Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings by Michelle Dobbs

Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings by Michelle Dobbs

Links: Author’s website  No video trailer found. After reading the book, you might enjoy this audio version of the Rock Island Line song featured in the story by Lead Belly. There are other versions available.

From Wikipedia:

Rock Island Line” is an American blues/folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly.[1] Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

Book Summary: Lilly is growing up in 1920’s Illinois in a poor railroad town but a tightly-knit, successful black family. Her innocent childhood with her best friend Lois (also discriminated against, but for being American Indian) contains a touch of comedy as neither girl knows where babies come from and Lilly is determined to buy a baby brother. Lilly grows up and eventually does discover how babies are born and how they die.

Personal Reaction: Because the book encompasses most of Lilly’s lifetime, I cannot say I would recommend it to middle graders due to the adult topics that arise (nothing graphic), but I liked it as a personal choice. I loved the bonfires and the character of Lee. I was shocked at Papa’s confession and the tragedy of Pearl and Maggie.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Racism, personal responsibility, family values. Author has book club discussion questions posted on her website.

Connections to other books: Out Of The Dust and Witness by Hesse, Bud, Not Buddy by Curtis, A Long Way From Chicago by Peck; The Great Depression and World War II by Carlisle, Al Capone’s Chicago by Yancey, maybe a few of those decade chronicles-type books for 20’s and on… like The 1930s from the Great Depression to the Wizard of Oz by Feinstein

Items to display with book: Railroad set or model train, photos of Depression era Illinois, spelling book, big brown dusty oxford school shoes, Jazz or Blues records (on a phonograph if you can score one), bell jar full of pennies, baby doll or diapers

Food items connected to story: Chicken every which way (fried, roasted, sandwiches, soup, potpie, & dumplings); pot luck party foods (lima beans, casseroles, cakes, biscuits) lemonade, etc.


Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Grades 5 and up.

Fictionalized story of the Kosovo civil war between the Albanians and the Serbs. Very sad, but not gory or war-violent enough to make it off-limits for 5th graders. (Drita, My Homegirl is a much lighter touch on this subject, so maybe recommend Pelican to anyone who liked this book and wants to read more, or a younger reader. Last year’s SSYRA title Diamonds in the Shadow is a much darker look at another civil war.)

Author’s facebook page

fan created video trailer

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Short historical fiction piece about the frontiersmen’s experiences during the Revolutionary War. Main character gets a lot of lucky breaks along the way. Enjoyable, but not too deep. Just enough fighting & gore to keep the interest of middle grade boys.
Unfortunately, now that they’ve changed the FL curriculum, I don’t know of any middle grade Social Studies teacher who could use this in the classroom for American History. This could be too graphic for elementary – there’s a scene where the farmers have been scalped and Samuel talks of the man’s face sagging since there’s no skin to hold it together. Children are murdered as well. Shootings and stabbings, etc.

Grades 6-9

Scholastic publisher website

fan created book trailer

A Real American by Richard Easton

Date reviewed: 4/15/04                             Age/Grade:  YA        IL 9-12

Summary: Everyone in Nathan’s Pennsylvania town is moving away, even his best friend and bully of an older brother, because the coal mines want their farmland for cheap housing tracts. Nathan is afraid of these foreign-speaking workers and his father is apprehensive that they may lose the farm. Nathan’s dad doesn’t pay much attention to him since the death of his older brother. Nathan longs for a friend and meets Arturo Tozzi, an immigrant worker, who also wants a friend. Nathan and Arturo meet in secret for fear of what each other’s families would think (Nathan’s father, and Arturo’s older brother). Nathan sometimes isn’t sure whether he can accept Arturo as an equal since he cannot read. Talks of the foreigners striking in the coal mines brings the town tensions to a boil.

Personal Reaction: Good story about cultural misconceptions and the changing of coal towns in the northeastern US.

Points for discussion with children:  coal mining and its dangers; immigrants/foreign nationals and cultural bias

Possible classroom uses: This would be a good read aloud or novel study for Social Studies teachers (whether teaching industrial US) or for Language Arts team teaching with Social Studies teachers.

Connections to other books? Rockbuster by Skurzynski, possibly non-fiction about coal mining like Growing Up in Coal Country, unions like History of Labor Unions: Shmoop US History Guide, industrialization. YA fiction about immigrants/fitting in or nonfiction such as TEENAGE REFUGEE SERIES books.

Realia: coal lamp helmet, overalls, coal pieces, nonfiction books or photos of coal miners and/or disasters, spelling book or early reader

Food items connected to story: apple pie

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Date reviewed: 4/2/04                   Age/Grade:  YA        IL 9-12                   author’s website

format: audiobook

Summary: Mattie Cook lives in Philadelphia during an outbreak of yellow fever. Set in diary form, Mattie describes the strained relationship between herself and her mother who continually admonishes her to act like a proper young lady though her grandfather enjoys her company as the three share responsibilities of running a coffeehouse. As each of the three are stricken with the fever, separated, and later reunited, we see Mattie taking charge of her own future. Sideline story of communities prejudices against the poor and minorities brought through very well.

Personal Reaction: I think that this realistic historical fiction would appeal to both boys and girls, though girls would be more apt to choose it. Excellent story, though graphic in description of treatment of ill people.

Points for discussion with children:  yellow fever, epidemics, orphans, racism

Possible classroom uses: Social Studies teachers could use this during studies of the colonial period; science teachers during studies of epidemics, mosquito role in illness, even UNICEF programs.

Connections to other books? Students who like this may also appreciate Karen Cushman’s medieval historical fiction titles like The Midwife’s ApprenticeThe Witch of Blackbird Pond by Speare, fiction and nonfiction relating to yellow fever or epidemics (isolation/abandonment), especially here in Florida (mosquito country!)

Realia: enlarged photographs of mosquitos, period maps of Philadelphia, books on epidemics, coffee cup/grounds, walking stick, apron, stuffed parrot and/or cat

Food items connected to story: coffee