Friday, April 19, 2019

My Best Friend: The Evacuee by Sally Morgan, illustrated by Gareth Conway

Young readers can follow two friends as they experience the first year and a half of World War II in completely different circumstances in this epistolary chapter book and discover just what it was like for kids at that time.

Londoners Harriet Hale, 11, and Teddy (Edward) Wilson, 10, have always been best friends and comic book lovers. In fact, they have even been working on their own comic book for a while now, working on it inside the Anderson shelter in Harriet's backyard. But Teddy has a secret and Harriet doesn't find out what it is until she receives a letter on 1st August 1940 and learns that her best friend has been evacuated to America. What a blow! Not only that, but he took Harriet's newest Beano comic book with him.

Meanwhile, Harriet is left in London, and although most of the other kids there have been evacuated to the countryside, Harriet is staying home with her mum. Soon, Harriet and Teddy begin corresponding with each other and their letter exchange is how readers learn what is going on in their lives.

Remaining in London means that Harriet must contend with the fear that Hitler is getting ready to invade the England. And that means that he has already begun to heavily boob London, even Buckingham Palace takes a hit. But for Harriet, the scariest is when the Underground shelter she and her mum are in takes a direct hit, and people begin stampeding out of the shelter, scaring her enough that for a while she refuses to shelter in the Underground whenever the air raid sirens go off.

For Teddy, life in Dayton, Ohio with the Mayer family isn't very eventful, but there is plenty to eat and no fear of invasion or bombs. There is also baseball, and while it's not cricket, it's still kind of fun for him. But even though the Mayer family really likes him, Teddy can't help but feel homesick. At first he believed he would be home by Christmas, but when that didn't happen the time stretched out longer and longer, until finally in 1945, he can return home.

The aren't many chapter books written about World War II, so I'm always curious to read one when I find it. I found My Best Friend: The Evacuee to be chock full of factual information and presented in such a way that an 11 year old would experience what is happening around them. Beside that direct hit on the Underground station where Harriet was, readers will learn how Teddy was able to be evacuated to America, and why that program had to be stopped when one of the ships was torpedoed in the Atlantic by a German submarine.

Sally Morgan has really captured the intensity of Harriet's fear and Teddy's homesickness, and has packed this story with historical facts that really make it an interesting work. It is a story that was written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII this year, and it is an excellent work for introducing young readers to this dark period on two different home fronts, without graphic descriptions. I like that Morgan pays homage to the women who did so much for the war effort, include Harriet's Aunt Lucy, who loves puzzles and is clearly working at code breaking at Bletchley, and her sister who may or may not be a land girl, but is definitely working on a farm.

There is lots of back matter, including a WWII timeline, and brief bios of relevant people from history who are mentioned in this book. 

My Best Friend: The Evacuee is an excellent addition to WWII books for young readers.

This book is recommended for 7+
This book was sent to me by the author, Sally Morgan

Monday, April 15, 2019

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

This is a novel that is so atmospheric and so spell binding, that I couldn't put it down. It begins with the legend of the Daughters of Stone and the Wyrm, the treacherous sandbank that caused boats to sink. According to the legend, four daughters bargained their souls away for the safe return of their fathers, lost at sea and sunk by the Wyrm in a days-long dense fog. The Wyrm returned their fathers, but the daughters were turned to stone, and now stand in a semi circle on the edge of a cliff in front of a lighthouse overlooking the English Channel.

Petra Zimmermann Smith, 12,  has always imagines that the stones were just like her family - her lighthouse keeper Pa, her German Mutti, her older sister Magda, or Mags, and herself. It's been an almost idyllic life but now World War II has just begun. Soon, there is talk of evacuations, gas masks are being given out and the government is requiring that they paint their beautiful lighthouse green from top to bottom to try to camouflage it from enemy planes. And it doesn't take long for the people of Stonegate village who had always been their friends and neighbors to turn on Pet's family with fear and suspicion because of Mutti being German and, then, sure enough, things begin to take a strange turn.

Pet's idyllic life begins to unravel as a series of disturbing acts of sabotage begin to happen in the village. At home, Mags is acting particularly secretive, disappearing for whole days at a time. And Pet fears that something is up with Mutti, who has begun taking early morning walks alone, and Pa is acting quite secretive and distanced. Pet is fearful that the family bond, once so strong, seems to be eroding before her eyes and she doesn't know why:
"We had always been such a close family, we had always trusted each other, but secrets had started to seep in the gaps between us. And now, like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart."

Then Mutti, known for her drawing, is classified as an enemy alien, arrested and indefinitely interned "as a matter of national security..." after a package is intercepted containing hand-drawn incriminating maps, charts and records Stonegate village. But when Mutti confesses to being a traitor, even at the risk of a death sentence, Pet begins to question everything she ever believed about her beloved family.

Our Castle by the Sea is definitely not your typical WWII novel, and yet everything is there, dogfights between the RAF and Luftwaffe pilots over the channel, the possible appearance of a German submarine off the Kent coast, the mistreatment and internment of anyone who is German and Italian, the heroic rescue of British and French soldiers from Dunkirk, even some Fifth Columnist and quisling activity, and a setting that is a character in its own right. And as characters go, Pet is hardly what you would expect - afraid of the enemy planes flying over head, living in the shadow of her spirited and determined sister, a girl who prefers the isolation of the lighthouse and her drawing pad and pencils. and who relates to the story of the Daughters of Stone perhaps a little too much.

But what elevates this novel to a thriller is Pet's fascination with the legend of the Daughters of Stone, a legend she relates to a little too much, and her suspicions and the assumptions she makes about her own family. It is a novel where no one is who they appear to be but its hard to know if they are up to good nor something else and Pet, with no one she can trust to turn to, is on her own to figure it all out.

All through Our Castle by the Sea, I kept thinking there was going to be some magical realism because of the high level of suspense wrapped around the legend, but what I got was so much better. Instead of magical realism, Strange uses Pet's sensory feelings to heighten the perception of unreality and other worldliness that pervade her thinking, all the while keeping her in reality.

My only regret about Our Castle by the Sea is that I can't read it again for the first time and once more savor the mystery of it all.

You can download an excellent Teaching Guide for this book courtesy of the publisher, Chicken House.

Our Castle by the Sea will be available in the United States on April 30, 2019

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Friday, April 5, 2019

Masters of Silence by Kathy Kacer

Sometimes, silence can speak louder than words as this novel about the world-famous mime Marcel Marceau shows.

Late one night siblings Helen, 14, and ten-year-old Henry Rosenthal arrive with their mother at a convent in the south of France, having clandestinely traveled there from their home in Kronberg, not far from Frankfurt, Germany. Their father had been arrested on Kristallnacht, and they have had no news of him for over a year now. Frau Rosenthal could hid with a Catholic family, posing as a servant for safety, but not the children and so they have journeyed to France, to a convent that was taking in Jewish children.

After their mother leaves to return to Germany in the hope of one day being reunited with her husband, Helen and Henry have their names changed to more French sounding names. Their new names are Claire and Andre Rochette. They are expected to assimilate into life at the convent and to be very careful about guarding who they and the other children really are, because as Mère Supérieure tells them "There can be no mistakes here...The safety of every child in this convent - the safety of us all- depends on each one of us." (pg. 37-8)

Fortunately both children speak French fluently, and though she misses her parents terribly, Helen begins to adjust to her new life, making friends with the other girls in her dormitory and a boy named Albert. For the most part, she likes the nuns, especially Sister Cecile but has particular difficulty with Sister Agnes, whom it seems Helen can never please and is given punishments for even the merest of reasons.

Henry, on the other hand, withdraws into silence as soon as his mother leaves, refusing to speak to anyone. He spends his time writing in a small notebook he had been given by Sister Cecile, who said that "maybe if he didn't want to talk, he could use it as a diary and write down his thoughts and feelings." (pg 41-2) The first thing he writes is his real name in big letters followed by a Jewish star, clearly in an attempt not to surrender his identity.

Helen is told that sometimes a clown named Marcel Marceau comes to the convent to entertain the children and they all look forward to his visits. And like Henry, the clown doesn't speak while he is performing his show. When the clown finally does come, Henry is immediately drawn to him and the way he can make himself understood without words. Henry begins staying after the shows, learning some of Marcel's miming mannerisms. A bond forms between them and they are soon able to silently communicate with each other.

But after a disastrous visit to the nearby village, where Helen and Henry are confronted by Nazi soldiers, life becomes increasingly dangerous at the convent. When one of the nuns is arrested, it is decided that the children need to be evacuated to Switzerland and safety, a few at a time. On the night that Helen, Henry, and Albert are scheduled to leave for the Swiss border, Marcel shows up to lead the way. It turns out the the clown is also a member of the French Resistance, who has been guiding people to the border all along by pretending to be a Scoutmaster. But as the Nazi danger grows, the trips are more and more perilous. Will they be successful escaping from France?

Masters of Silence is book 2 in Kacer's Heroes Quartet, the first book of which was The Sound of Freedom. And like Book 1, this is a fictionalized story that has its basis in fact - as a teenager, Marcel Marceau was indeed a member of the French Resistance and helped save Jewish children by bringing them to the Swiss border and providing them with forged papers and identity cards.

Masters of Silence is told in the third person, with points of view alternating between Helen and Henry. While is it is not an action-packed novel in the traditional sense, it is a nail-biting, tension-filled story that demonstrates the dangers and the fears that Jews were subjected to under Nazi domination, as well as the strength of one's sense of who they are, and that Jewish identity may be suppressed for safety's but it can never be destroyed. 

Helen is certainly a sympathetic character but is it Henry who really pulled on my heartstrings. Locked in his silence, angry, afraid, and traumatized, Henry learns how to communicate his feelings without using words, with the help of Marcel, and in the end, using what he has learned, he transforms into a courageous hero.

This is another excellent novel by Kathy Kacer, one that informs readers of another important yet relatively unknown WWII hero. Be sure to read Kacer's biography of Marcel Marceau in the back matter.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley and Annick Press

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday Funnies #30: Women's History Month

I thought I would end Women's History Month 2019 with some Peanuts comic strips of Lucy paying homage to her grandmother and the work she did in WWII. As always, Charles Schultz was ahead of his time with his Peanuts comic strips.

November 8, 1976
November 9, 1976
November 11, 1976
November 12, 1976

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The American Agent (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #15) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's September, 1940, and the German Luftwaffe is blitzing bombs down on London nightly. Maisie, who you may recall was a nurse on the battlefields in France during WWI, and her best friend Priscilla Partridge have volunteered to be ambulance drivers, doing what they can night after night to help the injured. One night, a young American journalist, Catherine Saxon, rides along with Maisie and Priscilla. Catherine is writing accounts of the Blitz for Americans and is hoping to become one of "Murrow's Boys" - American reporters based in London, working for Edward R. Murrow on BBC radio.

Unfortunately, the next day, Maisie learns that Catherine Saxon has been murdered and her old friend Robert MacFarlane of Scotland Yard wants Maisie to be part of the investigation to find out who killed her and why. Oh, and he wants Maisie to work with Mark Scott, an American agent attached to the Department of Justice. And yes, if you've been keeping up with Maisie, this is the same Mark Scott with whom she worked and had a bit of a flirtation in Journey to Munich (Maisie Dobbs #12).

The investigation of Catherine Saxon's murder is complicated by a number of things. For one, her father is a wealthy isolationist American senator with whom she never got along and who has cut her off completely for not doing what he wanted her to do - be a wife in an advantageous marriage. And Mark Scott, for all his flirtiness, doesn't really seem interested in solving Catherine Saxon's murder, disappearing and showing up at odd times so that Maisie is left to wonder what he's up to. And, of course, Maisie is still in the midst of trying to adopt her orphaned evacuee Anna, which she would much rather focus on. Anna is still living with Maisie's father and step mother at Chelstone, the family farm, and having meltdowns whenever Maisie needs to return to London. And as if these things aren't bad enough, one night while driving their ambulance, Priscilla is very seriously burned while rescuing some children in a bombed house.

Maisie has a lot of personal stuff to contend with in this novel, but luckily, for all his disappearing during the Catherine Saxon investigation, Mark always reappears just when Maisie needs him to. Could it be that these two are ready to take their previous flirtation to another level? But why can't she discover anything about him? Is he somehow up to no good? What's his connection to Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, also an isolationist and Nazi appeaser? And will her job as an investigator jeopardize her chances of adopting Anna? As Maisie interviews the women in Catherine's life, including her best friend Jennifer Barrington and her husband, is she beginning to look at her own life differently?

Looking at these questions, you can see that this is an intriguing book, and a more personal and introspective one than the last few Maisie Dobbs' novels I've reviewed. In addition, Jacqueline Winspear has really captured just what London was like during the Blitz, with fires all around, lives and homes lost, the smell of fires burning everywhere, buildings sandbagged and barb wired, barrage balloons in the air and "where tension was threaded into the fabric of life" but where "people prided themselves on their ability to carry on as normal." There's even a bit of humor. Whenever the V-formation of Luftwaffe bombers fly over Chelstone, next-door neighbor Mr. Avis "could be seen shaking his fist and shouting at the sky, before aiming his rifle towards the bombers," a gesture nicely summed up by Mark Scott "You know, you've gotta love you Brits."

Winspear includes a Prologue that consists of reports by journalists about London in the days just before and after the Blitz begins on the night of September 7, 1940. This nicely sets the stage for not only Catherine Saxon's murder, but also for what Maisie and all Londoners faced on a nightly basis while carrying on as normally as possible during the day. The inclusion of Edward Murrow and other journalists reporting to Americans about the Blitz, as well as different isolationist politicians, will certainly resonate with today's readers. But in the end, you will be very surprised at 'who done it' and why. I know I was.

The American Agent is definitely my favorite Maisie Dobbs so far and I can't wait for the next adventure.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from EdelweissPlus