Monday, July 16, 2018

Where I Am

GREETINGS FROM SUNNY FLORIDA!


It's time for the annual Baugh Cousins Reunion. It's a get together of siblings, 1st cousins, 1st cousins twice removed, nieces, nephews, and some brave souls who have married into this group. Every year, we pick a different venue, and this year we are in sunny, warm hot Boynton Beach, Florida (we base our venue decision based on school schedules):

A bunch of Baughs being serious (except me, I'm taking the picture)
Next year: Albany, NY so we can include my 94 year old uncle in the festivities.

I'll be back next week with new reviews of good books.

(This post was originally posted on Randomly Reading)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Jazz Owls: A Novel About the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle, art by Rudy Gutierrez


It's 1942 in Los Angeles, California. America hasn't been in World War II very long, but already the country is doing maximum war effort work. And that includes Mexican American sisters Marisela, 16, and Lorena, 14, who work long, exhausting days in a cannery, canning fruits and vegetables that will be sent to the armed forces overseas. But when night comes, the sisters are escorted to the local USO by their younger brother Ray, 12, to dance the night away with navy recruits on leave before they ship out to fight in the Pacific. Oldest brother Nicolás is off fighting somewhere in the where.

Rau may only be 12, but he already identifies as a zoot suiter, wearing the large jacket and loose pants, he calls drapes, that are their signature style and giving dancers plenty of room for dancing the jitterbugging and lindy hop. One night, after dropping his sisters off at the USO, Ray heads to a private party at a place called the Williams Ranch. A fight breaks out there and some members from "the 38th Street gang" leave but later return to get revenge. Ray is beaten up pretty badly, and another teen named José Díaz is found with stab wounds, and dies the next day. Ray is arrested along with members of the gang.

Reporters slant the story about the so-called "Mexican Problem" and the zoot suiters in such a way that they influence their readers against them for being unpatriotic. First, because they are Mexican, and second, they feel the large amount of fabric in a zoot suit is a waste and should be used for the war effort instead. Eventually released, Ray and the other zoot suiters are now seen by police, reporters, and civilians as baby gangsters.

Meanwhile, Marisela meets an Afro Cuban musician named Manolito and the two fall in love and want to get married, but California's anti-miscegenation laws of 1941 prohibit them from doing that. Ironically, Marisela, though of Mexican descent and hated by whites for that, is still considered "white" under this law, and can even marry a white person, but not a person of African descent.

Tensions increase over the next 10 months, during which time the family learns that Nicolás is now Missing in Action. The trial for the murder of José Díaz also concludes with a conviction of "a bunch of Mexican kids" sent to San Quentin for life.

The convictions only serve to outrage the white sailors nearby, and one night they go on a rampage, terrorizing Mexican Americans, publicly beating and stripping any zoot suiters they find of their drapes and burning them, including Ray. Even though the police see what is happening, they do nothing to stop it, ultimately arresting a hundred kids and only two sailors.

Angry at the pervasive discrimination they experience and the unimaginable violence they witness against the Mexican American community, and the poor working conditions at the canneries and factories they employ them, especially when so many have family members fighting in a war for freedom, the Zoot Suit Riots have a profound impact on the future of all three siblings.

Jazz Owls tells the story of a not very well known part of American history. is a novel told in free verse. It is told mainly in the voices of Marisela, Lorena, and Ray, and to a lesser extent, by their Papá, Mami, Abuela, different reporters, sailors, police, and even the spirit of José Díaz. It sounds confusing, particularly since this is a relatively small volume, but each is realized to the extent that they need to be and plays a pivotal part in the narrative.

Jazz Owls is a work of historical fiction based on real events and gives readers a window into the lives of patriotic Mexican Americans living in California during World War II. By interrupting and interrogating the predominate narrative in much the same way that books about the lives of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Chinese Americans do, it draws attention not only to the roles they played in helping to win the war, but also the unmitigated bigotry they were made to deal with on a daily basis.

Ray calls zoot suits drapes, and whenever I look at Rudy Gutierrez' incredibly expressive illustration on the cover of Jazz Owls I can see exactly what he means, it is sheer drape and one of the most striking covers I've seen in a long time.

Jazz Owls is a much needed addition to the body literature about WWII historical fiction based on a real event, and I believe today's readers may be surprised at how much the story of a Mexican American family and the racial hate they faced that led to the Zoot Suit Riots will most certainly resonate with them.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Fania's Heart by Anne Renaud, illustrated by Richard Rudnicki

Back in 2015, I reviewed a book for teens called Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott. A novel in verse, it told the story of two young Polish women, Zlaka and Fania, who were slave laborers in Auschwitz in 1944. At the center of the novel is a small heart, crafted by Zlatka for Fania's 20th birthday, and signed by all of the 19 girls that Fania worked with.

Now, this inspiring story has been is retold in a picture book for older readers by Anne Renaud. Fania had survived Auschwitz, and traveled to Canada after the war, married and had a daughter named Sorale, nicknamed Sandy. As a young child, Sandy understood that her mother had many secrets, among them were why she had no relatives - no mother, father, siblings, cousins. aunts or uncles, and why there was a tattooed number on her arm.

Then, one day, when Sandy was 10, she came across another of her mother's secrets. It was a tiny book shaped heart, with a purple cloth cover and the letter F embroidered in orange thread. Opening it up, she saw lots of words in different languages, but could only read a few names. Her mother finally told her daughter her secrets when Sandy asked her about the heart.

Fania begins with her imprisonment in Auschwitz, after being torn from her home and family because Hitler hated certain people, but especially Jews. In Auschwitz, she was no longer a human being but became a number - 74207.  She describes the deplorable conditions she and everyone else in Hitler's concentration camps were forced to live under, how she and the other girls in her barrack worked as slave laborers in a munitions factory making weapons for the German army, and how they tried to sabotage the what they made whenever they could, and then, how they were forced to walk a mile to and from the their job in all kinds of weather. All the while, Fania searched for her family among the other prisoners, but never saw them.

Although they lived in constant fear and extreme hunger, Fania and her friends would recall recipes and food they loved. One day, Fania mentioned she was going to turn 20 soon. Imagine her surprise when she was secretly handed a small handmade heart-shaped card from her friends on her birthday. The heart was a cherished bit of hope and resilience for Fania: "It is an act of defiance. A symbol of strength. An expression of hope and love. My friends wanted to prove that despite all that was inflicted upon us, we could still treat each other with humanity. Their words saved me."

The heart is also the only tangible thing Fania had left from her past.


Fania's Heart is a very moving story. It is historical fiction based on the true experiences of Fania Fanier, née Landau. This is such a well written, poignant story of resistance and survival under such  unimaginable circumstances. It begins from the point of view of her daughter Sandy, but seamlessly switches to Fania's voice, always shown in quotes. To her credit, Renaud has managed to describe the horrors of living in a concentration camp under the Nazis including enough reality without getting overly graphic, given he age of her target audience.

There is an interesting Author's Note at the end of the book that briefly describes how Hitler and the Nazis believed in the racial inferiority of certain groups of people, including Jews. It goes on to describe how Fania's heart was made and hidden from the Nazis. The heart was eventually donated to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, where it is on display.

I thought that Rudnicki's realistic watecolor illustrations captured so much truth about the harsh conditions in Auschwitz, but also the intensity of the friendships the girls developed with each other. The post-Auschwitz illustrations have a bit more clarity to them than the ones that involve Fania and her friends during the Holocaust, giving them  a real sense of being a focused part of Fania's memory.

While this is an excellent telling of Fania's important story, I do wish there had been more back matter, such as a more detailed biography of Fania's life before and after the war, and a list of suggestions for further reading. For this reason, it book felt incomplete to me.

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

So, who was Fania before she became 74207? Fania was born on December 12, 1924 in Bialystok, Poland. According to the Museum's website, she ended up in Auschwitz after a boy in Bailystok pointed to her and yelled "Jew!" Fania wasn't wearing the required yellow star and was immediately arrested. She never saw her parents, her brother Leybl, or sister Moushka again. Fania found herself first in Stutthof Concentration Camp doing forced labor. In 1943, she was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was put to work in the munitions factory there. In 1945, as the Russians advanced towards Auschwitz, the Nazis decided to evacuate Auschwitz in an attempt to hide their crimes there, and Fania was part of a forced death march of prisoners. She survived the march and was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Once again, she survived and after the war, she moved to Toronto, Canada.

If you are wondering how such an elaborate heart could be made under such stringent conditions, you might want listen to the creator of the heart, Zlatka Pitluk (née Snajderhauz). It's in German or Yiddish, but there are subtitles:

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Twelve-year-old Imani Mandel was told she could have anything she wanted as her Bat Mitzvah gift. And she knows just what she wants, but she's too afraid to ask for it. Imani was adopted and now she is wondering about her biological parents and wants to know who she is and who they are. It's especially important to her since she is a young black girl and her parents are a white Jewish couple, albeit very loving parents.

As part of their Bat Mitzvah preparations, everyone in Imani's hebrew school class must do a Holocaust project, an assignment she has found to be pretty uninspiring. That is until she finds the diary.

Imani knew her great grandmother Anna has come to America from Luxembourg when she was young, but when the Rabbi at her funeral mentions something about her new family, Imani begins to wonder if Anna had also been adopted. Later, Imani is told that Anna had left all her books to her, her younger brother Jaime, and a younger cousin, Isabel. While sorting through the books, Imani finds the diary that Anna begun on the ship to the United States in August 1941 (and which she had conveniently translated the Luxembourgish entries into English in 1950).

As she reads the diary, Imani learns about Anna's life with her twin Belle, her parents, older brother Kurt, and young siblings, Mina, Greta and Oliver, about life in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg, and, despite have sponsors in the US, about how they were forced to make a last minute when the passeur* suddenly jacked up the cost of false papers and passage, allowing only one person to travel to New York and safety instead of two.

Anna was taken in by a couple, Max and Hannah, living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Max was a furrier, working in the garment district for his two uncles, who has escaped the Russian pogroms as young men. Anna's first friend is a boy named Freddy, who helps her pick up English pretty quickly, teaches her the kind of street games played by kids, and even introduces her to the Coney Island Cyclone. Anna records all of this in her diary hoping to share it with Belle if and when she and the rest of her family arrive in NY. Sadly, Imani already knows that Anna's family has perished in the Holocaust, making her yearning all the more poignant.

As Imani reads her diary, she decides to make Luxembourg during the Holocaust her hebrew school project with the help of Anna's diary. Using Anna's story as a way to speak to her own parents about finding out who she is seems like a good idea, but she is still too scared to talk to her parents about it. It takes a surprising discovery for Imani to finally open up about what she wants. 

In the end, both Anna and Imani have to learn that their identity is not necessarily jsut a matter of a biological connection, as much as it is feeling a deep connected to one's family, traditions, and history. A word about the title: it is the answer to the question how long is a piece of string? and length is unknown, variable or infinite. Here, the Anna and Imani's connection to their families is unmeasurable.

This was an interesting story about identity, though I felt that a little more about Imani being black could have been included with the same conclusion. Her Jewish roots were definitely privileged over her African American roots and I couldn't help but wonder what Imani sees when she looks in the mirror.  Deep down inside, I also felt that, in real life, this would be an issue that will return in Imani's future.

I have to agree with Ms. Yingling when she says she wished the book had followed Anna's story and Imani's had been it's own story. Both would have felt richer and more full-bodied then combining them. I did want to know more about Anna's family in Luxembourg. Did they ever receive the package that Anna and Hannah sent to them? Were they really forced into the Lodz Ghetto, as the people in shul speculated?

And I wanted to know why Imani was given up for adoption. And why her adoptive mother kept the name her biological mother gave her. Weissman writes they both mean Faith, but I would have expected her Jewish mother to change it to Faith, but she didn't. 

I did like the fact that Weissman included enough about Imani's life so that the reader knows she is also just a kid on the verge of becoming a teen. There are tennis games (Imani is quite a good player), a best friend, other friends, parties, boys, crushes, and all the usual interests of a girl who is 12 going on 13.

While some things make this novel feel a bit incomplete, which is too bad, I still think it is an important book about adoption and family and definitely recommend it to young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

*A passeur was a person who smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied territories. They were often resistance fighters who escorted down pilots to safety, as well as Jews. Here, the impression is that the passeur isn't a very honorable person. Though some passeurs were heroes, after the war, there were also charges that some has profited from the desperation of the people they were helping to escape.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Button War, a Tale of the Great War by Avi

It's August 1914 and World War I has just begun, and it has arrived in 12-year-old Patryk's small Polish village, within Galicia, a kingdom in eastern Europe that has seen varying occupations over its history. Presently, it is occupied by the Russian Army, who pretty much leave the villagers alone.

Though Patryk and his six friends like to hang out by the village's water pump, they also have a favorite spot in the woods just outside their village. One day, while playing there, Patryk finds an old button. When his friend Jurek sees it, he demands it be given to him: "Give it. I'm king here!" (pg 5) Jurek is a rather cruel, sneaky boy, an orphan who lives in poverty with a sister that hates him, and he's a boy who has no boundaries in his craving for power. That doesn't stop him from claiming he is a descent of King Boleslaw, making the village and surrounding area rightfully his, including Patryk's found button.

Soon after, Jurek shows Patryk a button from the uniform of a Russian soldier, claiming he cut it off one of the uniforms his older sister had just laundered. Jurek invites Patryk to meet him later that night so he can also get a uniform button. Later that night, they run into another friend, Raclaw, who tells them that the Russian soldiers are leaving the next day because the Germans are coming, as they take him to get his own button.

Sure enough, the Russians leave and the Germans arrive and life changes for everyone in the village. And as the boys pass their buttons for the others to envy and admire, Jurek gets an idea for a contest: "Whoever gets the best buttons, wins. Winner gets to be king. Means everyone has to bow down to him. Best dare ever. Buttons." (pg 62). Only military buttons are acceptable, and no asking for a button, they have to be stolen.

With the Germans come bigger, more dangerous weapons, restrictions on life for all villagers, unwelcome billeting, and very tantalizing buttons. But what begins as a typical dare soon turns dangerously serious and deadly, as Patryk realizes that Jurek will stop at nothing to get the best button and be king over them all. Patryk's plan is to get the best button so he can win and stop the deadly competition.

The Button War is quite simply Avi-brilliant. Like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, it is an allegorical statement about bullies, their will to power, and the people who empower them. In its simplicity, young readers may begin to understand how power struggles, whether in the schoolyard or the world stage, can happen. In this novel, the fallacy of Patryk's thinking he can end the insanity of the contest by getting the better button fails because Jurek keeps changing the rules to the competition so that they are always in his favor, and the boys, including Patryk, continue to feed his craving for power by complying with those changes, thereby giving him the power he so desires.

The setting of the story, a small village in Galicia, is unusual, but I thought it worked perfectly for what Avi was trying to say. It was a small enough place to see how war can impact the lives of people, especially children, and for witnessing the death and devastation that war, world war or button war, brings. In fact, sensitive readers may have difficulty with some of the scenes in this novel.

The Button War is an action-packed, exciting coming-of-age novel. One that I found I couldn't put down once I began reading it. I only wish it has some back matter about WWI, a short history of Galicia, if for no other reason than to find out who King Boleslaw was, and a map, which is always helpful and welcome. On pages 25 and 26, the boys do discuss what country this are in and the answers give some idea of Galicia's history (which I ultimately did look up in the encyclopedia). This doesn't diminish the novel in the least, it just would have in nice to have.

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