A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this Newbery Honor book is about the Civil War. While much of this story is a humorous tall tale, it culminates with a lengthy and realistic portrait of the horrors of war -- in particular, the Battle of Gettysburg, including horrible injuries, amputations by saw, and many deaths. Homer is a charming narrator -- he lies a lot but also tries to do what's right. Through his story, readers will certainly learn something about the war, as well as the mistreatment of slaves.
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What's the story?
When his underage older brother, Harold, is illegally conscripted into the Union Army during the Civil War, Homer sets out on a picaresque quest to rescue him. Along the way he encounters a Quaker running an Underground Railway station, a medicine show con man who may be a spy, and a hot-air balloonist, among others, before finally catching up with his brother -- just in time for the Battle of Gettysburg.
Is it any good?
It's a tricky task the author has set himself here, but he succeeds brilliantly. He effectively conveys something of the reality of this horrific war, as well as the mistreatment of African-Americans (not to mention orphans), in the context of a broadly humorous tall tale told by a boy who believes that "old Truth ain't nearly as useful as a fib sometimes." That he accomplishes the task so well is no surprise, coming from the author of Freak the Mighty: This is a writer who knows how to balance humor, poignancy, and power, never going overboard in any one direction.
He also manages to create a story that reads like a tall tale, populated with larger-than-life characters, that somehow rarely strains credulity. It's one of those cinematic stories that not only runs like a movie in the reader's head, but also prompts mental attempts at casting, a game your kids might enjoy. Homer is an appealing hero -- recklessly adventurous, dishonest for the sheer creative fun of it, and goodhearted as only a kid can be. With touches of Dickens and Twain, this is a delightful read with some layers that may prompt your kids to learn more.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about historical fiction. Why is important to read stories like Homer's, which are about events that happened long ago? What can you learn from his story that you can't learn from history books?
What did you think about the violence in this story? Was it necessary to convey the horrors of war? Is reading about violence different than seeing it in a movie or experiencing it in a video game?
What do you think of the book's cover? This book is both humorous and, in moments, horrific. Is the cover too light, or just right?
For kids who love history
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