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The Study of Poetry and Literature for Children & Young Adults

Historical Fiction & Biography

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Cleopatra by Diane Stanley & Peter Vennema
The Cookcamp by Gary Paulsen
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park


Curtis, Christopher Parks. 1999. Bud, Not Buddy. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385323069


Christopher Parks Curtis, author of the award winning The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 scores another hit with Bud, Not Buddy, a heart warming adventure of a young boy’s search for his father during the depression. Bud, Not Buddy was awarded the Newbery Medal as well as being named a Coretta Scott King Award Winner.


Set during the 1930’s during the Great Depression in Flint, Michigan, Bud is a ten year old boy that has bounced back and forth between the orphanage and various foster homes since the unexpected death of his mother four years prior. After a particularly cruel foster home, Bud sets out in search of his father with only a few clues that his mother left him. These items are a couple of flyers about a band leader and some rocks with dates and cities written on them. The dates are long before Bud was born and cities he has never been to. Bud sets out on foot for Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of jazz band leader Herman E. Calloway, convinced this man is his absentee father.


Historically accurate, the book contains many interesting side stories that could be used as segues into other learning experiences. For example, when Bud begins his journey he stays at Hooverville, a shantytown by the railroad. Hooverville is full of people and families in desperate need of work. Many of the men and boys ride the rails out west to pick fruit while their families exist in cardboard shacks eating possum, rabbit and dandelion greens.


Bud is later helped by Lefty Lewis, a Pullman porter who is also secretly organizing a union for rail workers. He eventually finds the man he is looking for and discovers that he is actually his grandfather not his father. Eleven years earlier his mother had run off with a drummer from the band and had never reconciled with her father.


Bud’s arrival and proof of family (the stones Calloway had written on for his daughter) is tinged with sadness as the father mourns the loss of his long lost daughter but tentatively begins to celebrate the addition of a grandson.


The author maintains the accuracy of these characters not only by extensively researching the time period but also by drawing on events and family members from his personal history.  In the afterword, Curtis explains how he chose the characters and includes family photos of his own grandfathers Lefty Lewis, a Pullman porter and redcap and Herman E. Curtis, band leader for Herman E. Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.


The theme throughout the book is Bud’s Momma’s advice, “When one door closes, look for another to open.” As Bud makes his way through one disastrous (yet humorous) adventure after another, instead of giving up, he always looks for the next door to open, knowing that things will work out if he keeps trying.


Kathleen Isaacs of School Library Journal states that “Curtis has given a fresh, new look to a traditional orphan-finds-a-home story that would be a crackerjack read-a-loud.”


Christopher Paul Curtis closes with the following advice to his young readers, “Go talk to Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and other relatives and friends. Discover and remember what they have to say about what they learned growing up. By keeping their stories alive you make them, and yourself, immortal.”


Recommended for grades three and up, the books is an excellent well structured example of United States history from the 1930’s and also subtly infuses the reader with lessons on not giving up and maintaining a sense of humor through difficult life events.



Curtis, Christopher Parks. 1999. Bud, Not Buddy. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385323069


Curtis, Christopher Parks. 1995. The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963. New York: Delacorte Press. 0385321759


Isaacs, Kathleen. 1999. Bud, Not Buddy. (book review). School Library Journal. September 1, 1999.




Paulsen, Gary. 1991. The Cookcamp. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439523575


Drawing from his childhood, Gary Paulsen, award winning author of more than a hundred books, tells a heartwarming story of a grandmother’s love from the perspective of a five year old boy.  The story is set first in Chicago then in Minnesota during World War II. The boy, who is never identified by name, is sent by his mother to live with his grandmother at a cookcamp for a logging crew creating roads in the woods of northern Minnesota.


Paulsen’s own father was a soldier during World War II and his mother worked in a munitions factory. Paulsen was sent to live with his grandmother when life became difficult for the family. He calls his grandmother’s warm support during this time “his safety net” and utilizes this theme in The Cookcamp.


This book covers the adult themes of loneliness, boredom, rejection and infidelity all the while staying true to the voice of a small boy trying to make sense of the grownups around him. The boy’s mother is lonely and bored while her husband is away serving in the military during WWII. She is tired of listening to the radio and subsequently takes a job at a local factory. “Uncle” Casey begins to be a frequent occurrence in their small family taking them on outings to the zoo and visiting his mother, finally culminating in “Uncle” Casey moving in with them.


“But of course he was not an uncle at all, and that first night the boy came out of the bedroom in their small apartment and saw his mother with Casey on the couch making sounds he did not understand but did not like”


“She pushed Casey away…held the boy and cried. And the next day she pinned a note to his jacket and put him a train, and he rode alone a day and a night… and part of another day to meet his grandmother.”


While traveling on the train, the boy is looked after by a Pullman porter that went out of his way to make sure the boy felt cared for. The porter checked on him frequently, brought him dinner and even carried him asleep wrapped in a blanket when he had to change trains during the night. The theme of the kindness of strangers is strong and is reminiscent of the strangers that helped the young protagonist in Christopher Parks Curtis’, Bud, Not Buddy (1999). That story also included a kind Pullman porter named Lefty Lewis.


Upon reaching the cookcamp the boy finds his grandmother to be full of love and acceptance for him. The writing is clear and realistic, portraying accurately the both the time period and the loggers. Huge but gentle men, far from their families, the loggers enjoy taking the small boy under their wings. The detailed descriptions of their road crew and their equipment lends to the feeling of the reader being in the woods of Minnesota during the early 1940s. The boy is integrated into the workings of the camp, goes out in the trucks, eats meals with them and learns to play the card game whist.


Although safe and cared for the boy misses his mother, and shares his feelings with his grandmother. A letter is sent to the mother, the reader infers that it concerns “Uncle” Casey and soon the boy is back on a train to see his mother. She greets him enthusiastically sans the boyfriend.


“She was crying and laughing at the same time, kneeling on the platform so he could let go of the conductor’s hand and run into her arms.”


The boy does not see his grandmother again until he is much older and takes his young son to visit her. The time honored lessons of hard work, honesty and love of family absorbed by the boy during his visit to his grandmother serve the boy well as he matured into a man.


“While the boy is very young, his experiences are universal, making this a superb book for readers just old enough to look back and remember their childhoolds and grandparents with a feeling of nostalgia.” Susan M. Harding, reviewer for the School Library Journal.


Paulsen, Gary. 1991. The Cookcamp. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439523575


Harding, Susan M. 1991. The Cookcamp (book review). School Library Journal. February 1, 1991.


Website, available at


Website, available at



Stanley, Diane, & Peter Vennema. 1994. Cleopatra. New York: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN 0688104142


Written by noted author Diane Stanley with her husband Peter Vennema, Cleopatra is an outstanding biography of a fascinating woman and leader who lived from 69 – 30 B.C. in Egypt. The book was created for children in the new trend of 32 page picture book style and illustrated by Stanley in full-color gouache artwork and beautiful vivid mosaic designs.


In the preface, Stanley points out that many of the commonly known facts about Cleopatra are based on the writings of her enemies, the earliest are written by Plutarch, 100 years after her death. No paintings or portraits exist of her, the only know likenesses to remain are on coins from that period bearing her profile. The clear and easy to read writing combined with the vivid artwork and maps allow the reader to visualize the time period and feel present during this turbulent period in Roman and Egyptian history.


Booklist reviewer, Carolyn Phelan, writes, “Taken simply as a story, the book has a sumptuous setting, heroic characters, name recognition, high drama, and a tragic ending. An intriguing portrait.”


Cleopatra VII became Queen of Egypt in the year 51 B.C. at the age of 18. Ambitious for power, Cleopatra lost her political fight to return Egypt to the glory of its magnificent years under Pharaoh Thutmose III, 1400 years prior. By the of age of 20, she had been driven from her country and was living in exile in Syria where she raised an army to go to war against her brother, the current leader of Egypt.


At this time Julius Caesar, arrived from Rome and attempted to broker peace between the warring siblings. Cleopatra not only won Caesar’s mind, convincing him of her need to rule Egypt but his heart as well. After a six month war, and with the aid of Caesar’s army, Cleopatra was again on the throne with Caesar by her side.


Rome soon revolted against Caesar’s grasp for power and he was assassinated. His position as the most powerful Roman was succeeded by Mark Antony, a great general and statesman.


Mark Antony succeeded Caesar as Cleopatra’s love interest and partner in ruling Egypt. They planned an empire together. Unfortunately, this was a threat to the Roman Empire and after a total of 21 years on the throne, Cleopatra’s dream was over. She and Mark Antony were buried in the same tomb and immortalized by the Greek historian Plutarch.


Carolyn Noah of the School Library Journal states, “Finally Cleopatra emerges as a savvy, astute, and complex leader who followed both her heart and mind.”


Stanley's dramatic illustrations are eye-catching with large, well-composed images executed in the flat Greek technique. The endpapers simulate period mosaics; the text is set against a faux-tile backdrop that reinforces the book's design, illustrations, and cover art.


A prologue, epilogue, pronunciation guide and bibliography are all included in the layout of the book making the archaic topic fresh and easier to understand, research and discuss.


Diane Stanley is the recipient of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, and the 2000 Washington Post/Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for the body of her work. Stanley and her husband, Vennema, have worked together on other books in Stanley’s award-winning biography series, including Shaka: King Of The Zulus, Bard Of Avon: The Story Of William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations.


Stanley, Diane, & Peter Vennema. 1994. Cleopatra. New York: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN 0688104142


Noah, Carolyn. 1991. Cleopatra. (book review). School Library Journal. October 1, 1994.


 Website, available at



Park, Linda Sue. 2002. A Single Shard. Maryland: Random House. ISBN 0807207020

Audio Edition – Read by Graeme Malcolm


A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park is an unabridged audiobook on three cassettes, produced by Listening Library, a division of Random House. This is an excellent audio version of the printed text. Park brings personal knowledge to the story as she is a first generation Korean-American and the setting is in 12th Century Korea.


“This book will engage both individual readers and discussion; the audio version makes it accessible to a broader audience, while giving style and substance to those who have read the print version,” states Francisca Goldsmith, reviewer for School Library Journal.


The story of a 12 year old protagonist named Tree-ear. An orphan, he is raised by Crane-man, a homeless man who resides under a bridge in the summer and in a kimchee pit in the winter. Crane-man was not always homeless, but lost his home and possessions after his family died and he had to sell them to survive. His name evokes thoughts of a crane standing on one leg because Crane-man was born with a crippled leg.


Tree-ear at age two was given by a monk to Crane-man to watch over until a fever epidemic subsided. When the monk returned in a couple months, Tree-ear would not leave his new guardian. This is a heartfelt story of values, ethics, loyalty, honor and hard work.


“Work gives a man dignity, stealing takes it away.” are the words Crane-man raises Tree-ear with. Although the two rarely have enough to eat, they live with dignity, foraging in the woods and rubbish heaps, gathering fallen grain in the fall. “…these are honorable ways to garner a meal, requiring time and work. But stealing and begging, Crane-man said, make a man no better than a dog.”


Tree-ear (named by Crane-man for the fungus that grows on a tree sans a parent), is soon tested on these values. By accident, Tree-ear breaks a clay box of a local artisan potter and offers his labor free of charge to cover the cost. After working for nine days, Tree-ear stays on as a laborer,  secretly hoping to become an apprentice.


When an emissary from the king requests Min’s work to be brought to him to be reviewed for a possible consignment order Tree-ear offers to undertake the treacherous journey.  Beset upon by robbers, Tree-ear loses his entire basket of pottery to the angry robbers. They throw the beautiful vases off the cliff when they discover it is not food or money.


Tree-ear briefly contemplates leaping off the cliff after the vases but hears the wise Crane-man’s words, “Leaping into death is not the only way to show courage.” He pulls himself together, scrambles down the cliff and finds the largest shard left from the shattered vases. It shows the workmanship of the master potter. Tree-ear then walks for three days to the palace, pausing only to eat and sleep. With the bravery of the truly desperate, he firmly demands an audience with the royal emissary and receives it. The shard is examined, deemed worthy and Min is awarded a royal commission.


Read by noted British actor Graeme Malcolm, his accent is wonderful to listen to but it did seem a bit disconcerting when describing traditional Korean pottery and food. The sound quality is excellent, clear with chapters defined and author and publisher mentioned. The beginning and end of the audiobook are highlighted with traditional Korean string music setting the mood for the reader to mentally travel to a small seaside village in 12th century Korea.


Malcolm provides all the voices, varying his voice to become a young boy, a very convincing grouchy older potter (Min) and several other men. When Malcolm reads Ajima, Min’s wife, his voice does ascend in pitch though he really doesn’t sound like a middle aged woman.


The listening experience was very absorbing, I read the book first, and then listened to the audiobook. I found myself leaning toward the tape player caught up in details, I didn’t remember reading. When I rose to turn the tape over, I discovered my two teenagers were also sitting in the room listening, having entered the room to speak to me, they sat down to listen and became engrossed in the story.


Highly recommended for grades three and up, the believable story of courage despite adversity is uplifting.


“Though the society has its own conventions, the hearts and minds and stomachs of the characters are not so far removed from those of people today. Readers will feel the hunger and cold that Tree-ear experiences, as well as his shame, fear, gratitude, and love. A well-crafted novel with an unusual setting.”  Carolyn Phelan of Booklist, 2001.



Park, Linda Sue. 2002. A Single Shard. Maryland: Random House. ISBN 0807207020

Audio Edition – Read by Graeme Malcolm


Park, Linda Sue. 2002. A Single Shard. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395978270


Goldsmith, Francisca. 2001. A Single Shard. (audiobook review). School Library Journal. June 1, 2002.


Phelan, Carolyn. 2001. A Single Shard. (book review). Booklist. April 1, 2001.


Website, available at


Website, available at