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Winter YA Books Focus on History

Young Adult

Who needs history class when you can learn about the ’80s in America, the ‘40s in Poland, and the 1590s in Italy all in these young adult books reviewed in our Winter 2017 edition? For the young historians interested in an even more distant time period, there’s a book filled with dinosaur facts. For new and interesting culture, we reviewed a modern book — with aliens.

All the Dirt

A History of Getting Clean

Book Cover
Katherine Ashenburg
Annick Press
Hardcover $19.95 (108pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

From Mussolini and Marie Antoinette to Telemachus and Booker T. Washington, Katherine Ashenburg gets intimate with the ever-evolving customs and convictions behind bathtime in All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean.

Going all the way back to Ancient Greece in 3000 BCE and continuing forward in time and across civilizations all over the globe, All the Dirt offers a unique perspective on everything from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the effects of modern advertising and consumerism—all through the common lens of keeping bodies clean, or dirty, as the case may be. Find out how recipes for soap have changed over the years, who used margarine and peanut butter as skin-care products, and the various ways in which communal bathhouses and saunas have been used as influential political forums.

Fluctuating popular opinion is easy to follow as each chapter progresses on a timeline highlighting the various ways in which religion, wealth, foreign policies and prejudices, superstition, and science have all played key roles in how societies have viewed the rituals and roles of cleanliness, while an entertaining and informative combination of photographs and humorous cartoon images from illustrator Capucine Mazzille keep the pages colorful and bright. With chapters like “Some Like It Cold: 1715 to 1800” and “Soap Opera: 1875 to 1960,” even the most reluctant historians are sure to be delighted with this open look at hygiene from around the world that exposes the naked truth and nixes any preconceived notions about “clean.”



Book Cover
Robert Wilder
Leaf Storm Press
Hardcover $18.95 (332pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

High School has not been kind to outcast duo Coy and Monroe, but while things may be looking up for one, the other continues in a downward spiral. Nickel, from Robert Wilder, explores the complicated relationships and balance between friends and family while avoiding all the typical teenage drama and angst.

As if being named Coy wasn’t difficult enough, he also has a mother living in a psychiatric hospital, a well-meaning but tragically uncool stoner stepdad, and his best friend Monroe’s increasingly debilitating illness has left her with painful sores around her mouth and all over her body. When Monroe’s health continues to decline and Coy connects with a popular classmate, a simple school project takes on a whole new depth of meaning as a report on the duckbilled platypus turns into a desperate attempt to diagnose Monroe with everything from nickel poisoning to a severe reaction to mold.

Narrated from Coy’s perspective, the dialogue is fun and fast, with a humorously clever inner voice often at odds with his mumbled responses like “I’m real good at paying attention. Not so good at talking or whatever.” Coy’s fascination with all things ’80s, creative use of vocabulary words, and ability to find himself in extremely awkward situations will inspire simultaneous laughter and wincing.

Insightful and heartfelt, Coy’s struggle to find his place is easy to recognize and relate to while his interactions with adults and other teens perfectly capture the spirit and struggle of adolescence, “everybody struggling to define their version of normal, and how it all [keeps] shifting, all the forking time.”


Esfir Is Alive

Book Cover
Andrea Simon
Bedazzled Ink Publishing
Softcover $13.95 (276pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

In 1942, the forest of Brona Gora, Belarus, saw the mass execution of over 50,000 Jews. A lone survivor, sensitive and earnest twelve-year-old Esfir, recounts the emotional journey that brought her there and the warring hope and pain found in the aftermath. Based on the true story of the German and Russian occupation of Poland during WWII and the real life of Esfir Manevich, Andrea Simon’s Esfir is Alive is the haunting tale of one girl’s struggle “to make sense of senseless things.”

Beginning in November of 1936 when she is just seven years old, the story’s historical facts and fiction merge to create Esfir’s world, a colorful place that slowly turns dark and gray when bullying in the schoolyard gradually escalates to riots on the streets, forced labor in the ghettos, and the eventual horrific massacres that marked the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

A story rife with tragedy, Esfir’s focus on family and friends sees the seasons pass through the observance of holidays and traditions, and as Esfir grows and looks to those around her for guidance, and Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and even Lag b’Omer can no longer be openly acknowledged, she focuses on celebrating the spirit of those she has loved and lost by remembering their passion and compassion, their intelligence and humor, and their quirks and foibles, but most of all, their zest for life.

A personal story for Andrea Simon, who can trace her ancestry to near Esfir’s quaint but war-torn Belorussian village, there is heartbreak and hope, along with the determination that those lost will never be forgotten.



Painter on the Run

Book Cover
Marissa Moss
Creston Books
Hardcover $16.95 (360pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Famous for his hot temper and controversial painting style, young Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio took Italy by storm during the political and religious upheaval of the Renaissance, and Marissa Moss exposes all the drama and passion of one of history’s most captivating artists, in Caravaggio: Painter on the Run.

In 1592, twenty-year-old Michel began swaggering through the pilazzos of Rome with talent, pride, and a burning need to prove himself to the art world by gaining a commission at St. Peter’s Basilica, the most exalted church in the Vatican, but his refusal to conform to the expectations of a corrupt papacy and unyielding personality land him in hot water on more than one occasion, eventually more than he can swim through on his own.

Described by a cardinal as having “an extravagant imagination” and being “moody and dark, and brilliant,” Caravaggio tells his own story of his larger-than-life personality and magnetism being at war with his self-destructive tendencies. The narrative is spiced with police depositions, notes, and pages of personal journals from friends, patrons, courtesans, and others drawn to his genius, all of which allow other perspectives to shine through.

No saint, Caravaggio nonetheless captures the divine, and Painter on the Run explores several of his masterpieces as well as delving into his much debated use of live models, particularly commoners and prostitutes, to depict holy scenes from Catholic scripture. His realistic renderings and masterful use of light and darkness are easy to visualize as Moss’s words seamlessly build beautiful, dark—and beautifully dark—images, canvas after canvas. A must read for students, art lovers, or anyone driven to succeed, Caravaggio: Painter on the Run is historical fiction at its finest.


The Amorphous Assassin

Book Cover
Greg R. Fishbone
Spellbound River Press
Softcover $11.99 (172pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

The legend of Ty Sato continues to grow in The Amorphous Assassin, book two in Greg R. Fishbone’s intergalactic all-star Galaxy Games series, combining all the best elements of sports and science fiction with an out-of-this-world cast of feisty friends and frenemies.

Tyler Sato, the athletically mediocre thirteen-year-old selected as team captain through some shady swindling and skullduggery in book one, The Challenger, now leads a group of the finest young athletes on Earth. With one lucky tournament win under his belt, doubt has set in, and Ty must prove to himself, his team, and the entire galaxy that he has what it takes to secure another victory for Earth. Oh, and a shapeshifting alien assassin is convinced that Ty will be responsible for the demise of interplanetary peace and is determined to take him out—permanently.

Quirky aliens, culturally diverse teenage sports stars, and play-by-play action accounts are front and center as Ty struggles to keep his team together and successful. Team Earth consists of, amongst others, a Russian swimmer, a Kuwaiti golfer, a Brazilian futballer, a Norwegian snowboarder, an Argentinian acrobat, and even a masked Mexican luchador going by the handle “El Gatito.”

Themes of honesty, integrity, and inner strength are tempered with a healthy dose of snark and smack talk as teammates face off against each other during deadly “practice” sessions that test both mental and physical strength. The Amorphous Assassin is a fast ride through the unchartered territories of outer space and the teenage psyche.


Claws and Effect

Book Cover
Steve Hockensmith
Chris Kientz
Lee Nielsen, illustrator
Smithsonian Books
Softcover $10.95 (64pp)
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Combining the colonial with the cretaceous, co-authors Chris Kentz and Steve Hockensmith cook up a smart new adventure in Claws and Effect. On their way home from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—and first-time travel experience—classmates Ajay, Josephine, Eric, and Dominique can’t help but notice that their neighborhood is overrun with dinosaurs, and no one seems concerned. Using data access retrieval conduits, or “DARCs,” in the shape of wristwatches, the gang is sent back in time to America’s first World’s Fair in Philadelphia, 1876, where “someone’s messing with history.”

Picking up where The Wrong Wrights: Secret Smithsonian Adventures #1 left off, Claws and Effect jumps right into action that follows the continuous trail of destruction left by the greedy Barris brothers and their scheming cohorts, this time centered around the National Museum of Natural History. With a little assistance from some “hypno-glass” and fellow fair-goers Alexander Graham Bell and a young Nellie Bly, the dangerous repercussions of shifted time are slowly set to rights.

Containing enough dinosaur facts and trivia to appease even the most hardcore Jurassic fans, a counterbalance is found in the historical connection to William Foulke, and the rise of paleontology and future fossil finders, giving the story a broader scope and perspective. Illustrations from Lee Nielson, in the classic graphic-novel style, further meld the clothing and styles of the late 1800s with prehistoric visitors and a group of thoroughly modern middle schoolers. An entertaining and imaginative adventure with brains, the Secret Smithsonian Adventure series is sure to please students and teachers alike.


Pallas Gates McCorquodale

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