Wednesday, March 25, 2015

John Green's Crash Course: World War II

You know John Green as the author of some pretty good YA books, like The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska which have been living on the NY Times YA Best Sellers list for more that 106 weeks.  Green has won a number of awards for his books, and in 2014, was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

In 2012, after receiving a grant from Google, Green and his brother Hank began a series of educational videos on YouTube called Crash Course.  Green gives crash courses on World History, American History and Literature, while Hank covers Biology, Chemistry, Ecology and Psychology.  

Here are the three Crash Courses that John Green did on WWII.  Each is approximately 13-15 minutes long.  They really just introduce you to the topic, so don't expect in-depth detail, but they are interesting and informative.  









If you liked these, you can see all of the Crash Course topics HERE 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & The Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto by Irène Cohen-Janca, art by Maurizio A.C. Quarello

Janusz Korczak was a well-known, well-respected children's pediatrician in Poland in the early part of the 1900s.  Among his many accomplishments, he had founded an orphanage to care for some of Warsaw's young Jewish orphans. He loved children and would often regale his charges with stories he made up, including the now classic tale of King Matt the First, as well as looking after their health and cheering them up with their needed it.  And the children loved him back, affectionately calling him Mister Doctor.

On November 29, 1940, all the orphans living in the big orphanage at 92 Krochmalha Street in Warsaw, Poland were ordered to leave by the Nazis.  Accompanied by Mister Doctor and his assistant Madam Stefa, all of the children walked to the ghetto that would be their new home for a while carrying their meager belongings, softly singing, and the flag of King Matt the First.

Their new home is small, located within a two block radius, surrounded by barbed wire and armed watchman, their living quarters are cramped and dirty.  When their wagon full of potatoes were confiscated by the Nazis, Mister Doctor put on his WWI uniform and went to Gestapo headquarters, where he was laughed at, ridiculed, beaten and temporarily arrested.

Life in the ghetto grew more and more crowded as more Jews were brought in, food became scarcer and scarcer, with men, women and children dying in the streets everyday from starvation and disease.  Finally, in August 1942, the children were ordered to the train station and from there to a concentration camp and death.  But Mister Doctor was offered his freedom, after all, he was a famous doctor.  Instead, he refused and choose to accompany his children on this final journey.

The story Mister Doctor is told by a young boy named Simon to a younger, newly arrived orphan named Mietek.  Simon describes in detail how the orphanage was run, how the children were educated and how Mister Doctor took such special care of all of them.  At the same time, Simon is talking about past, he also gives detailed information to the reader about what is going on in their present situation.  Cohen-Janca has really captured the sense of longing and nostalgia in Simon's voice when he talks about life in the orphanage before the Nazis invaded Poland, and the fear and apprehension he feels about what is to come.

The story told here is a fictional reimagining of what happened to Dr. Janusz Korczak and the children in his care, but based on the true story of what happened to them during the Holocaust.  Pay particular attention to the last three paragraphs of this book and ask yourself who wrote them and why?

Like Michael Morpurgo's Half A Man, this book also looks like a chapter book with only 68 pages a simple narrative style and many illustrations, but it is also deceptively complicated and really for a middle grade reader.

The realistic black and white illustrations set against a marbled peach background are a precise reflection of the words that Cohen-Janca has written, and give the reader a real-to-life sense of the children, the doctor and their lives from 1940 to 1942.  Little touches, like the figure of Puss in Boots leaping over the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto as Simon talks about how that cat and his courageous deeds always gave the orphans courage.  But there is a subtext that says the Nazis can take away housing, food, dignity, but not the stories that means so much and help the get kids through very difficult times.

This is a powerfully poignant story that shouldn't be missed.  Additionally, at the end of Mister Doctor is information about the real Janusz Korczak, whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit, followed by a briefbut useful list of Further Reading and Resources, Children's Books by Janusz Korczak, Resources for Parents and Teachers and Related Links.

Mister Doctor was translated by Paula Ayer

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Young Michael had been told by his mother over and over again not to stare at his grandfather whenever he visited his family in London.  But Michael couldn't help it, slyly looking at a grandfather he really doesn't know very well and wondering how his face had gotten so disfigured, how he had lost part of the fingers on one hand and all of them on the other.  His mother doesn't talk about it and his grandfather doesn't talk about much of anything, let alone what happened to him.

Michael's grandfather lives a relatively isolated life on one of the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast, making a living crabbing and lobstering.  When Michael is about 12, he is sent to spend the summer with his grandpa, helping with the fishing, reading, and living a quiet life side by side without electricity, using only a generator that was shut off at night.  But Michael liked it there, it was calming and comforting.

One day, while out in the fishing boat, grandpa suddenly told Michael that the thing he liked about him was that he wasn't afraid to look at his face.  Before long, grandpa is telling Michael about his life and how things came to be as they are.

After marrying his youthful sweetheart, Annie, war broke out and grandpa joined the merchant navy.  One day while crossing the Atlantic in a convoy, his ship was torpedoed several times.  With their ship on fire and sinking, grandpa's friend Jim managed to get both of them off it and into the burning water.  They swam to a lifeboat, and even though there was no room for either of them, grandpa was pulled into it, and Jim stayed in the water, hanging on for as long as he could.

Grandpa woke up in the hospital, with a long recovery ahead of him.  Annie came to visit but grandpa could tell things were different.  When he finally returned to Scilly, they did have a baby girl, but things didn't improve.  Grandpa started drinking, living with so much hate and anger because of the war.  Eventually, Annie left, taking their daughter and never speaking to him again.  Father and daughter were estranged until she was grown and sought him out.  Their relationship was tentative at best, in part because he had always felt like half a man because people only half looked at him, and his own daughter always avoided looking at him.  It was only Michael who wasn't afraid to see his grandpa for who he was, scars and all.

This short story is told in retrospect by a now grown-up Michael.  It feels almost like a chapter book, in part because it is only 64 pages, in part because there are so many illustrations, and in part because it is told so simply, but it is a deceptively complicated story and not for such young readers.  It is really more for middle grade readers.

The ink and screen print illustrations are done in a palette of grays, oranges, blues and yellows, and are as spare as the story is intense.  Most are done from a distance to the subject, and those that are close up show no distinct features.  And distance seems to be an underlying theme of the story.  The story is told from the distance of time, about people who are just so distant from each other emotionally and physically.

I know Michael Morpurgo is a master at telling sad stories, but I found this to be a sadder story than usual, even though the end does bring closure, at the request of Michael's grandpa, bringing together his mother and grandmother, who have been estranged for years.  It really makes you sit back and think.  There was so much sadness because of what the war did to Michael's grandpa and the repercussions that resulted leaving these relatives isolated, alienated, even angry with each other, when really it should have elicited kindness, compassion and love.

For that reason, this is a story that will also have resonance in today's world, where we see so many veteran's coming back from war injured, disfigured and with traumatic brain injury.  It begs the question: how will we treat these veterans, these men and women and their families.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac

When his grandchildren ask about the medal he has received, an elderly Navajo grandfather begins to tell them "…the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war." (pg 1)  He begins his story when, at age 6, he leaves the loving confines of his family's hogan on the Navajo Reservation to be educated in an Navajo mission boarding school, not knowing what to expect.

But it doesn't take long for him to find out.  Arriving at the school, he is immediately stripped of everything Navajo - his beautiful traditional long black hair is shaved off, his Navajo clothes replaced by a uniform, the family's turquoise and silver jewelry he wore is taken never to be seen again and  his Navajo name, Kii Yázhí, becomes the anglicized Ned Begay.  But the worst was being told he could never speak his beloved Navajo language again.  The punishments were harsh for anyone caught speaking Navajo, as Ned discovered one day after greeting one of the teachers in Navajo.  And just to make sure they understand things, the students are continuously reminded that all things Navajo are bad, and their language most of all.

But Ned adjusts to life in the mission school and does very well, eventually returning home and going to the Navajo high school.  It is his hope to become a teacher, one who respects all his Indian students.  But, when Ned is 16, the United States is attacked by the Japanese, and reports of what happened in Pearl Harbor prompt his to want to join the Marines.  But he must wait a year before his parents will give him permission.

When he finally does join the Marines, he finds himself part of a group of other Navajos   Ned finishes boot camp and to his surprise, he and the other Navajos are not given the usual furlough Marines are given afterwards.  Instead, they are taken to an isolated location and Ned fears it will be mission boarding school all over again.

It is school, but it is a far cry from mission school.  In mission school, Ned and the other students would have to secretly speak Navajo, but now, they were being asked to use their sacred language to help the United States win the war against Japan.  It is Ned's job and the job of all the Navajo Marines to turn their language into a secret code.  And they cannot tell a single solitary person about what they are doing.

Eventually, Ned ships out to the Pacific theater where he is a radio operator, trained to both give and receive messages using the code he helped develop.  Ned and the other Marines fight their way across the Pacific theater of Guadalcanal, Bourgainville, Guam Iwo Jima and Okinawa, in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  All the while, Ned feels pride and satisfaction knowing that his beloved language used as a Navajo code cannot be broken by the Japanese.  Ned serves in the Pacific until the end of the war, but the reader should keep in mind that in 1945, he was still just a teenage boy.

Code Talker is a realistic novel about the war and about the life of the Code Talkers.  Bruchac wrote it using a framing technique, so the young reader knows from the beginning that Ned survived the war.  As an elderly grandfather now, Ned tells his story fluidly and fluently.  Bruchac's plot is tight and straightforward, as is the language used.  Any reference to Navajo culture, custom, or way of life is respectfully explained within the story but without taking the reader away from the story.  For my part, however, I found the narrators voice is so intimate that after a while I begin to feel like I was sitting among his grandchildren listening to his story.  That, to me, is the sign of a really good book.

One important aspect that Bruchac includes is Ned's Navajo religion.  Ned often refers to the Holy People who watch over him and help him.  He also describes different ceremonies, like the protection ceremony called the Blessingway, done before Ned becomes a marine or the Enemyway ceremony, done when Ned returns home from war suffering what we would call PTSD nowadays, and done to put him back in balance with the world.  Each morning, Ned does his morning prayers, using the pollen  he is given in his Blessingway.

Although this is a book that is also about war, and covers some of the harshest, bloodiest fighting in circumstance that are difficult to imagine, it really has a very low key way of handling the combat sections.  They are more focused on Ned and the other marines than in anything else.  And the reader learns how men (and now women) survive in combat, from living in foxholes that had to dig themselves under enemy fire, to making soup in their helmets and constantly dealing with lice and rats

You might be interested in knowing that from the original 29 Code Talkers by the end of the war there were more than 400, including men from the Choctaw, Comanche, Navajo and Hopi tribes, all using their own tribal language.  The Code Talkers were not allowed to speak of their wartime accomplishment until 1969, when their work was declassified.  In 2000, President Clinton awarded the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal, and the other Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal (which is the medal that sparks Ned's story).  Sadly, in June 2014, the last living Code Talker, Chester Nez, passed away at age.

Do read Code Talker if you are interested in Native Americans, codes and/or WWII.  It may read a little slowly at times, but it is well worth it.  Bruchac includes an Author's Note at the back of the novel, as well as a Selected Bibliography that includes books about Navajos, books about the Code Talkers and books about WWII for anyone interested in more information.

A useful discussion guide for Code Talker is available from the publisher, Scholastic

This short piece will give you a sense of what Ned Begay experienced and his legacy


This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, March 13, 2015

Remembering Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett 1947-2015
Back in 2010, when I decided to start this blog, I knew I was taking a big risk given the focus of it.  I decided I needed to start with the best,  so naturally, I turned to Terry Pratchett.  Like all his fans, I was already familiar with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, but of course and as wonderful as it is, it just didn't fit my focus.  I decided to begin my blog with a not very well known book called Johnny and the Bomb.

Written in the early 1990s, Johnny and the Bomb is the third novel in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy that includes Only You Can Save Mankind and Johnny and the Dead.  I liked Johnny and the Bomb so much, I reposted it in 2013, and in 2014, I listed it as one of my Top Ten books about friendship, writing "I loved the friendship between Johnny, Yo-less, Bigmac and Wobbler, three modern boys who time travel back to 1941 and the night of the Blackberry Blitz.  This is friendship as only Pratchett can write it - funny, serious, dangerous, slapstick.." and I might add, very tongue in cheek.  If you haven't read the Johnny Maxwell series, you might want to give them a try.

I already knew that Terry had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's and when Clarion Books published a volume of his early short stories, Dragons at the Crumbling Castle, and having some first hand experience with Alzheimer's, I also knew his writing days were over.  But I still wasn't prepared for yesterday's sad news the Terry had passed away.  Especially not so close to learning the sad news that Mal Peet, another favorite author, had passed away on March 2, 2015.  Both men were such brilliant creative writers, the world is now a sadder place without them.

There are any number of tributes online to Terry, but I think the one published by Neil Gaiman and Ursula le Guin published in The Guardian say it best.

It's hard to say good-bye to an author that I like so much and who has given me hours and hours of reading pleasure, so instead I will just say Thank You for sharing your wonderful, exciting imagination with the rest of the world and for starting me off on my personal blog adventure.

Thank You, Terry