Sunday, April 26, 2015

Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas

American bornTomi Itano, 12, her younger brother Hiro and older brother Roy, 17, have been raised by their Japanese-born parents to love the United States and to be the best Americans they can be.  Every morning, the family solemnly raises the American flag to fly over their rented strawberry farm in California.  The Itanos, Osamu called Sam and his wife Sumiko, had made a pretty good life for their family.

But in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it all changed.  Suddenly signs reading "No Japs" appeared in store windows, Tomi was no longer welcomed in her Girl Scout troop, and worse than anything, Pop was arrested as a spy by the FBI.

Then came the notice that the family had two weeks to get ready to go to a "relocation camp" taking only what they could carry in suitcases.  Everything they owned was sold for a few dollars each, prized momentos from Japan were burned and the family found themselves living in a smelly horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack for the first months of internment, eventually being transfered to Colorado and a camp called Tallgrass.

Throughout their ordeal, Mom, Tomi, Hiro and Roy keep their spirits up, trying to make the most of the situation they are in, even though they hear very little from Pop, and really have no idea what is going on with him.  Tomi meets a girl at Tallgrass named Ruth and the two girls become best friends.  Roy, who had a band called the Jivin Five in California, decides to form a jazz band at Tallgrass, playing at Saturday night dances.  Mom, who had always been a perfect Japanese wife, doing only what her husband said she could do, suddenly blossomed, teaching a quilting class and making her own decisions.  Hiro and his new best friend Wilson start playing on the camp's baseball team.  All the Itanos seem to have adjusted, believing that living in the internment camp is only a temporary situation and they will eventually be able to return to their old life once the war ends.

But when Pop shows up at the door unexpectedly, everything changes.  He looks almost unrecognizable - gray haired, stooped and walking with a cane.  And he is angry and bitter at what has happened to him, and has turned on his adopted country.  Suddenly, happy, optimistic Tomi begins to behave with the same bitterness and anger towards the country she had always loved.  Tomi has become so inflamed, even Ruth doesn't want to hang around with her anymore.

So, when when a newpaper runs a essay contest, Tomi's teacher wants her class to participate, answering the question Why I am an American, Tomi is faced with quite a dilemma  - how should she honestly write the essay.

Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky is the middle grade version of Sandra Dallas's adult novel Tallgrass, which I have not read.  I've read a lot of books about Japanese internment, and while I do believe it is a shameful period of American history, I can't say I was terribly inspired by this particular book.

Factually, this was a good novel, although a bit too didactic at times.  It is meant for young readers who may not know much about how the Japanese were treated in this country during WWII, and I realize that inserting factual information is a tricky business.  Still, that could have gone more smoothly, or put into notes at the end of the novel.

But I found Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky forced and emotionally cold.  I never really formed a clear picture of Tomi, Roy or Hiro, though I felt their mom was a better drawn character, and it wasn't until Pop arrived at Tallgrass that there was any real feeling.  I kept wondering how and why the Itano family didn't get angry, bitter, depressed at having their lives disrupted, when everything they worked for was lost, and people who were friends suddenly turning on them, at least for a while.  That's a lot of emotional stuff to handle for anyone, but they just easily assimilated throughout their whole ordeal.

In the end, Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky is an OK novel at will give readers some insight to what life was life in the internment camps.  I am, however, now curious to read Tallgrass and see what that novel has to offer.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

The Library of Congress has a Teaching Guide using Primary Sources to learn more about Japanese American Internment During World War II HERE,

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

From the Archives #28: Lucy of the Sea Rangers by F.O.H. Nash

I don't get sick often, but when I do, I like to read comfort books.  Usually that means an old book I have read before that just makes me feel good.  So at the beginning of February, when I found myself home with a respiratory infection, I started to reach for an old Nancy Drew or Chalet School book, but decided to reread Lucy of the Sea Rangers.  I love old books about Girl Scouts and Girl Guides and have a small but nice collection of them.

In this novel, Lucy Butler, 16, is a Sea Ranger, a branch of the Girl Guides, but living in London, she and the other Rangers have never had any real sea experience.  The Blitz is just beginning, so when the department store she works in is damaged by a bomb, Lucy is off to the small village of Sea Bay in Somerset to live with her Aunt Nell and help out in her shop.  Best of all, Sea Bay is located right on the beach.

It doesn't take long for word to spread among the village girls that Lucy is a Sea Ranger.  And although Lucy misses her best friend and fellow Ranger Sally, who is still in London,  she manages to meet and become friends with a girl named Betty, who also has lots of Guide experience.  Before long, they two girls have cobbled together a patrol for the local girls.

One afternoon, Aunt Nell tells Lucy that Mr. Grant, who runs a large guest house and golf course, needs some clerical help and Lucy immediately thinks of her friend Sally.  Wouldn't it be grand if Sally came to live with Aunt Nell and could work for Mr. Grant.  On her way to talk to Mr. Grant about this, Lucy and Betty see a small plane crash land on the edge of the golf course.  Out come a man, a woman and a young boy claiming they had just escaped from Holland and the Nazis.

Feeling sorry for the family, the Vanhuysens are quickly given jobs and help from the trusting villagers.  But when a fire threatens to destroy the club house on Mr. Grant's gold course, Lucy becomes suspicious of the Vanhuysens when she finds herself suddenly surrounded by fire with no way to escape and realizes that Mrs. Vanhuysen is responsible to it.  Perhaps this refugee family isn't who or what they claim to be, after all.

Aside from the possible spy family story line, which is somewhat interesting, the novel provides a lot of Guide and Ranger information, from how patrols were formed, naming them, ranks and activities, to making uniforms.  And of course, there is the usual collection of girls with different personalities for added interest.  In fact, the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote of Lucy of the Sea Rangers that aside from the spy business "...which is distressingly inevitable by now, there is a healthily ordinary atmosphere about this story." (TLS November 20, 1943).

Lucy of the Sea Rangers is a fun look at guiding during the war in England and a bit of history not many people know about.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

You probably know that Queen Elizabeth and her younger sister Princess Margaret were Girl Guides when they were young, but did you also know that Queen Elizabeth became a Sea Ranger in 1943?


Two books that may be useful to anyone interested in Guiding in fact and fiction are
How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton  and
True to the Trefoil: A Celebration of Fictional Girl Guides by Tig Thomas, editor


Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

It's hard to imagine that such a lyrical story could be written about a time as terrible as the Holocaust, but that is exactly what J. Patrick Lewis has done in this new picture book allegory.

The story takes place in a small town in Poland that has shriveled up under the occupation of the Tyrant and his Guards.   Living in shadow, an old man nightly plays his hurdy-gurdy, singing so beautifully, he is called the Wren by his neighbors.  He has on music student - a young girl called the Sparrow with fiery red hair.

One day, the Guards order all the residents of the town to turn in their musical instruments.  The Wren brings his beloved hurdy-gurdy but begs to allowed to play one more song before handing it in.  As he plays, the whole town begins to sing.  At the end of his song, the old man gives his instrument to the Guards and disappeared himself, never to be seen again.

The instruments are all thrown into a pile to be destroyed later.  But later that night, the Sparrow sneaks into the storage area and finds the hurdy-gurdy.  Inside it is a hidden note from the Wren to the Sparrow.  She takes the instrument and note and hides the them in the hope that they will survive the war and be found in the future and that the finder will know exactly what happened in this small town in Poland and the world will never forget.

I think this is a wonderful example of an allegorical story, Allegory, you will remember, is typically used as a literary device that uses symbolic figures, events etc for revealing a more complex issue or meaning in a work with a moral or political message.  Here, Lewis uses symbolic types rather than realistic characters, - the Wren, the Sparrow, the Guards, the Tyrant - in an abstract setting - a small town in Poland - to achieve maximum impact of this Holocaust story about the Nazi occupation and the the fate of Europe's Jews.   The result is a powerful multi-layered picture book for older readers that should not be missed.


Patrick's words and text reminded me of the way Expressionist writers sought to convey feelings and emotions in an anxious world.  Here his words are simple and elegant in contrast to his topic, but at the same time so very ominous.  Unlike Eve Bunting's excellent Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust, another picture book for older readers, which ends on a note of hopelessness, The Wren and the Sparrow sees hope for the future.

Perhaps following Patrick's lead, Yevgenia Nayberg's expressionistly styled illustrations are painted in a dark palette of yellows, greens and browns that ends in a lighter illustration done in bright blue-green at the end, symbolizing a message that even in the darkest of days, hope can survive.  Illustrations and text compliment and enhance each other throughout this allegory.

And be sure to read the Afterword at the end of the story that explains how Lewis was inspired by the street musicians and performers in the Lodz Ghetto.  In fact, performers and music were a sustaining force in ghetto life under the Nazis and Lewis has written a beautiful homage to them in The Wren and the Sparrow.

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Echo, a novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan

When young Otto goes missing in a German forest during a game of Hide and Seek, he meets three princesses, sisters named Eins, Zwei and Drei (One, Two and Three).  The sisters were brought to a witch by a midwife after their father, the king, rejected them for not being the son he wanted.  Now, they have been cursed by the witch to live in a small clearing, unable to leave until they save a soul from death's door.  The sister's hope comes from the prophecy each were given by the midwife when she left them with the witch: "Your fate is not yet sealed/ Even in the darkest night/ a star will shine/ a bell will chime/ a path will be revealed."

As an adult, Otto becomes a master harmonica maker, but when one of them is destroyed in an important order for 13 harmonica's, he decides to include the one that each of the sisters had played.  One the bottom of the harmonica, he paints the letter M.

The story skips now to Germany in 1933, just as Hitler comes to power.  For 12 year old Friedrich Schmidt, life is hard.  Not only was he born with half is face covered in a wine colored birthmark, and Friedrich can hear music in his head and has an uncontrollable need to conduct it, making his a target of the other kids and earning him the name Monster Boy.  A loner, Friedrich finds the M marked harmonica in an abandoned factory.  The music from it is like no other he has ever heard before.  After his father is arrested and sent to Dachau, Friedrich becomes a target of the Nazis despite the fact that his sister is an important member of the Hitler Youth's League of German Girls.  Though he is about to audition for the music conservatory and realize his dream of conducting, Friedrich realizes he must try to free his father and escape Germany.

The story skips two years to an orphanage in 1935 Pennsylvania.  Mike Flannery and his younger brother Frankie are adopted by Mrs. Sturbridge's lawyer Mr. Howard on the spot when it turns out that they can play piano beautifully.  The adoption is done to meet the requirements of the will left by Mrs. Sturbridge's father.  But when Mike learns that Mrs. Sturbridge is planning on have the adoption reversed, he makes a deal with her.  If her keeps Frankie, he will audition for a travelling harmonica troupe of young kids.  After all, he has a harmonica marked with an M that makes an especially beautiful sound.

The story jumps to California in 1942.  Japanese Americans have just been rounded up and sent to internment camps.  For Ivy Lopez and her parents, that means a job and the possibility of owning land, having a permanent home and never needing to move from job to job.  Her father new job is caring for the house and land of an interned family, the Yamamotos, whose oldest son is serving in the army.  Ivy, who has come into possession of a harmonica marked with and M that makes an especially beautiful sound from her old school, is excited to join the orchestra in her new school, until she discovers that the Mexican American students don't attend the main school, going to a ramshackle annex instead.

Three different stories bound together in space and time by one harmonica marked with an M but how do their destiny's connect?  Ryan ends each story with a cliffhanger, but it all comes together in the end.  In the meantime, she shows the reader how music can be a sustaining force even in the most difficult times.  Each of the characters must deal with situations that are rife with hate, suspicion and intolerance to suffering for those who are different and helpless in some way.

Ryan uses the technique of a Rahmenerzählung, framing the three stories with the story of Otto and the fairytale story of the three sisters, giving it a nice magical element.  Ryan holds the reader in suspense about every one's destiny and how they connect until the very end, but it is a delicious kind of suspense.

Echo is an enchanting novel that carries a message of hope, even throughout the scary parts, but readers should still read it with a willing suspension of disbelief to really get  appreciate the entire story.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL (but I liked it so much, I've decided I need to buy a copy for my personal library).

Friday, April 10, 2015

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

In October 2014, I reviewed a book called Top Secret Files of History: Spies, Secret Missions, & Hidden Facts from World War II.  It is such an interesting book, and I discovered all kinds of new information about the hidden workings and wartime secrets that helped end the war.   Now, the author, Stephanie Bearce has followed it up with a similar book about World War I.

Bearce has once again culled little known information about WWI and combined it with more well-known details and events in a book that will fascinate young readers.  For instance, they will read about the secret society, the Black Hand, formed by the Serbian Army for the purpose of freeing Serbia from being ruled by Austria-Hungary, which led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife and the start of WWI.

And then, in the section on Spies, there is the prospector/mining engineer Howard Burnham, who had lost part of his leg before the war in an accident.  Working for the Allies, Harry traveled into German territory to do learn enemy troop positions.  Howard has a photographic mind and didn't need to put anything on paper.  In addition, he cleverly hid his surveying tools in his prosthetic leg and no one was ever the wiser.  Readers will also read about brave women like Nurse Edith Cavell and Nurse Marthe Cnockaert, whose professions helped them spy for the Allies.  After the war, Cnockaert went on to write spy novels.

One of my favorite stories in the Special Missions section are the dazzle ships.  Radar was unknown in WWI, and the Germans had developed their submarines or U-boat to such an extent that Allied ships were being successfully torpedoed by them.  A British naval officer named Norman Wilkinson came up with a unique way to confuse the Germans: camouflage the ships by painting the bright geometric patterns so the U-boats couldn't zero in on their position.  See what I mean:

HMS London (1918 Public Domain)
Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from WWI is chockablock with interesting facts, people and events.  Towards the end of the war, as planes were being used more and more, the French were afraid that Paris would be bombed.  What to do?  Readers will discover the unusual solution the French come up with in this book.  And speaking of airplanes, remember the World War I flying ace, Snoopy and his foe, the Red Barron.  Well, readers will meet the read Red Barron in the section on Secret Forces.

And they will learn about some secret weapons that were used, like carrier pigeons and dogs, and Little Willie, the tank that was able to put an end to trench warfare.  How?  Here's a hint:

The newly invented tank could easily cross over a trench 
Like it companion book, this one is also divided into five sections: Secrets, Spies, Special Missions, Secret Weapons and Secret Forces, each packed with all kinds of interesting information, and within that, readers will find inserts with even more unusual facts.  And at the end of each of the five sections, there are activities and projects for kids to do that corresponds to the topic covered.

A Bibliography of Books and Websites is included for further exploration.  Like Bearce's book on WWII, this volume is also sure to please young history buffs, or anyone else who like a good secret.

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