Making the Grade / Under a Painted Sky


Making the GradeMonday mornings can be rough, but what better way to change it around than with a new book review? I devoured Under a Painted Sky, a historical fiction debut I’ve seen recommended time and time again, over the summer, but due to school and such {fellow juniors will understand}, I had to keep pushing back its review. Thankfully, a good book is a good book – a month or two won’t change that! Have you read this debut?

Under a Painted Sky

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship. {Goodreads}

Main Characters: A+
There is so much to love about Stacey Lee’s first novel, but I believe what deserves the most praise are its protagonists, Samantha, a young Chinese teenager and aspiring musician, and Annamae, a runaway slave whose humor is equally matched by her wisdom. Along the Oregon Trail, the pair becomes Sammy and Andy, two boys in search of riches during the California Gold Rush, a name and gender change as much for them to travel unnoticed as it is for them to travel safely. Their disguise might have proven an obstacle to strong development for a less talented author, but Lee makes the job seem effortless, weaving their personal journeys with the growth in their friendship. In addition, the girls’ diverse backgrounds supplement their time on the trail, creating top-notch character development all-around.

Supporting Characters: A+
Early in the story, Samantha and Annamae are joined by surprising allies: a group of cowboys {A good thing too, as they surely would have found trouble otherwise!}. Their new partners, Peety, Cay, and West, are significant supporting characters, rivaling Sammy and Andy in terms of well-crafted characterization. It would be all too easy to peg one cowboy as “comic relief” and another as the “love interest,” but Lee’s careful and complex development prevents such labels. Furthermore, she is careful as to not draw attention away from the theme of friendship; Lee manages the multiple dynamics with, what I suppose, is her trademark ease.

Plot: A
A large part of historical fiction’s appeal is the adventure packed within its pages; unlike science fiction or fantasy stories, where world-building plays to the imagination, a strong historical story relates authentic excitement, as in, yes, this did happen! Lee’s novel is a perfect example, its plot focused on the perilous trip westward on which thousands of Americans ventured. Though the setting loses it allure by the book’s middle, what is lost is quickly made up with the plot’s pacing and creativity. Humor is used sparingly, but effectively, while the dialogue among Sammy, Andy, and the cowboys adds to the novel’s compelling nature.

Writing: A+
Historical fiction authors astound me with their eye for detail. They must piece together an interesting story from information given in social studies textbooks – no simple task! Lee’s research on the trials of the trip, from deadly diseases to gangs on the run, is subtly threaded throughout the plot, and her gorgeous writing ensures the facts are fascinating, not tiring. I think it implies quite a bit on the writing when I say Lee could create a story during any time period, and I’d happily read it {1906 Chinatown anyone?}.

Final Grade: A+
Finally, I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: 2015 has been an excellent year for young adult debuts. First-time authors have made their names in hard-hitting contemporaries, global spy stories, and, as with Under a Painted Sky, refreshing and diverse tales. In just under 400 pages, Lee has written a historical fiction – and a western, no less! – that is equal parts intriguing as it is entertaining, powerful as it is subtle. Best of all, it’s a novel that had me just as excited to dive in as it now has me looking forward to the author’s next release. This isn’t a good book. It’s a great one.

Have a lovely day! :)

Psst. Need another book recommendation? I shared a throwback review of Jenny Han’s P.S. I Still Love You over at Lit Up Review this morning. Hop on over HERE!


10 thoughts on “Making the Grade / Under a Painted Sky

    • Thank you Josie! It’s really, really good – I hope you like it if you ever read it at some point! And, you make an excellent point on the cover; I think I overlooked it because I was so in love with the colors :)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rin, that happens to me all the time – I have books from over a year ago that are still unread! I hope you get to it soon and enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you for commenting! :)


  1. Ooooh so glad you enjoyed this book! This book was such an exciting release for me and when I read it, I loved it. :D Really loved reading about a chinese girl as I feel that they are very much not a very popular type of characters in the YA world. I really enjoyed the plot as well. Great review! :D


    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I’m so happy to hear you liked it too :) The diversity was fantastic and really made the novel for me; your own point on Chinese girl characters couldn’t be truer. Thank you for commenting!


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