8th Grade U.S. History (1492 - 1865)
The Ransom of Mercy Carter (Caroline B. Cooney) – Based on the 1704 Indian raid on the English settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts. After their village is burned and many of its residents killed, Mercy and more than 100 other settlers are taken prisoner by the Kahnawake Mohawk, who have been converted to Catholicism by the French. Part of the novel focuses on the difficult winter trek that takes them 300 miles north to Canada, where Mercy settles into life in a traditional Indian village near Montreal. Uncertain whether she will be adopted by the Mohawk who captured her or whether the English will pay the ransom that would allow her to return to Massachusetts, Mercy struggles to balance loyalty to her own family and traditions with a growing appreciation for the Kahnawake way of life.
The Sign of the Beaver (Elizabeth George Speare)
This one is apparently rather popular, although somehow I’d missed it until a teacher at one of my workshops suggested it a few summers ago. It’s won all kinds of awards, including the Newbury, the O’Dell, and several from the ALA (American Library Association). It’s set in the wild frontiers of Maine, back when Maine had wild frontiers (a decade or so before the colonies declared independence). The plot centers around a young man named Matt who’s left to guard his family’s small homestead while his father goes to fetch mom and little sister from civilization. He ends up befriending Attean, a local Native boy about his age, and the usual “learning about one another” unfolds. It’s Dances With Wolves for upper elementary or middle school readers, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It hits all the basics you’d expect in this sort of tale, effectively and with enough craft that the book is still a big deal nearly 40 years after it was first published.
My Brother Sam is Dead (James Lincoln Collier) – The Revolutionary War divided families, friends and towns. Young Tim Meeker's 16-year-old brother goes off to fight with the Patriots while his father remains a reluctant British Loyalist in the Tory town of Redding, CT. With the war raging, Tim knows he'll have to make a choice – between the Revolutionaries and the Redcoats, and between his brother and his father. Tim learns that life teaches some bitter lessons and does not guarantee clear answers – one of my favorite things about this one, actually. Without making things darker or more complicated than necessary, it avoids oversimplifying everything into “good guys” and “bad guys.” This title had more recommendations than anything else on this particular list.
Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes) – This one is something of a classic. Fourteen-year old Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith with a bright future ahead of him, injures his hand in a tragic accident, forcing him to look for other work. In his new job as a horse-boy, riding for the patriotic newspaper, the Boston Observer, and as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty, he encounters John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren. Soon Johnny is involved in the pivotal events shaping the American Revolution from the Boston Tea Party to the first shots fired at Lexington. Engaging, historically plausible, and readily available – yay. This one came up on many people’s lists as well.
The Fifth of March (Ann Rinaldi) – It's 1770, and fourteen-year-old Rachel Marsh is a servant in the Boston household of John Adams. But her loyalty to the Adams family is tested by her friendship with Matthew Kilroy, a British private with an unsavory reputation. Rachel knows Matthew is frustrated and angry, but even she is surprised when he is accused of joining soldiers in firing upon a mob of citizens in the bloody encounter that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. This one also came up on multiple lists.
Woods Runner (Gary Paulsen) – Though his parents are city folk trying to hack out a life on the frontier in Pennsylvania, 13-year-old Samuel is entirely at home in the woodland wilderness that surrounds their little settlement. Soon after word arrives of the uprising in Concord and Lexington, Samuel returns home from a jaunt in the forest to find his home burned down, the neighbors slaughtered, and his parents missing. Paulsen alternates chapters of Samuel’s story with historical notes that illuminate the sobering realities of the Revolution and add some context not found in most history books.
Liberty or Death: The Surprising Story of Runaway Slaves who Sided with the British During the American Revolution (Margaret Whitman Blair) – In 1775, when British loyalist Lord Dunmore of Virginia issued a proclamation promising that escaped slaves who agreed to fight for the British could earn their freedom, hundreds of desperate men, women, and children figured that might be a pretty good way to go. Blair tackles a very complex subject (made moreso by how many of us presume we know more than we really do about the actual dynamics of the American Revolution and slavery in the 18th century) in a way meant to be accessible for young readers. She largely succeeds.
The Winter Hero (James Lincoln Collier) – Justin Conkey was too young to fight in the Revolution of 1776, but now it is 1787. He’s fourteen and ready to fight, even if he has only his father's old sword to protect him. But once on the battlefield, war is not what he expected. It is dangerous and frightening and nothing makes sense. Throughout a particularly bitter winter the young man is desperate to prove that he too can be a hero, but sometimes “heroes” are just ordinary people caught up in events and doing their best.
The Secret of Sarah Revere (Ann Rinaldi) – In this bit of historical fiction, the spunky daughter of the famed Paul Revere tells the story of her father’s rides and the intelligence network of the Patriot community prior to the American Revolution. Ann Rinaldi’s is known for taking her research pretty seriously but also knows how to work the teen angst for maximum engagement. Even better, her books tend to stay widely available and reasonably priced. That's a big deal if you're thinking "class set."
Washington’s Providence (Chris LaFata) – Former history professor John Curry has been recruited by a time-travel company to scout the best vantage point for clients to witness the inauguration of the first President of the United States. There's just one problem: When he arrives in 1789, there is no inauguration – and no United States. Few people have even heard of George Washington, and the short-lived American Revolution failed – presumably because Washington was killed thirty years earlier during the French and Indian War. John realizes the only way he can return home is to ensure there's a United States to return to. Everything hinges on keeping Washington alive – not the easiest task protecting someone famous for leading battles on the front lines while perched on a horse.
Fever 1793 (Laurie Halse Anderson) – In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia wiped out 5,000 people – 10 percent of the city's population – in about three months. Philadelphia was the bustling capital of the United States, with Washington and Jefferson in residence, and the infection spread like wildfire, killing people overnight. The life of 16-year-old Mattie Cook, whose mother and grandfather own a popular coffee house on High Street, is shattered by the epidemic, as her mother is felled and the girl and her grandfather must flee for their lives. On their eventual return, they find that much has changed.
Stealing Freedom (Elisa Carbone) – Twelve-year-old Ann Maria Weems works from sunup to sundown, wraps rags around her feet in the winter, and must do whatever her master or mistress orders. Still, she has something that many plantation slaves don't have – her family around her. To Ann, her teasing brothers, her older sister, and her protective and loving parents are everything. And then one day, they are gone. Separated from her family by her master and shipped off as a housemaid, Ann learns something about independence and about love before the opportunity for escape arrives. This one is based on a specific true story, but I'm not familiar enough with the "real" story to know how closely it follows. I am familiar enough with the time period to know this one is legit overall.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass) – This is one I’ve used in various contexts for many years, and I cannot recommend it ENOUGH. Douglass does a masterful job telling his story as a slave who came to understand the significance of education and reading as central to everything else, and skillfully paints slavery as a system doing as much harm to the whites involved as to the slaves themselves. Brilliant book, manageable reading level even with the 150-year old language. Use this one any time you can.
Trouble Don’t Last (Shelley Pearsall) – “Trouble follows me like a shadow,” begins 11-year-old narrator Samuel. When Harrison, one of the elderly slaves who raised him after the master sold off the boy's mother, decides to run away, Samuel must go with him. “Truth is,” Samuel confesses, “even the thought of going straight to Hell didn't scare me as much as the thought of running away.” This one is quite the page-turner, and walks a difficult line between being "real" enough to matter, but still not too overly traumatic for young readers.
Burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Carl Waters) – Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most influential novels of its time, but that doesn’t make it an easy read 150 years later. Waters reimagines and remixes the story into a four-book series that builds from the world and characters Stowe created and expands on the good she intended. Young slave George Harris is a self-taught inventor whose owner despises him. His wife Eliza, however, belongs to another slave owner, along with their three-year-old son Harry. While George dreams of the day when he can escape to Canada and work to earn enough money so he can buy his family's freedom, Eliza tries to see the best in her situation.
With Every Drop of Blood: A Novel of the Civil War (James Lincoln Collier) – Fourteen-year-old Johnny promised his father, who was gravely wounded while fighting for the South, that he would take care of the family and not run off to fight. But of course plot happens and he joins anyway. Johnny ends up in the hands of Cush, a runaway slave. Johnny doesn't like taking orders from a black man, but he has no choice: he's heading for prison camp wondering what will become of his family and himself. You can probably guess the rest.
Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt) – The events of the Civil War unfold Across Five Aprils in southern Illinois. Jethro Creighton, an intelligent, hardworking boy, is growing into manhood as his brothers and a beloved teacher leave to fight in the Union and Confederate armies. Hunt presents a balanced look at both sides of the conflict, and includes interesting information on lesser-known leaders and battles. There’s even some Abraham Lincoln involved. I REALLY LIKE THIS ONE.
Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy (Seymore Reit) – When the Civil War broke out, Emma Edmonds refused to remain on the sidelines. She cut her hair, put on some men’s clothing, and enlisted in the Union Army. Sometimes she was a slave, other times a peddler... whatever she needed to be. Emma became a makeshift master of disguise and risked the certain death of discovery repeatedly behind Confederate lines. I don't know the official reading level of this one, but it seems a bit below average for 8th grade. Whether that's a pro or a con depends on where you teach.
Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) – This one, of course, is a classic. It’s not a hard read, but despite its brevity it can prove a challenge for students accustomed to a more plot-driven format. Henry Fleming, a private in the Union Army, runs away from the field of war. Afterwards, the shame he feels at this act of cowardice ignites his desire to receive an injury in combat – a “red badge” that will redeem him. Powerful internal struggles as well as realistic depictions of battle.
Last of the Mohicans (James F. Cooper) – First published in 1826, this book represents an early attempt to create literature from North American history and geography. The white woodsman Hawk-eye and his Mohican Indian comrade Chingachgook join forces in 1757 to help the daughters of a white military officer through hostile territory. Hawk-eye, a white man who, to a large degree, rejects European-American values, is a fascinating figure, and through his mouth and the mouths of various Indian characters, Cooper offers some intriguing criticisms of white culture. The momentum of the book lags at times, and some of the characters at times sound a bit stereotypical. Still, it’s a classic, so there’s that.