Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Kass Reich

We are pretty familiar with the story about the bear cub named Winnie who was adopted by a lieutenant in WWI and whose story became Winnie-the-Pooh. And then there's Stubby, a stray dog who became the mascot of the 26th Infantry Division, went to war and became a decorated hero, as did Rags, a Parisian mongrel adopted by radio operator James Donovan. But did you know there was also a goat who was borrowed by some Canadian soldiers from a little girl named Daisy in Saskatchewan when their train made a stop there.

Daisy wasn't really happy to lend her goat to the soldiers of the Fifth Battalion who were going off to war, but they promised to bring him back, and so she agreed, and "that's how Billy's extraordinary story began."

And what a story it is. Private Billy proved to be an able soldier, training, marching, crawling and running like any other soldier, and even getting laggers back on track, not to mention being a great comfort and morale booster. But when it came time to ship out, the colonel said it was a no go for Private Billy. His fellow soldiers had other plans, though, buying an crate of oranges (which they quickly ate) and packing Private Billy into the empty crate to sneak him on to their ship. The plan worked and luckily, Private Billy was a good sailor.

Once at the front lines, Billy also adjusted well to trench life. Nothing bothered him - not the cold, not the mud, not the noise, not the bad food, not even the rats. He continued to be a great comfort and morale booster, especially to nervous new recruits and to homesick soldiers. Of course, Billy was a goat, after all, and he was known to occasionally chow down on some important secret documents, and sentenced to jail for spying. But when morale fell, he was quickly released. Billy also saved lives on the battlefield, butting soldiers back into the trench to avoid an exploding shell.

By the end of the war, Private Billy was promoted to Sergeant Billy, and awarded the Mons Star for bravery in the face of danger. And "that's how Sergeant Billy became a decorated war hero." Happily, Billy survived the war and was returned to a somewhat older Daisy in Saskatchewan.

War is an ugly business and it's a difficult topic to introduce kids to. Luckily, there are some excellent books that can help parents and teachers broach this subject with young readers. And Sergeant Billy would be a great choice with which to do that. I say this because the first thing that struck me about Sergeant Billy is how focused it is on the goat and not on the soldiers or some of the real horrors of war. In this way, the story offers a gentle introduction to war while at the same time it makes it very clear that war is not fun despite having a goat mascot.

Messier's writing is simple, direct, and age appropriate, though none of the technical terms are explained (for example, Billy got trench foot, but what is that? my young readers asked). And Reich's uncomplicated gouache illustrations in a palette of army browns and greens work in absolute harmony with the text.

Sergeant Billy and his life on the front lines while in the Canadian army is based on a true story, and readers will find plenty of informative back matter that includes photographs of the real Billy and information about animals in war.

And for kids who really like heroic animal stories, pair Sergeant Billy with these other true stories from WWI: Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! The Pigeon Who Save the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh, Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero by Blake Hoena, Rags: Hero Dog of WWI, a true story by Margot Theis Raven, and Stubby: A True Story of Friendship by Michael Foreman

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book is an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black by Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

It's December 1944 and since September, the Nazis have once again been bombing London with their newest weapon, the V2 rocket. Harry Black, a conscientious objector, has been working on the fire brigade with fellow objectors. His moral position has caused a rift in the Black household. His father refuses to have anything to do him, claiming Harry has blackened the family name. Older brother Ellis is a soldier, back in London to recuperate from wounds suffered on the battlefield, and waiting to be sent back into combat. He also feels that Harry is a coward, but agrees to meet him at a pub called the White Horse. The two talk about a few things, including about a possible book of poems that Ellis could write and Harry could illustrate.

After talking for a while, Ellis decides to remain at the pub and Harry boards a bus home. The pub then takes a direct hit from a V2 rocket and is completely demolished. The bus was also destroyed in the hit and Harry wakes up in a hospital, seriously injured. But a nagging feeling tells him that Ellis is still alive, buried in the debris of the destroyed pub and Harry decides he must venture underneath the rubble to find and save his brother. While still in hospital, Harry meets a 14-year-old girl named Agatha, who had been a Kindertransport child in 1939 and now wants to find her parents, whom she believes are now in London.

Together, a semi-delirious Harry and a determined Agatha venture forth through the bombed and burning streets of London to find the remains of the White Horse in order to rescue Ellis and reunite Agatha with her parents. Throughout their journey, Harry stops to take the time to document everything in his notebook, which already includes copious, detailed illustrations for a planned science-fiction book called Machines of War.

Harry's journey into London's underworld to reach his brother has parallels to the myth of Orpheus and his journey to the Underworld to bring his wife back from the dead. Not surprisingly, Harry's notebook entries are explained and made clear through free verse poems by a poet named Orpheus. But who Orpheus is here is a mystery (until the end, but even then, I questioned Orpheus' identity here).

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black is not an easy book to read. It can feel confusing and muddled at times, but it is so worthwhile to stick with it to the end. This is clearly an anti-war story, catching all the particular horrors of World War II, and in fact, all wars. The Sedgwick brothers have created a hero in Harry Black, which is not surprising. Apparently, their father, a Quaker, was a conscientious objector during WWII and it is clear they consider him to be a hero for taking a stand against war that was seen as almost treasonous during WWII.

This is a carefully crafted story, part graphic novel, part verse novel, part prose novel, seemingly told from three different points of view - Harry, Orpheus, and, to a lesser degree, Ellis. Each part, each person ties into the other, adding to the story, and creating plenty of intrigue.

I found myself really caught up in Harry's first person narration, even at his most muddled, but I could have done with less of Orpheus and his songs. At times, I felt they interrupted the flow of the story too much. Also, it didn't take me long to figure out the mystery of Agatha, but maybe that was supposed to happen. After all, she pushed Harry along to act before it was too late to rescue Ellis.

Students will one day have a field day analyzing the meaning of this novel, the themes, the metaphors, the veiled references to reality contained in Harry's Machines of War work-in-progress, and the illustrations, which are so much a part of the story, don't gloss over them. The ones done in blues and whites are Harry's illustrations for his book, the black and white illustrations represent reality and belong to the story being told.   

All told, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a harrowing journey to the end but it had the kind of very satisfying, emotional ending I find appealing in books like this. And since I don't find too many really good alternative histories that take place in WWII, this was a very welcome addition to that particular genre.

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

Sunday, September 1, 2019

America at War edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn: A poem for September 1, 1939

Today is the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. I couldn't decide what to do to commemorate it so I turned to Lee Bennett Hopkins' book America at War to share some poems with my young readers. This book covers America's participation in war from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq. There are eight poems dedicated to WWII and I wish I could share all of them with you, but since my focus is on children and teens, and because children also wanted to do their bit for the war effort back then, I picked this poem by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater:

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Cape (The League of Secret Heroes) Book 1 by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante

The most frustrating part of WWII for schoolgirl Josie O'Mally is that she can't fight like her dad has been doing ever since Pearl Harbor was attacked. On top of that, all her favorite the comic book superheroes have mysteriously disappeared from Philadelphia and no one knows why. Gone are Zenobia, her sister the Palomino, Hauntima, Hopschtch, Nove the Sunchaser and just when they are needed most. Now, however, Josie, a Irish immigrant, has a chance to do something for the war effort, thanks to an ad in the newspaper calling for puzzle experts to help fight the Nazis and it just so happens that she is a whiz at solving puzzlers and ciphers. All applicants have to do is take a qualifying exam in the Carson Building downtown.

But just as the exam is ending, Josie begins to wonder why the proctor, Hank Hissler, is separating the exams by gender - girls to the left, boys to the right. Her thoughts are interrupted when a tall woman with a dog burst into the room demanding to know what Hissler is doing and if it is approved by Room Twelve. And it looks like the very same woman and dog Josie had seen earlier at the diner where she works part-time. Needless to say, the exam abruptly ended, but Josie surprised and dismayed to see he Hissler dump the test papers of the females, and just take those of the males. Josie isn't surprised to discover that her best friend Emmet Shea has also taken the test - after all, they are partners in puzzling.

As it happens, the woman, Mrs. Constance Boudica, or Mrs. B., and her dog Astra have been observing each girl, recognizing their innate courage, intelligence, strength, desire to fight injustice in the hope they can become part of the League of Secret Heroes.

In the elevator, Josie meets two of the other girls who took the exam. Akiko Nakano is a Japanese American from San Francisco. Her family is living in an internment camp, her brother is serving in the army's all Japanese 442nd regiment, and she is living with cousins in Philadelphia. Also there is Mae Crumpler, an African American from Chicago, Illinois who is living with her grandmother, a librarian, for the summer. The three of them get to talking and discover they have two things in common - they love superhero comics and solving puzzles and ciphers. But when they come into physical contact with each other, they really set of sparks - sparks that give them temporary super powers.

Now, they can not only fight neighborhood bully Tobe Hunter and his gang who took Josie's younger brother's new bikes, but they can also search for Emmett, who has gone missing, and most importantly, they can fight the Nazis who are plotting dastardly deed in Philadelphia - if only they could think up a good name for themselves. Their first order of business - rescue the six women, including Josie's cousin Kay, involved in developing a computer that will help win the war - and one that the Nazis would love to get their hands on.

Cape is a fun book to read. First of all, some of the chapters begin using comic book panels before slipping back into prose, much that way superheroes slip in and out of their secret identities. Secondly, it is part historical fiction and part fantasy, and yes, it slips in and out of those two genres, as well. Thirdly, there plenty of action, and even the ghost of one of the missing superheroes, Hauntima, who helps the girls with words of encouragement as they fight the arch rival of the women of Room Twelve. I also liked that fact that as the girls don't start of as perfect superheroes, but learn little by little what their individual powers and abilities are and how to effectively use them. The only power they have in common is flying, but working together they become greater than the sum of their powers. There isn't a dull moment in this novel, not even when they are on the ground just being their usual selves.

The language in Cape is straightforward but has a snappiness to it that has always been so characteristic of comic books. And Hannigan has really captured the everyday details of the period (I remember my mother saying how much she also hated spam and spam hash during the war). Hannigan also touched on the prejudice of the period regarding people who are African American, Japanese American, and German American. And yet, Josie, Mae, and Akiko all have loved ones fighting in the war for the Allies. Other themes in the book are loss, betrayal, and disappointment.

And there really were six women working on a programable computer called ENIAC in Philadelphia during the war (read the Author's Note for more on that and more about Hannigan's inspiration for The League of Secret Heroes series).

All in all, this is a great novel and I can't wait to read the next two - Mask and Boots.

You can download an extensive Curriculum Guide to use in the classroom for Cape HERE

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

And you just might want to enjoy this wonderful book trailer:

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

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