More on the conference later. First, I want to share with you two books I picked up at the conference by the leader of that workshop, Joyce Moyer Hostetter: Blue and it's sequel Comfort, both middle grade historical novels. I'll say this: you know you're in good company when the suggested fiction in the back of the book includes Patricia Reilly Giff's Lily's Crossing and Lois Lowry's Autumn Street. I actually haven't read Autumn Street ... yet ... but I love these two historical fiction authors!
It started as an assignment to find a local story that took place more than 50 years ago. "Everyone loves a local story!" So, Joyce contacted her hometown of Hickory, North Carolina's history museum where she was pointed in the direction of Hickory's 1944-45 polio epidemic. Well, that was right smack dab in the middle of World War 2 and right at the outset of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth term in office. There's a powerful lot of story in that there year.
Well, Joyce did a stellar job with her research and masterfully wove it into a story so you hardly even notice how much you're learning. I loved the references to things my grandparents have shared with me from their experiences--things like Gramma's ringer washing machine and Grampa's tiny leg braces from when he had polio as a child.
Blue is the story of Ann Fay Honeycutt whose papa goes off to fight in the war and gives her a pair of overalls as a going away present. She'd have to be the "man of the house" now. And Ann rises to the challenge like so many women and girls had to in that day and time. When her little brother contracts polio, their mother goes to help at the emergency polio hospital, and Ann Fay steps into the role of father and mother for her little sisters, until she herself contracts polio and begins a journey to overcome. Blue was a very satisfying read and one I have readily handed off to my oldest son.
The sequel, Comfort, was a little more challenging. It's longer, for one, but more, its themes are deeper. Going beyond war and disease, Comfort explores peer pressure, prejudice, and disability; post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, and domestic violence; and since Ann Fay is growing up, it naturally deals with more relationship issues. Still a worthwhile read, I would recommend a child have shown some emotionally maturity before tackling this book.
From a historic standpoint, this is the year FDR dies. And, sadly, racial segregation is still strong in the South. From a literary standpoint, the continued deepening in character development is very good. In my opinion, there was a bit too much repetition of content for a thoughtful reader. Published three years after Blue, it felt a bit like the author assumed it had been three years since we'd thought about the Honeycutts or Hickory. At least, that was my feel for it.
The overarching theme of both books together becomes fellow polio's encouragement that "it mostly hurts at first." This little phrase seems to carry Ann Fay through physical therapy and multiple other painful situations. I love how Ann Fay is drawn to the negro spirituals and is ahead of her time in embracing a love for people of varying backgrounds and degrees of melanin in their skin. There's religious language throughout, but I would have liked to have seen the power of personal faith be a little stronger. And though I haven't mentioned these guys at all yet, if you want to know, my two favorite minor characters throughout the two-book set are neighbor Junior Bledsoe and war-vet Otis.
Both books have found a secure home on my middle grade shelves. I appreciate that Joyce has put together discussion questions for both Blue and Comfort . I hope you'll pick them up soon and share them with a middle grader in your life.
By the way, if you happen to look up these titles on Google books, there are four one-star ratings. But it's important to note that each of these are transferred ratings from Goodreads and all four reviewers comment on how they learned something or really liked the books. So, don't let those one-stars deter you. ;)