Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan. Just ask my kids from last year how often I recommended Fever 1793 to them.  I loved Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution when I reviewed it back in May, and I can’t wait to use it when I introduce our women’s history project this year.  And I still remember reading Speak for the first time in junior high (and I keep meaning to reread it).  As you can imagine, I was thrilled when I heard that Anderson would be publishing a new historical fiction novel this month and even more thrilled when my school librarian tracked down an ARC for me!

 Chains did not disappoint.

In 1776, Isabel is a young slave (about 11?).  She and her little sister, Ruth,  live in Rhode Island and Isabel dreams of the day they will be free.  Their master, Miss Finch, has promised them freedom upon her death, but when the time comes her lawyer has fled the sporadic battles between the Loyalists and Patriots.  Miss Finch’s greedy young nephew quickly sells the girls off to a wealthy Loyalist and his cruel wife.  Isabel and Ruth are sent to New York City, ophaned, alone, and at the mercy of the cruel Mrs. Lockton.  

When they arrive in New York City, Isabel immediately meets a young slave named Curzon, who convinces her that the quickest way to freedom is to spy on her Loyalist master and report to the Patriots.  

Ruth is “simple” and Isabel spends much of her time hiding her sister’s episodes from Mrs. Lockton.  But when they are discovered, she is thought to be possessed by the devil and Mrs. Lockton immediately sells her off.  Thus begins Isabel’s moral struggle- who should she support?  More importantly, which side will help her become free and find her sister?  She has no particularly strong feelings for the Patriots or the Loyalists-  she only wants her own freedom.  Sadly, both sides fail to take slaves into account, using them as tools rather than people: messengers, spies, soldiers, cooks, and everything in between.  

It’s difficult to do the plot justice in a brief recap.  There is so much going on, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed.  I found myself putting the book down after a chapter and going back to it later on.  Oh no, no because I wasn’t enjoying it!  Because I didn’t want the book to end.  I was digesting it in small pieces, constantly mulling ideas and events over in my mind.  Anderson does nothing if she doesn’t force you to think, really think about the American Revolutionary War.  I frequently found myself torn between the British and the Colonists, for Isabel’s sake.  I can honestly say I have never really sat down to consider the Revolutionary War.  We grow up romanticizing the fight for independence and history books rarely qualify or quantify the people who were chained between the two sides, forced to choose and getting nothing in return.  Wow!

Isabel’s voice rings true to the times, without being overwhelming.  The book reads like a story set in 1776 without being dry or difficult to understand.  In historical fiction that is extremely important.  If kids feel overwhelmed by dialogue, accents, or vernacular it is that much harder to get them to read and enjoy the book.  

What really makes me happy is how kid-friendly Chains is.  I already promised my students that we would be using it as a read-aloud later in the year.  As a teacher, I know it will push their thinking and I can already foresee the great conversations and debates we will have.  But I also know that they will genuinely enjoy the book.  Anderson has a gift- she makes history come alive and she makes it fun.  Yet I still come away from her historical fiction books knowing more than I did going in.  I know the same will be true for my students.

I am sure Chains will be at the top of many Newbery prediction lists and it is certainly on mine. However, it should also begin making its way into school reading lists. It seems like the same old books have been around since I was in elementary school. My Brother Sam Is Dead and Johnny Tremain are both great books but I think Chains is more historically-accurate and kid-friendly.  In NJ, the Revolutionary War is taught in 5th grade and I feel like Chains is just that much more kid-friendly and accessible while preserving (and exceeding) historical accuracy needs.  So I am starting up the chant, “Here, here!  Chains for the curriculum!”

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson has long been one of my favorite authors. I read “Speak” when I was in 6th grade, and I have been devouring her books ever since.

Twisted is the story of Tyler, the loser his entire life. He was always made fun of and always picked on- that kid in high school that isn’t the biggest nerd, but definitely not a jock. When he decided he wanted to prove how cool he could be, he designed what he thought was a safe but memorable prank. But when pulling off the prank led to him getting arrested, he never expected what would happen next. Who would have thought that all those hours of community service would make him look like the Incredible Hulk instead of an incredible dweeb? But people are noticing. Some of them are embracing his new personality, but it seems like others hate him even more then they did before. But isn’t that what happens in high school?

This book had me teary-eyed at the end and on the edge of my seat during the climax. Tyler is everykid- every kid who is picked on, miserable, treated like garbage, and still tries to do the right thing. He isn’t your stereotypical teen, and I loved that. He is sweet, moral, but also confused. And his father doesn’ t make his life any easier.

A fantastic novel, though I expect no less from Anderson.

Nonfiction Monday- Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson

I don’t normally review picture books, but when I saw a preview of Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson, I knew I had to have it. Laurie Halse Anderson is one of my favorite writers, I love books that focus on women in history, and it looked like a great example of a multigenre book for me last unit of study. I was right on all counts!

The only question is how to review this title.

Independent Dames is a great example of a multi-genre picture book. The illustrations are done by Matt Faulkner (who also illustrated Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving with Laurie Halse Anderson) and play a major part in the story. Independent Dames is not your typical picture book. Instead of one narrative thread through the pages, there are four types of writing on each spread- a timeline, biographical information, narrative storyline, and dialogue bubbles. My students are working on multigenre research projects right now and I can’t wait to share this with them so they can see how a topic, such as women in the Revolutionary War, can be shared through various genres.

The story begins in the narrative box, with a narrator welcoming the reader to another school play. The slightly sarcastic tone informs the reader that while the play is fine and dandy, the students are missing about half the important people and half of the story. As the story continues, the narrator introduces the fact that women were heavily involved in the fight for freedom, even if history books tend to leave out their stories. The story of the Revolutionary War is then told across the pages of the book, in the slightly sarcastic, know-it-all voice of the narrator.

I LOVED the voice in this book. Absolutely loved it. This is a picture book built for intermediate grades and middle schoolers, and the voice will speak to them. Middle schoolers are sarcastic, they are know-it-alls, and they certainly don’t want to be treated like babies. Too many non-fiction picture books talk down to students, dumbing down the information and making the topic dry and dull. Anderson makes the information accessible and dare I say, even fun!

There are 89 women profiled throughout the book. Most of the women are featured in biographical sketches that explain their contribution to the war effort. While the wives of the Founding Fathers are featured, they play a small role compared to the other various women profiled. The women whom Anderson chose to feature constantly elicited exclamations from me as I read. For example, I had no idea that Sybil Ludington was 16 years old when she rose 40 miles through the night to spread the news of a British attack and round up militia members. Remember Paul Revere? He rode 16 miles. Total. Who knew?! The biographical sketches are all easy to read and do not burden the reader with unnecessary information. In my opinion, Anderson gives just enough information to interest the reader and hopefully convince them to research further on their own!

Each page also includes dialogue boxes which add a little bit of humor to Faulkner’s illustrations. The dialogue boxes and illustrations continue to showcase the play that the story focuses on. I laughed out loud while reading many of them!

At the bottom of each page is a timeline that spans 1763-1920 (women get the vote!). The timeline highlights all the important events of the Revolutionary War. This is also every teacher’s dream. :)

Finally, the book ends with four pages that profile “Even More Dames”. Laurie Halse Anderson provides information on even more Revolutionary dames, while also debunking myths (Molly Pitcher). Anderson also focuses on women of all races and creeds- there are African-Americans, Oneida women, Loyalists, and Tories throughout the book.

The books concludes with an author’s note, illustrator’s note, a bibliography, and an index of the famous dames. Every teacher’s dream!

I can not wait to add this title to my classroom library. Laurie Halse Anderson has created the ultimate non-fiction book for middle-schoolers. I can’t wait to use it for my multi-genre study and my Women’s History Month project. Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution is an absolute MUST for all classrooms and libraries! And the best part is, students will actually want to read it!  It can be read at a glance, with the narration and dialogue bubbles, or kids can read deeper and examine the crawl/timeline.  This is a book that can be read over and over, with kids learning something new each time.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Do you use Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak in the classroom? If so, a teacher in Michigan needs your help! According to Halse Anderson, “This teacher could use some professional support. If you teach SPEAK, can you please leave a note in the comments section for her? Tell her why you use the book. Tell her about your classroom experiences and your professional opinion about the place of the book in the curriculum. Or just give her a pat on the back. If you are a teen, tell her what the book meant to you. “

Head on over to Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog to share your stories and inspiration with this teacher. Speak is an incredibly powerful book and deserves its place in our literary canon. Don’t let it be censored!

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