Book Review: Dear America: With the Might of Angels, The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson (Hadley, Virginia 1954) by Andrea Davis Pinkney

with-the-might-of-angels-by-andrea-davis-pinkney-on-bookdragon-800x1135Meet Dawnie Rae, “Dear America”‘s first 20th century African American heroine, a vibrant and indestructible girl. Dawnie is bright and dreams of becoming a doctor, but she lives in the midst of Jim Crow Virginia in the 1950s, where blacks are segregated from whites, given a much poorer education than in white schools, and have very few opportunities for progress and equality in the South. When Dawnie tests at the top of her class at the African American kids’ school, Bethune, she is eligible to integrate into the white school, Prettyman Coburn, given the recent rulings of Brown v. Board of Education, which deems segregation unconstitutional. As the only black girl in a white school in a town steeped in racism and segregation, she and her family are met with much hatred, prejudice, and violence, not only from white segregationists, teachers and classmates, but even from fellow African American parishioners at her church, who now consider her “uppity” and “too good for the rest of us.”

Dawnie’s narration is among the most animated and humorous of the series. She is every shade of proud, dignified, sarcastic, emotional, fearless, sharp, and kind-hearted; her three-dimensional personality tangibly leaps from the pages. Another refreshing aspect about Dawnie is that she is the first “DA” narrator who is described as having “meat on the bones” or “gristle,” and being “sturdy” and “big-boned;” I am glad the series finally chose to incorporate a bigger girl into its circle of narrators. Along with Dawnie are her loving and supportive parents, who run a laundry business, and her autistic brother who has a fondness for peanuts, causing the family to affectionately call him “Goober.” Much later in the story, we also meet Dawnie’s first white friend, an unforgettably funny, vivacious, and splendid Jewish girl named Gertie. This book is an excellent addition to the series and was a joy to read.

Book Review: Dear America: Like the Willow Tree, The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce (Portland, Maine 1918) by Lois Lowry

willowLydia begins her first entry sounding like a rather spoiled young woman. But very soon after, she and her brother lose everything when their parents and baby sister die from the Influenza. Their aunt and uncle, who are burdened with too many children, send Lydia and her brother to live in the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake. At first, Lydia is resentful of the place that puts her to work, forces her to give up all of her belongings– all belongings are shared in that community–, and separates her from her brother, but she soon finds genuine love and compassion among her new friends and teachers. She lives a lovely, clean, and virtuous life at Sabbathday, but eventually leaves the celibate Shaker lifestyle, as she wishes for a husband and family of her own. A very sweet and clean little book, nothing too controversial, and a very positive insight into the soon-to-be extinct Shaker tradition.

Book Review: Dear America: The Fences Between Us, The Diary of Piper Davis (Seattle, Washington 1941) by Kirby Larson

0-545-22418-7This is one of my favorite DA reading experiences. Piper lives with her father, a preacher, and her brother and sister. There are many Japanese Americans in her neighborhood and school, and her church is mostly Japanese. But after Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, life begins to change for Piper, as now she is considered suspicious and a traitor for associating with her Japanese friends and her father’s congregation, even though they are American citizens. And then, to her horror, her beloved Japanese American friends and neighbors are unjustly forced from their homes into internment facilities.

Meanwhile, Piper’s brother joins the military and each day she worries for him and waits for a letter from him. Her older sister, a grown woman engaged to be married and busy with pharmaceutical school, soon falls out of the picture as Piper relocates with her father to live near the place where their Japanese friends have been relocated, so that her father can continue to minister to them, bring them food and goods, and to do what he knew to be right even in the face of adversity. One memorably frightening scene includes a man in their new neighborhood who knows they are ministering to the confined Japanese, and who stalks them and threatens them for a time, believing them to be traitors.

This book contains much dramatic character development, more than in most DA books. Piper starts out as a schoolgirl with a crush on a boy, resenting being a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid), and absorbed in school dances and the like… but she eventually abandons her childishness, realizes what is really important– helping her Japanese friends and doing what is right, despite what others think–, and she learns to respect and appreciate her father’s noble actions and character, despite what it cost her socially, materially, and emotionally. Also evident in this book are other subplots, such as Piper’s love for photography. I was saddened only slightly by the epilogue, because she did not marry whom I would have preferred her to, but above all, this is a wonderful new addition to the DA series.

Book Review: Dear America: Hear My Sorrow, The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker (New York City, 1909) by Deborah Hopkinson

hear-my-sorrow-2In this beautiful yet doleful tale, we follow Angela Denoto, a Sicilian-born teen at the turn-of-the-century in New York City. Although Angela is bright and the only member of her family who can read, as well as speak and write in English, her father’s physical condition requires her and her elder sister, Luisa, to work in his stead. As Angela begins her job at a shirtwaist factory, she experiences the awful, unfair, and even dangerous working conditions, including workers having to pay for their own needles and thread, their bosses prohibiting them from stopping and stretching or resting even after injury, seventy-two hour work weeks without overtime pay, dangerous fire and health hazards, and more.

Soon, Angela befriends fellow seamstress Sarah Goldstein, a “fiery” Jewish girl who is involved in the women’s labor union. Sarah soon coaxes Angela into various union activities and a strike, in order to fight for better working conditions for the women factory workers. Angela’s striking from work does not come without a high cost, however, as her family struggles without her pay. The author does a good job of describing both the miserable working conditions and the need for unionizing, as well as the girls’ and their families’ need to work to eat and survive, despite the terrible conditions. This book closes with the fatal events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, which, coupled with other significant deaths in this book, adds to its melancholy overtone.

A sad story devoid of really any cheer, and rather bare-bones at times in terms of character development, but poignant and emotional nonetheless.

Book Review: Dear America: When Christmas Comes Again, The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer (New York City to the Western Front, 1917) by Beth Seidel Levine

christmasagainSimone Spencer is DA’s oldest narrator at eighteen years old. Born to a fairly well-to-do family in New York City with an American father and French mother, Simone is bilingual in the English and French languages. After she graduates high school, Simone learns that all American men between the ages of 21 and 30 are being drafted for the Great War, which includes her married older brother, Will. Instead of waiting for the draft, Will enlists in the war and sails off to Europe. Wanting to be of use herself, for her country and her brother, Simone also enlists, utilizing her bilingual abilities to become a switchboard operator (or “hello girl”) on the Western front to help the French, English, and Americans communicate with each other.

This book gives a fascinating insight into the significantly important role these 450 switchboard girls played in the victory of World War I. If not for proper communication between the Allies, America may not have been able to win. (Sadly, it took nearly 60 years for the “hello girls,” as they were called, to gain any sort of national recognition, veteran status, or medals of honor, and at this point only 4% were still living.)

But “When Christmas Comes Again” is, at heart, a love story. While stationed in her mother’s hometown in France, Simone meets and falls in love with the strapping and dashing young soldier, Sam. As she writes: Sam “stops her world,” and it is “love at first sight”. Theirs develops into a touching and beautiful story, one of the best romances to be found so far in the series. Perhaps this book is meant for slightly older readers, as the age of the narrator suggests. But it is nonetheless a clean, educational, and endearing yet heart-wrenching read. A good addition to the series, and my only pity is that it is themed as a “Christmas” book when Christmas truly had little to do with it, and it could have been presented and promoted as so much more.

Book Review: Dear America: Survival in the Storm, The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards (Dalhart, Texas 1935) by Katelan Janke

survivalThis is a wonderful DA diary taking place during the Great Depression in the Texas Panhandle. At this time, those who lived in the prairies were hit for several years by terrible drought and dust storms (caused by farmers’ improper treatment of topsoil coupled with strong winds and a severe drought) that nearly ruined the land and peoples’ homes and ways of life. Grace, our 12 year old narrator, is a mature and hardworking young girl who, with her scatterbrained and imaginative 7 year old sister Ruth, make for memorable characters.

I had never heard of the “Dust Bowl” before reading this book, and I certainly learned a lot. In the end, I was positively floored that this book was written by a fifteen year old. Katelan Janke had won a “write your own Dear America novel” contest. Once again, I was floored, as this is one of the better-written books in the series. A great read.

Book Review: Dear America: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, The Diary of Bess Brennan (Perkins School for the Blind, 1932) by Barry Denenberg

mirrorBess has an accident and must learn how to live her life anew now that she has gone blind. She attends the Perkins School for the Blind where she interacts with teachers and other blind students who become her friends. When she visits home, she must learn to adjust and to feel like a part of her family again. The author could have written so much more about this fascinating subject, but missed his opportunity in favor of a more simplistic book with a vague ending.

Book Review: Dear America: A Time for Courage, The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen (Washington, D.C. 1917) by Kathryn Lasky

courageKat is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Washington, D.C. in the year of the picket lines for women’s suffrage. While Kat’s father, a doctor, is more progressive and generally accepting of Kat’s mother’s picketing and women’s rights activism, Kat’s Uncle Bayard is a harsh tyrant to his own wife (also a suffragette) and family, and is quite unsympathetic to the cause. Eventually, Kat’s dear cousin and best friend Alma runs away from the hostile environment of her family and flees to England to assist as a nurse’s assistant in the Great War. To make matters worse, the peaceful picketers go from being heckled and treated unfairly to being assaulted, injured, arrested, and imprisoned, right in front of the White House, all while President Wilson turned a blind eye, as he was more occupied with the Great War instead of half of the American population– women– on the homefront. It is shocking to read this book and realize how much has changed in less than 100 years as I write this now. It is appalling the way the suffragettes were brutally and unjustly mistreated and denied their basic rights in our country, including freedom of speech and the right for peaceful demonstration.

This book was well-written in the way that, despite all of the historical events, we get a strong feel for Kat’s character, her otherwise ordinary life and schooling, her hobbies, and her– at times juvenile, yet understandable– fears and concerns. This book is also just as much a book about women’s suffrage as it is about World War I, which I quite appreciated in its historical accuracy. Very apropos for me to have read it when I did (Sept. 2011), for at this time women were just granted the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.

Book Review: Dear America: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty (Boston, Massachusetts 1968) by Ellen Emerson White

flowersThis is the story of the all-Irish-American Flaherty family in the 1960s. Molly is that girl in school who is outgoing and popular, her brother is the handsome jock whom everyone adores, her dad is a fiery Irish-bred firefighter, and her mother is a devout Catholic. But Molly is torn about her opinions regarding the Vietnam War… on the one hand, Molly is a free-thinker, which often lands her in the principal’s office at school, but on the other hand, her beloved brother, Patrick, is serving in the war overseas, and she does not wish to believe he is doing anything wrong by defending their country. Their mother finds peace in her religion, going to daily Mass and inviting their priest over for dinner, which I thought was interesting and could’ve been explored more, but Molly is quick to be doubtful and vague about her religious feelings and beliefs. Molly begins to volunteer, visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital, and she also stands up to her racist uncle in one scene, as she respects the Civil Rights Movement. This book explores both complex sides of the Vietnam War well.