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Young Heroes of History
By Anise Hollingshead, January 2003

The American Civil War is brought to a young audience by way of a series called Young Heroes of History, published by White Mane Books, and written by Alan Kay, a high school history teacher. The first three books detail the progressive stories of young members of two families. The Adams are an Irish immigrant family. Jack and his daughter Lisa are runaway slaves. The stories revolve around two young Adams cousins, George and David, and also focus on Jack's young daughter Lisa.

In the first book, Send 'Em South, Jack runs away from his Georgia owner with twelve-year-old Lisa. They eventually take ship, with a sympathetic captain, to Baltimore, Maryland. From Baltimore, they plan to make their way to Boston, Massachusetts, but Lisa loses track of Jack while crossing a fast-moving river. Lisa finds her way to Boston alone and there encounters David and George while running from slave catchers. They must decide on whether to help her or not.

The next two books, On the Trail of John Brown's Body and Off to Fight, chronicle the further adventures of David and George as they are drawn deeper into events leading up to the Civil War. David's parents are abolitionists who have settled in Kansas to try to prevent it from becoming a slave state. After traveling to Kansas in search of David's parents, the two cousins become embroiled in John Brown's fanatical fight against slavery. This causes a serious rift in the family, which is deepened by the outbreak of war and the choosing of sides. Meanwhile, Lisa's ultimate fate is undecided.

The adventures of these young people are detailed in a very exciting manner, which draws in readers. The suspense is handled well, with realistic consequences of actions for that time in history. Children will enjoy reading about Lisa and her harrowing adventures. They will also be sympathetic to David and George as they try to fit in with their peers, while maintaining their own integrity. However, there are some problems with these books, which detract from the overall reading experience.

The experiences of the young characters draw upon actual historical events. Though they are meant to be realistic, there are some jarring discrepancies. There is a disconcerting inconsistency of language with slaves who speak in educated tones, and then lapse into a slightly pidgin communication. The educated style of conversation is unbelievable, as the white and black children say things that sound stilted and unreal, and the 'slave-talk' is inconsistent, with varying grammar: in one sentence Jack says 'we is gunna' and then in the very next sentence he utters 'we are going'. Slang terms such as 'doofus' and 'wow' are entirely out of time and place. But, frankly, though parents and teachers will notice these language problems, most kids will not.

What concerned me more was some very coarse language scattered throughout; in my opinion inappropriate in a book targeted toward kids aged ten to fourteen. Generally I do not recommend the series for elementary or middle school children, because of the language and also a blunt treatment of the sexual nature of slave ownership, as in the description of the slave auction with Lisa's mother, in which prospective buyers talk frankly about her attributes and possible usage.

However, upper grade teachers trying to get their students interested in reading anything about the Civil War without yawning may want to try these books, as they are definitely more engaging to read than those that simply convey the facts of history.
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