“The Girl in the Torch” by Robert Sharenow is the perfect middle grade book for a teacher looking for historical fiction that has lots of diversity between the front and back covers. There are Jews, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Mexicans, and more.
The protagonist is twelve-year-old Sarah, who comes from a small town in rural czarist Russia where Jews are routinely killed in pogroms. When her father is killed, Sarah and her mother decide to go to America. Unfortunately, Sarah’s mother gets sick on the boat and dies on American soil, in the infirmary.
The immigration officials learn about an uncle of Sarah’s and want to send her back to Russia to live with him. Sarah knows that her uncle hates females, and that her life with him would be miserable. She is determined not to return, but to stay in America somehow in order to pursue her dream.
Sarah bravely leaps into the water from the boat that is to take her back, but then she must figure out how to hide and survive in the Statute of Liberty and how to sneak over to mainland New York. Help comes from an unexpected quarter, leading to one of the book’s main themes: do not trust first impressions. People and things may not be what they seem.
How Sarah manages to accomplish her goals makes for an exciting, touching story. Sarah makes friends (of all colors and religions) and those friends help her when she needs help and needs them.
This story would be a good read-aloud for fifth grade through middle school. The book lends to discussion of topics such as bravery, freedom, religious freedom, treatment of minorities, immigration, friendship and, of course, life in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the protagonist is a girl, the action and the many other characters in the story would make this a good choice for either boy or girl readers.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Balzer + Bray for review purposes.
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