Monday, February 20, 2017

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

A quiet remote boys school located in the New Mexican desert suddenly receives a letter telling them that the school must evacuate the area immediately. The letter goes to explain that the school is needed for important government work.

With the school gone, the location becomes a secret, with no name or other identification. Soon, cars begin to arrive carrying scientists from all other the world, followed by other workers who are sworn to secrecy.

The scientists begin working, hoping to cut the atom, the smallest particle in the world, in half. But why? All the reader knows is that they are working on something called the Gadget, a thing that requires a lot of mathematical calculation in order to create something gigantic out of something tiny. And it is a race to get it finished before anyone else in the world does.

At the same time that the scientists are shut away in the former school building working day and night, outside ordinary desert life goes on. Until one day, the scientist pack up their Gadget and drive out to an even more deserted part of the desert. They carefully unload their project, drive away to a safe bunker in the ground, and start counting down. Suddenly, the biggest man-made blast the world had ever known fills the sky. The atomic bomb has been unleashed.

The Secret Project is a very compelling, very powerful picture books about the creation of the atomic bomb. It is never referred to by its name, the Manhattan Project, or its exact location, the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, nor are any of the scientists who worked on it named. This kind of ambiguity, not explaining what is going on, only makes the secret project feel that much more secret, sustaining the suspense of what is going on, and also adding a rather sinister tone to the over all story. Outside the building, the desert remains peaceful and serene, providing an interesting contrast to the work inside the building. The reader sees a Hopi Indian carving a Kachina doll, an unnamed artist, probably Georgia O'Keefe, painting a desert scene, and desert animals going about their business. It is a contrast that is only fully realized at the end of the book.

Author Jonah Winter has once again collaborated with his mother, illustrator Jeanette Winter, on this book. Illustrations and text compliment each other in their straightforward simplicity. The digitally rendered images are a contrast of light, bright colors reflecting the hot sunny desert, and the dark, shadowing grays inside the former school, testimony of the clandestine work going on inside.

The Secret Project is an excellent way to introduce children to the difficult topic of the atomic bomb, and, unfortunately, a book that resonates in today's world of nuclear weapons.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Eagle in the Snow by Michael Morpurgo

After spending the night in a shelter, Barney, 10, and his mother return home to find their house on Mulberry Street reduced to rubble, as result of the bombing of Coventry. Even knowing all was lost, Barney tries to look through the remains to find his beloved toy trains, but it stopped by a Civil Defense Warden.

Realizing that all has been lost, Barney's mother decides to relocate to Cornwall, spending the rest of the war living with her sister. Barney's dad is away in the army, stationed in Africa with the Royal Engineers. Taking the 11:50 train to London, mother and son are soon joined in their compartment by a stranger. But almost immediately, Barney realizes that the man looks very familiar. Sure enough, the stranger is none other than the Civil Defense Warden who had carried Barney out of the rubble of his destroyed home. After they start chatting, it turns out the the man had also grown up on Mulberry Street, in the orphanage that used to be there.

Looking out the window, Barney spots a plane in the air, which the stranger immediately realizes is a German Messerschmitt, pushing Barney and his mother to the floor and covering them with his own body. After the train is attacked, the conductor drives it into a tunnel for safety. Suddenly, they are plunged into darkness, and Barney, who has a severe fear of darkness, begins to feel like it is closing in on him.

To take Barney's mind off the darkness and pass the time, the stranger starts to tell the story of his life-long friend Billy Byron and their experiences together in World War I. After leaving the orphanage, the two friends had gone to work in a hotel, stoking the boiler there. Not much liking it, they decided to join the British Army and have some adventures. But it wasn't long before the war began and they sent to the front lines to fight. On their way there, Billy saw a little girl sitting by the side of the road, starving and in need of medical care. Picking her up, he carried her all the way to a field hospital against his sergeant's orders. All he knew about her was that her name was Christine, but her face haunted him all through the war.

Billy was a brave soldier, and by the end of the war he had been award a number of medals, including the Victoria Cross for valor in the face of the enemy. But all the killing and wounding of men really got to Billy, so at the end of the war, after the intense Battle of Marcoing, he allowed a German soldier to simply leave and return home to Germany.

Billy also returned home, haunted by the war. He never forgot Christine, and returned to Europe to try to find her. Eventually, he does, and now a grown woman, they two marry and settle down in Coventry. All goes well for them until Barney suddenly recognizes the German soldier he allowed to go free while watching a newsreel about the German F├╝hrer Adolf Hitler.

Was it possible that Billy was responsible for Hitler's rise to power and starting the Second World War? Billy needs to know

An Eagle in the Snow is a story that is based on speculation and reality with Morpurgo giving it all his own spin, and a surprise ending. It's a formula that really works well for him. In this story, Billy is based on the real life experiences of a WWI soldier named Henry Tandey, and while there is still a lot of speculation over whether Henry actually spared Hitler's life, it does make for a good novel.

Told in Morpurgo's typical story within a story format, An Eagle in the Snow is actually a little slow in the beginning, but readers who stick with it will be rewarded by the end. It is, however, a short, quick novel and well worth reading. He does go into the fighting that Billy and his friend took part in but it isn't graphic, and kids will most likely pay more attention to Barney's fear of the dark then to the scenes at the front lines.

There is lots of potential for speculation in the novel and in the accounts of Henry Tandy's wartime experience, as well as hypothesizing what one might do in Billy's shoes. Fans of Michael Morpurgo will definitely want to read this new novel, as will young readers who like historical fiction.

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

Below is a painting that is featured in the novel, that hung on Hitler's wall at Berchestgaden, in the Bavarian Alps. Click the link to find out what part it plays in the life of Henry Tandey, Adolf Hitler, and in the novel, Billy Bryon.

Post battle painting by Fortunino Matania 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport by Emma Carlson Berne

The Kindertransport was a short-lived program that rescued approximately 10,000 Jewish children in Nazi occupied Germany, Austria and Poland and Czechoslovakia between December 1938 (just three weeks after Kristallnacht, and May 1940. The children were sent to live with families in Great Britain. I have reviewed a number of books about the Kindertransport before, but most of them were novels.

In her new book, Emma Carlson Berne introduces readers to the program through the true stories of seven former Kindertransport survivors, including a detailed explanation of what was happening in Europe, especially after Kristallnacht, and how the Kindertransport program worked. The program was the brain child of British Jews and Quakers and only worked because at that time, Hitler wanted to get all Jews out of Europe. Still, It's hard to imagine parents willingly surrendering their children to strangers in the hope that they would be safe, but it just shows how dangerous Europe had become under the Nazis. It was up to the families to get their children to the transport train that would take them to the ships traveling to England, an expense difficult for Jewish parents to afford by 1938, having lost their jobs and most of their money having been confiscated by the Nazis. To make it more difficult, no parents or other family were allowed to travel with their children. For many, Berne points out, the train station would be that last time parents and children would ever see each other.

Berne than recounts the experiences of the seven children and how they became Kindertransport children. Her writing style is very interesting. She invites the reader into the book with sentences like: "We can imagine the train whistle blowing. 'All aboard,' the conductor might have yelled in German over the crowd of frightened children and weeping parents." (pg 62) Each persons recollections are told in their own words, as well, taken from interviews done when they were adults, and adding a sense of authenticity that these are true stories and not the stuff of imagination.

In addition to each person's story, Berne has included archival photographs of what Jewish life looked like in Europe before and under the Nazis and a collection of family photos each child must have taken to England with them. The whole book is set up like an old family album, including chipped, aged-looking pages.

There is extensive back matter, including a timeline, a Glossary, information about The Kindertransport Association, which you might want to check for additional information, suggestions for further reading, discussion questions, and and extensive Bibliography.

Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport is a well done, very well researched book. The seven stories included in it are poignant, and really bring home the feelings of desperation parents were feeling, but also the fear of the child suddenly being separated from their family, and not always being old enough to understand what was happening.

This is a valuable teaching resource for classes studying the WWII and Holocaust. Pair it with some of the excellent novels that have been written about the Kindertransport for a really in-depth, well- rounded sense of how the events of the time impacted children.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Two Refugee Stories: The Journey by Francesca Sanna and Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs

Refugees seeking asylum and safety is a old as humanity and a recent as today’s news. It is hard to imagine having to leave the home you have always known, the place you have always thought of as safe, leaving behind your beloved possessions whether it is a doll, or a stuff toy, perhaps pawning your great grandfather’s pocket watch or your great grandmother’s tea service to get money to pay for the trip you and your family are about to embark on. But that is just what these two excellent books are about.

The Journey written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books, 2016, 48 pages, age 5+

The Journey begins with a young girl, the narrator, introducing her happy close-knit family living in a city near the sea, until war arrives and bad things began to happen. But when the war takes her father, her mother decides it is time to leave their homeland despite the dangers, and to try and reach a country where they can live without war and fear. So the family packs up what belonging they can and leave. But the journey is difficult, and little by little they begin to leave belongings behind to lighten their load and make traveling easier.

And they face all kinds of obstacles - a high guarded wall, a sea that stretches far and wide, a scary ferry boat ride, followed by a long train ride, all in search of a home where the family can begin their story all over again.  

Sanna used a collage of migration stories from different people she interviewed at a refugee center in Italy to create The Journey, inspired by the story of two girls she met there. Using simple language, and folk art style illustrations, Sanna has written a book that really captured what it is like to be a refugee, to be fleeing friend, family and home for your life with no idea how it will all end. Kids who may have heard about the ongoing problems in Syria this year may greatly benefit from this book, not because it will help them understand the politics of what is happening, but because, on a more personal level, it will help them understand what being a refugee means.

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey written by Margriet Ruurs, 
artwork by Nizar Ali Badr, translation by Falah Raheem 
Orca Books, 2016, 28 pages, age 5+

Stepping Stones is a collaboration of Canadian author Margriet Ruurs and Syrian stone work artist Nizam Ali Badr that tells the story of Rama and her family.  For Rama, living in Syria means waking up to breakfast prepared by Mama, with tomatoes from the garden. It means playing outside with her friends and brother Sami, and it means stories in the evening when Papa comes home from work. So many wonderful days and memories, until war comes to Rama's country. Families started leaving her village and one day, she also left with Mama, Papa, Jedo (grandfather), and Sami. Walking with only the things they can carry, they join the "river of people" fleeing the war with its destructive bombs. Then Rama and her family take an overloaded boat to a new land, walk some more, until finally they are welcomed by the people living in their new village far away from the war in Syria. 

The story of Rama and her family is similar to the story that the young narrator tells in The Journey and certainly just as compelling. The text is simple and Ruurs has really captured how confusing and frightening it is to go from a life filled with love and serenity to one that knows only fear and upheaval and the hardships refugees experience on their journey. To it credit, the story is written in both English and Arabic, increasing its accessibility to young readers. 

What makes this book unusual is the artwork done by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Using carefully and skillfully placed stones, he has created Rama's tight-knit family and surroundings, creatively capturing all the mixed emotions and feelings that they experience as they flee.  

I liked that in The Journey there are no names used for the family, making it a kind of Everyman tale, encompassing all refugees regardless of when, where, or what the circumstances of their leaving might be, while Stepping Stones personalized the story by naming the family members on their journey to freedom and safety, yet both stories are so much the same.

War inevitably leads to people fleeing from the fighting, the persecutions, because their homes, schools, cities, towns and villages have been bombed and/or shelled to smithereens, because of the color of their skin, their religion, or simply because they have been caught in the middle of someone else's war. We see it everyday on the news and so do our children. The Journey  and Stepping Stones are two excellent books that will help young readers understand what is happening to the children they see on TV. I can't recommend these two books highly enough.

These books were both purchased for my personal library.

Monday, January 23, 2017

It's Monday! What are you reading? The State of My TBR Pile

It's Monday! What are you reading? is the original weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, but is now hosted by Kathryn at Book Date It's Monday! What are you reading? - from Picture Books to YA is a kidlit focused meme just like the original and is hosted weekly by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers .  The purpose is the same: to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. Twitter for #IMWAYR

I haven't been blogging over here at The Children's War very much lately.  As you can see from the photo, it's not because I don't have lots of books to read and that isn't even counting the eBooks I have sitting on my iPad. But, I been reading books for two award committees - one committee is the 2017 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. As you may know, there are 7 finalists chosen this year and for all I read middle grade fiction, the only book on the list that I had already read was In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall. The other nominees are Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson, Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, Slacker by Gordon Korman, and lastly, Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.

The other award committee is the Bank Street Children's Book Committee and, sorry, but I can't say what books we are considering for our three awards: The Josette Frank Award for fiction, The Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction, and The Claudia Lewis Award for poetry. I'll let you know the winners as soon as I can.

It's a lot of reading and I have gotten woefully behind here but I am hoping to begin catching up this week.  I finally read Anna and the Swallow Man. Until then, feel free to visit my other blog, Randomly Reading, where I review books for kids, teens and grownups. My latest post is an expanded version of My Favorite Books About Resistance in World War II, inspired after participating in the Women's March this past weekend.