Monday, December 31, 2012

The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China by Ed Young and Libby Koponen

 About a year ago, I reviewed Allen Say's autobiographical work Drawing from Memory and the effect World War II had on his life growing up in Yokohama, Japan.  Ed Young's The House Baba Built is also an autobiographical work and describes his life in Shanghai, China during the war.

Ed Young's father was an engineer and realizing that war was coming to China, he decided he needed a safe place for himself, his wife and five children to live in.  The safest place would be around the foreign embassies in Shanghai, known as the International Settlement.  But land there was expensive and so Baba (an affectionate term for father) made a deal with a landowner - Baba would built a house on his land with the proviso that his family could live in it for 20 years.  The family moved into the house in 1935 and for the first few years that they lived in Baba's house, life was good.  There was a lovely swimming pool, where friends and family would gather in summer, there was lots of pretend playing, lovely gardens and even a roof that made a great roller skating area.  Life wasn't rich in goods, but it was rich in so many other ways.

But when the Japanese invaded Nanking in 1937, Baba had to build an apartment where the kids roller skated because relatives from there had escaped to Shanghai to live.  After that, the effects of the war began to be felt more and more.  And in 1940 a family who had escaped Hitler's Germany, the Luedeckes, also moved into Baba's house.

The three families living in Baba's house were very fortunate.  Even after things changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the loss of British and American protection, the house that Baba built was able to withstand the war, and even when bombs were being dropped directly on Shanghai, they missed the house completely.

When the 20 years were up, the Young family honored their contract and turned the house over to the landowner.  By then, most of the children had grown, married and gone their own way.

It was during the war, living in Baba's house, that Young discovered his talent as an artist.  Given crayons and paper to use while recovering from a cold, his first attempt at drawing was a cowboy that didn't quite match what was in his mind.  But he sought guidance and the rest is history.  For The House Baba Built, he used a mixed media, which gives it depth and texture.  Young's family is shown in an interesting combination of old photographs and drawings, there are all kinds of collages (my favorite art form), and some of the pages fold out to reveal even more of the life of the Young family in Baba's house.

Most of the book consists of vignettes that are put together to resemble the collages, rather than a linear history of Young's early life.  However, there is a timeline at the end which can help orient the reader if needed.  And there is an extended section at the end of the book of later photographs, including Baba's house, as well as a diagram of the house and some facts regarding how the house was built to bombproof it.

All in all, The House Baba Built is an interesting book for all kinds of readers, but especially a reader who likes to explore each and every page of an illustrated book.  This is a work that proves itself to be an insightful look at some of the early influences on a beloved author/illustrator.

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

Facts First! Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by ProseandKahn

Kid Lit Blog Hop

Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading Challenges

Well, it's that time of the year again, time to wrap up my 2012 reading challenges.  This year I tried not to get too enthusiastic about reading challenges, and there were some mighty tempting ones, too, but I did mange to keep it to a mostly do-able number.  And it turns out to have been a year full of some very good books.

I participated in the Cozy Mystery Reading Challenge hosted by Debbie's Book Blog, but sometime during the summer, Debbie decided to stop blogging.  Of the 4-6 Cozies I said I would read, I completed the following:
1- The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Haines Miller
2- Mr. Churchill's Secretary  by Susan Elia MacNeal
3- Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

I also participated in the European Reading Challenge hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader.  I signed up to read 5 or more books and these are the six I completed:
1- My Brother's Shadow by Monika Schröder (Germany)
2- Night by Elie Wiesel (Romania)
3- Far from My Home, Never to Return by Nadia Seluga (Poland)
4- Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Britain and France)
5- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Denmark)
6- Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus (Norway)

The third reading challenge I read books for was the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.  I read 15 of the 15 books I committed to, which are:
1- My Brother's Shadow by Monika Schröder
2- Private Peaceful by Michael Mopurgo
3- Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
4- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
5- The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Haines Miller
6- The Other Half of Life by Kim Ablon Whitney
7- Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
8- Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus
9- Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
10- Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley
11- Rowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert
12- Black Radishes by Susan Lynn Meyer
13- Becoming Clementine by Jennifer Niven
14- The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper
15- Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

And Anna and Serena at War Through the Generations hosted the World War I Reading Challenge this year and I read 4 books for that:
1- My Brother's Shadow by Monika Schröder
2- Private Peaceful by Michael Mopurgo
3- The Poppy Lady by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh
4- Truce: the Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy

The Sir Terry Pratchett Reading Challenge was hosted by Once Upon a Time and I read:
1- Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I managed to meet at least the minimum amount on all these reading challenges with one exception (and I am highly embarrassed about it) but luckily, it is a perpetual challenge:
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Reading Challenge hosted by Zohar at Man of la Book

And for 2013...
I am still thinking about that, although I am going to definitely repeat some of this year's challenges.  Those are at the moment to be announced.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day: A Good Day to Say Thank You

Today is Boxing Day, but since we don't celebrate it in the US, I thought it would be a good day to take the time to express some gratitude.

First, thank you to everyone again for your kind words about the loss of my cousin's son in the Newtown shooting.  It is a great loss to everyone who knew him and we are all still in a state of stunned disbelief.  We all agree, however, that the kindness of friends and strangers means so much, not just to my cousin's family, but to all the families.  People are truly amazing and generous.  

Second, thank you to everyone at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting their Secret Santa Exchange again this year.  It was great fun participating and I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.  My Secret Santa was Wendy at Literary Feline - Musings of a Bookish Kitty.  She kindly sent me Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett, which I have wanted to read for a long time, and Insurgent by Veronica Roth, which I can't wait to read now that I have finished Divergent.  And a really lovely container of 12 different Flowering Teas.  Tea is my go-to drink of choice, especially while I am reading on a cold winter's day.

And thank you to the blogging community for helping to make so much fun.  Not only did we have BEA in New York City this year, but there was also the really successful KidLitCon organized and hosted by Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production, Liz Burns at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy (whose blogs are int the process of migrating to an improved SLJ server) and Monica Edinger at Educating Alice.  It was great to see old friends and make new ones this year.

I would also like to thank my followers for, well, following and commenting.  You are a very valued part of blogging and make it all worthwhile.

Last but not least, thanks to the people who hosted the memes I participated in as well as the reading challenges.

And I am looking forward to another great blogging year in 2013, thanks to everyone who has touched my life this year.

I am, understandably, a little behind in my reading but will be spending some time this week catching up, so new posts are definitely on their way.

I hope everyone has had Happy Holidays and wish you all A Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sunday Funnies #9: Little Orphan Annie Christmas 1943

December 21, 1943:

December 22, 1943:

December 23, 1943:

December 24, 1943:

December 25, 1943:

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Weekend Cooking #24: Victory through the Ministry of Food: Christmas Pudding

After my dad immigrated from Wales to the US, there were two things my dad always asked my mom to make at Christmastime that represented home for him.  One was a mince pie which he couldn't get enough of, and the other was a nice Christmas Pudding, or pud as he always called it.  I probably haven't had a Christmas pud since my dad passed away, but even though I never really developed a taste for it, I still miss it at the holidays.  In fact, I miss all the steamed puddings my mom used to make for us, but, alas, I never felt very drawn to making any myself.

So I found myself pleasantly surprised when I was going through my Food Facts file for my first post on Victory Through the Ministry of Food prompted by my review of The FitzOsbornes at Way by Michelle Cooper, to find that I had saved a number of saved articles on Christmas puds.  

My favorite is the gay Ministry of Food leaflet for a Christmas Pudding from 1945.   The war had officially ended in September1945, but rationing was still in effect.  However, by Christmas, some things were finally more plentiful and so the Ministry of Food published this leaflet especially for that first peacetime Christmas to help make the holidays somewhat nicer than they had been for the past six years.  

Ingredients that had been missing in wartime Christmas Puddings were back in.  No more grated raw potato in lieu of breadcrumbs, no more grated raw carrot instead of the usual amount of dried fruit and finally there was some more spices, real sugar and even some rum.  Unfortunately, orange marmalade was still being used in place of dried citrus peel, but things were definitely looking up

December 1945 Food Facts Leaflet No. 284
But despite the appearance of improved conditions, Christmas 1945 wasn't quite what it could have been. Granted the blackout was over and bombs were no longer being dropped, but promised shipments of foods failed to meet expectations.  According the news reports, of the three shiploads of oranges that were due to arrive, only one ship made it to port and most of the oranges were bad.  Christmas turkeys, which couldn't be stuffed anyway, were available, but mostly on the black market at outrageous prices.  Shipments of wine and alcohol also didn't come through.  But large gifts of toys, plum puddings and sweets were sent to Britain from Australia, South America and South Africa, so that Christmas 1945 was not without some treats.

And of course, the biggest and best Christmas present of all that year was the end of the war.  

To everyone, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Weekend Cooking is a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Thursday, December 20, 2012

So much tragedy, So much kindness...

When I included this photo in my Happy Chinese post last September, I never imagined that just a few short months later, we would be burying the youngest child in the photo.  But Daniel was one of the 20 children in those classrooms last Friday who never walked out.  It was only days before that that Daniel had given me the story surrounding the history of each of his missing teeth, and then we had gone over his Christmas list, which included a cat and a few toys that also were never going to be under the Christmas tree and a few that would definitely have been there (I had inside information on those).

But yesterday was Daniel's funeral and he was sent off like the firefighter he wanted to be.  Not only did the FDNY come to honor him, along with some pipers from the Emerald Society, but all along the route to the cemetery, firemen from all over Connecticut and New York lined the road, saluting Daniel.
And there were so many people, ordinary citizens who were there, some saluting, some with the hands over their hearts and you knew that people were doing the same thing for all the victims.

Ironically, tragedy always always seems to showcase the best in people.  There have been so many people who have shown so many kindnesses to all the families, that I am reminded of a quote by psychologist Virginia Satir:
Life is not what it's supposed to be.  It's what it is.  The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.
Life was a wondrous playground to Daniel and he loved every moment of it.  And so while we are so terribly heartbroken, we will go on and carry him with us in our hearts and hope it makes a difference.

I do want to take a moment to thank all the people who sent their condolences, including the members of the Kidlitosphere and the members of the Great Books for Children community.  Your kind words were much appreciated.

And for anyone who might have children experiencing difficulty coping because of the events at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Cheryl Rainfield has posted a list of Books to Help Children Cope with Trauma

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Victory through Plane-Spotting

Exactly 68 years ago today, December 15, 1944, band leader and Army Air Force Major Glenn Miller boarded a US Army UC-64A Norseman aircraft at the RAF Twinwood Farm airfield in Bedford, England to fly to Paris unbeknownst to his superiors.  The plane took off at 1:55 BST (British Summer Time) and was never seen again, nor was its wreckage ever found.  Miller and his army orchestra (they flew on a different plane) were scheduled to entertain the troops stationed there, now that the Nazis had been run out of northern France.

There were lots of theories about what may have happened to the plane.  One theory was that the pilot might have been disoriented by the foggy weather and flown into the English Channel.  Another speculated that the plane expereinced some kind of mechanical failure and went down in the Channel.  And still another theory was that the plane may have strayed into a restricted area that was used for returning bombers to jettison their bombs and was hit by friendly fire.  In the end, though, what happened to Glenn Miller and the other occupants of the plane has remained a mystery.  

But now, at least a part of that mystery has been solved and by 17 year old Richard Anderton, who, like so many kids during World War II, was interested in plane spotting.  Anderton worked at the Woodley Airfiled near Reading and kept meticulous records of aircraft flying around the airfield.  What is entry proves is that the pilot was flying on course and on time, which dispells the above theories.  

What ultimately happened to the plane is still a mystery to be solved, and hopefully it will be one day.  

Anderton worked spotting planes, but plane spotting, watching the skies for enemy aircraft, was also a very popular hobby for younger kids from England to the US and as far away as Australia.  It was a way of feeling like they were doing something for the war and being able to quickly identity a plane in the sky became a source of pride and sometimes competition.  Kids quickly learned how to identify planes and in many places the Civil Defense relied on these kids to report any enemy aircraft flying through their skies.  Characteristics like the size, shape of the plane and it's wing were easily recognizable in silhouette and beside school and Civil Defense, kids has any number of ways to learn plane recognition.   For only 10¢, kids could send for manuals like the very popular one from Coka-Cola  called Know Your War Planes.  Author Robert Westall based his character Sonny's interest in plane recognition in Time of Fire on his own interest during the war.  When Sonny's mother is killed by a bomb, he is able to pinpoint exactly what kind of plane dropped the bomb thanks to learning plane recognition from a manual he always carried with him..

And if kids didn't have manuals, there were any number of other way they could learn plane recognition, for instance whenever they played card games they could use a deck of plane spotter cards.  Charts could be found in comic books, magazines and newspapers.  In 1941/42, South Dakota artist Hubert Mathiew drew a "Spot Your Plane" feature in the newspaper which not only showed what the plane looked like, but also told something about it.  And just in case you got hungry while learning plane recognition, Wonder Bread offered Aircraft Spotter Dial, Bond Bread offered airplane recognition blotters and Cushman's Bakery offered Airplane Cards, to name a few.

And last but not least, in 1942 kids were asked to make 500,000 model planes to help train civilians and people in the armed forces in plane recognition.  They made both Allied planes and enemy planes for the military.  They used a template similar to this:

If this reminds you of those lightweight glider planes you may have played with as a child, they are indeed very similar to that.

I couldn't resist this - the Wonder Bread Aircraft
Spotter Dial 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Secret of the Village Fool by Rebecca Upjohn

Brothers Milek and Munio don't like to take the food and clothing their mother asks them to deliver to Anton, a poor man the village believes is a fool.  He is, after all, a man who talks to animals and plants and who never eats meat.  But one day, when a neighbor sees the boys delivering food to Anton, he warns him not to associate with them - they are Jews, after all, and Hitler's men will be coming to their small Polish village soon and taking care of all the Jews there...and their friends.

After the boys go home, Anton thinks a great deal about Hitler and his Nazi soldiers.  And sure enough, that summer they do arrive with their guns and tanks, preceded by their planes and bombs.

And their arrival is eventually followed by rumors that the Nazis are going to round up Jewish families, and that they are separating out the boys and taking them away separately.

Anton, the village fool, also hears these rumors and thinks about Milek, Munio and their parents.  One night, he comes over with a suggestion for hiding the family from the Nazis.  And it was an outlandish proposal - so outlandish it could actually work.

And save them he does.  He dresses the boys up as girls and when everyone's eyes are on the burring Synagogue they are forced to watch, Anton sneaks them away to his house, where he already has two neighbor girls waiting to go into hiding.  Soon Anton and the boy's father are digging out the root cellar to make room for all six people to hide.

The six live in that root cellar for months and months, with a close call when Anton's neighbor suspects he is hiding Jews and calls the Nazis with their dogs.  But again, the village fool manages to fool even the dogs who are trained to sniff out people.

But finally the village is liberated and everyone can come out of hiding.

So often, after reading a fictional account of surviving the Nazis in hiding, the story ends with liberation, but not this one, because the beauty of The Secret of the Village Fool is that it is based on a real story.  At the end, we find out exactly what happened to Milek, Munio, their parents, the two neighbor girls and, of course, Anton, who eventually had the distinct honor of being named as one of the Righteous among Nations by Yad Vashem.

This picture book is a good starting place for introducing children to the Holocaust.  They will learn that Jewish people were hated by the Nazis, that people for forced out of their homes and send away, that children and parents were sometimes separated, and that neighbors either looked the other way or colluded with the Nazis.

But they will also see that not everyone agreed with what was happening, that there was a minority who didn't and some who even risked their lives to help.  Everyone thought Anton a fool because he couldn't read or write, and talked to plants and animals, but in the end, it was he who fooled the well-trained Nazi soldiers and dogs and even a nosy neighbor.

The Secret of the Village Fool was illustrated by Renné Benoit, using earth tones heightening the effect of the story and accenting the earthiness of Anton and with the idea of hiding in a root cellar.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was received from the publisher.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Truce: the Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy

Truce is a wonderful book that not only tells the story of the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, but also gives a coherent, thorough history of the events leading up to the hostilities and just what those terrible first months of war was like in the trenches.

The fact is that most of us don't really remember World War I from our high school history days.  And I know I never learned that World War I could have and almost was prevented.  So I can honestly say that I (re)learned a lot reading Truce.  Jim Murphy has a real gift for explaining history in his well-researched, totally accessible book about how the enemy soldiers stopped fighting in the middle of a war and celebrated Christmas together.  And as he points out, the truce wasn't quite as spontaneous as we have been led to believe.

Murphy explains that there are two sides to trench warfare - the fighting side and the boring side.  The fighting side was basically barbaric, with soldiers charging across a No Man's Land towards the enemy and the enemy mowing them down with all kinds of artillery, including machine guns.  The boring side was waiting in the trenches for the next charge or counter charge.  But, although carnage was taking place on the battlefield, newspapers were publishing stories about victory, causing enlistment offices to be packed with men want to enlist.

The fighting was horrible as were the conditions in the trenches.  The soldiers were plagued not only by bullets and grenades, but also by  "nonmiliitary dangers," like swarms of hungry rats, lice and fleas in their clothing, bedding and food.  And sometimes these can be just a bad.

But sometimes, Murphy writes, when it was quite the soldiers of one side could hear the soldiers on the other side talking, singing, playing music.  Then they began to contact each other from across No Man's Land, exchanging greetings, remarks, even food.

And so, when Christmas came and the men received cards and parcels from home, on both sides of No Man's Land, they were feeling mellow and friendly.  The rest is history...

While the main focus of Truce is on the events leading up to war and the truce of Christmas 1914, Murphy also includes a brief history of the rest of the war and the subsequent conditions Germany was subjected to when they surrendered.  Murphy has written a nicely detailed, well-rounded history, just graphic enough for the intended middle grade reader.  It will hold their interest without turning them off.  Truce is very well documented, and includes maps, photographs, a timeline, notes and sources - in other words, all those things that make an informational text really creditable and user-friendly.    I particularly liked the list of books, poetry, movies and websites where the reader can go to learn more about World War I.

One of the things I have always wondered about was why the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I has become the subject for lots of fiction.  Well, I found my answer in this well-researched, well-written book.  The Western Front was a lot longer than I had ever imagined - two parallel trenches ran 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, separated by a No Man's Land tangled up with barbed wire.  On the eastern side of the front was the German trench, on the western side were the Allied troops from Britain, France and Belgium.  475 miles means that not everyone could have experienced the truce in the same way, leaving it wide open to the imagination.

What a great book!

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 4 of my World War I Reading Challenge hosted by War Through the Generations.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Movie Matinee #2: Christmas in Connecticut

Year after year, television offers up a variety of Christmas movies.  There are perennial favorites like It's a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed, A Christmas StoryA Christmas Carol, and, of course, Home Alone, just to name a few. These are all fine movies, but my very favorite is an old 1945 black and while film I discovered on television when I was about 12 or 13.  

It is called Christmas in Connecticut and is a wonderful, zany romantic comedy.  It stars Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, who writes articles of a woman's magazine, Smart Housekeeping, about life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and baby and includes decorating ideas and menus with recipes for the wonderful meals she prepares for them.  In truth, Elizabeth is a single woman living in a Manhattan apartment and couldn't boil water or diaper a baby if her life depended on it.

The love interest is Dennis Morgan who plays Jefferson Jones, a Navy man whose ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and who spends 18 days in a life raft eating K-rations and dreaming about food and then six weeks in hospital eating mush.

Feeling sorry for Jefferson because he claims he never had a proper home and having finagled an engagement to him, his nurse Mary writes to Alexander Yardley, the owner of Smart Housekeeping, asking if Jefferson could spend the holidays at the Lane farms to experience a real home.  Yardley thinks it's a splendid idea, and that it would even be fun for him to join the festivities.

Luckily, Elizabeth has a friend, John Sloan, with a farm in Connecticut who just happens to want to marry her.  Elizabeth, thinking she will be fired when Yardley finds out the truth about who she is, agrees to marry Sloan in exchange for entertaining Jefferson and Yardley for the holidays.  Elizabeth, Sloan and Felix, the restaurant owner who provides her with the excellent recipes for the articles, all head to the farm.  Conveniently, Sloan's housekeeper watches a baby for a woman working in the nearby munitions factory.

But before the Justice of the Peace can marry Sloan and Elizabeth, Jefferson Jones shows up.  Now here is the sticky part - it is love at first sight, Jefferson and Elizabeth are totally smitten with each other.  Nut, he believes Elizabeth is a married woman, and Elizabeth believes he is engaged to be married.

From this point on, it is a series of close calls with the judge, changing babies (turns out the housekeeper watches two different babies - a boy and a girl), domestic close calls (the best is when  Elizabeth is asked to flip the breakfast flapjacks the way she describes in her articles and it is clear she doesn't know how), shameless flirting and lots of innuendo.

Does love win out?  Well, it's a romantic comedy, so you probably can guess the answer to that.  But, really, the best part of this movies is the journey.

Barbara Stanwyck was really a great comedic actress, but this wasn't showcased enough in her film career.  Certainly, she was as good as Katherine Hepburn, though in a different way.  This was the movie that made her one of my favorite actresses.  And Dennis Morgan wasn't too bad as the love interest, he is mighty good-looking and has a beautiful tenor voice.

As for the war - well, there is the footage of Jefferson's ship being torpedoed and of him and his friend on the life raft.  And Felix, whom Elizabeth introduces as her uncle, actually fled Hungary because of the Nazis.  Interestingly, although there are many mentions of the war, including a dance to sell war bonds,  there is no such thing as rationing, or shortages of any kind.  Ironically, though the film was made during the last year of the war, it was released in theaters three days before J-J day.  People loved it.

Elizabeth Lane is often compared to Martha Stewart, but forget that comparison.  Elizabeth is totally domestically challenged.  However, Elizabeth's magazine feature was modeled on Gladys Taber, who did live on a Connecticut farm, Stillmeadow Farm, and who did write a similar feature in Ladies Home Journal called Diary of Domesticity.  And according to Gladys's granddaughter, copies of Ladies Home Journal were often included in care packages to soldiers.  You can find more about this over at Hooked on Houses along with some wonderful movie screenshots.

And you can find more on Gladys Taber if head over to Letters from a Hill Farm.  Nan has written about Gladys a number of times.

If you are looking for a nice, relaxing holiday movie amid all the hustle and bustle of shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking, baking and the million other things need to get done, get a copy of Christmas in Connecticut, sit back and have a chuckle or two.

This is the trailer that was shown in movie theaters in 1945.  Enjoy!

P.S. There is a 1992 updated remake of Christmas in Connecticut with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson and directed by Arnold Scharzenegger.  I avoid it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Molly's Surprise: a Christmas Story by Valerie Tripp

Original Version
 Back on 2010, I listed Molly's Surprise along with some other Christmas books that are set during World War II, so I thought I would give it a proper review this year.  As you probably already know, the Molly in the title is Molly McIntire, a 9 year old girl living in the Midwest in 1944.

In Molly's Surprise, the holiday's are approaching, it appears it will be a real austerity Christmas for the McIntires, along with the rest of the country.  There will be no real treats because sugar and butter are rationed, no real toys because all metals and paper are going towards the war effort and no Dad, because he is an army doctor and stationed somewhere in England taking care of wounded soldiers.

Molly doesn't mind that their gifts will be practical, she just wants surprises because that is what the McIntires are known for - lots of Christmas surprises.  And she is absolutely sure her Dad will be sending them surprise presents from England.  She just knows he wouldn't let Christmas go by without any of his wonderful surprises.  But then, the always practical Jill, Molly's older sister, reminds her: "This Christmas is different...This is wartime.  There just won't be any wonderful surprises this year.  We have to be realistic." (pg 7)

But soon, there is one surprise and it isn't good. Her grandparents, who were supposed to bring a Christmas tree from their farm, have to cancel their plans.  Their car has a flat tire and rubber has gone the way of everything else for the war effort and they have to wait to get it repaired.

No dad, no grandparents, no tree, no presents - this was not shaping up to be a very Merry Christmas for Molly.

But then more surprises start to happen and they are good.  First,  Jill announces that she is willing to use her babysitting money to buy a tree.  So, Molly and brother Rickey both contribute what they have and the girls go off to find a nice Christmas tree.

Next surprise is a beautiful blanket of snow just in time for a perfect white Christmas.  And in that snow is a third surprise.  One that Molly and Jill decide to hide until Christmas morning.

Is is possible that in the season of perpetual hope the third surprise could be presents from Dad?  Well, maybe and maybe more than just that.

New Addition
Molly's Surprise is the second book in the American Girl series of books about Molly.  It is a historically correct, historically interesting story.  It demonstrates the sacrifices, the forgoing of so many things for the sake of the war effort.  Presents and sweets are much easier to give up, but not having a parent home during the holidays is hard for Molly, like it was for most kids who had a parent in the Armed Services in World War II and just as it is for those kids who have a deployed parent today.  Molly misses her Dad all the time, but especially at Christmas.

I've always liked the books about the historical figures that are part of the American Girl brand.  They do so much towards introducing girls to what it was like to be a girl at a pivotal time in history.  The stories are accurate, detailed and interesting enough to hold girls attention and make them want to find out more.  Aside from the six books in the Molly series, my Kiddo also read Molly mysteries, and a few other nice short stories that were produced, not just about Molly, but about the other historical dolls as well.  The good news is that they are still easy and affordable to find or to simply borrow from the library.

And to insure a high quality to the books, they are all written by excellent authors that you probably already know.  In the case of the Molly books, the author is Valerie Tripp.

Oh, and the books make nice stocking stuffers.  I know Santa stuffed an American Girl book more than once in my Kiddo's stocking.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my Kiddos personal library.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison

When I was 9 and my sister was 16, I read her diary.  I found out all about her life, what she thought and how she felt about a variety to things.  I didn't get caught, so I didn't get punished, but I did suffer an overwhelming guilty conscience for a long time.  Consequently, I have never committed an indiscretion like that again.  Even so, I have to admit that the bare honestly that can be found in a diary still holds a certain fascination for me.  Maybe that is why I like reading published diaries so much. At least you don't have to worry about dealing with a guilty conscience.

Naturally I was very excited when I first heard about Home Front Girl: a Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America.  It is a real diary, begun by Joan Whelan in 1937 at age 14 and runs through to 1943 when she was 20 years old.  Joan was the daughter of Swedish immigrants living in Chicago who grew up to become a journalist and adjunct professor of history at the New School for Social Research, so it is not too surprising that she would have kept a diary as a teen.  After Joan passed away in 2010, her daughter found her diary among her papers and decided to share it with the rest of the world. 

And I am so glad she did because Home Front Girl did not disappoint me.  Throughout her diary, Joan chronicles her thoughts on the ordinary everyday events in her life.  Here, then, is a sampling:

School: Tuesday, April 13, 1937 "Hello!  Tests next week!  Oh, boy! Have pity on me and sympathize."

boys and boys in the R.O.T.C.: Tuesday, April 20, 1937 "...there isn't any R.O.T.C. unit in Greeley [Elementary School] (they do look so handsome in uniforms!)" (pg 3)

first dates: Thursday, January 20, 1938 "Yesterday a boy asked me if I'd go to the dance on Saturday with him.  I told him I'd see - I guess I'll go.  His name is Jack Latimer.  Imagine - my first date." (pg 29)

She also writes about first kisses, singing in the church choir, going to the movies with friends, and the opera with her mom, studying for exams in school and writing a column in the school paper.  In short, Joan lives the the busy life of an intelligent, energetic teenage girl in the 1930s.

But Joan also has a very serious side that is evident when she is writing about life and current events.  It is then that we really get to see how well rounded this vibrant, thoughtful girl is, and we get a glimpse of the woman she became.

To begin with, even as early as 1937, the idea of war scares her: Friday, December 31, 1937 "..I dreamt a war was begun...I was a boy and I knew I would have to be a soldier.  I was afraid to go to war.  I kept seeing trenches, and mud, and horror and pain and things - and killing people - and I was terribly scared inside." (pg 23)

her fears about TB: "P.S. I got tested for T.B. at school today...Saturday, June 4, 1938 "I'm susceptible! Tat is , to T.B.  If I meet anyone who has it, I might catch it..." (pg 50)

Current events: Tuesday, May 2, 1939 We are on daylight savings now.  Germany is giving Poland two weeks to give her the Polish corridor.  Otherwise war.  However, England and France on side of Poland.  So Russia too, maybe...`

But perhaps the most poignant entry of all is the one for Thursday, October 10, 1940, when Joan writes about life for her generation and the impact World War I, the prosperity of the early 1920s and then the depression had on their character development, and on their bodies: "Oh, you, my generation! - we were a lovely lot!  Sharp minds - arguing all the time and brittle bodies and even more brittle laughter - and all the time knowing that we were growing up to die." (pg 143)

Joan Whelen's diary is by turns funny, serious, playful, patriotic, optimistic, pessimistic and moving.  It is supplemented with lots of her own drawings that are part of the diary, as well as photos and newspaper clippings she saved.  It turns out that Home Front Girl is more than just a diary, it is a document of its time and a very interesting window through which to view this eventful period of era.

In truth, Home Front Girl: a Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America was so much better than my sister's diary.

"Sunday, December 18, 1938, 3:00 It's so wonderful to be the
Virgin Mary and almost 16 and so awfully happy on a cold
bright winter day." (pg 87)
Be sure to visit the homepage of Home Front Girl for more information and resources a about Joan and World War II.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was sent to my by the publisher

Friday, November 30, 2012

Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting

Eve Bunting is a prolific and versatile writers with over 100 books to her credit.  On this blog alone, I have written about two of her World War II works - Spying on Miss Müller, a school story, and One Candle, a Chanukah story.  Among her considerable oeuvre is a small but powerful allegory of the Holocaust and what happens when one turns a blind eye to the terrible things that are being done to others instead of standing up for what was right.

The trouble begins in a forest where everything is fine and all the animals get alone well,  That is until the Terrible Things arrive, blocking out the sun and announcing that they have come for all the creatures who have feathers.  Though all the feathered creatures try to fly away, the Terrible Things had brought big nets, capture them all and take them away.  Seeing this, Little Rabbit doesn't understand what was wrong with having feathers, but Big Rabbit tells him not to say anything, and to mind his own business, so as not to anger the Terrible Things.

And so, it went from then on.  The Terrible Things come day by day for the animals of the forest, type by type.  And each time they come, the remaining animals look the other way and ignor the cries of the captured creatures.  Pretty soon, the only animals left are the rabbits.  But one day, the Terrible Things come for them, too...

Introducing the Holocaust to younger readers is never an easy task.  On the one hand, you don't want to scare them so much they can't get beyond their own fear.  On the other hand, as the Holocaust slips further and further into history, it may be difficult for kids to fully realize the importance of the lessons of tolerance we should have hopefully learned from it.  The indirect way Bunting presents both of these concerns in Terrible Things makes it a good book for readers to learn about the Holocaust and for helping kids to understand the consequences of behavior like that of the Rabbits, and for encouraging them to be brave enough to stand up for wrongs.  

Bunting words are chilling and are expertly illustrated in the haunting pencil drawing by Stephen Gammell, which add so much to the ominous feeling in this story.  He is spot on in the way he has captured the fear of the animals as the Terrible Things come for them, but in the sense of isolation each animal type feels as they try to flee:

"But there was no one left to help"
Years ago, I bought a postcard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and have kept it all these years to remind me of the very thing that Even Bunting is writing about in Terrible Things.  Most people will probably recognize the words, since it is a well know quote, but I though I would include it anyway:

Unlike Pastor Niemöller's quote, I should say that Terrible Things does end on a more hopeful note.   Though it is basically a picture book, Terrible Things can easily be used for elementary, middle school and even high school students.   And there are any number of excellent lesson plans available for this book that has so much to offer in terms of teaching kids about courage, tolerance, diversity as well as the Holocaust.  One example of an excellent lesson plan for older students can be found at the Mandel Project.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was bought for my personal library

Friday, November 23, 2012

Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury

Eddy Okubo, 16, may have parents who were born in Japan, but he was born in Hawaii and considers himself strictly American.  Eddy is a smart kid and has already graduated from high school.  So far, though, all has been doing is helping his father out with his boat building business, not really know what he wants to do in life.

Now, Eddy thinks enlisting in the US Army might be something he would like to do after hearing about it from his friends, Chik and Cobra, both 18, who have just been drafted.  Trouble is that his Pop has other plans for him - he wants Eddy to go to Japan to learn about his culture and even expects Eddy to be loyal to the Emperor.  Pop's attitude has caused many clashes between Eddy and his father, who still holds on dearly to his Japanese heritage.

But, with Japan already at war, both are aware that things are heating up on the island for the Japanese who live there and it is no real surprise when the boat they have just finished building is set on fire and sinks.  In an attempt to prove his loyalty as an American citizen, Eddy forges his birth certificate and joins the army.  No sooner does he announce this at home, and his father stops speaking to him.

Seven weeks later, on his first leave, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.  Eddy's father sees the sneak attack as cowardly and shameful and tells Eddy "No make shame for this family.  You go. Fight for your country.  Die, even, but die with honor." (pg 41)  Eddy races back to his barracks, where soldiers are being loaded into trucks, everyone except for Eddy, Chik and Cobra and about 600 other island boys.  Instead, they are given tools and told to dig trenches on the base, and for the first time, they are referred to as "Japs" by their new Lieutenant.  Worse still, as they dig the trenches, machine guns are pointed at their backs, ready to shoot should they make one wrong move.

From then on, life in the army changes for Eddy and his friends.  No longer treated like soldiers, they become "grunts" and "Japs," isolated from the rest of the soldiers.  Eventually, the small number of Japanese Americans are separated from the rest of the island boys and forced to live in tents near the shoreline, again with machine guns pointed their way at all times.  Their job - to shoot any Japanese soldiers who might try to land or be shot themselves.

After a while, they are sent to the mainland, and while traveling to Camp McCoy, WI, they see other Japanese Americans who have been herded into internment camps.  At Camp McCoy, Eddy's unit is finally given the designation the Hundredth Infantry Battalion and for once, their immediate superiors are also of Japanese descent.

After a short stay at Camp McCoy, around 25 members of the Hundredth are transferred again.  A Swiss émigré had managed to convince President Roosevelt that dogs could be trained to sniff out enemy Japanese because they have a different smell than non-Japanese people.  Eddy and his friends are picked to go the Cat Island, MS, where they must participate in the training of army dogs by becoming the "hate bait" necessary to teach the dogs to hate and kill Japanese soldiers under the direction of the Swiss émigré.

This is the longest and by far the most disturbing part of Eyes of the Emperor.  And as I read it, it boggled my mind to think that we could treat human beings with such complete disregard for their lives, since much of what they were forced to do is insulting, humiliating and dangerous.  But remembering his father's words, Eddy always does what he is ordered to do - with honor.

In his very informative Author's Note, Salisbury writes that Eddy's story is based on real events and interviews he had with soldiers from the Hundredth Infantry Battalion Separated (as they were referred to, meaning separated from the rest of the army).  Some of the characters in the story are real men who actually experienced the events Salisbury writes about.  In addition, many of the men in the battalion eventually went on to distinguish themselves in battle when they were finally allowed to do what they had signed up for.  In fact, Salisbury points out that every man who was on Cat Island received at least one purple heart and one bronze star.  Salisbury has written a sensitive, perceptive yet hard hitting novel dealing with xenophobia and how it is experienced by those it is directed at simply because of how they look.  Indeed, this novel resonates even today.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was bought for my personal library

A PDF teaching guide for Eyes of the Emperor and Under the Blood Red Sky, both by Graham Salisbury is available here.

The experience of one Japanese American soldier, Ray Nosak, who was forced to participate in the Cat Island experiment can be found here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and Christopher Gallaz

 I have had Rose Blanche sitting on my bookshelves for years, but I have avoided writing about it for the same reason The Boy in the Striped Pajamas hasn't shown up here - they are both problematic texts with good intentions.

***Spoiler Alert**

Rose Blanche is a picture book about a young girl living in a small town in Germany.  One day, some trucks with soldiers [Nazis] show up and take over the town.  Then, some people are rounded up and put on trucks that drive them away.  Rose, curious about these truckloads of people, decides to follow them.  She follows the trucks out of town and through fields and forests until she comes upon some buildings surrounded by pointy [barbed] wire and where there are lots of children just standing around.  They tell Rose that they are very hungry.

Rose keeps returning, bringing the children whatever food  she could sneak away from home for them to eat.  One night, the soldiers silently flee the area, followed by the townspeople also running away because other [allied] soldiers are on their way to the town.  Not knowing what is happening, Rose takes her food and returns to where the children are, but the place is empty and despite the dense fog, she can see that the children are gone.  While she is standing there, there is a single gunshot.  Rose is never seen again.

I found two real problems with Rose Blanche.  The first was that right in the middle of the first person narration by Rose, the narrating voice switches to the third person.  Why?  Even given her eventual fate, this just didn't need to happen and it was jarring.  I think using a third person narrator would have been better from the start anyway, given the freedom an omniscient narrator has over a first person.

Second problem - Rose's story is just not historical reality.  Her actions just couldn't, wouldn't happen.  It is just not feasible to think that Rose could get away with following, finding, and bringing food to the children in the concentration camp.  Nazi soldiers were simply not that unobservant.  And why doesn't her mother notice the missing food at a time when food was so very scarce?

Roberto Innocenti lived through the war in Italy and because he was afraid and given no explanations about what was happening, he decided to do Rose Blanche as an introduction to the Holocaust for children, in the hope that it would lead to a helpful, informative dialogue between children and adults.  To foster that dialogue, there are no explanations of what is happening, only Rose's very concrete descriptions of what she sees.  And what she see can be found in the very detailed illustrations that accompany the sparse text.  In that respect, it is a perfect example of how a child, like Innocenti himself, might view the world around them sometimes lots of things happening but not enough experience to understand it all.

And so it is left to the adult reading with the child to fill in the explanations - who are the soldiers? who are the children? why are they taken away?  etc.  Which makes this a good classroom/homeschool book for introducing the Holocaust to school-age children.  But this also makes Rose Blanche a story that should not willy-nilly be given to a child to read on their own, it is way too graphic for younger picture book readers.

I really wanted to love Rose Blanche, but in the end, I could only like it.  This being said, this is not a book to just disregard.  There is much to be gotten from it.  A tremendous amount of discussion inducing material can be found Innocenti's wonderfully detailed, claustrophobic illustrations when used in conjunction with hard facts about the Holocaust.  And given that Rose Blanche is named for the German resistance movement die Weisse Rose, any discussion could naturally include ideas about the resistance and the fate of the young people in it.

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

 The Historical Association has an extensive lesson plan for teaching Rose Blanche 
An excellent lesson plan by Laura Krenk and Arlene Logan can be downloaded here 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Weekend Cooking #23: Victory through Cranberries

I was telling a friend of my about a 1941 ad I found in which Ocean Spray had offered a red plastic turkey shaped cranberry cutter that could be gotten with only a label and a dime.  She started laughing heartily.  Her grandmother had apparently sent in the required label and dime, and had received her cranberry cutter.  Many years later, the cutter had been passed on to her mother and it became my friend's job every Thanksgiving to cut out the cranberry turkeys - year after year.

Back in 1941, it must have seemed like kind of a fun, festive addition to the traditional Thanksgiving table.  No one suspected that in a very short time America would be drawn into the war that was already being fought in most of the world after being attacked.

With the country had been at war for a while and things were scarce.  In 1942, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was cancelled for the first time.  Turkeys and all the trimmings were scarce and places at the table left empty by family members serving their country were filled with other members of the armed services invited to share a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner.  But while tables at home may not had had the kind of abundance they had in previous years,    overseas the troops did have a full Thanksgiving dinner, no matter where they were.  And with women off working in factories and munitions plants, often there was no one home to make the dinner.

Amazingly, despite shortages, the cranberry turkey cutter was offered again in 1943, but this time with a difference.  Metal was needed for the war effort, so the familiar cranberry can was replaced with a glass jar, but not just any glass jar.  By now, Ocean Spray, like every other company in the US,  had caught Victory fever and so its new glass jar was a victory glass jar, with the same cranberry contents as before, but also with many reuses.

But with things getting scarcer and scarcer amazingly enough, cranberries were still available, but now at a much higher price than the year before.  And, of course, with war plants again staying open on Thanksgiving, many woman many women were either working or just didn't have the time or energy to make a Thanksgiving dinner.

By 1944, the food that make up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner were really
in short supply, with cranberries being the scarcest.

But, in1945 Americans were celebrating their first peaceful Thanksgiving and the cranberries were abundant, the turkeys were plump and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was back.

Nevertheless, some nice cranberry recipes were still being offered to cooks during the war.  I found this one in a 1943 article about Thanksgiving dinner in New York Times and I am planning on trying it this year.

Spiced Cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 two-inch sticks cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated rind of one lemon
4 cups fresh cranberries

Combine the sugar, water, spices, lemon juice and rind, and boil together
for five minutes.  Add the cranberries and cook slowly, without stirring, till
all the skins pop open.  Chill thoroughly before serving.
(Makes one quart)

During the war, the Red Cross did a lot to help not just servicemen and women, but also refugee children and their families, those left homeless from bombings and prisoners of war.  Thanksgiving 2012 will be a difficult time for so many who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy.  While you are giving thanks for your blessings, please remember those who are not so fortunate at the moment.  If you feel like you want to help, you can text REDCROSS at 90999 to make a $10.00 donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief.

And I hope everyone has a happy, cranberry-filled Thanksgiving.

Weekend cooking is a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Spying on Miss Müller by Eve Bunting

I always enjoy a good school story and Eve Bunting's somewhat autobiographical novel Spying on Miss Müller is not exception.  It is 1941 and Jessie Drumm, 13, and her friends Lizzie Mag (really Elizabeth Margaret after the English princesses), Ada and Maureen all attend the co-ed Alveara boarding school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  And so far, the war has not affected them much.  Still, it doesn't prevent them from convincing themselves that their formerly favorite German teacher, Miss Müller, is really a spy who is somehow sending coded signals to the Nazis from within the school.  The fact that Miss Müller was only half German and that she was also half Irish didn't seem to factor into their thinking.   Now, as the war progresses,  they are giving her the cold shoulder, despite the kindness she had shown her students in the past.

Certain they are right, all the girls need is some concrete proof of her spying.

But how to get that proof?  After Jessie gets up one night to go to the bathroom and sees Miss Müller leaving her room, she decides to follow her.  The only problem is that Jessie loses her on the stairs leading to the roof right near the 'coffin' room, so called because the girls believe it it haunted by the ghost of Marjorie.  Not willing to go further in the dark, Jessie turns back.  No sooner does Jessie return to her dorm and the air raid siren goes off.

What a coincidence, the girls think, that Belfast should be bombed for the first time on the very night Miss Müller is seen heading towards the roof.  Surely she must have sent a signal to the waiting Nazis to send planes and bombs.

As the four friends plan their strategy to follow and catch Miss Müller, Jessie lets their scheme out of the bag to loner Greta Ludowski, a Jewish refugee who got out of Poland before the Nazi invasion, though her parents were not so lucky.  Now her father was dead at the hands of the Nazis and Greta wants vindication.  She demands to be let in on the action to get Miss Müller and make her pay for what her countrymen did.  Then Jessie discovers that she may have something more to worry about.  Her extremely sharp metal nail file is missing and she later discovers it in Greta's possession.  Could Greta be planning something very sinister?

Despite what she says, Jessie still has doubts about whether or not Miss Müller is really a German spy, after all, she had always been so kind to the girls.  But when the opportunity to search Miss Müller's room comes her way, Jessie loses the modicum of doubt and sympathy she may have felt when she finds a picture of her teacher's father, - dressed in a Nazi uniform.

The girls are more determined than ever to catch Miss Müller and expose her as spy masquerading as a teacher, but in the end, Miss Müller has one more lesson to teach her students and it just may be the most important lesson of all.

One of the nicest thing about this novel is the sense of realism that Eve Bunting has created.  She has written that this school story was based on her own experiences at a Belfast boarding school during World War II: "I remember the good times and the bad times.  I was homesick.  There was a war on and our city was bombed.  We listened for air raid sirens, carried our gas masks everywhere, ate food so bad it was indescribable."   All of this and more has been captured so well in Spying on Miss Müller, making it sad, funny, historical, important.

Nazi hysteria gripped much of Britain for quite a while when the Second World War began.  Understandably, people were afraid of invasion, Fifth Columnists, spies and saboteurs and sometimes went a bit overboard with thinking someone was a Nazi.  Kids heard adults talking about this stuff and often got caught up in the fervor.  It is easy to see how a group of students at a boarding school could easily transfer that hysteria onto a half German, half Irish teacher as a way to contain their fear.

This is a tight, well-written novel, as well as one very few novels written for young readers that show what life was like in the war in Northern Ireland.  However, you can get more information about Northern Ireland in World War II here.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from The Bank Street College of Education Library