Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon

In this short novella, a 5½-year-old girl calls herself Captain Rosalie, thinking of herself as a soldier on a secret mission during WWI, spying on the enemy and preparing her plan of action. And she is sure that one day she will be awarded a medal for what she does.

Living in a small French village, Rosalie is really too young for school, but the teacher, a wounded war veteran, lets her sit quietly drawing in the back of his classroom every day while her father is away fighting in the war and her mother works in the factory for the war effort. Rosalie is given a notebook and pencils with which to draw. But since it contains her plan of action, she never, never leaves the notebook where it can be found.

At night, her mother reads letters from her father at the front, a father she has almost no memory of. Instead of writing about war, he writes about what they will do when the war is over, but Rosalie refuses to listen to her mother reading the letters. 

Then one night, after Rosalie is in bed, there's a knock and she hears her mother speaking to the gendarme. The next day, there's a blue envelope on the table with a letter her mother doesn't read to her, nor is she able to look at her daughter. Rosalie knows something has changed, and her mission now becomes even more imperative.

Finally, on a day in February, it's time for Rosalie to carry out her secret mission. But first she must convince the teacher to let her go home to get her notebook. She is finally allowed to go, but is accompanied by Edgar, there only student who has ever noticed Rosalie. In the kitchen, Rosalie finds a box containing the letters from her father and her secret mission becomes apparent - Rosalie hasn't been drawing at the back of the classroom, she has been learning to read with the other students. And now, she can read the letters from her father well enough to realize they are about the horrors of war, not about what they will do when he comes home. But one letter, the last on brought by the gendarme, is missing.

Now, Rosalie will have to come up with another plan to find that letter and learn the final truth that has been withheld from her. Luckily, Edgar is just the kind of friend who will help her accomplish her mission.

Captain Rosalie is a beautifully crafted novella that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. There are no unnecessary words or wasted actions and yet it packs such a strong emotional reaction. de Fombelle brilliantly holds the mystery of Rosalie's secret mission until it is time to reveal it, yet upon rereading, I noticed subtle hints. Narrated by Rosalie, author de Fombelle and translator Gordon never lose the voice of a 5½-year-old as she plans her mission and closely watches the world around her. Her realistic voice is even there when she is reading the letters from her father, not knowing all the words, but knowing enough to understand what her father is saying.

Interestingly, while her mother made up letters that she thought would make Rosalie's father more real for her daughter, and ignoring the truth of what he actually wrote, this only served to make Rosalie more distant from him and inspired her to learn to read. And, it doesn't take much to figure out that the gendarme brought news that Rosalie's father was killed in action. But that isn't what the story is about. It is about adults telling kids the truth so that they don't have to find it out for themselves.

Arsenault's spare watercolor, pencil and ink illustrations are done in cold, barren winter grays and whites, with only touches of color - red hair for Rosalie, her mother, and her ally Edgar, and the flames of a fire, and the blue of the envelopes and letters from Rosalie's father add to the feeling of life and hope in the midst of death and despair.

If Captain Rosalie sounds familiar, it is because it was originally published in an anthology called The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items From the First World War. The stand alone version of Captain Rosalie will be available on June 11, 2019.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley and Candlewick Press


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Good Son: A Story From the First World War Told inMiniature by Pierre-Jacques Ober, illustrated by Jules Ober and Felicity Coonan

The Good Son is probably the most unusual book I've reviewed on this blog. It is a World War I story about one small soldier's experience and although it's a picture book for older readers, the recommended is age 14+. And it isn't exactly illustrated in the traditional sense - each page is photographed using customized painted miniature figures, more sophisticated versions of the kind toy solders so many kids played with, and all of them are set in detailed landscapes, creating powerfully effective tableaus.

Written one hundred years after the end of WWI, the tale opens, in slightly blurred black and white photos, long after the war is over.  It was a war that was supposed to be over by the first Christmas, but instead went on for years, while people suffered and kept going into battle.
"About one hundred years ago, the whole world went to war"
The story shifts then to color photos of Pierre, a young French solder, sitting alone, locked in a barn. Pierre is facing execution for desertion, having gone AWOL for two days to spend Christmas with his widowed mother and not wanting her to be alone. Left by himself in the barn, Pierre has time to think about why he enlisted, about loyalty, about the horrors of war, and about what had been his hopes and dreams for his life after the war.

Believing the propaganda and wanting to make his mother proud, Pierre had, like so many men, signed up to fight once war was declared in 1914. As the war drags on, and more and more men are killed, Pierre realizes that war is terrible, a point that is made over and over. But, Pierre was a good soldier, even receiving a commendation for capturing six German soldiers, albeit, soldiers who are tired of war and just want to be out of it - feelings Pierre shares with them.

Readers learn a lot about Pierre as he sits in the barn awaiting his fate. His friend Gilbert, who once saved Pierre's life, brings him in food, wine, and company. But even Pierre's good behavior and  commendation don't help him when his colonel sentences him to be shot for desertion the next morning:

As the war drags on, and morale sinks among the other soldiers, the colonel had decided to make an example of Pierre.

So, no, Pierre doesn't not survive the war but his story is sure to remain with sensitive readers long after they close this book.

The Good Son is probably one of the most effective anti-war books I've ever read. Pierre's story is told in one or two short lyrical sentences on each page, with accompanying photos that move the tale along, revealing the pointlessness and the unfairness of war. Readers will find themselves asking questions about how propaganda is used to motivate people, especially young people, about patriotism, and about how does a good son, a good soldier end up in front of a firing squad? All this makes The Good Son is a very interesting and unusual philosophical look at war.

An compelling point that this book makes is that war is fought by little solders, young men like Pierre, and that these soldiers are at the mercy not only of the military, but also the politicians who decide to go to war, a point the is driven home through the metaphorical use of little toy soldiers, making Pierre's story all the more poignant. And I think that the little toy soldiers have a much more profound impact on the reader that conventional illustrations would have had.

You may have a hard time getting your teens into this picture book, but I believe that once they begin to think and explore its pages, The Good Son will really resonate with them. After all, some of them may be the future's little soldiers.

Back matter includes A Note from the Author and photographs and an explanation on The Process by which The Good Son was created. You can also find would some photographs of how each tableau was created on the author's Instagram page.

Parents and teachers can also find factual information giving context for The Good Son HERE

The Good Son will be available in the US on May 14, 2019.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Candlewick Studio

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

White Rose by Kip Wilson

The people I tend to admire most are the ordinary citizens who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and who act bravely in the face of danger. Which probably explains why I like resistance stories do much. One of those people who has always been high one my list is Sophie Scholl, the young German university student who stood up to the Nazis and paid with her life. So naturally, I was pretty excited when I read that a novel in verse about Sophie and the other members of the White Rose resistance was being published. And when I was offered an ARC of Kip Wilson's work, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was not disappointed. Wilson definitely did Sophie justice in this fictionalized biography.

Told in free verse, Wilson opens her fictionalized biography of Sophie with her arrest in 1943 and her first interrogation by the Gestapo, then immediately sends the reader back to 1935 and happier, almost carefree days with her large, loving family. At first, Sophie and older brother Hans are willing members of the Hitler youth - she in the Bund Deutsche Mädel (BDM) and he in the Hitlerjugend (HJ). But as more restrictions are imposed on Germans, and especially on German Jews, Sophie begins to see Hitler's regime for what they really are.

By the time she's at university with Hans, Sophie has done much soul-searching, worrying that her silence makes her complicit in the regime's shameful actions, and now she desires only to do the right thing - to stand up for her beliefs. Soon, a leaflet comes her way, and judging by the inky fingers on Hans's hands, she suspects he has something to do with it, and angered that he has used her idea:

"Duplicating leaflets and sharing
them with the world -
this was my idea.

My own brother excluded
me, probably thinking,
She's only a girl." (pg. 139)

Calling themselves the White Rose, Sophie is determined to be part of her brother's resistance group and work on the anti-Nazi leaflets they produce. Once she is finally let in, her job is to make sure the leaflets get into the hands of an many people as possible, including some influential people.

While the Sophie and the other members of the White Rose work against the Third Reich, readers also follow the efforts of Robert Mohr, the Gestapo investigator who is determined to find and arrest the traitors who are "the masterminds of this plot" to undermine the Nazi government. We hear from Hans, Christoph Probst, who was executed along with Sophie and Hans, Sophie's friend Fritz, even Jakob Schmid, the school custodian who turned them in, and more, making this a really in-depth, well-rounded narration. But one of the things I really liked was how Wilson shows readers that Sophie, Hans and their friends were also typical kids, getting together and listening to music and just enjoying each other's company. Their passion and their friendships are kind of things that makes them so easy to identify with.

Although, Wilson arranged White Rose in a non-linear way, going back and forth in time to present events relevant to understanding how and why the Scholl siblings did what they did, it is not at all confusing, but rather heightens the tension and at the same time, makes the actions of the White Rose all the more inspiring.

Of course, we know how things turn out for Sophie and the White Rose resistance, but Wilson has nevertheless created a nail-biting story that gives some insight based on extensive research into what the key figures might have been thinking and feeling, both the pursued and the pursuers. 

Sophie Scholl never regretted what she did, and went to her death believing that the world would take notice of what she did, learn from it, and carry on the work of defeating the Nazis:

"Because I am
courageous and
matter-of-fact
about what I hope will happen now:

That the world will see
and the world will know
and the world
will
make
them
stop." (pg. 332)

Sadly, that didn't happen in Nazi Germany but because White Rose is such a well-done work of historical fiction, it will hopefully resonate with readers in today's world.

Wilson's back matter includes a list of the Dramatis Personae, a Glossary of German words and phrases used, a list of Selected Sources for more investigation, and an Author's Note.

You can also find a Reader's Guide that uses both White Rose by Kip Wilson and We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman courtesy of Versify Books.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was sent to my by the publisher, Versify

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+