“We laugh and we cry.”
In Tamar Myers’ The Girl Who Married an Eagle, there is a lot of both.
Julia Elaine Newton has come all the way from Ohio to the Belgian Congo to save souls and teach English to young girls who are runaway child brides. She’s really quite pleased with herself and thinks she knows what she’s doing. It’s 1959, and her spotless cotton circle skirt is just the thing to wear in Africa, comfortable and fresh, or it is until it becomes blood-soaked while she tends a future student who has been attacked by hyenas. Exquisite, brilliant, ten-year-old Buakane has run away on her marriage night from Chief Eagle, a man nearly four times her age. She is his 23rd wife.
In 1760s Boston, there is trouble brewing, and it’s not just the upcoming tea party. A young and beautiful girl from a wealthy family has been murdered mysteriously. It isn’t only a mystery as to who killed her and why—the bigger mystery is how. There’s not a mark on her body. It seems as though it was done by magic, and, in D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker world, magic is a definite possibility.
It’s bedtime, but Alice is bouncing and wide-awake. “Time for bed,” Mama says, “and I’ve brought flowers for your room.”
“I can only sleep in a blue room,” says Alice.
“Blue is my favorite.
“Ah … but smell,” Mama says.
Mama brings many special things to help her little girl sleep: a silken quilt; a cup of tea; bells on strings—though, as her daughter sleepily protests, none of them are blue. But at last, the light goes off, the moon shines in, and Alice gets her wish.
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, begins rather simply with a father telling a fairy tale. It’s 1952. Saboor and his two children, sturdy Adbullah and his tiny sister Pari, are walking for days, with only a small wagon and a little food, to the great city of Kabul. Saboor tells them he is looking for work, and they believe him—why should they not? His hands are broken and calloused, his back stooped with constant labor. He is a caring father, and he is a wonderful storyteller. Around the fire that night, they realize that Saboor has never told them this particular story, one full of grief and love—the last story he will ever tell them.
What kinds of people settled the new lands of America? They had their own ideas about laws, religion, and what makes a good government. They were, in a word, independent.
In 1776, England was faraway, and people on this side of the Atlantic were heartily sick and tired of paying taxes on top of taxes to finance England's empty treasury. They were tired, too, of losing money by having the Crown interfere with their trade overseas. The men in the assemblies shouted that King George was a tyrant, so the King's men stopped the assemblies. When they still protested, the King brought in the army, making the colonists put them up in their houses. Any crimes the soldiers committed against the colonists were handled in the King's court by the King's judges.
A birthday gift from the North Wind. A pie so feathery-light it carries people away. A cat on a mat that grants wishes to a poor girl and her grandmother. Elves in the shelves, mermaids in the bathtub and a tiger that’s faster than the wind. Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops and Other Stories is a magical book that is probably one of the best read-alouds out there for kindergarten and early elementary grades.
In Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden, Hallie Brady arrives in the wilderness near Hightop Mountain in 1750. Nobody white had settled this part of Massachusetts before, and the native people who camped nearby vowed that no man would find happiness west of the mountain. Teenaged, English-born Hallie comes with her not-good-for-much husband and a couple of other families he has duped into following him in circles for days before winding up in the shadow of the mountain just as the November snows are settling in.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, is a touching blend of family drama and otherworldliness. He wrote it for his wife, who does not care so much for extreme fantasy, and so he decided to include many realistic details from his own childhood. But he enriched that beginning with dark and horrific drama, as well as beauty and wisdom, and ultimately gave it an elemental, magical grounding.
In Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough, it’s 1958, and Cora and her small sister Mimi have been taken from their London home and dumped in the middle of the English marshes where something is waiting for them.
"In other worlds I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths. I never saw fairy tales as an escape or a cop-out....On the contrary, speaking for myself, it is the way to understand reality."*
Lloyd Alexander wrote many adventure stories for young people, including the wonderful Chronicles of Prydain which follow the adventures of brave, young Taran, who proudly holds the title of assistant pig-keeper, the fiery, quick-witted Eilonwy, shambling man-beast Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam, a teller of tales, mostly tall ones. In The Book of Three, these unlikely heroes are on the run from dread forces that have more personality and are therefore more terrifying than Tolkien’s Sauron.