Friday, August 28, 2015

Pennies in a Jar by Dori Chaconas, illustrated by Ted Lewin

When a father is sent overseas to fight during WWII, he tells his young son to be brave.  This idea of war is scary for the boy, but so are some of the daily things in his life, like the air raid sirens, and thinking about bombs and guns.  The young boy is  especially afraid of the trade horses who come down his street.

First, there is the ragman's large horse Josephina.  When the ragman comes around to collect rags, paper and even metal for the war effort, the boy shies away from the horse.  Seeing that, the ragman asks if he would like to feed the horse a carrot and make friends with it, but the boy is too scared to do it.

He feels the same way about the milkman's horse Nell when they come down the street pulling the milk cart.  He has the same reaction to the garbage man's horse when they come to collect the trash.  But all the while, the young boy remembers the story his father told him about the time he had been bitten on the shoulder by one of the horses on his father's farm as a boy.  He, too, developed a fear of horses, but his father needed his help on the farm.  The boy's father told him that sometimes, if it's important enough, you just have to do things even if you are scared.

Meanwhile, the young boy is trying to think of a wonderful birthday present he could get his dad with his jar of saved pennies.  One day, the pony man shows up and asks the boy if he would like his picture taken on the pony.  But the boy, who has been remembering all the horse stories his dad had told him, declines the offer.

Suddenly, remembering his father's words about being brave, the boy knows just what would be the perfect gift to send his dad - a photo of him bravely sitting on the pony.  A gift for his father is important to the boy, but, can he, like his father, put aside he fear long enough to have the photo taken?

Pennies in a Jar is such an inspirational story for young readers.  All children have fears, some rational, some irrational, but finding the courage to overcome what they are afraid of is an important step, especially when they are separated from a parent fighting in a war and worried about them.  In that respect, even though this story takes place in WWII, and we know longer have trade horses coming down our streets on a regular basis, this is a book that will still resonate with many kids today.  After all, it's not about the horses, it's about being brave.

Ted Lewin's realistically detailed watercolor illustrations add depth and expressiveness to the story by creating the world of a small town during WWII.  They will remind you of the paintings done by Norman Rockwell in the 1940s, who also liked to capture life's small important moments in small town daily life.

There is a Note from the Author at the back of the book describing what life was like during the war -games kids played, how people passed the time, rationing and kids doing what they could for the war effort.  And, of course, being brave during difficult times.

This is an excellent book for starting many different kinds of conversations and would make a wonderful addition to any classroom or home school library.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


Monday, August 24, 2015

My Brother's Secret by Dan Smith

It's summer, 1941 and there is nothing 12 year old Karl Friedmann enjoys more than being part of the Deutsches Jungvolk, anticipating the day he'll be old enough to join the Hitler Youth.  But on the day he wins a badge for achievement during some war games, he is also forced to fight another boy, Johann Weber, whose has just received word that his father was killed in the war.  Suddenly, fighting feels more like bullying.

At home, Karl knows his older brother Stefan is the family rebel, always getting into trouble and was even sent away to a boot camp for a week, where the Gestapo had beaten him and shaved his head.  When Karl notices an embroidered flower sewn into Stefan's jacket, he wants to know what it means.  But before that happens, the Friedmann's receive a telegram that their father has been killed flying for the Luftwaffe.  Their mother falls into a terrible depression, not speaking and refusing to get out of bed, so it is decided that the family would go stay with their grandparents in a village near Cologne.

Once there, Karl is kept out of school to prevent him from participating in Jungvolk activities and it doesn't take Stefan long to hook up with some friends who are also rebellious troublemakers.  One day, Karl decides to go out for a ride on his bike, but he has an accident, colliding with the beloved car of Gestapo Commander Gerhard Wolff.  Luckily, Karl is wearing Jungvolk uniform, but Wolff still seems suspicious of the Friedmann family, anyway.  Karl also makes friends with Lisa, a girl who isn't afraid to let her hatred of Hitler and his whole Nazi regime be known.  And when he notices that the embroidered flower has been cut out of Stefan's jacket, he is more curious than ever about his brother's activities and friends, suspecting anti-Nazi undertakings.

Slowly, Nazi brutality forces Karl to rethink his own beliefs and patriotism.  He learns that Lisa's father was taken away one night because of his beliefs and she has no idea where he is or if he is alive.  Instead of feeling proud that his father sacrificed his life for the Fatherland like he is supposed to, Karl feels grief and sadness, and wonders what was it all for.

Karl's suspicions that Stefan is involved with a resistance group are conformed when his brother's finally confesses to him that he is a member of the Edelweiss Pirates, a loosely bound group of anti-Nazi young people who are trying to enlighten the German people to the truth of Hitler and his ideas.  Unfortunately, Commander Wolff also suspects Stefan of resistance activities and periodically shows up to search the house.  One night, he finds one of the anti-Nazi leaflet that had been dropped by RAF planes in Karl's copy of Hitler's book Mein Kampf.  Stefan is placed under arrest and taken away.

Now, Karl and Lisa decide to become their own Edelweiss Pirates and paint anti-Nazi messages around their village, and to find a way to free Stefan from Gestapo headquarters.  And although they are a resistance group of two, Karl is still wracked with guilt since it is because he chose to save the leaflet without telling anyone and feels it is his fault his brother has been arrested by the Gestapo - again.  

Like Dan Smith's last novel, My Friend the Enemy, My Brother's Secret is a thought-provoking story loaded with action, excitement, and nail-biting tension.  Karl's life felt so simple and straightforward before news of his father's death arrived.  But his hesitant feeling about having to fight Johann Weber at the beginning of the novel, clearly indicates that there exists a slight crack in his loyalty to Hitler and everything the Führer stands for.

There aren't too many books about young people in Nazi Germany who were involved in the Hitler Youth groups, so it was interesting to read this coming of age novel and to witness Karl's complete turnabout as he begins to see and experience the Nazis for the cruel people that they could be if you opposed them.  It is also interesting to see how easily the Nazi could sow an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and suspicion to keep people in line.

Dan Smith always includes nice historical information in his novels which give them such a sense of reality.  There weren't many youth resistance groups in Nazi Germany, besides the White Rose (Weiße Rose) in 1942 Munich, and the Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweißpiraten), who, as Smith demonstrates through Stefan, were not pro-Allies even though they were anti-Nazi.  Like Stefan, many young people who were part of the Edelweiss Pirates quit school in order to avoid having to join the Hitler Youth, which was mandatory.

My Brother's Secret is a well-written, well-researched, eye-opening, gripping novel with a lot of appeal.  Karl is a protagonist that goes from unsympathetic to sympathetic as the action unfolds and as he learns valuable lessons about courage, loyalty, friendship and brotherly love.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the publisher, Chicken House Books

(People tend to think of the Swing Kids (Swingjugend) as a resistance group but they were really a counter-culture group without a political agenda, with a common interest in jazz and dancing.)


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Safest Lie by Angela Cerrito

On the day that Jolanta brings a little food, some used clothing and a few vaccinations against typhoid fever to 9 year old Anna Bauman's youth circle in the Warsaw Ghetto, she decides to go home with Anna.  Quietly talking to her parents, Anna knows something is up.

After Jolanta drops off a paper for Anna's mother one morning, she begins to stay home as her mother makes her memorize a new name and other information.  Soon, she is no longer Jewish Anna Bauman, rather she is Catholic Anna Karwolska.  A few days later, Anna and her parents go to a home in the ghetto, where Anna is washed clean of ghetto dirt, and soon the leader of her youth circle, Mrs. Rechtman, shows up to take her away.

Wearing a new school uniform, Anna and Mrs. Rechtman go to the administration building, a building that straddles the ghetto and the streets beyond it.  Swiftly, Anna is passed to a woman who takes her into an office, where she must hide under the desk and wait for someone to come and get her.  The wait is long, but finally a teenage girl carrying a large box arrives and tells Anna to follow her.  They walk out of the building to the streets beyond the ghetto.  From here, Anna travels with the girl to a farmhouse, where she is surprised to find out that the box she and the girl carried so carefully contains a baby that has also been smuggled out of the Ghetto.

At the farmhouse, Anna is taught the traditions, the prayers and the catechism every Catholic child would know, including when to stand or kneel in church.  She is drilled over and over, until she responds automatically to being Ann Karwolska.  Afraid she is going to forget who she is and who her family are, Anna only allows herself to be Anna Bauman at night when she is alone in bed.

Eventually, Anna is sent to a Catholic orphanage away from Warsaw.  Keeping her secret, Anna adjusts to like in the orphanage, even though one girl, named Klara, seems to be out to get her.  Does Klara know her secret?  Hopefully not, because one day, Nazis arrive at the orphanage, pillage it and steal all the food that the nuns used for feeding the children, but not before terrorizing everyone.

Eventually, Anna is fostered out to a family that really welcomes her, and where she feels somewhat safe and comfortable.  Yet, Anna still makes it a point to remember who she is and where she came from when she is alone at night, never telling anyone her secret.  But, as Anna discovers, Stephan, Sophia and their son Jerzy are harboring a secret of their own - a very dangerous secret.

If you have ever wondered what happened to the children that Irena Sendler smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, this is the book for you.  Based on fact, Angela Cerrito has imagined the life of one young girl who survives the Holocaust thanks to the courageous efforts of Sendler and the network of people who were helping her.  It is clear from the start that the lady Anna knows as Jolanta is one of the code named used by Sendler.

And while The Safest Lie doesn't have a lot a action, it does have a lot of suspense, nail-biting tension and shows the reader just how careful and clandestine people in the resistance needed to be.  Anna's story is fictional, but Cerrito has certainly captured all the tension, fear, constant hunger, and suffering that the Jewish children experienced during the Holocaust.  But she also shows the difficulty and mixed emotions parents must have felt when their children were offered the possibility of safety if they were willing to temporarily give them up.

The Safest Lie is a work of historical fiction but it is based on the hundreds of transcripted interviews with children who survived the Holocaust that Cerrito read and which give the novel its sense of authenticity.  Be sure to read Cerrito's Author's Note at the end of the book about her meeting Irena Sendler

There is an extensive Educator's Guide for The Safest Lie available to download from the publisher, Holiday House


This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Times Square on V-J Day: Then and Now

Times Square, New York City August 14, 1945:


and somewhere in the crowd:

Times Square, New York City August 14, 2015 - 70 years after the end of World War II


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust by Jennifer Roy, illustrated by Meg Owenson

In her book, Jars of Hope, Jennifer Roy takes the reader back to the childhood of Irena Sendler to understand why she would be willing to risk her own life years later to help the Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazis so many people into such a small, unsanitary living space.

As a child, in her hometown of Otwock, Poland, Irena saw how the Jewish people were avoided, but her father taught her that nothing else matters about people except whether they are good or bad.

Irena grew up to become a social worker/nurse and as she watched events unfold in Warsaw after the Nazis took over, she was compelled to do something - but what could one person do, she asked herself.

The answer was to try and bring food and medicine to the people in the ghetto, but more importantly, Irena began to sneak the children out and to find safe homes for them until the Holocaust ended and they could be reunited with their families.  Irena began to organize friends and other trustworthy people in the Polish underground who could help her carry out her frequent trips to get babies and children.  Babies were taken out in carpenter's boxes, trash or coffins after being given a few drops of medicine to make them sleep.  Older children were smuggled out different ways, sometimes through sewer tunnels and other times right under the noses of the Nazi guards.

Teaching the children what they needed to know in order to pass as Catholics, Irena would write down each child's original name, new name and where each was sent.  Then she would put the names into jars and bury the jars under a tree.  Irena and her helpers would continue to make sure each rescued child was cared for, and the families or convents were given food and money in return for the risk they were taking.

In 1943, Irena was arrested, taken to prison and tortured, but never revealed the names of rescued children, where they were hidden or who had helped her.  A few months later, her freedom was bought with a large bribe and Irena continued her work with Zegota, the secret organization formed to help Jews in Poland.

It can't be easy to write a book about the Holocaust for young readers, especially for some who are just beginning to learn about it.  But Jennifer Roy has taken a real hero and used her to remind us that even in the darkest of times there are people who understand what the right thing to do is, who care and are willing to  help others.  Yet, Roy doesn't sugar-coat her story - when Irena tells parents the only guarantee she can give them about their children is that if they remain in the Warsaw Ghetto, they will die, or when people are forced to get into cattle cars, trains that are taking them to concentration camps and their death, young readers will easily grasp the magnitude and gravity of the Holocaust.

While Roy's words tell about those dark times, Meg Owenson's realistic dark, foreboding mixed media illustrations support and extend the text, expressing the wide variety of emotions that must have been felt by everyone at that time.  Be sure to read the Afterword and Author's Note at the back of the book. In addition, there is a glossary, an Index and Source Notes for further exploration.

Jars of Hope is an inspiring picture book for older readers about one very brave woman and reminds us all that one person can make a big difference in the world.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was a ARC received from the publisher, Capstone Press at BEA2015