Cover image for Dear Ellen Bee : a Civil War scrapbook of two Union spies
Dear Ellen Bee : a Civil War scrapbook of two Union spies
Lyons, Mary E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 161 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
A scrapbook kept by a young black girl details her experiences and those of the older white woman, "Miss Bet, " who had freed her and her family, sent her north from Richmond to get an education, and then worked to bring an end to slavery. Based on the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.
Reading Level:
780 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR MG 5.6 5.0 43464.

Reading Counts RC 6-8 5.4 9 Quiz: 24468 Guided reading level: NR.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Clarence Library X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
Eggertsville-Snyder Library X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
Frank E. Merriweather Library X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
Orchard Park Library X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf
Audubon Library X Juvenile Fiction Open Shelf

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A scrapbook kept by a young black girl details her experiences and those of the older white woman, Miss Bet, who had freed her and her family, sent her north from Richmond to get an education, and then worked to bring an end to slavery. Based on the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 5^-8. In this fictional work set in Richmond, Virginia, between 1856 and 1865, a strong-willed lady (Elizabeth Van Lew or Miss Bet) emancipates a well-loved slave, 10-year-old Liza, and sends her to Philadelphia to be educated. Just as obstinate as Miss Bet, Liza resents being sent away, but she applies herself to her lessons. Miss Bet becomes more involved in abolitionist activities and, when the war begins, she devotes herself to the welfare of northern prisoners. By this time, Liza has married and returned to Richmond, but still chafes at Miss Bet's attempts to steer her life. But when Miss Bet offers Liza a position in Jefferson Davis' household, they become partners in a spying enterprise that places them both in danger. Based on diaries, scrapbooks, and a memoir, this seems more intriguing as history than it is believable as fiction, but readers will be swept along in a story that gathers momentum as the Civil War progresses. The format is described as a "scrapbook," evidently a popular format in the 1800s. Diary entries and letters from both characters are illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of period documents, newspaper clippings, drawings, engravings, etc. An original presentation of intriguing historical material. --Carolyn Phelan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Lyons (Letters from a Slave Girl) and Branch (Juneteenth) explore the tensions of the Civil War via a scrapbook format in this novel told through letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, etc. Ellen Bee is the joint alias of Miss Bet, a wealthy white woman, and her freed slave, Liza, who wind up acting as Union spies in Richmond, Va. Meticulously researched and based on real persons and events, the novel covers the years 1856-1865, starting from the time Miss Bet sends a 10-year-old Liza to be educated in Philadelphia. A rift occurs when Liza marries and returns to Richmond, which is mended only when the two unite in the spy Ellen Bee, sending critical messages via letters and code ("And as it turned out, Ellen Bee was a better person than either of us on our own"). The authors exploit the scrapbook format fully and offer surprising insights into history; for instance, facsimiles of freedom papers, train tickets with a rebus for the many illiterate travelers and a broadside from a Frederick Douglas rally are "pasted" onto the pages. Ultimately, many readers may find the cantankerous Miss Bet more memorable than Liza, who sometimes lacks depth. If the narrative occasionally falters, (e.g., the late mention of Miss Bet's deceased abolitionist friend, Fannie, who awakened the protagonist's consciousness to the wrongs of slavery), this is still a well-informed account of daring women fighting the good fight away from the battlefields. Ages 10-14. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 5-8-Elizabeth (Bet) Van Lew, an aristocratic Richmond lady, and Mary Elizabeth (Liza) Bowser, the daughter of Bet's freed slaves, are bound into a tempestuous yet loving relationship that is severely tested by the Civil War and by their own fiercely independent personalities. Miss Bet has grand plans for the girl; she wants her to go to school in Philadelphia and become a teacher because she will "not have my girl waiting on spoiled white women." Liza resents Miss Bet's efforts to dictate her future and is determined to live her life as she chooses. The clash of these two strong-willed women and their fierce devotion to one another and to the abolitionists' cause and the preservation of the Union are at the heart of this fascinating espionage story. It is based on the real-life activities of these two remarkable women, who used the code name Ellen Bee to pass information behind enemy lines. The narration, told through diary entries and letters and filled with authentic period illustrations and lively historical detail, is told in the contrapuntal voices of the two narrators. The scrapbook functions brilliantly on two levels-as historical document of the courageous work of the two Union spies and as a testament to the personal relationship between an older white woman and a younger black woman who is journeying from childhood into adult independence.-Patricia B. McGee, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Prologue January 1, 1899 My dear niece, Polly Bowser, When I was your age, I thought I was something special. And why wouldn't I, with everybody always telling me so? You know, too much attention can go right to a child's head. Anyway, in those days every decent young lady had a scrapbook where she could store treasures and write secret thoughts. Being that I was so special, I figured Miss Bet should give me one, too, and of course I got my way. All sorts of things landed in the album. Letters, flowers, cards, sketches, diary entries...for a while, this messy book held my whole self between its covers. That was over forty years ago. I wish I had a feathered hat for every time I've opened it since then, hoping to find my long-ago times. But when I read about the dark days of the Civil War (I call them the hanging days), my fingers start to shake. I guess memories can't make us young again, and this is how it should be. So you keep the book now, Polly. Maybe it'll be a friend to you the way it was to me...Sometimes it felt like the only friend I had. Inside are the thoughts of a scared young girl. You'll also see letters from Bet Van Lew (I saved even the dangerous ones) and my answers to her. I slipped these into the book when Miss Bet returned them years ago. Along with the letters she gave me some sheets torn from her own album. Her words and mementos were too private, she said, for anyone's eyes but mine. Miss Bet wrote her deepest feelings in her scrapbook, and as you read her pages, Polly, you'll see she was no ordinary woman. It took courage to do what she did in Richmond during the Civil War. Richmond, Virginia, was real contented with itself before the war began. People were making money from flour mills, tobacco factories, iron works, and slave trading. These folks lived on the city's highest hills, where it was easy to look down on workers below...German and Irish immigrants, poor whites, free Negroes, and hired-out slaves. But Miss Bet wasn't contented at all about slavery. If only she'd stayed on her hill like the other rich white women! Things might have been different if she'd minded her own business. She lost everything, yet it never occurred to her to give up the fight. You'll see, Polly, that my album pages are topped with a leaf and Miss Bet's with a vine. And I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War, which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion. No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons...a bowl of custard, a faded bonnet, a loaf of bread, and an old leather shoe. Love, Aunt Liza Copyright © 2000 by Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch Excerpted from Dear Ellen Bee: A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies by Mary E. Lyons, Muriel M. Branch All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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