Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Christmas Truce of 1914 - a picture book roundup

(This post gets filed under the rubric Better Late Than Never. My Kiddo arrived home at 2:00 AM Christmas morning, we've been catching up, and I forgot to set this up to publish automatically.)

The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is an interesting one. The very fact that ordinary soldiers fraternized with each other on the battlefield, even for one day, was considered to be an act of treason by both the British and German governments. But when you realize that war is a political act, and soldiers are the powerless who must carry out the commands of their superior officers unquestioningly, the story about Christmas Truce becomes all the more meaningful. In his Author’s Note to Shooting at the Stars, John Hendrix writes that the truce “stands as a lasting example of ordinary men doing the extraordinary…Armed with carols and Christmas trees, individual men threw away their weapons and walked toward the enemy with a desperate hunger for peace.” I think that the hunger for peace is a true today and it was in 1914.

The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman
2004, 2014, Egmont UK, 48 pages, age 7+

Accompanied by Michael Foreman’s beautiful, touching illustrations, in this short story turned picture book, the past and present meet in the form of a letter. It begins in the present day with a purchase of a much desired roll-top desk in need of restoring due to fire damage. The unnamed narrator decides to begin work on it on Christmas Eve to escape overly excited relatives for a while. Pulling out the drawers, he discovers a letter written on December 26, 1914 and addressed to Mrs. Jim Macpherson. In the letter, a soldier describes how British and German soldiers came together on that frosty Christmas morning, sharing food and drink from each other’s Christmas packages, and playing a game of football. For Captain Jim Macpherson, the day was spent getting to know Hans Wolf from Dusseldorf, who spoke perfect English and whose favorite book was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. At the end of the day, the two parted friends. On Christmas day, our narrator decides to visit the address on the letter, an old house that had had a fire. A neighbor tells him the woman, Mrs. Macpherson, now about 101 years old, had survived and was in a nursing home, where the narrator next goes. Yes, he finds her, she recognizes the letter, but the ending though sad, it so poignant. But, you can read it for yourself. The story was published in the Guardian in 2003 and you can find it here:

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by written and illustrated John Hendrix
2014, Abrams BFYR, 40 pages, age 7+

After a short introduction about World War I, Hendrix begins his story with a young freckle-face soldier named Charlie writing a letter home to his mother from France, and telling her about the cold, wet, muddy experience of living in trenches with rats vying for their rations of cold beans, all nicely captured in an accompanying illustration. Since Christmas has arrived, hope that the war will end by then has faded, but, he writes, something extraordinary does happen. German soldiers begin singing Silent Night and all along their trench line little lit up Christmas trees appear. In the morning, British and German soldiers meet on the battlefield, shake hands and begin helping each other bury their dead soldiers. Pictures are taken, uniform buttons exchanged, food shared, and football played, and the inevitable question of soldiers was asked: why can’t we just have peace. And the answer comes from Charlie’s superior Major Walter Watts who orders them back to their trenches and to being fighting again. Their splendid day over, Charlie writes his mother that he suspects they will spend the rest of the night shooting at the stars instead of their enemy. Hendrix did the illustrations for this story in an acrylic wash of blues, yellows and greens, reflecting the cold landscape and the warmth of the men meeting momentarily as friends on No Man’s Land.

The Christmas Truce: The Place Where Peace Was Found by Hilary Robinson, illustrated by Martin Impey
2014, Strauss House Productions, 36 pages, age 7+

The moon is shining brightly on Christmas Eve, 1914, when Christmas lights appear atop the German trenches and two German soldiers, Karl and Lars, begin to sing Sille Nacht on one side of No Man’s Land. They are soon answered by Ray and Ben, best friends and British soldiers on the other side, singing Silent Night. Slowly the two armies, enemies the day before, leave the trenches, meet on the battlefield, and shake hands as church bells are heard chiming. Pretty soon, a soccer ball is brought out and a friendly Christmas morning game is played. The soldiers are sure that their example of peace on earth, goodwill towards all will end the war soon, but that was not to be. This is a poignant retelling of the Christmas Truce story, a cumulative tale where the rhyme repeats and builds up using the previous lines as the story moves forward (think This is the House that Jack Built), and each final line reminds us that No Man’s Land, in the midst of war, was a place where peace was found, if only for one day and night. Along with the text, the illustrations, set in a palette of wintery blues, capture this unusual pause in the fighting - the barbed wire, the youthfulness of the soldiers, a debris strewn No Man’s Land. Though the faces of the soldiers are a bit playful, they carry a definite feeling of grace to this most graceful of moments. 

And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley
2011, 2014 Creative Paperbacks, 32 pages, age 8+

Answering the King’s call for men to enlist once war is declared in 1914, a young unnamed Welshman from Cardiff joins the British army, and chronicles his experiences in a journal his father's give him. He begins with crossing the English Channel in September, riding in a cattle car crammed with soldiers from France to the Western Front in Belgium. Fighting the Germans across no man’s land, the weather gets colder and wetter, the trenches are filled with water and rats, the noise of machine gun fire is deafening, and the young Welshman suffers from with the agony of trench foot. But then, on Christmas Eve, lights on trees are seen across a No Man’s Land, littered with debris and dead soldiers, and suddenly a German soldier begins to sing Stille Nacht and is answered by the young Welshman singing First Noel. And so the Christmas Truce of 1914 begins. Soldiers on both sides meet, help bury the dead, share food and photographs of family, and the young Welshman is convinced that the war will end soon, how could it not after what he just experienced, and what a story to tell his grandchildren, but alas, that is not to be. The British Major orders that soldiers back into the trenches and the war continued. It was Lewis’s hope that readers would see “the helplessness of war, the futility of it’ and that in war, it is always the soldier, on the front lines, who pays the price of fighting. This is an incredible book - emotional, moving, frustrating, and ultimately almost devastating, but a tale that could easily reverberate in today’s world. The illustrations are dark, in a palette of browns and blacks, reflecting the utter grimness of war. This is not a happy Christmas Truce story, but one that will definitely impact readers.

I've already reviewed two excellent books about the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 which you may be interested in reading about:

Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy is the first truce story I read.  Murphy's excellent nonfiction account gives a history leading up to the start of World War I, what life in the trenches was like and, of course, the Christmas truce.

Christmas Truce by Arron Shepard is the second truce story I read.  This is a fictional account of the Christmas Eve truce told by a soldier in a letter home to his sister.  There been some false beliefs and misconceptions surrounding this night when fighting ceased and goodwill took over.

There are countless articles about the real Christmas Truce of 1914. Here is one I recommend:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath

It’s early spring 1945. In the small coastal town of Soote, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the kids have been given their summer vacation in the spring while the roof of their school is being fixed. Which is OK by twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft, who’s very content to hang out at home with her adoptive parents Sina (short for Thomasina), a sculptress, and Old Tom, who loves nothing more than to tend to his many gardens on their 270 acre farm, East Soote Farm. 

So far, the WWII hasn't really impacted their lives except for the soldiers located on their property. That is, until Crying Alice Madden arrives and manages to talk Sina into watching her three children, Winifred, 11. Wilfred, 9, and Zebediah, 6, while she goes to Comox to see what was going on with her husband, Fixing Bob. He's a mechanic in the Canadian Air Force, who is in charge of the Argot, an amazing top secret plane that can stay in the air for hours beyond any other plane. Crying Alice is sure he is up to something he shouldn't do and hopes to stop him from making that mistake, whatever it is. Into this mix comes Gladys Brookman, a young woman interested in bebop and men, and hired as a cook while the Madden children stay at East Soote Farm. 

Soon things settle into a routine. Franny and Winifred begin to hang out together, Old Tom and Wilfred work in the fields planting potatoes together, and Zebediah seems drawn to the cabin of a hermit that is allowed to live in the woods on the farm. But pretty soon, it becomes apparent that Zebediah is writing to his father, and not sharing the letters he receives back from Fixing Bob with his siblings. Winifred is consumed with a desire to find his letters and read them, but when she and Franny finally do find them, she doesn’t know what they say.

Meanwhile, Franny relays the story about the night garden to the Madden kids, the one place that no one is allowed to enter. The night garden grants one wish per person, and the wish cannot be undone, often leading to complications and serious consequences for the wishers. Naturally, when he discovers just what Fixing Bob is up to, Zebediah, who shares his father’s love of planes, wants nothing more than to join him doing the thing he shouldn't be doing. Before anyone can stop him, Zebediah is over the locked fence of the night garden and then just gone. To try and temper things, Winifred, Wilfred, and finally Old Tom do the same thing and as a result, things get really complicated and zany ( though I’m not sure zany is a strong enough word for what follows). 

The Night Garden is actually a fun book to read with all kinds of quirky twists and turns, yet never so complicated or so complex you forget who is who or what has happened. It is narrated in a very straightforward voice by Franny, an aspiring writer who has a pretty good grasp on exposition. And her timing is perfect, revealing information only as it is needed. 

The story actually starts with the story of just how Sina and Old Tom managed to acquire Franny, and the ending circles back to this story in a very interesting way. As you read, you may recognize elements of other stories - orphans, magic gardens, hermits who know things that make you wonder how they know them and Horvath has woven these into her story so they are recognizable, but still original. And despite the realistic setting, this is not really a war story, or, for that matter, even historical fiction despite the time it is set in. There are some anachronisms, but the story is basically fantasy, so maybe, since they aren't biggies, they don’t really count here. Instead, think of this as a rather, a unusual adventure about family,and love with a good dose of magic thrown in. 

The Night Garden is a fun book that should appeal to anyone looking for a bit of whimsy and anyone who is just looking for a good story.

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

From the Archives #29: Comrades of the Air by Dorothy Carter

                      ***Contains Spoilers***

I’ve been laid up with an injury lately and was looking for a comfort read among my old 1940s wartime novels, and just as I reached for The Highland Twins at the Chalet School, I noticed Dorothy Carter’s book Comrades of the Air. Since I have read two books about Russian women pilots in WWII this year, Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky and Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz, I pulled it out instead and decided to reread it - it was not exactly a comfort read but it is exciting.

Dorothy Carter wrote six books about Marise Duncan, a young aviatrix, and her flying adventures. The first three novels take place before the war, and the last three involve Marise in some wartime activity. In Sword of the Air, for instance, Marise is ferrying planes to France and finds herself spying for British Intelligence by working in a Messerschmitt factory (and becoming fluent in German rather quickly). In the third book, Marise Flies South, she is flying bombers to Australia and finds herself tackling the Japanese. Both of these books are difficult to find and when you do, they usually cost a fortune. I don't own either one.

Comrades of the Air is the second of the wartime novels, also hard to find, and also expensive. The story begins when Marise discovers that some of her male pilot friends are leaving for Russia on a secret mission. Marise’s dad works for British Intelligence and is away somewhere on assignment, while her mom stays home taking care of some evacuees. Not to be left out, Marise convinces her superiors that she is quite capable of ferrying a much needed plane to an aerodrome in Russia. The Russians are short supplies since since the Nazis are attempting to invade Russia.

Arriving at an aerodrome near Moscow, Marise meets siblings Katya and Ivan Vanevska. Though neither are pilots, the do fly combat missions, she as an air gunner, Ivan as a navigator. And much to Marise’s surprise, not only are her pilot friends based at the same aerodrome, but so is her father, Captain Duncan. Unfortunately, their reunion is short lived when the aerodrome is attacked by the Nazis and Captain Duncan is knocked unconscious and seriously injured. After the attack, the four remaining undamaged planes are quickly loaded up with personnel and take off. Marise flies one of the planes with Katya as gunner and Ivan as navigator, and her still unconscious father.

But when the planes are attacked by enemy aircraft, and Marise’s plane is damaged, she is forced to land on the coast of the White Sea. After camouflaging the plane, the group builds a shelter to protect them from the elements and any chance of being seen by the enemy. Food is scarce, so while Ivan is out hunting, he comes upon an enemy outpost. They witness a steamer being attacked by a German U-boat and soon rescue a Swedish woman and her two children, the only apparent survivors. 

It now becomes clear that they will have to leave and try walk the 80 or so miles to Archangel. But before leaving, Marise manages to steal some food from the Nazis under cover of darkness. Having built a kind of sledge to transport Captain Duncan, the group takes off. Luckily, the falling snow covers their tracks. Eventually, they run into a woodsman who takes them in and feeds them. After sometime, he leads them to the nearest village, about 15 miles away. Unfortunately, the village is occupied by Nazis, who are stealing warm clothes, blankets and food from the villagers to be sent back to Germany. The woodsman returns to his cabin, and sure enough the group is captured by the Nazis. The Swedish woman and her children, however, are sent out into the cold, while the rest of the group is placed under arrest (they are taken in by a woman villager).

Meanwhile, Marise’s pilot friends have finally figured out that her plane never arrived after the evacuation of the Moscow aerodrome, and decide it’s time to start searching. 

Having pillaged the village and rested, the Germany convoy is ready to leave, and the plan is to send their prisoners to Germany to be questioned by the Gestapo. Under heavy guard, it looks like there is no possibility of escape, especially with Captain Duncan so badly injured. But, when a plane is spotted overheard, Marise guesses from the way it is being flown, it can be no one other than her friend Jim Grant. Flying low, the plane causes considerable damage to the convoy. Unfortunately the plane is also shot down and while everyone else assumes the pilot is dead, Marise is convinced that if it is really Jim Grant, he has survived. Thanks to the attack and damage, the Nazis are distracted trying to get things up and running again, so a plan is formulated for Marise to escape the lorry they are being held in to look for Jim. 

Sure enough, Jim has survived and Marise finds him. The two come up with a plan to rescue Captain Duncan, Katya, and Ivan using ammunition Marise had taken from a damaged lorry. Marisa finds her way back to the lorry with the prisoners, and the plan is that she will drive it away from the convoy as quickly as she can, while Jim uses the stolen ammunition to attack the Germans. It all going according to plan, but suddenly the noise from the attack stops and there is again the fear that Jim had been killed. But no, Jim had radioed the aerodrome when he saw the convoy and given them directions to it, not knowing that Marise and the other were also in one of the lorries.  

Far fetched as it sounds the plan actually works, the Allied bombers attack the convoy and everyone escapes with their lives. Back home in England, Marise tells her mother that going through the experiences has with Katya and Ivan, they are now comrades - comrades of the air.

Although Comrades of the Air has a pretty preposterous plot, it is still a fun, fast novel. Carter seems to have been aware that women pilots in Russia, unlike their English counterparts, took part in combat, information Marise is surprised to learn. Interestingly, Carter never refers to Russia as the Soviet Union, even though the Revolution is mentioned, and Katya is an enthusiastic supporter of it and a true comrade.

Dorothy Carter, whose real name was Eileen Marsh was a prolific writer who wrote under a number of pen names.  According to Stephen Bigger’s post about her on his blog 1930-1960, Eileen Marsh wrote 120 books between 1935 and 1948 under 16 different names. You might also be interested in Stephen's blog post about Comrades of the Air, too. If you even see any of the three wartime Marise Duncan novels at a reasonable price, you might want to snatch them up. 

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

2017 Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

Today is National Pearl Harbor Day and at a time when it feels like we are edging closer and closer to another war, it's a good time reflect on that day 76 years age that forced the United States into World War II when a sneak attack on the naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by the Japanese decimated the Pacific fleet. This is a copy of the dispatch sent by Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who was the commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet to all navy command.
And I can't count the number of times I've read the words "Air Raid On Pearl Harbor X This Is Not Drill" in books I've reviewed for this blog. The following are some of the books about Pearl Harbor that I think readers may find insightful:
What was Pearl Harbor? by Patricia Brennan Demuth
illustrated by John Mantha
2012 Grosset & Dunlap

by Harry Mazer
2002 Simon & Schuster BFYR

by Lauren Tarshis
2011 Scholastic Press

by Kirby Larson
2017 American Girl

Under the Blood Red Sun (Prisoners of the Empire #1)
by Graham Salisbury
1994 Delacorte Press

by Graham Salisbury
2005 Wendy Lamb Books

by Graham Salisbury
2014 Wendy Lamb Books

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

It’s 1942 and while Britain and the rest of the world are engaged in WWII, in Bombay (today’s Mumbai), the Quit India movement, whose goal is to rid India of British rule and gain independence, is begun with a speech by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8th. The very next day, August 9, 1942, Gandhi is arrested but it doesn’t stop many from still having faith in the Quit India movement. 

Gandhi, a practitioner of Ahimsa, or civil disobedience, had already asked that one member of every family become a freedom fighter for Indian independence. Anjali Joshi, 10, a member of the high born Brahmin caste, knew that some of the kids in her class had family members who were freedom fighters, but after Gandhi's speech, she is more than surprised to learn that her mother has also joined the fight. And one of the things her mother is focused on is attempting to make the lives of those considered to be untouchable better (Gandhi referred to the untouchable caste as Harijan, meaning children of God, but Anjali learns they consider that an insult and would rather be referred to as Dalit, meaning oppressed).  

At first, Anjali isn’t really too happy, especially when her mother makes her burn all of her beautiful foreign-made ghagra-cholis and replaces them with plainer khadi, a handwoven homespun cotton they spin themselves. She is particularly unhappy after her mother shows kindness towards the young Dalit boy, Mohan, who cleans their outhouse, causing him to run away, and then decides that Anjali and she will clean the outhouse themselves. 

Slowly and reluctantly, however, Anjali begins to support her mother’s attempts at being an activist. They begin attending freedom movement meetings together, and after visiting the basti where the Dalits live and get to know the people better, Anjali decides that it is unfair that the young Dalits are not able to go to school, too. They begin teaching the children in the basti, even finding help from a surprising a very surprising source. Soon, Anjali and her mother are working to make it possible for the kids to actually attend the school that Anjali goes to, getting uniforms and tiffins all ready for them.

But the weekend before their first day of school, rioting breaks out between the Hindus and Muslims and schools are closed. Later, Anjali’s best friend, Irfaan, a Muslim boy who is more like a brother to her than a friend, accuses her of writing anti-Muslim words on his father’s store, ending their friendship, and worst of all, Anjali’s mother is arrested on charges of helping to instigate the riots. While in prison and still practicing Ahimsa, or non-violence, her mother goes on a hunger strike, and although Anjali is afraid for her, she decides to carry on their work, even as she realizes she herself must unlearn the prejudices and superstitions that were so much a part of her life.

Ahimsa is a debut novel for Supriya Kelkar, based on the experiences of her great-grandmother, who had joined Gandhi’s freedom movement so her husband could continue working, much the same way Anjali’s mother did. 

I found Ahimsa to be a very interesting novel about social injustice in 1940s India that covers quite a lot of historical and political ground, some of which may not be familiar to young American readers. But, Kelkar has taken great pains to make this important period in Indian history accessible, although at times she waxes a little on the didactic side when it comes to describing the political situation. 

But one of the things I did like is that Kelkar has included a lot of interesting, personal details in her narrative descriptions, including what daily life was like, the kinds of clothing people wore, food they ate, games kids played, holidays celebrated as well as accounts of the living conditions of someone in the Brahmin class, of the basti where the Dalits live, and even a bit about how the members of the British Raj (rulers) lived. These are the kinds of details that often work to bring a story to life, and Ahimsa is not different.

The other thing I liked is the Kelkar has written flawed characters who learn from their mistakes. Anjali's mother is an enthusiastic freedom fighter, so enthusiastic that she can't see better alternatives to her actions, and sometimes not listening to the very people she is trying to help. For instance, burning the family's clothing in protest, following Gandhi's example, rather than giving them to the poor who really could have used them. Even Anjali is flawed, at first not really understanding what her country is going through, but slowly she becoming more enlightened, though at times no less feisty and headstrong, which can and does get her into trouble. Even Gandhi and some of his ideas are presented as somewhat flawed, as Anjali discovers the more involved she becomes in the Freedom Movement.

Ahimsa is a very readable novel and a nice introduction to the Freedom Movement in India. It is also a novel about trying to make a difference, about social injustice, and about resistance, and although these themes are put into the context of Indian history, they will certainly resonate with today's young readers.

Be sure to read the Author's Note for a detailed overview of this period in Indian history and the leaders involved in it. Kelkar has also included a list of books for Further Reading and a very helpful glossary.

Although it's for slightly older readers, pair Ahimsa with Padma Venkatraman's Climbing the Stairs for another view of India's fight for independence.

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

You might find this interview published in The Washington Post with author Supriya Kelkar about Ahimsa interesting and informative.

I've read a number of books that are set in India or have Indian characters and often the kids in them play a game called Gilli Danda. If you've wondered, as I have, what the game is and how it is played, you may find a helpful article HERE