I'm starting this off with one of my all-time favorite series, which almost nobody else seems to have heard of. Kate Seredy was a Hungarian-born author and illustrator who drew heavily on her heritage for all of her books. She won Newbery honors and a Newbery award back in the day, but seems to have fallen out of fashion. My favorite of her books is The Singing Tree, but before you read that, you need to read the first book, The Good Master.
This is my favorite kind of historical fiction, where the readers don't even notice that they're learning about a different time and place, because the characters are so relateable that they simply sweep you up in the story. Seredy's detailed and lovely illustrations are very much part of the charm. Both book feature cousins Jansci and Kate. Jansci is a farm boy on the Hungarian plains. In The Good Master, Kate starts out as his motherless, spoiled city-girl cousin, but the energy and warmth of the farm family bring out the best in her, and they become fast friends. In the The Singing Tree, WWI begins. The bucolic countryside, where the whole village turns out for a wedding feast, starts to disintegrate. Soldiers come home from the front broken and full of hate. Russian prisoners of war need housing. The kindly Jewish shopkeeper becomes a target of anti-Semitism. Food is scarce, and Father (the "good master" himself) goes missing. Kate and Jansci must grow up a lot faster than anyone expected. The story does end on a positive, hopeful note.
Even though I prefer The Singing Tree, I still recommend The Good Master. Not only is it a fun and interesting book in its own right, but it serves as a strong prequel to what will come. Without the establishment of "before the war," the war itself wouldn't have as much impact on the reader. It's much like reading about the Edwardian age, before the "flower of England" was cut down in the trenches. The sense of loss is poignant, and the strength of the simple goodness they knew before is what helps the family survive.
Not only have I been lucky enough to visit the Hungarian plains as an adult, but when I was a guest at a Latvian wedding in the 1990s, I recognized many of the traditions from these books, such as dressing up everyone from the bride's granny to her little brother in a veil, and presenting to them to the groom, before finally relenting and bringing out "the right one."
Kate and Jansci's story has stayed with me for a very long time. I hope some of you will also vicariously gallop across the puszta with Kate's shrill whistle ringing in your ears.