Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Mitchells: Five for Victory by Hilda van Stockum

It is July, 1943 and John Mitchell, father of the five Mitchell children and an electrical engineer, has just left from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to join his ship.

Back home, the three older Mitchell children, Joan, 10 1/2, Patsy, 8, Peter, 6, along with two friends decide to form the Five for Victory Club to help with the war effort. The purpose of the club is to help people who need it, to collect scrap and bottles, to help in their mother's victory garden, and even to do some babysitting. Anything they earn pays for stamp to paste in their V for Victory Bond book and eventually to exchange that for a bond. And the children believe they have found the perfect place to hold their club meetings - a small playhouse in the yard of an empty house they call the 'white elephant.'

No sooner do they get the playhouse all set up, however, than a mother, Mrs. Trotter, and her son, Henry, 12 and a bully, move in the house, and the first thing Henry does is kick them out of the playhouse.

Meanwhile, their mother, Rita Mitchell, has decided to rent a room for some extra income. The first woman, Mrs. Merryvale, to move in doesn't last long. She may have written a book about how to discipline children, but in fact, she doesn't really seem to like them very much and the Mitchells are way to unruly for her. Her leaving, however, is based on a complete misunderstanding which is because of a very funny misunderstanding.

The next boarder is a businessman named Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer believes he has lost his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter in the bombing of Rotterdam (Holland) in 1940, although he never had any official word about that. Luckily, he really likes the Mitchell children, especially Angela, age 3.

And it turns out that Mrs. Trotter has a young refugee girl named Una, who is about 8 years old, living with her beside her son Henry. Henry doesn't much care for Una and delights in tormenting her whenever he can. When the Mitchel children discover Una, they all become instant friends.

There is one other subplot concerning Lieutenant Mitchell's admonishing to his family NOT to get a pet while he is away. Well, you can certainly guess what happens there.

The Mitchells: Five for Victory was written in 1945 as the war was coming to an end.  In the novel, Hilda van Stockum has created a charming look at everyday life on the home front and peopled it with an endearing, lively family. The book takes place over the course of one year and there are three generations living under one roof, Grannie (and Mr. Spencer), mother and the five children, so you know that there are lots of antics as well as ups and downs.

We hear a lot about refugees these days, and I think the story of Una will resonate with today's young readers. Van Stockum has really captured the trauma of a child who has lost her family in the war, and who was shuffled from country to country by people whose language she didn't understand, until she reached the United States, to be fostered by Mrs. Trotter. One particularly poignant scene takes place in a movie theater, where Una is left alone to watch a film while Mrs. Trotter and Henry shop for clothes for him. The movie she's left at is Journey for Margaret, a film about a young girl who has been traumatized by the Blitz. Judging by Una's reaction to the movie, it is clear that van Stockum had a very good understanding of how she felt.

Today's readers may find it odd that the children have so much freedom, but that was how it was back in those days. They may also find a few things a little outdated, like the children calling an escalator the moving stairs, but none of that detracts from the novel, in fact it really serves to give it a feeling a authenticity and charm. And yes, I find the van Stockum is a master at giving each of her characters just enough quirky characteristics to make them interesting, but still believable.

The Mitchells: Five for Victory is the second WWII novel by Hilda van Stockum I've read (The Winged Watchman was the first) and I have to say, they are as different from each other as possible and yet both are really interesting stories. I understand there is a third one called The Borrowed House that takes place in van Stockum's homeland, Holland, that I would like to read.

Should you fall in love with the Mitchell family as I did, you will be happy to know that their adventures continue in two more books that take place after the war is over. They are Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by Boissevain Books

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

A quiet remote boys school located in the New Mexican desert suddenly receives a letter telling them that the school must evacuate the area immediately. The letter goes to explain that the school is needed for important government work.

With the school gone, the location becomes a secret, with no name or other identification. Soon, cars begin to arrive carrying scientists from all other the world, followed by other workers who are sworn to secrecy.

The scientists begin working, hoping to cut the atom, the smallest particle in the world, in half. But why? All the reader knows is that they are working on something called the Gadget, a thing that requires a lot of mathematical calculation in order to create something gigantic out of something tiny. And it is a race to get it finished before anyone else in the world does.

At the same time that the scientists are shut away in the former school building working day and night, outside ordinary desert life goes on. Until one day, the scientist pack up their Gadget and drive out to an even more deserted part of the desert. They carefully unload their project, drive away to a safe bunker in the ground, and start counting down. Suddenly, the biggest man-made blast the world had ever known fills the sky. The atomic bomb has been unleashed.

The Secret Project is a very compelling, very powerful picture books about the creation of the atomic bomb. It is never referred to by its name, the Manhattan Project, or its exact location, the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, nor are any of the scientists who worked on it named. This kind of ambiguity, not explaining what is going on, only makes the secret project feel that much more secret, sustaining the suspense of what is going on, and also adding a rather sinister tone to the over all story. Outside the building, the desert remains peaceful and serene, providing an interesting contrast to the work inside the building. The reader sees a Hopi Indian carving a Kachina doll, an unnamed artist, probably Georgia O'Keefe, painting a desert scene, and desert animals going about their business. It is a contrast that is only fully realized at the end of the book.

Author Jonah Winter has once again collaborated with his mother, illustrator Jeanette Winter, on this book. Illustrations and text compliment each other in their straightforward simplicity. The digitally rendered images are a contrast of light, bright colors reflecting the hot sunny desert, and the dark, shadowing grays inside the former school, testimony of the clandestine work going on inside.

The Secret Project is an excellent way to introduce children to the difficult topic of the atomic bomb, and, unfortunately, a book that resonates in today's world of nuclear weapons.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Eagle in the Snow by Michael Morpurgo

After spending the night in a shelter, Barney, 10, and his mother return home to find their house on Mulberry Street reduced to rubble, as result of the bombing of Coventry. Even knowing all was lost, Barney tries to look through the remains to find his beloved toy trains, but is stopped by a Civil Defense Warden.

Realizing that all has been lost, Barney's mother decides to relocate to Cornwall, spending the rest of the war living with her sister. Barney's dad is away in the army, stationed in Africa with the Royal Engineers. Taking the 11:50 train to London, mother and son are soon joined in their compartment by a stranger. But almost immediately, Barney realizes that the man looks very familiar. Sure enough, the stranger is none other than the Civil Defense Warden who had carried Barney out of the rubble of his destroyed home. After they start chatting, it turns out the the man had also grown up on Mulberry Street, in the orphanage that used to be there.

Looking out the window, Barney spots a plane in the air, which the stranger immediately realizes is a German Messerschmitt, pushing Barney and his mother to the floor and covering them with his own body. After the train is attacked, the conductor drives it into a tunnel for safety. Suddenly, they are plunged into darkness, and Barney, who has a severe fear of darkness, begins to feel like it is closing in on him.

To take Barney's mind off the darkness and pass the time, the stranger starts to tell the story of his life-long friend Billy Byron and their experiences together in World War I. After leaving the orphanage, the two friends had gone to work in a hotel, stoking the boiler there. Not much liking it, they decided to join the British Army and have some adventures. But it wasn't long before the war began and they sent to the front lines to fight. On their way there, Billy saw a little girl sitting by the side of the road, starving and in need of medical care. Picking her up, he carried her all the way to a field hospital against his sergeant's orders. All he knew about her was that her name was Christine, but her face haunted him all through the war.

Billy was a brave soldier, and by the end of the war he had been award a number of medals, including the Victoria Cross for valor in the face of the enemy. But all the killing and wounding of men really got to Billy, so at the end of the war, after the intense Battle of Marcoing, he allowed a German soldier to simply leave and return home to Germany.

Billy also returned home, haunted by the war. He never forgot Christine, and returned to Europe to try to find her. Eventually, he does, and now a grown woman, they two marry and settle down in Coventry. All goes well for them until Barney suddenly recognizes the German soldier he allowed to go free while watching a newsreel about the German F├╝hrer Adolf Hitler.

Was it possible that Billy was responsible for Hitler's rise to power and starting the Second World War? Billy needs to know

An Eagle in the Snow is a story that is based on speculation and reality with Morpurgo giving it all his own spin, and a surprise ending. It's a formula that really works well for him. In this story, Billy is based on the real life experiences of a WWI soldier named Henry Tandey, and while there is still a lot of speculation over whether Henry actually spared Hitler's life, it does make for a good novel.

Told in Morpurgo's typical story within a story format, An Eagle in the Snow is actually a little slow in the beginning, but readers who stick with it will be rewarded by the end. It is, however, a short, quick novel and well worth reading. He does go into the fighting that Billy and his friend took part in but it isn't graphic, and kids will most likely pay more attention to Barney's fear of the dark then to the scenes at the front lines.

There is lots of potential for speculation in the novel and in the accounts of Henry Tandy's wartime experience, as well as hypothesizing what one might do in Billy's shoes. Fans of Michael Morpurgo will definitely want to read this new novel, as will young readers who like historical fiction.

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

Below is a painting that is featured in the novel, that hung on Hitler's wall at Berchestgaden, in the Bavarian Alps. Click the link to find out what part it plays in the life of Henry Tandey, Adolf Hitler, and in the novel, Billy Bryon.

Post battle painting by Fortunino Matania 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport by Emma Carlson Berne

The Kindertransport was a short-lived program that rescued approximately 10,000 Jewish children in Nazi occupied Germany, Austria and Poland and Czechoslovakia between December 1938 (just three weeks after Kristallnacht, and May 1940. The children were sent to live with families in Great Britain. I have reviewed a number of books about the Kindertransport before, but most of them were novels.

In her new book, Emma Carlson Berne introduces readers to the program through the true stories of seven former Kindertransport survivors, including a detailed explanation of what was happening in Europe, especially after Kristallnacht, and how the Kindertransport program worked. The program was the brain child of British Jews and Quakers and only worked because at that time, Hitler wanted to get all Jews out of Europe. Still, It's hard to imagine parents willingly surrendering their children to strangers in the hope that they would be safe, but it just shows how dangerous Europe had become under the Nazis. It was up to the families to get their children to the transport train that would take them to the ships traveling to England, an expense difficult for Jewish parents to afford by 1938, having lost their jobs and most of their money having been confiscated by the Nazis. To make it more difficult, no parents or other family were allowed to travel with their children. For many, Berne points out, the train station would be that last time parents and children would ever see each other.

Berne than recounts the experiences of the seven children and how they became Kindertransport children. Her writing style is very interesting. She invites the reader into the book with sentences like: "We can imagine the train whistle blowing. 'All aboard,' the conductor might have yelled in German over the crowd of frightened children and weeping parents." (pg 62) Each persons recollections are told in their own words, as well, taken from interviews done when they were adults, and adding a sense of authenticity that these are true stories and not the stuff of imagination.

In addition to each person's story, Berne has included archival photographs of what Jewish life looked like in Europe before and under the Nazis and a collection of family photos each child must have taken to England with them. The whole book is set up like an old family album, including chipped, aged-looking pages.

There is extensive back matter, including a timeline, a Glossary, information about The Kindertransport Association, which you might want to check for additional information, suggestions for further reading, discussion questions, and and extensive Bibliography.

Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport is a well done, very well researched book. The seven stories included in it are poignant, and really bring home the feelings of desperation parents were feeling, but also the fear of the child suddenly being separated from their family, and not always being old enough to understand what was happening.

This is a valuable teaching resource for classes studying the WWII and Holocaust. Pair it with some of the excellent novels that have been written about the Kindertransport for a really in-depth, well- rounded sense of how the events of the time impacted children.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley