Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Adam & Thomas by Aharon Appelfeld, illustrated by Philippe Dumas, translated by Jeffrey Green

Early one morning, towards the end of WWII, a mother and son leave the ghetto and head towards the nearby forest.  There, she leaves her son Adam, 9, telling him not to be afraid, he knows the forest well from all the times he had visited it with his parents before the war came, and promising to come for him if she can that evening.  He is left with a blanket, a knapsack with food, a book and some jacks, 

Adam spends the day walking around the forest, thinking about it and his life with his parents and his dog Miro before the war and the ghetto.  His mother doesn’t return that evening.  

The next day, Adam meets Thomas, also 9, and also left in the forest by his mother with the same promise to return for him in the evening.  Adam and Thomas know each other from school, though they had not been friends there.  They spend the day in the forest, and that evening, their mothers again fail to return.

By day, Adam and Thomas forage in the forest for food, and talk to each other about their situation.  Their talks begin to take on a philosophical nature, about faith, God. and intellect.  Positive thinker Adam believes God will help get them through, negative thinker Thomas relies of study and education, which isn’t happening for him now.

Adam and Thomas decide to build a nest in a high tree for safety, partly because of the fugitives  running through the forest, pursued by Nazis shooting at them.  They both understand they will also be shot if found since they are Jewish.  Every day. the two boys wait for their mothers, who never come for them.  One day, however, while trying to help a wounded man attempting to escape the Nazis, they learn that the ghetto has been liquidated and everyone sent to Poland.  

Luckily, they also discover a cow in a meadow and begin to get some milk from her every day.  One day, a young girl their age comes to milk the cow.  It is also a girl from their class named Mina.  Mina is hiding from the Nazis in a peasant’s home.  After the boys try to make contact with her, Mina begins to leave food for them whenever she can. 

Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, and soon a kind peasant tells them the Red Army is not far away, the war could be ending, and, meanwhile, he also begins to leave food for the boys.  Then, one day, out of the blue, Adam’s dog shows up with a note from his mother attached to the underside of his collar.  

The weather begins to get colder and colder and soon, snow starts falling.  One day, the boys see a figure wading through the ever deepening snow, and realize it is Mina, who has been very badly beaten by the peasant she lived with and thrown out into the cold and snow.

How will the children survive the cold harsh winter, with only small amounts of food and no real shelter, and not even a fire to warm themselves by.  And can two young boys really nurse Mina back to health, or will it take a miracle to make that happen? 

I have to admit that I found Adam & Thomas to be a bit of a strange story.  It was originally written in Hebrew and loosely based on author Aharon Appelfeld's real life experiences.  It is also his first book for children.  The philosophical conversations between Adam and Thomas aren't so deep or adult that middle grade readers won't understand them, but they may be a bit disconcerting, since it isn't something young readers may be used to.  But there are not explanations for some things (like why was Mina beaten? And there is no closure to anything, including the ending).

That aside, Adam & Thomas is a compelling story about suffering, survival, optimism, friendship, and especially acts of kindness during some very dark, difficult days.  Appelfeld's writing is clear and simple, with short declarative sentences and few adjectives for the most part.  

The story of the two boys, including the animals and people they encounter, has a unrealistic quality to it.  Appelfeld says he writes from a dreamlike or artificial/imitative-like world in the kind of style used in the Bible, all of which, I think, is what gives Adam & Thomas its fable-like feeling.  But make no doubt about it, this is a story based on truth, on horrific circumstances and you never forget that while reading.

Adults and young readers interested in the Holocaust shouldn't miss this small but totally accessible and powerful book, which, I think, will also make an big impact on readers not particularly interested in WWII or the Holocaust.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+

This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery #4) by Alan Bradley

It's Christmastime and Flavia de Luce, 11, is anticipating the arrival and capture of Father Christmas, using a concoction whipped up in her fully equipped laboratory, her Sanctum Sanctorum, designed to hold him fast to the rooftop chimney till she can get there.   Once and for all the question of Father Christmas's existence will be answered for Flavia, and what older sisters Daffy (Daphne) and Feely (Ophelia) told her will either be right or wrong.

But before that can happen on Christmas eve, the ancestor home, Buckshaw, is going to be used as a movie set in order to make some money to keep Her Majesty's taxman at bay.  After the movie crew gets itself settled in at Buckshaw, the vicar, Rev. Richardson, asks the movie's leading lady, Phyllis Wyvern, if she would put on a performance with her leading man, Desmond Duncan, to raise money to help pay for roof repairs at St. Tankred's.  The plan is that they will do a scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Because the roof is already caving in, it is decided that the performance would be done at Buckshaw and, since there is already considerable snowing falling, the good folks of Bishop's Lacy will be brought in by sleigh and tractor.  

As the performance begins, the falling snow increases to blizzard proportions, and by the end of the performance, the snow has stranded  everyone at Buckshaw.   As everyone settles in for the night, sleeping on the floor scattered all around, upstairs Flavia decides to go have a midnight chat with Phyllis Wyvern.  Approaching her bedroom door, Flavia can hear a confusing slap-slap sound coming from the actress's bedroom.  Pushing the door open, she discovers a film projector going round and round and then she sees that Phyllis Wyvern is wearing the peasant blouse and skirt of one of her old movies - Dressed for Dying - and has been murdered, strangled with a piece of film from the movie and then tied in a big bow around her neck.

Naturally, Flavia manages to insinuate herself into the investigation once Inspector Hewit of the Hinley Constabulary is brought in,(and after doing her own initial investigations), yet this novel isn't about Flavia's sleuthing skills so much as it is about the de Luce family, past and present.  We are given more background information about the de Luce's, about Flavia's mother Harriet and how much her parents loved each other before Harriet's accidental death.  And, even sisters Daffy and Feely aren't as mean to Flavia as they normally are, especially when she almost becomes the victim of her own plan to discover the truth about Father Christmas.

Bradley has created a very Agatha Christie-like situation involving an isolated country house full of suspects that can't easily get away from the scene of the crime.  And there are suspects galore, but why would any of them want Phyllis Wyvern dead?  Flavia naturally discovers, Phyllis Wyvern has secrets, lots of them.  Some involve the war, some involve her family and others involve professional jealousies, and Flavia is determined to get to the bottom of them all.

I've loved the four Flavia de Luce mysteries I read so far, and, even though I haven't read them in order, it hasn't been a problem.  Bradley gives enough information in each book to inform without over doing it.  And I like that Bradley has included a Christmas book in his Flavia novels, it gives it a more rounded feeling.  This isn't one of the best Flavia book but it is a nice holiday mystery.

And I am anxiously awaiting Flavia #8 - Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Home and Away: A World War II Christmas Story by Dean Hughes

It's Thanksgiving 1944 in Ogden, Utah, and for the Hayes family, it's a tough one.  Oldest son Glen is a paratrooper  somewhere in Holland, and Dennis, his 16 year old brother. can't wait to enlist as soon as he turns 17.  Meanwhile, Dennis is trying to keep peace at home,  His dad, who has a drinking problem, also has a quick temper and sometimes a very cruel mouth, aimed at Dennis and his mother.  Younger sisters Sharon and Linda are still too young to be the brunt of their dad's anger. though he doesn't pay much attention to them anyway.

Dennis has decided he would like to make Christmas a special one for his mom this year.  He's working extra hours at the Walgreen's to save money to buy her a new dress for church, her first in a very long time.  Dennis even manages to get his car mechanic dad to contribute $5.00.  Dennis is aware that his father favors his brother, because Glen accepts his dad for who he is, and the two of them go hunting and fishing together, whereas Dennis is somewhat ashamed of his father.  Besides that, his dad thinks Dennis is a momma's boy - meaning he's not half the man his brother is.

And it turns out that Dennis realizes he is somewhat ashamed of his dad.  When a wealthy girl in his class, Judy Kay, lets him know, she would like to go to the Christmas dance at school, Dennis allows himself to be talked into buying an expensive suit and shoes by his wealthy best friend Gordon.  He knows he has spent way too much, but can't stop himself.

In alternating chapters, the reader learns about Glen Hayes and his friend Dibbs have survived the Normandy landing  and now they are living in a cold, muddy trench in the rain in Holland.  Their Thanksgiving meal, a wet, splashy version of someones idea of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, only serves to make Glen want to be home and to discourage his brother from joining up.

On December 17, Glen and the other men of the 101st Airborne Division are loaded up on trucks and sent to Belgium as infantry reinforcements despite not being trained for that and not having enough ammunition, or winter clothing to protect against the bitter cold there.  By Christmas, there is snow to compound the discomfort of their new trench.

Back in Ogden, Dennis manages to purchase the dress he has his heart set on for his mom, thanks to a kind sales lady who gets it discounted for him.  Christmas is a success, the dress is a success, the younger girls love their presents.  But more importantly, Dennis and his dad finally have a difficult conversation about how they both feel towards each other.

Not long after Christmas day, a telegram arrives that Glen has been seriously wounded in action.  Will this be the thing that finally pulls the Hayes family together or pulls them completely apart?

Dean Hughes has written a lot of WWII books and I thought this one would be an interesting Christmas story.  Christmas had to be a tense time with family members away fighting in Europe and the Pacific.  Worry about them could easily lead to tensions within the home and it's understandable that suppressed feelings could bubble up to the surface.  And that is exactly what Hughes has depicted in Home and Away.  With the exception of father Henry Hayes, the rest of the Hayes family is very religious and rely on that to help them through these tough times.  I should say that some of what Hughes writes is LDS fiction, but there is not particular religion mentioned in Home and Away.

Home and Away is a novella, but I can't say I found it very satisfying.  Although Hughes did a great job depicting Dennis' dilemma about signing up to be a paratrooper like his brother, I never felt like he was a coward because he had reservations.  Still, I did feel  that there were events that didn't quite come to a satisfying conclusion and that bothered me.  There was all that talk about money for a new dress, but nothing was said when Dennis spent so much on a suit, shoes and the dance.  Sure it came out of his pocket, but would that stop his dad from commenting on the waste of money it was.  And the girl Dennis took to the dance, Judy Kay, was so gun-ho war but why?  And what happened to Glen's friend Dibbs?  Was he hurt? or killed?

Hughes has captured life during the war at home and abroad so well, so realistically, I wish he had written this as a novel instead of a novella.  I think it would have been so much more satisfying.  Still, I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction and/or WWII fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday #17: Top Ten Books Read in 2015

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

This week's top ten topic is the top ten books read in 2015.  I've read more than I've blogged about this year, but I did review my favorite books, although picking a top ten was really difficult.  Anyway, here are my picks, in no particular order:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

I loved Ada spirit and determination to save herself and her younger brother from the blitz and their mother despite her severely clubbed foot and never having walked before.  Some people thought the ending was too pat, but if you really think about it, it is plausible.

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I loved the way three different stories from three different time periods are tied together by one harmonica and how that harmonica influenced the destinies of the young protagonists in each story.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: 
Knud Pederson and the Churchill Club by Philip Hoose 

Can a few people make a difference in the face of ruthless tyranny?  You bet they can, as these young Danish boys prove in their efforts to sabotage the Nazis that occupied their country in any way possible during WWII.  

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
by Margarita Engle

There aren't books for young readers about the Jewish refugees from Europe finding refuge in Cuba.  Engle lyrically tells the story of Daniel, 13, a refugee, who befriends Paloma, a Cuban whose father has the power to grant or deny visas to those wishing to enter Cuba, and David, a Yiddish speaking Russian and the events that surrounded Cuba from 1939 to 1942.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

This is a sequel to a book by E. Nesbit written in 1902 about the adventures of five children and a Psammead.  It begins in 1914, WWI has begone and the children rediscover the Psammead.  And while the Psammead provides some humor, the novel is really more about how the war impacts the each family member.

A Prince Without a Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle

A sequel to Vango: Between Sky and Earth, it brings the mystery about who Vango is to a satisfying conclusion, but not before lots of adventure, intrigue, suspense and a little romance.  It is a big book, as was the first volume, but oh, so worth the read.

The Tiger Who Would Be Kind by James Thurber,
illustrated by Joohee Yoon

This is an old James Thurber fable about the pointless of war that I remember reading in high school. What put it on my top ten list is the incredible illustrations by Joohee Yoon, using only a palette of green, orange, black and white to create some wonderful boldly expressive images, giving new life to this old tale.

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

This is a story of friendship between two girls in Auschwitz, and how they helped each other and the other girls in their barracks survive.  Told in verse and in alternating voices, readers learn about their families, their lives in Auschwitz and the one risk one girl makes for the other.

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne Jones

This is the book that surprised me the most.  I'm not a fan of zombie tales, but Wynne Jones created a story that was so compelling and so different, I ended up loving it and gushing like a schoolgirl when I met Wynne Jones.  It is really the story of a Japanese soldier, and American soldier and what happened on a south Pacific island.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and 
Tanya Simon

Before leaving Germany shortly after Kristalnacht, Oskar's father told him to always look for the blessings.  After arriving in NYC on the seventh night of Hanukkah, Oskar must walk up Broadway to 103rd Street and the aunt he's never met and who doesn't even know he is coming.  Along the way, Oskar discovers eight wonderful blessings.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reading Challenges

Tempus fugit!
Well, time really does fly!  It's already he end of the year and time to think about reading challenges.  When I first started blogging, I loved reading challenges.  I saw them as a chance to read books I might never have read otherwise, a chance to get out of my comfort zone and explore different ways of looking at things.

So...it turns out that I'm not as good at reading challenges as I might like to be.  And I think the main reason for that is that I never plan ahead.  I never commit to reading X number of books per challenge, or listing what I plan to read, I just let things happens serendipitously.  Apparently, however, serendipity doesn't work for me.  I like a plan and my most successful endeavors have always had a plan of action.

This year, instead of giving up a good reading challenge, which I still find fun to do, I've decided to approach it with a plan.  And I found just the right challenge for this blog, thanks to Becky at Becky's Book Reviews, a blog I have been reading for years now.  Becky is hosting the 2016 World at War Reading Challenge and to help participants like me get the most out of her challenge, she has provided a bingo-type card :

And I have actually made a list of books that I would like to read and my plan is:

1- Any Book published 1914 - 1918: Before the Chalet School: The Bethany’s on the Home 
    Front by Helen Barber
2- A Nonfiction Book about the 1910s and 1920s - Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem 
    Renaissance by Laban Carrick Hill

3- A Fiction Book Set in the 1920s - Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin   

4- A Book Set in Asia or the Middle East - Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

5- Any Movie About Either War - TBD

1- A Fiction Book Set in WWI - All Quiet on the Western Front

2- A Fiction Book Set in 1918 - 1924 - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

3- A Fiction Book Set in the 1920s - The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer

4- A Fiction Book Set in the 1930s - Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

5- A Fiction Book Set During WWII - TBD

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel

Shortly after Kristalnacht (November 9-10, 1938), young Oskar's parents decide to send him to America to live in New York City with his Aunt Esther, whom he has never met.  Before he leaves, his father gives him some parting words of advice:

"Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings."

Oskar arrives in NYC on the seventh night of Hanukkah, which also happens to be Christmas Eve.  It's a cold, snowy December night and Oskar, who arrived penniless, with only an address and a photo of his aunt, has a long walk up Broadway from the Battery to her house on West 103rd Street before sundown and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles.

Along the way, Oskar finds the blessings his father told him to look for.  Watching an old woman outside Trinity Church feeding pigeons, he eats the bread she hands him to feed the birds.  Seeing him so cold, tired and hungry, she gives him a small loaf of bread to eat.

At a Union Square newsstand, the news dealer gives Oskar the Superman comic he can't pay for but is attracted to.

Later, Oskar has his first "conversation" in America, whistling back and forth with Count Basie outside Carnegie Hall.

Encountering some boys playing in the snow in Central Park, Oskar offers a helping hand to  a boy who has slipped.  Seeing Oskar's frozen hands, the boy gives Oskar his warm mittens and in return, Oskar gives him his Superman comic.

Altogether, Oskar experiences eight blessings (one for each night of Hanukkah) as he journeys up Broadway to 103rd Street.  But, of course, the last and most important blessing is finding his aunt.

The Simon's text is sparse but lyrical, a perfect read aloud book, and the story is carried forward wonderfully by Mark Siegel's paneled illustrations, done in a variety of sizes.  Siegel has rendered the illustrations in greys and earth tones, with splashes of color, so that they convey the overcast cold, snowy day of Oskar's arrival.  He has captured the variety of emotions that Oskar experiences on his long walk - fear, hope, confusion, wonder, surprise, happiness - both in Oksar's demeanor and his facial expression, and sometimes his emotion is only reflected in his eyes.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings works on so many different levels, but mostly it is a beautiful, sensitive Hanukkah story that really demonstrates that it is a season of hope and miracles.  The fact that the seventh night of Hanukkah is Christmas Eve, also a season of hope and miracles, only adds to the ambiance of the blessings.

But Oskar and the Eight Blessings is also a gentle way to begin introducing the Holocaust to young readers by explaining to them what happened on Kristalnacht and why Oskar was sent away by his parents to safety can provide enough information to help with those more difficult discussions later on.

NYC can be a daunting place even today, and I can only imagine what it would have felt like to this young Jewish refugee in 1938, escaping the cruelty of the Nazis who had already been in power since 1933, having no money and not speaking English and looking for an aunt who not only doesn't know him but isn't even expecting him.  But New York can also be magical, especially during the holidays, a place where blessings actually can happen.  Be sure to look at the map of Manhattan to see the places where Oskar's received his blessings in his new world and read the Author's Note for some very interesting background to Oskar and the Eight Blessings.

This book is recommended for readers age 4 to 104 years old
This book was borrowed from a friend

Friday, December 4, 2015

Playing with Matches by Lee Strauss

Playing with Matches begins in 1938, when Emil Radle is 9 years-old and a member of the Passau (Germany) Deutsches Jungvolk, anxiously awaiting the day he will be old enough to join the Hitler Youth and begin to learn how to fly.  Emil wants nothing more than to become a pilot in the German Luftwaffe.

But the Jungvolk is hard work and the leader, Heinz Schultz, likes to pick on Emil's friend Moritz for being weak.  Emil is aware that Moritz and their friend Johann aren't really supporters of the Reich and, in fact, neither are Emil's parents.  And maybe Emil isn't either, since he still likes his friend Anne Silbermann, a Jewish girl whose family owned a bakery, and is very upset when he saw what happens to her family on Kristalnacht.

Even after war is declared in 1939 and the youth leaders and his school teacher continue to speak Nazis rhetoric to the kids, Emil half wants to believe what he hears.  Seeing Anne and her mother boarding trains east, he thinks they are being resettled, while Moritz and Johann inform him otherwise.  Other incidents begin to cause Emil to question things more, and his belief in Nazi Germany's greatness begins to waver.

In the summer of 1941, when Emil turns 13, he discovers that Johann and Moritz are secretly listening to BBC reports on a shortwave radio.  When the reports contradict the Nazi reports on how the war is going, Emil's chasm of doubt in the Fatherland widens.  Soon, the boys are joined by Johann's sister Katharina, and all four begin to transcribe the reports and leave them around town for people to read.  And Emil begins to notice he has a strong attraction to Katharina.

The friends continue their resistance activities, as it becomes clearer that Germany is really starting to lose the war.  Emil's father is sent to Berlin for not joining the Nazi Party and isn't heard from for a very long time.  When news breaks about the arrest and beheading of The White Rose group, college students doing something similar to what Emil and his friends are doing, instead of backing down, they continue to distribute their flyers transcribed from the BBC.

Emil's affection for Katharina becomes stronger as time goes by.  In the summer of 1944, after he turns 16, Emil finally asks Katharina to marry him and is happy when she says yes.  But even though the Germans are losing the war, there is still another year of it left.  And it is a treacherous year in which some will survive and some won't.

It's no secret that the Nazis used kids to further their cause, but we don't often get books that look at the lives of those kids.  The book covers 7 years in Emil's life, which probably mirrors the experience of many boys and girls at that time.  Not everyone was a full, enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and his policies the way the leaders of Emil's Deutsches Jungvolk or his teacher are, but there were plenty who did.  And there is one incident in the novel of a girl in Emil's class turning in her parents for saying something against Hitler and that kind of thing did happen.

That said, Playing with Matches is a compelling story that really is a chronicle of one boy's life between 1938 and 1945, character driven rather than plot driven.  And, we meet a remarkable cast of characters that surround surround Emil's life - from staunch Nazis and bullies, to people caught up in a situation they don't support and their little acts of kindness, generosity and the type of support for each other that the Nazis discouraged, and who, it turns out, are real heroes for staying true to their own values and principles even in the face of a regime grounded in hate and violence.

Playing with Matches is an interesting coming-of-age novel, ideal novel for young readers interested in historical fiction, WWII history and for understanding what life was like in Nazi Germany.  It would make a nice companion book to Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief.

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving
and a very large helping of 
happiness, peace and plenty!

Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Paintings from WWII

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Funnies #22: Superheroes in Gotham

Anyone who has read The Children's War knows that I have a soft spot for one of my favorite childhood pastimes - reading the Sunday funnies and comic books.  So naturally, I was pretty excited when I heard that the New York Historical Society was planning an exhibit called Superheroes in Gotham.  The exhibit is open now through February 21, 2016.  I was particularly interested in seeing it because, as you know, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all WWII superheroes, doing their bit for the war.  But the exhibit goes way beyond that.

How many remember George Reeves as Superman?  I must have watched Superman rerums a million times each when I was growing up.  Well, one of the old Superman suits from this show is there and it looks more like thick, woolen underwear that the kind of slick suit you see today:

There's even one of Adam West's Batmobiles from the 1960's Batman show:

The exhibit also contains some original art pieces original comic books, TV, movie, cartoon and audio clips of favorite comic superheroes, as well as comic characters you may never have heard of.  For me, that was Will Eisner's Private Joe Dope, a character who is like a combination of Beetle Bailey and Sad Sack.  Eisner, a talented artist, joined the army in 1942.  Every post has a newspaper and Eisner became an artist on the paper his post in Maryland produced.  But, Eisner quickly realized that soldiers needed training in preventative maintenance and Joe Dope became the bumbling incompetent solider whose mess-ups were lessons in how to not do something.  Eisner's Joe Dope was so popular that he was soon appearing monthly in Army Motors, a maintenance magazine (and I was happy to discover that the NYPL has original copies of Army Motors to explore after the holidays). 

For more on Will Eisner and his comic characters, see the article Rare Eisner by Ken Quattro
at Comicartville
After the war, in 1951, Joe Dope was resurrected and began to appear in another publication called PS Magazine.

Of course, no visit to the New York Historical Society would be complete without a visit to the museum shop, and that's where I found two books that were exactly what I was looking for:

Both volumes contain complete comic book stories from the war years (more about these later).

If you would like to know more about Superheroes in Gotham, you can find a great article with extensive photos from the exhibit by Jen Carson at the Gothamist

If you are going to be in NYC this holiday season, after you've seen all the stores windows and the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, you might want to journey uptown a bit and see this exhibit, as well as the Historical Society's annual Holiday Express: Toys and Trains exhibit.  Both of these exhibits are totally kid-friendly and somewhat interactive, and not on that, but they even have a wonderful,very interactive Children's History Museum to visit. 

Where is the NY Historical Society?  It's the one with the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass outside their doors, on Central Park West and West 77th Street, right across the street from the Museum of Natural History.  Go this coming Wednesday, and you can even see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons being blown up.

Available for selfies

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

It's bedtime but young Cole still wants a story, a true story before going to sleep.  And so Cole's mother begins to tell him a story about Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian from Winnipeg who lived long before Cole was born.  When war begins far from Canada, Harry's veterinary services are needed to care for the army's war horses and so he joins the army.

When Harry's troop train makes a stop in White River, Canada, he sees a man with a baby bear and next thing he knows, Harry has bought the bear for $20.00 and names it Winnipeg - nickname Winnie.  Winnie is quite a hit among all the soldiers and proves herself to be a gentle, but rambunctious bear cub.  Eventually, Winnie travels with Harry all the way to England, where Harry and his fellow soldiers will train for war.

When Harry gets his orders and is about to be sent to the front lines in France, he realizes that a battlefield would be too dangerous for Winnie and decides to leave him at the London Zoo for the duration of the war.  It is, indeed, a sad parting between man and bear.

However, Winnie adjusts to life in the zoo and ever the gentle bear, he is popular with the kids who visit, and in particular, one boy named Christopher Robin Milne, who frequently comes to see Winnie with his father.  Christopher even names his teddy bear after Winnie, calling it Winnie- the-Pooh, and out of his love for the real bear comes the books by his dad about Winnie-the-Pooh's adventures with a young boy named Christopher Robin.

As for young Cole, well, he was named after his great-great grandfather - Harry Colebourn.

Finding Winnie is a nice all-in-the-family true story since Linsay Mattick is actually the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn.   Son Cole's request for a bedtime story, one he has clearly asked for and heard many times before, cleverly frames the real story about how the tales about Winnie-the-Pooh evolved and it is nicely connected to the present for young readers by Cole's relationship to Harry.  Mattick has even included a family tree so kids can trace the family's relationship.

In addition, Mattick has included photos and artifacts from the time that Harry and Winnie spent together, as well as a photo of herself and Cole at the back of the book.

Sophie Blackall's beautifully rendered watercolor and ink illustrations are bright, detailed and gently soothing, makinf for an excellent merger of story and picture that is sure to please even the youngest Winnie-the-Pooh fan.  She really has captured the affection between Harry and Winnie and Blackall's illustrations will elicit more than a few "ahhhs" for readers.  In fact, she has even made the illustration of the soldiers marching in the rain look not as dreadful as it probably was.

And I really liked that the story is always focused on Winnie and never strays into Harry's time on the western front, so there are no combat illustrations, even though this is technically a WWI story.

Finding Winnie is a lovely addition to any library, a terrific read-aloud (at bedtime, perhaps?), and the perfect introduction to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories for young readers.

And, yes, I know that Finding Winnie is the second book to come out this year about the true story of Winnie-the-Pooh.  Both are equally delightful, each one tells the story equally well, and the illustrations in each are every bit as good as the other.  What to do?  Read them both.  That what I did and even though they tell the same story, they are wonderfully different and I enjoyed both for different reasons.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans' Day 2015

How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate out heroes and she-roes!                 
Maya Angelou


It is the Veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the Veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Veteran, who saluted the Flag,
It is the Veteran, who serves under the Flag,
To be buried by the flag
So the protester can burn the flag.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Soon (Book #5 in the Felix and Zelda family of books) by Morris Gleitzman

It's 1945 and the war is over but not the danger.  Felix, now 13, and Gabriek are hiding out in a relatively safe albeit rather wrecked building, and have one simple rule - Stay quiet and out of sight.  There are roving bands of men wearing badges that say Poland for the Poles and never hesitate to shoot anyone who is Polish, and that includes Felix, who is Polish, but he's also Jewish.

The war was hard on Gabriek and Felix who lost quite a few people they loved very much, and now Gabriek spends most of his time sleeping off the cabbage vodka he makes in his still, when not doing repair work to get food for the two of them.

Felix, who wants to become a doctor, goes how on the streets with his "medical bag" and the skills he learned from Doctor Zajak, when he and Gabriek joined the partisans before the war ended.  While out looking for people to help, Felix runs into two people - Anya, a mysterious girl wearing a filthy pink coat and carrying a gun, and Dimmi, who threatens the lives of Felix and Gabriek because the lock they fixed for him has broken.

Felix isn't out on the street long before he is kidnapped by the Poland for the Poles thugs who require his "medical services."  Luckily, Felix escapes and back on the street, a woman throws her baby to him just before she is shot to death.  Felix is immediately smitten by the baby and brings him home to an unhappy Gabriek.

It turns out that Anya is living in an orphanage with other kids under the care of Dr. Lipzyk, who invites Felix to visit his medical library anytime he wants to.  But things happen that make Felix uncomfortable about the doctor.  First, nothing seems to be done about Anya constant vomiting, then, Felix makes a deal with Anya for an endless supply of powdered milk and other baby needs for Pavlo (yes, Felix and Gabriek name the baby a nice Ukrainian name, since his mother was from the Ukraine), and lastly, the doctor cold attitude toward him when he sees Felix without pants on.

In the post-war danger and chaos in Poland, where hate and bigotry still seem to rule the day, will Felix be able to retain his hopeful spirit that the world will someday be a safe and happy place?

I wasn't expecting a 5th book and I may have jumped the gun a little in my need to find out more about Felix's experiences during World War II when I ordered it from The Book Depository.  It's out in Australia, New Zealand and Britain, but I don't know when or if it will be published in the US.  But is is do worth reading, even though I didn't get any sense of closure when I finished it - but perhaps that is as it should.

Soon is an action packed novel, partly because Felix is able to go out among people in a way that he hasn't been about to for a long, long time.  And amazingly, Gleitzman has managed to keep Felix a consistent character in Once, Then, After, and now Soon even as he matures, and despite some of the horrific things he has witnessed (I don't count Now because it is about Felix at 80 year old and not told from his point of view).  Felix is a character who seems to understand human behavior instinctively even if he does still read some behaviors incorrectly at first, but that is just because he is an optimist.  And readers can't help but care about what happens to him.

Soon can be read as a stand alone book, but it would be a much richer experience if readers at least read the first three books.  And like all of the Felix and Zelda family of books there is violence, but not sex or bad language.

Once again, Gleitzman has explored themes of family and friendship in the worst of times and written a powerful, appealing novel and now I would really like to know what happens to Felix next, but I have a feeling it's not going to happen this time.

You can read an except of Soon on Morris Gleitzman's website HERE

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo

It's May 1915 and World War I is in full swing.  On the Scilly Island of Bryher, Alfie Wheatcroft has just played hooky to go fishing with his dad.  One their way home with their catch, Alfie hears a moaning sound coming from the deserted St. Helen's island.  Checking it out, he and his dad discover a scared, starving, shivering young girl clutching a bedraggled teddy bear and wrapped in a blanket with the name Wilhelm embroidered on it.

They decide to take her home for Alfie's mother, Mary Wheatcroft, to nurse back to health.  The girl keep saying Lucy over and over, and when Dr. Crow is called to examine her, it's decided that Lucy must be her name.  Soon she is known all over the island as Lucy Lost.  At first, Lucy refuses to speak and eat, but gradually does take some of the food given her.  She also refuses to leave the room she is put into.  One day, the doctor suggests using music to see if that will help her, bringing over his gramophone and records.  Lucy is drawn to the music, particularly one piece by Mozart, and while the music gets Lucy out of her room, she still doesn't speak.

Flashback to New York City in March 1915.  Merry McIntyre and her mother have been missing her Canadiann father ever since he enlisted and left for the war in Europe.  When they receive a letter saying he has been wounded and is in an English hospital, Mrs. McIntyre decides they will sail to England on the S.S. Lusitania in May despite the danger of German submarines prowling the Atlantic Ocean.  It proves to be a voyage that confines Mrs. McIntyre to the bed with seasickness, while Merry takes the opportunity to get to know the ship and their cabin steward Brandon very well.

Forward flash again to Bryher.  Thanks to the music and Alfie's patience and kindness, Lucy begins to get better daily.  But when school begins again at the end of summer, the teacher, Mr. Beagley, a particularly cruel person, decides Lucy must attend or be reported to the authorities.  And eventually, when word gets out about the German blanket Lucy was found with, the island people turn on her and the Wheatcrofts, believing the are on the side of the Germans and shunning them to the point that life becomes difficult.  When someone paints "Remember the Lusitania" on the Wheatcrofts door, and Mary sees recognition in Lucy's eyes, even this kind, stalwart woman begins to wonder about her.

Astute readers will early on realize the Lucy and Merry McIntyre is the same person, but solving the mystery of her identity is not what is at the heart of this story.  What is at the heart is a wonderful story about home front life and survival during WWI, about love, hate and unusual kindnesses, and about what family really means.

Listen to the Moon is a rich multi-layered novel based on a confluence of actual events, framed by an unnamed future narrator (not future to the reader, however).  The story within the frame is told alternately in the third person from Alfie and Merry/Lucy's perspectives, with additional information from Dr. Crow's journal and Mr. Beagley's school log, all making this a very well-developed, thoroughly intense story.

There is so much history in the novel, so be sure to read the background information to Listen to the Moon for more understanding, especially the part about the S.S. Schiller and why Germans were not allowed to attack the Isles of Scilly in WWI.  The background material is every bit as compelling as Morpurgo's novel.

The Guardian has an interesting pictorial article on how the Lusitania inspired Listen to the Moon HERE

You can find very useful Teacher Resources on Michael Morpurgo's website HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Friday, October 30, 2015

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is the sequel to a book I read and reviewed last year called Prisoner of Night and Fog.  I wasn't too crazy about that book, but I am pleased to say that I liked the sequel much more.

Prisoner of Night and Fog takes place in 1931 Munich, Germany.  Gretchen Müller, part to the inner circle of young girls in the Hitler entourage, has discovered that her father, a strong Hitler supporter, had been deliberately killed in the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch by a fellow Nazi.  Gretchen is determined to solve mystery of who would have done such a thing with the help of Daniel Cohen, handsome reporter for the Munich Post.  It also didn't take long for Aryan Gretchen and Jewish Daniel to find they were very attracted to each other despite their differences. And yes, they solve they mystery together.

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke picks up their story in 1933 England.  Forced to flee Germany after solving her father's murder, Gretchen is living in London with a loving family and going to school, and Daniel is working for the Oxford Mail, writing the society column.  But when Daniel receives a telegram that his cousin Aaron has been attacked by Nazis and is in critical condition, he immediately returns to Germany to get justice to his cousin.

On January 30, 1933 Hitler is named Chancellor by President Hindenburg.  One month later, February 27, there is a fire in the Reichstag, the seat of government.  Hitler blames the Communists for it, even though it has most likely been done by the Nazis for the purpose giving Hitler a strong reason for forcing the passage of the Enabling Act, a piece of legislation that would give him complete power, turning Germany into a Nazi dictatorship.

Then, when Gretchen receives a mysterious telegram telling her that Daniel is in trouble, that he is wanted for murder, and possibly dead, she decides to risk capture by the Nazis and returns to Germany to find him.  There, an old newspaper friend of Daniel's tells Gretchen that the Nazis claim Daniel has killed a young women named Monika Junge and that he had also been beaten and robbed of his money and false identity papers a few days ago, but no one has seen Daniel since.  Next, she calls her old friend Eva Braun and asks her to find out if Daniel has been arrested. Eva tells her no, but that Gretchen must get out of Munich, Hitler is still after her for what she uncovered about him while trying to find out who murdered her father.  Ironically, the murder of Monika Junge leads Gretchen and Daniel right back to the Reichstag fire in an unexpected way.

Gretchen gets on a train to Berlin, and (perhaps a little too conveniently) runs into Daniel.  The two travel together to Berlin and what follows in a exciting journey through Berlin's underbelly and her higher echelons of government as Gretchen and Daniel try to clear his name of the murder charge the Nazis have leveled against him before the passage of the Enabling Act.  Once the Enabling Act is passed, it will be impossible to solve the mystery surrounding Monika Junge's murder because anyone who could help would immediately be arrested (the Enabling Act passed on March 23, 1933).

Blankman used the Reichstag fire and the Enabling Act to create a real nail-biting story.  She also effectively mixes real people from that time with her fictional characters, though there is a fine line between what really may be and what she includes, case in point: what Monika Junge knows and why it is dangerous for a certain important Nazi is pure fabrication.  But she does do a great job of showing why the events she includes are so important in understanding Germany at that time.

But as much as this is an historical fiction mystery utilizing time, place, people and events quite well , it is also a romance novel.  Gretchen and Daniel are very much in love, and that's great.  It doesn't overwhelm the overall story too much, but I have to be honest and say that this romance has gone on since 1931, Gretchen and Daniel have found themselves sleeping together many times when their lives have been in danger and nothing intimate has happened.  It's even mentioned in Chapter 16.  I had to ask myself if this is realistic and I don't think it is, not even for those times.

Blankman also brings in another interesting element of reality to the story - he organized crime syndicate, the Ringvereine, which is something you don't hear about very often.  I've heard of it, but don't know that much about it, only that they did exist and were very protective of their own - and Monika Junge was one of their own.

My only objection to the novel was the end, but I don't want to resort to spoilers, especially not at the end of a story, so you'll just have to read it know what I mean.

Do read the Author's Note at the end to fully appreciate all the history incorporated into this novel, and Blankman's Selected Bibliography for further information.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What's in a name?

Well, maybe not always.  Once I was watching an interview with Lady Gaga on 60 minutes who said that after she became Lady Gaga she felt a certain kind of creative freedom she didn’t feel under her real name - Stefani Germanotta.  That creative Freedom is what I felt when I started The Children’s War.

But then I changed the name to Alex’s Bookshelves and suddenly that creative freedom was gone and I felt like I was dealing with a stranger... What to do?  Return this blog to it’s original name but with a new look.

My apologies for any inconvenience or mix-up my flirtation with a new name caused and now, back to the business of reading and reviewing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

When the Germans arrive in June 1941, life changed for the Jews living in Prużany, a small town in Belarus.  For 17 year-old Zlatka Sznaiderhauz and her family - mother, father, younger brothers Iser and Lázaro, younger sister Necha - life became more and more difficult.  Restrictions meant no freedoms, no school, no jobs, little food and eventually life in a Nazi-created ghetto.  Before long, daily lists began to be posted for transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  On the third day, the Sznaiderhauz family was on the list.

Separated from her father and brothers, when they arrive at Auschwitz, Zlatka and Necha are sent to the right of the selection, her mother and brother Lázaro to the left and immediate death.

As Zlaka's story unfolds, so does Fania's in alternate chapters.  Fania, 18, is sent away from her home in Bialystok by her family to Augustów in the hope of saving her life since she looked the most Aryan.  Fania is quickly  arrested for being Jewish and sent first to Lomża Prison, later to Stuffhof, where she learns that the Bialystok Ghetto has been liquidated.  Heartbroken, Fania realizes she has lost her entire family.  Eventually, Fania, and the three friends she made in Lomża are transported to Auschwitz.

Finding themselves in the same barracks, at first Zlatka shuns Fania's offer of friendship, but after Necha's death, it is Fania who pulls Zlaka out of what could have been a fatal depression.  The two become friends and family to each other, determined to survive the brutal treatment they are subjected to in Auschwitz.

For Fania's 20th birthday, Zlatka decides to make her an origami birthday heart, an act of defiance that could cost them their lives. Zlatka does whatever she needs to - stealing, bartering, swapping - to get the materials for the heart.  When it was done, it was passed to every girl at their work table, 15 in all, to sign and add their wishes for Fania.  Even those girls who didn't speak Polish understand the importance of signing the heart.

Fania, Zlatka and the birthday heart survived Auschwitz, survived the death marches they were sent on at the end of the war, and survived the war.

Fania's Heart
Paper Hearts is a novel based on a true story.  It is written in free verse and I feel that the
form and content of the story coalesce so beautifully that the reader can almost feel as though they are travelling side by side with Zlattka and Fania through everything.

Meg Wiviott got the idea for this novel after seeing a 2010 documentary film called A Heart in Auschwitz.  The film chronicles the filmmakers quest to find Zlatka and Fania and bring them together again.  Intrigued, Wiviott began her own research, which included hearing Zlatka and Fania's Shoah testimonies (Zlatka's in Spanish, Fania's in Yiddish( and a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre to see the actual heart, which is on display there.

This is a heartbreaking yet beautiful story of friendship, hope and love in the midst of so much brutality, death and hate.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

After his father suddenly dies, Evan Griffin, 16, discovers he had been reading a book written by a Japanese soldier named Isamu Ōshiro, who found himself stranded on a small island in the Pacific during World War II.  The book is a memoir of his life on the island, which he called Kokoro-Jima, and is addressed to his new bride, Hisako, back in Saipan.  But Evan also discovers a letter to his dad from a man named Leonardo Kraft that seems to connect his estranged grandfather, Griff, a career Marine, to the events that are in the book.

Curious, Evan begins to read the Ōshiro's memoir one night when he gets a phone call from his grandfather that he will be at the house in a little while - arriving a week earlier than Evan expected him.  But why?  Clearly it has something to do with Ōshiro's story.  But what?

Isamu's story, framed by Evan's story, is riveting.  He describes his arrival on Kokorro Jima, what he does to survive despite being severely injured, but he also writes about something else.  There are ghostly children on the island who hover close by him, and who Isamu calls his ghostly family.  Soon, however, he begins to notice that there are also zombie-like ghoulish creatures, which he calls jikininki and who feed off the dead.

It is the jikininki who lead Isamu to a crashed cargo plane and the two dead pilots.  Isamu realizes there is a missing person, the navigator, and eventually he finds Derwood Kraft on the beach, seriously injured and who seems to have his own ghost family of children. But along with this gaijin, Isamu also discovers Tengu, a monstrous black creature about to attack the American.

That pretty much sets the stage for this incredibly well-written, well-developed, wonderfully crafted novel.  At the heart of the novel is the mystery of what happened to Isamu and why this is connected to Evan's grandfather.  But Tim Wynne-Jones keeps the mystery going without even a hint of what happens until the very end, and getting there is never dull or boring.

As far as I'm concerned, The Emperor of Any Place is definitely top-drawer fantasy, and yes, it is also very graphically detailed.  The novel switches between the present and past seamlessly, and Wynne-Jones throws in some seemingly unimportant scenes that only serve to deliciously increase the mood and tension.  I'm not much of a zombie fan, but I was totally drawn into this novel and hated to put it down when I had to do something else.

But there is something else that Wynne-Jones wants us to take away beside a great story and that is how tenuously connected the lines between war and peace, friends and enemies, love and hate are and how they impact past to present, generation to generation.  As Griff explains to Evan, "[war] ends and then it starts again, and the end of one war inevitably grows out of the war that can before it."

The Emperor of Any Place is one of those novels that took me totally by surprise and my only regret is that I can't have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again, but I will be re-reading it soon.

The Emperor of Any Place will be available on October 13, 2015.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley