Sunday, May 24, 2020

Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel by Rob Currie

It's 1944 and the Gestapo would like nothing more than to capture Dutch resistance leader Hans Ingelse. So far, Ingelse has managed to avoid capture and continue his resistance activities. But, since his wife had died two months earlier, the Gestapo now  have his three children in their sights. In the middle of the night, on November 11th, a neighbor risks his life to let 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse know that the Gestapo has arrested his older sister Els for her resistance activity, and now, they are on their way to the Ingelse home in Oosterbeek for Dirk and his 6-year-old sister Anna.

Luckily, papa had already begun to teach Dirk what to do in certain situations to avoid capture. Dirk wastes no time getting Anna up and out to begin the trek to their Tante Cora's house in Doorwerth, taking what little food they had. Meanwhile, Els is being held in an interrogation center in downtown Oosterbeek, and it doesn't take long for the torture to begin. The Gestapo is sure Els will break and tell them where her papa is, but she's stronger and more determined than they realize.

Dirk and Anna safely reach Tante Cora's the next day, and feel somewhat safe there, but hungry, since all food is confiscated by the Nazis. And they must still be cautious now that they are in danger of being picked up by the Gestapo. Instead, Dirk and Anna get picked up in a Nazi razzia, a roundup of any able-bodied person to work in munition factories. There, a sergeant decides to give Anna to a friend who had recently lost his daughter, as a replacement. Hearing that, Dirk is determined to escape, but how? The factory is so well guarded. Luckily, on November 22nd, the Allies begin to bomb that part of Holland. As the guards take cover, a bomb hits, giving Dirk and Anna an opportunity to escape - right into a minefield. But, Dirk figures out the path through the field and soon they are on their way to Oma and Opa's farm in Nijmegen. But, before they get there, Anna sprains her ankle, and they need to stop at a farmhouse near Driel. There, they are met by a elderly couple, and a Nazi officer holding them at gunpoint. He claims he wants to turn himself over to the Americans in Nijmegen, but is this just another trick to catch their papa?

Meanwhile, the Gestapo still hasn't gotten Els to talk, so they decide to amp up the torture, transferring her to a Luftwaffe base in Rotterdam on November 26th, just before the Allies dropped bombs on that city.

Will the Ingelse family survive capture and be reunited with papa, if he is even still alive? Now that the Americans have liberated Nijmegen and are pushing forward, the Nazis seem to be getting more and more desperate to capture Hans Ingelse, refusing to acknowledge that the German Reich might actually be losing the war.

Hunger Winter is certainly an action-packed novel, with very appealing characters that readers can root for (well, truth be told, I found Anna very annoying).  Personally, I would have liked a little more about Els, who is my favorite character. There's also a bit of mystery surrounding what has become of the children's father, and that isn't revealed until the end, and it quite a revelation, but readers never really get to know him.

I thought Currie really captured the starvation of the Dutch people due to the lack of food during the winter of 1944-1945. Tante Cora has Dirk dig up the bulbs in the garden for soup, there is a hint about the fate of her stolen dog that might not be caught by younger readers, trading valuables with farmers for food only to have it taken by the Nazis, and of course, collaborating with the Nazis for extra rations.

It did bother me that the Nazi officer Dirk and Anna meet at the farmhouse on their way to Oma and Opa's turns out to be someone their father went to school with. That was just more coincidence than my adult sensibility could accept, but probably not for my nine-year-old self, so I don't think younger middle grade readers will have a problem with it, either.

Back matter includes a section called What Really Happened?, an interview with the author, Rob Currie, Discussion Questions for teachers, and Key World War II Dates for the Netherlands, as well as maps. I read an ARC, with included everything but the maps.

Hunger Winter is a nice work of historical fiction and not many take place in the Netherlands for this age group. If I were teaching a WWII unit, I would pair it with Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, originally published in 1962, as a nice resistance compare and contrast component.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

It's August 1945 and Zofia Lederman, 18, has been recently liberated from Gross Rosen Concentration Camp. She is recovering at a hospital, but is determined to return to her family's home to Sosnowiec, in what had been Poland before the Nazi invasion in 1939. After all the Jews there were rounded up, the Lederman were ultimately deported to Auschwitz. Only Zofia and her younger brother Abek, survived the selection process upon arrival, both ending up in Birkenau. Before they were separated, Zofia promised Abek she would find him at the end of the war.

Zofia is convinced that Abek is still alive and waiting for her at home. But home is no longer home, taken over by squatters and ransacked. And Abek isn't there, nor has he been seen in Sosnowiec since the war ended. Here, however, Zofia learns that prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau had been sent to either Bergen-Belsen or Dachau. And so early one morning, Zofia leaves Sosnowiec with some stolen money, a small suitcase and goes in search of Abek. 

Arriving in Munich, Germany in September, Zofia finds her way to Foehrenwald, an adults only displaced persons camp. Since Abek would only be 12 by now, there is no chance of finding him in there. But Zofia is give a bed in a cabin with two other girls - Breine and Esther. And she meets the reclusive, angry Josef, to whom she feels a compelling attraction, and who eventually becomes her lover.

Though at first standoffish, Zofia slowly begins to settle into life at Foehrenwald. Thanks to her family's prewar business making fashionable custom clothing for women, Zofia's is an experienced seamstress and finds a purpose in the camp altering clothing for the women there, including a wedding dress. And just as she begins to come to life again, a boy claiming to be Abek shows up at the camp looking for Zofia. 

There are several mysteries woven into Zofia's story, which begin to become apparent as she replays memories about her family, the roundup that ultimately brought them to Auschwitz, the selection process in which she and Abek were sent to the right, her dreams about the last time she saw him, her single-minded need to find him now and to finally be able to go home. This is all described in some of the most heartrending prose I've ever read:
"And when we got to Birkenau, there was another line dividing into two. In that line, the lucky people were sent to hard labor. The unlucky people - we could see the smoke. The smoke was the burning bodies of the unlucky people.
On this continent, I need to find only one person. I need to go home. I need to survive. I need to keep my brain working for only one person.
Because everyone else: Papa, Mama, Baba Rose, beautiful Aunt Maja - all of the, all of them, as the population of Sosnowiec was devastated - they went left." (pg. 14)
As Zofia begins to feel alive again in Foehrenwald, she also begins to unravel the mysteries hiding in her own memories, as well as truth hiding in the enigmatic Josef. Against this, Hesse provides the reader with a very realistic picture of what life was like in a displaced persons camp after the war ended. She has really captured the chaos of so many people looking for loved ones whom they had been separated from and now hoped had also survived life in concentration camps, like Miriam. She and her twin sister were victims of Nazi experiments, now she obsessively writes letters in the hope of finding her sister. And as Zofia discovers, anti-Semitism didn't stop just because the war ended. But Hesse also shows the kindness of people, like Sister Therese at Kloster Indersforg, a displaced persons camp for children, who gives Zofia just enough hope that Abek is alive to keep her going.

While Zofia looks for Abek, Hesse interrogates the idea of what home will be to people who have lost everything and almost everyone that they had identified as home before the war. Just before the Lederman family was rounded up, Zofia had embroidered the story of their family in alphabet form and sewn it into Abek's jacket, so he wouldn't forget. In one of her dreams, Zofia tells Abek: "When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. And we will be whole, and everything will be fine. I promise I will find you." (pg. xiv) As Zofia rewrites this alphabet in a post war world, it looks very different, but will it become her way to find a new home and rebuild her family?     

That being said, no one was more surprised than I was when I got the the end of The Went Left and the mysteries were solved. I did not expect what I read. 

They Went Left is a book everyone should read.

You can find a great discussion guide provided by the publisher, LittleBrown, HERE

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Blog Tour: Bear and Fred: A World War II Story by Iris Argaman, illustrated by Avi Ofer, translated by Annette Appel

Bear and Fred: A World War II Story by Iris Argaman,
illustrated by Avi Ofer, translated by Annette Appel
Amazon Crossing Kids, 2020, 39 pages

Children often pick a loved object that becomes their best friend, something safe and comforting that can help them through difficult and stressful times. That is certainly true for young Fred, growing up in Delft, Holland. Based on a true story, and set during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Holland, Bear and Fred tells the story of young Fred Lessing's experiences and survival during the Holocaust and is told entirely from the point of view of his beloved bear.

Fred has always loved his little yellow teddy bear, who was never given a proper name, even after a dog attacks it, ripping off one ear and causing his head to wobble.

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And bear is there the night, just after Fred's parents tell him that he would be going to Amsterdam to live with his grandfather, that the family is warned to leave their home and go into hiding immediately. Fred doesn't understand what is happening, or why he is told to never tell anyone where he is from or who he is, but at least he has his teddy bear. Fred is happy to see his grandfather, until he realizes his parents won't be staying. But after his grandfather sews a yellow star onto his clothing, Fred's mother returns, rips the star off and takes Fred away to live with a stranger and once again his mother must leave.

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The strange lady is nice, and there is even a neighbor boy to play with, but Fred misses his parents and brothers, being alone is sad and the world is a scary place. Luckily, Fred has bear to comfort him. Then, one day, the war is over and Fred is reunited with his parents and brothers, "We are a family again!" Eventually, Fred and his family move to America.

Bear and Fred begins with a Prologue and Epilogue explaining how and when Fred's bear ended up in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. In between, the story explains why Fred's bear is so important to them. As Fred put it: "...[bear] had an important mission - to go to Israel to be part of an exhibition with other toys from the Holocaust, and there he would tell our story to children who would come to visit..."*

Bear and Fred is a particularly gentle, yet compelling Holocaust picture book. Nowhere are the Nazis mentions, nor are their abuses highlighted. But Fred was only 4-years-old when Holland was invaded by them, and six when his family was warned of a pending roundup. Iris Argaman has really captured how his feelings of confusion and fear are based on the behavior of people around him and things he is told. Having Fred's bear narrate provides just the right insight needed to keep this about Fred and not the world around him.

The story was originally written in Hebrew, and the translation is seamless and accessible, yet loses none of the poignancy, and I have to say I found myself tearing up while reading. 

The digitally rendered line illustrations are in complete harmony with the text. The simple images before and after the Holocaust are done in subtle colors, while the years during WWII are done in a palette of grays with touches of yellow, an interesting artistic statement (particularly interesting to me because when I was young, I always imagined those years in black and white, as though color and sunshine couldn't exist then).

The author has included a short Historical Note at the front of Bear and Fred and back matter consists of a letter written to young readers from Fred's Bear, and an informative Author's Note about how this story came to be written.

Bear and Fred is a richly expressive picture book for older readers, touching on themes of friendship, loneliness, family, and love.

* This quote came from an article published by Yad Vashem entitled BEAR, about Fred and his best friend. You can read it HERE.

You can read more about Iris Argaman's journey to write and publish Bear and Fred HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from Blue Slip Media

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sunday Funnies #36: Snoopy vs. the Red Baron


One thing about sheltering in place because of the coronavirus is that it gives me time to go through things and get a little more organized. This week I spent time organizing and cleaning out my digital files for The Children's War and found a bunch of things I'd saved for future posts and forgotten about. One of the subfiles I went though was called "Snoopies." When I originally began this blog, Snoopy was my avatar and muse, and I posted a few strips that Charles Schulz wrote to commemorate D-Day, the WWI Christmas Truce, and Veterans Day.

The Peanuts comic stripe explored lots of themes that Schulz returned to again and again, and one of those was Snoopy as his alter ego, the WWI flying ace, sitting in his Sopwith Camel (the red roof of his dog house), flying into battle in search of his nemesis the Red Baron, whom readers never see and whom Snoopy never defeats. The World War I flying ace appeared for the first time in the Sunday Funnies on October 10, 1965 with the following strip:
Snoopy and the Red Baron became so popular that just a little over a year after this strip was published, in November 1966, an English group called The Royal Guardsman recorded an album dedicated to these enemies.

Most of us are probably familiar with the song "Snoopy's Christmas" but if you are curious about the other tunes included on this album, you can listen on Spotify or YouTube Music.

Well, back to organizing and getting the piles of books on my floor back on the shelves in some order. How are you spending your time at home?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blue Skies by Anne Bustard

It's 1948 and the war has been over for three years, but not for 11-year-old Glory Bea Bennett. She's been hoping for a miracle - that her beloved MIA father, who was last seen alive storming Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 and is now presumed dead, will someday still come home. And it looks like Glory Bea is going to get her miracle...at least that's what she thinks.

Grateful to the United States for helping to liberate France from Nazi occupation, the French people have are sending 49 boxcars* on what is called the Merci Train, all filled with gifts for the United States. And one of those boxcars is going to travel through and briefly stop at Glory Bea's small town of Gladiola, Texas. Slowly, as the town begins to prepare a celebration for the train's arrival, Glory Bea allows herself to become more and more convinced that her dad will be on that boxcar stopping on Valentines Day, which also happens to be her parent's wedding anniversary. She's sure just wants to surprise her and her mom. After all, why else would the Merci Train stop in Gladiola, and wouldn't it be just like her dad to plan a big surprise like that? she thinks.

There's only one problem - now her dad's best Army buddy, Randall Horton, has arrived in town to visit with the Bennett family and Glory Bea is not happy about the fact that he is spending a lot of  time with her mother, laughing, going out, and just enjoying each other's company. Angry and resentful, it seems the more Glory Bea tries to make his visit unpleasant, the longer Randall stays.

Glory Bea keeps her idea about her dad's return to herself, only telling her best friend Ruby Jane about it. Meanwhile, she begins to prepare for his homecoming, but now it looks like Randall is planning to settle down in Gladiola. Well, once her dad is home, her mother will lose all interest in Randall.

But when the Merci Train finally arrives in Gladiola, Glory Bea's miracle is definitely not what she expected.

Blue Skies is an interesting work of historical fiction that really shows the extent to which WWII impacted the lives of those who lived through it long after the fighting ended and that finally by 1949, people were beginning to finally move on with their lives. And while I loved the idea of bringing the Merci Train into the story, I did have a hard time with Glory Bea's holding on to the idea her dad was still alive but just hadn't come home yet for such a long time.

That being said, I still really liked this novel. There's so much going on beside Glory Bea's obsession. Her grandmother is a matchmaker, and she's trying to follow in her footsteps matching Ruby Jane and neighbor Ben Truman, and totally missing Ben's real crush.

An important side story in the book is that of Ben's father who returned from the war a changed man, suffering from PTSD. When Randell Horton arrives in town, and goes to visit Mr. Truman, just being able to talk about the war with someone who was there finally begins his healing, but there's no doubt he has a long road ahead of him.

One of the things I really enjoy when reading historical fiction are the little everyday things that are included, giving the reader a real sense of what life was life for kids back then. For example, the way movies play such a big part in the lives of Glory Bea and Ruby Jane, and the tradition of going to the soda fountain for Dr. Pepper floats afterwards.

Bustard has also really captured the patriotic spirit of places like Gladiola after the war. It's a small, friendly community where everyone knows and look out for each other. This is very evident in the parade that is being planned for the Merci Train's stop there or when Glory Bea and Ben hop on a train without a ticket.

I have to admit that at first I found Glory Bea an annoying, self-centered character, but as I read on I began to feel more empathy for her. I can understand the difficulty of losing a parent that you feel so attached to as a child. It happened to me, and it happened to my Kiddo, and life is hard for a long time. Coming to terms with loss can be a hard, sad journey, but Bustard allows Glory Bea to have her journey her way.

If you have read or are planning to read Blue Skies, you can find a list of interesting resources and links, including an Educator's Guide, HERE. There's even a playlist of songs from that time period (one of my favorite things is an author's playlist for historical fiction).

If you are looking for a compelling middle grade book about WWII and its aftermath, you can't go wrong with Blue Skies.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Simon & Schuster

* There were 49 Merci boxcars in all - one for each state and a 49th for the District of Columbia and Hawaii to share. The Merci train, also called the French Gratitude Train, was sent as a thank you not only for America's part in the liberation of France, but also for the more than 700 boxcars of much needed supplies on The American Friendship Train sent to France in 1947.