Everyone is pretty aware of American Girl, the toy and book phenomenon that sent kids running to the stores for an experience – tea party, clothing selection, matching outfits – before Build-a-Bear got involved. The American Girl novels have big fans in every library where I’ve worked, but I never thought to pick up and read any of them for myself. But I received three from the publisher, so I figured, what the heck? Let’s see what these are about. I have to say, I’m pretty happy with them.
The three books that I received seem to be a repackaging of American Girl’s BeForever line of historical novels. The original books look to have been published in 2016-2017; these new releases have updated cover art and the interiors are very emerging reader friendly, with both color photos and artwork throughout, making it even more appealing and reader-friendly to emerging chapter book readers.
It’s 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, and 9-year-old Melody just found out that she’s going to be singing her first church solo for the Youth Day celebration. Her older brother wants to be a Motown star, while their dad wants him to go to college and pick a more stable career; her older sister comes home from college with stories of protests, marches, and registering Black voters, and her cousin’s family arrives in Detroit, because racial tension in the American South has made it almost impossible to earn a living. As Melody and her family awaken to activism, a horrific church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama takes the lives of four children and leaves Melody speechless. She has to find her voice and sing for those who can’t.
No Ordinary Sound is such powerful historical fiction for intermediate and middle grade readers. I’ve enjoyed Denise Lewis Patrick’s books in the past, so I read this American Girl book first, and am so glad I did. Her characters experience three pivotal events in civil rights history – the Detroit Walk to Freedom; the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama – and encourage readers to see these events from a personal point of view, developing a deeper understanding of more than just the facts. Denise Lewis Patrick provides a slice of life story, where readers experience the everyday racism Melody and her family and friends experience; from being banned from buying a soda at a soda machine to being shadowed by store security at stores where they’ve been longtime customers.
No Ordinary Sound was a great introduction to the American Girl historical fiction series of books, and I’ll be sure to include this series in booklists and booktalks about civil rights and historical fiction. Melody’s books have their own page on the American Girl website, where you can read first chapter excerpts.
Civil Rights Teaching has lesson plans and resources about teaching the Civil Rights Movement, as does Facing History and Ourselves. The Grammy Museum has a lesson plan on teaching the impact of Motown. Education.com has a free, downloadable worksheet on the History of Motown, and TeachRock.org has a lesson Assembling Hits at Motown. PBS Learning Media has a teaching guide and primary source materials on The Great Migration, and National Geographic has an educator’s guide.
Nanea is a 9-year-old Hawaiian girl; she’s the youngest in her family, and feels frustrated that she can’t do grown-up things, like help in her family’s store. When Pearl Harbor is attacked by Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941, Nanea discovers that she has to grow up quickly. Her father is a mechanic at Pearl Harbor, and rushes to help out; her older brother is an Eagle Scout, and heads to the site to hand out food and provide aid. Nanea’s Uncle Fudge is taken into custody because he’s Japanese, and Nanea is thrust into a different world with blackouts, curfews, and fear. She and her two best friends work to make themselves useful, especially when “nonessential personnel” must leave the island, which puts her friend at risk. With the spirit of aloha – love, understanding, and compassion – Nanea focuses on kokua – good deeds – to help everyone around her.
The Spirit of Aloha was another strong historical fiction piece. Kirby Larson has written likable, relatable female protagonists, and she’s done historical fiction before, so I was confident I was going to read a good story. Here, we have the main event, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as a means to show how war makes children grow up overnight. Nanea sees her life change in moments: the bombing itself; the rounding up of Japanese people and the detention center; her fears for her father and brother as they head into the middle of the disaster to help; curfews and blackouts curtains, and the overall loss of a relatively peaceful, carefree existence. At the same time, she focuses on her culture’s principles of love, compassion, and good deeds. Kirby Larson adds touches of Hawaiian culture here, like the meaning of hula and tossing leis into the water to assure a return to Hawaii, and there’s a glossary of terms at the end. Nanea is biracial, with a Hawaiian mother and a Caucasian father, and this adds an additional facet to Nanea’s story, as she communicates with her mainland grandparents to let them know what’s going on in Hawaii.
The Spirit of Aloha is a good introduction to World War 2 historical fiction for younger readers. You can find excerpts and more about Nanea on the American Girl website.
Scholastic has a teaching guide on the attack on Pearl Harbor; Teachers Pay Teachers has some free, downloadable resources developed by fellow educators; the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum has a lesson plan on developing visual literacy by analyzing photos from December 7, 1941. The New York Times has a lesson plan on using primary sources to teach the Japanese Internment, as does the Library of Congress.
Nine-year-old Julie has just moved to a new neighborhood and started at a new school after her parent’s divorce; she, her mother, and older sister live in an apartment above her mother’s new store. She starts at a new school and hears they have a basketball team, which is great! She loves basketball! The coach, however, makes no bones about it: the team is boys only, and he’s never going to let a girl play on his team. Julie, empowered by her tennis-playing older sister who tells her about tennis star Billie Jean King and Title IX, the law prohibiting gender discrimination in any educational programs receiving Federal financial assistance (read: public schools can’t refuse any boy or girl from playing on an athletic team). Julie embraces her newfound activism and takes to the streets, getting people to sign a petition to let her play.
The Big Break is a snapshot of the 1970s, when the second wave feminist movement was still pushing for equal rights in the workplace and in our schools. An interesting subplot with a Vietnam vet, who helps focus Julie’s activism by petitioning against the closing of a veteran’s hall, reminds readers that the ’70s were also about coping with the fallout from the Vietnam War and the vets who returned to homelessness, and a lack of necessary mental and physical health services. Julie’s sister is a burgeoning feminist who follows the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King Battle of the Sexes and tells Julie about Title IX, which opened the doors to school athletics for girls. At the same time, Julie is coping with her parent’s divorce – much more scandalous in the 1970s than it is today – and her feelings of grief and frustration with both her parents. Her mom appears to be a free spirit, with a ’60s-early ’70s flower child aesthetic; she’s a divorced woman entering the workplace and starting her own business venture: a store dedicated to handcrafted clothing and items, often repurposed. Julie’s pilot father often misses school events because he’s called to fill in for another pilot, and doesn’t initially support her bid to play on the boys’ basketball team.
The Big Break is by Megan McDonald, who everyone also knows as the author of the Judy Moody and Stink series! Here, she gives readers a glimpse into the 1970s, where things are so different, and yet, still the same. Girls still get grief from boys in the athletic sphere. Homeless veterans are still not getting the services they need. People now use Title IX to protect transgender and nonbinary students. And girls are still discovering and embracing their voices in activism. You can read more about Julie on her American Girl page, including first chapter excerpts.
TedEd has a lesson plan on Title IX that’s friendly to younger students. NEA Today has a good article on ways Title IX has helped women and girls; PBS has a video on Title IX; Scholastic Kids Press has an article on how Title IX changed girls’ sports. Teaching History has resources on teaching the Vietnam War.
Each book comes with a peek into each girls’ life: maps of their neighborhood, pictures of their families, a glimpse at someone’s room. Back matter includes overall information about each American Girls’ moment in history. American Girl makes teachers guides, readers guides, and printable activities available.