Nancy Gilson from The Columbus Dispatch revisits a popular and excellent children’s book series for us today:
In the mid 1990s, young readers -- particularly girls -- enjoyed the “Dear America” historical fiction series.
Each installment of the more than 30 books was an adventure, written in the form of a diary that reflected a turbulent period of American history.
The series is back with reissued titles and new novels, including Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce — Portland, Maine, 1918 (Scholastic, 224 pages, $12.99, ages 9 to 12) by the renowned Lois Lowry (Number the Stars, The Giver).
The young protagonist becomes an orphan at age 11 when her parents and baby sister die during the influenza epidemic. She and her brother stay briefly on their uncle's farm, where their aunt resents their presence, then are shipped to a society of Shakers, a religious community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Lydia's story becomes one of acclimation to the strict, hardworking Shaker society. The novel has less drama than description, as Lydia learns to cook and sew and begins to adhere to the selfless, communal ways of the Shakers. The most exciting plot thread concerns her brother, Daniel, who runs away from Sabbathday Lake.
As Lydia's diary progresses, readers gauge her growing understanding and respect for the Shakers even as they wonder whether she will stay with them when she becomes an adult.
Like the Willow Tree provides a window into the almost-extinct Shaker life (the sect is celibate) and includes background information and more than a dozen photos from the real Sabbathday Lake community. Lowry became acquainted with Shaker life and history when she bought a farmhouse near Sabbathday Lake.
In addition to the reissued titles, new "Dear America" books include:
* The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis -- Seattle, Washington, 1941, about a Japanese-American girl during the time of internment, was published in September.
* Due in May is the series' first sequel, Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart -- Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779, which follows up on the 1996 novel The Winter of Red Snow: The Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart -- Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777 by Kristiana Gregory.
--Nancy Gilson, Arts Editor of The Columbus Dispatch