Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From the Archives #10: Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

Last December, Charlotte over at Charlotte's Library reviewed a book by Josephine Elder called Erica wins Through, reminding me of a book I have by the same author stuck away in my bookshelves. The other day I dug out my copy of Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder and reread it.

This is the third and last installment of Elder’s Farm School books. The Farm School is a very unconventional school, in which a student may pursue the things they are really interested in, besides their academic subjects. Students must also help with the running of the farm part of the school with chores like caring for animals or working in the fields.

The story opens in September 1938, just as the new term is starting. The school is expecting two Jewish refugee children from Germany, brother and sister Hans and Johanna Schiff. Their father, a successful lawyer, was arrested by the Gestapo and placed in a concentration camp, their mother remained in Germany to try to obtain his release, their friends were forbidden to have anything to do with them and they were no longer allowed to attend school. So their mother sends them to England as part of what appears to be the Kindertransport program.

On arrival in London, they are taken to a center where they are given clothing to wear. They are appalled that the items are used, accustomed as they were to much finer clothing. Then they were hustled to a train and journeye to Sutton Malherbe, the village where the Farm School is located. Mrs. Forrester, who along with her husband, owns and runs the Farm School, welcomes them with open arms, but the children are a bit distant because of their recent experiences in Germany.

The next day is a busy one, with new arrivals, dormitory assignments and exploring the farm. Johanna is happy to learn she may be able to help take care of some calves, but Hans becomes quite indignant when told he could help with the pigs. The other kids don’t understand his attitude until he explains that to a Jew, a pig is an unclean animal. But Hans is also angry and insulted that they are expected to do any kind of work usual to a farm, feeling he is above that kind of labor.

Johanna quickly adjusts to life at the farm school, and particularly enjoys doing the farm work that is expected of her. She gets along with the other girls, even developing a GP (Grand Pash or crush) on Annis Beck, herself a senior student and the school president. But, remembering how things were in Germany, she never lets herself get very friendly with the other kids, despite her loneliness. She is very thrilled when she is asked if she would like to play field hockey, since playing games in Germany had been forbidden for Jews.

At first, Hans does not make even this much adjustment. He cannot get past his anger at the English, who were Germany’s enemy in World War I and responsible for the death of his uncle and wounding of his father. While out walking with Johanna, and airing his grievances, the pair comes across some Gypsies harvesting the hops fields. The Gypsies are very friendly and it eventually comes out that they have also been to Germany and plan on returning. One of the woman in a caravan gives them a charm before they leave, telling them that as long as they are friends with gypsies, the charm will bring them good luck. Though seen by Annis returning to school, they deny having gone to see the gypsies. That night, both children wake up in the night very sick and are asked to they ate any little green apples. Thinking about the charm, they say no, even though they had been given some apples by the Gypsies. Hans is convinced the English have tried to poison them and makes plans to go back to Germany with the Gypsies. But they don’t get far before they are soon found by a search party from school.

As the school year goes forward, even Hans begins to adjust as much as he can. He discoveres that Annis is working with the school bee hives and asks if he can work with them too. This work excites him for the first time. He never really makes friends at the school, nor does he seem to want to, but Johanna does eventually find a girl her own age to be friends with. There is even a happy ending for Hans and Johanna, in fact for all the characters.

Hans and Johanna are only one story thread running through this novel. The reader also follows the story of Dan as he tries to overcome his deep fear of horses and riding; of Annis as she learns to drive in case there is a war; and of Kitty Forrester, Annis’ best friend and daughter of the school owners as she embarks on her chosen path in life. All of the characters are drawn well and well-rounded.

Though old, this is not a difficult book to get hold of and it does give a good picture of life and attitudes in pre-war Britain and Germany, for example, the Gypsies are referred to as gippos, which was a common derogatory term for them, and the description of the humiliation of Herr Schiff and other men by ordinary Germans before being sent to a concentration camp is disturbingly realistic.  I would definitely recommend Strangers at the Farm School to anyone interested in this historical period.

The Kindertransport that appears to have brought Hans and Johanna to England was a rescue operation which saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children. The children were sent to England by their parents from 1938-1939, most arriving at Liverpool Street Station, just as Hans and Johanna did. From there they were placed in forster homes and schools. Though what is described in the book resembles the Kindertransport operation, it is never called that and in fact, transports didn’t begin until December 1938 not September 1938, the date of the novel’s opening. Nevertheless, Elder seems to have gotten her facts otherwise correct.

An excellent book and documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport recounts the experiences of many of the people who were part of the Kindertransport program.

Below is a statue commemorating the Kindertransport program at the Liverpool Street Station in London, sculpted by Frank Meisler:

This is book 6 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette
This is book 7 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson was an unusual writer. She didn’t begin publishing children’s books until she was 50 and, she didn’t publish The Dragonfly Pool until she was 83. In addition, because of her own unhappy childhood, she had penchant for happy endings.

Yet, when I first began reading The Dragonfly Pool, I didn’t think I would like it. But I was wrong. The story begins in London, in the spring of 1939. Everyone is preparing for the expected war, and the Hamilton household is no different. Tally Hamilton has received a scholarship to a boarding school in the countryside. She doesn’t really want to go and leave her friends and her family, her dad Dr. Hamilton and her two aunts May and Hester.

Tally is quite pleased, however, when she reaches the school, Delderton, to find it is nothing at all like the schools she has read about in books, rather it is a progressive school where students can pursue their interests. Tally quickly settles in and makes friends with the other students, particularly with Julia.

One Saturday, while at the movies with Julia, Tally sees a newsreel about a small country in Europe named Bergania, whose king is trying to hold out against Hitler who wants to use the small country to his advantage. Tally immediately feels herself drawn to this country, particularly the young boy who is the king’s son.

Later, she school receives an invitation from Bergania to participate in a dance festival it is holding. Tally manages to convince the school to participate in the dance festival as a show of support to the small country. The Deldertonian kids make up a dance, and travel to Bergania. One day, while out walking around, Tally meets the Prince of Bergania, Karil, and together they go exploring the forest that surrounds the town. There they come across a pool of water, the Dragonfly Pool, a favorite place of Karil and his father. Karil asks Tally why they had come to Bergania and she tells him about the newsreel. She thought the King was strong and brave to hold out against Hitler’s pressure and she wanted to come as a show of support. Tally and Karil become instant friends.

As it happens, one of their escorts, science teacher Matteo, was once a very good boyhood friend of the King, but had long ago parted ways over a disagreement. On the day of the dance festival, the King and Prince Karil, ride into the center of town, and just as the King is opening to festival he is shot dead by people hired by the Gestapo. Before dying, the King asks Matteo to look after his son.

The real adventure begins when it is time to leave Bergania and the students, led by Tally, must try to sneak Karil back to England with them because the Gestapo men want to take him into their custody and send him to Colditz, a castle in Leipzig used by the Nazis as a POW prison.

After successfully getting Karil to England, and it is a very exciting part of the book not to be missed, he and Tally both assume he will now be a student in Delderton. But that is not to be. Instead, he is taken by his dreaded and dreadful nursemaid the Countess Frederica, nicknamed the Scold by Karil, to the large, but shabby London home of his grandfather, the Duke of Rottingdene. It seems no one has any money in the Prince’s family, including himself, but they still live like they do.

Will the prince ever succeed in being able to attend Delderton and be with the only friends he has ever had?

This was an exciting, adventurous novel, based on real events with the exception of Bergania. Bergania is an imaginary country in the center of Europe, making The Dragonfly Pool a true Ruritanian tale. And although the story is a wonderfully delightful blending of fact and fiction, the characters are quite well rounded and realistic, though I can’t say that about the school or the country of Bergania. Bergania reminded me a bit of Genovia from The Princes Diaries having that same kind of fairytale feeling to it. And of course, Delderton did remind me of Hogwarts without the magic and the internal enemies.

Consequently, this is a book that should be read in the same spirit as Harry Potter. It should really not be missed, especially if you are a fan of Eva Ibbotson. And because it is written by Eva Ibbotson, you know in advance there will be a happy ending, so the joy is in the journey getting there.

This book is recommended for readers ages 8 and up.
This book was borrowed from the 67th Street Branch of the NYPL.

Eva Ibbotson discussed aunts (Tally has 2) and happy endings at Eva Ibbotson: Ogres, aunts and happy endings

Eva Ibbotson passed away last October at the age of 85. You may read her obituary at the following site:

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Little Ships: the Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II by Louise Borden, illustrated by Michael Foreman.

**Spoiler Alert**

After the Germans did the very thing that no one expected them to do, entering France from the north through Belgium instead of trying to cross the well fortified Maginot Line, they were able to trap British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on beaches of Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was immediately organized to evacuate the BEF using small fishing and pleasure boats to ferry the soldiers from the beach to larger ships anchored a little further out to sea.

Louise Borden has written a lovely children’s book describing the evacuation from the point of view of a young girl, whose name we never learn, living in a coastal town in southern England called Deal. Her father, Martin Gates, owns a fishing boat named the Lucy and her older brother John is off fighting in somewhere in France.

When the call goes out for people to register their boats for the evacuation, she puts on one of her father’s fishing caps, her brother’s patched old fishing trousers and goes with her father to register for the rescue.

First, the two of them sail the Lucy to Ramsgate, where they join an armada of other small boats. Then, father and daughter head across the English Channel to Dunkirk, pulled by towropes attached to the bigger ships. Arriving in Dunkirk, they ferry boatload after boatload of soldiers from the beach to the ships, always keeping an eye out for her brother John. And even though they ask the soldiers about him, no one can give them any information.

Finally, they are forced to go back to Dover, England because their little boat is running out of fuel. On the way back, the Lucy come under fire by German planes. Their boat is hit a few times by bullets and begins taking on water, so the soldiers must continuously bail out the water with their helmets while father and daughter sail the Lucy home.

When they reach Dover, they continue making inquires about John, but still no one has any information. In the end, they return to Deal with a small black and white dog that had come over with on of the soldiers. The dog is named Smokey Joe, which is the name for a coal-burning minesweeper, the Lucy followed going to Dunkirk.

This is a small, but powerful story of Dunkirk. The anonymous narrator keeps the story focused on the heroes and events she is describing and deflects it from herself, yet it is still a personal story. Her descriptions are an interesting contrast to the beautiful watercolor illustrations done by Michael Foreman, one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. The rescued dog Smoky Joe is a red thread throughout the story. He is first visible in one of the earlier illustrations of the soldiers clutching him while still on the beach just before being rescued. Later, the dog and soldier are depicted being pulled out of the water and onto the safety of the Lucy. And again, the last picture of the narrator, still on the Lucy and holding the dog. The dog is a symbol of success and hope and even though they never find information regarding the whereabouts of John Gates, the dog represents the hope that he will come home too.

There is an Author’s Note at the back of the book that is very interesting. It gives some of the facts and figures regarding the evacuation of Dunkirk, for example number of small ships that participated and number of rescued soldiers. It also provides an excerpt from Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament about the evacuation, reminding people (then and now) that while the rescue was indeed a miracle, it was not a victory.

This is an excellent book for introducing the topic of Dunkirk to younger kids but is also a good teaching tool for older kids who may already know something about World War II. The rescue at Dunkirk is a well known story and this book does try to add anything to that.  It is basically a straightforward narrative.  It has none of the exciting events found in stories about Dunkirk for older kids.  There is enough realism in it, but not so much that it would be too gory or scary.I read this to my 8 year old niece and it sparked lots of questions about the war, but in all fairness, it is a subject she does know something about from reading about Molly in the American Girl books.

This probably doesn't really need a spoiler alert, but I have added one anyway, just in case. 
This book is recommended for readers age 8-12.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Weekend Cooking #8: Victory through Ham Loaf

When I told a friend of mine about Weekend Cooking, she told me an interesting wartime story about her father and ham loaf.

It seems that as a young man, my friend’s father was a flight deck officer on the USS Ticonderoga.  In January, 1945, the ship was somewhere in the pacific near southern China. On January 21, 1945, her father was in an elevator, talking with the chaplain in his way to the flight deck where he was about to go on duty.  Suddenly, the ship was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane.  The pilot crashed his plane into the flight deck (you can see the hole in the side of the ship if you look closely) and once his bomb exploded, the ship was attacked by more kamikaze pilots. Despite the fires, the chaos and the heavy losses of life that followed, the ship’s captain and crew managed to get things somewhat under control. During the slow trip back to San Francisco, there was no fresh food let to eat, it all been destroyed during the attack.  All they had was Spam. As a result, my friend’s father swore then and there he would never eat Spam again.

USS Ticonderoga after being attacked on January 21, 1945.

In San Francisco, he was given a leave and returned home to New York to see his wife who was staying with her mother while he was away.  Most of his uniforms had also been destroyed or were simply not fit to wear, so when he arrived back east, he was almost arrested by MPs for not being in a proper uniform, he was only wearing what could be salvaged.  They let him go when he could prove he was really in the Navy and had been on the Ticonderoga when it was attacked.  His mother-in-law, hearing about his terrible ordeal and who was very fond of him, planned a very special welcome home dinner.  She begged and borrowed all the ration coupons she could get to surprise him with a home cooked dinner of ham loaf.  All he could think of was Spam, and he didn't think he would be able to eat it.  But, did he eat the ham loaf and pretend he loved it? You bet he did, his wife made sure of that and he never ate ham loaf again either.

Apparently, a lot of people swore  that they would never eat Spam again after the war, including my mother. Consequently, I have never tasted it, nor have I wanted. However, I have had homemade ham loaf, which can be good. Ham loaf is one the the things my mother would make with left over ham from Easter. I don’t have her recipe, but here is one from Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen by Joanne Lamb Hayes on page 48 that is pretty close to what I remember.

Ham Loaf with Molasses
6 servings
1/4 cup corn flakes, crumbled
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg
2 tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 lb. ground ham
1/2 lb. ground pork
1- Combine corn flakes, milk, egg, molasses and closes in a medium bowl.  Set aside for 5 minutes.
2- Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease an 8 inch loaf pan.
3- Add ham and port to corn flake mixture and stir with a fork until combined.  Pack into greased pan.
4- Bake until a meat thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf registers 170°F - about 50 to 55 minutes.  Cool in pan 5 minutes.  Carefully remove to serving platter and serve immediately, or cool 20 minutes, cover and refrigerate to serve cold.
In the end, our ham loaf looked a lot like Spam, but it didn't necessarily taste like it.  We forgot to take a picture when we tested this recipe out, but here is an old 1942 ad for Spam that isn't far off (except for the lima beans, which I don't like.)

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post at Beth Fish Reads

Friday, April 15, 2011

National Poetry Month meets Civil War Saturday - O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

Since April is National Poetry Month and this past week marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I thought I would pay homage to both. 

Whitman wrote O Captain! My Captain about the death of Abraham Lincoln out of admiration for the president. It was first published in 1865 in a volume called When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, but Whitman revised it later for a new edition of Leaves of Grass. Later, he said he was ashamed of this poem because of its conventional rhyme and meter.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck
You've fallen cold and dead.

My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

When I was in the 8th grade, we studied the Civil War and each student had to memorize something about it and present it to the class. I learned this poem for it and have never forgotten it. Others may remember this poem from the film the Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

The genocide carried out by the Nazis against Europe’s Jews is well known; the genocide carried out by Stalin against citizens living in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia who were considered to be enemies of the people or anti-Soviet is not nearly as well known.

Between Shades of Gray helps to fill in the particulars about Stalin’s specific form of genocide. It tells the story of one family taken from their home in the middle of the night in June 1941 who became part of the mass deportations to Soviet prisons and labor camps. The story is told from the point of view of 15 year old Lina Vilkas. Lina was a typical girl, living in Kaunas, Lithuania. She was happy, friendly, just beginning to notice boys and looking a talented artist forward to a summer at a prestigious art school. Life was very good for the Vilkas.

That all changed on the night of June 14, 1941. First, Lina’s father didn’t return home from his job as provost of the university. Then, in the middle of the night, Lina is taken in her nightgown, along with her mother and her 11 year old brother Jonas by armed members of the NKVD. The family was put on a truck along with many others who had been rounded up; hours later, they arrived at a remote train station along with many more truckloads of people. Here male and female are separated, Jonas sent to the male side. His desperate mother eventually manages to buy him back with a gold watch. Next, they are loaded onto crowded cattle cars and sit in them in the summer heat for what feels like days on end. Lina and Jonas meet Andrius, 17, whose mother also saved him, telling the NKVD he was a simpleton and the three become friends.

Eventually, the trains begin moving and 42 days after they were taken from their homes, they arrived at the Aftai Labor Camp. Lina and her family are placed in a crude hut where they must pay the peasant woman inside rent to stay, and must work long hard hours to get food rations – a chunk of bread, some watery soup. Conditions are deplorable. Many lack proper winter clothing with the result that when the weather changes, many of them get sick and die. Through it all, Lina secretly documents everything she sees through her drawings. She also develops a serious attachment to Andrius, who has access to bits of food he can steal and readily pass along, helping to keep the Vilkas family alive. Lina’s mother, Elena, shares everything with the peasant they live with, much to Lina’s chagrin. Nevertheless, it makes life in the hut easier and seems to buy the peasant woman’s silence.

After 264 days working at the Aftai Labor Camp, some of the deportees are loaded up onto another train and make the long trek, 134 days, to create a labor camp in Trofimovsk, Siberia. Lina must say good-bye to Andrius, who tells her it is not good-bye, he will find her some day. By now, Lina wants and considers Andrius to be her boyfriend, a reason to be strong and not give up. Arriving just across the Artic Circle in August, it is already freezing. The deportees now consist of not only Lithuanians, but also Latvians, Estonians and Finns. The men are told they must build comfortable building for the NKVD out of the fine materials that were brought. The women are told to build huts for themselves out of whatever they could find in the barren landscape of the Artic before the first snow or they will perish.

Can Lina and her family survive the Artic winter and the cruel treatment of the camps commander? And will Andrius find Lina again, in the middle of nowhere?

Throughout, Lina feels a compulsive need to draw and document everything she sees, even if it is only on some small bits of paper she manages to get her hands on. As she narrates the story of their arrest, deportation and survival in the labor camps, you can see her drawing in her words; she speaks with a true artist’s eye for detail. And nothing is spared, from the toilet conditions to the old woman who scraped off and ate the bread that had been spit on her shoes by the contemptuous commander of the Artic camp.

Scenes like those make this was a very emotionally wrenching novel based in fact, an example of the very best kind of historical fiction and one not to be missed. I was drawn in the moment I read the first line; “They took me in my nightgown.” All of the characters are realistically drawn, right down to those who grumbler, complainer and think only of themselves. They are simply ordinary people in extraordinary times who must learn how to survive.

Between Shades of Gray is a powerful book, and the excellent writing sweeps you along Ms. Sepetys has done meticulous research. She writes in the Author’s Note that she was inspired by her own Lithuania heritage and the member’s of her father’s family who were rounded up by the NKVD and, like Lina’s family, imprisoned in labor camps.

Many of the people rounded up and subjected to hard labor in remote camps throughout the Soviet Union were given long sentences, often as long as 25 years. In reality, those who survived began to be released in 1953. By the end of the 1950s, their release was complete.

Ms. Sepetys has included two maps at the beginning of the novel. The first is simply a map to show the great distance the prisoners traveled from Kaunas, Lithuania to Trofimovsk, Siberia; the second map is a timeline of the places mentioned and the time spent in each place. I found them extraordinarily helpful while reading.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL.

Ruta Sepetys discusses Between Shades of Gray on her website at

A useful discussion guide may be downloaded at

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who was that Masked Man, Anyway? by Avi

It is the 1940s and World War II is the thing on everyone’s mind except for 12 year old Frankie, short for Franklin Delano Wattleson. Much to the annoyance of his mother and teacher, Miss Gomez, Frankie is obsessed with radio adventures and serials. These radio shows and the heroes they depict - The Shadow, Captain Midnight, Superman, The Lone Ranger and Sky King to name just a few – are what Frankie thinks being a real-life hero is all about. He has even made up a hero persona for himself - Chet Barker, master spy, and a sidekick named Skipper for his best friend Mario Calvino. The trouble is that between heroic adventures on the radio and those of Frankie’s imaginary Chet Barker, he has no time to do his schoolwork.

So Frankie must rely on Mario, who is not only a straight-A student but who also has a radio in his bedroom. This is very convenient for Frankie when he is being punished and is forbidden to listen to the radio at home. All he has to do is secure a board between their bedroom windows and scoot across it to Mario’s room.

Frankie’s brother Tom is in the army and the Wattleson’s have rented his room out to a medical student, Mr. Swerdlow, for extra money. Mr. Swerdlow has been given the radio Frankie used to listen to. Frankie is convinced that if he can prove Mr. Swerdlow is really an evil scientist, he could get his radio back. Frankie has already been punished several times for sneaking into Mr. Swerdlow’s room to look for proof of his evil doing.

When the Wattlesons receive a notice that Tom will be returning home as a result of being wounded, Frankie is told that he will be moving to the basement so that Tom can have his bedroom. Not happy about this, Frankie must come up with a plan to get rid of Mr. Swerdlow so Tom and Frankie can have their rooms back and Frankie will have his radio again.

Things aren’t much better at school. His teacher, Miss Gomez, is also fed up with Frankie’s radio hero adventures. She often punishes him by keeping him sitting in her classroom after school. There, he first discovers she has a boyfriend named Mitch and later that Mitch has been killed in action. She has also told Frankie that if his grades don’t improve, he will be left back and now she wants to meet with his parents. Frankie must now devise a plan to thwart this.

After Tom comes home, he spends his time in Frankie’s room, smoking and listening to ‘sappy’ music on the radio; a complete waste of good radio time as far as Frankie is concerned. Instead, convinced that radio imitates life, Frankie wants to hear all about Tom’s heroic experiences in the war and doesn’t understand why Tom refuses to speak about it. Until Tom gets fed up with Frankie’s constant asking and tells him exactly what it was like the day he was wounded, a very different picture than the one Frankie imagined. It turns out that radio doesn’t even come close to imitating life. Now Frankie wants to come up with a plan to help his brother.

Altogether, Frankie has a lot on his plate to contend with for a 12 year old, but not for Chet Barker, master spy. He spends a lot of time being punished because people are fed up with his obsession with the superhuman escapades of radio heroes. And coming up with workable plans.

There is not exposition at all in this novel. It is written completely in radio dialogue, complete with commercials, and yet it is not at all difficult to tell which dialogue is from Frankie’s life and which is the actual dialogue from a radio program. This method really provides a sense of radio stories were during the war, but also show how easily a child can lose the boundary between reality and fantasy.

At time, Frankie was very funny, but there were times when he really annoyed me. He is completely self-centered, wanting what he wants and disregarding everyone else’s feeling. It is up to his war damaged brother to give him a lesson in reality, telling him what it truly means to fight evil and that it isn’t all heroic in the sense that Frankie’s programs present it to be.

Avi has a great talent for creating a sense of life on the home front during World War II for his readers. He successfully did this in Don’t You Know There’s a War On? using newspaper headlines to convey the feelings of fear and anxiety. Here we see one of the ways that these feeling could be dealt with that would be appealing to a young kid like Frankie – escapism.

I didn’t expect to like this story, but in the end I enjoyed it every bit a much as I did Don’t You Know There’s a War On? Avi is a very creative, prolific, imaginative writer. He has written a number of historical novels and Who Was that Masked Man, Anyway? is one that I highly recommend. I only wonder how many of his younger readers know what the title means, or for that matter, know who the Lone Ranger is nowadays.

Who Was that Masked Man, Anyway? received the following well deserved honors
1992 Booklist Editor’s Choice
1992 Best Book School Library Journal
1992 NYPL One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing
1992 Kirkus Reviews, Pointed Review
1992 Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books, Starred Review
1992 School Library Journal, Starred Review
1993 ALA Notable Book
1993 American Bookseller Pick of the List
1993 Booklist Starred Review

This book is recommended for readers ages 9-12
This book was borrowed from the Hunter College Library

Friday, April 8, 2011

Uncle Misha’s Partisans by Yuri Suhl

If you think that Europe’s Jews passively met their fate during the Holocaust, then you are seriously misinformed. There were a number of known occurrences of organized resistance, as well as who know how many individual acts of resistance that also took place. One of those who spent a great deal of time researching and studying cases of Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust, beyond the most well-known of these – the Warsaw Uprising – was Yuri Suhl. He has documented those cases of partisan activities in his non-fiction work They Fought Back, a very worthwhile book for readers age 14 and up.

Mr. Suhl also wrote the novel Uncle Misha’s Partisans about a group of Jewish fighters living in a Zhitomir forest in the Ukraine.

When 12 year old Mitek comes home from his violin lesson one day, he finds his mother, father, and beloved sister Basha have all been shot to death by Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen, or death squads.* He decides to run away and find the group of armed Jewish resisters he has heard about called Uncle Misha’s Partisans. On his way there, the Luftwaffe flies overhead spraying the area with a shower of bullets. They are after the two partisans, Yoshke and Berek, who have just blown up a German troop train. The two men find Mitek, but are hesitant because his name is Ukrainian and he speaks that language fluently. His family, he explains, had passed for being non-Jews until someone found out the truth and reported them. The men take him to the camp where the partisans live, where he can once again be Jewish and go by his Yiddish name Motele.

Yoshke takes Motele under his wing and introduces him to everyone, including Uncle Misha. Even though Motele wants to be a partisan, he finds he must work at the camp, at first with Avremel in the supply tent. There he learns how to care for weapons, including the Vyntovka or Vintovaka, a high powered military rifle which Motele covets as a symbol of a true partisan. Motele loves camp life and quickly grows very attached to Yoshke. He is taught some of the songs they like to sing there, figuring out how to play them on his violin, providing much appreciated entertainment to the partisans.

Not long after settling in, however, Motele is allowed to go out on a mission with Yoshke and several others including a nurse named Luba. They are transporting a seriously wounded partisan to the family camp where there is a hospital and a doctor. Hidden in Motele’s violin case is a Vyntovka. On the journey, they are forced to stop at the house of a village elder. The elder is out, but his wife lets Luba in. She finds the house is filled with furniture, clothing, jewelry and other items, which the woman proudly shows Luba and explains the things were taken from the homes of the Jews in the area that have been shot by the Einsatzgruppen. Sadly, by now the wounded man has died, so when her husband returns, the partisans take him in custody, tell his wife to get their two girls out of the house quickly and as they depart, they blow it up.

Unfortunately, Motele ends up in the family camp hospital himself after suffering a case of “forest” a mystery disease involving high fever and chills. At family camp Motele befriends Chanele, a young girl who with her sister Surele had been rescued by Avremel. The two become very close and she teaches him the Partisan’s Song so he can play it on his violin for everyone’s pleasure when there is a wedding in the camp. His growing friendship with Chanele and his new job with the blacksmith cause Motele to have mixed feelings about returning to Uncle Misha’s camp or staying at the family camp.

The decision is taken out of his hands when Yoshke arrives in family camp to bring him back to Uncle Misha. There Motele is told that he is to be disguised as a Ukrainian beggar in a nearby town where the Germans have set up their regional command. Motele is to find out where the administrative offices are, how well they are guarded and when the guard is changed.

But Motele plays his violin so nicely that a German officer takes him to the Deutsches Offizieren Haus (German Officer’s House), a place for German officers to eat, drink and talk. Motele is told he will be playing there everyday for 2 hours afternoons and 4 hours evenings, along with an aged piano player.

Motele doesn’t like this, but is told Uncle Misha is delighted. Motele is told to study the insignias, unit numbers and rank of the various officers as well as listen to the conversations around him, particularly about any troop trains going through. Everyday, he is to report what he knows to their contact Keril, who will relay it to Partisan Headquarters in Moscow.

Eventually, as he becomes more of an accepted fixture in the Officer’s House, he is told to look for an empty room and measure it. Then Motele is to slowly dig a hole in a wall there where bombs could be put. Next, he is to sneak bombing equipment into the house, and set it up to go off one night when there officer’s are all in the house. Does Motele succeed or will he go down in partisan history as the youngest partisan to die for the sake of the resistance?

Motele’s two missions make for very exciting, tense drama and Suhl’s in-depth descriptions show his knowledge of the subject of partisan resistance. Uncle Misha’s Partisans can be a little slow at times and then very exciting at other times, but taken as a whole it is certainly worth reading. However, I think the picture of the partisan camp is more realistic that that of the family camp. The family camps, because of their size and nature were more vulnerable that the smaller partisan camps, which could be moved more easily whenever necessary. Partisan life was hard and extremely dangerous, though admirable. And it is most definitely an overlooked area.

This book is recommended for reader aged 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Juvenile Collection of the Hunter College Library.

Uncle Misha’s won the following well deserved awards
1973 The Sydney Taylor Book Awards
1974 National Jewish Book Awards Jewish Book Council (Children’s Literature)

More information on Jewish resistance in World War II may be found at the following websites:

Holocaust Encyclopedia Jewish Resistance (some graphic pictures may be distrubing)
Shoah Resource Center: Moshe Gildenman
Accounts of Resistance: A Teacher's Guide
Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation

They also have an essay contest for students in 8th grade and up on the theme of “The only way for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing” and how that relates to the Jewish Partisans. The deadline is, unfortunately, close: May 11, 2010.  For details see and a downloadable poster see:
Jewish Partisan Education Foundation - Contest 

*Einsatzgruppen really translates to task squads, groups or forces, but because of their atrocious activities they became known instead as the death squads.

This is book 6 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo

After his grandfather dies, 12 year old Michael, nicknamed Boowie, receives what appears to be a very long letter from his grandmother. She tells him to read all the way through it and no peeking at the end or he will ruin the surprise.

Most of the pages are diary entries by his grandma, Lily Tregenza, when she was a young girl of 11, beginning on September 10, 1943. Lily lives on a farm in Slapton, South Devon with her mother and grandfather. Her dad is fighting in Africa. Lily also has a cat named Tips that she loves very much.

School has just begun, and life is about to change. There are lot more evacuees in Slapton, including Barry Turner, whose dad was killed in the war and who keeps smiling at Lily. The new teacher is a Dutch Jew who escaped Holland with her husband just before the Nazis arrived. Lily doesn’t like her until she hears that Mrs. Blumfeld’s husband has been killed in action. To top it all off, her village is full of American soldiers or gum chewing “ruddy Yanks” as her grandfather refers to them. But at least she still has beloved Tips.

On November 13, 1943, everyone in Slapton is summoned to a meeting at the church. There, they are told that they must all leave the area for a while because the beach and village are needed for the soldiers to practice landings at sea for the coming invasion of France. Everything of value must be removed, including livestock, because the area, which will be surrounded by barbed wire, will be very dangerous.

Lily’s grandfather flatly refuses to go. He hates the war, having served in the trenches of World War I and never got over what he had witnessed then. Even after most of the people are gone, he refuses to go. When Barry learns he can’t move with the family he is living with and ends up moving in with Lily’s family. Then Barry falls in love with the farm and his presence and enthusiasm seem to rejuvenate Lily’s grandfather.

But it is Lily’s teacher, Mrs. Blumfeld, who finally convinces him to make the move, explaining to him how this move will help end the war. Lily, meantime, has made friends with two American soldiers, Adolphus T. Madison, called Adie, and his best friend Harry. They are both young black men from Atlanta, Georgia, the first blacks that Lily has ever seen and she is enchanted by their open friendliness.

Moving day finally comes and trouble starts when Lily can’t find Tips. She searches everywhere, but no Tips. The next day, she goes back and searches again. Adie and Harry also lend a hand by bringing in reinforcements to help look to no avail. Finally, the area is closed off with Tips is still missing. Lily then starts sneaking through the barbed wire to return to the farm to find her beloved cat. On one of her searches, Lily is caught and taken to the officer in charge. He has Adie and Harry take her back home and Adie makes her promise not to return to the farm, that they will continue looking for Tips, but that she will probably find her way to Lily herself. Despite her promise, Lily tries to find Tips one more time. This time, Barry follows her and after they get caught in some very scary, explosive maneuvers, Lily decides to give up her search for Tips.

Finally, in March 1944, Adie and Harry show up and, sure enough, they have found Tips. But she only stays put a few days and she is gone again. Tips had been found in the hotel, and shortly after her second disappearance, the hotel is destroyed in an explosion. Lily loses all hope that she will ever see Tips again.

On April 7, 1944 Adie and Harry bring over hot dogs, ketchup and soda pop. They all have a wonderful time at what becomes known as the Great Hot Dog Feast. But on May 1st Lily is told that Harry has been killed. During some maneuvers, they were in ships waiting to do practice landings. The ships were torpedoed by German E-boats and hundreds of soldiers were killed. This is also the day that Lily realizes that she loves Adie more than anyone or anything and would forever.

Eventually Tips does find her way home again and Lily changes her name to Adolphus Tips, in honor of Adie. Tips lives for three years after that. Lily’s dad comes home after the war, Barry returns to his mother in London and things pretty much go back to normal.

But this isn’t the end of the story, far from it. At this point, I can only tell you what Boowie’s grandma told him:

The surprise comes right at the very end. So don’t cheat, Boowie. Don’t look at the end. Let it be a surprise for you - as it still is for me.
And, boy, was it a surprise!

Michael Morpurgo is a master storyteller. This was such a simple story, and yet so compelling. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It is a story is about love, friendship, helping each other and keeping promises. Lily is a typical kid, complaining to her diary about giving up her favorite candy for the war, sometimes forgetting to worry about her dad, giving her teacher a hard time ‘just because.’ But she is also kind, courageous and an adventurer, as her grandson already knows from experience. The diary dates were selected for a reason, beginning with the arrival of American soldiers and, with the exception of two later October entries, ending on June 6, 1944, D-day, the day Adie left Slapton with the US Army for the invasion of France.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips was awarded the Sheffield Children’s Book Award in 2006.

This book is recommended for readers age 9-12.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips offers a wonderful window into the lives of what it may have been like for the people who were asked to give up everything and disrupt their lives for the war. The evacuation of Slapton was a real event, as was the torpedoing of the ships waiting to being the practice landings.

For more information on the the events that this novel centers on, see The dister that may have saved D-Day

Monument to the 3,000 people asked to evacuate their homes and farms for the 15,000 American soldiers to practice landings for D-Day from
Devon County Council 

This is book 5 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette

Friday, April 1, 2011

Run Rabbit Run by Barbara Mitchelhill

There are not too many books written for young readers about conscientious objectors. Dorita Fairlie Bruce included a character who was a CO in her 1944 novel Nancy Calls the Tune. In 2003, M. E. Kerr wrote Slap Your Sides, a novel about a no longer very religious Quaker family whose eldest son refuses to fight in World War II. Laurel Lee Gugler wrote A Piece of Forever in 2008, a postwar story of a young Mennonite girl whose non-violent beliefs come into conflict with Veteran’s Day celebrations at school. And in 2010, Sharon Schnupp Kuepfer wrote Little Pennsylvania Dutch Boy: will the war ever end? The story is based her father’s experiences as a young Mennonite boy whose father was a conscientious objector. For most, the character's beliefs are part of their religion.

Now, Barbara Mitchehill has written Run Rabbit Run about a father’s ideological decision not to fight in the Second World War and the impact this has on his family. The story begins in 1942. The war is in full swing and patriotism is running high. William Butterworth’s appeal for an exemption from military service has just been rejected, and. without that exemption, he faces arrest and prison unless he enlists. Now, William is forced to go on the run, but still very determined to keep his family together, especially since Lizzie, 11, and her little brother Freddie have already lost their mom when a bomb fell on her shop and killed her,

Lizzie actually doesn’t think running this is such a bad thing. She has been taunted by the kids in school because of her “conchie” dad and she would also like to get away from her odious Aunt Dotty.

Early one morning, the family leaves their home in Rochdale, Lancashire, traveling to a place called Whiteway in Gloucestershire. There, they are welcomed by people willing to provide them a refuge. At Whiteway, they stay with Arthur Hollingworth, a World War I veteran who turned against war after seeing most of his friends die in the trenches breathing in mustard gas.

Life is pleasant at Whiteway and Lizzie is happy; she has even found a best friend in Bernardo. On her birthday, Bernardo talks Lizzie into sneaking off to a fair 9 miles away, promising to get her back in time for her special tea. He takes his mother’s bike without permission and off they go. The day is fun, except for some trouble with 3 boys from Bernardo’s school. Later, the boys find the bike, and break it, forcing the already late Lizzie and Bernardo to walk home. Not far from Whiteway, they are met by Lizzie’s angry dad. They are spotted by an old man, who reports Williams to the police.

The family is once again forced to run; this time to a farm, working along side two kind land girls and a very cruel farmer. After Lizzie and Freddie play a painful prank on him causing his hand to get caught in a rat trap, the farmer waits until winter, when it is cold and he doesn’t need so much help, before calling the police on William.

Once again, the Butterworth family is forced to run, this time in a blizzard. But when Freddie gets sick, they must seek help and a doctor is called. The doctor is required to report William to the police and, this time, William decides to give himself up when they come for him. While he is sent to prison, Lizzie and Freddie are evacuated to South Wales. But their adventures are far from over.

Conscientious objectors, or conchies as they were disparagingly called, were generally considered cowards by most people, regardless of their reasons. William simply does not believe in war, as he told the doctor “I don’t agree with the war, doctor. I won’t fight. I won’t kill…” (pg 135) Conscientious objectors were ostracized, called names, shunned by their families, refused help if they needed it. Ms. Mitchelhill does an excellent job at depicting this treatment without overwhelming the readers. By the same token, she does show that occasionally people could also be compassionate. In the face of overwhelming opposition, it can be hard to stand by your convictions when everyone else is registering to fight, and you are the lone person registering as a CO, knowing what will follow. I liked seeing the experiences the Butterworth’s through Lizzie’s eyes. She was at an age of turbulent feelings, one moment thoughtless, the next angry and sometimes breathlessly poignant. In the end, she opens up questions about the nature of courage and our ideas about what is a hero. Is it person who picks up a gun and kills for his country or the person who refuses to pick up a gun but can still save lives or is it both of these people?

Run Rabbit Run is a well-written, emotional story and it is a book I highly recommend, though sadly it is not yet available in the United States, but hopefully will be soon.

Run Rabbit Run is recommended for readers 9 and up.
I received my copy of Run Rabbit Run as a courtesy from the author, Barbara Mitchelhill.

For more information on conscientious objectors in World War II, see The Peace Pledge Union Project
For some interesting history about Whiteway see English Buildings: Whiteway, Gloucester

This is book 4 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette