Historical Hysteria

What is it about history that makes it so intriguing? Our innate desire to understand where we came from? The challenge of figuring out how we came to be where we are today? The drama of past events and the personality of the characters involved? A drive to dig deeper into the facts of history to pull out a somewhat complete story?

All the above?

Whatever the reason, the power of history draws us in like no other area of human study. History seeps into the cracks of everything because everything has a history. The middle-grade years are not immune to the magnetic draw of history. In fact, it is probably at this age where history is most appealing.

History is more than facts and dates. It lived and breathed. Each historical event documented in a single paragraph of a textbook has been distilled, sifted, cleaned up, manipulated, and finally written from a library-sized store of viewpoints, documents, accounts, and physical artifacts. That is the beauty of history. It is alive. It is vibrant. It shifts and changes with discovery and time.

As a reader and a writer, I am crazy over history. Researching history is a rabbit hole for me. I often get lost in the deep forest of the topic and have to force myself back on the intended path, while jotting notes of interesting things found in the deep forest, of course. I do have a special place for history. Maybe it’s because I’m creatively still stuck in a middle-grade mindset. Maybe it’s because history is a nice balance to my professional life in science.

Whatever the reason, I am drawn to history, especially the American Civil War. Growing up in Kansas City, I have a particular interest in the Border War between pro-slavery Missouri and Free State Kansas. This conflict was the lit match that ignited the powder keg of the Civil War. So many little stories surround American Civil War and the wealth of information in diaries, personal accounts, newspapers, magazines, photographs, and books, provides resources. A writer’s dream.

One of the beautiful things about history in literature, besides there being a nearly infinite source of subject matter for the writer or reader, is its seamless integration into both fiction and nonfiction. A piece of history works in historical fiction as a dramatic foundation on which to build the fiction upon. The piece of history performs just as well as the central component in nonfiction, where the actual facts and occurrences are under the spotlight. Narrative nonfiction appeals to me, in particular, because it artfully weaves the facts to present them as an engaging story.

As we stand at the edge of the winter/holiday season and contemplate a “historical” reading list for those long, cold, windy nights (at least like we have here in Kansas), I’ve assembled two TBR suggested titles list of historical middle grade books. The first is a historical fiction list of middle grade books with a heavy influence of time, place, and event. The second list is historical nonfiction, many of the narrative variety. (I feel I should probably apologize for the large percentage of the nonfiction list being from Steve Sheinkin, but HIS BOOKS ARE AWESOME. It is no small wonder middle grade readers flock to his books where history not only comes alive, but jumps off the page.)

Each list consists of ten books. Each list could have easily have been 50 books. There is so much great middle grade historical fiction and nonfiction out in the world it was hard to leave fabulous books off my lists. Since there exists a finite amount of bandwidth, though, the self-imposed limit was set at ten. If you have favorite historical middle grade books to add or comments on my humble list, please leave a comment. I am always looking for more historical reads.

Ten TBR Historical Fiction Titles


1. OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt
Troubled family life in 1968 New York.
A modern retracing of Crazy Horse’s life in the 1870’s by a grandfather to his grandson.
The Klondike Gold Rush, 1896
4. HOW I BECAME A GHOST by Tim Tingle
Choctaw Trail of Tears, 1831
5. ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia
Civil Rights in Oakland, CA, 1968


6. MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool
1918 WWI & 1936 Depression in Southeast Kansas
7. HIDDEN ROOTS by Joseph Bruchac
Native identity in upstate NY in 1950 and the Vermont Eugenics Survey ~1930’s
8. BOXERS AND SAINTS by Gene Luen Yang
China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900
9. WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary D. Schmidt
Long Island, 1967-68. Vietnam, religious identity
10. THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by Louise Erdrich
1847 Ojibwa community in Lake Superior region

Ten TBR Historical Nonfiction Titles

march_covernotorious-benedict-arnold_coverlincolngraverobbers_coverbomb_coverQuail Ridge Brown Girl Dreaming

1. MARCH Graphic Novel Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
3. LINCOLN’S GRAVE ROBBERS by Steve Sheinkin
5. BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson


6. PARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

Reasons to be Cheerful

Whatever your political leaning, you probably agree that it’s been a bruising couple of weeks. So for my last post on this blog, I’d like to share a few things that have made me happy lately.

truth-or-dare_final1- A book club for girls at Forgan Middle School in Forgan, Oklahoma chose to read my latest middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE. For the club’s seventh and eighth grade girls, as well as their teachers, to be able to buy their own copies, they needed a sponsor. And you know who sponsored their purchase of 23 hardcover copies? Delbert, the school custodian. The idea that this lovely man stepped up to buy all those copies of TRUTH OR DARE for a group discussing girls’ body issues, self-esteem, and related topics–well, it makes my heart burst.

A lot of folks want to keep kids reading–and they’re not just teachers, librarians, and publishing world insiders. Let’s be sure to celebrate the Delberts of the world. They’re definitely out there.

star-crossed-jpeg-516kb2-My next middle grade novel, STAR-CROSSED, will be published by Aladdin/S&S in March 2017. It’s about a middle school production of Romeo & Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. This book is very much a middle grade novel–positive, gentle, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, a comedy. Despite its lightness and wholesomeness, STAR-CROSSED would surely have been deemed too edgy for mainstream publication just a few years ago. But when I proposed STAR-CROSSED to my publisher, Simon & Schuster, they embraced it immediately–in fact, they recently highlighted it in their Spring 2017 Library/Education newsletter as a book promoting diversity. I’m also delighted to report that Scholastic has just licensed STAR-CROSSED (with a specially designed cover) for sale through book fairs and book clubs.   

So yes: #weneeddiversebooks on middle grade shelves. And you know what? We’re getting them. Joining STAR-CROSSED, LILY AND DUNKIN, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON, DRAMA, GEORGE,  LUMBERJANES and others, there’s Jen Petro-Roy’s PS, I MISS YOU coming Fall, 2017.  For more middle grade titles with LGBTQ characters, click here.

3-A related development in middle grade fiction: tough topics explored with special sensitivity for the age of the reader–for example, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s NINE, TEN, A September 11 Story



and Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH.

 My other book launching next year, HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Dec 2017), deals with a different sort of tough topic. It’s about a girl who, upon returning to middle school after two years away for pediatric cancer treatment, feels as if she can’t communicate her story–until the class begins its study of Greek mythology. Not once did my publisher fret about the subject matter being too dark for middle grade readers; they trusted me to write something age-appropriate and even (yes, really, I promise!!) fun.

Ultimately, what I think HALFWAY NORMAL and STAR-CROSSED are both about is how books give kids a language to express themselves, and connect to others. I’m truly encouraged by the way publishers have embraced stories like these, which promote empathy, inclusiveness, self-expression and self-esteem. We’re expanding the notion of what middle grade books should be–reaching more kids, touching more hearts, and opening more minds. We’re also making kids smile. As we give thanks this week, let’s remember that middle grade books are better, and more important, than ever. Cheers!        

BARBARA DEE is the author of six middle grade novels published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, including TRUTH OR DARE, which was published in September.  Next year Aladdin/S&S will publish STAR-CROSSED (March 2017) and HALFWAY NORMAL (December 2017). 

Symbols and Subtext in Middle-Grade Novels

The meme below, which gets posted around social media every once in a while, is something that I imagine drives teachers crazy.


I know a lot of writers who aren’t thrilled about it either. The reason: we writers often do mean the color blue symbolizes depression. Maybe not all the time. And obviously that’s not the only thing that makes a great novel. But I defy anyone to argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the light on Daisy’s dock green for several reasons and that it doesn’t enhance the important themes in The Great Gatsby. (For those wanting to read more about those reasons, click here.)

I’m not sure why looking for symbols and subtext in literature has gotten such a bad rap. In fact, close readings meant to uncover layers of meaning are widely thought to teach students to think critically in all areas of knowledge. In addition, this type of analytical thinking is tied to success in high school, college, and beyond.

Although I can’t speak for all writers, I know that in my most recent novel, every symbol or simile was deliberate. And after close readings of a couple of my favorite middle-grade novels, I’m sure even some of the tiniest details were not casually thrown in and were included to enhance deeper meaning as well as to illuminate certain truths about life.


5138cpo40slFor example, in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, a National Book Award finalist, the narrator says, “The baton looked like a needle.” DiCamillo could have written that the baton looked like a twig or a sword or even a pool cue. But I would suggest that the simile was chosen purposely to reinforce Raymie’s belief that the baton will help stitch her family back together when she uses it to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire.

In addition, it’s evident that a deliberate pattern of light imagery is woven through the book to emphasize Raymie’s struggle to come out of the darkness of her mother’s depression and her own sadness as a result of her father leaving. From the jar of candy on Mrs. Sylvester’s desk, which is lit up by the sun “so that it looked like a lamp” to Raymie’s beloved book, A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, to the sun glinting off the abandoned grocery carts, making them “magical, beautiful,” it’s clear this light imagery is important to both the story and to Raymie herself. At the end of the novel, the observant reader is rewarded when these images come full circle (spoiler alert) and figure into Raymie’s transformation into a girl who comes to believe in her own strength. As she attempts to save Louisiana from drowning, it’s that magical glint of the shopping cart that points her in the right direction. And as she and Louisiana swim to the surface, Raymie has the realization that it’s “the easiest thing in the world to save somebody. For the first time, she understood Florence Nightingale and her lantern and the bright and shining path.” At that moment, we realize everything that Raymie has observed and learned so far in her life has helped her find her way out of both literal and figurative darkness.


51t7dzpi9lRebecca Stead is another author who uses rich symbolism and imagery to enhance the reading experience. Her novel, Liar & Spy, begins with this passage: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since. But it’s wrong—all wrong.” In this opening passage, Stead is basically hinting to her audience that they should read critically and not believe everything at face value. This is a clue as to how to read the book. Astute readers who parse that passage might read with a more critical eye and at some point realize they are dealing with an unreliable narrator—as unreliable as that map of the tongue.

Important subtext can also be found in the novel with references to Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jette. Georges’s mother has told him that the artist’s pointillist technique of painting with tiny dots requires the viewer to take a step back to look at the big picture rather than each dot. Later when Georges’s father urges his son to stand up to bullies, Georges repeats his mother’s philosophy about the big picture, that the little things don’t matter in the long run. His father, however, tells him that some things do matter in the here and now. This conversation results in Georges rethinking his perspective on life: “The dots matter.” Stead could have merely written that sometimes you look at the big picture and sometimes you don’t. But how much more memorable has she made this truth by using such a beautiful analogy?


51zcudf9d3lIn my own novel, The First Last Day, the main character Haleigh gets her wish to live her last day of summer over and over again. Each morning, her mother throws her an apple to take with her as a snack. The first time Haleigh misses the apple, and it falls to the floor. The second time, since she’s ready for it, she catches it and throws it back to her mother. By the end of the novel, after Haleigh takes the final step that will reverse her wish to stay in summer forever, she takes a bite of the apple and “waits for the future to happen.” I could have chosen a peach or a banana for those scenes. But I chose the apple because of its almost universal cultural significance. Haleigh, like Eve, revels in her innocence, at first rejecting the apple, which will bring her knowledge and, possibly, pain. Her finally taking the bite of the apple reinforces the novel’s subtext that the loss of innocence is a necessary rite of passage, which can also bring positive experiences along with the pain.

In another recurring image, Haleigh sees a waxing crescent moon, on its way to being full, and imagines it to be “the final curve in a pair of parentheses, the close of a single thought, suspended in the infinite sky.” Once she makes her decision to move on, she sees the moon differently: “No longer a closed parenthesis, it seemed more like a giant comma, a pause in the middle of a sentence, ready for the rest to be written.” The moon symbolism and Haleigh’s thoughts about it, underscore the meaning of Haleigh’s evolution from someone who is content to live a secure life, suspended in time, to someone who is now eager to move forward and see what the future will hold.

As both a writer and a reader, I’ve found that uncovering the significance of such examples of symbolism and subtext that I’ve cited here can reap great long-term rewards, making the whole reading experience richer. I’d urge all readers, even those who already were annoyed by that meme above, to do a little detective work by taking a closer look at the similes and symbols woven through some of your favorite books. You’ll no doubt enhance your critical thinking skills. And along the way, you just might discover some of life’s universal truths in a more memorable way.

Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/