Saturday, December 15, 2018

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee

When Baseball Saved Us was published 25 years ago, it was described by reviewers as being about an important but neglected part of American history. Well, times have changed and more books for children about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII have been written about this shameful period in our country's history. Yet, Baseball Saved Us is as important a book today as it was when it was first published.

The story is told in the first person by a young boy in an unnamed internment camp, whose father has decided to make a baseball field in the desert where the camp is located to give people something to do. Not particularly excited about that, the boy recalls that in school before being order to leave his home with his family, he was never picked to play on any sports teams when the other kids were choosing sides because of he was so much shorter and smaller that the other kids.

Everyone pulls together and soon the baseball field is finished, mattress ticking is turned into uniforms, teams are forms and it's time to play ball. Playing on one of these teams is easier for the boy because the other kids were pretty much the same size, but it didn't really help his game much.

During one game, he notices that the soldier in the guardhouse is watching him. Taking a few practice swings, the boy puts all his resentment and anger into his next swing, and sure enough, he made his first home run.

After the war, when the Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps are finally released and allowed to return home, the narrator finds himself once again alone at school. But when baseball season comes around, this time he proves himself a pretty good player, earning the nickname "Shorty." At a game, when it's his turn at bat, Shorty can hear the crowd screaming and calling him names. Thinking about the guard in the watchtower and how he took his anger out on the bat, Shorty once again calls on the feeling as the crowd jeers him and putting it all into his swing, sends the ball over the fence, saving the day for his team:

Of course, this isn't really a story about baseball, but it is one about racism and offers a constructive way of dealing with feelings of anger and resentment, while gaining a sense of dignity and self-respect. It's interesting that the narrator has no name until the boys at school after the war give him a nickname. It's as though he had lost his identity until he began believing in himself.

Baseball Saved Us is not just a good story with an important message. It is also a good book for introducing the whole history of Japanese American internment to young readers without overwhelming them. In the course of the story, Shorty says that he was taken out of school by his parents one day, and that his family soon found themselves living in horse stalls before moving to the camp in the desert, where they were subjected to dust storms and sand everywhere. He also points out that people were forced to lived in barracks without walls, to wait in line to eat or to use the bathroom, where there was no privacy. His older brother ate with his friends, but soon was refusing to do what his parents requested - a big problem with older kids in the internment camps. This offers a wonderful opportunity to expand on how people perceived to be an enemy of the United States can be treated so badly.
Supporting Shorty's narration and done in somber shades of brown and tan with splashes of color, Dom Lee's realistically detailed illustrations really bring this story, that has its roots in the author's parent's internment experiences, to life.

This is a book that many kids will find resonates in today's world even though it was written 25 years ago about the racism and prejudice that was so prevalent in WWII more than 70 years ago.

You can find a useful educator's guide courtesy of the publisher Lee & Low HERE 

You can read Jason Low's thoughts about diversity and the 25th anniversary of Baseball Saved Us HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler written and illustrated by John Hendrix

In its starred review, Kirkus calls The Faithful Spy an audacious graphic biography and it certainly is that. But then again, it is about a man whose whole being centered around theology and his own religious beliefs at a time when these beliefs were about to be sorely tested. Illustrated in bold teal, red, and black against black, white, teal or red backgrounds, this is equally a story about Adolf Hitler's seizure of power and of the rise of the German resistance.

Twins Sabine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were born in Berlin, Germany 1906, second to last children in a large Lutheran family, one drawn more to science than theology. Dietrich, however, developed an interest in theology early in life, but felt that something was missing from the church he loved so much. He realized that something was causing it to feel static, to feel like just an academic exercise, and after a trip to Rome, he began struggling to discover how he could change that and make the church dynamic.

In 1930, Dietrich left Germany to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There he met Frank Fisher, an African American and Jean Lasserre, a Frenchman. When Fisher took him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where a surprised Bonhoeffer saw the energy of the people at worship, heard them encouraged to act against the world's injustices, and to put their faith in God in opposition to the world's evils by their pastor, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. From Lasserre, Bonhoeffer leaned that the church should be independent of the state, and should exist to help and serve the people, not to tell them what to do. After a year in NYC. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, shortly before Hitler seized power.

Hendrix parallels Bonhoeffer's changing ideas about the church with Hitler's rise to power. Both have compelling stories that are made all the more interesting because they are such polar opposites. But, there is no lesson to be learned from Hitler's story, and everything to be gained from Bonhoeffer's. And Hendrix makes it a point to focus on Bonhoeffer's faith and his developing belief that the church required the faithful to act against injustice. Bonhoeffer joined the resistance, where he was able to serve as a double agent, reporting to Hitler's Reich and at the same time, gathering information for the resistance. When the plot to assassinate Hitler finaly became a reality, Bonfoeffer faced his greatest struggle between behaving morally as his religion ordained or acting against those moral principles by taking a life. He found his answer in Martin Luther to sin boldly:

Using only a three color graphic design, Hendrix has created a dynamic format with which to tell Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story. This is not a panel by panel work, but one that incorporates  a variety of layouts, nor is it a strict biography, there's plenty of text and allegorical illustrations used throughout to emphasize or illustrate a particular point:

The text is handwritten, and small, and affords plenty of information to be included on each page. There are some maps, and the allegorical illustrations have the feel of a good political cartoon. The whole book has the feel of old comic books from that time period, which somehow gives it a nice sense of authenticity. I wondered if this would make it more or less attractive to kids given how glitzy comics are today. Hopefully, the excellent visuals and compelling subject matter will pull them in. What I found most interesting is its relevance for today's world.

Be sure to read Hendrix' Authors Note at the back of the book, along with the other informative back matter.

The Faithful Spy is a book that will have such widespread appeal to readers, artists, comic book lovers, historical scholars, and everyone else and I can't recommend it more.

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

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Skyward: The Story of Female Pilots in WWII written and illustrated by Sally Deng

It's 1927 and three girls living in different countries - Hazel, a Chinese American living in San Francisco, Marlene living in the English countryside, and Lilya, living in a small town in Russia - all have the same dream - they want to fly. What could feel more freeing that being up in the heavens in a plane?

As time went by, their dream of flying still very much alive, the girls did learn how to pilot a plane and experience the joy they knew they would find in the air. Marlene learned first with the help of her brother, getting a pilot's license even before she got her driver's license. Encouraged by her father, Hazel took lessons whenever she had the money to pay for them, reading books about the science of flying in between. Lilya's family wanted her to become a doctor not a pilot, so she secretly joined a high school flying club, paying for flight time by working in a factory.

When war broke out in 1939, and men left jobs to fight, women wondered what they could do to help. For Hazel, Marlene, and Lilya, the answer may have been easy, but their respective governments weren't interested in female pilots. At least, not until things began to be desperate. In the US, pilot Jackie Cochran established the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Hazel and her friend Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, an African American pilot, both applied. Hazel was accepted into the WASPs, Bessie was rejected based on her race.

In England, Pauline Gower, the first woman to get a commercial pilot's license, was recruiting women for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Naturally, Marlene applied but almost didn't get accepted because of something looking wonky during her physical. But in the end, though, Marlene was able to join the ATA.

In Russia, Marina Raskova, the most famous aviatrix in that country, was also recruiting female pilots and Lilya was invited to Moscow for an interview. Lily felt like she was in a dream, until she was accepted into Raskova's program.

The three women spent the war years risking their lives flying for their countries. Deng follows their adventures in WWII, as they perform feats of bravery even as they face of danger,  racism, doubt, misogyny and a general lack of support and encouragement.

This is Sally Deng's debut children's book and she makes it clear from the very beginning that this is a work of creative fiction based on real events and real women. While the character of Hazel might be based on the real Hazel Ying Lee, who did fly for the WASPs in WWII, there is not reason to think that this is a partial biography about her, but rather the author's homage to Hazel and all the other women who flew for their countries in WWII. However, Bessie Coleman, Pauline Gower, Jackie Cochran, and Marina Raskova are not fictional characters.

That being said, I loved this book. The text is simple, straightforward and easy to follow, even as it transitions from one character to another. This is, of course, supported by the illustrations, which are quite simply wonderful. Deng's washed illustrations are done in a palette that is reminiscent of old WWII posters and other illustrations from the time period. They run the gamut of spot illustrations to two page full-color spreads. There are also full pages with spot illustrations that, as you can see below, reflect all three women as they train and relax, despite being separated by thousands of miles, and which serves to move the story along nicely:
When I ordered this book, I did it sight unseen because it sounded like something I would be interested in, but I didn't really know what to expect. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. It is a thoughtful work of fiction, with beautifully rendered illustrations, that highlights the contributions of women pilots in WWII through three representative characters.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade, A Thanksgiving Story by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner

It's Fall 1918 and the kids living on the Lower East Side in NYC are getting excited about the upcoming Ragamuffin Parade, especially Loretta "Rettie" Stanowski, 9. All you need to do to be in the Ragamuffin Parade is to dress up like a beggar, and Rettie certainly has enough ragged clothes to do that, right down to the holes in her shoes.

Being in the Ragamuffin Parade is simple enough, too. All kids have to do is walk down Broadway on Thanksgiving morning and people will toss pennies to them. Of course, it's a scramble to get any pennies, but Rettie really needs to get as many as she can. Her father has been away at war, and her mother has been ill, luckily not with the influenza that is running rampant in Rettie's neighborhood and throughout the rest of the country as well. If her mother gets sick with influenza, Rettie, her two little sisters and baby brother would be sent to live in an orphanage. So, Rettie carefully cares for her sisters and the baby, and now, she would really like to get something special for their Thanksgiving dinner. But what if the Ragamuffin Parade gets cancelled because of the flu epidemic?

Rettie with her baby brother
Rettie has already been doing everything she can to make a few extra pennies, including washing rags for the rag man. After shopping one day, Rettie finds a health service nurse posting a quarantine sign on the door of Mrs. Klumpenthal, the building manager. Now who would keep the building clean enough to satisfy the Board of Health? Rettie quickly negotiates 25¢ a week to do the work. Luckily, the nurse said Rettie's mother does not have influenza and gives her a tonic to help her get better.

Rettie with the health service nurse
Rettie has a lot on her shoulders, but a few weeks later, her mother begins to feel better thanks to the tonic she took, and finally, on November 11, 1918 come more good news - the war comes to an end. As an act of thankfulness, President Woodrow Wilson declares November 25th as the day the country would celebrate Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving morning, dressed in her raggedy clothes, Rettie heads to Broadway for the Ragamuffin Parade, collecting enough pennies to buy apples and a pumpkin to go with their dinner of stewed cabbage. As snow falls outside, and a kitten drinks a bowl of milk, Rettie, her mother, her sisters and brother gather together for the first hopeful Thanksgiving in a long time.

Thanksgiving Day
Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade is another entry in the Tales of Young America series (see also Paper Son by Helen Foster James ), presenting a moment in history through the experience of a young protagonist in a picture book for older readers. Each book in the series is informative and well-researched, Through Rettie, young readers can learn about the influenza epidemic that swept the country in 1918, the hardships felt by some families when their breadwinner is away at war, and about life in a tenement neighborhood like the Lower East Side, and how this meant that sometimes kids like Rettie had to do the work of adults despite being so young.

Rettie's family and neighborhood are richly and energetically depicted in David Gardner's wonderfully detailed, full-color water-color and pencil illustrations, capturing the expressions and emotions all the characters, and the crowded, noisy streets of lower Manhattan.

Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade is a wonderful choice for anyone interested in American history on the local level. It is also an excellent addition to books about Thanksgiving. Be sure to read the Author's Note at the back for more information about the difficulties faced by Rettie and the rest of the country in 1918.

If you ever visit New York City, you might want to travel down to the Lower East Side and visit the Tenement Museum. 

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

It seems that most people outside of NYC have never heard of the Ragamuffin Parade on the Lower East Side, or in any of the other boroughs, and in fact, my NYC-born Kiddo never has either. I remember learning about it in 4th grade when we studied NYC history and we were taught that it was the precursor to both the Thanksgiving Day Parade that we know today, and to Halloween Trick or Treating, not something that was really popular until after WWII.

Source: Bain News Service
Noble includes this photo in her Author's Note. If you look closely, you'll notice that some of the kids are wearing masks. This was not uncommon, cheap masks were sold for the Ragamuffin Parade in candy stores. Because of that, the Ragamuffin Paraders are sometimes referred to as Thanksgiving Maskers, but the goal is the same - to beg for money (in fact, you might recall that the Ragamuffin Parade is mentioned in the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith:

"Most children brought up in Brooklyn before the First World War remember Thanksgiving Day there with a peculiar tenderness. It was the day children went around "ragamuffin" or "slamming gates," wearing costumes topped off by a penny mask."

You can find out more about the Ragamuffin Parade tradition HERE

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Grenade by Alan Gratz

It's April 1, 1945 and for 13-year-old Hideki Kaneshiro, the war has become very real when his Okinawan school is bombed by offshore American battleships. Hideki and the other students of the Blood and Iron Student Corp are immediately given two grenades, one with which to kill as many Americans as possible and one with which to kill themselves, and sent on their way to fight.

On an American ship heading to Okinawa as part of a large invasion force of GIs and Marines, is Private Ray Majors, just a boy himself really, having enlisted in the Marines as soon as he turned 18 to get away from an abusive father who had fought in WWI and never really recovered.

Hideki is a gentle soul, an Okinawan who loves and honors his family and his ancestors, and who has learned to look at the world with a photographer's eye, thanks to the Japanese photographer, Lieutenant Tanaka. It was the Lieutenant's job to take pictures of Okinawa for generals to formulate their defense. Hideki became his assistant and Lieutenant Tanaka showed him how to frame a picture with his fingers in a rectangle and to ask what story the picture will tell, not just in the moment, but before and after the photograph was taken.

Ray is also a gentle soul who doesn't like the idea of killing anyone, but who knows that in war it is kill or be killed. As the Americans move inland after arriving in Okinawa, Ray begins to experience mixed feelings about the war. And although he has studied the brochure they were given detailing the difference between native Okinawans and the Japanese, and learning a few Japanese phrases, the other men in his unit don't really care about the difference, killing anyone who looks like they could be Asian. After facing his first kill or be killed experience, Ray begins to collect the photos of fallen Japanese soldiers and Okinawan people who have been killed.

As Ray and the other Marines move inland, Hideki moves towards the coast hoping to find his older sister, Kimiko. Despite being a fifth-year student, Kimiko was sent south work as a nurse in the southern part of Okinawa. Inevitably, along the way, Hideki and Ray meet and as you might expect, the outcome is disastrous, but far from the end of their story. 

Grenade is an action packed novel told from a duel third-person point of view. The chapters alternate between Ray and Hideki and are separated into two parts - before and after Ray and Hideki's fateful meeting. Gratz places these two poignantly drawn, sensitive characters in the midst of the last battle in WWII, the Battle of Okinawa, code named Love Day, and shows his readers the brutal cost of war not just in the lives of soldiers but also in the lives of innocent Okinawan families caught in a war they didn't want to be part of, and in the destruction of their farms and cities, and their cultural and religious objects and landmarks.

But in the end, Gratz also gives readers a lens through which they can find hope and redemption in the midst of war by introducing mabui, a concept of the Ryukyuan religion. Mabui is said to be the essence of the self, which is transferable from person to person, and can also found in a person's likeness, such as photos and drawings. Mabui found photographs plays a very important part in Grenade and ultimately, these photos tell a very potent story about war and the destruction of everything in its path, but also of the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Some of Gratz' descriptions may be too graphic for sensitive readers, and there is a Note to the Reader in large letters that the book contains terminology used in WWII in order to accurately reflect this historical period. There is also a helpful map of Okinawa in 1945 showing where places in the book are located.

Grenade is a powerful book that successfully interrogates themes of loss, abandonment, and fear, as well as change, family, hope, and survival, and should appeal to readers who like WWII fiction, historical fiction, or just like a good book.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press