Flash to the Past; Bumped Back in Time; Riches to Rags by Penny Estelle

By Ekta R. Garg

December 11, 2013

Rated: Borrow them

Several students in Mrs. Wickware’s class get history lessons in the most real way possible: time travel takes them back to their periods of study.  The students learn about history and receive some necessary life instruction as well.  Author Penny Estelle rounds out her middle grade series “The Wickware Sagas” with Flash to the PastBumped Back in Time, and Riches to Rags.

In each of Estelle’s books, middle school history teacher Mrs. Wickware gives students the same assignment: draw a name from a box of a person involved in a major event in American history and then do a short report on that person.  Students in school share rumors about Mrs. Wickware.  Her eyes shoot sparks, they tell each other in hushed tones, and something akin to magic seems to happen in her class.  The students who undergo that magic, though, know it’s a special experience.  At the start of each book, the protagonist exhibits some uncertainty or a problem and finds out (through the course of the time travel) a reasonable way to work out his or her twenty-first century issue.

In Flash to the Past popular girl Kristy Sawyer and her nerdy classmate, Larry Peables, receive the assignment to do a joint report on Molly Pitcher.  Kristy thinks she can get Larry to do all the work with some preemptive flirting, but Larry doesn’t fall for it.  Just when the two start to squabble, they find themselves back in 1778 in the heat of the Revolutionary War.  Events sweep them along and help them meet Molly Pitcher face to face.

Bumped Back in Time follows Sammy Brown back to 1814.  Sammy’s experience in sailing and her recent victory in the first junior sailing competition become crucial when she has to sail a boat ferrying Francis Scott Key to an important meeting.  She gets to witness Key’s landmark moment, when he composes the poem that eventually becomes the national anthem.

Dylan Jones finds his fortunes reversed—literally—in the last book, Riches to Rags, when he travels back to the late 1800s and boards The Orphan Train.  The train starts in New York and follows an itinerary that takes it west, carrying young children all in need of a good home.  Dylan becomes a temporary guardian to two children and helps negotiate a new place for them to live, gaining firsthand knowledge of life experienced by those much less privileged.

If the books sound somewhat formulaic, readers need not feel surprised.  The unifying factor of the series—the mysterious Mrs. Wickware—surprisingly doesn’t provide readers with much in terms of reading.  Author Penny Estelle follows the same format in every story so that after the second or third book, readers will start to wonder whether they’ve just been sitting in one very long history class.  This aspect of the books could certainly have been stronger; without any development of Mrs. Wickware’s character, readers will finish the serious with the feeling that even though she transports her students to the past for their history lessons her magical quality ends right there.  As a person in and of herself, she really doesn’t command readers’ interest.

Estelle’s strong suit comes in writing about the time travel, and she fits with ease her main characters into the events that comprise major turns in our country’s history.  While her choice of stories such as that of Francis Scott Key may not surprise anyone, the tales about Molly Pitcher and The Orphan Train will definitely provide readers with some interesting information.  As of this writing I’m not aware of any forthcoming Wickware Saga books, but Estelle certainly could develop this series further by digging deeper into Mrs. Wickware’s character—where did she come from?  How did she get these powers?  Does she pick the children who time travel ahead of time, or does the selection happen spontaneously?  Does she work in conjunction with other teachers (e.g., in order to help a student in science, that person gets a time travel history lesson to some of the major scientific discoveries of time)?

Middle grader readers, too, might enjoy the extra history lessons, and even though some of the dialogue doesn’t ring quite true to life, I still think they would like “The Wickware Sagas.”  I recommend the books for their intended audience; some adults might like them too.

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