Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

We always like to think that this country fought heroically in WWII but the truth is that this country didn't always act very admirably, and in fact, it sometimes acted down right unconstitutionally. Which is why, on Saturday, January 12, 1946, 12-year-old Hanako Tachibana, her brother Akira, age 5, and their parents have just arrived in Japan after a long journey from Tule Lake Concentration Camp in northern California.

Having lost their home, their restaurant, their possessions, even Hanako's cat, the Tachibana family were living in internment camps since 1942, after President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066. They had ended up in Tule Lake in 1943 because Mr. Tachibana had refused to answer yes to one of two loyalty questions on a government questionnaire designed to separate loyal from disloyal Japanese American men. Ultimately, Hanako's parents decided renounced their American citizenship when pressed to do so by the government and the family was repatriated to Japan at the end of the war, a country neither Hanako nor Akira had ever been to before. 

Hanako expects Japan to look as beautiful as it had in pictures she had seen, but the reality is a Japan that is as broken and poverty-stricken as she feels. Traveling to her paternal grandparents, tenant farmers living just outside of Hiroshima and struggling to survive, Hanako witnesses soldiers and civilians, dirty, disheveled, often crippled, begging for something to eat, as well as the destruction all around her, blackened trees, buildings and homes turned to rubble, all as a result of the atom bomb that had been dropped there by the Americans.

At her grandparents home, Jiichan (grandfather) and Baachan (grandmother) welcome the family with open arms and unconditional love, despite not even having enough to eat for themselves. Hanako helps out as much as she can working in the fields, but soon finds herself in school, where she is treated like an outsider. Although she can get by speaking Japanese, her reading and writing are almost non-existence, as is her skill using an abacus. Even her long braid is cause for criticism among the other girls. 

Hanako is a sensitive, observant, questioning girl, who is growing up too quickly, but is stuck in the past and afraid of the future. One of the first things Jiichan teaches her is that the way to move forward is through kintsukuroi, which is a way of repairing broken pottery using lacquer dusted with gold, so the repaired pottery is even more beautiful than it had originally been. The trauma of having lost everything has caused Hanako to question who she is, where she belongs, and what she now believes in. She may feel like a broken piece of pottery, but Hanako figures life is more complicated than a repaired bowl.

Eventually, however, Hanako's parents decide that they would like to return to America and begin working with an American civil rights lawyer, Wayne Collins, to make that happen. Mr. Collins is putting together a class action suit to help those who were repatriated to Japan after the war to regain their citizenship and return to America. But when her parents petition is refused, the family is forced to make some hard decisions. Yet, through everything that has happened to her family, Hanako finally begins to understand her grandfather's lesson on kinsukuroi, and learns that in life gold can take many forms, and that understanding is just what she needs to be able to move forward with her life.

I won't lie, A Place to Belong is a difficult book to read. Not because of the writing, which is beautifully straightforward. Or the characters, which are drawn so well you feel like you really know them. What makes it difficult is the reality of what happens, and knowing that Hanako's life is broken because of war, because of who she is and what is done to her by her own country - the United States. In addition, descriptions of children and adults begging in the streets, of people starving and disfigured in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, of black markets taking advantage of desperate people offer a disturbing, yet realistic look at post-war Japan even as Hanako tries to piece together just who she is amid the wreckage within and around her.

A Place to Belong is historical fiction based on real events. All men of Japanese ancestry really were required to complete the so-called "loyalty questionnaire" in 1943 and they, along with their families, were sent to Tule Lake Concentration Camp if they were deemed disloyal based on their answers. Tule Lake was a harsh, cruel place where inmates were treated like prisoners and many, like Hanako's family, were deported to Japan after the war.

A Place to Belong should be read by anyone interested in WWII history, however, I think readers will definitely see parallels to much of what is happening in our world today. Be sure to read Kadahata's Afterword for more information about Wayne Collins and the work he did on behalf of wronged Japanese Americans.

You can download a reading guide for A Place to Belong from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, HERE

You might want to pair A Place to Belong with No-No Boy by John Okada. No-No Boy looks at the post-war life of a Japanese American boy who answered no to both of the loyalty questions, but did not give up his citizenship.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, with gratitude

View of barracks with Castle Rock in the background, Mar. 20, 1946, Tule Lake concentration camp, California.. (2015, July 17). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:05, August 17, 2019 from

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero by Amalia Hoffman, illustrated by Chiara Fedele

Sometimes the most unlikely people find themselves in a situation that calls for action and bravery and they rise to the occasion. This is certainly the case of Tour de France champion Gino Bartali.

Born in Florence, Italy, Gino was a small, sickly boy who found release riding a bike, even if it was a rusty second hand bike. Before long, he could outrace his friends, even those with better bikes. In sixth grade, Gino decided to learn more about cycling, and got a part-time job with Oscar Casamanti, a man who repaired racing bikes. When he was invited to ride along with some racers through the Tuscan hills, Gino persevered even as some riders dropped out. Casamanti was so impressed, he recommended Gino take part in professional races.

At 17, he began training and racing more, and by age 21, Gino had become a powerful, winning racer. In 1938, he participated in the Tour de France and despite having an accident during the race, he still managed to win. By now, Benito Mussolini had declared himself Il Duce, the leader of Italy and a ally of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini declared Jewish citizens to be enemies of the state. Kids could no longer go to public school, or play in public parks, and their parents lost their jobs. Many Jews were arrested.

Then, in 1943, Gino received a mysterious telephone call from the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. Could Gino help them? Riding his bike, Gino became a secret courier for the cardinal - making a 110-mile trip to deliver papers, photographs, and identification papers to a printer in Assisi, Italy, who then created forged identification papers that would be give to Jews in the hope that the papers would save their lives.

Gino carried on this important work until he was arrested in 1944, accused of selling guns to Mussolini's enemies. Released after 3 days, Gino went into hiding for a few months, until August 1, 1944 when the war ended in Italy and Italians were freed from Mussolini's grip.

And Gino? He went back to training for bike races, even winning the 1948 Tour de France again.

The Brave Cyclist is such an important story, and yet, one very few people knew about until now. Gino's story is a particularly important one when you realize that the punishment for helping Jews in any capacity was death, and not just for the helper, but often for their family as well. But Gino's story is also an inspiring one that proves the even one person can make a difference, that resistance can change people's fate. And the whole time Gino rode his bike great distances, often being stopped and searched by soldiers, delivering documents to be converted into forged identification papers, he had to keep his activities to himself. He could not even tell his wife so that if they were arrested, she wouldn't know anything.

In addition to an accessible written biography, Chiara Fedele's affecting illustrations are done in bright hues reflecting the happy days of cycling and racing, then switch to mostly dark hues reflecting the dark times of Mussolini's reign, complimenting and enhancing the text.

This is one of my favor illustrations. Gino has just been stopped and searched by soldiers,
now he's riding into the open field of the countryside, bringing freedom to some of Italy's Jewish citizens.
The Brave Cyclist is a picture book for older readers that is sure to generate some wonderful discussions among young readers about what they might do if they found themselves in the same circumstances as Gino.     

Author Amalia Hoffman has included an Afterword that goes into detail about Gino Bartali's life, and his heroic actions. In fact, she writes, that Gino was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel, and what greater honor can there be but to be so acknowledged. You will also find an important Select Bibliography in the back matter for further investigation.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Capstone Editions

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Funnies goes on a Blog Tour: Dear Justice League by Michael Northrop, illustrated by Gustavo Duarte

So, you all know how so many favorite Superheroes were a mainstay for American youth during WWII, right? Back then, the Justice League was formed and called the Justice Society of America (JSA), but eventually, morphed into the Justice League of America (JLA). In 2011, the JLA was reintroduced as the Justice League (JL), and that's pretty much where it stands today.*  The name may have been changed over time, but the members not so much - there's Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg.

All of this brings us to Dear Justice League. Here are America's great superheroes, seemingly perfect in every way, but haven't you ever wondered if their lives are really as perfect as they seem. Don't they have any faults, or screw up once in a while, maybe make a wrong decision, or perhaps even have some good advice for the rest of us?

Yes, they do and you can find it all between the covers of this delightfully silly, sometimes serious look at some of the Justice League's not so spectacular adventures as they answer emails from some of their fans.

One boy wants to know if Superman is super all the time, so Superman recounts a time he flew into a building because he was texting while flying (twf). This set off a series of hilarious events that he tries to handle all over Metropolis, ending in Superman getting a ticket for, what else, twf.

Does Wonder Woman have any advice for an 10-almost-11-year old? You bet she does, and it involves her 11th birthday and some cake.

Or how about Batman, always so brave, so fearless, has he ever been scared? asks a boy about to go to a new school and afraid he's going to be picked on the way he was at his old school.

Dear Justice League is divided into nine chapters, one for each Superheroes' story and a final chapter that ties it all together. There is a storyline running through each chapter that connects each story to the others involving a insectoid that escaped Hawkgirl's mighty mace. Insectoids are giant mantis-like alien bugs from the planet Molt-On and can replicate very quickly and easily so it's important for the Justice League to deal with them. But as insectoid's keep replicating exponentially, can they be stopped, even by Superheroes?

This is such a fun book to read, and I know young fans of the Justice League will love it. It has a very energetic, tongue-in-cheek text, but nothing really over the heads of young readers. And Duarte's colorful cartoon-like illustrations will no doubt appeal to kids. I liked that the Superheroes take the time to answer kid's email questions, and the way some of the stories circled back to the email writer to show how the advice they got helped them.

It seems that most kids go through a phase of being totally into Superheroes and this is geared perfectly for the age when that usually happens, a time when kids are out in the world because of school and activities and life is beginning to get more complicated and a little Superhero fantasy helps. I know my Kiddo went through a Superhero phase (and probably hasn't outgrown it yet, if truth be told).

Dear Justice League is a fun definite-must-read book for fans, and ideal for introducing kids to the Superhero realm, and might even hold appeal for reluctant readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from the publisher

Be sure to visit the other stops on the Dear Justice League Blog Tour:

*If you really want to read the complicated history of the Justice League, you can find it HERE

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

War is Over by David Almond, illustrated by David Litchfield

David Almond has always been one of my favorite authors, so when I saw that he had written a book commemorating the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, I knew I had to read it. If you are already familiar with Almond's books, you know they are always tinged with a bit of magic mixed into his spot on depictions of time and place, and characters who are just trying to make sense of the world around them. And so it is with this novella.

How, young John and his classmates want to know, can they be at war with the Germans, they're only children. It's 1918 and all John has ever known is the world at war. His father has been fighting in the trenches in France for so long, John barely remembers him. And his mam has been working 12 to 24 hours a day in the world's largest munitions factory near their home, making ships, and bombs, guns and shells. John worries about both his parents - his dad getting killed at the front, his mam in a accident at the munitions factory, and he just wants to know when the war will be over. First, he asked the king in a letter, but never heard back from him; next he wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury, who likewise didn't respond. There were not answers at school, either.

Then, on a class trip to the munitions factory, John sees a man speaking out against the war, telling them that children are not at war, and them showing pictures of German children, children who look  just like they do. The man, Gordon, is a conscientious objector, or conchie, and is beaten by three men, but not before John rescues a picture of a German boy named Jan.

John tries to write to Jan, but oddly enough, he runs into Jan in the woods near his home after having spent some time with Gordon, who gives him his white feather, considered to be a symbol of cowardice. John and Jan are just alike, and both agree that they are not at war with each other. But, just as suddenly as he appeared, Jan is gone.

Desperate for peace after his meeting Jan, John begins to dream of a time when there would be peace, when everyone could be friends again. And when peace finally does come, John determines that he will go to Germany and become friends with Jan someday.

War is Over is a powerful anti-war novella about a child confronting the horrors of war on the home front and expressing the kind of confusion about what he sees and hears that you would expect from a child. John's teacher's extreme jingoism is really evident in the militarist way he treats people, including his class, and his nationalist ideas, especially his contempt for Gordon, the conscientious objector. You can really the sense the contempt he feels for John, treating him as though he is a conchie-in-training. In fact, everyone, including John's mother, is afraid to be seen as unpatriotic. When John's letter to Jan is confiscated by the authorities, she almost turns her back on her own son.

Almond doesn't glorify or celebrate war and David Litchfield's black and white illustrations support that throughout the book. Though they are done in a cartoon-like style, they are no less poignant as they still capture all the horror of war in the trenches and on the home front in a town that supports war. I think one of the most effective illustrations shows the transition for children playing war into soldiers fighting at the front. This image is from Litchfield's website but I decided to use it instead of the black and white image in the book so you can see the transition more clearly, not just of the children, but of the falling leaves becoming dropped bombs:

War is Over is a powerful book that tackles some difficult themes that are as relevant today as they were in 1918. Jingoism, nationalism, patriotism, cowardice, bravery, the impact of war on children and families are all addressed as John observes the world around him. This is a heartbreaking, yet hopeful story, one you won't soon forget. Pair this with Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle for another view of how war impacts children.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Listen to David Almond talk about and read from War is Over:

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Someone recently asked me...

how many books I've read for this blog and did I have any particular favorites. Well, I've been thinking about that and while I haven't counted the number of books I read and reviewed, it's been a lot. And I've learned something from each one - maybe not something directly in the text, but the text roused my curiosity and lead me to Google or to the library or to one of my reference books for more information.

And for the most part, I've stuck to my original plan of only reviewing books I like. There have been some exceptions, but they are few and far between. All this led to the question: do I have any favorites? It turns out that I have a number of favorites - books that I couldn't wait to read and that still stand out in my mind. And after revisiting each book I've reviewed, I was really surprised by the results. Here, then, are my favorite works of fiction, 10 novels and one picture book:

The Staircase Cat by Colin Thompson - not a WWII story per se, this is a heartbreakingly poignant story about a family cat, Oskar, who lives a comfortable life in an apartment building until war comes and forces his owners to leave. Oskar survives the war and alone remains in the house with the ghosts of all those who once lived in the building. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe - a powerful novel blending fact with fiction, it is the story of Dita Adlerova, 14, transported to Auschwitz in 1943 with her parents, part of a group of Jewish prisoners transferred from the Theresienstadt Ghetto and receiving special treatment in Birkenau. There, she is put in charge of the library of 8 precious books that must be kept hidden from the Nazis within a building used as a secret school. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - an homage to the power of words, and narrated by Death, this is about a young girl's desire to learn to read, the communist foster family with whom she lives, and the Jewish man they hide from the Nazis in Hitler's Germany. 

Blitzcat by Robert Westall - this was the second book I read for this blog, and it has remained a favorite ever since. It is the story of a female black cat, mistakenly named Lord Gort, who goes on a journey across southern England looking for her human, a pilot in the RAF, and all the people she meets along the way whose lives are impacted by her being there just when they need her.

Vango by Timothée de Fombelle 
         #1 Vango: Between Sky and Earth - this is a epic adventure/mystery story that deftly mixes fact and fiction together. At 19, Vango, a master of disguise and escape, finds himself on the run for a crime he didn't commit. The main action takes place between April 1933 and Christmas Eve 1935, when Hitler and Stalin are both in power. But by the end, Vango (and the reader) are wondering who he is and why is he the subject of an international manhunt.  

         #2 A Prince Without a Kingdom - Vango is still on the run in this sequel, and after more epic adventures, all is revealed. It's hard to talk about this book without spoilers, but it is every bit as riveting as the first book. The time frame is here, running from 1936, through WWII and the Holocaust. In my review, I wrote I regretted Vango's story isn't a trilogy, and I still regret it, but than the author gave us another wonderful book...

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle - this clever mix of fact and fantasy, it is the story of Joshua Pearl, who is forced to leave the fairy land he came from, and mysteriously finds himself in 1936 France, and taken in by a famous marshmallow maker. As his memories of his home and the girl he loved begin to fade, Joshua begins collecting items in an attempt to find his way home. Meanwhile, the Nazis are on the march in Europe.

Felix and Zelda family of books) by Morris Gleitzman - Felix, a young Jewish boy leaves the safety of the French orphanage his parents put him in and sets off to find them. Along the way, he meets Zelda, 6, and the two travel together throughout Nazi-occupied Poland. Each book follows the events of the book that came before it, chronicling Felix's struggle to survive, to fight the Nazis and to create a new family for himself. Felix's story is heartbreaking yet poignant at the same time. The only book I didn't like is Book #4, Now, which takes place in 2009 and Felix is 80 years old.   
         #1 Once
         #2 Then
         #4 After
         #5 Soon
         #6 Maybe
The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper - The story of the FitzOsborne family begins in 1936 on the small island kingdom of Montmaray, which they live in a run-down castle. As European politics and the Nazis begin to impinge on their idyllic world, the Fitz-Osbornes are forced to leave Montmary for life in London. And while Book #2 is a nice look at high society in 1930s London, once again the reality of politics and Nazis are ever present there. Book #3 finds the FitzOsbornes fighting the Naizs at home and abroad. 
         #2 The FitzOsbornes in Exile
         #3 The FitzOsbornes at War

Flavia de Luce Mysteries by Alan Bradley - these books are a pure indulgence for me, even though they just barely have anything to do with WWII, and not all of them, at that. Flavia is an 11 year old sleuth, using chemistry to solve all the murders that seem to occur with relative frequency in Bishops' Lacey. 
         #4  I Am Half Sick of Shadows

But my all-time favorites are the two All Clear books by Connie Willis     
         #1 Blackout
         #2 All Clear
And although I don't often re-read books, I re-read these recently and they are still as good for me as ever. 

What are my favorite non-fiction books? I'll get back to you on that.