Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Great Escapes #1: Nazi Prison Camp Escape by Michael Burgan, illustrated by James Bernardin

Nine-year-old Bill Ash knew he wanted to be a pilot even before the day in 1927 when he saw Charles Lindbergh in Dallas, Texas. But the Depression hit his family hard and left little time to think about flying. Then, in 1939, war was declared in Europe and, wanting to fight Hitler, Bill went to Canada to join the Royal Air Force there. Turns out, Bill was a natural in the air.

By 1942, he was flying missions from England to Europe in a Spitfire. And he was successful, that is, until March 24, 1942, when his plane was fired on. He crash landed in France, and with the help of some kind French people and the French resistance, almost made it back to England via Spain. But almost doesn't count - Bill was discovered and arrested by the Gestapo in Paris.

Bill was questioned and tortured to give up the names of the people who helped him in France. Thinking about the young girl named Marthe who had helped him, Bill was able resist the many beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, he was sent by cattle car headed to Germany. There he was sent to a Nazi prison camp for POWs called Stalag Luft III. 

Once he reached Stalag Luft III, the urge to escape was great. But the first attempt failed and Bill found himself spending two weeks in solitary confinement a/k/a the Cooler. Undaunted, Bill and some of his fellow POWs kept trying to escape, followed by two weeks in the Cooler and nothing to eat but bread and water. 

When Stalag Luft III became crowded, Bill and others were sent to another POW camp in Poland via cattle car, which proved to be yet another failed escape attempt. In Poland, Bill and 24 other men decided to dig a tunnel from inside the latrine. They figured the smell of the latrine would keep the fastidious German soldiers away. Finally, in March 1943, thirty-three men were ready to escape. And Bill did make it to freedom, until he was caught...again. After even more escape attempts, Bill found himself back in Stalag Luft III, where he discovered he was known as the Cooler King.

Back where he began life as a POW, there were more escape attempts until finally in 1944 came the good news that the Allies had landed in France, and by 1945, they were in Belgium on their way to Germany. Bill and the other prisoners were forced to march from Stalag Luft III to Spremberg, Germany, where they were loaded on to cattle cars. By now, Bill and other POWs were ill, and taken to a military hospital outside Bremen, Germany. By the time he had recovered, the British were shelling the camp Bill was in, not realizing there were POWs there. Bill made one last escape attempt. This time he succeeded and was able to tell the approaching British tanks just were they Germans had positioned their tanks. 

Finally, after 13 attempted escapes, the war was over for Bill Ash and he was a free man.

Bill Ash in his Spitfire meeting the
Canadian Prime Minister
Great Escapes
is a debut series and it is getting off to an exciting start with Nazi Prison Camp. Presenting Bill Ash's story in this short, but action-packed historical fiction novel is a great way to get reluctant readers reading as well as giving kids interested in WWII stories something different. After all, most kids know about Nazi concentration camps, but not much about what happened to POWs, and may have even just assumed they were immediately killed. 

There are sidebars to Bill's story in the first three chapters with information about The Depression, Concentration Camps, Spitfires and Other Aircraft of World War II, The Resistance to German Rule, andThe POWS of World War II. These are all topics readers will encounter throughout the novel. Sometimes I find sidebars intrusive in historical fiction. It was nice to read them at the beginning of Bill's story so that the exciting escapes weren't interrupted with information and readers already know what they need to know. And since it is a story about POWs, it is also a good way to introduce them to the Geneva Conventions that "spelled out how countries would treat prisoners of war."

There is a Selected Bibliography and an Author's Note in the back matter. A map is included at the beginning, but I wish it were a more detailed map to give young readers a sense of place and distance. Descriptions of Bill's escape attempts are detailed and riveting. Bill Ash's story is a survival story par excellence

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

Bill Ash passed away in 2014 at the age of 96. You can read his informative obituary HERE 

Friday, July 17, 2020

War Stories by Gordon Korman

Much to his parents chagrin, twelve-year-old Trevor Firestone can't get enough about World War II - it's the subject of the video games he plays, the models he builds, the books he reads. But Trevor especially loves hearing the soldier stories his 93-year-old great-grandfather (G.G.) Jacob tells him after he  enlisted in the army at the tender age of 17. 

Trevor always considered G.G. a war hero, but now it's the 75th anniversary of D-Day and 1944 Normandy invasion. And G.G. has been invited to the ceremony at Sainte-Régine, where he is to be the guest of honor as the only surviving member of his unit that participated in the battle that liberated the town from German occupation.  

Now, Trevor is about to embark on a dream trip with his dad and G.G., retracing his grandfather's WWII journey that began when he lied about his age to enlist, then found himself at Fort Benning as part of Bravo Company, where he immediately earned the nickname High School, and ends 75 years later.

Before they even leave Connecticut, Trevor's dad is worried about some messages posted on Facebook. Messages like "Stay in America, Jacob Firestone" and "Sainte-Régine will never forgive you." But what could these messages mean? All G.G. will say is "If this is the past catching up to me, so be it. I've been carrying it around for seventy-five years." 

As the trio of Firestones arrive at each milestone in G.G.'s army career, the story switches to 1944 and what actually happened. Sometimes this kind of alternating timeline can be so annoying, but Korman has really handled it well. Everything they do in contemporary time mirrors what happened to Jacob in 1944. In War Stories, their parallel journeys give the reader a real picture of war without a lot of explanation that would take away from the story. 

Once the Firestones get to France, things start happening - incidents like slashed tires, and a dead bird under their car's windshield wipers. As they get closer to Sainte-Régine, the Facebook messages take on a ominous threatening tone. And Trevor has been noticing a blond girl about his age everywhere they stop. Coincidence? He thinks not, but who could she be and why does she seem to be following the Firestones?

I always enjoy reading Gordon Korman novels and sharing them with young readers. They are usually fun and whimsical but always with a great message sandwiched in them. And while War Stories still retains some of the signature Korman humor, it's a much more serious book. 

In the chapters that are about Jacob's time in the army, Korman makes no bones about the horrors of war and the toll it has on people's lives. It's a lesson Trevor has to learn, and he does, slowly as they follow in G.G. experiential footsteps.I think WWII is an important part of world history and the part that each country played in it. However, I'm not a fan of violence and war. True to my Quaker roots, I am a pacifist. 

Trevor is a great character, who isn't as narrow a thinker as he at first appears. Away from his game controller, he's able to look around him and see what the world is really like. And thankfully, Korman lets him come to his own conclusions about the things he learns on his dream trip. His dad a great character as well, but ironically, it's Jacob Firestone who is the real MC. He's a richly drawn if flawed character, both as both an overly zealous 17-year-old soldier and as a crusty 93-year-old nonagenarian. His wartime experiences are grim and realistically presented. But when he recognizes that the enemy is a teen just like him. it leads terrible consequences, leaving readers to wonder if G.G. really deserved the bronze star he earned and to be honored at Sainte-Régine. 

It should be mentioned here that G.G. is Trevor's dad's grandfather, who had raised him after his parents died, and explains how a 12-year-old in 2020 has a relative who fought in WWII. It may seem like a stretch, but I have a 94-year-old uncle who is grandfather to a high school student, so I had no trouble with the aging here. 

War Stories is a novel that will remind readers that while war games have no permanent consequences, real life war does, and those consequences can last a lifetime.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-Galley gratefully received from the publisher, Scholastic Press, and EdelweissPlus


Monday, July 6, 2020

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, illustrated by Harmony Becker

My brother and I used to watch Star Trek reruns religiously. We were too young to know about WWII and this country's treatment of Japanese Americans, and their relatives who were born in Japan but unable to become American citizens. Which isn't surprising since they didn't teach it in school, either. But you know what they say about history, if you don't ignore it, you are bound to repeat it. And sure enough, as this book shows, we have. But we also are learning more about people's experiences in the WWII Japanese American internment camps, in both fiction and nonfiction. And now, we have heard from George Takei, helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the old Star Trek shows, witty social media commentator, political activist, and most importantly, outspoken critic and survivor of America's internment camps. 

Realizing that most Americans do not really know much about what happened to the Japanese Americans in WWII, Takei first turned his wartime experiences into a Broadway musical called Allegiance in 2015. The play centers on a family, much like Takei's own, sent an internment camp in Wyoming and their different reactions to being imprisoned behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards. 

In addition to Allegiance, George Takei has written an excellent, detailed graphic memoir, that is more accessible and ideal for young readers to learn about this dark part of American history from someone who lived it. Structured as a Ted Talk being given by Takei, as well as an interview with NPR, it begins in the middle of the night as their father wakes George and his older brother Henry up and tells them to quickly get dressed. followed by a knock on the front door of their home by two armed guards in 1942. Executive Order 9066 had been signed by President Roosevelt and all people of Japanese descent were being rounded up to be sent to prison camps. 

Losing their successful dry cleaning business, and forced to practically give away their possessions, the Takei's are first sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack. There,  they were housed in former horse stalls until October 1942, when they were sent to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, and later to Tule Lake, California. 

Jumping back and forth between the 1940s and the present allows Takei to contextualize the personal with the public, the past with the present, giving a much broader picture than just one person's memoir, increasing it relevancy for today's readers. He does this by including specific people and events, such as his own early activism with Martin Luther King, the 1998 awarding of the Medal of Honor to veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and Fred Korematsu, his conviction for refusing to obey Executive Order 9066, and his subsequent lawsuits claiming there was racial bias attached to the Order. Fred's conviction was thrown out, but not the Order. Sadly, Takai brings readers into the present with the Supreme Court striking down the Korematsu decision under Trump v. Hawaii, allowing the United States to once more discriminate against a particular people - asylum seekers from Mexico and South American put in cages, as well as the controversial Muslim ban, disallowing Muslims to enter the United States. 

But the main part of Takei's narrative is what happened to his family. He has really captured how degrading, how humiliating and painful an experience it was for his parents, who tried their best to shield their children from the grim reality of what was happening. 

I think the most poignant part of the memoir is the government's realization that they had an abundant source of potential soldiers in the camps, but only if they proved their loyalty. Takei's father struggles with the two questions #28 and #29  regarding where one's loyalty lay - United States or Japan. Answering yes to both questions got you in the army, answering no got you a train ride to Tule Lake, a harsh internment camp for those whose loyalty was questionable. The Takei's were sent there in 1944.   

The illustrations are done in comic book style, and rendered in black, white and shade of gray giving is a kind of cold starkness that describes this part of American history so accurately. 

Pair They Called Us Enemy with Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo and Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

You can find a useful Teacher's Guide courtesy of the publisher Random House HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

In this novel told in alternating voices, one in the present, one is the past, the lives of two teenage girls have interesting parallels. 

No one was more surprised than 16-year-old New Jersey native Alice Prewitt to discover she had inherited an apartment in Paris' 9th Arrondissement from her beloved Gram, Chloe. Surprised because it is an apartment that had oddly never ever been mentioned, not to Alice, nor to Gram's daughter, Alice's mother. And it's not just any apartment, as Alice, her mom and dad discover, but what turns out to be a virtual time capsule of her Gram's family from the 1930s and 1940s. And the surprises don't stop there.

Going through some old photos in the apartment, Alice discovers that her Gram also had a sister named Adalyn Bonhomme that no one knew about. But why had Gram never mentioned a sister or the at-one-time-so-elegant apartment? Returning to the apartment a few days later to do more exploring, Alice is excited to find Adalyn's diary which she had begun on May 30, 1940. Writing about the Nazi occupation of France, Adalyn sounds ready to resist however she can.  But when Alice finds some magazine clippings with happy pictures of Adalyn dressed in high fashion and partying and a newspaper photo to her sitting in an expensive restaurant with six men wearing Nazi armbands, she finds her discoveries hard to process. Could Adalyn have been a Nazi collaborator? 

Yet, the deeper Alice digs into the lives of the Bonhomme family during the war, the clearer a picture of a dysfunctional family emerges. Adalyn and Chloe's father is a WWI veteran who suffers from PTSD, has basically withdrawn from life, and everyone must tiptoe around him so as not to upset him. Their mother is the image of privilege, buying costly rationed items on the black market, and attending society parties. The two sisters are very close, but as Adalyn's wartime resistance activities increase, she worries that Chloe's outspokenness and her distain for the Nazis will jeopardize the family. Meanwhile, she finds herself very attracted to Luc who is the leader of her resistance group, and who doesn't seem to feel the same attraction for Adalyn.

Alice's family is just as dysfunctional. The family tiptoes around Alice's mother's depression.  It's understandable that she would be depressed after just losing her mother, and then discovering the Paris apartment was left to her daughter instead of her, but it's also clear she has been depressed off and on Alice's whole life. I thought her father was kind of passive, content to wait out his wife's depressions, not wanting to upset her and waiting for her to ask for help, which she never does. As Alice says her "family's first language is small talk" so important issues are never addressed. Sadly, he doesn't seem to see what this is doing to Alice. Alice retreats to a cafe to do her family research,where she meets her love interest Paul, a student and aspiring artist. 

I really wanted to like The Paper Girl of Paris more than I did. But I felt there was just too much going on and it began to feel chaotic. I would have loved a story about Adalyn, her family and her resistance work. I really liked all of the historical elements in Adalyn's part of the story and how the diary gives a nice picture of life, which is then expanded in Adalyn's own narration. I think that these two things easily could have been presented without Alice's intervention.

So I'm sorry to say that I could have lived without Alice's story all together. She just wasn't as compelling a character as Adalyn. I thing Alice's story would make a nice novel about a contemporary girl dealing with a passive father and depressed mother. Her character turns the book into something of a mystery that needs solving, but it could have just as easily unfolded with that. I just felt that in The Paper Girl of Paris, she added nothing beyond being a plot device to get to Adalyn's more interesting story and her narration felt intrusive.   

Should you read The Paper Girl of Paris? Yes, if you like historical fiction wrapped in a mystery. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Remembering Vera Lynn (20 March 1917 - 18 June 2020)

This week, Vera Lynn passed away at 103-years-old (1917-2020) . And while most kids probably don't know who she is, especially American kids, Vera Lynn played an important role during World War II. Known as the "Forces' Sweetheart," she helped sing the allied forces to victory with her sentimental songs and very distinct voice. Although "The White Cliffs of Dover" was the song that first made her commercially popular, it is her iconic recording of "We'll Meet Again" in 1942 that she is best known for. Both songs, along with "As Time Goes By" were frequently played by my dad, who had a bunch of her records, and they are among my earliest memories, despite being born long after the war ended. 

Later, when I was writing my dissertation, I wrote a chapter on the importance of music as a morale booster. Naturally, when I made a WWII playlist to listen to for inspiration, I chose were these three favorites by Vera Lynn, to put on it, among others. 

I can't do justice to Vera Lynn's illustrious life and career, nor can I capture just what she meant to the British people (and apparently my Welsh dad) when they needed her most, but you can read her lovely obituary here in The Guardian