Monday, October 12, 2020

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

If the name Uri Shulevitz sounds familiar to you, it is probably because he has won four Caldecott Medals in his career as a children's book writer and illustrator. What most people don't know is that Uri and his parents managed to escape the Holocaust by, as Uri writes, "blind chance deciding [their] fate." (pg 65)

Living in Warsaw, Poland with his parents, Uri is only 4-years-old and a budding artist specializing in stick figures when the Nazis begin bombing his country before they invade it. No longer feeling safe, first his father leaves and makes his way to Bialystok, then part of the Soviet Union. Finding a place to live and a job, he tries to return to his family, but is caught and returned to Bialystok. Instead of going back to them, he writes for Uri and his mother to join him. Traveling by smuggler's truck and on foot, mother and son make it to the Soviet Union, leaving all their family behind in Poland.

But when the Soviets order refugees to register for Russian citizenship, the Shulevitz family is denied because of Uri's name. The official is sure he was named after a well-known Zionist. When his father loses his job for not being a citizen, the family finds themselves without an income. Luckily, Uri's father finds another job, but soon, they are again forced to move, and find themselves in a labor camp in the Archangel region of Russia, when Uri is 5-years-old.

It is there that the Jewish people are told that they are no longer considered enemies of the Soviet Union now that the Germans are attempting to invade Russia, and that they are free to travel anywhere they wished. When Uri is 7-year-old, the family travels to Soviet Turkestan. They spend three year's there, often without any food in freezing cold winters and unbearably hoy summers, until the war finally ends. 

But just because the war is over, doesn't mean things return to what they once were. Instead, when the family goes back to Poland, they are greeted with rampant anti-Semitism and the sad news that  no other family has survived the Holocaust. Once again, they are on the move, ending up in a Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria. There, in 1946, Uri's father discovers that a brother is also still alive. and living in Paris. The Shulevitz's leave the DP camp for Paris. 

Although Uri Shulevitz's first person narrative gives a linear account of how he and his parents were lucky enough to not fall into the hands of the Germans, he does so through a series of linked vignettes and his own drawings.  And he chronicles what happened to them during that time, in such a way that it feels almost intimate, like his talking directly to you, and only you. And given how much the Shulevitz family experienced, it's hard to believe this chronicle only covers 8 years of Uri's life, from 4 to 12. 

Most of what he is relating is wrapped in anti-Semitism, hate, starvation, illness, separation and loss, but there are, of course, also moments of laughter, of kindness, of sharing and helping, reminding the reader that no matter how terrible war is, there are still some good people. What clearly stands out is just how much love this family had for each other. If they hadn't, they just might not have survived. Uri says one of the things that really sustained him was his mother's stories. And all through their ordeal, both his mother and father encouraged Uri to continue drawing.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is an interesting account in that it is almost devoid of Nazis. It is not the kind of Holocaust story we are accustomed to reading. But it does gives young readers yet another look at what being a Jewish family in Nazi occupied Europe and their enemy the Soviet Union was like. We keep learning more and more about the Holocaust, thanks to survivors like Uri sharing their stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from the publisher.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Rip to the Rescue by Miriam Halahmy

It's 1940 and London is being bombed nightly by the German Luftwaffe. Wanting to do his bit for the war, and tall for his age, 13-year-old Jack Castle convinced the wardens that he is 17 (and kept the fact that he is deaf in one ear to himself) so he could become a messenger boy.  Now he rides his bike through the destroyed neighborhoods of London every night delivering important messages to fire brigades. Not only does it make him feel proud to be doing his bit, but it also gets him away from his angry, authoritarian father. Mr. Castle served in WWI and lost his lower leg. Now he has an ill fitting prosthetic, and a bad case of PTSD, and he's taking it all out on Jack. His parents don't know about his messenger activities, and Jack has convinced them that he goes over to help his grandfather to the shelter. Granddad does know what Jack is doing and lets him keep his equipment in his flat.

One night a bomb explodes so close Jack is thrown from his bike. Injured and dazed, after the All Clear, he is helped to an emergency room by a young girl his age named Paula, then to home. The next day, Paula comes by and she and Jack head out together. But they soon run into Rocky and his gang, boys from Jack's school who have always ganged up on him because of his deaf ear. One of the boys, Ned, seems to be pals with Paula's younger sister Becky, 10. 

On his way home later, there is a day raid and seeing a neighbor attending to his Granddad, Jack is heading home when he hears scratching behind a broken wall. It turns out to be a dog, hungry and cold. Knowing he can't take the dog home after freeing him, so he brings it to his grandfather's, who is delighted. Named Rip because of his one ripped ear, the dog turns out to be a great companion for Jack, who ends up leaving him with Paula and Becky during the day and taking him on his messenger rounds at night.

One day, after another day bombing, Jack and Paula hear a woman screaming about her baby buried under a pile of rubble that had been her home. Sensing someone is trapped, Rip runs up the pile and starts pawing and barking. Sure enough, he's located where the baby, still alive, is located. Soon the baby is freed and Jack wonders if Rip has the ability to locate people buried alive under rubble. 

There's a lot going on in Jack's story. Halahmy has captured the fatigue of Londoners brought on by the unrelenting nightly bombings by the Germans, spending sleepless nights in the Underground, basements, and even in crypts. Jack's nightly bike rides show readers a city torn apart, but also people who meet the enemy with courage and determination.

For all Jack has been the victim of bullies in school, he is now quite the hero. As he and his new friends Paula and Becky begin to trust each other more, they share their secrets - Jack tells them about his deafness and the bullying, Paula and Becky tell him they are Jewish but to keep it private. Becky is rather devil-may-care about things, but Paula is so afraid that the Germans will invade, she shows Jack the hideout she creating for her family. 

His new friendship with Paula and Becky cause Jack dilemma's throughout. As brave as he is as a messenger, and as embarrassed as he is when Paula witnesses his father's behavior, Jack wonders if he will ever be able to stand up to his father's constant berating? And will his father ever see him for who he is? When he catches Ned stealing food, does Jack tell or show compassion when he learns why Ned steals and keep his secret? And when a sudden raid happens close by, will Jack reveal Paula's hideout to others?

Rip to the Rescue is a fast read because it is a real page-turner. Full of action, suspense, and danger, it is sure to hold the attention of young readers. 

And you can download an Educator's Guide, courtesy of Holiday House, HERE

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


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Displacement written and illustrated by Kiku Hughes

It's 2016, and Japanese American Kiku, 16, and her mother are on vacation in San Francisco from their home in Seattle. Kiku's grandmother had lived in San Francisco before the attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Executive Order 9066, calling for the roundup and incarceration of all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. After looking for house where they lived, Kiku's mother is disappointed to see it has been replaced with a mall. When she goes in to see what's there, Kiku stays outside and that's when the first displacement, as she calls them, happens.

Suddenly, Kiku finds herself in the audience of a violin recital where a young version of her grandmother, Ernestina Teranishi, is performing. Kiku didn't know her grandmother, but she did know that she had been a gifted violinist. Returning to the present, Kiku and her mother head to the hotel, and hear Donald Trump calling for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the US. 

Before leaving San Francisco, Kiku displaces again, this time after Executive Order 9066 has been issued and she finds herself in a line of people being watched by armed guards. Again, returning to the present and heading home to Seattle, Kiku realizes how little she knows about her own Japanese culture and history, in part because her grandmother never spoke to her mother about what happened to the Japanese Americans in the camps. 

Back in Seattle, Kiku displaces once again, finding herself reduced to being Number 19106, and traveling on the same bus as the Teranishi family, heading to Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack where the Japanese Americans are forced to live in horse stalls that still smell of manure. There, Kiku lives with a roommate, Aiko Mifune, right next door to the Teranishi family.

Kiku's first two displacements were for short periods of time, but now she finds herself living in the past for an extended time. This means that Kiku can learn something about her grandmother and great grandparents, but it enables author Kiku Hughes to show what went on behind the barbed wire and armed guards. The overcrowding, the poor quality of the food, the lack of privacy in the latrines and showers are part of daily life there, but so is the tenacious spirit of the Japanese people, who are determined to turn their living conditions into something better. Kiku even finds a love interest.

By the time Kiku is transferred to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, she knows she won't be returning to the present anytime soon, and determines to make the best of her situation. Once again, she finds herself living near her grandmother and even her love interest from Tanforan. The whole time she is torn as to whether or not to introduce herself to her grandmother, or merely to continue to observe her from afar. Life in Topaz is a real eye-opener for Kiku. People who had been productive and law-abiding are now incarcerated and deprived of their civil rights. When the government issues a loyalty questionnaire,  those who refuse to answer yes on questions 27 and 28, and renounce their Japanese ancestry, face harsh punishment, including Kiku friend Aiko. But after after someone was shot and killed, people really begin to worry about their safety. Does Kiku ever return to the present? Yes, of course, and at a very interesting point in her story. But does her experience in the past change her?  

Displacement is somewhat autobiographical for author Hughes, who also never knew the grandmother who had been in the internment camps during the war. Sending Kiku back in time enables her to show the personal and community trauma that was inflicted on people who had done nothing wrong. What I found most telling is Kiku's feelings of helplessness and her gradual acceptance of her incarceration. That was scary, given today's world. 

I think Hughes really captured Kiku's emotional truth, and through her, readers also know the emotional truth of her grandmother and all the other Japanese people who had been incarcerated for no other reason than their race. Though the word interned is generally used to describe what happened, Hughes chooses to use incarceration, given that people had no freedom and lived surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, it really did resemble prison-like conditions. 

Displacement is one of the best graphic novels I have read about the Japanese American experience in WWII. You might want to pair it with George Takei's They Called Us Enemy.

You can find an interesting and enlightening interview with Kiku Hughes HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an eARC gratefully received NetGalley

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sunday Funnies # 37: Superman's Origin Story - Meet Superboy

Story Continued Below

From his first appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics #1 and all the way through World War II, Superman was a very popular figure. And yes, how Kal-El arrived in Smallville from Krypton as a baby and was adopted by Ma and Pa Kent, who renamed him Clark Kent, was explained from the beginning. But what about his childhood? Jerry Siegel thought about that and toward the end of 1938, he presented the idea to Detective Comics, but DC they turned it down - twice. Siegel had wanted Superboy to be a bit of a prankster, but the DC didn't think that would jive with the do-good image of Superman. 

Unfortunately, in March 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the artist behind the Superman character, had already sold the rights to the super hero's franchise, so they essentially no longer had a say in Superman matters.

Then, in 1944, after seeing the successful introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder into Batman stories, DC changed its mind about a Superboy story line. But by now, Jerry Siegel was in the Army and writing for Stars and Stripes while stationed in Hawaii. The Superboy origin story, which appeared in More Fun Comics #101 and published in late 1944 (issue date Jan/Feb 1945), was credited Jerry Siegel, but actually written by Don Cameron, and was supposedly drawn by Joe Schuster, though there is speculation that it was only drawn in his studio, not by Joe himself.

Superboy appeared in seven issues of More Fun Comics before he was moved to Adventure Comics #103 (issue date April, published February 1946), where he celebrates his 10th birthday, and finally, in 1949, the by now teenaged Superboy gets his own comic book. The first issue of Superboy appeared (Mar/Apr 1949, published January 1949). Superboy has had a number of incarnations over the years, but here is the original story:





Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Assignment by Liza M. Wiemer

It's senior year for Logan March and Cade Crawford, students at Riviere HS in upstate New York and they are thrilled to be in the same history class with their favorite teacher, popular Mr. Bartley. But they find themselves shocked and appalled when Mr. Bartley gives them a assignment which they find unacceptable. The assignment is to debate the Nazi's Final Solution by researching the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942 during which the fate of Europe's Jews was decided and then taking a side for or against the decision to exterminate all Jews. And rather than having students choose their own position, they are randomly assigned pro or con. 

While some of the kids in their class immediately begin to embrace their inner Nazi, Logan and Cade are open and clear about their opposition to the assignment, and they flat out refuse to do it. After speaking with Principal McNeil, they receive an email saying that he and Mr. Bartley would like to meet with them.  Before that happens, Cade and Logan head up to Fort Ontario, where the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center is located. a place known for having harbored 982 Jewish refugees from August 1944 to February 1946. There, Logan and Cade work on an alternative assignment based on this rescue to bring with them when they meet with Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley.

Although Mr. Bartley agrees to offer their assignment as an alternative for students who feel the way Logan and Cade do, the two friends are still not satisfied. After talking to her father, who tells Logan about an organization called Humanity for Peace and Justice, she and Cade must decide if and how far they are willing to take their opposition to the Wannsee Conference assignment into the public realm.

Although the novel is centered on the assignment to debate the fate of Europe's Jewish population as if the students were Nazis sitting around that table in Wannsee, there is a lot going on. Naturally, an assignment like this would bring out the best and the worst in students, as well as those who have no real opinion, and Wiemer hasn't ignored them. The novel is told from different perspectives, including Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley, and gives readers some needed insight into the thinking of these different characters, though the majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Logan and Cade.  

Neither Logan or Cade are Jewish. I didn't actually find Logan to be a very interesting character except for her passionate stand on the assignment. Her father is a professor, and not terribly available to her, nor are they struggling financially. Cade is much more interesting. His family runs the Lake Ontario Inn and his parents are very dependent on his help to keep things going and it's clear they have money problems. Cade used to be very close to his grandfather before he passed away. He and Cade's grandmother came from Poland before WWII, and before he died, he told Cade about something that happened in Poland that plays strongly into Cade's decision to oppose the assignment. 

The Assignment is based on actual events and students, which I remember reading about when it went public. And I remember that my reaction, as a teacher, as someone who wrote a dissertation on an aspect of the Third Reich, and as a human, was that this was not an assignment to give to any student. Yes, teach them about the Holocaust, including the Wannsee Conference, but don't make them take sides in a debate about genocide. And I felt the same way as I read this novel. 

At one point, Mr. Bartley shows his class the movie Conspiracy . This was an HBO film from 2001 that re-enacted the Wannsee Conference with several well-known and well-liked actors playing the parts of the Nazis. It's a tough film to watch, and I'm not sure I would show it to high school students, certainly not without a trigger warning. 

The Assignment an excellently written book and it will undoubtedly get readers thinking about what they might have done under the same circumstances. And it is definitely a book that will resonate in today's world. While I read, I kept thinking about William Faulkner's line, "The past is never dead. it's not even past." What do you think?

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an eARC received from NetGalley

Author Liza Wiemer published an Opinion piece that you might be interested in reading. You can find it HERE

The New York Times recently (September 11, 2020) published an article about the 982 refugees who lived in Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY. You can read it HERE