Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Historical Middle-Grade Fiction Mayan Style

Mayan village in Legos. My oldest child's project.
I'm gaining a steadfast appreciation for writers of historical fiction, especially writers of historical fiction for children. In my last post, I talked about Stone Lions by Gwen Dandridge. We finished that book, and we're now reading The Well of Sacrifice by Chris Eboch.
Goodreads listing

Eboch doesn't pull many punches in describing the blood-letting ritual and the more grotesque aspects of Mayan culture while still painting a relatable main character. We're only a few chapters into it, but my children are experiencing the Mayan culture in a way they've not gathered from the Mayan sites they've actually visited.

Copan ruins in Honduras
The depth of research Eboch, and illustrator Bryn Barnard, put into the story must have taken years and sleepless hours of vetting everything that went into the book. And writing about a society whose customs were often violent is not an easy topic to pull off for a middle-grade novel. I'm so glad Eboch managed it, however, because it enlivens this part of history for my children, pulling them into a culture and era so far removed from their own.

I've been working on my own 80s era middle-grade novel--it makes me want to swallow my teeth to think the 80s are now considered historical--and it has kept me awake sorting and resorting the details and plots in my mind. Not to mention the links, notes, etc. that I have to collect. And that's for a "history" I actually (mostly) lived through! 

My new heroes are historical fiction writers for children. 

I'm looking forward to digging further into Eboch's books. I'm surrounded by Mayan history, but only in fallen stones and broken pottery. This book is giving me a way to visualize the people behind the tumbled temples and pottery shards. We'll see if the ending is as compelling as the beginning, but so far, so good. 

Have a great week.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Stone Lions: Educational and Exciting Middle Grade Novel

In our home school lessons, we’re reading The Stone Lions, by Gwen Dandridge. We’ve been studying the Renaissance, but most textbooks leave out the Islamic influence, particularly in Spain, that helped feed the European Renaissance.

Islam’s golden age produced leaps of understanding in science, math and medicine when much of Europe was in the (poorly named) Dark Ages. 

When Europe began to recover from the devastation in the Dark Ages, the knowledge Muslim civilization had preserved and created helped European scholars jump-start their learning. Particularly in math, where Muslim mathematicians discovered zero, the decimal system, and provided the numeric system (Arabic) the western world uses today. 

We need to thank Muslim mathematicians for saving us from computing II + II = IV. Shukran!

Dandridge set her story in 14th century Moorish Spain told through the eyes of Ara, a spunky girl from the harem and daughter of the Sultan. The story revolves around Ara’s discovery of the wicked Wazir’s meddling in black mathmagics—a great and compelling idea for the middle grade scene and a sneakily wonderful way to make math seem fascinating. 

Ara discovers the Wazir’s tricks while hiding in wait to see the procession of Tahirah, the famous mathmagician and tutor of her dearly departed mother. 

Tahirah is a Sufi and skilled in understanding symmetry and the mystical abilities of math. She tutors Ara in understanding the importance of symmetry and how the wazir’s meddling has broken the symmetry in the walls of the fortress where they live, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Ara has to find the broken symmetries and heal them before the Alhambra, their palace, breaks from the inside. 

We’re not finished with the book yet, but all three of my children, ages 11-6, pay rapt attention to the exciting plot twists and the funny moments when Ara’s primary care taker is transformed into different animals as a result of crossing the Wazir. 

Toledo, Spain from the top of the Church of the Jesuits. We spent a lovely week in this former Moorish city.

Dandridge wrote about a time and culture often overlooked. She also managed to pull off a plot that engages multiple ages with her magical elements (and even math) sneaked in. Not easy to do. Kudos to her giving parents and educators a go-to story on an era, culture and subject not often talked about.

As excited as I am to finish the story, I'm always a bit sad when a good story ends. Fortunately, there's more out there to explore. I'm looking at The Well of Sacrifice right now for our unit on the Maya.

Have a great week.