Friday, December 30, 2016

Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman's Land Army of America by Erin Hagar, illustrated by Jen Hill

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I. And, with most of the men now working in munitions factories, or enlisting and fighting, the country's farm crops were on the verge of being ruined without anyone to care for them.  And so it was the Women's Land Army to the rescue.

Using a typical woman as her protagonist, Erin Hager presents the story of the Women's Land Army or farmerettes as they were called. Helen Stevens is a young college student living in New York City when she sees a poster in a store window and decides to join the Women's Land Army much to the puzzlement of her family. But Helen wanted to do more than knit socks and roll bandages, so before long, she is off to the experimental Women's Agricultural Camp in Bedford, NY.

After Helen and her fellow farmerettes are issued some very oversized overalls to work in, they spend their days learning how to plow, how to whitewash a barn, how to fence in a chicken coop under the watchful eye of Ida Ogilvie, the camp director. But now matter how much the women learn about farming, no matter how hard they work, no farmers are willing to hire them.

Finally, Ida decides to take three women, including Helen, to a farmer who is in desperate need of help, but still unwilling to hire women to do what needs doing. Ida strikes a deal with him - one day of free labor to prove they are capable workers, and if he is satisfied, he will hire them for pay the next day. Totally satisfied with what the women do, the farmer, nevertheless, tries to get another free day, but the farmerettes stick to the bargain Ida made for them. Helen tells him "If you want us back tomorrow, it'll be two dollars a day for each of us." And the farmers response, OK, but bring two more girls.

I found this to be such an interesting picture book for older readers about a big part of women's work in WWI that isn't really all that well known. If you read the author's note at the back on the book, you will find that Ida Ogilvie was a professor who really was the director of the Women's Agricultural Camp in Bedford, NY, and that most, if not all, of the first volunteers were students from Barnard College in NYC, and Helen Stevens the protagonist was based on the experiences of the real Helen Stevens.

Hager tells the story of the farmerettes in clear language which is supported by Jen Hill's gouache illustrations. I thought the illustrations were also very much in keeping with the many recruiting posters for the Women's Land Army, like this one, similar to the one that drew Helen's attention:

Be sure to look at the front and back endpapers for more posters and photographs of the Barnard women at work.

Besides the Author's Note, back matter also includes a section to Learn More section and a Bibliography.

There is an interesting article from about the Farmerettes, which readers can find HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, December 26, 2016

Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival by Kathryn Atwood

Ever since I started this blog, I've thought a lot about heroes and heroism. In her new book, Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater, Kathryn Atwood takes as her guiding principle two quotes. One from humanist and women's rights activist Zainab Salbi, which reads "War can teach you so much about evil, and so much about good." The other quote is from diplomat/historian George F. Kennan. who said "Heroism is endurance for one moment more." The 15 women that Atwood has chosen for her second book about woman in WWII are indeed examples of heroes who endured in the midst of and despite so many of the wartime evils they encountered.

Once again, Atwood has included stories about courageous nurses, journalists, a photographer, a missionary, a teenage survivor of a Japanese POW internment camp, and yes, even a 14 year old rape survivor who was forced to become a comfort woman for the occupying Japanese in the Philippines. Their nationalities are as varied as their situations, ranging from American to Dutch, Malayan, Chinese, Filipino, British, and Australian, but each and every one has a story this is as harrowing as it is compelling.

Most people think that World War II began with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. I've always thought it to have began in 1937, with the Second Sino-Japanese War and the fall of Nanjing, but Atwood takes the reader back to 1932 China. The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria, and now they set their sites on Shanghai. American reporter Peggy Hull had just arrive in China thinking to write articles about women there, but suddenly she found herself the war correspondent for the NY Daily News instead. Peggy reported on this early fighting between Japan and China despite the danger, but was later ironically refused accreditation as a war correspondent when the fighting intensified, and was forced to report from Hawaii until 1945.

Peggy's story is followed by that of Minnie Vautrin, also an American. When the Japanese invaded Nanjing in 1937, Minnie was working at a woman's college there. The college was turned into a woman's refugee camp, in an attempt to protect them being raped by the Japanese, who were intent on raping every female, in Nanjing, regardless of age. By the end of 1937, the college had become a sanctuary for 10,000 women.

The most difficult story to read is that of Maria Rosa Henson, a 14 year old Filipina who had always lived in near poverty with her mother. After the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Maria was repeatedly raped by soldiers as she went about collecting desperately needed firewood. When she and her mother finally moved in with a male relative, he talked Maria into joining the Hukbalahap, or Huk, a guerrilla army, working as a courier. One day, she was taken by the Japanese to a garrison, where she was repeatedly beaten and raped until some Huk guerrilla's rescued her. Atwood continues Maria's story, telling about her attempts to make the plight of "comfort women" known and attempts to make the Japanese government acknowledge what was done to Maria and so many other women during WWII.

Some of the experiences included in this volume are difficult to read, case in point is that of Maria, but they all are important and deserve the kind of acknowledgement that Atwood gives the women in her "hero" books. So many could have given up, turned their backs, left it all for someone else to do, but instead these courageous women endured that one moment more.

Atwood has organized Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater in sections of place: I- China; II- the Philippines; III- Malaya, Singapore, Dutch East Indies; IV- Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I was already familiar with some of the stories she included, like that of American photographer Dickey Chappelle but I still found Atwood's bio of her to be fresh and informative. In fact, I found that to be true of all the stories. They are written with Atwood's characteristic energy, and though they are short, the stories are so succinct that I felt I had actually read much more than I did.  

Be sure to read the Introduction, where Atwood has included some very important background information. There is also a map of the Pacific Theater to help reader unfamiliar with that part of the world. At the end of each woman's story, readers will find Learn More suggestions for further reading, and the Epilogue will take them past the end of WWII and into the Cold War.  Back Matter includes Discussion Questions and Suggestions for Further Study, perfect for high school students studying WWII, an extensive Bibliography and, as with all good researchers, Notes used for each section of the book.

For an excellent overall picture of this part of the world in WWII, pair Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater with Mary Cronk Farrell's book Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific.

I cannot recommend this new book by Kathryn Atwood highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Chicago Review Press

Saturday, December 24, 2016

May We All Find Some Joy and Peace This Year

1942 Rockefeller Center - the Christmas Tree with no lights because of the war

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker, illustrated by Renné Benoit

I think that we sometimes think that if a person was German in the 1930s and early 1940s that automatically makes them Nazis. But the truth is that there were plenty of decent people who were not Nazis, didn't support Hitler and his Third Reich, and were just struggling to survive like anyone caught in a war.

A Year of Borrowed Men is just such a book. This fictionalized story that takes place during the last year of the war is based on the author's mother's actual experiences as she related them to her children. Farms and the food they produced were just as important to Germany during the war as they were everywhere else, but with all the men off fighting for the Führer, many farms were struggling to survive.

For Gerda Schlottke, 7, and her family living on a farm in a rural part of Germany, taking care of all the farm chores was getting difficult with her father off fighting in the Germany army. They had a good sized farm consisting of cows, pigs, 150 chickens and 6 horses that needed to be cared for everyday, as well as field work to be done and only 5 young children. To assist families like the Schlottkes, the German government decided to use POWs to help with the farm work. The German government sent them three French POWs - gentle Gabriel, prickly Fermaine, and cheerful Albert. The men lived in the cold, bear pig kitchen, next to where the animals slept. Families were not supposed to be kind to them, or to feed them or treat they like a member of the family, but for some people that was hard not to do.

One cold day, Gerda's mother invited the men into their warm kitchen to eat with the family. The next day, there was a knock on the door and Frau Schlottke was taken to police headquarters by a formerly kind neighbor who had joined the Nazis and warned not never to be kind to her workers again or she would find herself in prison.

Over the year that they 'borrowed' the French POWs, the Schlottke family found ways to counter the admonishment they were given regarding the treatment of Nazi Germany's enemies. For example, at Christmas, the men were allowed a tree, but no decorations, they were allowed to receive parcels, but no food from the Gerda's family, and yet they managed to find a way around that. It is interesting to see just how they could make the time somewhat bearable for Gabriel, Fermaine, and Albert and A Year of Borrowed Men is a nice reminder that there were at least a few pockets of humanity still to be found in what was an otherwise brutal regime.

At the end of the European war in the spring of 1945, the men left the farm and eventually returned to France. Meanwhile, the Russian army arrived, "liberating" all the farm animals, including those of the Schlottkes.

A Year of Borrowed Men is a gentle story, poignant in its hopeful perspective, perhaps because it is narrated by 7 year old Gerda, and Michelle Barker is able to retain all the the innocence of a child in her writing. A cruel, hateful regime and war, after all, doesn't mean one needs to sacrifice their humanity, as so many did living under Hitler and during WWII. Although the story covers the year the POWs were at the Schlottke's farm, because of the number of pages devoted to Christmas, it makes a nice holiday story, as well. There may not have been Peace of Earth at that time, but at least on one farm there was Goodwill towards men.

Renné Benoit's watercolor, pencil and pastel illustrations has a gentle, almost folk art feeling to them, done in a palette of warms browns, greens, and ochre earthtones that seems to create a haven in the midst of war.

This book is recommended for readers 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, December 12, 2016

The School The Aztec Eagles Built: A Tribute to Mexico's World War II Air Fighters by Dorinda Makanaōnalani Nicholson

In this informative new book, Dorinda Makanaōnalani Nicholson relates the exciting and relatively unknown story of how a newly formed Mexican Air Force squadron managed to become an important part of World War II, fighting with the Allies in the Philippines and being the reason for a new school to be built in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico.

Relations between the United States and Mexico haven't always been very friendly. In the 1800s, the two countries went to war against each other over land that Mexico had claimed in the southwes but ultimately had lost to the US. So when the United States was forced into World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a reconciliation between the US and Mexico that had finally begun in the 1930s was further solidified after German U-boats torpedoed two unarmed Mexican oil tankers and Mexico declared was on the Axis powers.

In an agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho, it was decided that Mexico would send a group of 38 of its best pilots to the US to be trained.  The pilots became known as Air Fighter Squadron 201. On the day they left Mexico, June 20, 1944, President Camacho asked if any of the pilots had a last-minute or special request. One of the pilots, Ángel Bocanegra del Castillo, a teacher from Tepoztlán, managed to get the Mexican president to promise he would build a desperately needed school in there. The men then boarded the train that would take them to the US for combat training, after which they shipped out to the Philippines.

In The School The Aztec Eagles Built, Nicholson has written a wonderful tribute to these Mexican heroes. And woven into the history of the Air Fighter Squadron 201 is the personal story of Ángel Bocanegra del Castillo, who father, a high-ranking soldier himself, had originally wanted him to enter military service, but who wanted to teach instead. And yes, the school Ángel has asked for was built by the time these hero pilots returned after the war and is still in operation to this day.

In this nonfiction picture book for older readers, Nicholson presents her information in a clear, coherent manner, chronologically following the pilots through their training and their combat fighting. She has included copious photographs, not just from WWII, but right up to the present. In addition, there are maps to help orient the reader. Also included is an important Author's Note, a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide, Author's and Quotation Sources.

The School The Aztec Eagles Built is a true life story that is sure to please young readers interested in World War II, especially lesser known ones like this. And it was so nice to read about a time when US-Mexican relations were so positive and productive.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was provided by the publisher, Lee & Low Books

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur

The country of Sofarende has been at war with the imperialistic Tyssia for a long time. For the families of best friends Mathilde Joss and Megs Swiller, both 12, that means little food, little sleep, and the nightly bombs dropped from airplanes, destroying their city, Lykellig, and their country. Then, a notice is given out at school that all children 12 and over are eligible to sit for an examination that would allow them be become part of an Adolescent Army.  Just what the Adolescent Army does is a mystery, but the renumeration offered to parents of children with the kind of aptitude they army is looking for is very tempting.  

For Megs family it would mean more food on the table for all of her brothers and sisters. Things have been particularly difficult for them since their father was drafted into the army and, since they hadn’t heard from him in a long time, no one knows if he is dead or alive.

The Joss family is not quite a bad off as the Swillers.  There are fewer children and Mathilde’s father is still at home and has a job working in the post office. Mathilde isn’t particularly interested in taking the examination anyway.  After all, she has always been just an average student in school, unlike Megs who is always top in their class, so Mathilde isn’t too surprised when she learns that Megs has decided to sit for the exam. The two friends have always been inseparable and Megs success at getting accepted in the army would be the first time they would be apart.

In the end, Mathilde also sits for the exam. And no one is more surprised than Mathilde when she learns she is the only student in all of Lykellig to be accepted into the army’s program. Two days later, Mathilde finds herself alone on a train heading north until she finally arrives at Faetre. From there, she is taken to a remote manor house that has been taken over by the army, and disguised to look like a boarding school. Inside, Mathilde meets the other members of the Adolescent Army. Each one has a special ability or talent that enables them to do important intelligence work for the war effort. 

After spending a few days watching the other children working, Mathilde is still not sure why she has been selected for the army's program, until she meets Rainer, a Tyssian soldier, now a POW, the only one to survive when his plane was shot down and crashed. Mathilde's assignment - to sit and talk to the recalcitrant Rainer every day. But why? What is she supposed to find out?

I found myself immediately pulled into Beautiful Blue World expecting to read a kind of reworked fairytale set during a make-believe war, in part because of the cover illustration.  Instead, I found myself reading a deceptively simple novel about a non-existent war in a non-existent country with some very dark overtones. In that respect, it is fantasy, not fairytale. But it is also about the impact war has on everyone involved - family, friends and foes. The story is told completely in Mathilde's voice - a curious complex mix of innocence and wisdom, of childish wishes and desires, of confusion mixed with astute observations and actions.

Beautiful Blue World has all the makings of an great anti-war novel focusing on the children caught up in a war, always its most vulnerable victims.  Sofarende and its enemy Tyssia will no doubt remind some readers of England and Germany in World War II.  Rationing, lack of heating and electricity, blackout curtains, and nightly bombing raids certainly carry the imprint of what we know about everyday life during war, as does the talk of sending children to the countryside where it is believed things are safer. Rainor, the Tyssian POW, has blond hair, blue eyes and the blind belief of what he has be taught by the leaders in his country so reminiscent of the Hitler Youth. 

I mentioned the cover illustration which I think is deceptively brilliant. The two young girls holding hands and standing in a snowy forest in the center of the upper part of the illustration are, of course, Mathilde and Megs. They couldn't look more innocent, with their mittens and long braids.  But look closely under the title words and what you see is three planes heading their way. At first glance, the planes look like shadows on the snow from the forest. Could a picture be clearer about the impact of war on children?  

Beautiful Blue World is a quiet novel that is not only an anti-war novel, it is also a coming of age book about personal growth, self-discovery and inner resilience set against that harshest of teachers - war. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+

This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, December 2, 2016

Your Hit Parade #7: Someday at Christmas (two versions) sung by Stevie Wonder and Andra Day

Well, the Christmas season is upon us, the season of Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men, and I thought this would be the perfect song to get us started this year. It isn't a WWII song, but it is one of my favorites. Someday at Christmas was originally released in 1967  by Motown Records on Stevie Wonder's Christmas album by the same name. He was only 17 years old at the time. There was a lot of unrest in the country at that time and it that is reflected in the lyrics of this song - protests against the war in Vietnam and deteriorating race relations amid the fight for equality and civil rights. And even though the song ends on a bit of a pessimistic note, it was still listed as one of Billboards Best Bets for Christmas for the week of December 23, 1967. And sadly, almost 50 years later, it still rings true.

Someday at Christmas there'll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life's really worth
There'll be peace on earth

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas we'll see a Man
No hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

Someday at Christmas there'll be no tears
All men are equal and no men have fears
One shinning moment my heart ran away
From our world today

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas man will not fail
Hate will be gone love will prevail
Someday a new world that we can start
With hope in every heart

(Someday all our dreams will come to be)
(Someday in a world where men are free)
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime
Someday at Christmastime


In 2015, Stevie Wonder did an Apple commercial with Andra Day, singing a duet of Someday at Christmas while he records it on his Apple laptop. Later, they released it as a single on iTunes. This is the version I have on my iPod because I just love Andra Day's voice. And while I don't believe in promoting products for anyone, I have decided to include the full video of them singing together, mostly because there is nothing that indicates it was a TV ad.

Do you have a favorite?