Posted in Historical Fiction

Redemption in the Old West: The Outlaw

The Outlaw, by Nancy Vo, (May 2018, Groundwood Books), $17.95, ISBN: 9781773060163

Recommended for readers 5-9

A small town in the Old West is terrorized by an Outlaw, who disappears one day. But when a mysterious stranger rides into town and starts making repairs and improvements, it draws close attention from some of the townspeople. Can even the meanest outlaws get redemption?

This is a beautifully created story of redemption and empathy. The spare text finds power in its brevity, with powerful mixed media images to enhance the story. The Outlaw quietly comes back to town – has he had a moment of clarity? – to make life in the town better, but when he’s recognized, any goodwill he may have built up is dashed: until a young boy stands up to the crowd. And sometimes, a voice of reason is all it takes to set change in motion. Not everyone will be on board, but the value; the importance, of taking a stand is the important thing. The Outlaw brings strong themes of empathy and redemption to readers, and with it, the opportunity for solid discussion about forgiveness and whether or not good deeds balance out terrible wrongs.

Author-illustrator Nancy Vo’s webpage has more of her artwork, links to her blog, and information about her books.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Sibling antics in the Wild West: Varmints

varmints_1Varmints, by Andy Hirsch (Sept. 2016, First Second), $16.99, ISBN: 9781626722798

Recommended for ages 7-12

Set in the Old U.S. West, Opie and her younger brother, Ned, are orphaned siblings searching for the man who shot their Ma. Problem is, their Pa is THE bad guy – the kingpin, the big bad, cue the dramatic music at the mere mention of his name kind of bad. And he’s expert at not being found. Opie and Ned are undeterred, though; they mean to find their Pa and have some words: if they can just stop arguing with one another long enough to stay out of trouble, that is.

There’s a lot of action and dialogue in this first volume of Varmints. The sibling squabbling provides some quick-witted entertainment, and the explosions and fights, not to mention the cartoony art and bright colors, will hold kids’ interests. It’s a very old-school type of storytelling, with humor, wit, and pathos.

Good addition to graphic novel collections, especially where Westerns are popular; otherwise, a good secondary purchase. There’s a 2013 Varmints story, “The Coonskin Caper”, on Andy Hirsch’s website, along with links to his other work, including The Baker Street Peculiars, for fellow Sherlock Holmes fans who love a touch of the supernatural in just about anything. Check out some of his work on Adventure Time, Garfield, and The Regular Show, too.

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Posted in Graphic Novels, Middle School, Non-Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: Donner Dinner Party, by Nathan Hale (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales), Abrams, 2013

Recommended for ages 8-13


Colonial spy Nathan Hale is sentenced to death by hanging – but WAIT! He’s got stories to tell! His executioner and the British soldier standing guard are intrigued. Off he goes into yet another Hazardous Tale from history, this time, about the infamous Donner Party.

You’ve heard of the Donner Party, if only as a horrific joke. During the Westward Expanion, they were a group of pioneers headed for California who got caught in the brutal winter of 1846 and resorted to cannibalism to survive. Nathan Hale’s book tells the story of the Donner-Reed party, focusing primarily on James Reed, whose “shortcut” caused the doomed wagon train to stray off course into brutal territory.

Written as a graphic novel, this book is a great read for middle schoolers and even the reluctant high schooler. The story cuts between Nathan Hale, the British soldier and the executioner as Hale tells the story, and the story of the Donner-Reed party. The characters are detailed, and kids will love the executioner, who really, REALLY doesn’t want to hear bad news about any of the animals in the story. There are well-drawn diagrams and graphics teaching readers about the members of the party, maps of the territory traveled, and informational bits that enhance the story for all.

Hale doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of this story, but he doesn’t glorify them, either. He presents the facts, even illustrating a specter of death coming for the travelers, with their names, as they pass away, listed on Death’s cloak.

This was my first Hazardous Tale from Mr. Hale, but it certainly won’t be my last. Stock this book in your bookshelves, teachers and parents, and watch kids scramble to learn about history.

Mr. Hale’s website offers information about his other books, his blog (which includes sneak peeks at his artwork for future books!), and a section dedicated to Correction Baby, who helps edit all of his books. Check it out!