Monday, November 16, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: Upon Secrecy; By the Sword by Selene Castrovilla

Over the last year or so, I've been moving away from buying picture book nonfiction, specifically history and biography. I've found it just doesn't circulate well and it's too short for the kids who have homework in those areas. And, sadly, kids just don't seem to be very interested in history anymore. Sigh.

But there's one part of history that I still get quite a few requests for: war history. Now, you can discuss whatever societal impacts this has etc., but I'm here to hand out books. Preferably, good books. I've got lots of war history for middle school and older elementary ages, lots of books on weapons and about soldiers (or I will when I get those sets in January) but I have very few really strong books on major wars in history for younger kids. And yes, they do ask - and their parents, especially homeschooling parents, also ask.

These two books fill in a gap not just by telling the stories of some rather obscure but major players in the American Revolution, but by being springboards for further historical research and an amazing example of a thoroughly researched historical retelling.

By the Sword is the story of Benjamin Tallmadge and his introduction to war at the Battle of Long Island. It's a tense, emotionally packed story studded with historical facts and details. At the beginning of the story, Benjamin is a scared schoolteacher who's never killed a man. At the end, he's a determined and seasoned soldier, aware of the sacrifices he's making and the horrors of war, but firm in his resolve to fight for liberty. Bill Farnsworth's lush oil paintings (at least, they look like oil paintings to me) bring to life the fear and misery of the soldiers and the tedium and terror of battle. The endpapers include a detailed map of the battle area with details of the soldiers' positions and historical points. Included in the book is an author's note on the life of Benjamin Tallmadge, detailed timeline, and notes on the author's research and reconstruction of the battle. There's also a list of historical places to visit and a bibliography of resources.

The companion story, Upon Secrecy, isolates one incident in the history of the Culper Spy Ring, organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge later in the war. In this snippet of history, Washington desperately needs to know whether or not the British know that the French are landing - and if so, what they are doing about it. In tense, concise prose, highlighting each link of the information chain, Castrovilla tracks the passage of the important information from British headquarters in New York to Washington in New Jersey, showing how a seemingly minor scrap of information was a major turning point of the war. The two illustrators for this story, Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson, focus on the faces and characters of all the persons involving, bringing to life the many different personalities.

This story also includes copious amounts of research; endpaper maps of Long Island Sound, an introduction describing the Culper Spy Ring, afterwords explaning the rival British spy network, "sympathetic stain" used to pass messages, detailed snapshots of each major character's life, an author's note on reconstructing the historical events, timeline, places to visit, and bibliography.

Verdict: These may not be what kids grab off the shelf first when looking for a book, but parents and teachers who introduce these to their students should have no problem catching their interest. Excellent read-alouds as well as starting points for older students to do their own interest, these action-packed stories with their wealth of background research and information are the perfect books to introduce budding historians to the American Revolution and the fascination of history.

By the Sword
ISBN: 978-1590784273; Published April 2007 by Boyds Mills; Review copies provided by author

Upon Secrecy
ISBN: 978-1590785737; Published September 2009 by Boyds Mills; Review copies provided by author

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