Monday, November 30, 2020

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed

I first learned about Noor Inayat Khan while reading Kathryn Atwood's brilliant YA book Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue. Noor's WWII experiences as a radio operator for Winston Churchill's SOE (Special Operations Executive) is now made more accessible for younger readers with Sufiya Ahmen's excellent fictional biography.

Noor was an unusual yet totally logical choice for the SOE. She was born in Moscow, Russia to a white American mother and an Indian Muslim father. The family moved from Moscow in 1914 to London, where Noor's three siblings were born, and finally, in 1920, they settled in Paris, France. 

Ahmed begins Noor's story in May 1927, as the family journeys to India to visit the place where her father had died in February. It's there that Noor begins to realize just what it means to be her father's daughter. It makes her a princess with a famous royal ancestor - Tipu Sultan, who was a hero of colonial resistance and had been killed in 1799, "fighting like a tiger to save his people." (pg 17)

Fast forward to June 1940. With the Nazi invasion of France, the Khan family leaves Paris and relocates in England, just as the Blitz begins in full force. Finding rooms in Oxford, Noor's brother Vilayat wants nothing more than to join the Royal Air Force (RAF), but ends up in the Navy instead. Meanwhile, Noor uses her Red Cross certificate working in a military hospital. But getting caught in a daylight air raid while on a day trip into London makes Noor realize she wants to do more for the war effort. She decides to join the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). There, she becomes Nora Baker and is sent to Yorkshire for training in November 1940, where the weather is cold and windy, and the exercises are physically challenging. It is also there she discovers she has a real ability for Morse Code. 

Noor in uniform
After her WAAF training is complete, Noor is assigned to work in Bomber Command, but when she applies for a new commission, she's sent to Wiltshire for a 7-week training course. Afterwards, she is called for an interview, but when they ask her how she feels about Indian Independence from the British Empire, she is convinced that her answer, that she "believes the Indian people should be given their freedom," (pg 64) spells the end of her career. 

Instead, thanks to her excellent communication skills and her ability to speak French like a native, Noor is asked to become part of Churchill's SOE and begins training for her eventual return to France to work undercover as the first woman radio operator with the Resistance there under the code name Madeleine. The majority of the book is devoted to Noor's war work and are some really exciting chapters. Unfortunately, Noor was betrayed and as she is getting ready to leave France, she makes a poor decision and ends up captured by the Gestapo. It is, as Ahmed writes, the beginning of the end. 

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan is written in the first person in Noor's voice. The book is organized in chapters that reflect Noor's activities in a given month. This makes it easier for readers to follow Noor's many adventures in India, England, and France.  

I was very curious to read My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan, first because I already knew about her life and work during WWII in France, and second, I was curious to see how it would be handled for young readers. And I thought that given the complexity of the subject matter, Sufiya Ahmed to a really great job of synthesizing the material for her target age group. Most kids have probably never heard of Noor, and it is especially important for young Muslim readers to know about her. 

What was particilarly good to see is that yes, Noor is a hero, but as Ahmed shows, she is not without flaws, doubts, and weaknesses, and sometimes she's even headstrong and impulsive. But Ahmed also shows how her parents were great influences on Noor, as were her ancestors. 

One thing of note, Ahmed points out, is that Noor had originally wanted to become a children's author. She loved tells tales to her siblings growing up and had even published a book of short stories called Twenty Jātaka Tales in 1939 and which I highly recommend since it is still in print. 

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan is a definite must read for young readers interested in WWII history and/or women war heroes. It should be of particular interest to young Muslim readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Attacked at Sea: A True World War II Story of a Family's Fight for Survival by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

In 1941, the Downs family - father Ray, mother Ina, Lucille, 11, and Sonny, 8 - had hoped that by spending some time in Columbia, South America and Costa Rica in Central America, where Ray worked for the United Fruit Company, they would be able to save enough money to buy a house and new car when they returned to the United States. But now that the US had entered the war, they decided it was time to return to their home in Texas and their oldest son Terry, 14, who was staying with his grandparents. Ray also hoped to join the Marines when they were back in the U.S. 

On May12, 1942, the family set sail from Costa Rica on the SS Heredia, a luxury liner turner freighter. The Downs parents were somewhat concerned about the trip. German submarines had been hunting, attacking and sinking American ships in the Atlantic Ocean and along the eastern seaboard, and now they had begun to infiltrate the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico as well. 

The ship was equipped two mounted machine guns and Navy Armed Guards who kept watch 24 hours a day for German submarines. Sonny and Lucille were curious about everything on the ship and the crew willingly answered their questions. In fact, as the only two kids on board, they were treated somewhat specially by the captain and crew. 

Meanwhile, two German subs had entered the Gulf on the lookout for ships like the Heredia. Most of the Heredia's trip was uneventful, but close to home, the Navy guards thought they spotted something in the water and the captain decided to change course for Corpus Christi, Texas to see if he could get any information. The Downs family, ready to be home, wanted to get off the ship in Corpus Christi, which was closer to their home, but were not permitted to. They were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans the next day. 

That night, while the passengers were sleeping, the Heredia was hit with a torpedo, followed by more hits. The Downs family managed to make it out of their two staterooms together, but were separated by a rush of water on the deck that sent Ray, Ina and Sonny into the Gulf. 

All four family members survived being sent overboard. Eventually, Sonny found his father, and together with the captain and another passenger managed to get one of the ship's rafts in the water. Lucille was found on the ship by one of the crew who convinced her to jump overboard. Once they were in the water and together with other crew members, he fashioned a raft out of a hatch cover for her to sit on while they held it and swam away from the sinking ship. Ina landed in a slick of warm gooey oil that coated her face, eyes and the coat she had on. Unable to see very well, Ina clung to a piece of flotsam. 

The family spent 24 hours in the water before they were rescued, during which time they suffered from hypothermia, dehydration, and sharks swimming around them. The time spent in the water, hoping to be rescued in time, makes up the bulk of the book. 

The Downs Family

Attacked at Sea is a compelling story of courage and resilience, all the more so because it is not fiction. In fact, I could not put it down. Tougias and O'Leary present the events in the kind of objective journalistic style, including details that fiction might leave out. The writing style, though less emotional that fiction, feels all the more compelling. What is really interesting is the way Tougias told the story from the points of view of each family member individually, as well as the two German captains of the submarines patrolling the Gulf for ships to add to their records. 

Tougias and O'Leary also continue the story with somewhat detailed information of the aftermath of the sinking of the Heredia and the impact it had on the lives of those they wrote about. To date, only Sonny is the only family member still living.  

Back matter includes A Note from the Authors and an extensive Bibliography. Also included are photographs of the family, the German captains, the ship, and some crew. 

Attacked at Sea should appeal to anyone interested in exciting true WWII stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The House by the Lake: The True Story of a House, Its History, and the Four Families Who Made It Home by Thomas Harding, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup

 

The House by the Lake: The True Story of a House and the Four Families Who Made it Home
written by Thomas Harding, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
Candlewick Press, 2020, 48 pages

We don't often think about the history of a house, and yet a building can actually be a silent but important witness to history. At least that's what author Thomas Harding must have thought when he wrote his first book about the house by the lake. Curious about a slice of family history, he began researching the summer house that was built by his great-grandfather, Dr. Alfred Alexander, on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. The result was the 464-page book The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany. Published in 2015, it is the story of the five unrelated families who lived in the house through 100 years of 20th century Germany history. Amazingly, this fascinating history has been adapted into a very accessible picture book for older readers that loses none of the history and poignancy of the adult book. 


In 1927, Harding's grandparents and their four children moved into the house, spending happy days there, swimming in the lake, raising chickens, growing asparagus and listening to stories at night. But when the Nazis came into power, a group of soldiers forced the Alexander family out of their summer home, leaving it empty.

A year later, a new family moved in - a father, mother and two little boys. As the little boys grow older, they joined Hitlerjunge. But when the father was order to fight in Hitler's war, the family decided to leave the house altogether and run away.

With the war still raging, a husband and wife sought refuge in the empty house. It was a cold, bitter winter, but they were able to safe and stay warm in the house. But they too fled the house as the war ended when the Soviet army arrived, shooting at the house from the tanks, chipping the fireplace and breaking the windows.


Next came "the man with the fluffy hat" who fixed the damage done to the house by war and who made the house feel alive again with his children and their activities. But then, the man heard the sound of Soviet soldiers building a wall through the backyard of the house by the lake. Life became gray as the children were made to work and the man began to spy on this neighbors. 

After many years, the wall came down, but the man in the fluffy hat had aged and found it harder to take care of the house. After he died, it was 15 years before the house was once again fixed up by another young man until it shone like new. A picture of the young man's great-grandparents was hung over the fireplace and "Once again the house by the lake was happy."

Readers are probably not used to a building being a protagonist, and feel the story should be told from the point of view of the families that lived in the house instead. But this is the house's story more than it is their story, and like its human occupants, the house's history is organic and changing. I actually like that Harding kept the focus on the house. 

House as protagonist allows for some interesting symbolism. The freedom to come and go symbolized by open door of the first family contrasted to the key to the house in the hands of the Nazi soldier getting reader to close the house up and the loss of freedom. The key motif returns toward the end of the book when the last occupant, Harding himself, returns to the house, opening the door again.You might also notice the black cat that roams freely in first pages, last seen walking out the door, and returns at the end. The changing condition of the house over time is also symbolic of war and peace.

The text has an almost fairytale quality to it, while the mixed-media illustrations show more than the words say, filling in a lot of the details. The illustrations are textured and layered, with small and large details, even while they have an almost unfocused, dream-like feel to them. Happy times are captured is bright, colorful hues, while war and occupation are done in a much darker palette. 

The House by the Lake is a fascinating look at history through the lens of a stationary object and a valuable classroom tool for studying history. 

FYI: Who are all the un-named people who occupied the house? Short biographies of the four different occupants are included in the back matter. 

You can find a very useful Teacher's Guide for this book courtesy of the publisher HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Trapped in Hitler's Web by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

It's October 1942 and Ukraine is now occupied by Nazi soldiers, having already defeated the Soviet occupiers. Maria Fediuk, 11, has just made the difficult decision, at her friend Nathan's urging, to leave her home in Viteretz and travel to the German Reich. There, she hopes to get a job so that she can send money home to help out her mother and sister Krystia, 12. But, the real reason for leaving Ukraine is that Nathan is Jewish and it would only be a matter of time before his was captured by the Nazis. Luckily, he has false identity papers to keep him safe. 

Before they leave, Maria is able to get a message to her family to let them know where she is going.  They had been assigned to work in a metalworks factory in Austria and loaded into a train cattle car with other children, most of whom were stolen by the Nazis for work. Nathan and Maria believe their work cards will protect them. But along the way, each time the train stops, some of the kids are selected and taken from the train. Which is how Nathan and Maria are separated in Salzburg, when he is selected for work there and she goes on to Innsbruck. 

There, Maria discovers that the girl who filled out her work card didn't put down a metalworks factory, but rather a farm. Taken to the Huber farm, Maria is given a cow stall to sleep along with another girl named Bianka. The farm is owned by Herr and Frau Huber, but he is off fighting and his wife runs things, along with her parents, Herr and Frag Lang. They are required to turn over all food produced to feed Nazi soldiers and are watched carefully by a cold, cruel Blockleiter named Doris Schutt. 

The work is hard, but it doesn't take long for Maria to figure out that the Hubers and Langs are not Nazis. Polish/Ukrainian workers are only allowed 600 calories a day, but as Maria and Bianka are harvesting potatoes, Frau Huber whispers to Maria that she is allowed to take two potatoes, but to not let anyone see her do it. It also becomes clear that Frau Huber is worried about her husband and son Otto, both serving on the Eastern Front, and resentful that her daughter is a staunch member of the Hitler Youth, even going so far as to call her mother Frau Huber instead of mutti.

As the war stretches on, Maria realizes how lucky she is to be at the Huber farm, but worries constantly about her mother and sister back home, and about Nathan, whom she learns, is building a bridge in Salzburg. After she learns that neutral Switzerland isn't that far from Austria (now called Ostmark), Maria is determined to get to Salzburg to find Nathan and tell him how to escape. When Otto is injured, Frau Huber takes her on the trip to Salzburg where he is in hospital. There, Maria is able to meet with Nathan for a short time and tell him about Switzerland. He wants her to go with him, but she feels she needs to say at the Huber farm in case her mother and sister come looking for her. 

Trapped in Hitler's Web is, like all of Marsha Frochuk Skrypuch's novels, based on real-life events (read the Author's Note at the end of the novel to understand how and why this is a personal story for her). It is not what I would call action packed, but it is definitely a story that will keep you reading while biting your nails. 

There aren't that many books that take place in Austria, and it is interesting to note that the area around Innsbruck, where the Huber farm is, wasn't bombed until much later in the war, giving Maria a certain sense of safety for a long time. I liked that the Hubers and Langs were not Nazi supporters (with the exception of daughter Sophie), even though Maria was conflicted about their treatment of non-Aryans. Most people assume if you were Aryan, you were a supporter of Hitler, but that isn't really the case. Most people were bullied and threatened into doing what the Reich required of them, just like the Hubers are. 

Lots of everyday details like this are included in the story and it really gives readers a good sense of what life was like under Nazi occupation. Even though Sophie Huber didn't have a big part in the story, I read a book called Ostmarkmädel for my dissertation and she could have stepped right out of that book, she was so realistically drawn. She also includes information about how the different foreign workers are treated based on where they come from. For example, Aryan workers are treated much better than Slavic workers like Maria and Bianka. And how, while everyone else is starving, luxury food items are always available to high ranking Nazis. And how the Nazis germanized the names of countries, cities and towns that they occupied.

I actually read Trapped in Hitler's Web without realizing that it is a sequel to Don't Tell the Nazis which I haven't read yet. So I can tell readers know that this is most definitely a stand alone novel. Anything you need to know from the first book is included in Maria's story. 

This novel will certainly appeal to readers interested in historical fiction about WWII and the Holocaust, and will no doubt end up fans of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and her WWII fiction, if they aren't already.

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

Monday, October 26, 2020

How I Learned Geography written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

How I Learned Geography 
written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 32 pages

In his powerful memoir Chance, Escape from the Holocaust, recalls the time when his family was living in Turkestan and his family went to the market to buy bread, but came home with an enormous, colorful map instead. I found the story particularly interesting because I had read Uri Shulevitz's picture book How I Learned Geography when it first came out in 2008. 

In September, 1939, Uri and his family are forced to flee their home in Warsaw, Poland when the Nazis invade their country, leaving almost everything they owned behind. They flee far east, eventually coming to a city "...of houses made of clay, straw, and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes..." that was very hot in summer and very cold in winter.  

One day, Uri's father goes to the market to buy some bread. Late in the evening, he comes home but without any food for the family to eat. Instead he has bought a large, colorful map of the world. Angry, Uri and his mother both go to bed hungry, listening to the couple who lived with them in their small room smacking their lips while they eat what little bread they have. 

The next day, Uri's father hand the map, which covers the entire wall, and their "...cheerless room was flooded with color." Fascinated with it, Uri spends his days studying every detail of the map, even drawing it on whatever scrape of paper he could find. 
Thanks to that map and what looked like a foolish purchase, Uri finds escape from the difficult conditions he and his parents finds themselves in. Uri uses his imagination to travel far and wide, from deserts and snowy mountain tops, to the tropics and to big cities, spending ..."enchanted hours far, far from [their] hunger and misery." 

How I learned Geography is a poignantly written story, told in Shulevitz's straightforward, but spare language. He doesn't go into describing things in depth, allowing his own watercolor and ink illustrations to fill in the details for his. And they do - wonderfully well. Pay particular attention to the variety of facial  expressions and body language Shulevitz has captured. For instance, take a look at how Uri's father's changes in the three illustrations above.   

How I Learned Geography has a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk feeling to it, where an act of folly turns out to be just the thing that is needed. Uri's family ended up impoverished and hungry because of the Nazis invading their homeland, Jack's because of the giant stealing their possessions. The difference, of course, is that Uri's story is based on his life.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL