Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Palace Beautiful by Sarah deFord Williams
I'm generally wary of historical fiction for middle grade readers, especially those that fall into the "we're all the same just in different times." NOT! However, Palace Beautiful is the first title I've seen that effortlessly blends two different time periods and the girls from each of them.
It's 1985 and the main character, Sadie, is thirteen. She's scared and excited about moving to a new house and a little tired of her younger sister's Zusu's tantrums. When she meets the mysterious and dramatic girl next door, Bella, she's hopeful that she may have finally made a friend. There are a lot of new, good things about moving to Salt Lake City from Dallas, but Sadie sometimes feels like there are too many new things in her life. New house, new friend, new mother, new baby. Then she and Bella find a diary hidden in a secret room in the attic and discover the life of another girl, Helen, who lived in 1918. As she and Zusu and Bella read Helen's journal and see the flu epidemic and daily life through her eyes, they begin to deal with their own families and friendships and discover how much they have in common with Helen and with each other.
I'm very pleased by the way Ms. Williams was able to keep the girls' voices realistic and historically accurate without dumping information or throwing the reader out of the story. As I was saying earlier, this is the first book I've seen where the author managed to relate the characters to each other - both Helen and Sadie have experienced tragedy and difficult times in their families - without compromising the historical accuracy of the characters' voices and behavior. While historical fiction isn't generally popular, I think I could easily find readers that would enjoy the glimpses of history as well as the family and friendships of the girls. Fans of the Dear America and American Girl series will be especially interested in this story, but I'd also hand it to girls who like realistic, interesting fiction about relationships. This is an excellent debut novel and I look forward to seeing what the author produces in the future.
But...oh that cover. You got a bum deal, Sarah Williams. Granted, the main characters and most of the story is set in the 1980s, but did the cover have to look like it was printed in the 80s? Frankly, I'm reluctant to buy this because it's going to take a lot of handselling to get over the cover. However, I could be wrong - it's possible that kids won't pick up on the blurry earth tones and the set faces of the characters and will like seeing the secret room. I'm going to wave the ARC around a bit and see what reactions I get.
Update: I passed this galley along to a ten-year-old girl who loves to read...and she LOVED it! She is sharing it with her friends and they have even had a little informal bookclub over lunch! She's going to keep the galley so she and her friends can share it and I'm buying a copy for the library in my next book order. Clearly, this book just needs a little extra love to find some very happy readers!
Verdict: Recommended, add a little booktalking and the cover won't matter
ISBN: 0399252983; Published April 2010 by Putnam; ARC provided by publisher at ALA; Purchased for the library