Friday, February 21, 2020

Instructions Not Included: How a Team of Women Coded the Future by Tami Lewis Brown & Debbie Loren Dunn, illustrated by Chelsea Beck

Instructions Not Included: How a Team of Women Coded the Future
by Tami Lewis Brwon & Debbie Loren Dunn,
illustrated by Chelsea Beck
Disney-Hyperion, 2019, 64 pages

Back in August, I reviewed a fun book called Cape (The Secret League of Heroes), in which three new friends discover they have superpowers and come to the rescue of the women who were working on a top-secret programmable computer called ENIAC in Philadelphia, in the hope that it could help win the war.

Now, in Instructions Not Included, meet three of the real women behind the computers that are so much a part of our daily lives. They are Betty Snyder, Jean Jennings, and Kay McNulty - three very different women from very different backgrounds with one thing in common - they loved math.

Which is how they found themselves in a secret lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where a hundred women called "computers" worked 24/7 solving math problems, after answering a January 20, 1942 ad in the newspaper. They were trying to figure out such things as which was the most effective angle to aim a gun and when was the best time to launch a bomb using pencils, paper and adding machines. Their goal - to win the war.
At the same time, upstairs even more top secret work was happening. A machine called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC for short, had just been built, and now it needed to make it work. Six women, including Betty, Jean, and Kay, found themselves in the upstairs computer room.

Their job now was to create a code that could be understood by ENIAC using mathematics so it could do the calculations that the women downstairs were working on but more quickly and correctly. Did they succeed? Yes, they did and in fact, if you read the Author's Note in the back matter, you will discover all the innovations that they went on to make in the burgeoning world of computers.

Instructions Not Included is the kind of picture book I wish I had had when I was teaching IT to young kids. What a difference it might have made in my classroom. I know it is a simplistic look at the contributions of the women who worked on ENIAC and paved the way for today's computers, but it is also a book that could be used to inspire young kids, especially girls, to think about mathematics in a different way. What counts is that all the important points about the work of Betty, Jean, Kay, and all the women who worked on this secret project are covered. And they are shown as having more interests than math - Betty played the double bass, Jean loved baseball and Kay just was good at everything she did.

The colorful, stylized illustrations have a very 1940s feel to them, and each of the women is seen dressed in the same color in each illustration, and where they are seen working on ENIAC - Betty is red, Kay is green, Jean is yellow. This not only individualizes the women, but it also helps the reader tell they apart, and, interestingly, works to show each women's movements, giving the illustrations a sense of motion.

As a picture book for older readers, Instructions Not Included is an important addition to the ever growing STEM/STEAM body of literature and is an inspiring book that should be used liberally by parents, teachers, and librarians.

You can find a very useful Educator Guide courtesy of the publisher, Disney-Hyperion, HERE

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020

On Snowden Mountain by Jeri Watts

It didn't take long once WWII began for 12-year-old Ellen Hollingsworth's father to join the army and go off to fight Hitler in Europe, leaving his daughter to care for their home and her catatonically depressed mother. Now, it's September 1942 and Ellen has run out of money, food, and the kindness of neighbors. Not knowing what else to do, she writes her dreaded, estranged Aunt Pearl about her circumstances and the next thing Ellen knows is that she and her mother  are on a train out of Baltimore heading to the tiny town of Snowden, Virginia at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to live with her aunt.

It's a whole new world for Ellen, from the lack of electricity and the outhouse at Aunt Pearl's to the small one room school held in an abandoned church. It's there that she meets Russell Armentrout, a boy of about 15 who seldom shows up at school, who still doesn't know his alphabet, and who always smells like skunk. Ellen and Russell take an instant dislike to each other after he calls her mother crazy.

But when Aunt Pearl sends Ellen to the Armentrout home with a basket of food, she witnesses Russell's home, his "beaten down" mother, who used to be Ellen's mother's best friend, and his abusive father. After this incident, Ellen and Russell begin a tension-filled friendship. But as they begin learn the truths about each others home life, a real friendship develops.

Because her father used the war as an excuse to run away, leaving his daughter and depressed wife behind, I decided to review On Snowden Mountain here. It is not a war story per se, but a home front tale that is definitely influenced by the fact of war.

The main theme of this coming-of-age story is the unfolding of Ellen's growth as a person. Ellen arrives at Snowden a judgmental city girl who believes herself to be above the people there and who is determined not to make any friends. But she is also a girl who is plagued with doubts about reaching out to her aunt for help, who fears that she may be prone to the same kind of depression as her mother, and who is angry at her father for leaving her with his responsibilities. But as she learns about her mother's past and witnesses acts of quiet, unpretentious kindness on Snowden Mountain, and in her exchange of letters with her father, Ellen learns to face her fears, and accept that there are things she just can't change.

Two things really impressed me while I read. First, though downplayed compared to Ellen's story, there are lots of details about Aunt Pearl and the things she does to help provide the community with needed food, much of which she cans herself, and clothing, while still caring for her sister.

Second, as a story about a family in crisis, taken the away from the hustle and bustle of a big city to the much slower moving country, it accentuates the kind of loving patience needed to help Ellen's mother with her severe depression, and undertaken not just by her sister Pearl, but by her old best friend, Hannah Armentrout.

On Snowden Mountain is a short novel that deals with some very serious themes, including family, mental illness, physical and mental abuse, and alcoholism and does it with empathy, and making it is a novel not to be missed.

Thinking about reading this with your class? You can find a useful Discussion Guide courtesy of the publisher, Candlewick Press, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC gratefully received from Candlewick Press

Monday, February 3, 2020

We Had To Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport by Deborah Hopkinson

With the same attention to detail and straightforward writing style readers have come to appreciate from her, Deborah Hopkinson looks at how the rescue operation of Jewish children from Nazi occupied Europe, known as the Kindertransport, was able to saved approximately 10,000 young people.

In the first half of this fascinating history, Hopkinson details Hitler's rise to power and ties its impact into the lives of a number of Jewish families. Most people don't realize just how widespread anti-Semitic feelings were in 1930s Germany, but as Hitler became more popular, as his followers increased, many Jews who had believed themselves to be as German as their non-Jewish neighbors began to experience a definite change. For example, Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps for no reason, prohibitions were enacted so that Jews in civil service lost their jobs, Jews couldn't go to the movies or visit a park, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend German schools. But on November 9, 1938, when Nazis attacked and ransacked Jewish homes, business and synagogues, destroying everything in their path and arresting around 30,000 men, many Jews realized things were not going to get better.

You may wonder why didn't Jews leave long before Kristallnacht? She points out that many Jews believed they could ride out the tempest of anti-Semitism sweeping Germany, that it would soon blow over. But when many realized they had waited too long, and emigration became almost impossible as borders in other countries began to close, a chance for some parents to save their children opened up. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a plan was put in place in Great Britain to get "unaccompanied children up to the age of seventeen" out of Nazi occupied countries without the usual red tape. (pg. 142) The children were chosen from applications that were filled out by parents, often without the child's knowledge. I cannot imagine the level of courage it must have taken for these parents to send their children into the unknown, but I can certainly understand why they were willing to take the chance to get them out of harm's way.

To help the reader fully understand what the Kindertransport was, why parents would be willing to send their children away to live with strangers, most of whom were not even Jewish, Hopkinson uses the personal stories of a number of participants, a cohort group of different ages and backgrounds. Through interviews, written memoirs, and oral histories, as well as an abundance of relevant secondary material, the individual stories unfold, engrossing and increasing the readers understanding of just what these children lived through, before leaving Germany, what it was like traveling to England, and their adjustment to life in a different country, most without knowing even a little English.

Once again, Hopkinson has taken a complicated historical event and made it completely accessible to her young readers. And as if the stories of these Kindertransport children aren't compelling enough, she has included an abundance of secondary resources of readers. There are copious photographs throughout the book, as well as sidebars inviting readers to "Stop, Listen, Remember." Back matter includes information about the people in the book, the;  Survivors, the Rescuers, and the Historians; a Timeline; a Glossary; Look, Listen, Remember: Resources to Explore; a Bibliography; Newspapers, Articles, and Websites for more investigation; and of course, Source Notes.

I've read a lot of books about the Kindertransport, fiction and nonfiction, but this is by far one of the best. As Hopkinson parallels the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism with the lives of Jewish families who ultimately chose to send their children to England, knowing they might never see each other again, she neither romanticizes nor loses her authorial objective eye so that a more complete picture of this little known but no less important historical event emerges.

The Kindertransport lasted only a short amount of time, from December 2, 1938 to May 14, 1940. The stories are harrowing, heartbreaking and although they took place 80 years ago, they couldn't be more timely for today's world, as people are yet again flirting with fascism.

I can't recommend We Had To Be Brave highly enough.

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

Monday, January 27, 2020

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Never Shall I Forget by Elie Wiesel

In the preface to his autobiographical narrative about surviving Auschwitz, Night, Elie Wiesel wrote that it is the responsibility of witnesses to history to bear witness, that "[s/he] has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory." In Night, "[t]he witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." (pg xv)

In Chapter 3 of Night, Elie describes how he and his father had survived the first selection process by which who lives and who dies is immediately decided upon arriving at Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp, and their subsequently witnessing the burning of the bodies of adults and children that same night. As the Jewish men begin to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, Elie wonders where God is in Auschwitz. Elie breaks out of the narrative form and inserts this poem:


January 27, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and sadly there are fewer and fewer people who can bear witness to these atrocities are fewer and fewer every year.

And given some recent events in the world today, where people are again flirting with fascist ideas, remembering the genocide of Jews, Roma, gays, and the disabled committed by men and women eager to blindly support their leader, Adolf Hitler, International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of the importance of not just remembering but also of actively acting against all forms of hate and bias.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Anna at War by Helen Peters

When Daniel's class begins studying WWII, he volunteers that his Granny, Anna Schlesinger, had come to England as a refugee from Germany, but that is all he knows. When he asks her about it, he also discovers that there is an M15 file on her with the Secret Service. Now, Daniel can't wait to hear her story.

And what a story it is, one that really begins on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, when the Schlesinger apartment is destroyed by Nazis and Anna's father is arrested and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Back home weeks later, a heartbreaking decision is made by her parents to send Anna, 12, to safety in England on the Kinderstransport. No sooner does her journey begin, then she has a sleeping baby boy thrust at her through the train window. Anna cares for the baby, refusing to give the little stowaway up until they arrive in England and she has assurances he will be taken care of properly.

After more traveling, Anna finds herself on an estate farm in Kent with no electricity or indoor plumbing, but with a family that warmly welcomes her into their home - Aunty Rose and Uncle Bert Dean, their young son Frank, 6, and Molly, also 12-years-old and with whom Anna will share a room.

Anna adjusts to English life on a farm, but when Hitler invades Poland, and England and France declare war with Germany, she is crushed as all hope that her parents could also escape to England is completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, a boy at school, Billy Townsend, insists that Anna is a German spy, sending secrets back to help the Nazis invade England, even going so far are to write up a list of reasons to prove it and to turn the other kids in school against her. But when Molly betrays her because of Billy, it is almost more than Anna can take and she begins to avoid Molly as much as possible.

Until an injured man who calls himself Peter Smith and who claims to be a British soldier is found in the hay loft in the barn. He tells them that his mother is very ill and he wants to visit her, even though he doesn't have leave to go, and that he had injured his ankle on his way, so he can't walk. The children are very sympathetic, offering food and water, and even agreeing to mail a letter for him. But after they leave the barn, Anna goes back to get the family cat and hears the soldier speaking German. Realizing he probably is a German spy injured when he parachuted into the area, Molly and Frank refuse to let her report him to the authorities - Frank had repeated some important top secret war-related information to Molly that he had overheard his dad telling his mum. If they report the spy, and he repeats what he may have overheard Frank say, their dad might be tried for treason - punishable by death.

What can they do to get the spy arrested and still keep Mr. Dean safe? They do come up with a plan for that, but will it work?

Some things I really liked about this book:

Anna at War is my favorite kind of WWII story. It's exciting, it has lots of local detail about what WWII was like for those living in the English countryside, and most importantly, it has lots of detail about what life was like in Nazi Germany for Jews like the Schlesinger's. Helen Peters doesn't hold back on her descriptions of the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses on Kristallnacht, the cruel anti-Semitism of people who used to be their friends, and what a few weeks in a concentration camp did to Anna's father. And the decision by the Schlesinger's to send Anna away, not knowing if they will ever see each other again, is presented in all its agonizing difficulty and its emotionally wrenching reality. Yet, it is all handled with a good deal thoughtfulness, considering the age of the target reader.

Anna is depicted as a sensitive girl, who has a strong understanding of right and wrong, and who always tries to act responsibly. She's also pretty courageous, resourceful, stubborn and even defiant when she needs to be - character traits that are made very clear right from the beginning. Her story is compelling and because it is Anna recounting her life to her grandson, it is told in the first person in a voice that is authentic, clear and very powerful.

Peters has also captured the fears of the English that they too could be invaded by Nazi Germany just as so many European countries had been. And fears that spies like Peter Smith were parachuting into England (this did happen, but not all that frequently) to make the invasion easier are also presented in Billy Townsend's insistence that Anna is a spy and his rallying schoolmates, including Molly, into believing such a far-fetched idea is testament to how contagious and persuasive hate can be - even in the schoolyard, even in the face of facts.

Anna at War is a must read for anyone interested in historical fiction set in WWII. I picked it up and couldn't put it down once I started reading. And there is a wonderful denouement that makes Anna journey just so very rewarding.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.