them forever.

We really enjoyed this book. It is a definite favorite for our oldest who has checked it out from the library multiple times. The beautiful story manages to provide a little history lesson (something I particularly appreciate), and it is especially moving for us as parents of two girls. I can’t imagine being faced with the kind of decision that Cora’s father must make, believing that it is in his youngest daughter’s best interest for him to give her up, and separating his girls with no expectation that either will ever see the other again. We appreciated reading about how education was a priority for the pioneers upon reaching Oregon – it certainly was so for Cora. We also noticed an observation in Ms. Ettlinger’s bio on the back flap that really resonated with us, about the importance that people attach to home-made and well-used items and how they help us to stay connected to our history and our family. Most of all, however, I loved the way that all of Cora’s hard work on both her education and on creating Susan’s book pays off in the inspirational ending to the story.