Inspiring Tales Depict Kids Overcoming Hardships

By Lee Littlewood

May 31, 2009 5 min read

An entertaining, homey slew of historical fiction tales showcase personable, quirky young people that kids today would be lucky to befriend.

"Lucky Breaks" by Susan Patron; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; 181 pages; $16.99.

Patron's Newbery Award-winning "The Higher Power of Lucky" was the first in a Southern trilogy about a spunky girl named Lucky, who had strong intrepidness in the face of poverty and small-town living. In "Lucky Breaks," Lucky turns 11 and is ready for adventure. But with all sorts of near disasters (tomato worms, her best friend's parents visiting and a group of delving geologists), Lucky wonders if Hard Pan, population 43, can survive.

Hilariously timeless, Patron's down-home innocent preteen-speak is entertaining; it begs for a movie script. Typical analogy? Lucky's description of turning 11; that it's akin to a saloon door in an old Western — "you push the sides open, bam, with both hands and stride through before they slap shut again, your childhood behind you."

In the vein of "Holes" and "The Sandlot," where adults are almost clueless in the amazing, mystical, hilarious lives of children, "Lucky Breaks" is thoroughly amusing.

"When I Crossed No-Bob" by Margaret McMullan; Houghton Mifflin Co.; 209 pages; $16.99.

Set in the rural South 10 years after the Civil War, McMullan — who proved she knows her stuff in the award-winning "How I Found the Strong" — returns to the past she describes so eloquently. The tale of a young abandoned girl named Addy, taken in by a newly married couple, is mysterious, dramatic and personable. No-Bob, the name for a patch of woods separating Addy's "no-good" kin and her new life, eventually pulls her back in, with the emergence of the 12-year-old's elusive father.

Authentic, intriguing characters with names like Little Bit, Matty Lou and Zula add far-reaching depth for both male and female young audiences.

"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jaqueline Kelly; Henry Holt; 340 pages; $16.99.

"My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then everybody called me Callie Vee. That summer, I was 11 years old and the only girl out of seven children. Can you imagine a worse situation?" This is the beginning of a coming-of-age story set in 1899. Callie, a curious naturalist who delves into science headfirst, but deals with her large family with less self-identity, is the kind of young heroine who will charm audiences with tons of wit.

With rich, authentic settings, plenty of humor and spunk and, already, the hope for a sequel, Kelly has crafted a winner.

"Also Known as Harper" by Ann Haywood Leal; Henry Holt; 256 pages; $16.99.

Young audiences today will find a friend in Harper Lee Morgan — abandoned by her father, with a struggling-to-make-ends-meet Mother and a pesky little brother named Hemingway. A budding poet with shyness issues, Harper Lee, named after her mother's favorite "To Kill a Mockingbird" author, finds a lot to be nervous about when a big poetry contest emerges.

Facing eviction and the necessity to miss school days to take care of her brother, Harper finds unlikely friends in a mute girl and a kindly disabled lady. She gains self-reliance and boldness, especially in her writing. Homespun Southern speak abounds, and Harper's emergence as a poet is a metaphor for her personal growth in a challenged family. Ages 8 to 12 will certainly enjoy "Also Known as Harper."

"Alligator Bayou" by Donna Jo Napoli; Knopf Delacorte Dell; 288 pages; $16.99.

Full of more sinister human behavior and for a slightly older age group than the books above, Napoli's powerful tale, set in 1899, tells a little-known story of racism against Italian immigrants in the deep U.S. South. Fourteen-year-old Calogero and his Sicilian family try to adjust to life in Louisiana, but are tapped as hard to categorize, leaving them "stuck" between the white and Negro communities.

As Calogero struggles to understand and deal with the prejudices all around him, he also finds advantages to living in the bayou — midnight gator hunts and a new sharp-witted friend.

Beautiful language and sharp prose shine a light on the damages felt from racism; Napoli thinks it is an untold tale crucial for teens to hear.

To find out more about Lee Littlewood and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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