Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, it is the end of another reading year and time to wrap up my 2013 reading challenges.  Each year, I try to be a little less overly enthusiastic in the number of challengers I chose to participate in.  Interestingly, this year was almost a complete repeat of last year.

I always like to join in the challenge hosted by War Through the Generations and this year's choice was  the American Revolution.  I committed to reading 4-10 books/films and actually completed 4.  They are

1- Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi
2- Felicity, An American Girl 1775 (Film)
3- Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
4- Friends of Liberty by Beatrice Gormley

The second challenge I participated in was the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.  Now, this should have been easy peasy, but I keep forgetting to count the books I have read, so I committed to reading 15 and actually remembered to count the following 15:

1- A Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary
2- The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert
3- Sophia's War by Avi
4- Tamar, a Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal by Mal Peet
5- Passing through Havana by Felicia Rosshandler
6- His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal
7- Auslander by Paul Dowswell
8- Rising Sun, Falling Star by Vickie Hall
9- The Bear Makers by Andrea Cheng
10- Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
11- The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax
12- N or M? by Agatha Christie
13- The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartmett
14- I Go by Sea, I Go by Land by P.L. Travers
15- Leaving China by James McMullan

I again participated in Rose City Reader's European Reading Challenge.  I chose to read 5 or more books and 6:

1- A Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary (Ireland)
2- Tamar, a Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal by Mal Peet (Holland)
3- His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal (Germany)
4- Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley edited by Kathryn J. Atwood (France)
5- The Bear Makers by Andrea Cheng (Hungary)
6- The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax (Poland)

I signed up to read 6 or more mysteries at Crusin' with the Cozies hosted by Socrates Book Reviews but only managed to remember to list 3:

1- His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal
2- Nancy Drew: The Quest of the Missing Map by Carolyn Keene
3- N or M? by Agatha Christie

And last but not least is the Pre-1960 Classic Children's Books Reading Challenge hosted by Turning the Pages for any amount of books desired:

1- The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert
2- Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss
3- Biggles Defies the Swastika by Captain W.E. Johns (1941)
4- The Quest of the Missing Map by Carolyn Keene

I see I had lots of crossovers on these challenges, something I try not to do, but end up doing nevertheless.  I did lose a lot of reading time this December.  I had a bad case of bronchitis and it was also the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, which you may know touched my family in a  very personal way and it was a difficult time for us, especially because Christmas here was so tied to Daniel and his brother and sister.  

I haven't made a decision on reading challenges for 2014, but I am leaning towards a few.  I only wish there were more challenges geared towards kids and YA literature.  Maybe I should think about that.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood written and illustrated by James McMullan

When James McMullan's grandparents, James and Lily McMullan arrived in China in 1888, it was with the intention of doing missionary work among the Chinese people in Cheefoo in the Shantung Peninsula (now called Yantai, in Shandong province).  But it didn't take long for that to change.  When they discovered that poor, destitute and hungry families would leave their baby girls to die rather than feeding them, they began saving them and raising them, soon building an orphanage and school for the growing girls.  The girls learned to speak English and how to do cutwork embroidery and before long, the McMullans had quite a busy commercial enterprise going.

Into this were born their own four children, who were raised in China, but sent abroad for further education.  The youngest son, James, studied music in Vancouver, Canada and married a Canadian girl named Rose.  James returned to China with Rose and in 1934, James McMullan Jr. was born.

Life was pretty good for the family, until one day the tortured dead body of a Chinese man washes up on the beach and young James begins to understand the fear and dread that has been underlying life in China since 1931.  Then, in 1937, the Japanese Army arrived in Cheefoo and life changed.  Road blocks were set up and anyone without papers suddenly faced an uncertain future.  And worse still, anyone without proof of having been inoculated against Cholera, was injected on the spot with the same needle used for everyone else.

By 1941, it is decided James and his mother would leave China, though his father is not allowed to go and instead enlists in the British Army.  Leaving China begins a round the world journey that will take James from Cheefoo (Yantai) to Shanghai to Western Canada, New York, Bombay (now Mumbai), Srinigar, Darjeeling, Calcutta (now Kolkata), Chungking (now Chonqing) , Shanghai and back to Western Canada, all while still a child.

James only saw his father once during the war, in Darjeeling, India when he was about to be enrolled in St. Paul's School there  It wasn't a good visit and sadly, James Sr. was later killed in a air crash.

Leaving China is certainly a different kind of memoir.  It is really a series of 54 one page memories with a corresponding illustration of the facing page.  The memories are simple and personal, yet they tell a story not only about James McMullan's life but they also give a picture of what life was like in China during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Like the memories, the full page painted illustrations are simple, yet have a quality that goes much deeper than the actual picture.  I wasn't surprised to recognize the artwork since I have been looking at Jame McMullan's wonderful Lincoln Center theater posters for years now.  McMullan wrote that for Leaving China, he wanted to catch the dream-like quality his memories held for him and in that respect, he has certainly succeeded.

As a memoir with a difference, this is certainly one that many readers will appreciate.  Don't be fooled into thinking that because there are so many illustrations, this is a children's picture book.  It is definitely  a book for older readers, and a wonderful supplement for anyone interested in Chinese history and/or World War II.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

This is book 15 of my 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sunday Funnies # 13: Batman and Robin: Alfred Claus

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas

And from the first Christmas after the War:
Batman Christmas Sunday Comic Strips published December 16, 1945 and December 23, 1945:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From the Archives #27: I Go by Sea, I Go by Land by P. L. Travers

By now, you have all probably heard of a new Disney film called Saving Mr. Banks about getting Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers to agree to letting Walt Disney make a movie of her most popular book.  But P. L. Travers wrote lots of other books besides her Mary Poppins novels and one of those books covered the three month period August to October 1940 during WWII.

I Go by Sea, I Go by Land was written in 1941 and is the story of the evacuation of two English children, Sabrina Lind, 11 and her brother James Lind, 8.  The first part of the novel, I Go by Sea, begins when Sabrina is given a diary to record her adventures once it is decided that she and James are to be evacuated by ship to America now that the Germans are actually dropping bombs on England.

After detailed accounts of getting passports, tickets, packing and goodbyes, the two children arrive in London for the train that will take them to the dock to board ship (not named but they are most likely leaving from Liverpool).  At the London train, along comes a family friend named Pel, who writes book, with her baby son Romulus.  Pel will be escorting the children to America.  Sabrina and James aren't the only evacuees on the ship - there are over 300 others being sent to Canada by the British government.

Sabrina is an observant child, giving more detailed accounts of sea sickness, other passengers, meeting and befriending one of the government evacuees, and of the convoys that are escorting them across the Atlantic.  It is a long but uneventful journey and when they arrive in Canada, the second part of the novel, I Go by Land, begins.

After some sightseeing in Canada, Pel, Sabrina, James and Romulus fly to La Guardia Airport in New York, where Sabrina and James are met by their mother's old friend, Aunt Harriet and her husband, Uncle George and their children Georgina, 13, and Washington, 17.  Pel and Romulus are staying in Manhattan, but Aunt Harriet lives in the suburbs.

The rest of the novel is Sabrina's description of the touristy things that they do for the first few weeks before school starts.  Their visit to the Statue of Liberty, and to the 1939 World's Fair just before it closed because of the war.  These visits are wonderfully detailed by Sabrina and totally worth reading, especially since she describes walking up to the Statue of Liberty's crown, something that visitors haven't been allowed to do in a long time.

The rest of the novel is about school, worrying about everyone back in England and ends on a rather upsetting note on James's 9th birthday when they are told by Pel that their beloved old home has been partially damaged by a bomb, though everyone is safe.

This is, indeed, an odd book.  There is not a real story, just descriptions of what happens for three months.  Yet, it is written with such historically realistic detail that it can draw you in completely.  In fact, it is so realistic, and given the friend's name was Pel, I did a little research and discovered that P. L. Travers did indeed travel to New York in August 1940, though only with her own son Camillus.  There were about 300 evacuees on board ship at the time, bound for Canada but Travers had nothing to do with them.  So, she only have to invent 11 year old Sabrina to turn her experience into an interesting children's story. And it is truly a window into a short but pivotal time in WWII for civilians.

And Travers did an excellent job of it, especially since, unlike Pel, she was not a happy, easy going person and Camillus was not the happy, quiet, content baby that Romulus is.

I Go by Sea, I Go by Land has lots of black and while pencil illustrations by Gertrude Hermes, an artist that Traversactually befriended on board ship in 1940 and remained friends for a while after arriving in America.

The title, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land is take from an old English bedtime prayer.

As much as this is an interesting book for young readers, you should be warned - the adults in the book smoke and have cocktails and a few more things are said that may not be PC by today's standards.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 14 of my 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Your Hit Parade #2: I'll Be Home for Christmas

Because of copyright laws, music can't be included, but if you click this 
you can listen to the original song on YouTube

If White Christmas was sentimental chart topping holiday song of 1942, you might expect that I'll Be Home for Christmas would have filled that same slot when it came out in 1943.  After all, it was written specifically as a wartime Christmas song.  1943 was the third Christmas of the war for America, and the fifth for the other Allied and Axis countries.  By now, people were feeling the full impact of the war as more and more telegrams arrived at more and more front doors and blue stars on service flags* hanging in windows were changed to gold stars and that may have played a part in the songs popularity.

The lyrics to I'll Be Home for Christmas were written in 1942 by James "Kim" Gannon.  According to Ace Collins, Gannon was inspired by what he saw around him in Brooklyn:
The streets were decorated, trees were sold on corner lots, and Santas still rang their bells and smiled at children, but the war had cast a pall over the holiday.  It was hard to think of presents or peace on earth...To make it all worse, no one was completely sure that the United States and its allies could even win the war. (pg 92)
When he had finished, he brought the song to Walter Kent, who has already had success with his hit song "White Cliffs of Dover"and it was set to music.  Bing Crosby recorded I'll Be Home for Christmas on October 4, 1943 and it was released shortly after that.

Gannon would have seemed to have captured the desires of those on the home front as well as those on the front lines when he when penned the first 11 lines of I'll Be Home for Christmas but then came the melancholy reality in the last line: "But only in my dreams."  Yet, this seemingly perfect wartime Christmas song never was the hit that White Christmas became, despite Crosby's lilting baritone.  For the most part, it occupied third place on Billboard's charts, and doesn't seem to have made it way to The Hit Parade's top weekly countdown.

I'll Be Home for Christmas may not have been a Number 1 hit at home, but, at Christmas USO shows on both fronts, it was the most requested song by those stationed overseas during the war.  This isn't surprising - the lyrics read like a letter being written by a soldier to his family back home:

I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

After the war, I'll Be Home for Christmas was heard much anymore, not until 1965.  Since then, though it still lags behind White Christmas in overall popularity, it has continued to be recorded by various artists.

The copyright for I'll Be Home for Christmas was granted to Gannon and Kent, but if you look closely at the original sheet music, you can see a third name - Buck Ram.  There was some controversy over the original song's ownership and if you are interested, you can find it nicely explained over at Steyn Online.

*A service flag with one or more blue stars meant that someone in that household was serving in the Armed Forces.
A service flag with one or more gold stars meant that someone in that household had been killed in action.

Collins, Ace.  Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Izzy: The Christmas That Almost Wasn't by Budge Wilson

It is 1941, Canada has already been at war with Germany for two years.  In the small village of Granite Cove, Nova Scotia,  it is freezing, but today, 11 year old Isabel Piblicover, or Izzy as she is known, doesn't care.  She and her younger brother Joey are going into Halifax with their father and who knows, maybe they will be able to have a milkshake or see a movie - both such rare treats now that the war is on.  In fact, Izzie has only had one milkshake in her entire life and Joey has had none.

But Halifax proves to be a disappointment - it is crowded with people serving in the Armed Services and they always get special treatment.  The street cars, the luncheonette, the movie theater were full of men in uniform, which means no milkshake, no movie.  Still, Izzy and Joey groused about their disappointment for days, angering their dad, who had wanted to serve his country in the navy, but he had been turned down because of his age.  Nevertheless, the grousing continued.

By now, it is only a few weeks till Christmas, and to give Izzy and Joey something to take they thoughts off their disappointment and give them something to look forward to, their parents decide to let them plan the Christmas party.  How wonderful!  Izzy's grandparents are coming and so are her best friend's relatives and they will all celebrate together - a rare event with the war on.

So Izzy, Joey, and best friend Jasper set about planning the best Christmas party ever, even if they do always have to watch Jasper's little sister while they work, or find warm places to make decorations without parents around.  Slowly but surely, using imagination and innovation, it all comes together.  But so do warnings of a terrible snowstorm - predicted to be worse than any in years and years.

Izzy refuses to let that spoil things for them, but when snowflakes start falling, she begins to get worried. With good cause -  in the end, the village is covered with snow, with high drifts everywhere.  And none of the guests can make it to the party.  Is Izzy's party ruined?  It looks that way until a small boat with three sailors is spotted coming towards shore.

Can Christmas be saved?

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is part of the Our Canadian Girl series.  It is similar to the Dear America or American Girl series; they are fictional stories about girls, and are set in different parts of Canada at different time periods.

This is the first of four books about Izzy.  It is historically accurate and quite interesting.  Budge Wilson describes the sacrifices and the make-do spirit that helped to keep people going, though I can't say my mother would have been OK when she discovered that I had dyed two good white sheets red without asking permission, as Izzy does to make tablecloths large enough to cover the tables.

Realistic details, however, always make a book interesting and The Christmas That Almost Wasn't gives us a good look at life in Canada.  I think Americans sometimes forget that Canada entered WW2 in 1939, along with England because it was part of the British Empire.  Living in a small village, Izzy experiences rationing and other wartime privations and restrictions.  She is always aware that friends have lost loved ones and others are off still fighting.  But she wouldn't have experiences the crowds of service people that she saw in Halifax.  And, like many people living along coastlines, Izzy was aware of the possibility of an invasion by the Germans, and was one of the many children who scoured the sea looking for the periscopes of Nazi submarines peeking out of the ocean.  These details of home front life in coastal Canada are what makes the book so interesting and different.

I did have a problem with Izzy and Joey being allowed to plan the Christmas party to stop their grumbling about the trip to Halifax.  It felt too much like bad behavior being rewarded.   But in all fairness, kindness and hospitality also prove to be Izzy's most valuable assets.  I did think overall that The Christmas That Almost Wasn't was a well-written, engaging book for young readers, Canadian and otherwise and a nice addition of books about Christmas on the home front.

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

To learn more about Izzy and her life, visit her home page HERE

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Mother's Secret by J. L. Witterick

My Mother's Secret is a fictionalized version of a real Holocaust story.  It is told in five parts, by four different narrators, each telling their experience of the war.  The first narrator, Helena, introduces us to her abusive, Nazi supporting father and her kind, gentle mother, Franciszka Halamajowa.  We learn that her mother leaves her husband and returns to her native Poland with Helena and son Damian.  She has secretly saved enough money to buy a little house where she can grow vegetables and raise some chickens and pigs.  Both Damian and Helena go to work, while their mother stays home.

But soon Poland is invaded and, their town, Sokal, is taken over by Russians, as per the non-aggression Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact made between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.  Now, with the world at war, life becomes more difficult for everyone.

But by the end of 1940, Hitler disregards the pact and orders the German army to begin their invasion the Soviet Union.  Sokal is now occupied by German soldiers and suddenly the lives of its Jewish population are put in jeopardy.  Jews are rounded up and put in a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire.

Damian begins working for the resistance, delivering food and supplies to Jewish partisans.  Helena works as a secretary in a factory and soon, she and the factory head, Casmir, fall in love.  Franciszka has made many friends in Sokal selling her vegetables and eggs to.

But by 1943, Damian has been killed making a delivery to the partisans and Franciszka is hiding 15 people in her small house - two Jewish families and 1 German soldier incapable of killing.  Not only that, she has the guts to entertain the Nazi commander at her home with delicious home cooked German meals.  Clever Franciszka knows this will get her money to buy enough food to help feed the people she is hiding and make her neighbors think she has such good connections with the Nazis in Sokal that they will be quiet even if they suspect something is up.

My Mother's Secret is a well-written compelling story.  And it is a wonderful example of how one person can make a big difference in the world.  I really like the rotating perspectives that J.K. Witterick chose to write the book in because it gives the reader some insight into what everyone's life was like before, during and after the war and how they ended up in Franciszka's house.  Interestingly enough, however, we do not hear from Franciszka herself, perhaps because no one knows why she did what she did.  For my part, I think it is just simple human compassion.

One of the incredible things brought out in this story is that no one Franciszka is hiding knows about the other people she is hiding until they come out of their hiding places at the end of the war.

The other incredible thing is that of the 6,000 Jews who had lived in Sokal, 30 survived and 15 of them were Franciska's Jews (there is nothing about Franciszka actually hiding a German soldier).

Not surprisingly, Franciszak and Helena were named to Yad Vashem's list of The Righteous Among the Nations for what they did.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an ARC provided by the publisher

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Your Hit Parade #1: White Christmas

Because of copyright laws, music can't be included, but if you click this 
you can listen to the original song on YouTube

Back on April 20, 1935, a radio program called Your Hit Parade debuted on Saturday nights.  Each week, the program would play the 15 most popular songs of that week, performed by live artists, though not the person who originally recorded the songs.  Regardless, it didn't take long before Your Hit Parade was itself a hit.

It shouldn't be surprising that during WWII, Your Hit Parade was an very important part of life, not only on the home front, but it was also head overseas and on the front lines thanks to Armed Forces Radio Service.  

In Britain, the BBC was also broadcast popular music to their forces fighting in Europe and to the war-torn home front.  Even the Germans recognized the morale building value of shared music and broadcast their own version of The Hit Parade in a weekly program called the Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht, also heard at home and on the front lines.

One of the most popular songs of the war was actually one that wasn't really considered really great by the composer, Irving Berlin, and the original singer, Bing Crosby.  White Christmas was originally just another song on a movie sound track, written sometime between 1940-1941, and it was supposed to be  ironic.  It was first introduced on the radio on Christmas Eve 1941 by Bing Crosby and later released on July 30, 1942.  At first, White Christmas didn't go anywhere, but by October 1942, thanks to radio plugs, it went to first place on The Hit Parade's weekly countdown and stayed there for 10 weeks, and was in first place on Billboard's charts for 11 weeks.

White Christmas on Billboard's charts October 1942 and December 1942
(click to enlarge) 
White Christmas is a simple song, but despite the opening words, it became a very popular war song because it appealed to people emotions with it melancholy nostalgia for the ideal long ago Christmas that, in reality, most people never experienced.   The opening lines, which make fun of Hollywood, are sometimes still recorded but not often.  In fact, Berlin had these cut from all sheet music after seeing how popular the song became in 1942:  

The sun is shining.
The grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hill, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I'm longing to be up north.

In 1943, White Christmas won the Academy Award for Best Song.  The movie it was written for, Holiday Inn, was not about the war at all,  but when it was remade in 1954 and called, not surprisingly, White Christmas, it was about two former Army buddies trying to help out their former General with his so-far-not-too-successful Vermont hotel.  I have to admit, I like White Christmas more than Holiday Inn, but I think that has more to do with Rosemary Clooney being in it than anything else.  Although, I do like Fred Astaire's tap dancing in Holiday Inn.

Because the original recording of White Christmas was damaged, the Bing Crosby version that is most often heard now is a 1947 recording.  To date, it has sold over 50 million copies and, according to Wikipedia, there are more than 500 different recorded versions of it.

Original 1942 White Christmas sheet music,
complete with Buy War Bonds stamp
Your Hit Parade remained a popular radio show all through the 1940 and on July 10, 1950 became a weekly television show using the same countdown format.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, adapted by Kris, illustrated by Vincent Bailly and translated by Edward Gauvin

After fleeing Russia because of the pogroms there,  Joseph Joffo grandfather and his family settled in Paris and quickly assimilated.  The family grew and prospered.  Jo's father became a successful barber, married and had 4 sons.  But, in 1941, it looks like things are going to get bad in Paris now that the Nazis have taken over the city.

Jo, 10, and his older brother Maurice are forced to wear yellow stars to school, as is every Jew in Paris.  Jo resents it and when a friend offers to trade a bag of marbles for the star, Jo jumps at the chance.  But even without the star, the fact that he and Maurice are Jewish causes a fight in the schoolyard.  Arriving home, bloodied and bruised, their father makes the decision to send the boys to Vichy France, the southern free zone to stay with their older brothers.

Armed with 5,000 francs and the addresses of safe places to find help, the boys are sent on a dangerous journey through occupied France by themselves.  Using only their wits, and sometimes making poor judgements, they travel by train, bus and foot, all the while having to evade the Nazis and occasionally finding a kind person willing to help them.

Yes, they make it to Menton, but the story doesn't end there.  Remember, they left their parents in Paris, who promised they would shortly follow them to Menton.  But, word comes one day that they were picked up by the Nazis and re in an internment camp.  And the boys are themselves picked by the Nazis when they unknowingly enter a resistance center during a raid.  Arrested, they are questioned by the Gestapo and must convince them that they are not Jews despite being circumcised.

Will they succeed and will they be reunited with their parents and be a family once again?

I really wanted to love this graphic story, particularly since there are not that many good ones for kids about WW2, fiction or nonfiction (exceptions are Carla Jablonski's Resistance trilogy, Miné Okubo's early work Citizen 13660, and Lily Renée, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins, to name a few reviewed here).  But I just didn't love it, I only liked it.

And what made me like it was really the artwork.  Graphics don't have a lot of time and space to tell a story, so the reader must rely on the illustrations to help carry it along.  And Vincent Bailly's colorful, detailed watercolor illustrations really do just that, and along the way they impart exactly what the characters are feeling at any given point - happiness, sadness, fear, anger, pleasure.  A quick, simple facial expression says so much here.  Bailly's illustrations are brilliant.    

But alas, at times the story was just dull.  It lacked some of the poignancy you might expect from a story about two young boys sent out into a very dangerous world on a long journey towards safety.  Though I could read what the boys felt by the look on their faces, I never felt those same feelings.  In fact, I never felt any emotional pull in the story and never really connected with Jo and his brother.  I can't help but wonder what the original memoir written by Joseph Joffo back in 1974 was like.  That was a book written for an adult audience, and this version of A Bag of Marbles was rewritten for a younger reader.  Perhaps sometimes was lost in the shuffle.

I kept waiting for the titular bag of marbles to make another appearance in the story but the only part it played was the schoolyard trade and I am still scratching my head over why an obviously not Jewish boy would want the star that Jo was wearing.

On the plus side, there is a very nice map showing the route Jo and Maurice took to safety and their modes of transportation.  There is also a glossary of French words used.  Interestingly, when German is used, the translation is at the bottom of the page.  And there is a nice Afterward that explains what France was like under German occupation.

A Bag of Marbles is a nice book for readers who are really interested in the various experiences of Jews during WW2.  It would be a nice supplemental text for teaching the Holocaust, as well.  It will really appeal to all the kids sitting on the floor in Barnes & Noble across the country after school reading graphic books with their friends (and I don't say to be snarky - those knowledgeable kids have helped me find something I wanted on more than one occasion).

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

Sequential Highway has a very interesting interview with the illustrator Vincent Bailly about working on comics in general and on A Bag of Marbles in particular.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo

It is a few years after the war has ended and young Michael (not the author) is growing up in London, living with his French mother Christine.  All he knows about his father is that his name was Roy, he was in the RAF during the war, flying a Spitfire and he had been shot down over the English Channel.

His mother had one of his medals and let Michael keep it in his room.  She told him that his Auntie Snowdrop (really Martha) had the other medals and would be happy to show them to him when they visited her and her sister, Auntie Pish (really Mary), on New Year's Day.  And while Michael didn't really like to visit his Aunties much, he did enjoy seeing Jasper, a little Jack Russell terrier.

The visits were always the same, time after time, but one day, as Michael was coming out of school, he saw his mother waiting for him and knew something was wrong.  She told him that his Auntie Snowdrop had passed away.  At the funeral, his Auntie Pish told him there was a parcel from Auntie Snowdrop for him and she was post it to him right away.

When Michael was 13, five years after his Auntie's death, he was given Jasper to take care of when Auntie Pish couldn't do it anymore.  Eventually she went into a nursing home and, about five years after the death of her sister, she gave Michael the parcel that was meant for him.

In the parcel was a framed photograph of Michael's father, which he set on his desk.  But when Jasper jumped up on the desk, he knocked the photograph over and the glass broke.  Annoyed, Michael picked it all up and discovered a pad of paper behind the picture.  On it his Auntie had written "Who I Am, What I've Done and Who You Are" and it was dated 1950.

As Michael read her words, he discovered who his grandfather, his father, and his Auntie really were and how they were connected to each other.  And what this all means to him.  It was all a family secret that was never even shared with his mother.  His grandfather had served in World War I, and had died saving the lives of other men on the battlefield, but even though he should have gotten a posthumous medal for his bravery, he was never awarded one.

Why did this happen?  Well, Leroy Hamilton was a London orphan, intelligent, a great soccer player and a very congenial person.  He was also black and when he volunteered for military service in World War I, black men did not get awarded medals...until his great great granddaughter decided to fix that wrong.

But where do Auntie Snowdrop and Michael's father Roy fit into all of this?

Using his familiar device of telling a story with a story, Michael Morpurgo has found another unusual story and turned it into a wonderful tale for kids.  A Medal for Leroy is based on the true story of Lieutenant Walter Tull, the only black officer to serve in the British army in WWI, though it only contains aspect of Tull's life, it is not a recounting.

I was a little skeptical about this book before I started reading it because I didn't really care for the last Morpurgo book I read.  But I was pleasantly surprised once I started reading.  A Medal for Leroy is a gentle, poignant story that has some really interesting elements in it.  It is about family, love and being true to yourself, and the emotional harm and unhappiness that family secrets can inflict on everyone involved.  But is it also about triumph and hope and acceptance and I expect you may shed a tear or two before you finish.

This book will be available in the US on January 14, 2014

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC received from Net Galley    

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday #12: Top Ten Things I am Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

This has been a hard sad year for my family because of the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, yet what better way to honor Daniel than to remember the things I am thankful for.

These are the top ten things I am thankful for:

1- My Kiddo - who makes my proud everyday!

2- My family - even if we don't always agree on some things, we know we are always there for each other.

3- My best friend - my theater pal and doing other fun stuff pal, and who is always there for me when I need to talk to someone.

4- A roof over my head and food in my kitchen - given the state of things in today's world, anyone who has these basic necessities is very fortunate.

5- My health - which, except for a little congenital heart glitch, is pretty good.

6-- My friends - good company, good book talks, good food, all shared.

7-  My blogs - The Children's War and Randomly Reading, where I can talk about the books I have read and loved, and where I have met some really incredible people, and the best part is that they are all over the world and add so much more to my life just by being who and where they are.

8- Books and music - my two favorite things in life.  I would be lost without them.

9- The library - where I can get all the books and music I want.

10- My devices - these delight the geek in me and also make carrying my two favorite things, books and music, compact, easy to carry around and available 23/7/365.

Oh, yes and

11- All the countless little things that go into making life good.

What are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

As a young boy growing up, Leib Lejzon was not so very different than other boys his age - he was energetic, mischievous, fun-loving and close to his family.  When he was 8, his father moved the family from Narewka, Poland to Krakow, away from extended family, but into better circumstances.  And Leib loved living in Krakow, paling about with his new friends and being as fun-loving and mischievous as ever.

But then the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and life changed for Leib and his family.  Little by little they were shut off from the rest of society as restrictions for Jews multiplied. Then one night two members of the Gestapo showed up at his family's  front door.  They smashed dishes, broke furniture and humiliated Leib's father, beating him repeatedly before imprisoning him for weeks.  Not long after being released, Leib's father was sent from his illegal job to an enamelware factory to crack open a safe for Oskar Schindler.

The family was relatively safe because of his father's job working for Oskar Schindler, even as the Nazis put even more restrictions on Jews.  Because of his age, Leib didn't have to wear a yellow star yet and could even pass for Aryan.  But eventually it was decided that only 15, 000 Jews would be allowed to remain in Krakow and they were forced into the newly created overcrowded ghetto.

His father and other Jews were allowed to continue working for Schindler, and eventually, Leib's older brother David was also taken on.  But when the first deportations started, Leib's other older brother Tsalig was arrested and put on a train.  The family never heard from him again, nor did they even learn what happened to brother Hersel, who has returned to Narewka.

When the remaining Jews in the ghetto were moved to a Plaszów Concentration Camp, under the command of Amon Goeth, Leib managed to get himself on Schindler's list, as did his mother Chanali and sister Pesza.  But life wasn't much better despite being a Schindler worker.  Goeth was known for his  sadistic brand of cruelty.  Schindler did what he could to sneak bits of extra food to his workers, and even managing to get his workers out of Plaszów, where they wouldn't have to deal with Goeth's random executions and deportations.

Leib maintains throughout the book that he and his surviving family members owed their lives to Oskar Schindler.  When they met again in 1965, Leib, was surprised that Schindler remembered him.  Malnutrition caused Leib to be very small for his age and he writes that Schindler always called him the boy on the wooden box as he worked at his workplace and that was how he remembered him.  

After the war, Leib and his parents moved to the United States and settled in Los Angeles.  He changed his name from Leib Lejzon to Leon Leyson, married and had children.  He writes that he did not speak about his Holocaust experiences for a long, long time.  The release of the film Schindler's List changed that.   Fortunately, he wrote his memoirs, adding to the now decreasing body of those who can bear witness to the tragedy that was the Holocaust.  Sadly, Leon Leyson passed away on January 14, 2013, the day after sending his finished manuscript to the publisher.

Anyone who has watched the film Schindler's List is familar with what happened to the Jews who worked for him.  Leon, who was one of the youngest Schindler Jew, takes us behind the movie and gives the readers a personal family history of love, resilience and survival.  Written in a very straightforward manner, Leyson reveals many emotions - fear, anger, confusion, but there is no sense of self-pity even as he describes unspeakable events.  

Besides an Epilogue written by Leon, there are some lovely tributes to him from his family at the back of the book, as well as 8 pages of photos.  Be sure to check them out.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is a book not to be missed.  It is recommended for middle grade readers and I think that is appropriate for this book.  Some passages are difficult but Leon doesn't include such graphic descriptions of what he experienced or witnessed that it would be too sensitive for readers that age.

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

You can read Leon Leyson's obituary HERE

You can see and hear Leon Leyson in this short YouTube video, taking about Schindler and his life under the Nazis.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos

Back on April 10, 2011, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine section about author Suzanne Collins.  I had just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy, so I sat down to read the article.  In the article, Collins said a lot of interesting things about war, but what resonated most with me  was the way she summed up so well what war, any war, feels like to the kids on the home front:
"If your parent is deployed and you are that young, you spend the whole time wondering where they are and waiting for them to come home, " she said.  "As time passes and the absence is longer and longer, you become more and more concerned - but you don't really have the words to express your concern.  There's only this continued absence."
I cut the article out and saved it.  You can read the entire article HERE

Now, Collins, best known for The Hunger Games trilogy, has written a picture book about her own experience as a 6 year old waiting for her father to return home after he was deployed to Vietnam.

Sue and her dad are close.  He reads Ogden Nash poems to her.  Her favorite is The Tale of Custard the Dragon, who is brave even when afraid.  Then one day, Sue's dad goes away to "something called a war.  It's in a place called Viet Nam" where there is a jungle.  The only jungle she knows about is the one where her favorite cartoon character lives and so Sue imagines that her dad is in a jungle like that.

Her dad will be gone for a whole year.  But, she wonders, how long is a year?  Turns out, it is pretty long when you are 6 and scared. 

Sue worries her mom may go away, too.  Pretty soon postcards start to arrive.  But on Halloween, when she gets too much candy from a lady who reassures her that her dad will be fine, Sue begins to worry.

Presents arrives for Christmas, but so does a birthday card at the wrong time of year.  Then, other holidays go by without any more postcards from her dad, until finally one arrives that asking her to "pray for me."

Eventually, it is summer vacation and Sue's dad returns home - but he just stares into space and isn't really there anymore.   In time, Sue's dad really does return home, but inevitably, some things have changed.

Year of the Jungle is one of the best books I have ever seen addressing what life is like when a young child has a parent away fighting in a war and s/he is too young to understand just what that means.  A year is a long, long time for a little girl to wait for her dad to come home from war.  In fact, it is a tough year for anyone with a deployed loved one.  But, as Collins said, it is hard for kids to express what they feel.  Remembering her own experience, she knows it is a year filled with with questions, worries, fear and separation anxiety and she has captured these mixed emotions beautifully.

The whimsical, cartoonlike illustrations, done with ink and Corel painter by James Proimos, gives the story just the right amount of emotional balance that is needed in an otherwise intense, serious story.

Year of the Jungle is a book that is bound to spark a lot of questions, especially from kids with a parent who is serving in Afghanistan.

The reason I chose to include this book for The Children's War is because it did remind me of Tomie dePaolo's  26 Fairmount Avenue: The War Years.  He was also able to capture the same emotions in his books 26 Fairmount Avenue: The War Years.  I think it is important to see that how children experience a parent away fighting in a war really doens't change from war to war.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Hear Suzanne Collins and James Proimos talk about how they decided on the illustrations in Year of the Jungle:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett, an encore presentation

Today I am revisiting my very first blogs posts here and on my other blog Randomly Reading.  It isn't because I haven't been reading, I have actually read lots of blogable books lately.  I just thought it would be fun to see this again.  And I still love it as much now as I did on all subsequent readings of it.

So here's what I wrote on June 11, 2010:

Life isn’t terribly exciting in Blackbury, England in 1996 until 21 May 1941, the night of the Blackberry Blitz and the destruction of Paradise Street, where 19 residents are killed. It all begins when 13 year old Johnny Maxwell and his friends find the local bag lady, Mrs. Tachyon, lying in an alley near her overturned shopping cart and her black plastic bags strewn about, blown from the past to the present by an unexploded bomb or UXB

Johnny does the right thing and calls an ambulance to take her to the hospital. And because he is a good kid, he takes her shopping cart, her bags and her demon cat Guilty home to store in his garage until Mrs. Tachyon can reclaim them. This incident begins Johnny’s foray in time travel, accompanied by his friends Yo-less, Bigmac, Wobbler and Kristy. As Mrs. Tachyon explains to Johnny when he visits her in the hospital “Them’s bags of time, mister man. Mind me bike! Where your mind goes, the rest of you’s bound to follow. Here today and gone tomorrow! Doing it’s the trick! eh?” (page 49) And because Johnny’s mind has been on his school project about the Blackbury Blitz that is exactly where Mrs. Tachyon’s bags of time take him and his friends.

Travelling back in time, Johnny is not only faced with the dilemma of knowing what the result of the Blackury Blitz will be, but also with the possibility of changing its grim outcome. It is a classic fork in the road dilemma given a new twist, or as the mysterious Sir John, burger magnet and richest man in the world, presents it to his chauffeur in 1996 “Did you know that when you change time, you get two futures heading off side by side?...Like a pair of trousers.” (page 55-56)

In 1941, Bigmac, a skinhead who finds cars with keys in the ignition irresistible, is arrested for stealing one and then accused of being a German spy. He manages to get away from the police by stealing one of their bicycles. Thanks to Bigmac, the group is forced to return to 1996 to escape. Unfortunately, when they get there, they discover that they have left Wobbler behind. Do they go back and return Wobbler to the present time? What leg of the trousers does history follow if they leave him in 1941? What leg of the trousers does history follow is they go back for Wobbler? And who is the mysterious Sir John and what does he have to do with everything?

Johnny and the Bomb presents a number of interesting conundrums for the reader. Every fan of time travel stories knows the cardinal rule that if you manage to find a way to time travel, you must not change anything or you change the future. But doesn’t the very fact of your presence in a time you have traveled to constitute a change? So, can you change something and still have the same future result – more or less?

Johnny and the Bomb was a well done, thoroughly enjoyable novel. It is the third book in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy. The first two books are Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and Johnny and the Dead. It was made into a movie by BBC in 2006 in the UK, but can be viewed in 10 minute increments on YouTube. Though a little different from the book, I still found it to be entertaining. Mrs. Tachyon was played by Zoë Wanamaker, who, as fans of the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will remember, was Madame Hooch, the flying instructor (among her other numerous excellent roles.)

Speaking of the time traveling Mrs. Tachyon, there is an interesting concept in Physics called a tachyon. Essentially, a tachyon is an imaginary particle of ordinary matter that can travel faster than the speed of light, which means it can travel back in time.

It seemed appropriate to begin this blog about World War II-themed books for young readers with a time travel novel, even if the focus is not directly about the war. Historical fiction is, after all, similar to Mrs. Tachyon’s bags of time, and the novels become a portal that can transport and return me to the time period under consideration.

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