Saturday, October 18, 2014

Top Secret Files of History: Spies, Secret Missions, & Hidden Facts from World War II by Stephanie Bearce

World War II is like an iceberg - the parts of it that we read about in history books or even learn in the classroom are really just the tip of the iceberg.  Below the surface, hidden from sight, are all kinds of secrets, deceptions and subterfuge that helped win the war.  So, what are some of them?

Well, Stpehanie Bearce has culled some of the more interesting aspects of wartime secrets and put them together in this small, but very interesting book.  Young readers will learn not only how one became a spy for England, training in the grand estates around the country requisitioned for that purpose, but they will read about the Ghost Army that fought the war with rubber trucks, tanks, planes and weapons.  Rubber?  That's right.  And that's not all they did.

Kids will how read about how an Australian journalist turned spy called The White Mouse became a bane of Nazi existence because of her ability to give them the slip while working with the French resistance.   Or how one man, Christopher Hutton, invented the silk map, making life so much easier for Allied pilots and parachutists, because their maps were now so lightweight and indestructible.  Hutton went on to invent other useful things for soldiers, including a special Monopoly game that could be sent to POWs and contained escape equipment.

There is lots of interesting information about secret missions, like, exactly what Julia Child was cooking up during the war.  Or the secret city that really didn't exist but did exist, and designed to fool the Japanese.  And readers will learn all about Rat Bombs, Bat Bombs and Doodlebugs.

But my personal favorite was the section on Code Talkers.  I've always liked codes and ciphers, especially the Enigma (one of these days I am hoping to post instructions for making a simplified Enigma out of a Pringles container).   And I, like many of you, have heard of the Navajo Code Talkers, but never really understood how the coding worked.  Bearce gives a short history about this special group of men, and how they devised their code, and includes a simplified dictionary for solving her Code Talker's Challenge.

In fact, in each of the five sections that the book is divided into there are corresponding projects that kids can do or things they can make, such as a simple spy obstacle course or a fingerprint kit, or even a book safe.

Scattered throughout each chapter are sidebars of even more interesting information or facts that will intrigue readers, such as how Ian Fleming came up with the name Jame Bond for his famous agent 007.  And at the back, you will find Bibliography and a list of websites where readers can get additional information on all the topics covered.

Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is sure to please budding history buffs and anyone else who just likes a secret.

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

A 5 copy giveaway of Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is going on over at Goodreads until October 28, 2014, so head on over there if this sounds like a book you would like to own.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crow Call by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

It's autumn 1945 and young Liz's dad is home after being away for a long time fighting in the war.  In fact, he has been gone so long, that he has become a stranger to Liz, who is feeling shy and a little afraid of him.

November is hunting season and father and daughter are going out to look for crows, because crows eat the crops.  But first, there is a new rainbow plaid hunting shirt to be bought for Liz, so big it hangs to her knees.

On the big day, Liz and her dad get up very early, drive to the diner for breakfast, and then off to find crow and to maybe become reacquainted with each other.  Liz's job is to blow on the crow call whistle just the right way to wake the crows up, her dad's job is to kill the crows with his hunting gun.

As they walk to a good hunting spot, Liz asks her dad if he was ever afraid in the war.  he says, yes, he was scared, scared of lots of things, "Of being alone.  Of being hurt.  Of hurting someone else."  When Liz admits to also being scared sometimes, he asks if she is scared now.  "I start to say no.  Then I remember the word that scares me.  Hunter."

When they stop and Liz blows her crow call, crows from all over come flying over, and the more she blows it, the more crows come.  But no shot is fired, instead her dad just watches her delight in what she is doing.

With one more blow, father and daughter head back to their car hand in hand.

Crow Call is Lois Lowry's first ever picture book (surprising for such a prolific writer).  It is a fictionalized autobiographically based story, taken from a day she actually did spend with her father after he returned from the war.

Lowry addresses many issues in Crow Call, but I think the most important is Liz's fear of her father, a stranger has been away fighting and presumably killing other human beings, which is why I think their conversation about being afraid is so important.  Liz needs to see her father as a loving, caring person again, not as a hunter.  It is such a gentle story of how a father and daughter must find and learn to trust each other again after a long separation and while it takes place in 1945, it is a story that will resonate with so many of today's children who parents are or have been deployed overseas for long periods of time.

The gently muted realistic illustrations done by Russian-born artist Bagram Ibatoulline are done in watercolor and aryl-gouache using a palette of earth tones, which perfectly match the mood set in the text, reflecting the end of autumn, and, metaphorically the war, but highlighting Liz's rainbow colored shirt.

Fans of Lois Lowry will certainly appreciate this lovely picture book for older readers.  And Crow Call would pair very nicely with Suzanne Collin's picture book Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, October 10, 2014

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

In spring 1944, Hungary was occupied by German soldiers and in the city of Debrecen, a ghetto was formed at the end of April.  Thinking her family was lucky because their apartment fell within the walls of the ghetto, Hanna Mendel continued to believe she would be able to attend Budapest Conservatorium of Music, where she had just been selected for a hard won place as a piano student.

But in the middle of a night in June 1944, a knock on the door by officers informed them that the Mendel family,  parents, high-spirited, defiant older sister Erika and Hanna, 15,  was ordered to assemble outside the synagogue at 8 the next morning.   Before leaving, Hanna rips the C-sharp from her beloved piano and takes it with her.  The next morning the Mendels, along with all of Debrecen's Jews, begin their long trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Once they arrive at Auschwitz, the family is split up, but luckily Hanna, Erika and their mother are able to stay together in the same barrack, even sharing a bunk.  Put to work in the quarry, one day Hanna sees her music teacher playing piano with an ensemble made of up inmates and called the Birkenau Women's Orchestra.  Piri thinks that maybe she can get Hanna a place in it.

When that doesn't work out, Hanna is sent to audition with five other inmates for the camp's cruel commandant.  Believing she doesn't stand a chance at being chosen, the commandant leave the choice to his totally disinterested son, Karl Jager, who points to Hanna.

Day after day, Hanna trudges to the commandant's house to await the order to play for him and any guests he may have.  The only perks to playing for the commandant is a warm shower everyday (the commandant detests dirt), shoes, a warm coat and a warm house while she's there.  The only extra food is leftovers she must steal and risk getting caught and shot.

Gradually, however, she discovers that Karl Jager harbors his own dangerous secrets and is not as disinterested or as indifferent as she originally thought.  When he treats her kindly, Hanna finds herself more and more attracted to him.  But returning to the barrack at the end of each day, she sees that her mother and Erika are cold, starving and barely surviving.  To make matters worse, her mother, who had started going mad during the roundup in Debrecen, is having more and more trouble surviving the selections each time they are done.

Their one hope is that the Red Army is really moving east as rumored around the camp and that they arrive in time.

Playing for the Commandant is certainly a very readable book.  I read it in one day.  It is told in the first person by Hanna, a very observant 15 year old and on many levels her voice rings true.  Her descriptions of the camp, of the cruelty inflicted on innocent people are spot on.  When she talks about the lice, the smells, the moldy bread or about how skeleton thin her sister and the other women are becoming, you can clearly see and smell what she is describing.

Despite everything, Hanna'a father had told her to survive at any cost to tell the world what happened to the Jews of Europe and so, she is determined to do what her father wanted.

But when she talks about the danger of stealing scraps of leftover food, or of  living under the pressure of always having to please the commandant, Hanna's fate feels just as capricious or dangerous as her fellow inmates.  For example, when the gardener, a Jew, steps on the grave of the commandant's dog, he is shot in the head for it.  But, when a girl at the commandant's house drops a tray with tea and cakes on it, I thought for sure that when she is removed from the house, she is also killed, but she shows up later, and I have to admit, I was surprised to see her again in the novel.

But, Hanna's growing romance with Karl is very most disturbing and a real flaw in the novel.  I guess I thought Hanna should be thinking more about food than a boy.  She didn't get that much more to eat than her sister, and what she got, she shared with Erika.  Also, at one point, Hanna gets angry at the people, ordinary farmers, who watch her walk to and from the commandant's house every day and do nothing.  I got mad at Karl for being against what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, but who passively sits by and watches it all happen.  I would be curious to know how others feel about this part of an otherwise good novel.  

Yet, despite this criticism, in the end, I thought that Playing for the Commandant is definitely worth reading for its message of survival and hope, but not for its gratuitous romance.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This was an EARC received from NetGalley

Though Playing for the Commandant is a complete work of fiction, Jews actually were often used to play music for the Nazis.  Here is the obituary of Natalie Karp, a famous pianist who played for Amon Goeth's birthday on December 9, 1943.  She and her sister allowed to live because of the beautiful piano playing that night.  Goeth was the cruel commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów Concentrtion Camp in Poland (you may recall Goeth from Schindler's List).

This is book 7 of my 2014 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader
This is book 12 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry


Monday, October 6, 2014

New Indices

When I saw how frequently the categorized indices on my other kid lit blog Randomly Reading were visited, I began to think about doing the same thing for The Children's War.  Little did I realized what a project that would be, but it is done now.

Aside from the Index - always a work in progress, which lists posts by month, there are now 7 new categorized indices (I never used that word before and now I've used it twice).  They are:

Picture Book Index
Chapter Book Index
Middle Grade Index
YA and YA/Adult Index
World War I Index
From the Archives, Movie Matinee, Sunday Funnies, Your Hit Parade, and Telly Time are Indexed together
Weekly Cooking and other interesting bits are also indexed together


Book reviews are loosely categorized according to whether they are Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Speculative Fiction, or Nonfiction.  The Middle Grade Index also includes Interactive and Activity Books.

I haven't included every post (they are listed in the month by month Index, though).  My criteria for including a post is that they had to be about WWII (and occasionally WWI).

My hope is that this will make it easier to find whatever one is looking for.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum

Original 1962 Edition, which is what I read
Books about the Netherlands during World War II are generally about the Dutch Resistance, but Hilda van Stockum has focused more on the daily experiences of one very close knit, religious family living, but without ignoring Resistance activities.

At ten years old, Joris Verhagen can barely remember what life was like before the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 when he was 4.  Life is hard for the Verhagen family - father, a 4th generation millwright, mother, Dirk-Jan, 14, Joris and Trixie, 4, but because they lived in a working windmill, things were not quite as hard as for others in their small village.   Now, after four years of Nazi occupation, everyone is hopeful that the Allies will soon arrive.

The novel is told as a series of connecting vignettes that show how the family quietly worked hard to resist the Nazis.  And so there are some wonderful moments in which their occupiers are outsmarted, like the downed RAF pilot who Joris discovers hiding in an old abandoned windmill and the amusing way that he was he was hidden in plain sight by Joris's Uncle Cor before escaping back to England.

Or the two little girls who come to stay with the Verhagens after their parents are forced into hiding and their absolute faith that St. Nickolas will show up at the Verhagen door with Christmas surprises.

Even little Trixie has a very surprising story.

There are some scary, tense moments as when Leendert, an adolescent, becomes a landwatcher for the Nazis, even though his own parents are against them and threatening to turn his own father in.  Always trying to win favor with the Nazis, Leendert like to throw his weight around, like pushing a young girl off a broken-down bike with wooden wheels, causing her to loose consciousness, but not before she manages to toss her satchel into the bushes.  Joris later discovers, when he retrieves the bag for her, that it is full of Resistance newspapers.

There is so much more that happens to the Verhagen family, and their friends and neighbors, all related with such compassion.  But at the heart of everything, is the Winged Watchman.  It is the Winged Watchman that ultimately saves the day for so many of them.

The two main characters, besides the windmill, are Joris and brother Dirk-Jan, who are portrayed as quite heroic, but not without a certain amount of fear.  And who can blame them, living in an atmosphere of betrayal and danger.  The most striking descriptions are of the hunger and homelessness that so many Dutch experienced by the winter of 1944 (known as the Hunger Winter) because the Nazis confiscated more and more of the food grown in Holland for themselves and because so many homes were bombed.

The Winged Watchman was written in 1962 and may feel a little dated and the writing may seem a little stiff to today's young readers, but it is still a compelling story of resistance and courage.  The family is deeply religious and van Stockum shows how that also helped the Verhagens preserver throughout.

I also learned two intersting facts about windmills in this novel.  The Winged Watchman is not a mill used for grinding, but was used for draining the water out of areas below sea level in order the reclaim the land below the water.  The reclaimed land is called a polder.  The water is diverted to a canal and is kept out of the reclaimed land by a dyke.  This kind of windmill, of course, plays an important role in The Winged Watchman, so it helps to understand what it is all about.

The other interesting fact I learned is that windmills were used to send coded messages from member of the Dutch Resistance to other members right under the nose of the otherwise ever vigilant Nazis.  The messages were read according to the location of the windmills sails, or the different color stripes of cloth tied onto them and sent windmill to windmill.  Most Dutch citizens were ferociously patriotic, with only a few traitors like Leendert.

Hilda van Stockum was born in Rotterdam, Holland, and she clearly loved her country very much,
though by the time World War II began, she was living in the US, having married an American.  She based many of the occurrences in The Winged Watchman on letters and stories of relatives who remained in Holland.  Van Stockum was a prolific writer and in 1935, her short novel A Day on Skates: the Story of a Dutch Picnic was a Newbery Honor book.

The Winged Watchman is still in print and can be found in most bookshops and libraries and is still a worthwhile book to read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was a hand-me-down from my sister