Archive for October 30, 2013

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death and a Boy Called Eel

Written by Deborah Hopkinson

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Eel is an orphaned boy on the streets of London with a precious secret to keep and a vile-tempered criminal stepfather searching for him. He sleeping under bridges and works as a “mudlark,” foraging what he can out of the filthy Thames River to sell.

In August of 1854, Mr. Griggs, a local tailor who treats Eel kindly and lets him do odd jobs for pence, gets ill suddenly. Only days later, he becomes more ill, turning his face and lips a blue hue just before he dies. Neighbors know it is the cholera, known as blue death, that has come to the hot, humid city. Most people of the time period believe that sickness is caused by the bad air.

Not Dr. John Snow (a real physician), he believes the deadly disease is carried in the water. He gets Eel to help him interrogate the neighbors who have lost family members, draw maps of the city and try to convince the town leaders to disable one centrally located water pump before the whole city dies.

The story is filled with intrigue, excitement and the scientific method put to work. Eel and his friends are instrumental in solving the life threatening riddle.

Literacy skills required to enjoy this novel are cause and effect, parts to whole relationships, main ideas with supporting details and separating fact from fiction. This book will work well for science book clubs as well as history and English classes. Librarians will want to include it in middle grade book clubs to discuss how science had to deal with myths and legends to help people realize that some illnesses were within their power to avoid and contain.

Extras: Endpages contain the timeline of the Broad Street Cholera Epidemic, Author’s Note, Related Reading Resources

  • Great TroubleTitle: The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death and a Boy Called Eel
  • Author: Deborah Hopkinson
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 249 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-375-84818-6
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

The Other Side of Free

Written by Krista Russell

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The year is 1739, the location northern Florida near the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Thirteen- year-old fugitive slave Jem has just arrived from Charles Town in the Carolinas with Phaedra, a feisty black runaway woman, who has been “paid” by Jem’s caregiver, conjure woman Aunt Winnie, to escort Jem to Florida and look after him.
Why would Jem and Phaedra want to go to Florida?  Florida was controlled by the Spanish government. Spain had offered freedom to English colonial slaves if they fled the British colonies, swore to assist the Spanish in defeating the British, and converted to Catholicism. A group of fugitives lived at Fort Mose, just outside the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. About the same time, a slave uprising occurred along the Stono River near the Florida-Georgia border. The British colonists slaughtered or sold many rebels.

Krista Russell, according to her website, writes “stories of adventure that bring history to life.” She has succeeded in this case. Once Jem and Phaedra arrive at Fort Mose, the adventures begin: rescuing an owl, meeting the trader Reynard, learning to fish and hunt the Indian way from Domingo, arrival of other fugitives, encounters in the forest, threats from the British, scarce supplies, preparing for battle, and the battle.
The story line drags a bit at the beginning, but reaches a flashpoint and firepower speed when Jem spies several British soldiers, and British ships blockade the St. Augustine harbor. All the fugitives gather in the Castillo for safety, but supplies are low. Jem learns about what the British have done to Fort Mose. Consequently, the Spanish authorities develop a plan to defeat the British soldiers at Fort Mose based on Jem’s reports.

The characters are many and diverse, each having his own story to enrich the general narrative. Jem is an immature and naïve thirteen, resentful of strong willed Phaedra and missing Aunt Winnie. Jem’s and Phaedra’s strong stubborn wills clash. Phaedra’s history remains a mystery until the final chapters. Reynard, the trader, adds the historical details about the importance of trading with the Indians and the British and American colonists, not only providing goods but also news. Big Sunday is the leader of the slaves and connection to the Native Americans via his son Domingo and connection to the Spanish governor and general who live in St. Augustine. General Rooster is what the slaves have nicknamed General Rojas who trains the fugitives to help fight off the British. Shadrack is the old conjure man who is the fort charcoal maker.

Interspersed throughout is the owl, Omen, that Jem rescues from his nest when he observes crows attacking the owlet. Phaedra dislikes and resents the owlet and the time Jem  spends feeding it, mending it, teaching it how to fly, and, finally, hunting for itself. However, Omen teaches Jem about the forest and the ways of the forest that help Jem provide information during the siege

Several strands of the narrative seem extraneous.  While Jem thinks about his Aunt Winnie, he remembers her stories, the stories of trickster Brer Rabbit and tells them to Omen. General Rojas propositions Phaedra, who rebuffs him. Why is that short episode needed in a story for middle grade readers?  Could other descriptions, examples, information have been used to establish the personalities of Rojas and Phaedra? Neither does the element of conjuring, while providing additional richness to the African-American culture, seem to be necessary to the forward movement of the general thesis.

Few books have been written for upper elementary/middle school readers about this period and location in America history. Most emphasis has been on the British colonies and the use of slaves on the southern plantations. Historians now consider the Fort Mose site and the flight of the slaves from the Carolinas and Georgia as the precursor of the Underground Railroad that took many slaves to safety in the north or to Canada. Russell’s previous book Chasing the Nightbird was a NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People in 2012; Other Side of Free will probably also be included in that honor listing.

Extras: Author website
Fort Mose Historic State Park:
Castillo De San Marcos:;
Stono River Slave Rebellion Site:

  • Other Side of FreeTitle: The Other Side of Free
  • Author: Krista Russell
  • Publisher: Peachtree, 2013
  • Reviewer: Marion Mueller
  • Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-710-6
  • Reading level: 4.9

Prettiest Doll

Written by Gina Willner-Pardo

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A coming-of age story and a story of self-acceptance and acceptance of the world are all packed into this novel. Teens and preteens will appreciate its ease of comprehension.

Liv, Olivia Jean to her Mom, has grown up in the world of beauty pageants. She entered her first pageant when she was three years old. She is thirteen now, a ten-year veteran of the pageant universe, and tired already of its incessant demands and restrictions. This is not how she wants to spend her life.:


Then I stared at the mirror some more. It was the weirdest thing. I wasn’t there. I had disappeared. Suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath. It was like being underwater or buried in the ground, the feeling I had — that I was invisible, that I could scream and no one would hear.


She recognizes her mother’s struggles, but does not want to live her mother’s dreams. Into this world comes Danny, a seventeen year old who looks like he is ten. Danny’s mother also has dreams for her son’s life, whether he shares those dreams or not. He leaves home, hoping to make his way in the world.

Liv sees that as a way to escape her mother’s demands. She leaves a note for her mother and joins Danny on his journey. But running away is not the only answer. What the two learn about the world, and about their own strengths and capabilities is what gives this book its depth.  Sure to bolster the reading skills of young readers.

Additional information:

Author Bio:

  • Prettiest DollTitle: Prettiest Doll
  • Author: Gina Willner-Pardo
  • Publisher: Clarion Books, 2012
  • Reviewer: Anjali Amit
  • Hardback:  240 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-68170-2
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Lexile Score: 680