Monday, October 24, 2016

Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage (Young Readers Edition) by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell

It probably wasn't until 2009 when Anna Pacquin played the title role in the 2009 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler that most of us learned about what she had done during WWII.  Since then, a few excellent picture books have also come out about this brave young woman, notably Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin, Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan and Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust by Jennifer Roy.  These are all very well-done, and a wonderful way to introduce younger readers to what Irena Sendler accomplished right under the noses of the Nazis occupying her city, Warsaw, Poland, during World War II.

Now, however, a book has come out that goes even deeper into the work of Irena Sendler and the Polish Resistance. Originally written for adults, Irena's Children has been adapted for young readers who are beyond the picture book age.

Growing up in a religious Catholic home in Otwock, Poland, Irena saw that her father, a doctor and her hero, would always treat the Jewish families when no one else was willing to, and had also welcomed Jews as friends into their home, again when no one else would.  Irena had played with the Jewish children growing up near her home, and had even learned to speak Yiddish by age six.  In Warsaw, Irena went to social work school, always thinking of her deceased father as her inspiration because of the kindness he shown to all his patients.  At the Free University, Irena's mentor and teacher had been Dr. Helena Radlikska, who taught her that "the commitment of a small group of well-intentioned people could shape the world in their vision of it." (pg 19)

Small wonder that when the German Luftwaffe began its unrelenting bombing of Warsaw in September 1939, destroying most of its building, it didn't take Irena long to spring into action. She began by finding food for soup kitchens, and delivering money to friends and teachers who were forced to go underground because of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In 1940, Warsaw's Jews were first forced to build and then to live in a crowded ghetto.  As it became more and more crowded, people began to stave and fall ill. Irena, because of her training, received permission to enter the ghetto as a public health specialist, bringing whatever food and medicine she could manage to sneak in.  Soon, however, Irena found herself going from family to family asking them to let her smuggle their children out of the ghetto to safe places away from Warsaw.  Hiding children however she could, in coffins, in carpenter's tool boxes, even wading through sewers, among other things, Irena worked hard to save as many of Poland's Jewish children as she could, even as she risked her own life on a daily basis to do it.  All the while, Irena kept lists of the children and where they were placed so that they could be reunited with family after the war, list that were eventually buried under an apple tree in a friend's garden.  Altogether, Irena saved around 2,500 children.  She herself was arrested and, after being tortured, sentenced to be executed, only to be saved at the last minute.

I've always thought of Irena Sendler as a real hero, even though she didn't consider herself to be one.  And of course, I knew there was much more to her story than what I found in the picture books about her. The Young Readers Edition of Irena's Children is an ideal age appropriate book for going deeper into what happened in Poland during World War II and for understanding exactly what Irena Sendler faced when she decided to become part of the resistance and not turn her back on friends and strangers. Mazzeo has clearly done a lot of research for this historical work about Sendler and even continues it, with information about some of the friends and children that Irena was involved with during the war and who survived it. Sendler's biography is well sourced with extensive Endnotes and there are copious photographs of many of the people with whom Irena surrounded herself with.

Sometimes, when an young readers edition is adapted from the adult book it can get a little confusing in places, but I found that Irena's Children, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell, flows smoothly, with none of the jolts that sometimes causes the reader to become confused and/or lost in the details. Farrell is not stranger to WWII nonfiction.  You may recall that she wrote a book a few years ago called Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific and is very comfortable working with this kind of information.

Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage is a gripping, tension filled work that is all the more poignant because of is true. I highly recommended this work not only for anyone interested in WWII, but for everyone else.

There is a reading guide available on the publisher's website that is for the adult book but can easily be adapted for this Young Readers Edition.  You can find it HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (A Flavia de Luce Mystery #8) by Alan Bradley

Yes, it's that time of the year again, time to review the newest Flavia de Luce mystery.  The Christmas season has rolled around once more but it looks to be a dismal one for Flavia, now 12.  After being expelled from her mother's alma mater, Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Canada, in less than a term, Flavia returns to the family's rather run-down estate, Buckshaw, in Bishop's Lacey. Expecting to be welcomed back with open arms at the train station by her father and sisters Feely and Daffy and young cousin Undine, Flavia is surprised to find only their beloved family retainer Dogger there bearing bad news.  Colonel Haviland de Luce, Flavia's father, has been diagnosed with pneumonia and is in hospital quite ill.

When Flavia realizes that nothing else at home has changed, she takes off on Gladys, her trusty bike, and despite the freezing rain, decides to visit the vicar's wife, Cynthia Richardson.  After some tea and catching up, Cynthia asks Flavia if she would bike the 2 1/2 miles over to Thornfield Chase to deliver an envelope to a Mr. Roger Sambridge, master wood-carver.

But when she gets to Thornfield Chase, Flavia discovers a dead Mr. Sambridge hanging upside-down on the back of his bedroom door from an elaborate leather and wood contraption looking like he had been crucified.  Naturally, Flavia does her own investigations of the scene before the police and Lieutenant Hewitt arrive.  And one of the things she notices is a set of pristine first edition children's books written by Oliver Inchbald, one containing the name of an acquaintance of Flavia's - Carla Sherrinford-Cameron.  Why, she wonders, would a 70-year-old woodcarver have these children's books?  He had no wife or children.

The investigation of Roger Sambridge's murder leads Flavia on quite a journey.  In London, she seeks help from Mildred Bannerman, whom she met at Miss Bodycote's, and who was once accused than acquitted of murder, and who seems to know everyone.  When she learns that Oliver Inchbald died on a small island, pecked to death by seagulls, Flavia is led to a women who claims to be a witch.  And then to an odd Boy Scout who took pictures of Inchbald on the island before the authorities shows up.

Oddly enough, it was Carla Sherrinford-Cameron's Auntie Louise Congreve who ultimately identified Inchbald's body or really what was left of it after the seagulls were done.  But how is Auntie Loo connected to Sambridge? And Inchbald?  Sadly, Auntie Loo had died in a diving accident shortly after Inchbald was discovered dead.

As Flavia begins to tie up the loose ends and seemingly disconnections related to the murder of Rober Sambridge, she also begins to notice that she herself is changing.  After all, she is close to being a teenager now, no longer a child.  Will adolescence change our beloved Flavia?  I hope only for the better.

I enjoyed reading this 8th Flavia de Luce mystery as much as I have the 7 previous novels, but I did notice a certain pall hanging over this novel, most likely caused by Colonel de Luce's illness.  Flavia seems a little less spontaneous and her usual sense of humor isn't a prevalent as before, a combination of growing up and her father's illness?  Probably.  And there was none of Flavia's trademark chemical experiments to help her solve the case, but there was a nice unusually cooked breakfast made in her lab that sounded delicious.

Still, Bradley's writing is still excellent as well as his plotting.  Despite Flavia's foray to Canada, none of the setting, Buckshaw and Bishops' Lacey, has been lost and I had the sense that I had come home along with Flavia.

Fans of Shakespeare's Macbeth will recognize the title from Act 4, Scene 1 and the incantations of the three witches that begins with the first witch chanting "Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd." And yes, one of the things that helps Flavia put the case together is a brinded (tortoiseshell) cat who does "meow" three not so easy to find times.

And fans of Flavia will probably enjoy this latest edition as I did, and those who haven't discovered these mysteries won't have trouble reading Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, as with all of the Flavia books, it works as a stand alone novel.  But be warned - they are addicting.

Shucks, now I can't wait for the next book to come out.

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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

When I first began this blog, I read a book called Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter.  It is about a 13 year-old girl named Ann Fay Honeycutt who becomes the "man of the house" when her father go to war in 1944, that is, until she contracts polio in an epidemic sweeping the area around her home in Hickory, NC.  Now, Hostetter has written a prequel to Blue, which focuses on her neighbor, 14 year-old Junior Bledsoe.

It's 1941, and Junior is not having a good year. His momma wants him to stay in school, but his Pop thinks he should quit.  To make matters worse, his ninth grade teacher is Miss Hinkle, a neighbor and a hard-nosed educator who forces Junior to write with his right hand rather than his left so his penmanship will be perfect.

But Miss Hinkle does own a '35 Plymouth that Junior would love to get his hands greasy working on it. Because all Junior really wants to do is follow in his Pop's footsteps and tinker with cars and other broken things that need a good mechanic to fix them.  But no matter how much he helps his father, no matter how much he can prove what he knows, his father will simply not let Junior do much more than hand him his tools.  And sometimes Junior just gets so mad at his Pop.

To top it all off, his Pop's mean, ornery father is living with the family now, sharing Junior's room with him and he just seems to delight in needling Junior.  And granddaddy, who thinks President Roosevelt is a coward for keeping the country out of the war, just can't wait for the United States to enter it.

But when Pop is found dead by the side of the road on morning after what everyone presumes is a night of drinking and poker, Junior is suddenly at a loss about his life.  Missing his Pop terribly, Junior just wants to find out what happened that night and the only way he can do that is by making friends with the boy in his class who is the schoolyard bully.  And making friends with Dudley Walker is not an easy task, but doable.

Junior is basically a good kid, however, between missing his Pop, always being annoyed at his granddaddy, and not liking school very much, Dudley Walker's suggestion that they enlist together seems like a good idea. But when enlisting doesn't work out, it just seems that Junior goes on a downward spiral of bad decisions, like borrowing/stealing Miss Hinkle's car after Dudley agrees to help him find out what happened the night his Pop died, and, even though Junior knows stealing the car is wrong, he does it anyway.

Junior is grappling with a lot of changes since his father died, but as he struggles to face his challenges, he also discovers some family secrets that help him understand his Pop better.  And maybe, just maybe with the help of neighbors who are willing to help him, Junior can come to terms with all that has happened and find his aim in life.

Like Ann Fay in Blue, Junior is a wonderful, full-bodied character.  He's full of the kinds of contradictions, disorientations, and mixed emotions of adolescence as he searches for identity, his place in the world, independence, and respect. And a little peer pressure from Dudley doesn't help matters. Neither does dealing with a grandfather who puts him down all the time or having to come to terms with his father's alcoholism.  These are hard topics for a middle grade novel, but Hostetter has managed to bring them together in this coming of age story without overburdening the reader, letting everything unfold naturally and with some humor, allowing Junior tell his own story and keeping the authorial voice to a real minimum.

The area around Hickory, NC is familiar to Hostetter and when she takes the reader there, it doesn't take long to feel like you know it, too.  It's the kind of place where families have lived for generations, and everyone knows everyone else. And when Junior goes into the woods to seek comfort and solace, you can almost hear the trees rustling in the wind, smell the earth underfoot, and taste the catfish that can be caught in the river.  It is, in short, an ideal setting for a 14 year-old boy to do some hard growing up.

If you haven't read Blue, or its sequel Comfort, Aim is a great place to begin this well-written historical fiction trilogy.  If you have read either of the other two books, no problem, there are only occasion visits from Ann Fay in Aim.  If anything, you will understand Ann Fay's relationship with her father even better, but it always remains Junior's story.  Either way, I can honestly and highly recommend this book and Blue, and now that I have a copy of Comfort, I can't wait to read it, as well.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Calkins Creek, at the request of the author

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Blog Tour: Dive! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific by Deborah Hopkinson

When most of us think about World War II, we generally focus on the European Theater.  Hitler, the Gestapo and the Nazis seem to be the predominant focus of books for kids and adults in both fiction and nonfiction.

But there are excellent, well-researched books that also turn their attention to the Pacific Theater and the war with Japan that began on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and decimated America's naval base in Pearl Harbor.  It truly was a day, as President Roosevelt said, "that will live in infamy."

And that is the day that Deborah Hopkinson begins her fascinating look at the important role that the Submarines, Asiatic Fleet played in the war, a fleet that was by no means war ready.  She begins by introducing the reader to 15 year-old sailor Martin Matthews on leave and visiting a friend aboard the USS Arizona. Martin survived the attack, and although he could have revealed his age (yes, he, like many others, lied about it) and gotten out of the Navy and the war, he stayed, "because it was my country" under attack.

Making it clear that the goal of the Japanese was to achieve dominance in the entire Pacific region, Hopkinson turns her attention to four submarines, USS Seawolf, USS Trigger, USS Wahoo, and USS Tang.  Presenting them in chronicle order, and using first-person recollections combined with other source, she follows the sequence of events as each submarine faced them, focusing on the problems the faced, such as torpedoes that were defective, tracking battleships using only sound and not knowing if they were friend or foe, on the camaraderie among the submariners, and their amazing accomplishments from the mess chefs on up to the commanders.    

Hopkinson makes her history of the submarine in the Pacific Theater fresh, in part because of the personal narratives included, and exciting, putting the readers into a submarine during war, giving them a real sense of the tension while out on patrol, looking for enemy ships, and especially the close quarters the submariners lived in, sometimes not seeing daylight for very long periods of time.

To her credit, Hopkinson has also made this story of sailors and submarines a reader-friendly work. Technical terms, fighting strategies, battles fought and either won or lost are all written clearly and understandably, ideal for young readers who have an interest in WWII, and/or submarines.

Interspersed among the narrative are what she calls breakouts: sidebars that give additional information; briefings that provide analysis and background information; dispatches that are stories of interest or additional first-person accounts; and submarine school focusing on submarines or life as a submariner.  I found all of these breakouts interesting and informative and fit right in with submarine life.  In addition, there is quite a bit of back matter, from timelines, to a glossary, maps, diagrams, bibliography, and excellent source notes.

Dive! is a book I can highly recommend to all readers.

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

Be sure to visit the other stops on the Dive! Blog Tour:

September 26        Interview                    Provato Events
September 27        Review/Interview      The 3 R's - Reading, 'Riting & Research
September 27        Interview                    ALSC Blog
September 28        Review                       The Book Faerie
September 29        Review                       ReaderKidz
September 30        Review                       Orange Marmalade Books
October 1              Review                       My Learning Life
October 3              Guest Posting             Literary Hoots
October 4              Review                       The Children's War
October 5              Review                       Girl Who Reads
October 6              Review                       I Read Until Dawn
October 7              Review                       Kitty Cat at the Library
TBD                      TBD                           Hope is the Word

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Blog Tour: Bjorn's Gift by Sandy Brehl

Bjorn's Gift is a sequel to Odin's Promise (my review) and continues the story of Mari, now 12, and her family living in Norway under Nazi occupation since it was invaded in April 1940.

Bjorn's Gift begins in August 1941.  Mari is still mourning the loss of her beloved dog Odin, killed by a Nazi trying to protect her, her older brother Bjorn is in hiding, working with the Norwegian resistance, and older sister Lise lives in Oslo with her new husband.  As the number of Germans occupying Mari's village increases, so do their demands to be supplied with whatever they want, leaving everyone else cold and hungry all the time and making life generally very difficult for all Norwegians.

Mari still wonders what she can do to resist the Nazis like Bjorn, so when her friend Per tells her that Bjorn asked him to keep a coded journal of happenings in their village, Mari feels a pang of jealously. But when Per asks her to take over the task, she refuses and instead begins to record events in her own notebook for Bjorn.  Mari is hoping to be able to live up to her brother's faith in her, especially as she begins to get involved in more dangerous resistance activities.

And it seems that once school begins, things get even worse.  Mari's old school friend Leif appears to have become a staunch Nazi supporter, counting the days until he is 14, and can officially join the Unghird, the Norwegian version of the Hitler Youth, who are, as far as Mari is concerned, a bunch of bullies. Added to that, now Leif's aunt and uncle, also Nazi supporters, have moved into the house across the way, a house left vacant after the Jewish owner, Mr. Meier, was beaten and taken away by the Gestapo. And it seems that Leif is there all the time, or rather, he seems to always be where Mari is, trying to convince her he is still her friend.

When the Germans start to increase the number of soldiers throughout Norway, Mari and her family decide move into her grandmother's small cottage for some privacy.  The soldier's living in their house expect her mother and grandmother, and Mari when possible, to cook and clean for them. In return, the family gets more ration cards and leftovers, which they share with those less fortunate.

Throughout the novel, Mari worries about her brother and how he is surviving the harsh winters in hiding, wishing she knew if he is actually still alive.  But he continues to serve as Mari's strength and inspiration, even as she begins to realize that the war and occupation are going to go on for longer that she had first believed.  If only she knew about Bjorn, it would be so much easier.

Bjorn's Gift is a powerful look at the life of one family on the home front when it is governed by an occupying enemy.  It is told from Mari's point of view in the third person, except for the journals entries, which are told in the first person and really move the story along nicely.  The journal entries are a chance for Mari to express her anger, her fears and even her hopes.

The novel takes place from August 1941 to New Year 1943 and the reader sees Mari as she continues to grow and mature, going from a still questioning, 12 year-old to a more self-assured 14 year-old, and gaining more of her family's trust.

But, as Sandy Brehl clearly demonstrates in both Odin's Promise and Bjorn's Gift, living under Nazi occupation makes Mari, her family and friends more determined than ever to keep a firm hold on their Norwegian identity, their values as a family, and their role as kind, caring, and concerned neighbors,  To their credit, Mari and her family never waver in their concept of who they is, and Mari especially feels not temptation to follow Leif in his support of the Nazis, no matter how much he pressures her.

Brehl's setting, Ytre Arna, is ideal for some of the resistance activity that occurs in Bjorn's Gift.  It is a real place, located on a fjord on the western side of Norway, and Brehl's descriptions of the beautiful landscape and the village certainly do it justice (though I suspect it is not longer considered to be a village).
Ytre Arna in 1940
Often a sequel falls a little short of a first novel that was thoroughly enjoyed, but let me assure you that that is not the case here.  Bjorn's Gift is fresh and exciting and works well as a stand alone novel, with enough information about the events in Odin's Promise that the reader won't get lost, though I would definitely recommend reading both, particularly since I have just read that there will be a third book, called Mari's Hope.  This is good since Bjorn's Gift really left me wondering what what was going to happen next.

Bjorn's Gift is a novel about family, friends, and courage and should appeal to young readers whether or not they have a serious interest in World War II.

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

About the Author: Sandy Brehl is a retired educator and active member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). When she’s not reading and writing, she enjoys gardening. She lives in the Milwaukee area and invites you to visit her website ( to learn more about ODIN’S PROMISE and BJORN’S GIFT. Sign up for quarterly newsletters to stay informed about future releases (including MARI’S HOPE), and special events and offers. 

Twitter: @SandyBrehl

Be sure to visit all the other stops on the Bjorn's Gift Blog Tour:

September 1          Interview                   GROG
September 7          Review                      GOLOWD
September 11        Guest Post                 Unleashing Readers
September 14        Review                      This Kid Reviews Books
September 19        Review                      Tales from the Raven
September 20        Review                      Kid Book Reviewer      (Odin's Promise)
September 27        Review                      Kid Book Reviewer      (Bjorn's Gift)
September 29        Review                      The Children's War
October 3              Review/Interview      Jenni Enzor
October 5              Review                      Mom Read It
October 7              Review                      Mindjacked
October 11            Guest Post                 Write Now! Coach