Thursday, November 25, 2021

Faceless by Kathryn Lasky

Imagine having the kind of face that is unrecognizable to people, a face that they just don't remember or recall even if they had been talking to you only minutes before. Now imagine how useful that forgettable face would be when it came to the art of spying. Well, that is the premise of Faceless

Alice Winfield, 12, her mother Posie, father Alan, and older sister Louise, 18, are part of a unique group of people with forgettable faces, "nonfaces that were like tabulae rasas or blank slates." (pg 6) And British Rasas had been serving their country as spies since the days of Henry VIII. Now, however, Louise has decided to leaving spying and have plastic surgery that would give her a recognizable face - something that Alice just can't understand.

But it's 1944, and before she has too much time to think too much about it, Alice is parachuting into Germany with her mother on her first real spying mission and joining her father in Berlin. Her mission is to spy on Adolf Hitler. Posing as a schoolgirl named Ute, Alice wins the Reichs Praktikum for a chance to be an intern in Hitler's household, going where he goes and assessing his mental health. Her mentor for this spy mission is Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, Reichs hero and secretly part of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to kill Hitler, and now Alice is right in the thick of that conspiracy. 

In the midst of this intrigue Alice/Ute meets David, a starving Jewish boy who has been hiding out in the house his family used to lived in before they were deported. The house is now occupied by Colonel Ernst Schmelling, a high ranking Nazi. David has been eating scraps of food out of the Schmelling garbage cans to survive. Alice begins sneaking food to David and they gradually become friends. Oddly enough, David never forgets her, recognizing her face each time they meet. 

On top of all that, one day Alice is sure she has seen Louise among the crowds of people in Berlin. But what would she be doing there? Is she a double agent, or has she gone over to the other side? Whatever it is, Alice is determined to find Louise and confront her. 

With the war turning in the Allies favor, especially after the failure of Operation Valkyrie (not a spoiler, we all know what happened), and the success of the July 6, 1944 Normandy landings (D-Day), things are becoming quite dangerous as the tension mounts. 

It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I was hooked. The whole business about Rasa confused me at first, but once I realized it was a fiction, I just went with it. It was interesting to see the last days of the Third Reich through Alice's eyes, and Lasky included lots of good information about what it was like to be in Hitler's inner circle.

But there were some things that bothered me. It was a little to repetitive at times, especially in the beginning of the book. And I kept wondering how the local baker was about to bake such wonderful bread and cookies in 1944, when most people were starving (except Nazis, of course). There was also a big error on page 102, which I think was just a typo - it said that was the commandant of Auschwitz was Rudolf Hess, but it was actually Rudolf Höss. Rudolf Hess was a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1944. You can see how easy it is to confuse the two names, though. One last thing bothered me - on page 114 it says there isn't a cozy name for mother in German, but that's exactly was Mutti is. These things will definitely not spoil your reading of Faceless, but as a person with a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literature who's also a little OCD, I just couldn't let them go. However, despite these things, I really did enjoy reading this novel.

Faceless is a story that will appeal to readers who enjoy WWII fiction, historical fiction, and spy novels and I do recommend it.   

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was a digital book gratefully received from NetGalley

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Rosie the Riveter: The Legacy of an American Icon written and illustrated by Sarah Dvojack

 

Rosie the Riveter: The Legacy of an American Icon
written and illustrated by Sarah Dvojack
Imprint, 2021, 40 pages

When America went to war in 1941, men enlisted in droves to defend their country. But that left the workforce at home depleted and America needed people to step up production of war materials of all kinds. Women were perfectly willing to fill that need and in 1942, American women pulled on some overalls, wrapped their hair in a scarf, slung on a tool belt, and the figure of Rosie the Riveter was born. 

Now, Sarah Dvojack has captured that image in her biography of Rosie and all the Rosies who can before and after WWII. Because there have always been Rosies, they were just the unsung heroes in history. But WWII changed all that. 

Not allowed to fight. pretty soon, Rosies were working not only in offices, but were riveting airplanes and war ships, traditionally jobs help by men, but now in the very capable hands of women.   

It didn't take long for the image of Rosie the Riveter to become an icon in WWII popular culture. There were songs, posters, magazine covers, even a movie about Rosie. She was the hero that kept the home front going all through the war. But then the men returned and wanted their jobs back. Dvojack writes that Rosie had become such a powerful symbol that women could use in their fight to remain part of the workforce and then Rosie became a movement, with rallying cry "We can do it!" 

If you look closely, you'll notice all the women and girls are wearing something red with white polkadots.
I really liked the way Dvojack brought Rosie into the present showing young readers that as a symbol for women she is relevant in all fields and not just as a riveter - that there's some Rosie in every job a woman does and all of her achievements.

Rosie the Riveter is a wonderful picture book for older reader introducing them to the home front in WWII, and exploring the why and way she is still so relevant in today's world. I particularly liked the pencil and subtle hued digitally colored illustrations. They are so clean and clear and so inviting. 

Back matter include more information about Women, Work, and War, as well as popular culture renditions of Rosie. Check out the end papers and pages 16-17 to find other Women Heroes depicted in this book, all of whom are identified on the copyright page.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library

Monday, November 15, 2021

How War Changed Rondo by Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv

How War Changed Rondo
written and illustrated by 
Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv
translated from the Ukrainian
Enchanted Lion Books, 2021, 40 pages

Three friends,  Danko, a bright light with a shiny transparent heart, Fabian, a red balloon dog with a knot for a nose, and Zirka, a paper origami bird covered with notes and sketches of his journeys, loved living in Rondo. Rondo was a place with clear air, where residents grew and tended flowers everywhere, and lived in distinctive houses. In other words, Rondo was a pretty great place to live.

Rondo was especially famous for its flowers and there large greenhouse where there was a collection of rare plants and flowers that could sing. Concerts were often held in the greenhouse, and the town anthem, Mozart's Rondo alla Turca, was always played for residents and visitors alike. 

One ordinary day, Danko and Fabian were on their way to meet Zirka, who had just returned from a trip with new stories. But, whispers had begun...war was on its way to Rondo and leaving a path of death and destruction everywhere it went. No one in Rondo knew what war was, but soon, everything there was dark and ugly. War planted black flowers (bombs) and prickly weeds so that no light could shine through, causing Rondo's beautiful flowers to stop singing. 

The three friends resisted war, but Danko, Fabian, and Zirka were all hit by the stones (bullets) that war sent out. How could the three friends ever defeat war, especially now that they were all wounded - Danko's heart had cracks, one of Fabian's legs was pierced by a prickly weed, and the edges of Zirka's wings were burned? When Danko decides to try to provide light to the flowers in the greenhouse, he realizes that war is afraid of light and so he, Fabian, and Zirka rally the other residents of Rondo in an effort to produce a powerful enough light to finally defeat war. 

War is finally defeated, and Rondo is repaired and rebuilt. The flowers in the greenhouse begin to sing again, but the poppies that had grown all around town no longer grew in different colors. Now, they only grow in one color - red.
    
The interesting thing about How the War Changed Rondo is that war itself isn't the focus, but rather how it impacts the lives of Rondo and its residents during and after the fighting is over. Here we see the lasting effects of injuries received in the war on Rondo. Because, even though Rondo is repaired, its residents of are forever changed. Now, they know what it is like when their beloved flowers stop singing, they will  have to live with sad memories of loved lost friends and relatives, as well as with the physical wounds that were inflicted on them by war, including Danko with his cracked heart, Fabian with his injured leg, and Zirka with his singed wings.  

The thing about war and children, like the residents of Rondo, is that they don't usually know or understand what war is, where it comes from or how it starts, but they do know the fear and destruction it brings with it. And that is something that will never leave them. In the end, readers might be left scratching their heads and wondering why would anyone want to have war. I'm adult and I still wonder that. 

Mixed-media illustrations in this picture book for older readers harmonize brilliantly with the text, going from pale green and a golden yellow to darkness followed by that same pale green with building tinged in a sooty black - another physical manifestation of the lasting impact of war. Interestingly enough, there are only two illustrations where a human arm is seen, first dropping bombs, later retreating, yet none of Rondo's citizens are human. It really brings out the point that only humans start wars. 

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Sunday, November 7, 2021

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II by Michal Skibinski, illustrated by Ala Bankroft

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: 
The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II
by Michal Skibinsky, illustrated by Ala Bankroft,
translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Prestel Publishing, 2021, 128 pages

Here is an uncomplicated book that captures the summer before WWII began in the notebook of a young boy. Eight-year-old Michal was give a school assignment for the summer holidays to write one sentence in a notebook about something that happened to him each day. The purpose of the assignment was to provide a means for practicing his penmanship and being moved up to the next grade was contingent on faithfully keeping this notebook. Michal's entries begin on July 15, 1939 and end on September 12, 1939. There are not entries for every single day but there are entries for most of them. 

According to the note at the end of this book, Michal lived in Warsaw, Poland. At first, his entries sound like a wonderfully idyllic summer vacation and are about things he observed in nature, like the beautiful woodpecker he saw, and the people he spent time with - his parents, brother Rafal, their nanny, and their  grandparents. 

But gradually, Michal's entries begin to get darker, until September 1, 1939 when he notes that war has begun. On September 6, 1939, he writes that a bomb was dropped near where he was staying. Because he was limited to one sentence per day, readers can only speculate on how he must have felt that day.

What interesting to note about this book, however, is how innocent most of Michal's entries are, even as the adults in his family were fully aware of trouble coming and taking precautions to get him and his brother out of harm's way according to the note at the end of the book. On July 26, 1939, Michal writes that a plane flew over where he was staying (this is the cover image). On the surface, this seems innocent enough, but one wonders if it was a reconnaissance plane from Nazi Germany, given the coming invasion of Poland.

Each entry is a two-page spread containing the date and the entry, but set against the background of Ala Bankroft's incredible painted almost impressionist illustrations reflecting Michal's observations. The colors are bold greens, browns, and blues reflecting nature and as war arrives, become darker, almost black, losing most of their color.  

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is an unique document of its time as experienced by a child who probably didn't know what war is or that it was on his doorstep, even as he began his entries. Yet, the truth of his experience is in the simple declarative sentences with which he seems to have unwittingly witnessed the coming war through his young, innocent eyes.  

This book would be a great classroom/home school addition for anyone teaching the history of WWII.    

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel adapted by Andrew Donkin, art by Dave Kopka, colors by Brann Livesay

Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel
adapted by Andrew Donkin, art by Dave Kopka, colors by Brann Livesay
Philomel/Penguin Teen, 2021, 160 pages

I can't believe it has been 10 years since I first read Between Shades of Gray. It was one of those books that introduced me to a new aspect of WWII and it had such a profound influence on me when I read it, one that has stayed with me ever since. Although the novel is still certainly well worth reading, so is the new graphic novel about what happened to 15-year-old Lina Vilkas and her family. 

Lina is arrested by the Soviet secret police or NKVD along with her mother and younger brother, Jonas, taken from their home in Kaunas, Lithuania on the night of June 14, 1941. Loaded into a truck along with other families that had been rounded up, the Vilkas soon find themselves at a remote train station, where other truckloads of arrested Lithuanians are arriving. 

Everyone is put into crowded cattle cars that just sit there for days. During that time, Lina meets Andrius and the two sneak out together at night. Lina is hoping to find her father since they don't know what has happened to him. Just before the trains leave the station, she finds her father in another train.

The family is happy to know he is still alive even if they don't know what will happen to him. When their train finally leaves the station, they spend the next 42 days traveling to a remote area of Siberia, where they are forced to sign a paper that convicts them of crimes against the Soviet Union (their crime - simply being Lithuanian) and sentences them to 25 years of labor. 

Life in Siberia is hard, the winters are brutal and the degradations constantly inflicted by the Soviets make things even more difficult. Over time, Lina and Andrius find that they are attracted to each other, but often harsh conditions come between them. Eventually, they are separated when Lina and her family are sent to another prison camp in Siberia, where she finds life with Andrius even harsher. 


Lina manages to document everything that happens to her, her family, and everyone else using her artistic talent and drawing it all on whatever paper she could find and using whatever material she could draw with. She also manages to send letters to her father in another prison camp in the hope that they will reach him. But can her dream of her family being reunited after the war keep Lina's hopes and spirits up long enough to survive?

I'm always skeptical of novels that have been turned into graphic formats. It feels like a novel has so much depth that could easily get lost. But I am glad to say that Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel has made the transition successfully and it is all thanks to the wonderful images that really capture so much of what happened to Lina and her family. The text is spare yet spot on, and the images are so detailed and should be throughly explored for what they have to say, too. Take, for example, this image of the chaos at the train station as truckloads of arrested Lithuanians are forced into the waiting cattle cars: 
The confusion, fear, harsh treatment and Soviet threat is all there on people's faces and in their body language.

Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel is an excellent addition to the history WWII. The Soviet treatment of citizens of countries they occupied during WWII isn't as well known as the history of the cruel treatment of Jews and political enemies by the Nazis and a graphic novel just may be what some readers are most comfortable with, although I highly recommend the original novel, too. 

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