Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelly

February is Black History Month and this year's theme is A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.  It is a good time to look back and reflect on the changes and contributions of African Americans to the fabric of American life in the last century.  

For example, more and more we are learning about the achievements of African American soldiers in World War II.  Books like The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin,  Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Lee Stone, Double Victory: How African American Women Broke the Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II by Cheryl Mullenbach, and The Double V Campaign: African Americans and World War II by Michael L. Cooper all highlight the contributions these courageous Americans made in the fight for democracy even as they were being denied their basic civil rights.

Now, J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelly, the same duo who produced the lovely book And the Soldiers Sang, about the Christmas Truce in 1914 during World War I, have written a book introducing us to the brave and talented unsung heroes of the 15thNew York National Guard, which was later federalized as the 369th Infantry Regiment, soldier that the Germans dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters. "because of their tenacity."

In beautifully lyrical prose, Lewis tells how bandleader James "Big Jim" Reese Europe was recruited to organize a new black regiment in New York.  Traveling around in an open air double-decker bus, his band played on the upper level, while the new recruits lined up below.  Willing to fight like any American, enthusiastic patriotism may have motivated these young men, but racism at home, and in the army resulted in segregation while training and doing the kind of grunt work not given to white soldiers in Europe, even as they entertained tired soldiers with [Jim] Europe's big band jazz sounds.

Each page tells small stories of the 369th: their heroics, homesickness, the bitter cold, the lynchings back home, the fighting on the French front lines.  Extending the narrative are Gary Kelly's dark pastel illustrations.  Kelly's visual representations of the men of the 369th Infantry are both haunting and beautiful.   He has used a palette of earth tones and grays, so appropriate for the battlefields and uniforms of war, but with color in the images of patriotism, such as flags and recruiting posters, and highlighting the reasons we go to war.   Some of Kelly's image may take your breath away with their stark depiction of, for example, the hanging figures, victims of a lynching, or the irony of the shadowy faces of people in a slave ship hull, shackles around their necks, on their voyage to America and slavery next to a soldier heading to Europe to fight for freedom and democracy.

Harlem Hellfighters is an exquisitely rendered labor of love, but readers may find it a little disjointed in places.  Lewis's fact are right, though, and he also includes a Bibliography for readers who might want to know more or those who just want more straightforward nonfiction books about the 369th Regiment.

As a picture book for older readers, Harlem Hellfighters would pair very nicely with Walter Dean Myer's impeccable researched and detailed book The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage written with Bill Miles.  Myer's gives a broader, more historical view of these valiant men.  These would extend and compliment each other adding to our understanding and appreciation of what life was like for African American soldiers in World War I.

Both books is recommended for readers age 10+
Harlem Hellfighters was bought for my personal library

February is Black History Month

Friday, February 20, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (a Flavia de Luce Mystery #7) by Alan Bradley

I knew I was probably pushing the WWII connection with the 7th Flavia de Luce mystery, but, well, I read it and loved it anyway.  And after all, #6, The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, did leave us with a cliffhanger - with Flavia, now 12, banished to Canada and boarding school.  How could I resist?

It is 1951, and very much against her will, Flavia sets sail from her beloved Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacy to Canada in the company of the rather disagreeable Dr. Ryerson Rainsmith, Chairman of the Board of Guardians at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy and his equally disagreeable second wife, Dorsey (hmm. what happened to wife number 1?, Flavia wonders)

But finally, after a long, rough voyage followed by a long train ride, Flavia arrives late one night at Miss Bodycote's in Toronto.  Taken to her room and glad to be out of the Rainsmith's clutches, Flavia no sooner falls asleep when she is pummeled awake by a girl calling her a dirty, rotten traitor.  Determining that it is a case of mistaken identity, her attacker, Patricia Anne Collingwood, tells Flavia that she has noticed three girls in the school have gone missing and she was trying to get to the bottom of it all.

But when the headmistress, Miss Fawlthorne, shows up, Collingwood scurries up the chimney to hide, leaving Flavia to deal with explaining so much noise.  But just as Flavia convinces the headmistress that she was just disoriented and talking to herself, Collingwood crashes out of the chimney, followed by a charred body wrapped in a Union Jack, and with a detached head.  But who does the body belong to? And why was it stuffed up the chimney and for how long?  Could it be one of the three missing girls?  How will Flavia possibly solve this case without the cooperation of her great friend from Bishop Lacy Inspector Hewitt?  After all, Toronto's Inspector Greenhurst doesn't know her, doesn't know her reputation, and things are done differently in Canada, so no help there for Flavia.

Now, you knew that even though Flavia is away from her friends, family and chemistry lab at Buckshaw that murder and mayhem would follow her across the ocean.  Still, I didn't really know what to expect when Bradley decided to take Flavia out of her comfort zone and drop her half way across the world - in a boarding school, no less.  But I was definitely not disappointed with what I read.

Each book gives a little more information about Flavia and her mother.  Miss Bodycote's is the school her mother attended, and it seems that Flavia is destined to follow in her footsteps.  But even though we've learned a lot about Harriet de Luce, she is still something of an enigma to both the reader and to Flavia.  And the mysterious Miss Bodycote's is part of the mystery of Harriet de Luce.  All I can say is that nothing is as it seems in this 7th mystery.

Flavia, thankfully, hasn't changed a bit - she's still too smart, too feisty, too incorrigible in the best of ways.  Is the purpose of Miss Bodycote's to test Flavia's mettle, dropped into a difficult situation, away from things loved and familiar?  To initiate her into Nide and the enjoyment of pheasant sandwiches (don't remember what these mean?  Go back and reread the end of The Dead in their Vaulted Arches).

One word of caution.  Normally, each book gives you enough information about Flavia's past adventures in mystery-solving, but I'm sorry to say that this volume just doesn't stand alone.  Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful fun, but you need a little more background.

It is my understanding there there will be three more Flavia de Luce mysteries still to come and perhaps by the end of book 10, all will be revealed about her life.

If you love mystery series, this is one of the best.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Born with a severely clubbed foot, Ada Smith, 10, has been kept imprisoned and abused by her Mam in a one room flat her whole life.  Mam sees her foot as a mark of shame and humiliation, and so Ada never learned to walk, scooting around on her bum as she waits on Mam and younger brother Jamie, 6.  Then one day, Ada decides to learn to walk, keeping at it despite the pain and blood.

Then, when war comes to England, Ada is told that Jamie will be evacuated, and she will remain in the flat - bombs or no.  But Mam doesn't know Ada's secret and when evacuation day arrives, she and Jamie take off for the train station together.  Eventually arriving at a small countryside village, all the children are selected by residents except Ada and Jamie, who are taken to the home of Susan Smith (no relation) and left in her care.

But Susan is depressed, mourning the death of her friend (though clearly more than friend), Becky.  The two women had lived there together for years and Susan had inherited the property.  The last thing she wanted now were two children to take care of.  And yet, she does.  She feeds Ada and Jamie, buys them new clothes and shoes to replace the dirty, raggy things they arrived in, and allows them to find their own way through a certain amount of benign neglect.

And Susan has a pony named Butter that Ada determines to learn how to ride and care for.  Soon, she is riding all over the village and surrounding area.  Susan has also taken Ada to a doctor about her foot, and she has been given crutches to help her walk.  But when Jamie begins school, Ada refuses to go not wanting to admit she can't read or do simple math.  Eventually Susan figures it out and offers to teach her at home - an offer not very welcomed by Ada.  But why not?

Ada and Susan are two people carrying around a lot of physical and emotional baggage, thrown together by a war they don't really feel connected to and which at first doesn't feel quite as real as the personal war they are waging with themselves.  But gradually, they forge relationships with each other and begin to feel like a family.  And then Mam shows up and takes the Ada and Jamie back to London, despite the bombing and Ada is forced to scoot around on her bum once again.

Now that they have seen another side of life, is it over for Ada, Jamie and even Susan?

What a powerful story The War That Saved My Life is.  It is everything that makes historical fiction so wonderfully satisfying.  There is lots of historical detail about London and the countryside in those early war days, including the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk (Susan's house is on coastal Kent, the closest point in England to Dunkirk).

I thought that Susan and Ada were drawn well, with lots of depth to their personalities, but not Jamie so much.  He really felt like just a secondary character, mostly there for contrast and to move the story along in a believable way.  The shame Mam felt over Ada's foot is quite palpable, but also seemed to empower her with the ability to abuse her daughter, making her plain scary, though a rather one dimensional character at the same time.

One of the things I found interesting is that in the beginning Ada, the child, is such a strong, determined character, while Susan, the adult, was kind of weak and irresolute.  And yet, they have things to teach each other.  And to her credit, Bradley doesn't actually come out and directly let the reader know that Susan and Becky were partners, but its clearly there.

If your young readers loved Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, they are sure to love The War That Saved My Life.  If they haven't discovered Good Night, Mr. Tom yet, perhaps it's time to introduce them to both of these fine books.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC eceived from the publisher

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Two Books about Peace

February 13, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the firebombing of the German city of Dresden by British and American forces.  The attack lasted for 37 hours and leveled countless building and killed more than 25,000 people.  Happening within months of the war ending, this bombing has remained shrouded in controversy from the beginning.   For more information on this, see History Learning Site: The Bombing of Dresden

You may also recall that author Kurt Vonnegut was a 23 year old prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing.  In his introduction to Slaughterhouse Five Or The Children's Crusade, he recalls the difficulty he had trying to write this novel about the Dresden bombing, unable to find the words needed.  As he says in his introduction "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." (pg 19)

While thinking about these things on Friday, I recalled two picture books that I think both remind us of the destructive power of war and reinforce why it is such a terrible thing.

Why War is Never a Good Idea by Alice Walker, illustrated by Stefano Vitale
Harper Collins, 2007, 32 pages

In Alice Walker's poetic work Why War Is Never A Good Idea, she explores what war is all about using incredibly simple words and examples of how it wantonly crashes into and changes the lives of everyday people and creatures, completely disregarding the landscape and natural resources and leaving a trail of destruction behind it:

Stefano Vitale's folk art painted illustrations take you around the world, showing how different places and people are impacted the same way by war and, as you can see, he nicely juxtaposes what the lush green world of peace looks like compared to what the destroyed gray world of war looks like:

The rhythmic text isn't always the best I've read by Walker, but certainly she gets her pacifistic ideas across, ideas I can completely agree with.  What really makes this a moving, effective work is the combination of text and illustrations.  Each stands better with the other than they would alone.

And, in the end, seeing faces looking down a poisoned water well, Walker poses the question to her reader - What if you become war?  Certainly, food for thought.

The Enemy: a book about peace by Davide Cali, illustrated by Serge Bloch
Schwartz & Wade, 2009, 40 pages

The second book I pulled off my shelves when thinking about Dresden this week is a book written by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch called The Enemy: a book about peace.  I love this book.  It says so much using so little.  Two soldiers, sitting opposite each other in their separate foxholes, are enemies because their manuals told them they were enemies.

One solider claims his enemy isn't human, he's a beast, knows no mercy, will kill families, pets, burn down forests, poison water.  Well, that's what the manual says, anyway.  But sitting in a foxhole isn't easy - one gets hungry, it rains and becomes uncomfortable.

One day, the soldier disguises himself as a bush and leaves his hole, crawling towards his enemy so he can kill him and end the war.  But when he gets there, what a surprise.  His enemy is gone, but has left his things behind - family pictures and a manual that says his enemy isn't human - hmm, wait a minute! Where has he seen that before?  Then, realizing his enemy has crawled over to his hole, the soldier sends outs a peace message to him at the same time the enemy sends one to him.  Doesn't take much to figure out how this ends.

Bloch used simple, almost cartoonish pen and ink illustrations for The Enemy.  The only colors are the khaki of the soldier's uniforms, red blood and the red cover of the manuals they used, though real photos were used for the enemy's family, bring the story close to home, so to speak.  Such spare illustrations really forces the reader to focus on the words of the text, written in the first person by one soldier, which isn't favoritism for one side or the other because you know the other soldier is thinking the same thoughts.

These are definitely picture books for older readers.  They are excellent and complimentary books about war and peace, each extending the other's message.  Both of these books will or should generate conversations and questions by kids and it is advisable to judge the age and child's ability to tolerate these messages, however peaceful they may be meant.

And if you haven't already read Slaughterhouse Five, I highly recommend it.  And have a peaceful day!

Both of these books are recommended for readers age 8+
Both of these books were purchased for my personal library

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday Funnies #20: Gasoline Alley - 1921 to 1942

It's Super Bowl Sunday - a good day for blogging, making my Super Bowl Sunday chili and watching…Downton Abbey.  But this morning has also been a good time to straighten up my book shelves, which hasn't been done in a long, long time.  As I was working, I came across two little books published by Whitman - they really are little, only 3 5/8" X 4 1/2".  One is called Skeezix Goes to War (1943) and it's based on daily comic strips that ran in the newspapers in 1942-1943.

I probably bought it because Gasoline Alley has been one of my favorite comic strips ever since I first started reading them, but it has been around for a lot longer than my lifetime.  It officially began November 24, 1918 in the Sunday funnies of the Chicago Tribune, in a feature called The Rectangle, written and drawn by Frank King:

Chicago Tribune November 24, 1918 - Gasoline Alley int he bottom panel
But almost a year later, as it became more popular, Gasoline Alley became it's own a daily strip on August 25, 1919.  It was was originally about a group of friends interested in cars, and appeared in the Automobile section of the Chicago Tribune.  Beginning on December 22, 1919, however, Gasoline Alley started to focus on a character named Walt Wallet, a rather rotund bachelor who had served in World War I but the center of interest of the strip was still tinkering with cars.

It was an appealing comic strip, and began to gain in popularity, but not with women.  The Chicago Tribune wasn't happy about that and told King to do something that would make Gasoline Alley appeal to women. So, on February 14, 1921, Walt Wallet is awakened by his doorbell ringing in the middle of the night:
Gasoline Alley February 14, 1921
Walt discovers a week old abandoned baby on his doorstep, who he eventually calls Skeezix and adopts, though Skeezix always refers to him as Uncle Walt.  Now that Skeezix was introduced into the strip, Gasoline Alley began to focus less on things automotive and more on things domestic, becoming a really family-orientd comic strip appealing to everyone now, not just men.

What set Gasoline Alley apart from most comic strips from the beginning is that the characters not only develop unique personalities, but they also grow up and grow old, giving it a real-to-life feeling.  In 1926, when Skeezix is 5 years old, Walt marries his girlfriend Phyliss Blossom.  Later, in 1928, they have a child nicknamed named Corky, and 1935, they adopt another orphan, Judy.  Meanwhile, readers are watching Skeezix grow up:

Gasoline Alley November 4, 1928 Skeezix around age 7
After graduating from high school in 1939, Skeezix gets a job, and continues going out with high school girlfriend Nina Clock.  But on December 7, 1941, the United States is attacked and enters World War II.  The now 20 year old Skeezix knows it only a matter of time until he is drafted, so on January 16, 1942, he enlists in the army, but not before asking Nina to marry him:  

Gasoline Alley December 24, 1941
Gasoline Alley January 16, 1942

To be continued: Skeezix Goes to War