Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Magic Tree House Super Edition #1: Danger in the Darkest Hour by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca

One warm June day, Jack and Annie, siblings living in Frog Creek, PA, receive a message via carrier pigeon.  The message is from their friend Teddy, asking them to come to Glastonbury, England immediately, their help is needed.

When Jack and Annie arrive in Glastonbury, they are met by Teddy who tells them they have arrived on June 4, 1944, two days before the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France by the Allies forces and the beginning of the end for the Nazis.

Teddy and Kathleen, who iare really young enchanters from Camelot, have been made agents in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) by Winston Churchill to do undercover work in countries occupied by the Nazis.  But now, Kathleen is still in Normandy, France and needs to be rescued, but they only clues to her whereabouts is a coded riddle she sent Teddy by carrier pigeon.

Jack and Annie's job is to parachute into France and find Kathleen within 24 hours - they need to be gone by the time the invasion begins.  Jack and Annie are told to try to find members of the French Resistance to help them, but to avoid the Nazis, who are everywhere.  But when they land in a French field, they are spotted and chased by Nazis using a dog.  Jack and Annie hide in a barn, calm the dog down and are found by a man and his wife, whose sons were members of the Resistance.

The couple feeds them, and help to figure out the riddle from Kathleen, then they give Jack and Annie two bikes and some money, and send them on their way.  The road to Kathleen is fraught with both friend and foe, but eventually the two find her and now, they must figure out how to get her back to England. It seems Teddy forgot to give them the magic wand Kathleen needs, since her innate magic seems to have disappeared.  Not only that, but Kathleen has acquired some fellow travelers she is determined to get out of France, a group of very young Jewish orphans, which means a bigger, more noticeable plane will be needed for the rescue.  Oh yes, and a large vehicle to get all of them to the pickup point.  And there is only a few hours left before the invasion begins, with all its bombing and shooting.

Can everyone be rescued in time and will Jack and Annie find their way back to Frog Creek?

This is an interesting chapter book.  It is longer than the previous Magic Tree House books and the subject matter is much darker.  And since the magic wand was forgotten, Jack, Annie and Kathleen have to rely on their own skills to solve problems and figure out how to escape France before the invasion.

Osborne gently introduces the reader to Hitler and the Nazis, and though she never uses the word Holocaust, Teddy does tell Jack and Annie that "[the Nazis] have killed countless innocent civilians, including millions of Jewish people." (pg 25)  This may sound a little watered down, but consider the age of the reader and that for many this may very well be an introduction to that "darkest hour" of modern history.

i didn't expect to really like this book, but I did.  With a willing suspension of disbelief, I found the story compelling and exciting, and I felt it was very clear that Osborne is comfortable with her characters and knows her audience.  Things do work out nicely in the end, which is OK when you have magic on your side (and yes, there was some surprising magic used in the end).

At the back of the book, there is a "Track the Facts Behind Jack and Annie's Mission" that includes lots of information ranging from the use of pigeons in war, the German Enigma machine, and other interesting facts, all age appropriately described.

Besides the colorful cover illustration, showing Jack, in all his fear, and sister Annie parachuting into France, there are some wonderful black and white double page illustrations throughout the book, all done by Magic Tree House illustrator Sal Murdocca.

I have to confess, I have never read a Magic Tree House book before this.  Sure, my Kiddo and all her cousins read and loved them when they were in elementary school.  So did the kids in my classes, which made me happy since most of them were not yet reading at grade level.  But I did hear Mary Pope Osborne speak at a BEA Children's Author Breakfast one year, so I knew that author Mary Pope Obsorne is a very generous donor of her books to kids who might not otherwise get copies of them.  And I could help but wonder how many kids have become readers thanks to the Magic Tree House books?

You can read a two chapter sample of Danger in the Darkest Hour HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway by Steve Watkins

When Anderson, 12, and his friend Greg decided to start a band, they were given permission to practice in a basement room at his Uncle Dex's junkshop, provided they clear it out themselves.  Alone in the room, Anderson notices an old military trunk with a strange glow to it.  He finds an old Navy peacoat in it that he decides to keep.  Inside the coat pocket, is an old letter and when he pulls it out, he hears a voice saying "that's mine."

Later that night, the voice materializes in Anderson's bedroom.  It belongs to a young World War II sailor who doesn't seem to remember who he is or what happened to him and has been living in a kind of limbo since the war. Anderson is understandably freaked.

The next day, while discussing with Greg the possibility of adding keyboard player Julie Kobayashi to the band, Anderson's ghost appears in the cafeteria.  And it seems that Greg and Julie can both see him.  Pretty soon, the trio decides to help their ghost find out about himself.  Anderson tracks down the recipient of the old letter he found in the peacoat.  It turns out to be an old girlfriend, Betty Corbett,  who tells them their ghost is named William Foxwell, that he went missing in action on a ship in the Pacific Ocean and presumed dead.  Later, she married William's friend and they named their son after him.

One helpful clue about William is the mention of the Battle of the Coral Sea in his letter.  Anderson and his Uncle Dex both are history buffs, and Uncle Dex knows all about this battle.  Little by little, Anderson, Greg and Julie begin to piece together that particulars of William's life in the Navy, and as they do, William begins to remember things as well.

All of this is taking time and it seems that William is having a harder and harder time materializing and is, in fact, beginning to fade away again.  Then, matters get more complicated when a Japanese sailor who has been keeping a secret about William and the Battle of Midway for 70 years refuses to tell them what really happened.

Will Anderson, Greg and Julie be able to solve the mystery surrounding William's death in time for him to find eternal peace?

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway is a short but exciting mystery, one that will definitely appeal to boys as well as girls.  The mystery is historically based, so there is lots of information about the two battles mentioned and what being caught in the middle of war is really like.  But we also see how the war impacted everyone, including those like Betty Corbett on the home front.

Besides William's story, we also learn about Anderson and Greg's life, but not so much about Julie's yet.  Anderson's mother suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is often in pain and tired.  His dad works long hours and Anderson frequently comes home and makes his mom some dinner.  Greg's dad is a binge alcoholic with a short temper.  When things get bad, Greg sneaks out of the house and stays with Anderson.

And, of course, because they are sixth-graders in a junior high school, there are bullies to contend with. All of this makes for a well rounded story and gives depth to the characters, who, I assume, we will get to know better and better.  Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway is the first in a series of books, and yes, you guessed it, they all begin with the mysterious glowing military trunk.

This is a great book for kids who like history, especially military history, but even if history isn't their thing, it's still an exciting read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Winter 2015 Mini-Bloggiesta Wrap-Up



I'm a little late with my Bloggiesta wrap-up, partly because I lost a whole day on Sunday.  I went to the theater to see On The Town.  This is an old musical comedy about three sailors with a 24 hour leave in New York City.  It was fun, the dancing was wonderful as was the singing, and I loved the sets:


Of course, now I am going to have to watch the 1949 movie version of On The Town with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

I did spend a lot of time yesterday finishing up the Bloggiesta tasks and challenges I set for myself.

1- I did backup this blog and my other blog, Randomly Reading.  I'm always afraid I'm going to do something and lose both blogs, so I like to have up-to-date backups and I've been neglecting that lately.

2- My pages are all up-to-date now, but I am thinking about adding an author index.

3- I made a new banner for my Randomly Reading twitter page (@randomlyreading) using PicMonkey, but I don't think I like it, so for now, I'll keep the one I have.

4- I still need to work on the blog folders on my hard drive.  I have one for each blog, and though it sounds like I'm organized, they are still a mess with lots of photos, ideas and stuff.  I have a gazillion comic strips that need to be ordered.  I am a minimalist in my real time life, but something close to a hoarder in my virtual life (easy enough to understand, I have 128 GB available, not to mention 1 TB on my backup drive.  If I have that much space in real time, I would be my own small country).

5- I spent time learning how to make an inforgraphic, thanks to Valeria at A Touch of Book Madness and using Piktochart.  Good to know for future use.

6- I checked the loading time of my blog using Pingdom Tools (thank you again, Joy at Joy's Book Blog, for sharing this tool).  This blog was faster than 64% of blogs tested and there is an analysis for making your blog load faster, but I will have to spend some time with that to figure it all out.

I feel pretty good about getting all this done.  Now, back to reading….

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Winter 2015 Mini Bloggiesta



I haven't done a #Bloggiesta in a while and there are some things on this blog that could use some tuning-up and straightening up, and in the spirit of Spring Cleaning (because spring is only 61 days away as of today!)  And, while I may be a little late to the sign-up Linky, it isn't too late to participate.


Here is what I plan on doing:
1- Backup blogs, this one and Randomly Reading
2- Update all my Pages
3- Make new banners for Twitter
4- Clean up labels (again)
5- Organize my blog folders on my hard drive where I keep ideas, information, photos, etc for future use.
5- Learn how to make an infographic with Valeria at A Touch of Book Madness, which is something I've been meaning to do.
6- Joy at Joy's Book Blog has a really good idea on her #Bloggiesta To-Do List to check the loading time of her blog using Pingdom Tools recommended by The Redhead Riter.  Thank you, Joy, for that great idea and the links.

This is a busy reading time of the year for me, so I thought I would keep things manageable.

Here goes...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Billy's Blitz by Barbara Mitchelhill

For his 11th birthday, Billy Wilson's dad surprised him a German Shepherd puppy.  A lot of people were anti-German Sheherds because it was considered a Nazi dog, but Billy loved his, naming her Sheeba.  By Billy's 12th birthday, England is at war with Germany, his dad is away in the Army, and his friends have been evacuated to the country, along with most of London's other schoolchildren. But his mum decides to keep Billy and sister Rose, 6, home with her.  Still, his dad manages to get leave and find a shiny almost new bike for Billy's birthday.

But soon dad returns to the army, and mum, Billy and Rose spend uncomfortable nights in the Anderson shelter in the backyard in Balham, South London, but no bombs are falling in London yet.  But that all changes on September 7, 1940.  Now, bombs are falling and the three Wilson's decide go to the nearest Underground station when the air raid sirens go off.  That way, they don't hear the sirens, the planes, and the bombs as much.

Night after night they carry blankets to the station, thinking they will be safe.  And they are, until Balham Station takes a direct hit.  Billy and Rose are separated from their mum, but thanks to the help of a new friend, they make it out of the station.  But where is mum?  It's hard to see anything in all the chaos, dust and debris, but Billy and Rose insist on waiting for her to come out of the station, until a WVS lady, Mrs. Bartley, makes them leave.  After all, bombs are still falling.

Once in a shelter, it is decided by the authorities that Billy and Rose will be sent to Wales for safety - against their will, and with the Major in charge insisting, rather coldly, that they are now orphans.  Luckily, at breakfast, they meet a boy about Billy's age called All-Off (because he cut all his hair off), who advises them not to go to Wales.  But, although, All-Off gets out of the shelter in time, Billy and Rose are put on a transport truck to Paddington Station and Wales.

Determined to find his mum and to get back home to finally let Sheeba out of the Anderson shelter where she was put for safety, Billy waits for the right opportunity for escape the transport truck.  By the time that happens, they are far from home and Billy has no idea how to get back to Balham.

As Billy and Rose make their way home, they meet with even more adventures, setbacks, and disappointments, but Billy finds a best mate in All-Off.  Billy also discovers a courage within himself he probably never thought he possessed, as well as a strong sense of responsibility for Rose and Sheeba and it doesn't hurt that his new best mate has some pretty good street smarts.

I loved Barbara Mitchelhill's first WWII novel, Run Rabbit Run, based on real events, it's about a sister and younger brother who must deal with some harsh fallout because their dad is a conscientious objector.  Billy's Blitz is also based on a real event.  On October 14, 1940, Balham Station was being  used as a bomb shelter and really did take a direct bomb hit, killing 64 people.  Mitchelhill imagines the aftermath of a terrible disaster for two kids who don't know if their mum made it out alive or not.  Her realistic description of the station, in fact of bombed London generally, are really spot on.

What Billy saw when he came out of Balham Station
So is her characterization.  Billy is at times afraid, brave, wanting everything back to normal, or wishing someone else could deal with their problems.  Rose can be a whiny brat, not realizing the seriousness of their situation, yet she can also be brave and helpful when asked to be.  All-Off is a real favorite - definitely his own boy, yet faithful to Billy and Rose.  The authorities, concerned only with evacuating orphans, made my toes curl with anger at their lack of empathy.  Luckily, there is the WVS (Women's Volunteer Service) lady to counterbalance that.

Billy's Blitz is a compelling realistic novel that gives the reader a true to life picture of London during the Second World War.  We tend to think that all of London's children were safely evacuated but many remained in London with their family and often, family members became separated or worse and kids were left to survive by themselves even while dealing with loss and grief.  Mitchelhill's novel demonstrates how easy it is for this to happen in the midst of chaos, and how easily the best laid plans can go awry, yet she manages to do this without scaring her young readers.  

This is a novel that is sure to please young readers, especially those interested in WWII and/or historical fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was received from the author

This is book one of my 2015 War Through the Generations Reading Challenge