Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Special: Meet Molly by Valerie Tripp and Have a Molly Halloween

The original Meet Molly
Meet Molly is the first novel of the six Molly McIntire series books from American Girl.  Molly is 9 year old and living on the American home front during World War II.  Her father, Dr. McIntire, had joined the Army when war was declared and is stationed in England, where he is caring for wounded soldiers.  Molly's mother is doing her bit working for the Red Cross.  Molly has a sister Jill, 14, a brother Ricky, 12, and a brother Brad, 5.  Molly's two best friends are Linda and Susan.

It is 1944 and the war is still raging in Europe and the Pacific.  The country is feeling the effects of rationing and shortages, so people really have to be clever and economical about coming up with Halloween costumes and treats.  As the story opens, Molly has been sitting at the dinner table for over 2 hours with a plate of cold turnips in front of her.  Molly, a rather headstrong girl, had refused to eat the turnips and Mrs. Gilford, just as headstrong, refused to excuse her until they were gone.  Molly spent her table time dreaming of the beautiful Cinderella costume she was planning to wear for Halloween, IF her mother would buy the yards of fancy material needed and IF she agrees to sew it for Molly.  This dream, however, quickly hits reality the next day when her best friends are less then enthusiastic about being the ugly stepsisters to Molly's Cinderella.

The newest Meet Molly
But Mrs. McIntire saves the day when she suggests the girls go as Hawaiian hula dancers and shows them how to make a costume using crepe paper, paint and strips of newspaper.  All three girls are very happy with this costume, and go off trick or treating after school, and collecting lots of goodies by the end of the day.  The only problem is Ricky, who has planned his revenge on the girls for having teased him about his crush on Jill's friend Dolores earlier.  And after he ruins their costumes and their treats when he douses them with water, the girls decide to declare war on Ricky and to get their revenge on him.

There are, of course, lessons to learn in Meet Molly about fighting, peace and sharing - good lessons in general but here also very apropos of the time.

In this nicely done chapter book, Valerie Tripp has managed to get much of life on the home front onto Molly's Halloween story.  There is Mrs. Gilford's Victory Garden that didn't do as well as hoped because of the excessively hot summer; Mom's job that takes her away from home so much of the time; missing Dad and wondering whether he is alright and of course, wanting things to be the way they used to be.  And at the end of the novel, there is short "A Peek into the Past" which covers the cause of the war and tells something about how life really was for kids like Molly on 1944 home front.

I love a good activity book and a nice companion to Meet Molly is Have a Molly Halloween, an activity book for making the kinds of Halloween treats, games, and decorations Molly might have made in 1944, along with instructions for making Molly's Hawaiian hula costume and her brother Ricky's pirate outfit.  There are a total of 37 activities in the book along supplies for making six crafts, including beads, pipe cleaners, and stickers.  All of the activities are easy and fun for kids to make.  Have a Molly Halloween is currently out of print but you can still find it online, and often with the craft supplies intact and for a reasonable price.

These are two favorites we did in my house over the years:

The trick or treat bags were especially popular and we also bought some small brown paper bags, decorated them with Halloween designs, fill them with some candy and tied it all up with twine to give to any trick or treaters who can to the door.  It was a lot of fun and a nice family project.

Halloween wasn't really celebrated during World War II, certainly not the way it is nowadays.  Sugar was rationed, limiting the kinds of treats people could give to kids.  Popcorn balls and donuts were very popular, as were apples, which were never rationed.  With the country at war, some tricks would have just been too mean to play on people and rationing took care of things like soaping windows or toilet papering trees.  And of course the blackout meant NO lights, so evening trick or treating was out of the question.  Instead, many people chose to just have parties at home, doing things like dunking for apples, pin the tail on the devil and other easy to do games.  And what could be better in a darkened world than  telling scary ghost stories.  Scouts, churches and other organizations also threw parties for kids, either after school or on the weekend.  Wherever the party, it was a chance for kids to demonstrate their creativity coming up with costumes and decorations using whatever was at hand, unless you were one of these kids who were lucky enough to have a popular Army, Navy, Air Force kid-sized uniform or the ever popular nurse costume to wear.

From Have a Molly Halloween
However you choose to celebrate the day,

I Wish Everyone a Happy, Safe, Fun-filled Halloween

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jump into the Sky by Shelley Pearsall

Imagine being a 13 year old African American boy living in Chicago with your aunt during WWII while your father is away in the Air Force.  Imagine further that one morning, out of the blue, your aunt tells you it is time for you to see your father again and that afternoon, without even saying good-bye to your best friend, you find yourself on a train heading to Camp Mackall in North Carolina.  Sounds pretty harsh, doesn't it?

Jump into the Sky begins in May 1945.  The war has ended in Europe but not in the Pacific.  And not in the south either, where Jim Crow stills reigns.  Young Levi's first experience of that happens when he changes trains in Washington DC and is put in an almost empty car right behind the coal-burning engines.  There he meets an older man who gives him his first lesson in Jim Crow laws.

Levi is astounded by what he hears, so much so he doesn't believe what he has been told until he finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun while trying to buy a Coke in a store at the end of his journey in Fayetteville.   He manages to get out of the store alive, though not before experiencing a little more Jim Crow welcome.  Afraid and humiliated, Levi starts walking the miles to Camp Mackall, where is father is stationed.  Along the way, he is picked up by a black soldier, but discovers that his father, Lieutenant Charles Battle and the rest of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the country's only all black unit in the Air Force, has been moved on to Oregon.

Luckily for Levi, the one member of his father's Battalion still around because of an injury finds Levi and takes him home, where he ends up living for the first part of the summer.  Cal and his wife Peaches both know Levi's father, so there is some comfort in that.  And as soon as Cal's injury is healed, he gets his orders to head to Oregon, too.  What a surprise when they find that 555th's assignment is to fight fires along the west coast.

In Oregon, the story begins to diverge.  On the one hand, Levi and his father had been separated for three years and both have changed a great deal.  Now, they must get to know each other and for Levi that means learning to trust his father as well as himself.  Levi has a history of people leaving him, including his father and his mother.  And now he has an aunt who no longer wants to take care of him.  Can things work out somehow so that he and his father can get along and live together?

On the other hand, there is the historical aspect of this novel.  Pearsall, who I was surprised to discover is not African American, has managed to convey the scathing hatred most whites had towards blacks in the south.  The fact that Levi was so naive about the rules and mores makes his time spent there all the more poignant.  Twice I felt myself getting angry and scared for Levi as he went through his baptism by fire.

And there is the other historical aspect - the heroes of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.  No one back in Chicago really believed that his father was really doing what he said he was doing for the war but it turned out to be true, much to Levi's surprise.  In Oregon, the 555th were assigned to fight the fires resulting from fire balloons the Japanese were sending over.  These balloon bombs carried incendiary devices meant to explode and start fires wherever they landed.  Most people really didn't believe this was happening including the men of the 555th, and Pearsall realistically portrays the frustration these men must have really felt after all their elite training and knowing they were being laughed by people.  **Not a spoiler, but an historical fact** It turns out, the Japanese really did send over 9,000 of these balloon bombs.

Jump into the Sky is a nice coming of age adventure story with well developed characters and realistic settings.  I thought Pearsall gave us a clear, informative window into what life may have been like for some African Americans on the American home front at that time in Chicago, North Carolina and Oregon.

One more thing - why was Aunt Odella so anxious to get rid of Levi?  Well, I didn't see the answer to that coming.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was obtained from the publisher

More information about the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion can be found here.

Below is a short video of the men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion training in Oregon

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova

Military tactics of the Nazis when conquering countries was an early morning blitz attack from the sky by the Luftwaffe, dropping bombs cities, towns and villages to assert their power and scare people, followed by an invasion of foot soldiers who took over everything while folks were still stunned.  That is exactly what the Nazis did on the morning of April 9, 1940 in Denmark and Norway.

Mary Casanova's novel, The Klipfish Code, begins just this way.  In a small village in Norway, the blitz bombing has just woken up 10 year old Marit Gundersen and her family, giving them no time to even get down to the cellar for shelter.  When it is all over, the house is in shambles, and beloved heirlooms destroyed.   It doesn't take long for Marit's parents to decide to send her and her young brother Lars to live with their Aunt Ingeborg, a teacher, and their Bestefar, a grandfather with whom Marit does not like or get along.

As the summer days go by, the German presence increases all around Norway, including the small fishing island where they are now living, but luckily for Marit, she soon meets Hanna, a girl her age and the two become best friends.  And, though Bestefar is a fisherman, Marit is kept busy with chores on the small farm he owns.   Marit assumes she and Lars will go home to begin school when September arrives, but she is told they will be staying put and will go to school there.  Aunt Ingeborg is Marit and Hanna's teacher.

Meanwhile, Marit notices that Bestefar is away on his fishing trawler more and more frequently, and for days at a time, which is fine with her since it means she doesn't have to put up with his constant criticism.  But when he is home, and Marit watches as he submissively hands over milk, cheese, eggs and any other food as their "donation" to the German soldiers, leaving barely anything to the family to live on, she gets angrier and angrier at his lack of Norwegian spirit.

After all, as Marit notices, other Norwegians are surreptitiously showing their solidarity to Norwary, to King Haakan VII, forced to flee during the invasion, and to the Resistance by wearing a paper clip or drawing the H7 enclosed in a V for victory*.  What's wrong with Bestefar, that he doesn't do anything?  Even when the Germans arrest Aunt Ingeborg in the middle of class one day for defying one of their order, he remains submissive.  And why don't her parents write more frequently, after all she hasn't seen them in two years, now?  What are they doing?  Marit is full of anger, but also frustrated that she can't do anything to help Norway.

That is until the day she races out of the house after angry words with Bestefar and stumbles on a young man who has been shot by the Germans and who turns out to be a Resistance worker.  Though he is seriously injured, Marit, now12, manages to get him to the loft in Bestefar's barn to hide, but she is finally forced to ask Hanna's mother, a nurse, to come look at him.  Near death, Henrik asks Marit to complete his mission for him: delivering a compasss to a house in another village and to tell them she needs a bucketful of Klipfish.  It is a dangerous journey, not just because Marit would be drawn into Resistance activities, but the weather is against her as well as her own strength needed row a boat through treacherous waters.  And worse, she would have to take Lars with her and put him in danger, too.

Now, given this opportunity to do something against the Nazis,  does Marit have the courage to act on her convictions.  Can she do what she believes Bestefar can't do?

There are two common threads running through all the WWII books I have read for children, teens and adults.  The first thread is that each story, real or imagined, is unique.  This may be due to the fact that so many are based on real events and in real life, everyone experiences the same event differently.  The second tread is that no matter how different the story, a some point the protagonist will be asked to do something they didn't think they were capable of.  And yet, so often, they do what they must, even when they are afraid, and at great risk.  Sometimes they live to tell the tale and sometimes they die, but either way they act, they do something to sabotage the Nazis - even something as seemingly small as delivering a coded message concealed in a compass.

The Klipfish Code is told from Marit's point of view, so we are privy only to her thoughts, observations and conclusions.  And the reader can watch her process as she begins to feel she needs to do something to thwart the Nazis in some way, and to demonstrate her loyalty to Norway.  It isn't enough to just hate Nazis, that would make Marit too much like them.  So, what we really see is how fear, determination, conviction and courage coalesce in Marit, and result to action.  And that is what makes this such a great middle-grade novel.

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

Because The Klipfish Code offers such wonderful teachable aspects of WWII, there is a Teaching Guide available here.

* Here is the symbol of loyalty to King Haakan used all over Norway during the Nazi occupation.  It consists of the king's monogram with Churchill's V for victory added.  This particular image come from the Teaching Guide.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Princess Elizabeth's Spy ( A Maggie Hope Mystery #2) by Susan Elia MacNeal

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the second mystery in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal.  When last we left our WWII heroine, Maggie Hope in Mr. Churchill's Secretary, she was leaving her post as a typist for Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain to begin espionage training for MI-5 (Military Intelligence Section 5).  Maggie, after all, is a gifted mathematician with a degree from Wellesley College and was on her way to graduate school at MIT when the war broke out while she was visiting England.

Unfortunately for Maggie,  spy school doesn't work out quite as well as she had hoped and now MI-5 is going to reassign her.  Her new assignment is to go undercover at Windsor Castle as the maths tutor to the 14 year old Princess Elizabeth.  In reality, she is to be on the lookout for any unusual activity that might put the future Queen of England in danger.  And, indeed, there does seem to be a plot underfoot to replace the reigning Royals with the recently abdicated, Nazi admiring Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, once the Nazis have invaded England.  And the Princess Elizabeth would definitely be an obstacle to these plans.

Arriving at Windsor, Maggie quickly discovers that the good part of living there is that it isn't a target for the bombs Germany has been dropping mercilessly throughout England; the bad part, no special advantages for royalty - it is terribly cold and everything is rationed.  Nevertheless, she quickly forms a rapport with both Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and easily adjusts to castle life, making only a minimal number of faux pas.

Maggie isn't at Windsor long, however, when Lily, a lady-in-waiting at the castle, is decapitated while out riding with the two Princesses by a wire attached to two trees and strung across the riding path.  But, perhaps the wire had actually been meant for the Princess Elizabeth instead?  And the plot thickens  even more when Maggie accidentally discovers a missing decoded message in one of Lily's books.  The Germans were pretty confident that their messages, sent using an Enigma cypher, were safe and that no one could break their code. Why did Lily have it and is her death connected to the murder of the woman who is suspected of stealing the decoded message from Bletchley Park?

To make Maggie's life even more complicated, the mystery surrounding her father, a spy for MI-5 working at Bletchley Park deepens.  Edmund Hope had been suspected of being a double agent in World War I, but nothing was proven.  Is he somehow connected to the stolen decoded message and a traitor to his country in this war?

And what about Maggie's love interest, John Sterling, RAF pilot shot down over Germany?  Is he dead or alive?

Series books tend to get better and better with each new book and that is true of Princess Elizabeth's Spy.  First books in a series are concerned with introducing important recurring characters and telling why they are there.  Second and subsequent books can get right down to business and that is exactly what Susan Elia MacNeal has done here.  Princess Elizabeth's Spy is chock full of mystery, intrigue, suspense and, my favorite, historical fact so excellently mixed in with historical fiction.

Maggie remains a charming protagonist, the more so because, as intelligent as she is, she doesn't get things right ALL the time.  Maggie, like all of us, is sometimes blinded by her own biases towards people which can cloud her judgement.

It is pretty obvious as you read Princess Elizabeth's Spy that MacNeal has done her research well.  The story is full of actual historical characters, some familiar like Churchill, others less familiar, like the Duke of Windsor, or Walther Schellenberg, head of Abwehr (German Intelligence Service).  I did find that the portrait of the Princess Elizabeth and the Princess Margaret that MacNeal paints for her readers, like that of Churchill, makes them feel more human but no less royal and the sense of duty that has been a hallmark of the present Queen Elizabeth's reign is very apparent in her younger, fictional self.  The fact that the Princesses knew their way around the dungeons below Windsor Castle was a very nice, fun touch.  But what personally interested me were all the bits surrounding codes in the novel, from the Enigma to the simple code Maggie taught Princess Elizabeth.  Codes and cyphers have always fascinated me and lately it seems I have been reading a lot of books dealing with them.

Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the kind of mystery that has lots of crossover appeal for YA readers, including a very titillating ending.  Of course, given the ending, now I can't wait to read the third book in the Maggie Hope series, His Majesty's Hope, due out May 2013.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an ARC sent to me by Random House

This is book 3 of my Cozy Mystery Reading Challenge hosted by Debbie's Book Bag
This is book 15 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekend Cooking #22: Victotry through the Ministry of Food

This week I reviewed The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper and it prompted me to revisit one of my old Weekend Cooking posts, Victory through Carrots.  You see, in this book, Sophie FitzOsborne, 18, get a job in London with the Ministry of Food as a way of doing her bit for the war.  I really chuckled to myself when I came to Sophie's journal entry for 23rd November 1939 and read:
"...my department is in charge of Food Education.  It's our job to inform housewives how to cook a week's worth of meals with only four ounces of butter and twelve ounces of sugar, and to convince the British public that turnips and carrots and brown bread are far more delicious (and patriotic) than steak and bananas and chocolate cake.  There is still debate about how we are to achieve these seeming impossible goals, but the plan is that there will be official "Food Facts" articles printed in the newspapers..."
I had just finished doing some work on the Ministry of Food and, as you can see, Food Facts did indeed begin showing in newspapers all over Britain in 1940.  The idea was to help women feel that they, too, were doing their bit for the war by being part of the "Kitchen Front"while feeding their families healthy, nutritious meals despite rationing, which lasted in Britain for 14 years.

Times of London September 5, 1940
Times of London November 18, 1940
Naturally, root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and parsnips factored heavily into the Kitchen Front because they could be easily planted in allotments, on top of Anderson Shelters and even in small tubs.  And they were never rationed because there always seemed to a good root vegetable crop.

A woman waters her garden on top of her Anderson Shelter

In 2010, the Imperial War Museum, London, has an exhibition devoted to the Ministry of Food.  Below is a short video by James Taylor talking about the role of the Ministry in World War II.

Weekend Cooking is a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

The Fitzosbornes, royal family of that small fictional Channel island Montmaray, are back in this third and last book of the trilogy.  As you may recall in Book I, A Brief History of Montmaray, the FitzOsbornes - Toby, Sophie, Henry (Henrietta), cousin Veronica and half cousin Simon - were forced by the Nazis to leave their island home and head for London.

And in Book II, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, we found them hobnobbing between London and their Aunt Charlotte's Milford Park estate in Dorset.  However, there was war in the air and both Toby and Simon decided to enlist in the RAF.

All the FitzOsborne doings have been relayed to us through the journals of HRH Princess Sophia FitzOsborne and in Book III, The FitzOsbornes at War, this tradition continues.

Sophie, now 18, begins her journal appropriately enough on September 3, 1939, the day that Britain and France declare war on Germany.

With England now at war, and Toby and Simon in the RAF, Sophie and Veronica both wish to do their bit to help and even manage to convince Aunt Charlotte to let them move into a small apartment behind the larger Montmaray House in London.  Veronica, who speaks fluent Spanish, gets a job in the Foreign Office, while Sophie begins working for the Ministry of Food, a job she does not consider very important to the war effort.

And so life goes on under wartime conditions, with air raids, food shortages, and eventually, bombings.  All the while, Veronica travels to Spain for long periods of time to translate for high ranking officials and diplomats, and Sophie works and hangs out with friends Julia, who has volunteered to be an ambulance driver, and Kick (Kathleen Kennedy, daughter of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, sister to Jack and Ted), everything faithfully recorded by Sophie in her journal, as the war becomes the new normalcy.  Sophie does occasionally still see Rupert, Julia's brother, but he is working on something top secret and doesn't have much free time.  Even so, they find they are more and more attracted to each other.  But then, Toby goes missing while flying a mission over France, believed to have parachuted out of his burning plane.  And it is as if he vanished in thin air, there seems to be no information about him to be found anywhere.

Sophie's wartime journal covers 4 years this time, from September 3, 1939 to November 28, 1944, with one entry dated August 28, 1948.  There are, of course, long periods of time elapsing between journal entries, so most are really summaries of what has been happening, which I think works better than lots of more frequent entries, less confusing to the reader.

I wrote in The FitzOsbornes in Exile that it was more of a historical novel than A Brief History on Montmaray, and I can honestly say that this third novel is even more historical the both put together.  How could it not be?  However, Cooper has blended fact and fiction so well, that the divide between them seems almost seamless here, yet the historical information is still quite obvious so that the reader doesn't make the mistake of believing the fictional bits really happened.  Clever that.  And Cooper has used historical events to help move the story along without overburdening the readers with names and dates and stuff like that.

The main characters are still believable, well-developed and sympathetic.  Sophie is no longer the young innocent girl she was when we first met her in 1936, nevertheless, she still retains some of her youthful naivety, even in the face of finding true love.  Veronica is still Sophie's opposite, rather more interested in the intellectual side of life than the emotional side.  And Henry is still Henry, sweet, charming, always exuberant and optimistic.

Does The FitzOsbornes at War stand up to it predecessors?  Yes, it most certainly does.  It is a most worthy sequel to the first two books, though I am not sure it would work very well as a stand alone novel.  It doesn't have quite as much wit and fun as before, but there is still enough action, adventure, danger and even love to satisfy, in fact, sometimes there are even some real nail-biting moments.  And sadly, there is one spot where you might want to have some tissues handy.

And here's the rub - rather than taking my time and savoring this last FitzOsborne novel, I read it almost in one sitting.  I simply couldn't wait to see what was in store for these favorite characters.  Then, I got to the end and I asked myself, why did I race through this book that I had been so looking forward to reading and now I have to say good-bye to because I'd finished it and there were no more FitzOsbornes on the horizon?  So if you like the FitzOsbornes as I do, try not to rush to the end.

That said, and as much as I enjoyed The FitzOsbornes at War, I did find two things that bothered me.

1- Henry!  I can't say more.  The problem with writing about this book is that no matter what you write, it could easily end up as an unintentional spoiler.

2- I did not like the way Toby's homosexuality was handled.  It was brought to light in The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and became a non-thing in this novel.  What happened????  It just vanished...

To her credit, Cooper took a page out of JK Rowling's books and included on post-war journal entry wrapping this up for the reader.  Not all is a happy ending, but at least you won't wonder.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from Random House through Edelweiss (and it will be available on October 9, 2012 in the US)

The FitzOsbornes at War is a wonderful personal read, but it is also so full of history that teacher's may want to supplement their WW2 classes with it, and if so, you can download an extensive Teacher's Guide from Random House Australia.

This is book 14 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

Sunday, October 7, 2012

KidLitCon 2012

The 6th annual KidLitCon was held on September 28 and 29, 2012, but it was the first time I have been able to attend so I was super excited, especially since it was held in my favorite place - New York City and in my favorite library - the research branch of the NYPL.  What could be better?  At KidLitCon, bloggers from all over the country gather to talk about all kinds of issues relating to blogging and kitlit.  It is both social and information, and a great way to meet people you sometimes only know in cyberspace.

Here is some of what I did during KidLitCon:

On Friday, September 28th, there were visits to publishers.  In the morning, I, along with some of my fellow bloggers, went to the offices of Holiday House, where we were graciously welcomed by Hayley Gonnason and some of the talented people who work there.  First, we were shown some of the incredible artwork done by different illustrators over the years and then we were told about some of the exciting new books coming out in 2013.  This was followed by a visit from the husband and wife team of Betsey and Ted Lewin.  Both have new and wonderful books due out in 2013, too.

In the afternoon, I was off to HarperCollins wth more of my fellow bloggers.  There, we were welcomed by Mollie Thomas and several of their terrific editors.  HarperCollins gave us a really in-depth survey of all the different books coming out in Winter 2012 and Spring 2013.  And, may I say, there are some pretty exciting books to look forward to reading.

(Grace and baby -
 csrtsey of Sondra Elkund
at Sonderbooks)
At both publishing houses, we were given a bag of books and galleys, which should keep us busy reading and blogging for a while.  In fact, their were so many that I decided to hop on a bus home before going off to dinner at IchiUmi, a very nice Japanese restaurant.  At dinner, we had the pleasure of hearing Grace Lin telling us about her new book Starry River of the Sky as well as how she came to embrace her Chinese heritage and culture.  Lin, like so many first generation kids in this country (myself included), wanted to be American and rejected all her parents efforts to introduce and educate her about things Chinese.  It wasn't until she was in Italy studying art, that she suddenly realized that while she had been so intent on becoming an artist in the European tradition, her true art self was really to be found in her Chinese past.  And so she began to study Chinese art and started writing wonderful books for young readers that reflected her Chinese art self.  Grace was there with her husband and her really cute baby girl.

On Saturday morning, I arrived at the library around 9:30 and was welcomed by my two favorite NYC lions, Patience and Fortitude.  But just beyond them, hanging out on the steps waiting for the library to open and KidLitCon2012 to officially, begin were a bunch of bloggers.  There, I ran into some old friends (that's Pam of MotherReader holding up a book) and met some new bloggers.

(Picture curtsey of Sondra Elkund at Sonderbooks)
Eventually we made our way down to the auditorium, and I mean down.  The library used to be the reservoir for NYC and as you go downstairs, you can see part of the wall from it that was preserved when the libary was built.  After some opening remarks, we were off to our varying sessions.  My first one was called Community-Building On and Off the Blog: Secrets, Tips, and Cautionary Tales, moderated by Sheela Chari, Sayantani Dasgupta, and Michelle Schusterman.  They covered lots of helpful ways to attract readers and keep them coming back and they have posted a recap of what was said on their blog From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors.

My second session of the morning was with Greg Pincus and was called Avoiding the Echo Chamber: Bringing the World of Children's Literature to the World.  Greg, whom I was so happy to finally meet, talked about finding your niche in kidlit blogging, so that you stand out from others.  And he has also posted a recap of his talk on his blog The Happy Accident (Greg also blogs about his thoughts, ramblings and original poetry at GottaBook).

We broke for lunch for an hour and I walked over the Pret-a-Mange for a sandwich and ran into Donna Miskind, an artist and blogger whom I had just met earlier.   After lunch and conversation about what is fine art, we headed back for a panel discussion on How Nice is too Nice? Critical Reviewing and "Niceness."  This was moderated by Jennnifer Hubert Swan (Reading Rants), and presenters were Betsy Bird (A Fuse #8 Production), Liz Burns (A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy), Monica Edinger (Educating Alice), Marjorie Ingall (Tablet Magazine), Sheila Barry (Groundwood Books), and Maureen Johnson (author).  Niceness is an important topic for bloggers in view of some of the things which have occurred lately, such as one blogger being threatened by an author for less than stellar review.  And each of the presenters had excellent, well thought out ideas on this topic.  Perhaps Liz Burns summed it up best when she said you can be negative without being nasty.  Luckily, there is a detailed recap written by Mahnaz Bar, which you can read at the School Library Journal.

My final session of the day was The Benefits of Blogging with Diane Estrella.  This was also an information-packed session, and we were given a very useful handout, which Diane has posted along with a great recap on her blog, That's What I'm Here For.

The last event of the day was the keynote speaker who happened to be YA author Maureen Johnson.  Well, it was really the anti-keynote.  Maureen brought along her friend, YA author Robin Wassermann  (yup, you know her, she wrote The Book of Blood and Shadow).  So the keynote was really a conversation with them and the audience.  And it was fun and funny and the best keynote I have ever heard.
But golly gee, it is hard to give a recap of this "speech" because I was so caught up in enjoying it so much that I didn't take any notes, but luckily, Maureen Johnson posted her really informative outline for the speech on her Twitter feed (Betsy Bird apparently also found it).

AND, lucky us, we were all give a copy of Maureen's latest book, The Name of the Star.

All in all, it was a wonderful KidLitCon and I can see why people might want to travel far and wide to attend it.  And I would like to extend a really big thank you to the organizers Betsy Bird, Monica Edinger and Liz Burns, who all did such a fantastic job of making it all work so well.  And thanks to the NYPL for letting us use the library's facilities for free.

And one last thing:  the most frequently heard comment on Friday and Saturday - "I wish it were in New York every year."

One more last thing. if you happen to be in NYC, Betsy runs a Children's Literary Salon once a month at the NYPL  The next one will be on Saturday, October 20th at 3:00 PM and the topic will be Bullying in Books for Youth.  I have always enjoyed going to the Children's Literary Salon whenever I can.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time of Fire by Robert Westall

People sometimes ask me what my favorite WWII book is out of all that I have read.  It is hard to answer that question because everything I have read so far has at least some redeeming quality of showing how the war impacted the lives of the children (and the occasional adult or animal.)

One of my favorite authors, however, is Robert Westall.  Westall wrote my favorite WWII animal story, Blitzcat, capturing the influence one cat had on the lives of so many while searching war-torn England looking for her true human, after her owner joined the war effort.

Then I read The Machine Gunners, which I thought wonderful, even if it did have a very unlikable protagonist.  And now I bring to this blog another Westall book, Time of Fire.

Like all his friends, 10 year old Sonny carries his aircraft-recognition book everywhere he goes, so when a German plane drops a bomb on the store where his mother is shopping, killing her, he knows it was a plane they called the Flying Pencil.

In despair, Sonny's father decides to join the RAF to seek revenge on the plane that killed his beloved wife and changed their happy lives forever.  Sonny is sent to live with his grandparents in their coastal home near Newcastle.  As Sonny settles into life with his grandparents, helping them safeguard their home with sandbags and barbed wire, working in the garden and listening to the wireless together for news of the war, he develops a strong relationship with his Granda, a man who patiently answers Sonny's questions and is always willing to teach him about life.  Perhaps the most telling example of that is the way he guides Sonny into slowly and methodically making friends with a war-traumatized dog, whom he eventually wins over and names Blitz.

But Sonny has a guilty conscience.  His Mam was in the store buying matches because Sonny had forgotten about them in his rush to buy the newest copy of Wizard, a magazine for boys.  So when his father's attempt at revenge comes to an end when he is shot down, Sonny decides it is now up to him to avenge his mother's death.

But what can a young boy do?  In a Robert Westall story, plenty!

Unlike the kitty in Blitzcat or Chas in The Machine Gunners, Sonny does not have a strong single- minded focus.  But like them, Sonny is eventually faced with a difficult dilemma.  When faced with having to choose life or death, will he let revenge control his decision or rise above it?

For that reason, and despite being a World War II novel, Time of Fire might still resonates for today's readers.  Revenge seems to have become such a prevalent way of dealing with the small personal injuries in life today, that watching Sonny's struggle between doing the right thing or getting his revenge for his Mam's death might just help decide a future action on a reader's part (assuming we are what we read, of course).

I have to admit that after reading The Machine Gunners, I was a little put off Robert Westall's WWII novels, but I am glad I have now returned to them.  Sonny is a very appealing main character, making it easier to root for him.  And the portrayal of Nana and Granda is superb.  I wish they were my grandparents.  You can just feel the love in their home.  Even the bickering is done with love.  This was the same atmosphere in Sonny's home before his mother was killed and his otherwise happy, content father's personality turned black.  It makes you realize how fleeting happiness can be.

Like Michelle Magorian (Goodnight, Mr. Tom and Back Homeamong others novels) Robert Westall is a master at creating a realistic picture of the British home front in World War II.  Unlike Magorian, Westall really had experienced the war first hand, growing up in the same area that he sets his stories in, always making them so very rich in details not necessarily commonly known.

This book is recommended for readers aged 9+
This book was borrowed from the Seward Park Branch of the NYPL

Robert Westall as a boy in North Shields, England.