Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Funnies #4: Captain America: the First Avenger *The Movie Storybook* adapted by Elizabeth Rudnick

Cover Art from original Captain America comic,
March 1941
This week, the movie Captain America: the First Avenger knocked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II right out of its first place box office standing. No doubt, everyone wants to see the newest superhero on the block. New? Captain America?

Cap has been around since his first comic book in March 1941.

But I have to admit, even though I know Cap is an old superhero, I was curious, too. The comic book Captain America was created as a World War II hero, 8 months before the United States entered the war. Weakling Steve Rogers allows himself to be injected with a serum invented by Dr. Reinstein* that, before everyone’s eyes, turns him into a superhuman, the first of what is to become a corps of super-agents that “will makes them a terror to spies and saboteurs!” (pg 5 of the original 1941 comic) But the US Army has already been infiltrated by spies and saboteurs, and President Roosevelt inadvertently gave the OK for one of them to get into the lab as an observer to Steve Rogers’ transformation. When he sees how successful the serum is at creating a superhuman, he pulls his gun and shoots the scientist who created the serum and the remaining bottle of serum. Captain America’s first feat of heroism takes place right in the lab that created him. Afterwards, as his alter ego, Steve Rogers, he poses as an ordinary soldier in the US Army at Camp Lehigh, while Captain America becomes a “powerful force in the battle against spies and saboteurs!” (pg 7 of the original 1941 comic)

Cap then acquires his side kick, Bucky Barnes, at Camp Lehigh. Bucky is the regiments mascot, but when he accidentally discovers Steve in Captain America, Cap has not choice but to make Bucky his partner.

Captain America's arch enemy appeared to be George Maxon A/K/A  Red Skull, an American industrialist turned Nazi, but he turned out to only be an agent of the real Red Skull, Johann Schmidt, who didn’t appear in the comic books until October 1941.

I have never been a big Captain American fan, older versions of Superman were more my thing, so I went off to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue so I could read the original comics books on microfiche there and familiarize myself with the early version of this superhero (and if you have an interest and you are in NYC, you can do the same thing.)

Now, knowing the genesis of Captain America, and suspecting even America’s youngest readers could possibly get caught up in the movie, I was ready to tackle the book especially for younger readers. Captain America: the First Avenger is totally movie related, complete with an abundance of movie stills to augment the story.

The story begins in Tonsberg, Norway in 1942 and Red Skull has just stolen the Tesseract, a crystal with contains the power of the gods. Meanwhile, far from Norway, in Manhattan, puny Steve Rogers is once again attempting to enlist in the US Army. He goes to the movies and ends up in a fight with a really big, unpatriotic guy until his best friend Bucky, already in the army, comes along and helps Steve out.

Steve and Bucky go to the World Exhibition of Tomorrow to see the inventions of a rich industrialist named Howard Stark. Howard takes Steve to a pavilion, where the famous German doctor Erskine of the Special Scientific Reserve (SSR), US Army, (magically) has Steve’s army file. He offers Steve a chance to become a soldier, and sends him off for training a Camp Lehigh. Of all the puny recruits Dr, Erskine sent to basic training, Steve is to only one who makes it through. He is brought to SSR headquarters, placed in a man-shaped contraption and given a series of injections. The contraption is closed, but soon a new Steve Rogers is formed. But one of the witnesses is an enemy agent and he kills the doctor and destroys the remaining serum.

(Captain America comic page courtsey of Comic Vine); Photo from Captain America:
The First Avenger, page 21
Quite a difference becoming a superhero in 1941 and 2011

Steve discovers he now has superpowers and can do amazing things, but ends of as a propaganda tool performing super-feats onstage. In Italy, performing for the troops, he realizes what a joke he had become.

Meanwhile Johann Schmidt, Red Skull, has been causing havoc all over Europe and has captured Steve’s friend Bucky and his regiment, holding them prisoners to work in his factories. Steve Rogers decides Captain America needs to do something about this.

The question with a movie, and a book based on a movie, is not so much will the hero succeed, but can he do what he needs to as a superhero and still leave the possibility of a sequel open.

Captain America: the First Avenger is not a great book, but it is only meant to be an entertaining action-adventure story and it succeeds at that. The storyline is much more sophisticated now and there is not mention of Nazis or the Führer, as there was in the original comics. There is just the intimation that Red Skull is German and involved in an ambiguous war being fought in Europe. There is more text in this book than I would have expected, and it is accompanied by lots of glossy pictures from the movie that is sure to please younger readers. In fact, by the time kids see this book in a store, the new image of Captain America, and probably Bucky and Red Skull, should be totally familiar to them.

I can recommend this book, but not highly.

This book is recommend for readers age 7-10.
This book was purchased for my person library.

*Dr. Reinstein is modelled on Albert Einstein, the German-Jewish scientist who emigrated to the US from Germany in 1933 when the Hitler came to power.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Dolphin Crossing by Jill Paton Walsh

I know I should never judge a book by its cover, but I put off reading The Dolphin Crossing for a long time simply because I didn’t like the cover of the copy I had. Silly reason I know, especially since it turned out to be such a good book.

The Dolphin Crossing begins in the spring of 1940 and tells the story of two teenage boys from very different backgrounds and circumstances brought together because of the World War II. John Aston, 17, lives with his mother in a cottage on their seaside estate after the army requisitions their main house for the war effort. Pat Riley, 14, is a London evacuee living in an abandoned railroad coach in the middle of a cow pasture with his pregnant step-mom. Their paths cross when John stops a group of rowdy boys from picking on Pat after school and then walks him home. He stays and has tea, but he is clearly disturbed by the horrid living situation of the Rileys.

Later that day, John’s mother suggests they take a walk and John takes her over to meet the Rileys. Pat and John’s mothers hit it off immediately, as John suspected they would, especially since John has an ulterior motive for taking his mom there. Back home, he asks if they could make their empty stable habitable for the Rileys to live in. It takes a lot of work, but Pat knows something about carpentry and how to mix cement for a new floor. Cement could still be bought but sand for it couldn’t, so the boys decide to head to the beach at night and get the sand there. After returning home, Pat discovers he has lost the watch his dad had given him at the beach. That night, the boys go back to the beach to look for it and discover that Crossman, the man in charge of the nearby shipyard, is dealing in black market petrol.

Eventually, Pat and John finish converting the stable into a very pleasant place to live, with electricity, private sleeping quarters, bathroom and kitchen facilities and even a living room. Even Mrs. Aston helps out with curtains, furniture and baby things she had saved from her own sons. Mrs. Riley is surprised and happy with her new home, but goes into labor shortly after she and Pat move in.

Now, though, with their project finished, John has time on his hands and one day, while out, he notices a lot of small boats heading out to sea and can hear the sounds of bombs and guns across the channel in France. Figuring out what the boats are doing, John and Pat decide to join the flotilla, taking the Aston boat, the Dolphin, over to Dunkirk to try to save as many soldiers as possible. John blackmails Crossman into getting the boat ready for the trip by threatening to expose his black market scam. John is a very good sailor, but Pat had never even seen the sea until he was evacuated, let alone sail on it. Nevertheless, they make it to Dunkirk, where they make numerous trips ferrying soldiers from the beach to the waiting ship, the HMS Wakeful. Exhausted, they finally are forced to leave Dunkirk with a boatload of sailors and head back to England, but not before John sees the Wakeful torpedoed by a German U-boat. Feeling completely disheartened, John believes that all their work was for nothing:

A great gust of rage swept over John. All that work; the long day yesterday, the danger they had borne, the risks they has run, all for nothing. All so that those hundreds of soldiers could drown instead of being shot. (pg 116)
When they get back home, John takes the sailors to his mother’s house, believing she would be able to take care of them, which, naturally, she did. John is also surprised to find his father home too. This is, of course, not the end. Pat has disappeared along with the Dolphin. Now the question is why and to where?

The Dolphin Crossing is a short book that covers a lot of ground. The most striking aspect of the book is the way it brings out class differences. It begins by showing how the people could and probably did get lost in the shuffle during the evacuation. Many people did not accept working class evacuees from London into their homes with open arms. Consequently, it is easy to believe that a poor, pregnant woman could end up in a railroad coach with no running water nearby, as opposed to the Astons who were able to just move into their nice habitable cottage. John’s father is a captain in the merchant navy; Pat’s father is a soldier in the infantry on the continent. John is being taught by a private tutor, but was at boarding school before the war. Pat must stay in school past the school leaving age in order to get some skilled labor training. Yet, while the reader is very aware of the class difference, it is not really a problem for the two main characters themselves. Both are lonely, restless boys who want to do something for the war, like their dads, but are just too young. John also has an older brother whom he looks up to, but he is a conscientious objector. Not much is made of this, except that Pat finds it disgraceful and lets John know how he feels in no uncertain terms. By polarizing the two characters, Walsh has drawn a picture of how the war has a unifying effect on them through their desire to do something to help the war effort.

The novel’s ending is left open, forcing the reader to think about what happened and decide for themselves whether Pat’s disappearance was an act of heroism or simply schoolboy foolishness. And now you may want to read it to find out what I am talking about. For that reason, and because this was a well done historical novel, I highly recommend this book.

This book is recommended for readers’ age 10-14
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Another review of The Dolphin Crossing can be found at Charlotte’s Library

HMS Wakeful (photo (courtesy of Wikipedia)
(Unknown to John, the Wakefield did make one successful trip back to Dover, before it was hit, sustaining heavy losses.)

This is book 11 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette
This is book 13 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weekend Cooking #12: Victory through Vegetables: Woolton Pie

In her memoir, Time to Be In Earnest, P. D. James wrote:
“And I remember – which of my generation can’t? – the particular culinary horrors of war: Woolton pie, composed of vegetables and sausage meat more crumb than sausage, and brown Windsor soup which tasted of gravy browning. (pg 42)

This seems to have been the general consensus of opinion of people who lived through the war and remember eating this gastronomic nightmare.

Woolton Pie was the creation of the maître-chef at the famous Savoy Hotel, François Latry, in accordance to Britain’s austerity measures. It was named for Frederick Marquis, First Earl of Woolton, or more commonly, Lord Woolton, who served as Churchill’s Minister of Food during the war. The pie was a 100% vegetable pie, and must have been quite hard for many of the meat-pie loving Britons to swallow (and what could be better than a nice steak and Stilton Cornish pasty?)

But Woolton Pie served a good purpose during the war. It was healthy, easy to make and, it and its namesake, provided plenty of fodder for jokes and cartoons:

Here, then, is a copy of the original recipe as it appeared in the London Times on April 26, 1941 (also available at the World Carrot Museum):

(NB a Swede, for those like myself who don’t know, is a turnip.)

Besides being the force behind the creation of Woolton Pie, Lord Woolton did much to encourage people to grow their own vegetables to help ease the dire food situation. He also began a morning radio program called Kitchen Front, which provided people with ration-approved recipes and, thanks to him, we the cartoon characters Potato Pete and Dr. Carrot became quite popular:

Luckily, Britons are very good at gardening as a rule and enjoyed to it, so promoting the virtues of a victory garden as a vital part of the war effort wasn’t a hard job. Even young children could get in on the action:

In 1941, Lord Woolton told the British people that:
‘This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping… the battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”
Some people really took Lord Woolton’s words to heart and created kitchen gardens in bomb craters, like this one in London:

(Photo Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

I made Woolton Pie once and with lots of spices; it was kind of like a vegetable Shepherd’s pie, because I used mash instead of potato crust. It looked something like this from The Big World:

and it was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.
Lord Woolton had a dreadful job to do, but he met the challenge with stoicism and humor.  I think he probably made all his listeners feel like wartime heroes with his final words on every radio broadcast:
"Carry on, Fighters on the Kitchen Front, you are doing a great job"


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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

From the Archives #12: Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command by Roy J. Snell, illustrated by Erwin L. Darwin

During the Second World War, Whitman Publishing issued a series of books under the heading "Fighters for Freedom." There seems to have been a total of eight books written for the series – 3 for boy and 5 for girls. These books were, of course, pieces of pure propaganda, but with relatively interesting stories.

Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command is the story of two non-combatants in World War II. Mary is a part of the WAFS, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Sparky is a pilot with the Ferrying Squadron. He no longer qualified for combat because he has a punctured eardrum, which, he of course, received in earlier heroic combat.

Mary and her flying partner Janet are part of a flying squadron going from the US to Africa to China that includes Sparky and his partner Doug and 38 other planes. But as they are flying over Brazil, Sparky’s plane is hit by enemy fire and he is forced to land in the midst of a native village, with Mary’s plane following close behind. Doug has been seriously injured, but luckily, in the midst of a primitive village, there is a “medicine man” who is really an American educated doctor there to care for him. It is decided that Mary and Sparky would fly together in his plane, attempting to catch up with the rest of the squadron and Janet and Doug would await help.

So off they go. Their first stop is Natal, Brazil for s short rest and to refuel the plane. They are taken to a small city, and while sitting in a canteen, Mary meets a French woman who is very interested in her mission, but the conversation is interrupted by another American girl in uniform. As Mary leaves the canteen, she sees the French woman speaking with a very small man who appears to be an Arab beggar.

Their next stop is at an oasis in an unnamed desert in mid-Africa. Shortly after arriving, Mary sees a Muslim woman dressed in a Burqa, but believes her to be the same French lady from earlier but in disguise. And a little later, she sees a man with a camel and is sure he is the Arab beggar she had seen speaking to the French woman. After refueling, they take off but no sooner are they in the air then their engine catches fire.

When Sparky goes to the wing to repair the engine, he finds a Japanese man hiding there, having obviously set the fire. They fight (in the wing) and Sparky overpowers him, but merely ties him up, not killing him. When he returns to the cockpit, Mary is convinced he is the same man she saw at both their stops. The engine is repaired, but then enemy planes appear in the sky. A battle ensues and Sparky is able to knock out the enemy planes. Later, he discovers the Japanese man in the wing has died.

Once again, they land for a rest, this time in Egypt, where Mary’s father, Colonel Mason, is stationed. Her father introduces Mary to Captain Burt Ramsey. Mary is immediately attracted to him and spends her time in Egypt with him. Before Mary and Sparky leave Egypt, Mary is asked to carry an ancient roll of papyrus back to the States with her.

Mary and Sparky’s trip continues with stops throughout the Middle East, a treacherous flight through the Himalayans in a blinding snowstorm and an important stop in Burma to deliver some quinine to the soldiers there who are suffering from malaria. Along the way, they battle more enemy planes, the roll of papyrus is stolen and Mary continues to see the mysterious “Woman” at each stop.

What is the secret cargo they are carrying that the enemy appears to know about and wants to stop it from reaching China? And why were so many people interested in it? And what was in the ancient roll of papyrus that disappeared?

Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command is a thrilling story. Along her journey, Mary changes the life of a young American boy who needs some direction, she falls in love, and she convinces another young woman to learn to fly and join up. Mary’s trip to China was, naturally, exceptional. Normally, the women of the ferry command fly planes from the manufacturer to an airfield, or flew damaged planes to the manufacturer to be repaired. They never were supposed to see the kind of action Mary Mason experienced.

Again, this is an old book and writers of books for young people weren’t terribly sensitive about the names used to describe people, especially the enemy. Women were totally objectified, and worse, portrayed as enjoying it. Whenever I read these old books from World War II, I always think of the quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” I think this is because the past is still so alive in these books, in a way that historical fiction can’t quite capture. They allow the reader to stand in a moment of time and experience it, and if it contains things we don’t like to see or hear, draw from that experience.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.
 With metal and plastic in scarce supply during the war, paper toys were often sold. There are the paper dolls sold for the Girl Pilots of the Ferry Command

More information on the women pilots in World War II can be found at Women Airforce Service Pilots

This is book 12 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews

Information on the founder of Jackie Cochran, who is mentioned in Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command, can be found at Centennial of Flight

PBS also has some very good information and a teacher's guide about Fly Girls  

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

O to be in England…now.

The Imperial War Museum is running an exhibition until October 2011 called "Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children." It spotlights five works altogether: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley.

One of the books used for this exhibit is the classic story The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It is the story of the Balicki family, Joseph and his Swiss wife Margrit and his daughter Ruth, 13, and Bronia, 3, and son, Edek, 11. In 1940, they are living in a Warsaw suburb in Poland during the Nazi occupation of that country, where Joseph is the headmaster in a primary school.

One day while teaching, Joseph turns a picture of Hitler so it faced the wall. His action is reported to the Nazi authorities by a student. Joseph is arrested and sent to a prison camp in Zakyna. He spends two years in the prison camp, ill but determined to escape, which he finally does manage to accomplish. Joseph spends 4½ weeks walking back to Warsaw, but when he arrives he discovers that his house has been destroyed, his wife has been arrested and sent to a work camp in Germany, and his children have survived but are no where to be found.

At the ruins of his home, Joseph finds a silver letter opener in the shape of a small sword. He also meets a young boy there carrying a wood box. Eventually he befriends the boy, Jan, who shows Joseph how and where to safely jump a train to Switzerland. Before he leaves, he gives the silver sword/letter opener to Jan and asks him to tell his children, should he run into them, that their father has gone to their grandparents in Switzerland to find their mother, and to follow him there. Jan puts the sword in his wooden box for safekeeping.

When their mother was arrested, Edek had secretly shot at one of the officers with a rifle, hitting him in the arm. Scared, the children decided to run away that night, over the rooftops of the adjoining buildings and just in the nick of time. As the children are running away, their house explodes – Nazi retaliation for the rifle shot. The children hide in a wood, surviving on the kindness of peasants and on Edek’s ability to smuggle. But one day Edek is caught and arrested. They hear nothing about him for two years, continuing to survive in the woods in summer and in Warsaw in winter.

In the summer of 1944, Ruth, now 15, and Bronia, now 5, hear that the Russians are pushing westward and are not far from Warsaw. This rumor turns out to be true and by January 1945, the Nazis are gone from Warsaw, but because of the fighting to regain it, so is Warsaw. At their former home, they find a very ill Jan. They nurse him back to health and are helped to survive by a kind Russian soldier, who also traces the whereabouts of Edek in Posen. But when they arrived in Posen, they learned Edek has TB and is in isolation. At the makeshift hospital for TB patients, they are told that he has just run away. Tired and hungry, they go to a refugee camp for food and rest, but when a brawl breaks out, the hand the pulls Ruth away from the fray is that of Edek. Together, the four children begin their journey to Switzerland in earnest by first taking a train to Berlin. By now, it is May, 1945 and the war over in Europe.

Their journey to Switzerland takes Ruth, Edek, Bronia and Jan isn’t easy. Edek’s TB gets progressively worse. Then Edek and Jan are caught stealing from the American troops in Germany, and Jan must do a week of detention. The children are taken in and cared for by a kindly farmer and his wife, but when they hear that all Polish people will be sent back to Poland, they are forced to make a middle of the night escape in some old canoes the farmer owns. All through their journey, the silver sword has been an inspiration to carry on and find their parents. But in their hasty escape, the silver sword gets left behind at the farm. It was their talisman and as long as they had it, they had good luck overcoming the obstacles they faced. Now it seems that their luck has run out. The canoe trip, which should have been easy, is not without hazards: Ruth and Bronia are shot at and one of the other canoes is destroyed. Later, they face a terrible storm while crossing Lake Constance, located in both Germany and Switzerland. Will they ever be reunited with their parents without the sword?

At the heart of this novel stands is the idea of family. The Balicki’s are is a warm, loving, supportive family, reason enough to motivate the children to find their parents. And the reason that the homeless, parentless Jan decides to stick with them. Like many people who lived through the war, the children find strength in themselves to endure, discovering that they can deal with all kinds of difficulties and hardships.

Throughout the novel, Serraillier juxtaposes the hatred and destructive nature of Nazism and the people who supported it against the kind and helpful people who rejected it, people who were willing to take a chance, even risking of arrest and death, to help the children

The Silver Sword was published in the United States under the name Escape from Warsaw, and is still available from Scholastic by that name. I prefer the original name, The Silver Sword since it has so much meaning the central characters in the story.

Although the novel was published in 1956, it remains a very exciting adventure for young readers and I highly recommend it.

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

Zoe at Playing by the Book has written an in-depth two part review with pictures of the exhibit "Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children." Be sure to take a look at it.

And if you are in London and get to the exhibit at the Imperial War Museum, you might want to also see the Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience. Not as fancy as the IWM, but a real experience. Simply take the Northern line from Elephant and Castle to London Bridge. The museum is located at 64-66 Tooley Street.
It is one among many of my favorite places in London (along with Pollock’s Toy Museum.)

This is book 10 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette

This is book 11 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Funnies #3: Invisible Scarlet O’Neil by Russell Stamm

World War II began right in the middle of the golden age of comics (1930s through 1940s) and gave rise to a few new superheroes. Superman first appeared in April 1938, Batman in May 1939, The Flash in January 1941, Green Lantern in July 1940, Al Pratt’s The Atom in October 194, Hawk Man January in 1940, Aquaman in November 1941, Captain Marvel in February 1940 and Captain America in March 194. The very popular Captain Midnight appeared in comic book form in 1941, though he was already a successful radio show, and also appeared in a comic strip beginning in 1942. When America entered the war, most of these superheroes found themselves fighting the forces of evil – Nazi and Japanese spies and, saboteurs or the occasional mad scientist or quisling. They never really got into the real war in Europe or the Pacific, but were revered by their fans nevertheless.

Most people think that Wonder Woman, who first appeared in December 1941, was the only female superhero to emerge during the war, but in fact, the first was Russell Stramm Invisible Scarlet O’Neil. Scarlet hit the superhero scene on June 3, 194o in the Chicago Times and in her first strip she explains how she became invisible:

From: Invisible Scarlet O'Neil

Scarlet didn’t really tackle foreign enemies on US soil; most of her escapades were pretty typical comic strip fare: bullies, thieves, mean people and she especially liked helping children. But occasionally Scarlet’s patriotism would also shine through, as it did on Sunday, March 21, 1943:

From: Invisible Scarlet O'Neil

During her heyday, according to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, Whitman published two Big Little Books devoted to Scarlet, and one novel when she was joined by other comic strip favorites like Terry and the Pirates and Tillie the Toiler.

Invisible Scarlet O’Neil ran from 1941 to 1956.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

Milkweed is Jerry Spinelli’s first historical novel and he has produced a work that, in its simplicity, sent chills through me as I read. It is a novel about life in the Warsaw Ghetto through the eyes of a young boy, around 8 years old, who has no real identity and who does not possess any real social skills or knowledge of the world around him. Lacking these frames of reference, the boy misunderstands or draws incorrect conclusions about what he sees going on. He recalls nothing about his past, only knowing that he was given the yellow stone he wears around his neck by his father and that he is a gypsy. Because he is very small and very fast, he survives by stealing what he wants and running away with it.

The story begins in the summer of 1939 just before the invasion of Poland. The protagonist is running through the streets of Warsaw, clutching a loaf of bread he has just stolen, snatching it right out from under the hand of an older boy who was about to steal it for himself.

The older boy, Uri, chases him, and catching hold of him, breaks the bread in two, keeping half and giving half to the boy. Uri takes him to meet the other boys he hangs out with in a stable. Uri, however, lives in the cellar of an abandoned barbershop and brings the young boy back there with him, taking him under his wing. Eventually, Uri makes up an identity with a history for him, calling him Misha Pilsudski, a gypsy separated from his family when a bomb fell on their caravan. Uri and Misha live the good life in the cellar, with plenty of stolen food and a comfortable shelter.

When autumn 1939 comes, so do the Jackboots. Taken in by their massive procession into Warsaw and their shiny black boots, Misha decides he wants to be a Jackboot. In October, he meets Janina Milgrom after eating the last two tomatoes on her father’s plants. She invites him to her birthday, but not understanding what a birthday is, he thinks they are burning the cake when they light the candles. Misha steals the birthday cake and runs off it. After Uri explains birthdays, Misha steals the best cake he can find and leaves it for Janina at her back door.

Uri and Misha continued to live in the cellar of the barbershop, stealing what they need, until they were driven out in the winter of 1939-40. After that, they sleep in a different place every night, but continued to steal food and now coal, which Uri brings to the orphan home run by Dr. Janusz Korczak (the only real life person in this otherwise historical novel.) After seeing Uri do this, Misha starts to leave stolen bread and coal at Janina’s back door.

The following autumn of 1940, Misha witnesses another massive procession. This time it is Jews walking to the ghetto the Jackboots have created. In the midst of them, Misha finds Janina and her family.

Misha continues to steal, though by now everything is scarce, and discovers that he can slip undetected into and out of the ghetto. He begins to divide whatever food and coal he steals between Janina’s family and Dr. Korczak, also in the ghetto with his orphans. No longer with Uri, Misha starts to sleep in the Milgrom’s room, and in time Janina father begins to think of Misha as a son, and he becomes Misha Milgrom. Meanwhile, Janina has discovered how Misha sneaks in and out of the ghetto and she begins to go with him.

When deportations begin in the ghetto, everyone is transferred to concentration camps, including Janina and her father. Misha follows her, but is stopped before he can climb into the cattle car after her by a Jackboot who turns out to be Uri.

In the summer of 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto was completely liquidated, but this is far from the end of Misha’s story.

In an interview for TeacherVision, Spinelli says that he used Misha’s character as a way to retell a known story in a new way, while at the same time it presumes that the reader has some knowledge of Holocaust events. Misha’s lack of understanding allows him to give a unique perspective to what is going on around him. For one thing, it shows how easy it was to be sucked into the outward glitz and glamour of the Nazis without any real understanding of what they were attempting to accomplish. The shiny black boots worn by them blind Misha to their actions – he wants to be one to have the boots, not really understanding that they want to annihilate an entire race of people. It makes me wonder how many children this happened to. When he sees Jackboots cutting the beard and peyos, or sideburns, of an orthodox Jew, he suggests they bring him to the barbershop where he lives with Uri to do it; he has no understanding that an orthodox Jewish man is forbidden to cut his facial hair according to the Torah and what is being done to him is a humiliation and an insult to his religion. Consequently, it is not the action in this novel that makes it so powerful, but rather the imagery that Misha’s words create that really tells the reader the story of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and life in the ghetto.

It is an excellent novel for students studying the Holocaust. Most of the story is divided by seasons, starting in the summer of 1939 through to the summer of 1942, in other words the length of the existence of the Warsaw Ghetto, making it ideal for creating a timeline of events.

Milkweed also explores several important universal themes, particularly about identity and friendship, two ideas that young readers are beginning to think about in their own lives. And while it is also a very disturbing novel, some of the descriptions are quite graphic, yet it is also a compelling work and I would highly recommend it.
This book is recommended for readers age 11 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Streets are often mentioned in the novel and I found this map from the Florida Holocaust Museum's Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust was an excellent way of following Misha’s travels:

Read Jerry Spinelli's interview on Milkweed at Teacher Vision
Teacher Vision also provides links to excellent Holocaust Resources for teachers.Random House has a PDF Teacher's Guide for Milkweed.

If you are wondering about the wall of that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto that Misha and Janina were able to slip in and out of, Wikipedia has this photo from the back yard of Sienna Street 55:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn

It is September 1939 and Rowan Scrivener, 13, is in the fight of his life and it has nothing to do the war between England and Germany and everything to do with the state of his sanity. Rowan has always been a little ‘strange’ but now he is hearing voices in his head. They are getting louder and stronger and they are telling him to do things that hurt people.

His parents decide to put him in an asylum with the strong belief that Rowan will be helped there. The egotistical director, however, is more interested in publishing a razzle-dazzle article on a controversial new form of therapy then in helping Rowan. Electroshock, which sends electrical shocks to the brain, is relatively new and no one really knows what it will do, so the director has brought in a German doctor, Dr. von Metzer, to do some test cases and, diagnosed as schizophrenic, Rowan is an ideal candidate for it. But when Rowan emerges from the confusion of having his brain shocked, the doctors have a really unexpected consequence to deal with – Rowan now believes he is Superboy from the planet Krypton.

Rowan, however, isn't the only test case. He shares a room with Dorothea, a very intelligent teenaged girl with a quick smart mouth, who also just happens to see people’s guardian angels, including her own – Joan of Arc.

My first reaction to this book happened when I judged it by its cover. It has one of the worst covers I have ever seen and after I finished the book, I disliked the cover even more. It completely fails to capture Rowan’s basically kind, compassionate, serious nature. And so it sat on my shelf for a long time. But when I finally started reading, I was hooked before I finished the first page.

Rowan the Strange is set during the first year of World War II – the year of the phony war when no major fighting occurred - outside the asylum. But everyone’s nerves are taut with anticipation. Inside the asylum, deep feelings of hate are running high among the hospital’s staff against Dr. von Metzer, who, they assume, is a Nazi. And I admit, in the beginning, I expected von Metzer to be a Dr. Mengele equivalent. But I soon realized that Hearn turns all our expectations about the characters upside down in this book and, like the cover of the book, forces the reader to see beyond our first impressions.

Ms. Hearn has drawn the characters of Rowan, Dorothea and Dr. von Metzer with such depth, that the loneliness they feel because of their ‘outsider’ status is palpable. But the bond that forms between these three very gentle people is so genuine that it is enviable, especially in comparison to some of the other more socially acceptable but cruel, superficial characters in the novel.

Rowan the Strange is also a YA novel that could, like so many coming of age novels, have a great deal of appeal to an adult audience. It is straightforward story and, though not predictable, it is disturbing. Ms. Hearn’s writing style is clear and concise, and the topic of mental illness well researched. There are detailed descriptions of how electroshock is done and the immediate recovery process, which I found disquieting. There is also an interesting parallel between the treatment Rowan receives in an asylum thought to be compassionate and the so-called ‘euthanasia’ certain children were subjected to in Nazi Germany at the same time.

We live in a world where mental illness is not longer hidden away in asylums, but retrograde often happens, and we go back to doing things the old way. I highly recommend reading Rowan the Strange, first because it is a good, well written story and second, to remind us that asylums are not necessarily good things to go back to. I rather agree with Dr. Metzer’s comments:

“Compassion…human kindness…the effects of these, are far more than the shocks. I have seen and can measure with confidence. Cruelty too. And just recently I have come to a startling thought: is a person’s strangeness always to be seen as such a terrible thing? A thing to be altered, hidden away or even, in extreme cases--” (pg 308)
This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

You can download and read the first chapter of Rowan the Strange at Children’s Books

Julie Hearn received the following well-deserved honors for Rowan the Strange
2009 Shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize
2010 Shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal

More reviews of Rowan the Strange may be found at Linus's Blanket  The Book Bug Write Meg and Vulpes Libris

This is book 9 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah

In Chinese Cinderella: the True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, Adeline Yen Mah told the story of her life growing up in Shanghai, China during the 1940s as the daughter of a prosperous father and a cruel stepmother. In Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, she has taken the same story and turned it into an exciting fantasy novel.

Ye Xian, nicknamed Chinese Cinderella or CC, is 12 when her father throws her out of the house for being disrespectful to her stepmother. She befriends three boys who live with their kung fu teacher, Grandma Wu, at the Martial Arts Academy. David is half American, half Chinese and a Christian; Sam is half German, half Chinese and Jewish; Marat is half Russian, Japanese and Muslim; Grandma Wu is Chinese and a Buddhist. The boys are orphans, very proficient in kung fu, and belong to The Dragon Society, a branch of the Shaolin Association of Wandering Knights, dedicated to helping the oppressed and downtrodden.

Pretty soon, CC has also joined them and becomes quite skillful at kung fu and wishes to join the society. China has been occupied by the Japanese since 1937 and it is now 1942. One night, Grandma Wu and her son, Master Wu, gather the children together and explain a secret plan to help American flyers who are planning to bomb Japan. They soon travel to southeast China, but the plan goes awry and the group end up rescuing 5 Americans who crash land on the Chinese island of Nan Tian. Now, they must get the badly injured Americans to mainland China where they can get medical help, but the sea around the island are patrolled by Japanese soldiers.

They finally do manage to board a sail boat called a Junk, but soon they are pursued by a Japanese gunboat. It looks like they will all be caught when the breeze dies down and the Junk comes to a standstill. But they are saved by Ling Ling, a dolphin that had been befriended and trained by David and her dolphin cousin Bumby.

Back in Shanghai, CC, whose family thinks she has been living with her beloved Big Aunt, is advised to move back home because her stepmother is threatening to accuse her aunt of kidnapping. But living at home doesn’t last long. When CC receives a package from Big Aunt, who has been temporarily living on Nan Tian Island, which incriminates both of them in the rescue of the Americans, her stepmother implies she is going to permanently end CC relationship with her aunt.

CC runs away to Grandma Wu, but they receive very bad news about a violent Japanese attack in Nan Tian, including the death of Big Aunt. CC naturally suspects her stepmother of having a hand in this unusually cruel behavior. At the same time, she comes up with a plan to rescue other Americans being held prisoner by the Japanese at Bridge House in Shanghai, the same prison Marat’s older brother is a prisoner.  Can yet another exciting escape succeed?

I thought this was a very interesting tense story, full of adventure, though sometimes the writing was a little too pedantic. Nevertheless, Yen Mah writes compassionately about these children who are considered to be outcasts by society. The tone of the whole story is one of hope and resourcefulness even in the face of brutality, oppression and vindictiveness – by the Japanese occupiers and for CC, also by her stepmother.  In the face of all that, friendship, overcoming, and even acceptance become important themes throughout the story.

Through CC’s initiation into The Dragon Society, Yen Mah is able to weave extensive explanations about important Chinese culture and beliefs into the story. At the heart of The Secret Dragon Society is the philosophy of Taoism, including the life force Qi (pronounced Chee), the Yi Jing (or I Ching), the concepts of yin yang, the principles of strength, power and control embedded in kung fu and the Chinese Zodiac. Sometimes this gets complicated. For instance, when CC is told to consult the Yi Jing by casting the yarrow sticks before joining the society, I was totally lost. I found the writing confusing here, though it did peak my interest in the Yi Jing and I will probably get more information on it. I am afraid younger readers might just skip over these parts, but hopefully not be discouraged from finishing CCs story.

The central story, the rescue of the Americans, is based on a true event. In April 1942, Jimmy Doolittle actually did lead a bombing raid on Japan, but the outcome was very different than the one in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society.

This book is a historical novel and so there is a Historical Note at the end of the book, which I would recommend reading first. It gives a brief history of the author’s family and the Japanese occupation of China and the true events surrounding the bombing of Japan and its cruel aftermath unleashed by the Japanese against the Chinese. In that way, the reader knows what is factual and what has been fabricated by the author.

Despite some of the problems with this novel, I would still highly recommend it. Personally, I think it would be more beneficial for this novel to be read under the guidance of a teacher, given some of the content. There is an extensive teaching guide available on Adeline Yen Mah’s website that would be very useful for that. And it might be interesting to read this fantasy novel in tandem with its biographical counterpart, Chinese Cinderella: the True Story of an Unwanted Daughter.

This book is recommended for readers age 10-14.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

This is book 2 of my East and SouthEast Asia Challenge hosted by Violet Crush

Monday, July 4, 2011

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

It is 1941 and 15 year old Vidya is a lucky girl. Though she was born into India’s upper Brahman caste, her parents are very liberal; she is able to attend a private girls’ school; and she can dream about the possibility of going to college, a rare privilege for Indian women, who are expected to marry relatively young. And she is exceedingly proud when she discovers that her father, a doctor, is using his medical skills helping the injured victims of Ghandi’s non-violent Freedom Fighters, as they demonstrate against British colonialism and for an independent India.

Vidya seems to have everything until one rash act brings it all to an end. While riding in the car with her father, they are forced to stop when they encounter a Freedom Fighter demonstration and Vidya jumps out of the car to join them. They quickly get separated as she swept into the crowd. Running after her, her father stops to help a woman who has been beaten by a British policeman who then brutally beats him too. Vidya’s father survives, but he is now severely brain damaged, a shell of his former self.

The family is forced to move to Madras, to live with her father’s more traditional family. And it is clear from the start that they are not welcomed. Vidya’s aunt and her cousin Malati treat her with pure resentment and contempt, constantly reminding Vidya that her beloved father is now little more than an ‘idiot’ and no one will want to marry her because of that. The only relief Vidya gets from her new life is escape through the books she discovers in her grandfather’s library. And it is there she meets Raman, another unwelcome person in the house.

As if the move to Madras weren’t enough, after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the war also begins to affect the family's daily lives. A bomb shelter is built in the house, sirens wail and air raid drills begin at night and rationing starts. But when Vidya’s brother, Kitta, announces that he is joining the voluntary British India Army, despite their father’s non-violent beliefs, the war really hits home. The Japanese, he explains to her, are coming closer and closer and would like the victory of taking India, “…the Jewel in the British Crown.” (pg 171)

Throughout everything, Vidya has never told anyone the circumstances of her father’s beating by the British, though she feels completely responsible. It is a difficult burden for a 15 year old to live with. Now with the possibility of never seeing Kitta again, it is doubly difficult. It is beginning to feel like all of Vidya’s hopes and dreams are going be swallowed up by loss and tradition. Can she find the strength to overcome the adverse circumstances she finds herself in, and become the independent woman she wants to be?

Reading Climbing the Stairs made me realize that I know almost nothing about the impact World War II had on India and the role India played. It also made me aware of how little I really know about Indian culture. But Padma Venkatraman has done a wonderful job of weaving together information about both in Vidya’s story.

The first thing I noticed in Climbing the Stairs is the importance of religion. Daily life revolves the Hindu religion and Venkatraman has named many of the chapters after the different religious festivals. As Vidya helps prepare for these days, she also describes for the reader the spiritual reason for the celebration, the preparations involved and the way the holiday is celebrated within the family.

Penkatraman also deftly incorporates the structure and way of life in a traditional Indian household and the difficulties the more modern Vidya encounters as she tries to adjust to living with her extended family in Madras. Vidya had experienced life in this household during summer visits, but living it full time is another story.

Climbing the Stairs is an excellent coming of age set in a time and place many readers might not know about. For me, it was an opportunity to read about the impact of World War II on a young person in circumstances not familiar to me. The story never favors a modern way of life over the traditional Indian way, and it doesn’t ask the reader to make a judgment either. Instead, it shows that the best of both could be part of Indian life. Of course, knowing that India becomes an independent country in 1947, Vidya seemed to me to be a symbol of a new India – a perfect blend of both tradition and modern.

My only complaint about this book is that I would have liked a pronunciation guide for some of the Indian words and a map that showed both the colonial name and the Indian name of the places mentioned.

Other than that, I think Climbing the Stairs is an excellent debut novel by Padma Venkatraman as well as the perfect addition to any reading on diversity and I would highly recommend it

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

The author, Padma Venkatraman has an excellent website where you can find many more resources about Climbing the Stairs and the various aspects of India that are included in the book

Climbing the Stairs has won the following well deserved honors:
2007-2008 Children’s Literature Network, Top 25 Books
2008 Pennsylvania School Library Association Top 40 Books
2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club winner
2009 Capital Choice
Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year
ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults
Booklist Editior’s Choice Best Book of the Year
New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice
National Council of Social Studies CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book

Friday, July 1, 2011


The winner of my first giveaway, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is Marty.

Congratulations, Marty