Karen Hesse's advice that aspiring historical fiction writers should read novels from the same time period and place that they're writing about, I have read several books to inform my own work. Here is a smorgasbord of books that take place in the south during the last 60 years; with a rating (5 *'s is the highest) following each.
Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston
In Tennessee in the early 1950's, nine-year-old David suspects that his father, the town's well-respected physician, is a member of the KKK. Despite knowing his father's feelings towards "niggers," David's best friend, Malcom, is black. He knows he can never bring Malcom home because his father has threatened to shoot any black person who comes into the house. The two boys enjoy one another's company until David is picked to be on the neighborhood baseball team while Malcom, clearly the better player, is not. Although the book is a good depiction of racial relations and bigotry during this time and place, I felt that the repeated foreshadowing of the terrible event that would happen, spoiled the predictable ending for me. I would recommend it as a good 4-7th grade book to be read in conjunction with a social studies unit about segregation in the South.***
Belle Prater's Boy by Ruth White.
This novel is told through the eyes of Gypsy Arbutus, cousin to Woodrow Prater who moves in next door after his mother disappears. Set in the 50's in rural Virginia, I appreciated how White gradually unveils both Gypsy's and Woodrow's stories, against the background of Woodrow's adjustment to life in the small town of Coal Station. Woodrow gains notoriety because of his ability to tell outlandish tales--including his own idea of where (and how) his mother left him. Gypsy lives with her mother and step-father; the reader is not told how her father died. The book's powerful climax is how both children face up to the truth of their missing parents. When the taunting of a peer at school brings up memories, Gypsy remembers: "He shot himself in the face. He killed himself. Of course I knew it all the time. I was there. I saw what happened. But how can a thing like that be in your head and you go on talking and eating and sleeping. It's the thing you can't really look at. So you hide it away and pretend it never happened. You have to. Only in my dreams did the truth look out at me."*****
My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt
In rural Louisiana in the 1950's, Tiger Ann is the smart daughter of two mentally challenged parents. Although she is embarrassed by her parents, she manages to live comfortably in the safety and protection of her strong maternal grandmother, Granny. When Granny dies, Tiger Ann's Aunt Doreen swoops in and takes her back to Baton Rouge; insisting that Tiger Ann would have more opportunities with her. Tiger Ann is torn. She loves the modern city, the clothes, and fun life her aunt promises, but when she comes back to visit her mother, Tiger Ann finds her depressed and unable to even get out of bed. This sensitive book shows a situation not often portrayed in books; Tiger Ann's conflicts are real and sympathetically described. ****
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
The place is the south, the Texas town of Antler, but the time period has moved up about 20 years. This is a story of an unlikely friendship between three boys: Toby, his best friend Cal (whose brother, Wayne, is serving in Vietnam); and the sideshow star, Zachary Beaver, who comes to town and is billed as the "fattest boy in the world." Ostensibly, Zachary is trying to eat his way into the Guinness Book of World Records and is hostile to the boys' feeble attempts to befriend him. It's not until Cal's older sister genuinely shows interest in him, that the ice is broken between the boys. There is an undercurrent of lies and dishonesty throughout the story. Toby comfortably lies about his mother, but is bothered about Zachary's obvious lies about his own past. When Wayne dies, Toby can't bring himself to attend the funeral. Zachery confronts him which proves to be a turning point for all three boys. Recommended for 4-8th graders, this book can help students think about honesty, stereotypes, and friendship.*****
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
Set in rural West Virginia, the main theme of this contemporary, intermediate novel is how the main character, Summer, deals with the death of her beloved Aunt May. Orphaned, Summer comes to live with Aunt May and Uncle Ob (a whirligig artist) as a young child. They love her completely and when May suddenly dies, she and Ob are left bereft and helpless. As Ob sinks deeper into depression, Summer's fear of losing her only remaining relative increases. When Cletus, a peer at school, suggests they consult a medium to see if they can reconnect with May, Ob and Summer agree. I found Summer's gullibility as a 12-year-old to be a little far-fetched. On the other hand, I loved how at the end, the three "planted" Ob's whirligigs in May's garden-- setting them, and their grief free. A good book to open up discussion about death.****
Both Bone by Bone by Bone and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town are books with strong male protagonists that would appeal to boy readers.
Belle Prater's Boy, Bone by Bone by Bone, books for boys, Karen Hesse, Missing May, My Louisiana Sky, When Zachery Beaver Came to Town
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