Sunday, August 29, 2010

Once (Book #1 in the Felix and Zelda Family of Books) by Morris Gleitzman

Once I read a story about a 10 year old Jewish boy named Felix who lived in Poland in 1942 and I felt a terrible sadness as I read.

Once is very poignantly narrated by Felix. He tells the reader that he had been placed in a Catholic orphanage by his parents, booksellers in Poland, and has lived there for three years. He also tells the reader that he likes to make up stories and is considered by others to be quite good at it. Felix always carries a notebook in which he writes down his stories and hides it inside his shirt for safekeeping. Once he found a whole carrot in his soup and told himself that it was a sign that his Mum and Dad were coming back to get him. But they never show up. When Nazis suddenly show up at the orphanage to burn the books in the library, Felix remembers the time they destroyed the books in his parent’s bookshop and reasons with himself that the Nazis are only after books. He decides to leave the orphanage and find his Mum and Dad, to warn them that their books are in danger.

As Felix goes along looking for his parents, he starts to tell himself stories about what he sees. For example, a few days after he begins his journey, Felix comes across an empty house, with the kitchen stove still burning and half eaten meals on the table. He tells himself a story about the people who live there and why they have left so suddenly:
In the distance I hear faint gunshots.
Of course. That explains it. They’re out hunting. They must have seen some rabbits, grabbed their guns and gone after them in a big hurry. (pg33)
The reader of course knows why the house is empty and what the gunshots are even if Felix doesn’t.

Felix is a clever boy who not only creates his own stories, he also uses the knowledge he has acquired from other stories he is familiar with. As his search for his Mum and Dad takes Felix towards an unnamed city, he sees a house on fire and the bloody owners lying outside on the ground. Not sure if they are dead or alive, he picks up a feather and holds it in front of their noses: “It is how you tell if people are dead. I read it in a book once.” (pg.55) This is also the house where he finds six year old Zelda and the place where a very scary suspicion of reality begins to occur to Felix:
A little kid. What sort of people would kill a little kid just for the sake of some books? A horrible thought grows in my throbbing head. What if us Jews aren’t being bullied just because of books? What if it’s because of something else? (pg 56)
Felix continues his journey now accompanied by the traumatized Zelda, to whom he continuously tells stories. As they continue on towards the unnamed city, they run into a large group of weary men, women and children walking along the road, all wearing armbands with Jewish stars, and being escorted by Nazi soldiers. At first, Felix thinks they are all Jewish book owners. Forced by the Nazis to join the group, another bit of reality scarily intrudes into Felix’s thoughts after asking one of the men if he is a book lover, then wishes he hadn’t:
Not just because I’ve made a suffering Jewish man feel upset at the sight of a crazy kid. Also because I’ve got a horrible suspicion I know the answer to the question.
Maybe it’s not just our books the Nazis hate.
Maybe it’s us.
When Felix and Zelda finally arrive in the city, they are taken into hiding by a dentist who is already taking care of several other children whose parents have been put on transport trains. The dentist, Barney, is a character modeled after a man who actually did take care of Jewish orphans. Janusz Korczak was a Jewish children’s doctor and well known author. When the Nazis rounded up the orphans he was caring for to transport them to Treblinka, they offer Korczak sanctuary. He refused to leave the children, choosing instead to go to his death with them. In his Afterword to Once, Gleitzman explains that Korczak became his hero after reading about him.

Once is the story Felix tells us about his life as a child in this particular time and place in the history of the Holocaust. His journey to find his Mum and Dad also turns out to be Felix’s journey from innocence to realization about the situation of Jews under the Nazis. The book is geared for readers aged 11 and up and I would highly recommend it for that age group. Younger readers, even those who have high reading levels, may still find it too disturbing.

I was told that I would want to immediately read the next two books, Then and Now, in the trilogy Gleitzman has written about Felix and that has certainly turned out to be the case. Unfortunately, they are not available in the US yet.

For another review of Once, see:

Penguin has published an excellent teacher’s guide for Once at:

So much of Once centers around the idea of storytellers and storytelling. It reminded me of the poster that bore a message President Roosevelt sent to the American people about the Nazi book burnings.

For more information on this poster  see:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I digress...

Today was a day of realization for me. It was the day I realized that when you teach your child to be a strong independent woman, who thinks for herself, and then send her off to college to get a good education, the day will come when she packs her suitcase, says goodbye and goes off to China for a year to teach. Today was that day and while I am as proud as I possibly can be, I have also shed more than a few tears.


Monday, August 23, 2010

V is for Victory: America Remembers World War II by Kathleen Krull

V is for Victory is an interesting book that caught my eye one day while I was at the library. In her introduction, Krull describes it as “a book about people: how the war looked to the families in the United States who were fighting it.” (pg 3) The book does indeed meet it purpose, providing an excellent overview of what life was like for everyone during the war. Nothing is covered in any great depth, but the book is written in such a way that it could easily lead to more detailed work. One of the things I really liked was Krull’s suggestion that the reader talk to family members, not just to hear what they thought about the war, but to find out how the war actually changed their personal family history.  In fact, I think this format opens up the possibility of making a scrapbook of their own in which the reader could collect family stories and photos to create pages similar to those in Krull’s book.  The entire book is loaded with very colorful photos, documents, postcards, personal letters and other types of wartime memorabilia, reminding me of the kind of scrapbook I used to keep as a kid.
V is for Victory begins with a short overview of events leading up to the war, beginning with the end of World War I. Since this is basically a book about America in the war, the next chapter is about Pearl Harbor and how that finally brought the US into the fighting. The following two chapters cover life on the home front and in uniform. On page 31 there is a photo of a soldier with all of his new clothing and equipment laid out for an inspection. Tanita Davis described the various pieces of equipment and uniforms Mare received in the WACS in Mare’s War, so I found the photo to be particularly interesting. There is also a brief mention of racial prejudice towards African-American soldiers within the armed forces, as well as civilians on the home front, something Davis also brought out in Mare’s War. The home front photos also depict the many different ways people were more positively involved in the war effort, for example, college girls knitting for soldiers and even one of a little girl giving up her doll for a rubber drive. Chapter 5 covers the evil of the Holocaust. It must be a difficult choice of what pictures and text to include when writing about the Holocaust for young people. Krull includes a photo of the cremation ovens at Auschwitz and one of the corpses found by American soldiers at the Nordhausen concentration camp. They are, as always, disturbing and for that reason, I would recommend this book for kids who are at least in 7th grade. Also disturbing are the photos and text of the next chapter on Japanese internment camps in the US. Following a chapter in which she writes about the bigotry and discrimination faced by African-Americans and another chapter that covers the racial hatred in Germany and its consequences, it is to Krull’s credit that she so bluntly points out that in: “the United States, ethnic hatred was alive and well” when she begins her chapter on the Japanese-American internment camps. (pg 53)

The next three chapters, 7, 8, and 9, cover who was who in terms of the leadership in the warring countries, the types of weapons used by each, and, finally, the end of the war. The last chapter, “Some Lasting Effecting of World War II” was very interesting, though I am not sure I agree with all of Krull’s choices. Yes, the creation of the UN and the War Crimes Trials would have lasting effects, but I would not consider the election of John F. Kennedy as President to be one, even if he was a war time hero. Krull has also appended a useful chronology of events and a short bibliography.

I had only one real problem with this book overall. Though many of the photographs were interesting, they sometimes had text superimposed on them, making it difficult to read. Or there was nothing directly written about a photo and I had to search through the text to find out what the photo was about. In the greater scheme of things, however, this is petty. I really think this is a great book and an excellent teaching tool. I personally love looking at pictures, I find they somewhat complete what I am reading about and appreciate the wide variety the archival memorabilia Krull used to enhance V is for Victory. Kathleen Krull received the following well deserved honors for this book:

1996 Award for Distinguished Non-Fiction from the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People.
New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Bank Street College Books of the Year
Children’s Book of the Month Club – Main selection
History Book Club – Featured Selection
Publishers Weekly – Starred review.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square by Joseph Ziemian, translated by Janina David

This is a true story about a group of Jewish orphans who survived outside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto by selling cigarettes to Germans on the Aryan side of the city. Of these children, Ziemian writes on page 25
This group of Jewish children, wandering around under the very noses of a thousand policemen, gendarmes, Gestapo men and ordinary spies, constituted an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon, no less mysterious for being real.

After the ghetto was established in 1940, some of the older kids would sneak out by various means to obtain additional food for their hungry families to supplement the meager rations given they were. These children would beg on the Aryan side and sometimes be given food by kind women, or they would sell family possessions to get money to buy bread. It was a hard and risky life for such young people.

Ziemian was part of the underground Jewish Resistance Movement in Warsaw and possessed a false ID card that gave him freedom of movement. He tells the story of Bull, whose real name Ignacy, the leader of the cigarette sellers. Bull’s life was relatively good in the ghetto until the Germans began their roundup of Jews for the first deportation to Treblinka in the summer of 1942. Right off, his father was killed by a German gendarme for possessing a packet of saccharine. Bull was seized from the street and put on a deportation train, but managed to escape from the moving train. When he returned home, he realized that his entire family was gone. He left the ghetto, hiding among a contingent of Jewish workers, but was forced to return at nightfall. He was again seized and put on another deportation train. Again he escaped. The contingent of workers welcomed him back and gave him a false work permit. He began selling possessions from the ghetto for people in exchange for food to bring back to them. One day, Bull noticed a group of four Jewish children. They found themselves under the care of Bull and the workers, until one day the workers were rounded up and deported. Bull again managed to escape, again found work as an apprentice cobbler and continued to smuggle food into the ghetto, only this time the loaves of bread also camouflaged guns. On the first night of Passover in 1943, the Germans attempted to carry out another mass deportation. This time they were met with armed resistance (the Warsaw Uprising). Again Bull found himself captured for deportation and for a fourth time he managed to escape, but suffered a serious leg injury. When his leg was healed enough to walk and he was back on the streets of Warsaw again, he met his first four cigarette sellers, who wanted him to stay with them:
“Yes, yes. I’ll work with you,” promised Bull. His arrival at the Three Crosses Square was the start of a new life for the children. Bull had authority. In their eyes he was grownup and experienced, and he became their leader. (pg 76)

Altogether, there were about 20 cigarette sellers, about five of them girls. After Ziemian befriended them, they also received false ID papers. They were continuously helped out by kind Polish women, but were dogged by “schmalzers” (blackmailers who would denounce Jews to the German authorities unless their demands were met.) Life continued to be hard, a matter of day to day survival, sleeping and eating wherever and whatever they could. Ziemian wrote about their ability to survive
After their escape from the ghetto they led an adventurous and independent existence on the Aryan side of Warsaw. Sentenced to death, hounded and harried at every step, they found a way of surviving in the jungle of the occupation. They knew how to defend themselves and how to fight for their existence; they knew – unlike so many adults – how to help each other. (pg 10-11)

There is much more to the story of The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square, including that of little Bolus, age 7 and the youngest member of the group. It is a book written for young adult readers, but because of some of the graphic content, I would recommend it to more mature YA readers. It is also a translation from the Polish and sometimes it reads a bit awkwardly, but that doesn’t really interfere with the overall story.

Ziemian never uses anyone’s last name, which I assumed was for privacy reasons, since all the survivors were still living at the time he wrote the book. Three of the cigarette sellers did not live to see the end of the war, and he does tell the reader their full names as an act of remembrance. Most of those who did survive moved to Israel after the war, but a few went to Canada. All were successful in their adult endeavors. But the point of this book is not what became of the children later in life, but it is about their survival under extraordinary circumstances and that is what makes it worth reading. It is also very interesting that, aside from this book, there is very little information about the cigarette sellers and their amazing story.
Below are some of the photographs Joseph Ziemian had a photographer in the Three Crosses Square take of the cigarette sellers

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis

Sisters Octavia and Tali are sure that their summer vacation is absolutely ruined when they are told that they will be accompanying their grandmother on a road trip to a family reunion. But 'Ms. Marey Lee Boylen,' or Mare as she prefers to be called, is not your average granny: "She wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes and padded push-up bras." (pg 1) She also drives a sporty red car, wears long fake nails and smokes cigarettes. So it only stands to reason that Mare has a story that is not average either.

Octavia, 15, and Tali, 17, begin the trip bored and unhappy, bickering with each other and complaining about everything. Before they even leave the driveway, Mare must make a deal with Tali to stop her grumbling about her grandmother's smoking:

"Mare tugs an earphone out of Tali's ear. 'Don't put that thing on when I'm talking to you. You've had something to say from the beginning - first it's my driving, now it's my cigarettes. Tali, I'll tell you what -you keep those earphones out of your ears and I will keep my cigarettes in my purse.'" (pg 9)

The deal is struck and, throughout the trip, both are stubborn enough not to cave in.

The chapters in Mare's War alternate between Now, told by Octavia, and Then, told by Mare, with the past and present narrations separated by a postcard home from one of the girls about the trip. As they drive along, Mare begins to tell the unhappy girls about growing up black in Bay Slough, Alabama on a farm purchased by her now deceased father, about her mother and younger sister, Josephine (Feen) and about their fear of their mother's lecherous boyfriend, Toby. Mare had always been told to look after her sister, but after a problem with Toby, Josephine is sent to live with an aunt in Philadelphia. "Hasn't Mama been telling me all my life to watch after Feen? What am I supposed to do now?" (pg 45) The only thing left for the 'almost seventeen year old' Mare in Bay Slough is a job cleaning house for a white woman. But it is 1944 and the country is at war. Mare decides to run away and enlist in the WACS, or Women's Army Corps, lying about her age to get in because you must be 21 to join up.

As Mare and the girls drive along, Mare begins to talk about life in the WACS. There she meets a variety of young women and forms friendships that last a lifetime. After Mare is corrected in front of everyone by her Captain for saying "I ain't got boots yet," another new WAC, Peaches Carter, offers to make a deal with her:
"I'm offering a deal, Boylen, you show me how you crease your uniform so I don't get marked down like I always do, and I'll tell you when you get words wrong and help you say thing right. Deal?" (pg 73)
Of course, it's a deal and Mare and Peaches become fast friends.

After basic training, the women ship out for England. They are part of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, a group of African-American women whose job it is to sort through warehouses full of letters and packages so they can be delivered to soldiers at the front. The 6888th is the only African-American female unit to serve overseas - first in Birmingham, England and then in Rouen, France and lastly, in Paris when the war is over, staying at the Hotel Bohy-Lafyette where they live lavishly compared to the Spartan lifestyle of the Army.

Despite being in the WACS and far away from her sister, Mare never forgets that she has promised Feen she would always take care of her and she continues to save for a place they can live in after the war. Throughout her service, Mare also writes home to her mother in Alabama on a regular basis, sending her money each payday to help out. Ironically, the woman who worked so hard to make sure soldiers received their mail from home, helping to keep up their morale, only received one letter from her mother the whole time she was in the army - a marriage announcement.

Mare's War is a journey of growth, revelation and understanding on many levels. By the end of the novel, all three women are not in the same place they started from and even the family reunion turns out to be something unexpected. And I loved this novel. I thought the characterizations of Mare, Tali and Octavia were absolutely spot on. One of the true marks of good historical fiction, for me, is the way the author uses her real material, and Davis did a great job of seamlessly weaving in some of the actual experiences of the 6888th with Mare's personal history. She also brought to light another part of African-American Women's history too long ignored. I couldn't recommend this book more highly.

Congratulations to Tanita S. Davis. Mare's War received the following honors:
Coretta Scott King Author Honor 2010
ALA Best Books for Young Adults Winner 2010
Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies Winner 2010
Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices Winner 2010
Notable Children's Trade Books in the Language Arts Winner 2010

The 6888th Central Battalion was finally honored for their service during World War II in March 2009. There is an interesting article about this at

For some interesting information about the road trip taken by Mare and her granddaughters, see

It also includes information about where to learn more about the WACS in general and the 6888th in particular.

The National Archives also has information about Aftican-Americans in World War II at

Below are some of the photos of the women in the 6888th Battalion you can find there:

"Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell,...inspect the first contingent of Negro members of the Womens's Army Corps assigned to overseas service." 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945. Holt 111-SC-20079.

Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the state. May 27, 1945 Pfc. Stedman. 111-SC-42644.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Anne Frank: her Life in Words and Pictures by Menno Metselaar and Ruud van der Rol, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans.

Like most people, I read Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 11 years old. Over the years, I have read various other works about Anne and her family, about life in the annex hiding from the Nazis and later in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But I knew very little about her life before Anne went into hiding. This is one of the reasons why I found Anne Frank Her Life in Words and Pictures so interesting.

This is a small book - its size is and shape imitates the size and shape of Anne’s diary. It is divided into six sections chronicling Anne’s life, and each section includes abundant photos. It begins with 1925-1933 A German Girl, covering the marriage of Otto Frank and Edith Holländer in 1925, the birth of sister Margot in 1926, the birth of Anne in 1929, as well as Hitler’s activities and ultimate seizure of power in 1933. The year 1933 Leaving Germany, stands alone. With Hitler now in power, anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews is sanctioned and the Franks decide to leave Germany for Amsterdam. The third section, 1934-1939 At Home in the Netherlands, show Anne and Margot happily at play and at school, while back in Germany Hitler prepares for war. By 1940-1942 War and Occupation, life has changed dramatically in the Netherlands, which is invaded by Hitler on 10 May 1940. The Nazis make life for Jews there very difficult; nevertheless Anne and Margot continue to attend school and see friends, as the photos show. The last section personally about Anne and her family is 1942-1944 In Hiding. When Margo receives a notice that she must report to a work camp in Germany, the family decide to go into hiding. Otto and Edith Frank knew that it was just a question of time before they would be forced to do this and had prepared the attic above the offices where Otto Frank has his business. In 1944, a still unknown person reported the hiding place and all eight occupants were arrested. After the arrest, the contents of the annex were sent to Germany. The photos here take the reader through the now empty rooms to show where and how all the occupants had lived in such a small space. It also includes excerpts from the diary that Anne received for her 13th birthday while in hiding and pictures of some of pages showing Anne’s entries. Betrayal, arrest and the fate of the family is covered in 1944-1945 The End. In August, the family is temporarily sent to Westerbrook camp, then in September to Auschwitz, where the women are separated from Otto Frank. In October, Anne and Margot are sent to Bergen-Belsen, but Edith Frank remains in Auschwitz and starves to death. This section is about life after arrest and includes pictures of transport trains, the selection process upon arrival at a camp of who lives and who dies, of people being marched to the gas chambers, and life in and around the barracks including eyewitness accounts by people who survived. It is, quite naturally, the most difficult section to see. The rest of the book, 1945 and After - The Legacy, deals with Otto Frank’s search for his children after the war, then learning of their deaths and receiving the diary from Miep Gies and its subsequent publication.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject and it is hard to know how much information is appropriate for children. Surely they should learn about it and Anne Frank is the iconic representative of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. But Anne was much more than an icon, which is why this book is so phenomenal. So many of the family’s personal photos somehow survived the Holocaust and we see Anne as an individual, a girl who wanted people to remember her name – as a writer.

Anne Frank Her Life in Words and Pictures is an excellent book in its own right, or in conjunction with The Diary of a Young Girl. The layout makes the time period very understandable and the text is geared appropriately towards readers between 9 and 15. One disturbing feature of the book, which I do not believe was intentional, is that it shows how many close calls there were where the fate of Anne and her sister may have been different. Saddest of these is at the end. Anne and Margot died of typhus in March 1945; Bergen-Belsen was liberated 15 April 1945. Their father had been freed from Auschwitz in January 1945, six weeks before the girls died, but he didn’t know where they were.

For information about the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam see:
A virtual tour of the annex is also available online at
In 2003, I went down to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to see an exhibit there about Anne Frank the Writer. It was one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen. There is an online exhibition of this at

YouTube offers a variety of images about Anne, at

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which originally published Anne Frank: her Life in Words and Pictures, has created a graphic biography that will be available in the US on 14 September 2010.

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted is hosted this week by Three Turtles and Their Pet Librarian