The Great Depression Revisited

October 29, 2015 marked the 86th anniversary of the lethal plunge of the American stock market that threw the nation into a state of brutal economic turmoil.  As the years past so do the primary source narratives of parents then grandparents and great grandparents who lived through difficult time in history.  How then do we impart the nature of life of that time to today’s students?  Books of course.  Have a look at these great titles.

The Midnight Train Home
Erika Tamar

In this novel set during the Great Depression, Tamar (The Junkyard Dog) adds some twists to the much-explored terrain of the orphan train. As the story opens, 11-year-old Deirdre O’Rourke and her two brothers are boarding a train at New York’s Grand Central Station; their mother then walks away, “stiff-legged and fast down the street, her arms wrapped tight around her body.” The scene sets the book’s somber tone. An aura of despair and loneliness persists as Deirdre watches her three-year-old brother go off with new parents, then is forced to abandon her 13-year-old brother when she, too, is adopted. Miserable in her new home with an austere minister and his wife, ridiculed by children for her hand-me-down clothes and viewed by adults as a ruffian, Deirdre loses her sense of dignity and identity until she hatches a plan to find her older brother. While the story line seems to be headed toward a happy reunion of the three children, fate plays an interesting trick, changing Deirdre’s course. The protagonist’s gift for song seems somewhat tacked on, since readers witness little of her joy of singing; as her talent plays such a crucial role in the novel’s outcome, they may be left unconvinced by the final turn of events. Still, Deirdre’s realization that she is in control of her destiny comes as an uplifting epiphany, adding light to a rather grim sequence of events. Ages 10-13. (Publishers Weekly) 

Leslie M.M. Blume

The year is 1932. Eleven-year-old Tennyson Fontaine and her younger sister, Hattie, have grown up running wild, but that ends when their mother leaves without warning. While their father searches for her, the siblings stay at the Fontaines’ crumbling ancestral home, Aigredoux, once a wealthy Louisiana plantation. There, Aunt Hattie and Uncle Twigs live in the shadow of the past, holding tight to false hopes of restoring the family fortune. The precocious and sensitive Tennyson begins dreaming of her Civil War ancestors and is swept into their dark history of greed, betrayal, and pride. She begins writing down this history and publishing it in her mother’s favorite literary magazine, but this plan to connect with her missing parent has unexpected consequences. The Fontaine history is complex, evoking horror and sympathy; by contrast, a subplot involving Tennyson’s haughty New York editor feels jarringly cartoonish. Still, many readers will respond to this novel’s Southern gothic sensibility, especially Blume’s beautiful, poetic writing about how the past resonates through the generations. Grades 4-6. Reviewer:  Krista Hutley (Booklist)

Better to Wish
Ann M. Martin

Best-selling author of the Babysitter s Club series has written a wonderfully rich and engaging historical fiction story for middle school readers. This story, which begins in the small coastal town of Lewiston, Maine, in 1930, is simple yet complex, captivating yet edgy, and compassionate yet harsh. Readers first meet Abby Nichols when she is eight years old and they experience her life s story as a daughter, sister, friend, and strong young woman who is finding her way in a time of depression, war, bigotry, and real life conflicts as well as pleasures. Readers will carry the story of Abby Nichols in their hearts long after reading it, because Abby deals head-on with a mom who struggles with serious depression, a dad who is racist and unattached from his family, a young sister whom she cherishes and must help care for, and several wonderful friends from whom she draws strength and is able to find comfort. This is one of those rare books that will truly be an excellent read for people of many ages. The story is extremely engaging and informative because it is so specific to the time period in which the Nichols family is living. Abby and her entire family struggle with issues that expose their human sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and challenges such as the impact of social classes, financial burden, bigotry, discrimination, and insensitivity to the handicapped. Readers of all ages will be drawn to the Nichols family because this story is told with a great deal of compassion and many of the issues which this family faces in 1930 and 1940 are issues which continue to persist in society today to varying degrees. Readers of this book will eagerly await the publication of the second book in this wonderful Family Tree series about friendships and family, and the life and death of four generations of girls as they mature into adulthood. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer:  Susan Borges (Children’s Literature)

A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt
C. Coco De Young

Based on a true family story, this novel of an Italian immigrant community in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, during the Depression is narrated by 11-year-old Margo Bandini, who writes to the president’s wife for help when Papa cannot pay the mortgage and the bank threatens to foreclose on the Bandini home. Margo includes in her letter her father’s victory medal for his service in the First World War. Occasional scenes verge on the sentimental, with misty eyes, lumpy throats, and escaping sobs all around; and there is a quite unnecessary plot contrivance (Margo’s classroom teacher turns out to be a famous newspaper columnist, who personally delivers the letter to her friend Mrs. Roosevelt). However, the afterword points out that the heart of the story is true: De Young’s grandfather did write to Mrs. Roosevelt and send his war medal, and she did help him keep his home. This first novel, winner of the Marguerite de Angeli Prize, creates a strong sense of place and time, when the desperate stood in line at the soup kitchen, and the Depression was felt right up to the front porch of a loving family home. Gr. 3-5. Reviewer: Hazel Rochman (Booklist)

Bird In A Box
Andrea Davis Pinkney

This novel set primarily in 1937 builds to the historic boxing match between Joe Louis and James Braddock when Louis became Heavyweight champion. But its focus is three African American kids in interconnecting stories. Hibernia is a talented singer who dreams of stardom; Otis was recently orphaned; and Willie fled his home to escape an abusive father. Otis and Willie meet at the Mercy Home for Orphaned Negroes. Hibernia meets them both when her church youth choir performs at the home. Hibernia s mother abandoned her family to pursue her own dreams of stardom when Hibernia was a baby; now Hibernia s strict preacher father is unsupportive of her desire to sing professionally but she’s determined to grab any chance she gets. Otis’s father gave him the radio he treasures after finally finding a job; not long after both of Otis’s parents were killed in a car accident. Willie s mother sent him to Mercy after his father severely burned the boy’s hands; she knew she could no longer protect her son. The two boys draw strength from their friendship a circle that expands to include Hibernia and all three, like the larger Black community, draw strength from the hope and promise that Joe Louis represents. Pinkney’s engaging narrative is full of vivid details of the Depression era, graced by lively language, and buoyed by a sense of hope and promise represented in her three main characters and the vibrant community of which they are a part. Ages 8-12 Reviewer: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices)

The Everlasting Now
Sara H. Banks

Set in an Alabama town during the summer of 1937, this novel is narrated by 11-year-old Brother, whose grandfather was a judge and whose widowed mother runs a boardinghouse with the help of Lily, a capable black housekeeper. Brother finds a good friend in Lily s nephew Champion, who arrives from Detroit for a visit. They both learn about segregation the hard way, when a troublemaking sheriff sets his sites on Champion, beginning with intimidation and harassment. Banks research on the period is evident, as the fiction is studded with bits of information on topics such as hobo signs and the Federal Arts Project. Brother s viewpoint is consistent and believable throughout the narrative, though the plot strains credibility near the end, when the boy dramatically saves someone s life and, two pages later, converses with legendary boxing champion Joe Louis. More measured and effective is the depiction of Brother s growing awareness of racism in his community. Grades 4-7  Reviewer: Carolyn Phelan (Booklist)

The Colored Car
Jean Alicia Elster

Sweet family nostalgia combines with the harsh realities of coming of age African-American during the Great Depression. Patsy, based on the author’s aunt, is 12 and has lived a contented life in Detroit. May Ford, Patsy’s mama, busily works in her summer kitchen, a structure built by Patsy’s hardworking father to allow his wife to chop, jar and store a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for winter. All is well with the world. However, when May decides to take her daughters to Tennessee by train, Patsy’s view of the world is shaken. She is curiously unprepared for the hostilities of racism and discrimination and is changed forever when, upon the train’s departure from Cincinnati, she and her family are forced to give up first-class seats for seats in the titular “colored car.” Elster’s story offers an engaging glimpse inside day-to-day life at that time. The narrative sparkles when guiding readers through the sights and sounds of Patsy’s neighborhood. However, the story stumbles, seemingly sacrificing narrative ease for a determination to adhere to the real-life events it is based on. Thus, Patsy’s reaction to racism feels melodramatic and confusing, marring an otherwise easy and informed read. Sharp historic insight wars with cumbersome sentimentality in this sometimes-overwrought yet heartfelt tale. Ages 8-12 Reviewer: Kirkus Reviews

Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different
Kristen O’Donnell Tubb

In 1934, spunky 11-year-old Autumn Winifred Oliver lives in picaresque Cades Cove, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. Her crusty Grandpa is involved in a federal plan to convert the surrounding land into a national park, which would allow the locals to cash in on the anticipated tourism. But after Autumn realizes that the government is actually plotting to level Cades Cove, she tries everything in her power to stop the destruction. She writes a letter to Mr. John D. Rockefeller, requesting that he withdraw his funding, and she even turns her flatulent bloodhound loose on a group of park builders. While the eventual compromise is not entirely pleasing to either side, Autumn is satisfied that she did her best to keep her precious holler as durn near perfect as possible. Tubb’s inventive heroine comes across as a female version of familiar characters, such as Gary Paulsen’s Harris or Robert Newton Peck’s Soup. This homespun tale, full of folksy humor and based on historical fact, will appeal to young fans of Deborah Wiles’ and Ruth White’s books. Grades 4-6 Reviewer: Jennifer Hubert (Booklist)

Mississippi Morning
Ruth Vander Zee

Mississippi Morning recalls grim days in the South before the Civil Rights era. In this picture book for older readers, the first-person narrator, James William, seems to have an idyllic childhood. He helps his father at their country store and spends time fishing with LeRoy, the sharecropper’s son. But the 12-year-old boy is troubled by stories he hears of lynchings and the torched home of a black minister. His father brushes off his tentative questions about white-hooded Klansmen. Early one morning, though, James William discovers his father’s terrible secret. Author Ruth Vander Zee paces this story masterfully and handles the climax with a powerful poetic spareness. Floyd Cooper’s sepia-toned oil paintings render the rural landscape beautifully and reveal, by the end, a young man poised to make different choices than his father. Ages 8 and up Reviewer: Mary Quattlebaum (Children’s Literature)

What the Moon Said
Gayle Rosengren

When Depression-era hard times send Esther s family from their Chicago home to try their luck on a small Wisconsin farm, the 10-year-old learns that there are many ways people show love. Esther s mother never hugs or kisses her. Does she even love her? Over the course of their year in the country, Esther tries desperately to be a good daughter, but the practical realities of their near-pioneer life (no electricity or running water) leave her mother little time to notice. And while the bookish child admires her fearful mother s ability to read signs, she can t bring herself to give up her new friend Bethany, even if her mother says the girl was marked by angry fairies. Eventually, Esther finds much to enjoy in her new farm life. Debut author Rosengren weaves plenty of Old World superstitions into her heartwarming story, contrasting those who fear the future with those who embrace it. Esther s positive attitude offers a fine model for readers of this engaging historical fiction. Grades 4-7 Reviewer: Kathleen Isaacs (Booklist)

Sky Boys: How They Built The Empire State Building
Deborah Hopkinson

To many, the Empire State Building is a fascinating structure. The building is especially intriguing to a young child who follows its construction from the beginning. Author Deborah Hopkinson provides her readers with a history lesson through mature and enriching text. The book begins with a boy telling his father that it will be the tallest skyscraper in the world. The pages flow with vivid descriptions of the building s high columns and concrete piers, as well as of the sky boys who help to construct it. Hopkinson acutely depicts the steel as strong and new, only eighty hours old, barely cooled from the fiery furnaces of Pittsburgh. This educational book even covers the challenge people faced with finding jobs in 1931 to emphasize that each man atop the structure works hard, knowing his job could be taken from him instantly. This book concludes with the boy attending the grand opening of the Empire State Building and taking the elevator to the top, proclaiming that it is the ride of his life. Historical photos of the building s actual construction fill the endpapers of the book. Perfect for use in an elementary history class, this book eloquently describes the challenging construction of a major landmark in the United States. Ages 4-8 Reviewer: Lauren Street (Children’s Literature)

Leo and the Lesser Lion
Sandra Forrester

This outstanding story is set during the depression but could easily be told about life in many small communities today. Bayless, soon to turn twelve, and her brother Leo, sixteen, have a special relationship. Leo is known for trying anything and Bayless’s favorite pastime is reading about adventurous women in history. Leo has restored a discarded rowboat for Bayless’s twelfth birthday but on the maiden voyage, a tragedy strikes and Leo drowns. The family struggles, each in their own way, to cope with the loss of Leo, mostly ignoring their feelings. When a local church that takes in children whose families can no longer care for them asks for help from the community, Bayless’s father volunteers to take in two girls temporarily. As Bayless and her older sister struggle with the addition to their family and with each other, their maturity is challenged. When the time comes to either let the girls go or keep them permanently, the entire family must face the loss of Leo and what it means to care for and about others in a time of need. A multitude of vividly drawn characters and rich settings make this coming-of-age story a memorable one. Ages 10-14 Reviewer: Meredith Kiger, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature)


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