Thursday, September 29, 2016

Blog Tour: Bjorn's Gift by Sandy Brehl

Bjorn's Gift is a sequel to Odin's Promise (my review) and continues the story of Mari, now 12, and her family living in Norway under Nazi occupation since it was invaded in April 1940.

Bjorn's Gift begins in August 1941.  Mari is still mourning the loss of her beloved dog Odin, killed by a Nazi trying to protect her, her older brother Bjorn is in hiding, working with the Norwegian resistance, and older sister Lise lives in Oslo with her new husband.  As the number of Germans occupying Mari's village increases, so do their demands to be supplied with whatever they want, leaving everyone else cold and hungry all the time and making life generally very difficult for all Norwegians.

Mari still wonders what she can do to resist the Nazis like Bjorn, so when her friend Per tells her that Bjorn asked him to keep a coded journal of happenings in their village, Mari feels a pang of jealously. But when Per asks her to take over the task, she refuses and instead begins to record events in her own notebook for Bjorn.  Mari is hoping to be able to live up to her brother's faith in her, especially as she begins to get involved in more dangerous resistance activities.

And it seems that once school begins, things get even worse.  Mari's old school friend Leif appears to have become a staunch Nazi supporter, counting the days until he is 14, and can officially join the Unghird, the Norwegian version of the Hitler Youth, who are, as far as Mari is concerned, a bunch of bullies. Added to that, now Leif's aunt and uncle, also Nazi supporters, have moved into the house across the way, a house left vacant after the Jewish owner, Mr. Meier, was beaten and taken away by the Gestapo. And it seems that Leif is there all the time, or rather, he seems to always be where Mari is, trying to convince her he is still her friend.

When the Germans start to increase the number of soldiers throughout Norway, Mari and her family decide move into her grandmother's small cottage for some privacy.  The soldier's living in their house expect her mother and grandmother, and Mari when possible, to cook and clean for them. In return, the family gets more ration cards and leftovers, which they share with those less fortunate.

Throughout the novel, Mari worries about her brother and how he is surviving the harsh winters in hiding, wishing she knew if he is actually still alive.  But he continues to serve as Mari's strength and inspiration, even as she begins to realize that the war and occupation are going to go on for longer that she had first believed.  If only she knew about Bjorn, it would be so much easier.

Bjorn's Gift is a powerful look at the life of one family on the home front when it is governed by an occupying enemy.  It is told from Mari's point of view in the third person, except for the journals entries, which are told in the first person and really move the story along nicely.  The journal entries are a chance for Mari to express her anger, her fears and even her hopes.

The novel takes place from August 1941 to New Year 1943 and the reader sees Mari as she continues to grow and mature, going from a still questioning, 12 year-old to a more self-assured 14 year-old, and gaining more of her family's trust.

But, as Sandy Brehl clearly demonstrates in both Odin's Promise and Bjorn's Gift, living under Nazi occupation makes Mari, her family and friends more determined than ever to keep a firm hold on their Norwegian identity, their values as a family, and their role as kind, caring, and concerned neighbors,  To their credit, Mari and her family never waver in their concept of who they is, and Mari especially feels not temptation to follow Leif in his support of the Nazis, no matter how much he pressures her.

Brehl's setting, Ytre Arna, is ideal for some of the resistance activity that occurs in Bjorn's Gift.  It is a real place, located on a fjord on the western side of Norway, and Brehl's descriptions of the beautiful landscape and the village certainly do it justice (though I suspect it is not longer considered to be a village).
Ytre Arna in 1940
Often a sequel falls a little short of a first novel that was thoroughly enjoyed, but let me assure you that that is not the case here.  Bjorn's Gift is fresh and exciting and works well as a stand alone novel, with enough information about the events in Odin's Promise that the reader won't get lost, though I would definitely recommend reading both, particularly since I have just read that there will be a third book, called Mari's Hope.  This is good since Bjorn's Gift really left me wondering what what was going to happen next.

Bjorn's Gift is a novel about family, friends, and courage and should appeal to young readers whether or not they have a serious interest in World War II.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided to me by the author

About the Author: Sandy Brehl is a retired educator and active member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). When she’s not reading and writing, she enjoys gardening. She lives in the Milwaukee area and invites you to visit her website ( to learn more about ODIN’S PROMISE and BJORN’S GIFT. Sign up for quarterly newsletters to stay informed about future releases (including MARI’S HOPE), and special events and offers. 

Twitter: @SandyBrehl

Be sure to visit all the other stops on the Bjorn's Gift Blog Tour:

September 1          Interview                   GROG
September 7          Review                      GOLOWD
September 11        Guest Post                 Unleashing Readers
September 14        Review                      This Kid Reviews Books
September 19        Review                      Tales from the Raven
September 20        Review                      Kid Book Reviewer      (Odin's Promise)
September 27        Review                      Kid Book Reviewer      (Bjorn's Gift)
September 29        Review                      The Children's War
October 3              Review/Interview      Jenni Enzor
October 5              Review                      Mom Read It
October 7              Review                      Mindjacked
October 11            Guest Post                 Write Now! Coach

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson

Not long ago, I reviewed The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw, the fictionalized story about a young girl who survived the bombing on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, based on the author's mother's experience.  It is a one of the most compelling books I've read about the aftermath of an atomic bomb and one that I highly recommend.

Sachiko is a riveting nonfiction narrative of one girl who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  Sachiko Yasui was only 6 years old when the United States dropped a second atomic bomb only 1/2 mile from she was playing house with her friends in an air raid cave.  Life had been difficult for the Yasui's during the war, they were a large, but close family - older brothers Aki -14, Ichiro - 12, younger sister Misa - 4, and baby brother Toshi -2, and food shortages always left everyone hungry, usually living on only hot water with wheat balls.

On August 9, 1945, when the air raid siren went off, their father was at work at the Koyagi shipyard, so only their mother and the children went to the air raid cave.  After the all clear sounded, the two older boys went their way, Mrs. Yasui, Misa and Toshi went home, Sachiko stayed behind with her friends. Suddenly, before anyone could react to the incoming enemy plane, the bomb was dropped and life for the Yasui family would never be the same.

In the immediate aftermath, the friends Sachiko was playing with were dead, as was baby brother Toshi.  A few days after the bombing, the Yasui family, along with Sachiko's surviving uncle, left Nagasaki for the country.  But getting away wasn't enough.  Aki and Ichiro and her uncle all succumbed to radiation poisoning shortly after.

The family decided to return to Nagasaki and try to rebuild their lives, but the after effects of the atomic bomb continued to plague them, and everyone else who survived.  Oddly, survivors were not allowed to talk about the bombing of Nagaski, and when Sachiko started school again, she was bullied by kids who were unaffected by what happened for the way she looked. Later, Sachiko was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, from which she recovered.

But Sachiko's experiences as a hibakusha (a survivor of the atomic bomb) left her without a way to talk about what happened and she spent years looking for the right words that would release her memories.  Along the way, Sachiko discovered Gandhi, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr. who became spiritual mentors to her.

Eventually, Sachiko does find the words she has been seeking to tell her story.  In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, Sachiko, at 56, was finally able to address an audience of sixth-grade children and speak about that fateful day.  Now, guided by her spiritual mentors and her father's memory, Sachiko's words are about peace for the future.

I started reading Sachiko one evening and didn't stop until I was finished, it is that emotionally compelling. And yet, it is hard to imagine, and therefore, difficult to write about the depth of the trauma bombing victims like Sachiko suffered.  Not just physically and emotionally, but the loss of home, family, friends, neighbors, people one has known all one's life.

Caren Stelson interviewed Sachiko several times, using an interpreter, and has presented her story with a clarity that really captures what life was like for a young hibakusha.  In between the narrative of Sachiko's life are sidebars and inserts that further discuss important topics such as Radiation Sickness and Long-Term Effects of Radiation.  Reading these, you will immediately notice how well researched this book is, yet it never strays from Sachiko's story.  Stelson has also included numerous photographs, including the few surviving photos of Sachiko and her family.  Back matter consists of is a Glossary of Japanese Words, Chapter Notes, and Bibliography

Sachiko's story reminds us of the destructive power of atomic and nuclear weapons, a power that should never be taken lightly.

Sachiko is an excellent narrative of one person's experience of the bombing of Nagasaki and its aftermath, and for a fuller picture, you might want to pair it with Steve Sheinkin's 2012 outstanding work Bomb: the Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon or Edward T. Sullivans's 2007 book The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb. And, of course, do match it up with Kathleen Burkinshaw's The Last Cherry Blossom.

If you are interested in reading about other hibakuska, including Sachiko, be sure to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan - Testimony of Hibakusha

This book will be available on October 1, 2016

FYI: As you may already know, Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story has been longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Liberty (Book 3 of Dogs of World War II) by Kirby Larson

It's 1944 and Fish Elliot and his sister Mo have moved to New Orleans from Seattle while their dad is overseas fighting in the war.  Now, Mo is working for Higgins Industries, manufacturer of LCVPs (or Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), and spending time with her new boyfriend, Roy.

Fish, who had contracted polio when he was younger that left him with a weakened leg, loves to tinker and invent things.  While working on a trap to catch whatever is eating up his neighbor Miss Zona's Victory Garden, with unwelcome help from her granddaughter Olympia, Fish finds a mangy stray dog.  After a mean neighbor, Mr. LaVasche, threatens to shoot the dog for bothering his chickens, Fish decides to keep it, naming the dog Liberty in his head.  But Liberty is a skittish dog and keeps running off.

Life in New Orleans settles into a daily routine for Fish. School, chores, inventing, visits from Olympia and looking for Liberty fill his days, as does trying to build his weak leg up again using one of his own inventions and riding a bike, despite the pain and difficulty.  Fish is convinced that his father is disappointed in him because of the polio and just wants to be strong for him when he returns from the war.

One day, Fish comes home and finds a badly wounded Liberty under their oak tree, waiting for him.
He tends to the gash on her side with help from Olympia and Miss Zona, and actually manages to convince his sister to let him keep Liberty, outside only though. Unfortunately, it turns out that Liberty is deathly afraid of thunderstorms and runs away again when one begins. When he finally finds her weeks later, she is pregnant and being held captive in a very small cage, and Fish soon learns that Liberty's life may once more be in jeopardy thanks to Mr. LaVasche.

Sandwiched in between what is happening in Fish's life is the story of a young German soldier named Erich Berger, 17, who has a younger brother back in Germany who also has had to deal with polio. When a bomb hits his camp, Erich is captured by the Americans and becomes a prison of war.  It doesn't take long for him to realize that life as a POW is better under the Americans than as a German soldier. Eventually, Erich makes his way to a POW camp in New Orleans.  When he sees Fish trying to release the now caged Liberty, he is reminded of his own brother and decides to help, even if it means putting himself in jeopardy.

Liberty is the third book in Kirby Larson's Dogs of War series. The first one was Duke, the story of a boy who gives up his dog to the Dogs for Defense program; the second book was Dash, about a young Japanese America girl who must give up her dog when her family is sent to an internment camp.

Like the first two books, the main story is focused on life on the home front during WWII. One of the things I really like about reading a book by Kirby Larson is that the reader gets such a clear picture of what life was like at the time in which the story is set.  It is all done is such a natural way that the reader finishes reading with a lot more information plus a really good story.  For instance, I know what an LCVP is, but had never heard of Higgins Industries and its owner, Andrew Jackson Higgins. Larson gives enough information about this important wartime company, but inspired me to look it up anyway. This photo shows the work being done exactly as Mo describes building of LCVPs in the book:

From: The National World War II Museum in New Orleans
Fish is a great character.  Somewhat naive, he is also strong, imaginative, inventive and kind.  Polio was a common disease back then (see my review of Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter for another protagonist who contracts polio), and he works hard to overcome his disability.

For all Fish's complaining about Olympia annoying him, he really does like her.  Olympia is African American and Fish seems to not really know or understand about Jim Crow laws, treating her like he would anyone else.  But when he (and the reader) witnesses some of the treatment she and her friends are forced to deal with, Fish begins to understand life in the south a little better, but he still doesn't let that prejudice influence his friendship with her and her grandmother.

Kirby Larson is a master at writing historical fiction and Liberty is no exception.  I highly recommend this and the other two books in the Dogs of War series.  All three focus on important themes of bravery, courage, friendship, tolerance and prejudice, and kindness under difficult circumstances. Plus they are engaging and well written.

Liberty will be available October 11, 2016.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough

It's November 1942, and Marcel Christophe, 12, has one dream - to ride in the famous bike race the Tour de France when he gets older.  For now, though, he must be content with practicing on his bicycle, riding to school and delivering bread to customers of his parents' bakery.  The race has been cancelled since the Nazis began occupying northern France in 1940, but Marcel knows it will be back after the war is over.  Now, however, the Nazis have also invaded the southern part of France where Marcel lives, making things difficult for everyone.  Not only are there shortages and rationing, but soldiers are stopping people to question where they are going and why.

The first time Marcel is stopped by a guard, his parents want to know all about it.  The next time they ask him to deliver bread to his aunt and uncle. his mother gives him some pain d'epice (gingerbread) to offer to the guard if he is stopped again.  Sure enough, the guard is there, and more than willing to let Marcel go by in exchange for the gingerbread.  Afterwards, Marcel decides to slice off a little of the bread to eat and discovers a note written by his father baked into it.  Suddenly, Marcel realizes he has been making a lot more bread deliveries these past few weeks, but why?  Stunned, Marcel realizes his parents are in the resistance and his is delivering messages for them.  Realizing the danger for everyone concerned, he decides to keep this to himself.

Meanwhile, at school, there is a new girl named Delphine Gilette  who is not only a very good student, but knows all about the Tour de France thanks to her brother and father's interest in the race. It doesn't take long before she and Marcel become fast friends, riding their bikes together, playing together and doing homework.  But just as Marcel has a secret, so does Delphine and when a boy in their class discovers a revealing photograph in her school satchel, her secret is exposed.  Delphine and her family are Jews from northern France who had traveled to southern France using forged papers when it was still free of Nazis soldiers.  Now, they will need new papers to try to get out of France to safely.

Marcel realizes he must confess to his parents that he knows that they are part of the resistance in order to help his friend escape France.  Luckily, his parents are more than willing to help, but they must send Marcel to a fellow resistance contact on his bicycle.  What should have been a simple trip, however, is anything but.  Everything that could go wrong does, including a flat tire that forces Marcel to trade his beloved bike for a beat up replacement that will take him further from home than he has ever been seeking the right people who can help Delphine and her family get out of France.

But the Nazis have already begun rounding up all the Jews in the area.  Will Marcel make it to his final destination and home again before Delphine and her parents are found and deported?

At first I thought The Bicycle Spy was not going to be a very interesting story, but that quickly changed and it proved to be a very accessible, exciting narrative of courage and friendship.  The language is direct and clear, and terms that might be unfamiliar to readers are defined in the glossary at the back of the book. Told in the third person, Marcel's story unfolds simply and believably.  I say believably because after reading so many stories about the courageous acts of children to help other, I can easily see how this could have happened.

As a protagonist, Marcel is a typical, unassuming 12 year old, who is happy riding his bike, racing his friends, and dreaming about his big Tour de France wins, yet he also seems surprised by his own bravery.  Delphine, a girl who has had to move around because of the Nazis, feels a little more down to earth but the reader will definitely feel her underlying anxiety, even when she appears to be so confident.

I really liked the way Yona Zeldis McDonough managed to keep the tension building slowly right up to the end of the novel, making it a deceptively simple, thought provoking story.  I also like the way she incorporated information about the Nazi occupation of France, WWII and even the Tour de France so easily that it felt like a natural part of the narrative, and not like she was teaching her readers a lesson.

McDonough has also included a short history of WWII, as well as a Timeline, a short history of the Tour de France (something I found very interesting since all I know about this race has to do with the disgraced Lance Armstrong) and books for further reading.

There is much in The Bicycle Spy that will appeal to young readers and for that reason, I highly recommend it to them.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Plot to Kill Hitler - Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick

The fact is that most people don't really know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was or, if they know the name, they aren't sure of what he did beyond opposing the Nazis.  To be honest, beyond using a few quotes for papers I have written (my favorite The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children) and knowing why he died young in a German concentration camp, I didn't know that much about his entire life either.

But, in the history of the Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an interesting figure.  A deeply religious man and a pacifist, one has to wonder how did a man who came from a large, well-to-do, well-educated family end up being executed by hanging at the age of 39 for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler?  In her new book, The Plot to Kill Hitler, Patricia McCormick explores that very question.

The youngest of eight children, all accomplished, Dietrich wanted to achieve something all his own. Invited to study at a music conservatory, he had already decided to study theology and become a minister, beginning his studies in 1923.

Slowly, as Hitler became more and more popular, Dietrich formulated his own ideas about the church.  Ultimately, he came to believe that the church shouldn't be an authoritarian force in people's lives, but rather it should be a "force for good," that it should be "deeply and directly involved in the problems facing ordinary people." (pg 27)

Over time, Dietrich would come under the influence of people who felt as he did, and he would learn much from people like Frank Fisher, with whom he became friends while studying in 1930 at Union Theological Seminary in NYC.  Fisher introduced Dietrich to the reality of life for African Americans in Harlem, even taking him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Dietrich ended up teaching Sunday School for a while.  Another influence at that time was Rabbi Stephen Wise, who sensitized him to what was happening to Jews in Germany because of Hitler's anti-Semitism rhetoric.

Returning to Germany, Dietrich refused to pledge his support for Hitler's new church, the Reichkirche, a church that replaced God with Hitler as it head.  Eventually, as things in Germany worsened, Dietrich's siblings and and brothers-in-law drew him into a plot to kill Hitler.  But Dietrich was a pacifist, even wanting to study under Gandhi in India, so how could he possibly justify an assassination of another human being, even one as dangerous as Hitler?

Dietrich's answer was simple and may surprised young readers of this very well-done biography.  The book begins with Cast of Characters, always a good idea when writing about people that are probably not familiar to readers, but whom they will no doubt find fascinating.

And even though the Cast of Characters tells the readers the fate of these participants in the plot to kill Hitler, McCormick has written in such a way that it maintains a tension throughout and even knowing the outcome assassination attempt, makes you hope against hope it will come out differently.

McCormick includes copious photographs, occasional offsets to give more information about certain people or concepts that may need a little more explanation, and the is lots of informative back matter. This includes an Author's Note, a extensive Timeline, Endnotes (always important), and a Selected Bibliography,

I found The Plot to Kill Hitler to be a very inspiring book, not because it was full of grime detail about the planning to pull off an assassination attempt, but because it was full of ideas and the development of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thinking.  Like Bonhoeffer, I am also a pacifist and I have often wondered what I would do if I found myself in the kind of situation he found himself in. Interestingly, I did find at least part of an answer in The Plot to Kill Hitler.

This book will be available September 13, 2016.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book is an ARC received from the publisher.