All three books in The Last Crystal Trilogy are set in a specific period in history. The Black Alabaster Box, for example, takes place in the late 1850s as the last wagon trains made their way across the plains states to Northwest Territory and California just before completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It makes a good companion book for teachers who are studying aspects of the great migration west. Here and on my blog, you will find information that teachers may use to supplement the curriculum or to share with students who are interested in digging deeper. Parents (and Homeschooling Parents) will find it useful in supporting children who want to explore more about pioneer life.
In the trilogy, I try to be true to the history. For example, we have come to glamorize the great migration west. For children studying this period in American history, the prospect of going to California or Oregon in a covered wagon may seem like high adventure—one great camping out holiday! In truth is was a hard journey fraught with danger. Western movies did a great deal to perpetuate the myth that the greatest danger to pioneers was American Indians. The greatest danger was disease. In The Black Alabaster Box (book 1), protagonist, Grace Willis, encounters this grim reality first hand when smallpox breaks out in the Stokes Company. I don't back away from the grim realities that pioneers faced, but I try not to glamorize them, even when a bit of magic enters in.
In The Red Abalone Shell, protagonist James Matthias is adopted by a German-American pacifist family. It was in this era that the paradigm was set for dealing with immigrants from countries with whom the US was at war. German immigrants were rounded up to take loyalty oaths, hounded in the communities where they had been members for at least a generation, and placed in internment camps. Teaching the German language was outlawed in schools. While many first and second generation German immigrants entered the armed service, pacifist families were often looked upon as traitors. It wasn’t until well after the US entered World War I that the idea of alternative service for conscientious objector was introduced. As a boy entering his teen years, James experiences this while, at the same time, struggling with lost memories and identity.
The Last Crystal (book 3), takes place after the US has entered World War II. On a train trip from Kansas City to LA, four children observe racism as the porter on their Pullman Car is repeatedly called “George” when he has his own name and wonder why a soldier who is a member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment has to visit his father in an internment camp. The precedents set in World War I were followed in World War II as German, Italian and Japanese-American families were placed in internment camps. Nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans were interred, however.
All these history lessons are woven throughout the three books of the trilogy, but in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or “preachy,” As librarian Anjela Horjus puts it in her review of The Red Abalone Shell, “Historical accuracy is obviously paramount to Schoonmaker and lessons on inclusivity and bullying are seemlessly woven in to create a story with rich detail and life lessons. Children won’t even realize how much history they are learning while reading this epic tale.”
I'll be asking teachers to post ideas of ways the book can support the curriculum. I'll also ask parents to share ways they have used the book in conversations with their children about some of the difficult situations Grace Willis encounters. For now, my blog has information about the Santa Fe Trail, smallpox, and alabaster.
Here's what teachers who piloted the book have to say about The Black Alabaster Box:
“It’s incredibly hard to please a whole class of fifth graders when choosing a text to read aloud, but I’m pretty sure that the The Alabaster Box did just that. Not only did the students learn a great deal about westward expansion and life on the trail, but they were swept up right along with the intriguing characters in their startling adventures within a setting that teetered back and forth between fantasy and historical fiction. Many students wanted to find out more about the Santa Fe Trail and surprised me with facts and information from that time period that they had sought out on their own. As we read, we laughed and we cried, we were constantly left in suspense, and above all, we couldn’t wait to read on each day!” ~ Katie Schmidt, Rodgers Forge Elementary School, Baltimore, MD
"The Alabaster Box is just the sort of book teachers long for their students to discover; it is a story full of imagination and humor and yet it is rooted in a time and place worth getting to know better. This enchanting tale set in the Old West cast a spell over my 4th and 5th grade students as we read of the exploits of the spirited pioneer girl Grace Willis, the devious Celeste and the mysterious Mr Nichols. It is a book my students, both boys and girls, just couldn’t put down." ~Jon Dunlap, Rivendell School, Arlington, V
Here's what a few students who piloted the book have to say about The Black Alabaster Box:
"Your book held great things like the suspense, the adventure, and the excitement.” ~ Colin, RFES
"Here are some of my opinions on the book and what you should do. First, START WRITING THE NEXT BOOK NOW!! I want to hear what happens." ~ Amelia, RS
"...[Y]our book inspired me to be brave, and to keep going when hard things comes." ~Kate, R