Saturday, July 23, 2016

Brave Like My Brother by Mark Tyler Nobleman

Told in a series of letters written to his younger brother Charlie in Cleveland, Joe relates as much as he can about what life in the army is like after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The letters begin in June 1942 and run through August 1944, detailing the brother's trials and triumphs.  At first, both brothers are dealing with bullies who are making their already difficult live more difficult.  But Joe is also dealing with uncomfortable conditions in England where he is training for the D-Day invasion.

Most of the letters are from Joe to Charlie and cover things like spending Thanksgiving with an English family who, he is sure, have used all their rations to make a dinner for him.  Or the constant rain and mud and the problems with Matt, an arrogant bully.  Of course, there is the stray dog who adopts these GIs, and catching a German spy that gets them in trouble instead of the praise they expected.

Along the way, Joe makes references to what Charlie has written about things at home and there is a lot of talk about Superman and what makes a hero.  Superman, you may remember, was created by two friends living in Cleveland, namely Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Like all epistolary novels, the reader is asked to fill in a lot of blanks, but by the end of the book, young readers will really understand what does make a person a hero but begging the question - which brother is the hero or are they both?  Definitely, something to think about.

This is a good book for younger readers interested in WWII (and I am always surprised to discover how many of them there are), and is especially good for classroom use.  There are lots of interesting references that could lead to some wonderful discussions and classroom activities.  Of course, it would be a nice book for kids to read on their own, as well.   The language is simple, there are no difficult concepts that could confuse young readers and no wartime violence that might upset some sensitive kids.

One thing that did bother me was the part where Joe writes to Charlie about a secret mission he was on with his nemesis, Matt. They were assigned to drive an army vehicle to another base and not stop or look at the tarp-covered cargo they were carrying.  Well, as it happens that's when they caught that German spy, and needed to use the tarp so they could walk in torrential rain to the base, leaving the vehicle behind.  To his surprise, Charlie realizes that the cargo is an inflatable jeep, to be used to fool the enemy during the D-Day invasion. Inflatables were indeed used and part of what was called the Ghost Army, but I seriously doubt that Charlie would be writing home about it, given all the previous mention of censors reading letters. The information in that letter would never have made it to Cleveland.

But the Ghost Army is pretty interesting, so I could actually overlook this questionable section of the novel in order to introduce the topic to kids.  After all, what could be more intriguing to young readers than the idea of a ghost army.  I posted a link to this article in The Atlantic about the Ghost Army, but I'll include it again HERE, too.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

It's 1936, and 7 year-old Pierrot Fischer, a sweet, kind boy, has just become an orphan.  His beloved but abusive German-born father had left his wife and son a few years earlier, and later died when he was hit by an oncoming train.  Pierrot's mother, through loving and devoted to her son, developed tuberculosis and has just passed away.  Pierrot is staying with his a long-time best friend, Anshel Bronstein and his mother, but he is soon sent to live in an orphanage, and from there, he is sent to live with his Aunt Beatrix in Bavaria.

Arriving at the small German village of Berchtesgaden, Pierrot soon finds himself living in a large mountainside home, the Berghof, where his aunt is housekeeper.  His aunt immediately changes his name to Pieter to sound more German, after all, her employer is the leader of Germany and the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler, and it wouldn't due for her nephew to appear too French.

Pieter is a smart young boy and very observant of what is going on around him.  Little by little, he is taken in by the uniforms, the shiny jackboots, and the power that Nazis from the Hitler Youth to Hitler himself all seem to wield. Soon, Hitler takes Pieter under his wings when he is at the Berghof, even giving him an honorary Deutsches Jungvolk uniform to wear, despite he is too young to officially join the Hitler Youth, much to the distress of his aunt.

And so, Pieter, a boy who has been the target of bullies in the past, is quickly taken in by the power and charisma of what he sees around him and it doesn't take long for him to start ordering the servants at the Berghof around, including his aunt. Smug in his favored position, he grows to be an arrogant, cold, calculating teen, and while he wears a Hitler Youth uniform every day now, he has never officially joined that group and never participates in any of their activities - Pieter doesn't even know other members.  He is allowed to attend the local school, where he meets Katarina.  He is clearly infatuated with her, but she lets him know in no uncertain terms how she feels about the Nazis.

When he discovers a plot to poison Hitler, Pieter's loyalty to him is tested as it leads to betrayal and death in ways that leave him cold, and the reader in shock.  But as heartless as Pieter becomes, because of his isolated life, he seems to retain some naivet√©.  For instance, while taking notes in a meeting of Hitler and the architects of the death camps, he doesn't understand why no water will come out of the shower heads, and he doesn't seen to know who Leni Riefenstahl is at a party at the Berghof even though she was so closely allied to Hitler back then.

Pieter's transformation from a kind, loving, caring young boy to a ruthless young man by the end of the war would leave no possibility for redemption given some of the things he has done.  But then, one must ask themselves, given his age at the beginning of his indoctrination, just how complicit, how guilty is he, and is some form of redemption even still a possibility for him?

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a dark, well-written, well-plotted story told in the third person from Pieter's point of view.  It is a solid work of historical fiction, that allows Pieter to encounter a lot of the people that Hitler surrounded himself with, even though he wasn't at the Berghof all that frequently.  One interesting note is a nod to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas- Bruno and his parents, Elsa and Ralf, make a brief appearance in this novel at the train station when Pieter is traveling from France to Germany, and where Ralf's incredible level of cruelty is directed at Pieter, and later at the Berghof, Ralf is present at the discussion of building the death camps (you will remember, Ralf was the commandant at an Auschwitz-like camp in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).  

While The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is kind of an improbable story, it is an interesting study in how easily a child can be corrupted by power, of how a bullied young boy can become a bully himself under the right circumstances.  Boyne makes clear that the moment of transformation for Pieter began on the train to his aunt, when a Hitler Youth demanded and ate all of his sandwiches - the message was clear - that uniform was power.  But when Hitler showed up, Pieter realized he was the source of the uniform's power.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is not without a few problems that bothered me.  Pierrot has a good knowledge of novels by Alexandre Dumas, namely The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers, books I thought a little advanced for a 7 year-old boy.  At the orphanage, he is given a copy of Emil and die Detectives by Erich K√§stner.  He later finds a copy in Hitler's library, but there is no indication that it is Pieter's copy.   Later, at a birthday party for Eva Braun, Hitler's companion, Pieter gives her a copy of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Both of these books were burned and banned in 1933 and it is unlikely they would be available.  Small points, I know, but it's important to understand Hitler's grip on Germany.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is ideal for readers interested in WWII, and sadly, still very relevant in today's world.  Combine this novel with Boyne's earlier works, Stay Where You Are & Then Leave (WWI - Pieter's father was in the war and suffering from PTSD), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for an interesting trilogy.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

I know I've done a number of nonfiction books about Irena Sendler or fiction in which she played a part.  It seems to me that while they all tell the basic story of how Irena entered the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII to help the Jewish children there, they all add new information about this remarkable woman.  Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto is not exception, and is filled with information for the older picture book readers.

After the merciless bombing of Warsaw by the German Luftwaffe in 1939, Irena, then a deeply religious young Catholic social worker, did her best to help the wounded and needy.  Because of bombings all over Poland, Warsaw began to see an increase in refugees arriving and needing help. Unfortunately, the Germans also arrived, occupying what remained of Warsaw.  Concerned, Irena joined the Polish resistance movement.  With a crew made up of her girlfriends, Irena helped care for the Jews in Warsaw, targets of the Nazi occupiers, providing food and false documents so they could get help.

In 1940, as the Germans rounded up more and more Jews, forcing them to live in increasingly cramped quarters behind the brick and barbed wire wall they were forced to build and that formed the Warsaw Ghetto, conditions quickly deteriorated. Capitalizing on the Nazi's fear of epidemics, Irena and her friends dressed as a nurses and entered the ghetto.  Inside, people, including children, were begging for food, sleeping in doorways and dying in the streets.

In 1942, the Nazis began to round up Jews for deportation to Treblinka, a death camp.  Irena realized it was time to do something about saving the Jewish children in the ghetto.  But how?

Using the code name "Sister Jolanta,"  Irena joined an underground organization, code named Zegota, As part of this group, Irena, along with trusted friends, commanded the Department of Help for Jewish Children.  But the group knew that good intentions wouldn't rescue children, that each rescue had to be minutely planned and carried out down to the smallest detail.  And one by one, Irena and her helpers managed to convince the parents of almost 400 Jewish babies and children to allow her to smuggle them out of the ghetto and to places of safety - with no guarantees.

Irena kept meticulous records of who the children were and where they were sent.  Amazingly, after she was captured and tortured by the Nazis, Irena never gave anything away.  And just before her execution, the resistance, with some costly inside help, managed to rescue her.  Sadly, her days of working for the resistance were over, as she also had to go into hiding, in a safe house she at used for Jewish children in the Warsaw Zoo.  The list of the children's real identities were buried in a glass jar under a tree in a friend's and survived the war and was turned over to the Jewish Committee.    

Each time I read a nonfiction work by Susan Goldman Rubin, I am amazed at how much information she is able to include without overwhelming the reader with too many facts and dates, but giving them just what they need to understand the events she is writing about.  And Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, a picture book for older readers, is not exception.

Written in a very readable documentary style, readers will feel the tension and danger these brave people in the Polish resistance faced every day, the indecision of parents asked to trust Irena with the lives of their children, and the confusion of some of the older kids.  What seems like the unimaginable, becomes real in this well-done, well-researched book, perhaps because Rubin included the words not only of Irena Sendler, but also of some of the babies or children who survived.  I think that's what gives this a sense of reality that some of accounts of Irena Sendler lack.

Those were such dark days and the oil-painted illustrations by Bill Farnsworth reflect them perfectly. Farnsworth's illustrations force the reader to look more closely at what is going on and when you do, you realize how well he has captured the danger and tension of those terrible days.

Be sure to read the Afterword for more information about Irena Sendler's life after WWII, when the Communist Government of Poland suppressed any knowledge of what she had done.  There is also lots of good back matter for anyone who wants to explore her amazingly courageous work further.

The publisher, Holiday House, has made available a very useful Educator's Guide that you can download HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Skating with the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer

Skating with the Statue of Liberty continues the story of Gustave Becker begun in Black Radishes.  Gustave, now 12, and his family, along with his cousin Jean-Paul and his mother, all French Jews who have finally gotten American visas to leave Nazi-occupied Europe and sail to America.  It's January 1942, and the ship the family is sailing must dock in Baltimore to avoid the Nazi U-boats patrolling the waters around New York City.  Gustave is disappointed that the Statue of Liberty won't be his first view of America, but arriving in the US is his first taste of freedom since before WWII began.

However, life isn't all that easy for the Becker family in NYC.  After staying with kind relatives, they find a small, affordable one room apartment with a shared bathroom on West 91st Street in Manhattan.  His father must settle for a low-paying job a as janitor in a department store, and his mother ends up sewing decorations onto hats.   Gustave begins school at Joan of Arc Junior High school, hoping the name is fortuitous for him in his new school, home and country.

School issn't too bad for Gustave, who already knows a little English, with except for his homeroom teacher, Mrs. McAdams, who believes that raising her voice at him will make Gustave understand her better.  And she also decides that his name is too foreign and begins to call him Gus.  He does have one African American student in his class, September Rose, but he doesn't understand why she keeps her distance.  Eventually they do become friends, and face some nasty physical and verbal incidents because of it.

Gustave's English improves quickly, and he even gets an after-school job delivering laundry.  He and his cousin Jean-Paul, who now lives with his mother at a relative's home in the Bronx, join a French boy scout troop run by a French priest and a French rabbi, the same rabbi who has begum preparing the two cousins for their Bar Mitzvahs. And through his friendship with September Rose, Gustave learns about the Double V campaign in which her older brother Alan and his friends are involved.

But Gustave also worries about his friend Marcel in hiding back in France.  Luckily, he is able to write to his friend Nicole in Saint-Georges, France, whose father is in the French Resistance, so there is always hope that there will be good news about Marcel.

I had very mixed feelings about this novel.  There is no real conflict in it, really.  It is mostly about Gustave's assimilation into American life.  And while that is very interesting and realistic, it isn't very exciting.  In fact, the whole issue around the Double V campaign, including the demonstration staged by Alan and his friends outside a department store in Harlem that refuses to hire African Americans is actually the most exciting part of the book and, I think, it should have been a story in its own right.

On the other hand, and perhaps because my dad was an immigrant, I personally liked reading about Gustave's life in America, perhaps because it is inspired on the author's father's real experiences after arriving in this country.  For sure, America isn't portrayed perfect and even Gustave faces incidents of racism and anti-Semitism, but for the most part, he does make friends and has a nice support system in his family, Boy Scouts and school.  I certainly appreciate his mixed feelings about which country to give his loyalty to and how that is resolved.  

Themes of friendship, family, refugees, racism, hate, and acceptance make this historical fiction novel as relevant in today's world as in 1942.  It is a quiet, almost gentle novel that will give young readers a real appreciation of what their family may have lived through coming to a new, unfamiliar country, finding a place in it and giving back as productive members of society.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Did the Statue of Liberty really skate in this book?  Of course not, but you'll have to read to the end to find out where the title comes from.

Gustave lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just as Meyer's father did.  His school, Joan of Arc Junior High School on West 93rd Street, is referred to in the book as a "skyscraper school" which only means that it was built up not out because of rising property values.  But it is also a real school, now landmarked and on the NY Art Deco Registry.  As you can see, it is an unusual school:


Gustave also spends a lot of time at the Joan of Arc statue in Riverside Park, at the end of West 93rd Street.  It is also a famous landmark and you can read all about it at one of my favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan (he has better photos)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel 1928-2016
I was so sad to hear of the passing of Elie Wiesel on Saturday, July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.  After surviving the Holocaust, Wiesel became a witness for all those who did not survive, including his most of own family.  He went on to write books and give lectures and, in 1986, he won the Noble Peace Prize that year.

Wiesel is probably most well known for his book Night.  To me, it is the book that best defines the life of Elie Wiesel and the man he became after the Holocaust, a humanitarian who spoke out against injustice, indifference, hatred, bigotry and all of the world's genocides, including those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Dafur.

You can read Elie Wiesel's obituary in the NY Times HERE 

In his honor, I am posting my review of Night, originally posted on January 6, 2012:

"I believe that anyone who lived through an experience is duty bound to bear witness to it."
                                                                              From Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular

In Night, Elie Wiesel bears witness to his experience of the Holocaust. Living what they thought was a safe existence in Sighet, Romania (Transylvania), the Wiesel family, like all the Orthodox Jewish families there, could not believe the reports of mass murder that came back to them from an eyewitness who had managed to escape the Nazis. 

Then the spring of 1944 arrived in Sighet, and so did the German soldiers, billeting themselves among the residents there. At first, these Nazis were polite and considerate, and people still weren’t worried because radio reports said that the Russian Army was pushing westward, in their direction.

But, on the Seventh Night of Passover that year, everything changed. Jews were ordered to remain in their homes for three days, valuable were to be handed over and a yellow star was to be worn. Two ghettos were created, a small one where people stayed temporarily before being transported to camps, and a large one for longer stays. With each egregious act, the Jews of Sighet convinced themselves that it couldn’t get worse, but it did. The Wiesel family was among the last in Sighet to be transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau when the ghetto was finally liquidated. 

They were put into cattle cars with 80 people in each and slowly traveled for days until they finally reached Auschwitz in Poland. There, during the selection process, Elie and his father were separated from his mother and youngest sister, Tzipora. He never saw them again. Elie and his father remained in Auschwitz for three weeks, before being sent to Buna, also called Auschwitz III. There, the inmates were put to work, most of them doing factory work for the German war effort. 

Elie and his father remained there until January 1945, when all the inmates were forced on a death walk to a concentration camp in Germany, as the Red Army was only hours away from Buno. Elie ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp until April 11, 1945 when the camp was liberated.

Map of Auschwitz - areas in orange are the three areas
where Elie Wiesel and his father were held at different times.
Night is a book that answers Theodore Adorno’s question – how do you make poetry (art) after Auschwitz? In other words, how do you describe the indescribable? 

Elie Wiesel did this in simply declarative sentences, using straightforward vocabulary.  And yet, he produces a picture of horrors that are almost impossible to imagine. For this reason, I think it is a benchmark for Holocaust memoir, along with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man

I have always thought the title of the book, Night, came from this passage:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times curses and seven times sealed. (pg 34)

And it does, but it also refers to a biblical passage - Genesis 1:5 defining a day as starting at nightfall (which is why Jewish holidays always start at sundown):
"God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."
In this respect, even though the book describes the inhuman treatment of Jews by Nazis, Night also carries the message of hope in its title - there will always be a tomorrow.

I had read Night when I was in high school, but when Oprah Winfrey picked it for her Book Club Selection in January 2006, I reread this new and better translation, which, incidently, was done by Marion Wiesel, Mr. Wiesel’s wife. Thanks to Oprah, Night was read by 2,021,000 readers, many of whom might never have read it otherwise, according to a report in the Huffington Post It was the 3rd most popular book throughout her book club history. 

Interestingly enough, although Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, to date, Nighthas never been given any individual honors.

This book is recommended for readers age 14 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library