Sunday, February 17, 2019

MMGM: The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

It's the summer of 1946 and in Birdsong, South Carolina, Gabriel Haberlin has just tuned 12 and received a brand new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe for his birthday. Excited to test it out and show his friend Patrick, Gabe sets off not paying too much attention to a stoplight ahead of him that has just turned red, and it's too late for him to swerve out of the way of an oncoming car. Lucky for Gabe, someone pushes him out of way just in time.

That someone is Meriwether Hunter, a black man looking for work. Gabe, so grateful to him not just for saving his life, but for fixing his mangled bike on the spot, convinces his father, owner of a garage that is listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, to give Meriwether a job fixing cars. It seems Meriwether is a genius at fixing things. The only problem is that the other mechanic, Lucas Shaw, really doesn't like black people and rumor has it that he either belongs to the Ku Klux Klan or at least has friends who belong.

Gabe's mother has always thought of Birdsong as a "peaceful, pretty place" but that's because the Haberlins are white. For the black people living on "The Other Side," Birdsong is a segregated, potentially dangerous place, as Gabe discovers when he befriends Meriwether. And as they spend more time together, Gabe begins to look around him and see just how life really is for those living on The Other Side: his school so much better than the school the black children go to, he has access to the public library, while Meriwether's daughter Abigail, an avid reader at 10, can only use the makeshift library in her church, and Gabe begins to notice the large number of signs everywhere saying Whites Only, and the way white people refer to African American adult men as "boy" or "uncle" and women as "auntie," including his friend Patrick.

But a mystery surrounds just how Meriwether learned his excellent mechanical skills fixing cars, and why he refuses to answer when asked about it. When Gabe returns from Charleston after attending a July 4th parade honoring local servicemen who fought in WWII, including Gabe's Uncle Earl who was at the Battle of the Bulge, Meriwether's truth comes out. He, too, had fought in WWII as part of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion a/k/a the Black Panthers, had also been at the Battle of the Bulge, and had proven himself as a great mechanic throughout his service. Gabe learns not only are there no parades for African American veterans who served honorably in the war, in the south, they are also being advised not to let people know about their service so as not to bring harm to themselves or their family.

Everything comes to a head when a mysterious package shows up on Meriwether's doorstep putting the family in grave danger.

As I started reading, I thought it was interesting that Brenda Woods wrote this from a white boy's point of view. But as I kept reading, I realized that this story couldn't be told any other way. By looking at the injustice and inequality that African American were subjected to in the Jim Crow south through Gabe's awakening eyes, Woods was able to create a richly layered story.

Despite growing up in a home where he was taught to "treat all folks, regardless of color, with courtesy and respect. And be as good a person as you can be" (pg 50), Gabe's friendship with Meriwether that summer of 1946 is a real coming of age summer where the truth of injustice and inequality becomes an undeniable reality to him.

And through Gabe, Meriwether's story becomes all the more poignant and, for the reader, all the more informative. For example, the fact that Uncle Earl participates in a big parade celebrating the white veterans makes the lack of a parade for black veterans that much more painful for Meriwether. It really highlights how during the war American lives were in the same danger as the white soldiers, that they were fighting every bit as hard as them and that many fell in action as well, and yet they received not honors when they returned home accorded white soldiers, only threats to their lives.

Meriwether Hunter's story really shows how the war may have ended for the world, but another fight, the fight for justice and equality, continued for African American veterans.

Woods has written a novel that is both serious and often amusing, especially when Gabe gets together with his camera toting, slang using cousin Tink. And to underscore his coming of age, his crushes on a local girl and on Tink's liberal neighbor from NYC. I loved Meriwether's daughter Abigail, who was not afraid to speak her mind and I know in my heart of hearts that if these were real people, the future Gabe and Abigail would be out there in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement fighting for change.

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

You can read an interesting article by Brenda Woods about The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA HERE

And if you would like more information about the treatment of African American veterans after WWII, the following may be helpful:

"More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored": Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers by Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr.,

The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Veterans by Peter C. Baker,

Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans from the Equal Justice Initiative

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

#MMGM: How I Became a Spy: A Mystery of WWII London by Deborah Hopkinson

It's 1944, American servicemen have arrived in London and everyone is talking about the pending invasion of France to break the Nazi stronghold in Europe and end Hitler's reign. London is being bombed once again by the Germans, and for Bertie Bradshaw, 13, and his rescue dog Little Roo, it means finally being old enough to become a messenger for the Civil Defense post in his neighborhood.

One night, as the air raid sirens begin, Bertie bumps into an American girl in a blue coat about his age, who drops a little red notebook. Bertie picks it up to return, but the girl has already run off and so has Little Roo, down a different street and straight to a unconscious woman laying on the sidewalk. Determining that she isn't a bomb victim, Bertie reports the incident to his Civil Defense post, but when they return to the spot where the women was laying, she is nowhere in sight. What could have happened to this mysterious lady?

Back home, Bertie pulls out the red notebook to see if he could find the owner's name. Instead, he finds notes made by someone in training with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) to become a spy. Fascinated by what has been written, Bertie keeps reading until suddenly the writer begins using random letters that just look like gibberish. Thinking it might be a cipher, Bertie decides to talk to his best friend David, a German Jewish boy who had come to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport, and is a Sherlock Holmes fan who also happens knows all about ciphers.

The next day, a Saturday, Bertie and Little Roo head over to where most of the Americans are staying hoping to find the girl in the blue coat. Realizing it was a long shot, the two begin walking when Bertie notices that he is being following by a man. Dodging the man, Bertie decides to follow him instead and is led right to Baker Street, to a place called the Inter-Services Research Bureau. Thinking this might just be the SOE offices he read about in the notebook, there's no time to investigate what it's all about because suddenly his arm was grabbed by none other than the American girl in the blue coat, demanding he return the red notebook immediately. But why? A 13-year-old girl can't be training to become a spy, can she? But how is the notebook connected to this American girl named Eleanor Shea?

Right from the start there's a lot going on in this exciting mystery/adventure novel. It turns out that Eleanor knows that the notebook belongs to Violette Romy, a former French tutor of hers. David is able to help with some of the cipher in the notebook, but not all of it. As secrets about the impending top secret invasion and the French Resistance are revealed to the three friends, they also discover a series of double crosses and traitors putting both Violette's life and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis in jeopardy.

But that still leaves a question about the identity of the unconscious lady and the man following Bertie. Mystery abounds.

I loved reading How I Became a Spy. Not only is it full of historical references, but for added interest and authenticity, Hopkinson has also peopled it with some real, if not necessarily, familiar people, such as General Dwight Eisenhower, Leo Marks, a SOE code maker, and she modeled the character of Warden Ita, of the Civil Defense after the real air-raid warden E. Ita Ekpenyon, who was born in Nigeria. The story is narrated by Bertie, who is a lively character despite living with the memory of his paralyzing fear during the Blitz that caused injury to his older brother, Will and who alway feels like he has disappointed his father.

The novel takes place over the course of one week, beginning on Friday, February 18, 1944 and ending on Thursday, February 24, 1944, plus an Epilogue dated Sunday, July 2, 1944. The one week perimeter adds to the excitement and tension of needing to decode the pages written in cipher and then getting the information into the hands of the right people.

The bombing of London by the Luftwaffe in 1944, often referred to as the "Baby Blitz" isn't generally the setting for historical fiction, let alone that written for middle graders, making this a great addition to the body of home front literature.

One of my favorite things about How I Became a Spy is that Hopkinson has included four different ciphers scattered throughout the book, allowing readers to learn about some of the different kinds of ciphers they work alone with Bertie, David, and Eleanor. There is a Simple Substitution Cipher, a Caesar Cipher, a Atbash Cipher, and a Mixed-Alphabet Cipher. And at one point, they make and use a Cipher Wheel. I really liked this hands on activity for kids to try.

How I Became a Spy is an engaging historical fiction novel with engaging characters that will surely have wide-spread appeal. I can't recommend it highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided to me by the author

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on at Always in the Middle

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

World War II: From the Rise of the Nazi Party to the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb (an Inquire & Investigate Book) by Diane C. Taylor, illustrated by Sam Carbaugh

The history of WWII is so big and so complicated, with roots going back to WWI, that it can sometimes (understandably) overwhelm students. Sure, they may like to read novels set in WWII, but they are usually about how main characters faced and met different kinds of challenges, which is great but they don't really give kids the whole picture of what this war was about.

So, how does a teacher, whether in the classroom or home schooling, help their young students understand how and why the world found itself at war again just 20 years after the "war to end all wars" had ended?

To answer that question, Diane Taylor goes back to World War I. In Chapter One, The First World War, Taylor gives a brief but detailed history of the causes for that the war, looking at the early alliances European countries formed as a way of avoiding conflicts and their lingering distrust of one another, especially Germany, so that by 1914, they were all primed for a war that just needed a spark. That spark came when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Austria were assassinated 1914. Taylor then brings the reader through the war, why the United States was pulled into it into the conflict, and the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war.

Chapter Two, Hitler's Rise to Power, traces the rise of Adolf Hitler beginning with the economic factors that made it possible. The end of WWI and the reparations Germany was required to pay to the Allies helped bring about severe inflation, and that together with Hitler's National Socialist party, his anti-Semitic agenda and his desire to make Germany great again appealed to many Germans. It was just a matter of time until Hitler found a way to seize power and become Chancellor of Germany,

Chapter 3, The War in Europe, looks at the war in Europe, beginning with Germany's invasion of Poland, followed by the invasion of other European countries in Hitler's quest for more and more Lebensraum (living space) for German colonization. It also covers the Battle of Britain a/k/a the Blitz, Hitler's attempt to invade Russia and the beginning of the Holocaust.

Chapter 4, The Bombing of Pearl Harbor, details the U.S. entry into WWII, after a sneak attack of the American navy fleet in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the U.S. response declaring war on Japan, and its ally Germany, home front fears of Japanese loyalty, and America's decision to open up concentration camps for Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, and the role of minorities in the still segregated armed services.

Chapter 5, War in the Pacific and Asia, covers the beginning of the war in the Pacific, America's unpreparedness against the strongly militarized Japanese, the capture of Americans and the Bataan Death March, the Japanese practice of death before dishonor, and the use of incendiary bombs against Japan, as well as the building of the Burma Road, needed to help supply China with essentials. The war in the Pacific was a very bloody war, yet most people on the home front were more focused on the war in Europe, and the reasons why are also looked at.

Chapter 6, War's End, looked at the factors that finally brought WWII to an end, beginning with the African and Italian Campaigns, and the invasion of Normandy or D-Day, the liberation of Europe and finally the liberation of Hitler's concentration and death camps, followed by the use of the atom bomb and the end of war in the Pacific.

Chapter 7, Legacies of World War II, focuses on the many stateless people who wandered Europe after the fighting stopped, having no place to call home, the birth of Israel, the Nuremberg trials of Nazis for crimes against humanity, and the new role of the United Nations and eventually the establishment of the European Union.

Why is World War II: From the Rise of the Nazi Party to the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb such a stand out book for teaching upper middle grade and high school students about WWII? Like all the books in the Inquire & Investigate series, this is an interactive text that gives enough information about each topic, designed to get kids to explore more in depth and to help them understand the causes, the aftermath, and consequences of a war of global magnitude. Along with photographs and maps, each chapter has sidebars with additional information and vocabulary labs, key questions, and prompts for more exploration. There are also pages with projects about different aspects of the war to inquire and investigate:

Teachers can also download a useful Classroom Guide to use with this book, courtesy of the publisher, Nomad Press.

Pair this this with The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II by Carla Mooney and Great World War II Projects You Can Build Yourself Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt for an in-depth study of WWII.

If you are a teacher or just interested in WWII history, I can't recommend these books highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was provided by the publisher, Nomad Press

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Recently Added to My TBR List

I haven't done a top ten list in a long long time. So long, in fact, that it is no longer hosted by The Broke and the Book, but is now run by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. But it still works pretty much the same: each Tuesday a topic is given and participants post their Top Ten list accordingly.

This week's topic is the top ten most recent additions to my to-be-read list, and here is mine:

How I Became a Spy by Deborah Hopkinson
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, 272 pages

It's 1944, everyone knows the invasion of France is coming but plans must be kept top secret. One night during a bombing raid on London by the Germans, Bertie, 13, finds a small red notebook dropped by a young American girl about the same age. In it are notes about spying and some are written in code.  Who is the American girl? And why does she have this notebook? Can Bertie figure out the code? I can tell that this is going to be a fun mystery to read.

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay
Macmillan Children's Books, 2018, 320 pages

This is a World War I story. I read the American edition of this and decided to read the original British edition. It is the story of Clarry and her older brother Peter and their family in WWI and Clarry's efforts to carry on normally after their beloved older cousin Rupert goes off to fight in the war. 

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
Chicken House, 2019, 336 pages

I heard nothing but good buzz about this book, and I knew I had to read it. It sounds like an exciting story set a lighthouse on the southern coast of England beginning in 1939, just as WWII breaks out. Petra and her sister have grown up in the lighthouse, hearing stories about sea monsters and Daughter of Stone legends, along with whispers about secret tunnels. It should be an exciting book and I can't wait to read it. 

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic Press, 2018, 400 pages

I've had this book sitting on my TBR shelf for a while and I'm looking forward to a calmer year and more reading time to really get into this book. Teenage Chaya is Jewish and living in Nazi-occupied Poland. After her younger brother disappears, and her younger sister is taken away, Chaya decides to do something. Joining the resistance is perfect for her. With her fair looks, she can really get away with a lot right under the eyes of the Nazis. Eventually, she finds herself fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I've read a lot of resistance stories and this one sounds just riveting. 

Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army 
Helped Change the Course of WWII
Mary Cronk Farrell, 2019, 208 pages

Anyone who has read Farrell's earlier book, Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp, knows they are going to find the same well-written, well-researched honest approach to this book. Although black women could enlist in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), they faced a much more difficult life than their white counterparts. These brace women faced segregation, discrimination, prejudice, second-class conditions, and yet they served with honor, valor, and dignity. This should prove to be an informative look at the all-black 6888th Central Postal Delivery Battalion, the only female battalion to serve overseas under the leadership of Charity Adams.

Air Raid Search and Rescue (Soldier Dogs #1)
written by Marcus Sutter, illustrated by Pat Kinsella
Turtleback Books, 2018, 224 pages

On of my kids brought this book to me because he knows I like dog stories and there aren't too many WWII books about them. Matt, 12, and his American family are already living Canterbury in the UK when war breaks out. When the United States enters the war, Matt's older brother Eric enlists in the Marines, and gives Matt his pet German Shepard, Chief. Meanwhile the family are fostering a German Jewish girl named Rachel, who had been part of the Kindertransport. My student says I'll love this book, and I can believe it. 

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House, 2018, 112 pages

This sounds like it will be a small but powerful book. The student I lent my copy to loved it. After his mother dies in 1946, Langston, 11, and his father move to Chicago from Alabama. There, in a library open to everyone and not just whites, Langston discovers the poet his mother named him after. Though this is technically not a war story, it does introduced young readers to the segregation and the dangers that African Americans faced resulting in the Port Chicago Disaster of 1944.

Stolen Girl by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Scholastic Press, 2019, 208 pages

This is actually a reissue of Stolen Child, and a part of a trilogy of connected stories beginning with Making Bombs for Hitler and The War Below. After the Nazis shoot their mother and the Jews she had been hiding, Lida, 8, and her younger sister Larissa, 5, are kidnapped from their grandmother's home in the Ukraine and sent by cattle car to Germany, along with all the other Ukrainian children the Nazis took. Making Bombs for Hitler is Lida's story and Stolen Girl is Larissa's story, whose name has been changed to Nadia and I suspect it will bring these stories full circle.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Harper, 2018, 262 pages

I've read the reviews and articles about this book, and while I understand it is flawed, I would still like to read it. 

Lovely War by Julie Berry
Viking BFYR, 2019, 480 pages

This is also a WWI story, and while it is a love story, it is also a fantasy. It's just difficult to talk about without have read it, but I do know seeks to answer the ago-old question: Why are Love and War eternally drawn to one another? I'm looking forward to discovering whether Berry has come up with the answer.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Eleventh Hour written and illustrated Jacques Goldstyn

Contains Spoilers

Since the last book I reviewed here was a WWI story, I thought it would be a good time to look at The Eleventh Hour, a WWI picture book for older readers (7+). It is the story of two friends who ultimately find themselves on the battlefield, and give the poppy on the cover, I assume they fought on Flanders Field.

Jules and Jim are born in the same town on the same day in a small Canadian town. Jim is born first, followed by Jules two minutes later, setting a life long pattern of Jim being on time, Jules being late. Because they are next door neighbors, the boys play with each other as babies, and become childhood best friends. They like to do the same things, but it is always clear that Jim is the leader: '...Jim always took the lead. He was faster and stronger than Jules, but since they were friends, Jim always looked out for Jules. Everyone agreed: Jules and Jim were an odd pair."

The two remain best friends as they grow up and when Britain and Germany go to war in 1914, Canada also goes to war (at the time, Canada was a British dominion). Both Jim and Jules enlist in the army. And just like always, Jules is a little behind Jim, who gets the best fitting uniform, does better in basic training and sails to Europe in a big new convoy ship. Showing up two minutes late, Jules ends up in an ill fitting uniform, spends basic training peeling potatoes, and misses sailing to Europe in the same ship as his best friend.

War isn't exactly what they expected, but they do their duty in the trenches, fighting the Germans, the wet cold, the lice, and the rats in the trenches and obeying orders. Jules and Jim never really understood the war and even envy prisoners, for whom the war is over. The war gets much worse before it gets better, but finally, on November 11, 1918, an armistice is signed and the cease fire is scheduled to happen at 11 o'clock that morning. At 10:58 AM, following an order to attack, Jim is killed on the battlefield and Jules is devastated.

Jules returns home without his best friend, and tries to live a normal life, but can't stop thinking about Jim. After trying all kinds of jobs, Jules becomes a watchmaker, and although his watches work well, they nevertheless always run two minutes behind.

Originally written in French (Jules et Jim: frères d'armes) and skillfully translated by Anne Louise Mahoney, who never loses the wry humor or the poignancy of the story, The Eleventh Hours is an incredibly sad book. Each time I've read it, it brings tears to my eyes, but it is also an incredibly powerful anti-war story. It is based on a true story and dedicated to the memory of George Lawrence Price, the last Canadian to die in WWI, when he was killed at 10:58 AM, just two minutes before WWI ended.

Goldstyn is a political cartoonist and is quite adapt at creating a strong story with one illustration. And The Eleventh Hour is not different. Despite the economy of words and spare line and watercolor illustrations, Goldstyn nevertheless paints a full picture of more than a life long friendship, and life in the trenches, he also manages to include what life was life on the home front, giving a well rounded picture of how war impacted life during WWI, and from which one can easily extrapolate that these tragedies and hardships are same realities of war in general.

The Eleventh Hour is a book that will appeal to historical fiction fans, those interested in WWI history, and definitely to pacifists like myself.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library