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Based on a True Story, BOOK REVIEWS, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Teacher & Parent Recommendations, Young Adult Readers


I have recently become a HUGE fan of this author.  She writes everything from amazing historical fiction to contemporary fiction, to stories based on current, real-life events.  I first became aware of her when her book ALL OF THE ABOVE showed up on the Maud Hart Lovelace Award Nominee list for 2010-11 in Division II (5th -7th grade).

If you are a middle school or young adult reader, or you know one, these books are excellent.  ALL OF THE ABOVE is based on the true story of a middle school class in Ohio trying to break the world record by building the largest freestanding paper tetrahedron.  The four distinct voices of the narrators are genuine and engaging. Regardless of where you live or who you are each reader will find feelings and perceptions with which to identify.  By the same token, each reader will also then use those similarities to really experience the differences among the characters in the book as well.  Personally, this type of layered reading experience within a story is one of the things that makes a book precious to me.

Having read ALL OF THE ABOVE and enjoyed it so thoroughly, I went looking for more of Ms. Pearsall’s work.  I also visited her website, which is quite informative and interesting to explore.

Her first novel was TROUBLE DON’T LAST, which I just finished.  It tells the story of Samuel, an 11yr old boy born into slavery in Kentucky.  He never knew his mother, as she was sold before he could walk.  One night Harrison, the old man who has taken care of him, wakes Samuel and takes him along as they run toward freedom in Canada.  The viewpoint throughout the story is Samuel’s. I was drawn into the story by Samuel’s very clear, genuine voice.  I could feel his fear, and his horror, his wonder and his sadness amidst deplorable circumstances. Shelley Pearsall says that she felt much had been written about the Underground Railroad, but there were few personal accounts and she tried to capture that in this story. In my opinion she succeeded.

The next novel of Ms. Pearsall’s I read this summer was ALL SHOOK UP.  This is set in the present.  The main character is a 7th Grade boy whose parents are already divorced at the beginning of the story.  His maternal grandmother falls in her home in Florida and his mother has to relocate there for a few months to help her mother with her recovery.  Josh is sent to live with his dad in Chicago.

Upon arriving in Chicago Josh discovers that the father who had always worked as a shoe salesman has lost his job and is now working as an Elvis Presley impersonator.  Josh is mortified by this information.  He even goes so far as to pick up a job application from a local video store for his dad so he can have a “real” job again.  The really moving part about this novel is the honesty with which Josh speaks.  We all have feelings of anger and resentment and embarrassment connected at times with our parents.  It’s hard to admit those things to ourselves. We see in Josh’s gradual realization of the discrepancy between his perceptions and his father’s our own understanding of those feelings and thoughts that can otherwise fester.  When Josh decides to manipulate circumstances, sacrificing his father’s goals for his own he discovers that the consequences are far-reaching in ways he never anticipated.  And he discovers how to find his way back from some questionable decisions.  It is a remarkable book that adds to my admiration for Shelley Pearsall and her work.

The other work by Ms. Pearsall that I have read this past month is CROOKED RIVER.  This is historical fiction.  The story takes place in 1812.  A white trapper is murdered and a Chippewa man is accused of the crime.  The narrator is a young girl whose father is resposible for taking the young Chippewa prisoner and chaining him in their attic until his “trial.”  Again, there are many details within the story that are based on actual individuals and circumstances although all the specifics of the main characters are fictional.  Like all her other work, this story came alive right off the pages for me.

This book in particular poses a dilemma for young Rebecca:  (1)she knows her father is a cruel individual; (2) she is afraid of him–and of doing anything against his wishes; (3) she knows that she has always been taught that “Indians” are ‘savages; then she begins to really observe the young man in her attic, and she communicates with another man who believes Indians (in this case, Native American Chippewa) are the same as settlers like himself–and like Rebecca.  Now she must decide on her own if she must act and how she must act.

Although Rebecca’s dilemma is much more severe than those we face on a daily basis, doing what we believe is right in the face of possible physical, mental, emotional, or financial consequences is no less a hallmark of our character.  Rebecca’s dilemma and decision provide an excellent springboard for discussion about majority rule, mob mentality, individuality vs. accepted viewpoints, even personal values. It also allows each reader the opportunity to look inside herself at what qualities Rebecca possesses that I would like to emulate and in what ways can I make sure my actions support what I believe about people.

In conclusion, Shelley Pearsall has been my favorite author discovery this year (last year it was Barbara O’Connor).  I highly recommend her books and encourage other readers to seek them out! You will not be sorry!



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