They stand in my study, shoulder to shoulder, a bunch of strong-willed girls with stories to tell. Charlotte Doyle, Lizzie Bright, Anita de la Torre. Karana and the two Esperanzas. Hattie and Shabanu and Billie Jo. Some have been around for awhile, others not so long. Here’s a closer peek at the last three…
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
This is the story of Hattie Brooks, a sixteen-year-old orphan who has been tossed around from one distant relative to another and left with no real identity. Somehow she finds the courage to leave Iowa and move all by herself to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim. With more than 300 acres to manage (and a cow, a horse, and a cat), she has fences to build and flax to plant and only eight months to do it. Some neighbors befriend her; others want her land. Prairie life proves to be a harsh existence.
Set in 1918, World War I, the anti-German bias is strong and puts some of Hattie’s new friends in danger. The characters are believable and memorable and will latch onto your heart and bring you with them through times of hardship, sadness, and joy. The essence of place is captured vividly, too, in the sights and sounds and scents of the prairie.
I especially like the variety in narrative style in this book. Hattie’s story is enhanced by the short news articles she writes for an Iowa paper and her letters to a friend in the military in France. This story about a young girl going out on her own in the world to prove herself is a celebration of independence and is appealing to readers of all ages. (A Newbery Honor Book)
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Shabanu grows up in the Cholistan Desert of Pakistan in a camel-herding family of nomads who must travel with the seasons in order to survive. In this culture childhood doesn’t last long. A girl becomes a woman at thirteen, weddings are arranged by the parents, and a girl must always obey the decisions of her father. Likewise, a woman is expected to yield to the wishes of her husband. It’s not the best environment for a strong-willed, independent-minded girl.
Since Shabanu has an older sister and no brothers, she has been allowed a little more freedom than most girls in her society. Her mother says she’s as “wild as the wind” and worries about what might happen to her if she doesn’t learn to obey. At 12 Shabanu is already engaged to a young cousin she hardly knows and the family is planning the upcoming marriage of her older sister Phulan. A tragic event happens, however, that changes everything and the parents are forced to promise Shabanu to a much older man.
The nomadic culture is vividly presented, as well as the stark beauty of the desert and Shabanu’s love for the animals in her care. The author has balanced the harsh realities of traditional Muslim practices with the warmth and love shown between family members. Relationships are complex; feelings are mixed; joy and despair go hand in hand. In the end Shabanu must decide whether she will do what she must to uphold her family’s honor or fight for her own dreams. (A Newbery Honor Book)
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Billie Jo’s story is told in free verse poetry and set in Oklahoma during the dust storms of the 1930s. A horrible accident changes her life. Her mother is gone, her father hardly talks, and she is no longer physically able to play the piano, which has been her escape from the harsh realities of life. Dust storms are constant and ferocious, forcing many people to leave their farms and homes for good, but Billie Jo and her father stay put, barely eking out a living on their farm. Her dreams of becoming a musician and leaving Oklahoma are shattered.
It is only when Billie Jo runs away that she begins to truly understand herself, her father, and her home. Her escape becomes a personal journey of healing and forgiveness. This story, so full of misery from a time and place when people faced terrible hardship from both the constant dust storms and the Depression, offers moments of hope, occasional surprises, and even a flicker or two of joy. It’s a testament to the American spirit. (A Newbery Medal winner)