If I had to pick one genre as my favorite, I would have to go with historical fiction. As a children's librarian, this is a bit unfortunate, because it can be hard to convince elementary-aged kids to invest in reading about the past. If the topic is "exciting" enough (think: World War II), historical fiction will sell itself, but books that take place during quieter or less well known times require a bit of a leap of faith for many middle grade readers. Often, kids are missing the background knowledge needed to make sense of the setting, so they are often wonderful read alouds, as an adult reader can fill in the gaps that kids might have.
This week I read a brand new historical fiction title that I loved. Sara Joiner's debut novel is After the Ashes, set on the island of Java in the 1880s, at the time of the eruption of Krakatua. While I had a vague knowledge of Krakatua (or Krakatoa), After the Ashes made it real to me in the way that only historical fiction can.
Katrien Courtland is Dutch by ancestry, but Indonesian in every other way. She has lived her whole life on Java, and feels most at home in the jungle, studying the plants, animals and insects that live there. She is an unusual girl for the time and place - obsessed with Darwin's theory of natural selection, more interested in spending time with her native friend than in fashion and social niceties. She is being raised by her father and her aunt (after the death of her mother) and they grow increasingly concerned about making her into a proper Dutch young lady. Katrien has no interest in that and is resolute about her scientific experiments and study. Everything changes in an instant, though, when Krakatua erupts. Suddenly, Katrien's life is turned upside down (literally) and her knowledge of nature becomes lifesaving.
Joiner's description of the island post-Krakatua is stark and shocking and it is hard to imagine a disaster of such a magnitude. Although it is not war, I think that I'll be able to "sell" this book to kids based on the survival/adventure angle. Hopefully, once in, they'll be invested to finish this unique offering by first time author Joiner.
Other books I read this week and enjoyed: