Sunday, January 1, 2023

January 2023

I haven’t been blogging much lately and I have decided to take a break from it for a while. I began The Children’s War in 2010 because I had finished my dissertation on girls’ popular fiction in Nazi Germany and had been thinking a lot about #kidlit and how the adults who write it can have such an influence on the thinking of young readers. At around the same time, I became a member of the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee and was reading so many good books, I began Randomly Reading in 2012. I have enjoyed working on both blogs, but I feel like I need to take some time off. I hope to be back in the early spring of 2023. In the meantime, you can still find me on Goodreads, Twitter, Instagram, and Post.

Friday, October 21, 2022

My Own Lighting by Lauren Wolk

It's 1944 and WWII is still being fought far from the home front in this sequel to Wolf Hollow. Annabelle McBride, 13, is finding it hard to move on from the events of the past winter when she tried to save her friend Toby, a homeless, shell shocked WWI veteran, from the cruelty of a girl named Betty Glengarry. Now, summer vacation has just started and Annabelle has promised to help her teacher clean up the schoolhouse for next September. While there, an unpleasant stranger named Drake Graf shows up looking for his lost dog Zeus. And just as Annabelle and Mrs. Taylor are leaving the schoolhouse, not only to they hear thunder in the distance, but Andy Woodbury, Betty's partner in crime, is not far away watching them.

As Annabelle is walking home, the storm begins and a lightning strike hits her, knocking her out and stopping her heart. But then someone appears, pounding her chest and getting her heart started again, before they run off and Annabelle is carried home by someone else. When she regains consciousness, she doesn't remember who helped her , but her senses - smell, hearing, vision - are so heightened her brothers call them superpowers. The morning after the lightning strike, as Annabelle's petting their dog Hunter, she is overcome with a strong sense of real peace. Then, she learns that her brother's dog Buster is missing and that Andy Woodbury has been living in their potato house with Mr. McBride's permission after he was badly beaten at home. Later, Annabelle realizes she knows animals better than before and in a whole new way. 

Being able to understand animals and feel what they feel proves to be very useful as more dogs begin to disappear. Animals are so much easier to understand than people are for animal-loving Annabelle. And so she sets out to try and discover where the missing dogs are, often in the contentious company of Andy Woodbury, while also trying to solve the mystery of who saved her life. In the course of all this, Annabelle meets the newly arrived to the area Mr. Edelman and his reclusive daughter Nora, who has her own healing to do and who has been secretly taking in injured and sick animals in need of attention that her father finds.   

Annabelle had just wanted to put the traumatic events caused by Betty and Andy behind her, but she soon learns that she must reconsider some things in order to come to terms with those events. She had never wanted to see Andy again, but after learning about the abuse he is subjected to at home and also seeing how kind and gentle he is with animals, Annabelle is forced to reconsider her feelings toward him. Annabelle and Andy are both very flawed characters but their individual journeys - one towards forgiveness, the other towards redemption - show us that we don't always know people as well as we think we do. I know it sounds like there's a lot of disparate threads running through this coming of age novel, but they do all come together in the end. And although Annabelle's journey includes references to Wolf Hollow, it is not absolutely necessary to have read that first novel to understand this one. 

My Own Lightning is a wonderfully layered novel that tackles themes of abuse, family, friendship, family, and acceptance and an excellent sequel to Wolf Hollow.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Yonder by Ali Standish

In 1940, Danny Timmons was 10 and living in a small Appalachian town called Foggy Gap the first time he really noticed Jack Bailey. Jack had rescued toddler twins caught in the floodwaters after the Watauga River burst its banks during a powerful rain storm. 

Three years later, Danny is almost 13, Jack is almost 16, and World War II is raging far from Foggy Gap and yet still touching the lives of its residents. Danny's father was only one of the men who had left for the war and now residents of Foggy Gap are doing all sorts of jobs men used to do. Danny and Jack have been delivering newspapers all over town for a year and a half now. But one summer morning in 1943, Jack never shows up for his share of the papers, so Danny delivers all of them, surprised since he knew Jack and his father really needed the money he brought home. 

Danny had always been bullied by Bruce Pittman and his pal Logan Abbot until one day in 1941 Jack had come to his rescue and became Danny's personal hero. Now, worried that Jack hadn't shown up to deliver papers. Danny and his mother, who was a reporter for the newspaper, drive out to see if he's alright. Jack lives with his father in a cabin with no indoor plumbing or electricity in the woods. His father, known for his temper and cruelty, isn't at all concerned that Jack has been missing since the day before, saying he is probably hunting, and chases them off his property.

Danny has reason to be worried about Jack. Back in December 1941, Jack had shown up at the newspaper office with swollen eyes, a bloody nose and bruises on his body. Jack stayed with the Timmons until Christmas, when his father came to get him. It was now also clear that Jack's father beat him on a fairly regular basis.  

With Mr. Timmons away at war, Jack and Danny become more than friends, with Jack mentoring Danny the way a father would. Jack also shares stories with Danny that his mother used to tell him, especially about a place called Yonder, an idyllic town with no trouble and no war. Naturally, when Jack goes missing, Danny is sure he has run away to Yonder and sets out to discover where it is and to bring Jack back home. 

While Jack's story plays out, so does the stories about Lou, Danny's former best friend, as girl obsessed with Nancy Drew, and Widow Wagner, a woman of German descent who, according to Bruce Pittman, was hiding Germans who has escaped POW camps and plotting an attack on the town. 

Yonder is a home front story and as the author writes in her Historical Notes, "...not many books have focused on the American homefront." And she's right - we don't know all that much about how Americans lived even though they were greatly impacted by the war. And yes, she has included the usual things like rationing, collecting scrap, women taking on men's jobs (Mrs. Timmons, who is pregnant, took over her husband's job at the newspaper), blue or gold stars hanging in the windows of families with soldiers in the war. But two things set this novel apart for me. The first is her interrogation of the idea of what makes a person a hero. And as Danny learns through Jack and his story it isn't always what we think it means. Second, Standish dispels the long held belief that Americans didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The headline WARSAW that Danny sees in an article his mother is reading in New Republic magazine, referring to the Warsaw Uprising, sparks a conversation about why the Jewish genocide isn't included in the media, something Mrs. Timmons tries to rectify in their local paper. 

Yonder is told in the first person present by Danny with recurring flashbacks that detail both his and Jack's story and friendship. Danny is a compelling narrator and keeps the story moving along very nicely. Through him and his keen observations, the novel explores themes of bullying, racism, abuse, bravery, courage, outsiders, family and friendships. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel based on the Novel by Antonio Iturbe, adapted by Salva Rubio, illustrated by Loreto Aroca, and translated by Lilit ┼Żekulin Thwaites

Available January 3, 2023
I loved reading comics as a kid and I wasn't above reading a Classic Comic or two or maybe more instead of the book the comic was based on. In school, I was an undiagnosed dyslexic and reading was sometimes difficult. So it stands to reason that as an adult and a teacher, I'm a big fan of books done in graphic format. They are just what some readers need instead of a large and for them, for whatever reasons, unwieldy novel. And for others, they are just a fun way to read. But, the graphic needs to be well done, and in today's world, most of the time, they are. Which is why is pains me to say that I did not like The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel.

This graphic novel is the same story as the novel by the same name and written by Antonio Iturbe, so I'm not going to summarize it again. Suffice it to say it is the story of teenage Dita Adlerova, who was first sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia with her parents and other Jews, and who were all later transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, they were living in a separate area of Birkenau, called BIIb and referred to as the Theresienstadt Family Camp. These Jewish prisoners were allowed to keep their clothing and their hair wasn't shaved, though living conditions were still as deplorable as in other parts of Auschwitz. If you haven't read the novel, you can read what I originally wrote HERE. The novel is a big book but one that is totally worth spending time with, IMHO. 

Back to the graphic. First, let me begin by saying I did like the art. I found the full color cells were clearly and cleanly drawn in such a way that it was easy to follow the story. The illustrator did a great job at capturing the full range of intense emotions felt by the prisoners of Auschwitz as well as the hate and disgust exhibited by their Nazi captors. Interestingly, none of the characters, Jewish, gay, or Nazi, were portrayed as stereotypical. 

And it wasn't so much that I found the graphic novel to be bad, just lacking. I read the novel back in 2017 and so I'd forgotten some details. Reading the graphic, I found myself confused about a few of the things that went on in Auschwitz and that impacted the main character, Dita, personally. I also didn't feel the importance of the eight books that made up the library was made plain, and how Dita so lovingly cared for them, nor did I feel the reverence with which the borrowers of these books felt for them. 

Some of the characters, like Dita and Fredy Hirsch, as based on the actual people, and of course, so are some of the Nazis like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death for his experiments of the prisoners in Auschwitz. There is a great epilogue at the end of the book that does go into detail not just about what happened and the people involved.

Ultimately, though, I found this version of The Librarian of Auschwitz to be simplistic and a little stiff. I realize that taking a large novel and synthesizing it down to just 144 pages is not easy task and this was a valiant effort. It just didn't work for me. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy is a home front novel like no other home front novel I've ever read. It begins in 1940 on such a high note as Veronica Grace, aspiring journalist, is graduating from Hunter College (my alma mater) and about to begin working as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine after winning their annual competition. 

But all that comes to a crashing end when Mademoiselle's editor in chief calls on graduation night and tells Veronica will not be welcomed as their guest editor after learning about an affair she had with a married man, who happened to be married to a woman, Mrs. Applebaum, whose father is a "titan of New York City publishing." In a call to Mrs. Applebaum, Veronica is told she will never get a job in publishing in New York City, and to just get out her the city.

When Veronica tells her mother and her Uncle Wally what happened, it is decided that she and her mother, Mrs. Violet "Vi" Engle Grace, would immediately leave NYC for Santa Monica, California. There, they could live in her uncle's summer cabin rent free. 

Vi's husband had been in the Navy, but she's been widowed for the last 6 years earlier. She's an accomplished seamstress and embroiderer and has considered opening her own atelier. Her parents were both born in Germany and needless to say, both Veronica and Vi look like perfect Aryan woman. 

It doesn't take long for the Grace women to be approached by some of the other woman of German descent, who wish to have Vi do some embroidery for them - swastika's and other Nazi symbols. Meanwhile, Veronica is having trouble getting a job in journalism and is referred to a Mr. Donald McDonnell who needs someone to take dictation and type. It turns out McDonnell and his wife Harriet produce a pro-Nazi tabloid and other Nazi propaganda. Veronica, who does not support the Nazis in any way, tries to report what she learns to the FBI, who don't seem very interested in Nazis, instead focusing on communists per instructions from J. Edgar Hoover. 

Discouraged and annoyed at the FBI, Vi makes a call to one of her husband's colleagues in the Navy, Commander Ezra Zabner, to tell him what they suspect about their new acquaintances. Zabner is interested and introduces Vi and Veronica to Ari Lewis. Lewis, along with his friend Jonah Rose, are trying to learn what fifth columnists like McDonnell and his fellow Nazis are up to and they enlist Veronica and Vi to gain the confidence of these traitors,while they are in reality spying on them and reporting back to Ari and Jonah. A dangerous job for this mother and daughter? You bet, but it makes for some very exciting reading. 

When I said that this book is a home front novel like no other, what I meant is that rather being a story  about fifth columnists and quislings, MacNeal takes the reader right into the heart of one such America First group to give them a clear picture of how those groups worked, their anti-Semitic beliefs, their efforts to keep America out of the war in Europe, and how they recruited more members through the connections that Veronica and Vi make once they get to California. Persuasion propaganda is an interest I developed as a student in Hunter College (thank you, Serafina Bathrick, "Propaganda and the Mass Media") and continue to have an interest in, so this novel was right up my alley. This is, to say the least, a well researched, well written novel that I found I couldn't put down.

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy is based on a real mother-daughter team, Sylvia and Grace Comfort, as are all the other main players, giving the story the in-depth sense of authenticity because so much of the Grace's undercover work and the content of America First's beliefs are taken from reality. Added to this is such a strong, almost cinematic sense of time and place, that I felt transported back to 1940s New York and California. MacNeal's use of fashion throughout adds even more flavor to the book's historicity.  

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I first heard that MacNeal's next book was going to be a stand alone novel and not a Maggie Hope mystery, which I've been enjoying since Maggie first appeared. But Mother Daughter Traitor Spy has turned out to be a thrilling spy novel about two courageous women involved in some extraordinary work, and yes, there is some love interest, too. By the end, I found myself wondering if MacNeal would perhaps grace her fans a sequel to Veronica and Vi's story. Maybe? 

Thank you, Katie Horn at Random House Group, for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.