Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

Werner Reich is just a young boy when he arrives alone at Auschwitz.  His father had died a few years before, he was separated from his mother when the Nazis took her and his older sister was supposedly hiding in plain sight with a Christian family.

Werner may be young but he quickly assesses that the best chance to survive Auschwitz is to appear not to be weak.  So, climbing up to the third rung of  the triple decker bunks in his barracks, scared and lonely, Werner meets his bunk mate, Herr Herbert Levin.

By day, Werner and the other men and boys stand hours for roll call, then move heavy rocks from one place to another, eat the watery soup and stale bread, then try to sleep so they can do this all over again the next day.

One night, however, the guards come in and wake Herr Levin up, demanding magic.  Giving him a deck of cards, Herr Levin performs all kinds of magic tricks for the guards entertainment.  His magic also delights Werner, who thinks Herr Levin might be favored with an extra piece of bread, but his thinking is quickly straightened out by his bunk mate.  "This is not a game and it is not a show…if I displease the guards, if I fail in my magic, if I run out of tricks, if they tire of me…my life will be over."  Werner quickly grasps the capriciousness of life in a concentration camp.

Then one night, Herr Levin teaches Werner how to do a card trick, one just for Werner only.  Magic helped keep Herr Levin alive in Auschwitz so far, maybe it will help Werner, too, he tells the boy.

Eventually the two are separated, and towards the end of the war, Werner is forced to walk on a Death March from Auschwitz to Germany, a walk he survives.  Herr Levin also survives, but the two have no idea what happened to the other.

Werner remained interested in magic throughout his adult life, performing tricks for his family and friends after marrying and migrating to the United States.  But he never found out what happened to Herr Levin until one day he was reading a trade magazine about magic…

and discovered that his Auschwitz bunk mate Herr Levin was none other that the renowned Nivelli the Magician, eminent pre-war magician known all over Europe and who, after the war ended, had been performing in the United States.

It must be so difficult to write books for young readers about the Holocaust that aren't too scary, too grime, too graphic, but istis doable and many parents and teachers find that they are a sensitive way to introduce the heinous circumstances of the Holocaust to their kids.  Canadian author Kathy Kacer, who has written many books for young readers about the Holocaust, seems to instinctively know how to make a Holocaust book accessible and informative without frightening young readers.  And she has done just that in The Magician of Auschwitz, a picture book for older readers.

What makes The Magician of Auschwitz such a fascinating story it that it shows so clearly how one small act of kindness can make such a difference in a person's life - in this case, maybe even helping to save it.   The themes of hope and friendship forbidden in a place where often it really was (understandably) every man for himself are reflected in the muted, subdued illustrations, almost as though they are being hidden from the Nazi captors.

The watercolor illustrations by Gillian Newland are indeed dark and foreboding grays, blacks, browns and gray-green, reflecting life in a concentration camp, with only small touches of red on the playing cards and the swastika on the guards armbands.

Though based on the experiences of the real Werner Reich and Herbert Levin or Nivelli the Magician, however, this is a fictional retelling of their story, told from Werner's point of view.  As a biographical picture book for older readers, there should have been more souces in the back matter than just the author's one extensive "How it Happened" explanation.  However, readers will still enjoy reading this and seeing the accompanying photographs of Werner as a youth and as an older man.  Sadly there is only one photographs of Herr Levin and his wife.

You might find the trailer for The Magician of Auschwitz by the author of interest:


This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was obtained from the publisher

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus

It's 1940, and British soldiers have just been evacuated from Dunkirk, but Dodo (Dorothy) Revel and her younger brother Wolfie, 8, still haven't heard from their Pa, Captain Revel.  When a telegram arrives, Spud, the children's housekeeper, tells them the sad news that their Pa is missing.  Later that night, however, the children overhear Spud talking to someone that seems to indicate something else about Pa.

Next thing Dodo and Wolfie know, they are being evacuated to Dulverton, North Devon.  Billeted with a reluctant woman whose son is off fighting, their only relief is at school with their kind teacher Miss Lamb.  One day, on their way home from school, Dodo and Wolfie find a newborn foal.  For Wolfie, it's a miracle.  Pa had loved horses and knew a lot about them, much of which he had already taught Wolfie.  Dodo and Wolfie decide to hide the foal, now named Hero for Captain Revel, with the help of a local boy named Ned.

When word breaks that Captain Revel is being charged with desertion and disobedience at Dunkirk, Mrs. Sprig decides she can't have his children living with her.  Luckily, they end up with Miss Lamb and her elderly father, Rev. Lamb.  There is even a place for the growing Hero there.

Life is better with the Lambs, though not at school.  The whole nation is following Captain Revel's court-martial and his children are bearing the brunt of people's anger.  It is a slow process and as time goes by life gets harder, with increasing shortages and rationing.  Hettie Lamb has been watching over a small herd of Exmoor ponies, which are slowly disappearing.  During a particularly cold snowy winter, the ponies are rounded up, and, along with Hero, put into a pen where they can be fed.  But one night, the ponies and Hero disappear.  Wolfie is devestated.

When Rev. Lamb dies, Hettie is told she must move and so the three of them go to live in County Durham, a coal mining area in Northeast England.  There, Dodo gives art lessons to the children of a coal mine owner, while Hettie teaches school.  The war has now ended and Captain Revel is serving a two year sentence and still hoping to have his name cleared.  He had always worked to improve condition for coal miners, and now, even in prison is continuing that work.

But when the truth about Ned, the boy who had helped Wolfie with Hero back in Dulverton, and the shady activities he had been bullied into doing by his father come to light, things begin to change.  Is it possible the Ned holds the key to what happened to Hero?

I really enjoyed reading Sam Angus's novel Soldier Dog when it first came out, so I was excited to read A Horse Called Hero.  And I wasn't disappointed,  it is a very compelling, though somewhat predictable, story with lots of coincidences.  What is nice about this story are the glimpses the reader gets into so many aspects of life during the war.

There are the pacifist demonstrations in Knightsbridge the children witness while out shopping with Spud.  Sometimes we forget that not everyone supports war.  The crowds of children and parents on Praed Street heading to Paddington Station was palpable.  And although evacuation was difficult under the best of circumstances, Dodo and Wolfie's story show how absolutely capricious the whole process was.  Mrs. Sprig was a horrible, narrow-minded woman with friends just like herself and wasn't able to really welcome these two scared, displaced children into her home.  It makes one wonder how often that or worst happened in real life.  

However, Angus draws a lovely picture of the relationship between Wolfie and Captain Revel in the letters exchanged throughout the war, much of which was advice on caring for a horse.  Wolfie's hero worship of his father is touching, never flailing even when the circumstances surrounding Captain Revel's arrest are revealed.  Captain Revel was clearly a very compassionate character and it is one of the best fiction father/son relationships I've ever read.

The reader also learns so much about what life was life for coal miners and the pit ponies, as they were called.  These horses pulled tons of coal out of the mine each day, never seeing daylight once they were  deep in the mine.  The men and horses labored under dangerous conditions and that was what Captain Revel was working to change.

Two things did bother me - we never find out how old Dodo is, only that she is older than Wolfie.  And a map showing the relationship of London, North Devon and County Durham would have been nice (maps are almost always nice in historical fiction).

But, in the end, the novel really asks the readers to consider what makes a hero.  For that, it is a novel  well worth reading.

This book is recommended for readers 9+, but proably better for 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

Have you ever imagined what the world would be like if the Axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, had won World War II.  Well,  author Caroline Tung Richmond has done just that in her debut novel The Only Thing to Fear.  

It's been 80 years since the Allied Forces lost the war and surrendered after being defeated by Hitler's genetically-engineered super soldiers.  The United States has been divided into three territories, the Western American Territory ruled by Japan, the Italian Dakotas, and the Eastern American Territories ruled by the Nazis.

For Zara St. James, 16, living in the Shenandoah Valley in the Eastern American Territory, life has been hard.   She has lived with her Kleinbauer (peasant) Uncle Red since her mother was killed by the Nazis in a Resistance mission when Zara was 8.  Since then, Uncle Red has wanted nothing more to do with Resistance matters, but Zara can't wait to join Revolutionary Alliance, and with good reason.
English on her mother's side, Japanese on her father's, Zara is considered a Mischling by the Germans and there has never been a place for mixed-race children in Nazi society. But Zara is also hiding a secret, one that would mean instant death - she is an Anomaly, able control the air around her.  Anomalies are the result of genetic testing by the Nazis in their concentration camps in the 1930s and, as super soldiers, they helped them win the war.  But only full-blooded Aryans can be Anomalies, everyone else is put to death instantly.

Into all this comes Bastian Eckhartt, son of the formidable Colonel Eckhart, commanding officer of Fort Goering.  Bastian attends the elite military academy where Zara is assigned cleaning duties and lately she has noticed he has been looking her way more and more frequently.  But what could the son of a powerful Nazi leader possibly want with a Kleinbauer who garners no respect whatsoever?  The answer may just surprise you.

I was really looking forward to reading The Only Thing to Fear when I first heard of it.  There aren't many alternative histories for teen readers about the allied Forces losing the war to the Axis powers and what that would have meant for the future.  Unfortunately, this doesn't come across as an alternative history so much as it really just another dystopian novel.   What seems to be missing is a strong sense of ideology - on both the Nazi and the peasant side.  The Resistance was there to overthrow the cruel Nazis, but there is not sense of how or why they will make the world better if or when they succeed.

Richmond's world building was pretty spot on, though not terribly in-depth.  I really like the idea of generically engineered Anomalies, which added an interesting touch.

Zara is quite headstrong and can be a bit whinny and annoyingly brave in that she takes chances without thinking through the consequences.  Zara has a lot to learn, and a lot of growing up to do, even by the end of the novel (or maybe it is going to be a series and she can mature at a later date).

One of the things that always amazes me in books about people fighting for their lives is that there is always time for romance.  Yes, Bastian is originally interested in Zara for reasons that have nothing to do with romance, yet even as things take a dangerous turn, they both find they are attracted to each other.

The Only Thing to Fear is definitely a flawed novel, but still it is one worth reading.  As I said, it is Richmond's debut novel, and though you might find it a bit predictable, it is still a satisfying read.

The Only Thing to Fear will be available in bookstores on September 30, 2014.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley

Sophisticated readers might also want to take a look at Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award winning alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Enemy of the Reich - The Noor Inayat Khan Story

Back in September 2011, I reviewed a book called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood.  This is a truly wonderful book about such brave women and ideal for young readers interested in history.   One of the women that Kathryn wrote about was Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was the daughter of an Indian father and an American mother.  She was born in Moscow, but lived and was educated in France.  She was raised in the Muslim faith.  After college, Noor began to write and illustrate children's stories, but then, World War II began.

Noor went to England and joined WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), ferrying planes for the RAF.  She learned how to operate a radio in the WAAF and was eventually noticed by the SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Because Noor spoke French with native fluency, she was an ideal candidate for their overseas operations.

After training as an SOE agent, Noor arrived in France, using the code name Madeleine, during the night of June 16, 1943.  She successfully evaded the Nazis and sent hundreds of radio messages, including some about the upcoming D-Day invasion, until she was arrested by the Gestapo around October 13, 1943.  Eventually, after being repeatedly beaten and tortured, she was sent to Dachau, where she was executed on September 13, 1944.

Last night, local PBS stations aired a one hour program called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.  This excellently produced program really brings Noor's life and her activities fighting the Nazis to life in this docudrama starring Grace Srinivasan as Noor and narrated by Helen Mirren.  Noor's story is one you won't want to miss and luckily, since it is on PBS, it will probably be repeated.



Or, you can watch the entire program HERE until September 30, 2014.

And you might want to check out Kathryn's book to see who else she have included in her book of women heroes during WWII.

Oh, I said that Noor wrote children's stories after college.  Well, her stories have been translated into English and are still available:

This program is recommended for viewers age 13+

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

One summer day in 1941, while Peter Dixon, 12, is in the woods checking his snares to see if he's caught a rabbit to supplement the meager amount of food her and his mam get with their ration coupons, the air raid siren goes off.  Not knowing what to do, Peter starts running for home and the safety of their Anderson shelter, but before he gets there, a German plane crashes so close to him, Peter is knocked out.

It doesn't take long for the whole village to come out to see what happened, including all the children who want to try to get souvenirs from the wreckage.  And that's how Peter meets Kim, a girl about his age, with short hair and dressed like a boy.  The two become instant friends.

Peter and Kim decide to go back to the wreckage that night to look for their own souvenirs, even sneaking inside the plane.  After almost getting caught by the soldiers guarding the plane, the two end up with a gun belonging to one of the dead Germans in it.  Running off towards the woods to hide, they stumble upon a third German from the plane, who had parachuted out but was badly hurt.

Seeing the gun, the German begs them not to hurt him and they decide to take him to Peter's hiding place in the woods.  They clean him up and over the next few days, they learn that his name is Erik, and the three become friends, as much as that can happen when you can't speak each others language. Hiding and feeding Erik is difficult but Kim is afraid the army will shoot him on the spot and she is convinced that if they take care of Erik, than the same kindness will be shown to her brother Josh, in the RAF, or Peter's father in the army if they shot or injured and found by the enemy.

Peter, however, just wants his dad to come home.  Than maybe Mr. Bennett, who owns most of the land surrounding the village, who stop coming around to see his mother so much.  And maybe the older boys in the village will stop bullying him so much about his mother and Mr. Bennett.

Things get more complicated, but in the end, all the elements of this story come together in an exciting, maybe a little predictable, but definitely satisfying denouement.

I found myself immediately pulled into My Friend the Enemy.  It is a compelling story right from the start.  Peter is a sensitive boy, a bit of a loner and rather timid who seems to have spent much of his time with his dad, the gameskeeper for Mr. Bennett's land.  Kim, on the other hand, is a confident girl. a bit of a tomboy, and not the least bit afraid of standing up to bullies older and much bigger than she is.

It is also an exciting story, with plenty of action and historical detail.  Times were tough during the war, food was in short supply and people lived their lives in fear of bombing raids.  Smith incorporates all that into his story, giving the dilemmas Peter wrestles with - to help a German soldier, to steal food from his mother to feed Erik, to accept Mr. Bennett's help even as he begins to suspect the bullies are right about him and his mother - a very realistic quality so  necessary in good historical fiction.

I did like that it takes place in the same north-eastern area of England as Robert Westall's book and, in fact, My Friend The Enemy did remind me somewhat of books by this favorite author.  Unlike the Blitz in London, the north eastern coast was one of the places that was bombed only because German planes were dumping them to lighten their load as they returned home from a bombing raid, a fact Dan Smith includes in his novel, but not a place you read about much in WWII books for young readers.  My Friend The Enemy gives readers another perspective on the war as it happened in England.

Young readers will definitely find this a book to their liking, especially readers interested in WWII and what like was like on the home front for kids around their age.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley