Friday, February 16, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley

This is the 9th Flavia de Luce mystery and the 6th book I've reviewed here. Of course, I do know it is now June 1952, Flavia has turned 12, and that aside from the odd mentions, WWII no longer plays much of a part in the stories.

As I said, it is June 1952, and six months have gone by since Haviland de Luce, father of Flavia and her sisters Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), passed away after an illness. Though the family estate, Buckshaw, was left to Flavia, her Aunt Felicity, bully and tyrant, arrives from London and decides it is to be sold and Flavia will go to London to live with her. Given six months to mourn, Flavia, Feely, and Daffy, are on a trip planned by faithful retainer Dogger, where, after punting along a river, they land in the village of Volesthorpe, near the notorious St.-Mildred's-in-the-Marsh church. It was here that Canon Whitbread allegedly poisoned three ladies in his congregation with the communion chalice, for which he was hanged. Yes, Dogger certainly does know his Flavia, poisons are her thing.

But when Flavia fishes out the Canon's son Orlando from the river by the church, new questions arise. Flavia cleverly manages to get some stomach fluid from the corpse for later analysis before the arrival of Constable Otter. As clever as he is unfriendly, Constable Otter quickly lets her know that her help is absolutely unwanted, an attitude that causes Flavia's suspicious nature to be on guard.

Away from her own well equipped chemistry lab at Buckshaw, Flavia and Dogger find they must improvise in order to carry out the investigation into Orlando's death. Luckily, Dogger, who seems to have an abundance of all kinds of knowledge, also turns out to be a genius at using whatever is at hand. I loved how Dogger made an improvised microscope (pg 85), especially clever and amusing after Otter condescendingly manplained to Flavia what a microscope is (pg 45). Still, Flavia is disappointed that Orlando wasn't poisoned, but she has become more and more aware that there are, nevertheless, sinister things under foot in Volesthorpe, and she is determined to get to the bottom of them all. And, as it turns out, there is plenty to get to the bottom of.

When I first began reading The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, I was feeling a little disappointed. It definitely has a slightly different feel to it than the previous 8 books. But as I got further into the story, I began to enjoy it as much as the other Flavia books, but it never lost the feeling of difference. I've thought about it and this is what I think:

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place is the next to the last Flavia de Luce mystery and, at 12, Flavia is entering adolescence. No longer a child, she is maturing and it shows - kudos to Bradley for portraying the subtle ways in which this happens. I realized it had actually began in book 8, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd after Flavia returned to Buckshaw from boarding school in Canada. Most notable is the way she now sees Dogger as more of an person in his own right and an equal and less as a servant, and there are changes in her relationship with her sisters, particularly Daffy, whose literary passions turn out to be pretty useful for solving murders. Don't get me wrong, Flavia is still as enthusiastic about solving murders, performing chemical experiments and learning about poisons as ever she was, but now her life is expanding.

Being away from the confines of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacy also allows Bradley to bring in more varied but no less eccentric characters. There is Orlando Whitbread's mentor Poppy Mandrill, former actress now confined to a wheelchair; Arven Palmer, the landlord of the Oak and Pheasant and his wife, Greta Palmer; three roustabouts from the traveling Shadrach's Circus and Menagerie as well as the proprietor, Mrs. "Dreadnought" Dandyman; the village's undertaker F. T. Nightingale, whose son Hob befriends Flavia; and last but not least, Dogger's old friend (?) Claire Tetlock - each with their own secrets to be uncovered.

Like most of Bradley's plots, this one will require you to suspend your disbelief, not because he has delved into fantasy, just into things improbable, exciting but improbable. But is wouldn't be a Flavia de Luce mystery if the improbable were left out, would it?- then it would just be a book about a girl who likes chemistry. If you love a little off the wall, somewhat noir mystery with unconventional characters, this is the book/series for you.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

When most of us think about Jackie Robinson, it's in the context of his breaking the color barrier by becoming the first African American man to play major league baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Jackie was a great baseball player, and I have that on authority of everyone I knew growing up in Brooklyn who remembered the day the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series. They say there literally was dancing in the streets that day. But baseball wasn't the first time Jackie challenged segregation's accepted status quo.

In The United States v. Jackie Robinson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen looks past his life as a Dodger, and focuses on his early experiences growing up in segregated Pasadena, California and, later, his life in the United States Army.

As a boy in Pasadena, Jackie's mother Mallie had taught her children to stand up for what was right, even if that was difficult to do. Mallie lived by example, refusing to be bullied out of the white neighborhood the Robinson had moved into. Jackie loved sports and was a great athlete in school, and as his parents had hoped, he was recruited to play for UCLA. And although he was a one of the country's most successful college athletes, people still saw him as a black man, including his teammates and coach. Discouraged that only white players could become professional athletes, Jackie left college and joined the army when the United States entered WWII.

And it was in the army that Jackie faced his greatest challenge. It turned out that the army was no different for Jackie than Pasadena and college had been. When he joined up, the army was still segregated, and Jackie was forced to deal with discrimination every day. When he tried to join the baseball team, he was told in no uncertain terms that he could only play on the 'colored team' which simply did not exist.

Then, in 1944, the army was ordered to end segregation on all military posts and buses. So, when Jackie sat in the middle of an army bus and refused to move to the back when the white driver demanded that he do so, it was Jackie who was arrested and who faced a court-martial. Like his mother, Jackie stood up for what was right, and after five hours of testimony by different people, he received a not-guilty verdict.

Bardhan-Quallen presents Jackie Robinson's early life clearly and concisely, making it fully accessible in this picture book for older readers. She has not only captured Jackie's learned sense of justice and fair play, but also the fact that changing laws doesn't change people's learned prejudices, as readers will see in the book. And while this may be a work of historical nonfiction, the message in it will resonate in today's world. Nevertheless, kids will certainly discover a hero in Jackie Robinson, a courageous man who lived life with quiet dignity and integrity coupled with a firm belief in standing up for what is right. 

R. Gregory Christie's straightforward acryla gouache illustrations also reflect the quiet dignity of Jackie Robinson's life, and they also carry their own powerful message to the reader. 

Bardhan-Quallen has included a timeline of both Jackie's life and events that impacted it. She also has an important Author's Note for understanding what the times were like during Jackie's life, and a Bibliography for further exploration.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson is an inspiring depiction of this lesser known episode in Jackie Robinson's life.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army by Enigma Alberti, illustrated by Scott Wegener

Not too many people know about the Ghost Army and what they did during the war, but they played an very important part in the Allied victory. In this second book in the Spy On History series, readers meet Sergeant Victor Dowd, a Brooklyn boy, was hand picked by the Army to become part of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, a/k/a the Ghost Army.

Victor, along with the rest of the hand picked members of the Ghost Army, had been chosen because of their artistic talents. After basic training, the members of the 603rd had developed and tested inflatable guns, planes, tanks, and vehicles as well as figuring out how to disguise bomber planes and coastal defense to fool the enemy. Now, along with the 3132 Signal Service Company Special, they would get to test their deceptions for real.

After the successful Normandy invasion, Vic and his platoon arrived on Omaha Beach in France, along with their inflatable "equipment" and wasted no time setting up their inflatable howitzers. But would it fool the enemy?

That was the question the Ghost Army asked themselves each time they moved forward. Their job was to fool the enemy into thinking they were a fully armored division ready for battle, when in reality there was nothing but realistic inflatables and finely tuned sound effects imitating every possible sound typical of real division.

As the Ghost Army worked its way through France, Belgium all the way to the Rhine and their longest and greatest deception, readers can use the spy craft tools to try to solve the mystery of Victor's missing sketchbook.

Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army is a novel based on real events and and real people,
including Vic. And all of the different incidents that are included in the novel also took place. For instance, Alberti includes the story of Christmas 1944, when Vic and the other Ghost Army soldiers put together boxes of goodies like candy, gum, and food from their own rations for some of the refugee children in France. One little boy never smiled, and Vic wonders what terrible things he had already been through. Vic even drew a picture of him:
To help them do that, there is a sealed Top Secret envelop included at the front of the book that contains the four spy craft tools to help readers will need to find the clues that are scattered throughout the book to help them solve the mystery of where to find Victor Dowd's missing sketchbook. The tools include a cipher wheel, a red acetate sheet, a WWII "poop sheet" containing information about specific units, as well as morse code, and a sheet of vellum featuring patches of the Ghost Army and the battalions they impersonated.
The Spy on History series is a great way for kids to add to their knowledge of history. This is a middle grade book and by then, most kids have learned about WWII, but this adds to that by providing a look an some of the more unusual aspects of that conflict. And at the same time, they get to use their problem solving skills as they try to solve the mystery.

When I was a classroom teacher, and even in homeschooling situations, Friday afternoon was always cool down time and the kids were allowed to play strategy games. This would be an ideal addition to the other games. 

Here's a question you can give the kids to think about while they read Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army:
If you were a member of the Ghost Army, which of your creative skills would you utilize to deceive the German troops?
Personally, I'm not very artistic, but I'm a good problem solver, so the only thing I would be good for are idea about how to go about deceiving the enemy.

Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army is a wonderful and fun way to learn about the important role the Ghost Army played in helping the Allies win the war.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided by the publisher, Workman Publishing

Sunday, January 28, 2018

From the Archives #30: Three Books by Munro Leaf

Most of us are familiar with Munro Leaf’s iconic anti-bullying-be-yourself book The Story of Ferdinand, especially now that it has once again been made into a movie. Ferdinand, you may recall, is a bull who refuses to fight, preferring instead to peacefully smell the flowers. Ferdinand was written in 1936, and since it takes place in Spain, critics quickly equated it with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In fact, the story of the “peaceful” bull was burned by the Nazi’s and banned in General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, bellicose countries where Ferdinand was considered to be anti-fascist and subversive for attempting to promote a pacifist agenda. 

When the Untied States entered WWII after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Leaf enlisted in the Army and while serving, he wrote two books that offer suggestions for ways in which children could participate in the war effort as the country quickly mobilized for war. After all, everyone wanted to do their bit for the war effort, including children. And, it was felt that the best way to help war-time anxieties in the young was to take advantage of their youthful energy and natural desire to help.

In his book, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, Leaf offers suggestions for kids age 7 and up on what they can do. The book's objective are clearly laid out in the book’s blurb:

"Munro Leaf knows that boys and girls from seven or eight up are interested in their country's war and have a right to be. He tells them what they want to know about constructive war-time behavior - incidentally good citizenship for peace-time, too. He gives dozens of practical suggestions - based on actual plans of Government Departments, and made joyful and inviting by his own lively drawings in red and black - for things boys and girls can properly do to help their country in this crisis. He tells them how they can become a real part of the job that every American citizen must share to bring Victory and Peace.

"In the family, in the neighborhood, in the community, this book will create new cooperation, new interest, new spirit, in giving boys and girls their part in the big job. It is their hat, too, and they are eager to put it on. The book will help parents, organizers and teachers to know how to use the vast energy and eager spirit of millions of young American citizens."

The suggestions are simple - from keeping themselves strong and healthy, maintaining a cheerful attitude, helping to create a harmonious atmosphere at home by doing chores cheerfully, to gathering scrape metal and paper, working in community gardens, learning first aid, running errands, and simply by being a good neighbor and a good citizen. 

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, along with the same kind of quirkily illustrated black and red girl and boy stick figures was quickly followed by shorter book called My Book to Help America, published “at the suggestion of the U.S. Treasury Department.” Essentially a shortened version of the Handbook, it reiterates the ways kids can get involved in the war effort. The difference is that this is a book that have another purpose:

At the very end of the book was a Savings Bond booklet that kids could use to paste their stamps in each time they bought one, and once they read $18.75 in stamps, they could trade their booklet in for a savings bond, worth $25.00 at maturity in 10 years.

Kids actually did embrace they suggestions Leaf makes in these books, though how far their actual influence went can't really be measured. Still, it goes to the power that books have to teach and inspire action in young readers. And yes, the Axis powers also used these kinds of propaganda tools to influence and inspire their young readers.

Needless to say, of the three books here, The Story of Ferdinand is fortunately still a beloved children's book.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
1936, Viking Books, 72 pages;

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Frederick A. Stokes, 64 pages

My Book to Help America written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Whitman Publishers, 32 pages

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot" by Michael O. Tunnell

When I was young, I thought that when a war ended, everything simply went back to being normal. Then my dad took me to England and Wales to meet his family and, even after all those years since WWII had ended, there were still so many places where you could see war damage. That trip changed my whole perspective on war, as I realized that recovery was just not that easy.

Nowhere is the aftermath of war more telling and poignant than in the story of the Candy Bomber and the Berlin Airlift. In Candy Bomber, Michael Tunnell gives a brief, but excellent accounting of events that led to the Berlin Airlift. After WWII had ended, Germany was divided up into four occupied zones. Berlin, which suffered heavy bombing towards the end of the war, was right in the middle of the Soviet zone, and was divided in half - the eastern half was occupied by the Soviets, the western half of Berlin was occupied by the Allied powers.

The Soviets, in an effort to drive the western powers out of their half of Berlin, cut off supply routes for desperately needed shipments of food. To keep western Berliners from starving, the RAF launched Operation Plainfare, while the Americans began Operation Vittles in 1948. One of the American pilots who flew foodstuffs to Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin was Lt. Gail Halvorsen, whose life was changed during one of his deliveries thanks to two sticks of Doublemint gum.

There were always groups of kids around the fence of the airport whenever Halvorsen landed, and one day he walked over to them. A few knew snatches of English, and told him what their life was like. Before leaving, he pulled two sticks of gum from his pocket, broke them in half and gave them to some to the kids. Realizing that the kids probably hadn't had any sweets in a long, long, time, if ever, Halvorsen decided to try dropping candy from his plane. But with so many planes landing in Tempelhof, how would the children know his plane? The answer was simple - he would wiggle his wings for them.

It wasn't long before Halvorsen became known to Berlin children as Oncle Wackelfl├╝gel (Uncle Wiggly Wings) or der Schokoladen-flieger, as kids anxiously awaited his candy drops. Pretty soon, his buddies began donating their own sweet rations, and as more parachutes were dropped, Halvorsen's simple plan just kept growing. Soon, donations of candy from around the world began arriving at the Rhein-Main Air Force Base, where he was stationed. Then, the whole operation was nicknamed Operation Little Vittles and Lt. Gail Halvorsen was catapulted into fame as a media figure.

The Berlin Airlift ran from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949, but for Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen, his fame has lasted a lifetime.

Tunnell has put together a comprehensive biography of both Gail Halvorsen and the Berlin Airlift, incorporating anecdotes of kids who had received candy, letters and drawings Halvorsen received from kids during the airlift, and lots of photographs, attesting to his fame during and after the airlift. There are also maps to half kids understand how things evolved after the war, showing the odd way Germany and Berlin were divided up.

The story of Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen was a little remembered story, but one that certainly should appeal to young readers. At a time when heroes are really needed, I couldn't help but think about what a wonderful role model Halversen is, demonstrating how one person can make such a difference in the lives of people. And adding to this touching story is the fact that 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

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