Monday, June 18, 2018

The Button War, a Tale of the Great War by Avi

It's August 1914 and World War I has just begun, and it has arrived in 12-year-old Patryk's small Polish village, within Galicia, a kingdom in eastern Europe that has seen varying occupations over its history. Presently, it is occupied by the Russian Army, who pretty much leave the villagers alone.

Though Patryk and his six friends like to hang out by the village's water pump, they also have a favorite spot in the woods just outside their village. One day, while playing there, Patryk finds an old button. When his friend Jurek sees it, he demands it be given to him: "Give it. I'm king here!" (pg 5) Jurek is a rather cruel, sneaky boy, an orphan who lives in poverty with a sister that hates him, and he's a boy who has no boundaries in his craving for power. That doesn't stop him from claiming he is a descent of King Boleslaw, making the village and surrounding area rightfully his, including Patryk's found button.

Soon after, Jurek shows Patryk a button from the uniform of a Russian soldier, claiming he cut it off one of the uniforms his older sister had just laundered. Jurek invites Patryk to meet him later that night so he can also get a uniform button. Later that night, they run into another friend, Raclaw, who tells them that the Russian soldiers are leaving the next day because the Germans are coming, as they take him to get his own button.

Sure enough, the Russians leave and the Germans arrive and life changes for everyone in the village. And as the boys pass their buttons for the others to envy and admire, Jurek gets an idea for a contest: "Whoever gets the best buttons, wins. Winner gets to be king. Means everyone has to bow down to him. Best dare ever. Buttons." (pg 62). Only military buttons are acceptable, and no asking for a button, they have to be stolen.

With the Germans come bigger, more dangerous weapons, restrictions on life for all villagers, unwelcome billeting, and very tantalizing buttons. But what begins as a typical dare soon turns dangerously serious and deadly, as Patryk realizes that Jurek will stop at nothing to get the best button and be king over them all. Patryk's plan is to get the best button so he can win and stop the deadly competition.

The Button War is quite simply Avi-brilliant. Like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, it is an allegorical statement about bullies, their will to power, and the people who empower them. In its simplicity, young readers may begin to understand how power struggles, whether in the schoolyard or the world stage, can happen. In this novel, the fallacy of Patryk's thinking he can end the insanity of the contest by getting the better button fails because Jurek keeps changing the rules to the competition so that they are always in his favor, and the boys, including Patryk, continue to feed his craving for power by complying with those changes, thereby giving him the power he so desires.

The setting of the story, a small village in Galicia, is unusual, but I thought it worked perfectly for what Avi was trying to say. It was a small enough place to see how war can impact the lives of people, especially children, and for witnessing the death and devastation that war, world war or button war, brings. In fact, sensitive readers may have difficulty with some of the scenes in this novel.

The Button War is an action-packed, exciting coming-of-age novel. One that I found I couldn't put down once I began reading it. I only wish it has some back matter about WWI, a short history of Galicia, if for no other reason than to find out who King Boleslaw was, and a map, which is always helpful and welcome. On pages 25 and 26, the boys do discuss what country this are in and the answers give some idea of Galicia's history (which I ultimately did look up in the encyclopedia). This doesn't diminish the novel in the least, it just would have in nice to have.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Monday, June 11, 2018

American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles by Patrick Pacheco

American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 
100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles
edited by Patrick Pacheco
Graphic Arts Books, 2018, 268 pages
When I was at BookExpo this year, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Patrick Pacheco's new book American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles (yes, if you watched the Tony Awards this year, that was Patti LuPone plugging it). Quickly going through it, I noticed that Pacheco included sections on WWI and WWII. Not many people know this, but the American Theatre Wing (ATW) was very active during both wars.


Shortly after the US entered WWI, the Stage Women's War Relief was founded by playwright Rachel Crothers, and 6 fellows playwrights and actresses. Run entirely by theater people, these volunteers worked hard sewing, running clothing and food collection centers, setting up and manning a canteen on Broadway for servicemen, and selling liberty bonds, among other things. And they didn't limit their work to just New York City - there were five other branches throughout the country. Altogether, by the end of WWI, the Stage Women's War Relief had raised almost $7,000,000 for the war effort.

In 1939, even before the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, the Stage Women's War Relief was revived, organizing clothing drives and knitting for refugees in Europe, and, of course, fundraising. Once the U.S. entered the war, the name of the organization was changed to The American Theatre Wing for War Service. Beside Crothers, one of the other people who helped organize this was Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Awards are named).

One of their most popular measures was the Stage Door Canteen. Opened in March 1942, it was staffed entirely by theater people and open to all serviceman. There was entertainment by well known performers like Frank Sinatra, the Andrew Sisters, Ethel Merman, and hostesses included such luminaries as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, and ever Gypsy Rose Lee. Servicemen could be served refreshments (but no alcohol), they could jitterbug the night away with Lauren Bacall, a wounded solider could find help eating by Ingrid Bergman, or they could find a shoulder to cry on if needed. One of the best things about the Stage Door Canteen was that it wasn't segregated - everyone was welcomed.
Opening Night at the Stage Door Canteen by Al Hirschfield
New York Times, March 1, 1942
I love the theater and I really enjoyed reading American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles, especially the pages devoted to WWI and WWII. I suspect I will be reading this book again and again. Pacheco has included so much information I didn't know about the theater along with so many wonderful photographs I've never seen before. I was a little surprised that he didn't have more drawings by Al Hirschfield or the wonderful postcards by Barney Tobey:


I'm not much of a collector, but I have bought a few of these postcards on Ebay, as well as my very favorite piece of memorabilia - Stage Door Canteen paper dolls. I loved paper dolls when I was a kid, and I couldn't resist these when they can up on Ebay at a reasonable price:
These are not my actual paper dolls, which are too fragile to scan
If you are a lover of live theater as I am, I can't recommend Patrick Pacheco's book American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles highly enough.

The book will be available on August 28, 2018

This book is recommended for everyone

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into WWII, this country, the country that was fighting for freedom and democracy aboard, did a terrible thing to some of its citizens. It began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, an order that authorized the internment of over 100,000 Japanese American citizens, including men, women, and children, as well as any resident aliens from Japan.

Write to Me is the story of one San Diego librarian, Clara Breed, who saw the injustice of incarcerating innocent people and whole families and tried to make it somewhat bearable for her young library patrons. Grady begins with the sad moment when young Katherine Tasaki has to return her books and relinquish her library card. Later, seeing the children she knew from the library off at the train station, Miss Breed gave out books and stamped postcards for the kids to write and let her know how and where they are and if they needed anything.

Soon, the postcards Miss Breed had give out began to arrive at the library from [Santa Anita Racetrack] Arcadia, California. She began writing the kids, sending them boxes of books and more postcards. The one time she visited Santa Anita, she brought even more books. After seeing the kinds of circumstances her young friends were being subjected to and the enjoyment the books she sent gave them, Miss Breed began writing letters and magazine articles asking for libraries to be opened in the internment camps for the kids to have easier access to reading.

Miss Breed continued to correspond with the kids she knew even after they were moved to the Poston Internment Camp in Poston, Arizona, in the middle of the desert. She also continued sending books, as well seeds, thread, soap, and crafts materials. Learning about the harsh desert conditions they lived with everyday, Miss Breed continued to write letters and magazine articles, hoping to make the country aware of how its citizens were being treated.

Write to Me is a picture book for older readers who are just beginning to learn about this period of American history and while it focused on Miss Breed's actions more than on the actual treatment of the Japanese American families she tried to help or the pervasive racism towards them, it does show young readers that one person can really make a difference in the lives of others. I think that's a message that will certainly resonate for them in today's world.

Interestingly, the focus of each of Amiko Hirao's gently muted color pencil illustrations is reflected in the postcard excerpts sent by the children that are found on almost every page.

There is extensive back matter, including an Author's Note, a recounting of Notable Dates in Clara Breed's Life, Selected History of Japanese People in the United States, a Selected Bibliography, and suggestions for Further Reading. The front and back end papers contain relevant captioned photographs.

Though it is for a somewhat older child, with scaffolding teachers might want to pair this with I Am An American by Jerry Stanly, for a more rounded picture of Japanese American internment camps.

The Japanese American National Museum has an online collection of letters written to Clara Breed from her young patrons incarcerated in internment camps, including Katherine Tasaki. You can read them HERE

One of the magazines Clara Breed wrote articles for was the Horn Book Magazine and you can read one of her articles "American with the Wrong Ancestors" published July 7, 1943 HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Clara Breed wrote another article in Jan/Feb 1945 issue of the Horn Book Magazine, which is not online but I found it in the library. The article is "Books That Build Better Racial Attitudes" and while it is really dated, I was curious to see what she recommended. One of the books is called The Moved-Outers by Florence C. Means, about the internment of a Japanese American family, and may very possibly be the first book about it. It was also a 1946 Newbery Honor book. I actually read it when I was researching my dissertation, but ultimately didn't use it, except as an example of patriotic propaganda. I'm definitely going to have to reread it one of these days.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story by Joseph Bruchac, pictures by Liz Amini-Holmes

In 1929, when he was only 8 years old, Betoli was removed from his Native family and sent to the Navajo boarding school at Fort Defiance, Arizona, the very same place where Navajos had been held captive in the 1860s by the United States Army, after a forced long walk of 300 miles. At Fort Defiance, Betoli had his long, black hair cut short, was given the English name Chester, and forbidden to speak his native Navajo language. If children were caught speaking Navajo, their mouth would be washed out with yellow soap by a matron.

Every year, Chester returned to his family during the summer and kept his native ways. Then, in 1941, when he was in tenth grade, the United States entered World War II. In 1942, the US Marine Corps visited the Reservation. They wanted men who could speak English and Navajo to develop a code for sending messages that the Japanese codebreakers couldn't figure out. Initially, only 29 Navajos, including Chester, were chosen out of the many who volunteered, forming Platoon 382.

Slowly and methodically, they first developed an alphabet, then a vocabulary of words that wouldn't have to be spelled out each time they were used. So for example, the Navajo word for whale (lo-tso) became the code word for battleship. Once a complete code was developed, it was time to test it out on the battlefield. Chester and the other Navajo code talkers in Platoon 382 were sent to the Pacific Theater, where the code they created helped to finally defeat the Japanese.

Chester returned home after the war, but it had left its mark on him. His family arranged a four day long Enemy Way ceremony to help restore him to the "trail of beauty and the Right Way" so he would not have nightmares about war anymore.

Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code is both a wonderful introduction for young readers about the history of the code talkers and of one man's strong determination to maintain his connection to his Navajo heritage no matter what. Bruchac is very familiar with this topic, having previously published a middle grade novel about the code talkers. However, he has successfully synthesized the information about Chester Nez's experience as a Navajo child and man with the history of the Navajo code.

According to the Author's Note, the hundreds of Native American who were code talkers were told to keep their work secret, even from their families, until 1968, when it was declassified and they could finally talk about the important contribution they had made during the war. But it wasn't until December 2000, when the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act was enacted, that they were finally honored and awarded the medals they so rightly deserved.

Liz Amini-Holmes soft-focused, richly textured illustrations are painted in a palette of mainly yellows, blues, and greens that do much to capture the relationship Nez had with his Navajo culture and home, and the pain and loneliness  of being taken away to boarding school and later of fighting in the war. They are almost expressionistic in the way they express the emotions Chester must have felt rather than merely depicting the external events he lived through.

Besides the Author's Note, the back matter also includes some of The Navajo Code and a timeline of Chester Nez's life.

Bruchac begins each section of Chester's story with the month and year in which something occurred followed by an unfamiliar description, for example. October 1929: Month of Small Wind or September 1942: Month of Half. At first, I thought perhaps the descriptions were part of the Navajo lunar calendar, but it turns out to be the names of the month in Navajo code. That made me understand even more clearly just why the Japanese were unable to break it.

I highly recommend this picture book for older readers who might be interested in WWII and/or Navajo history.

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

🇺🇸 Memorial Day 2018

Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, a day to spend some time honoring those who had once served in this country's Armed Services. And, just as they do every year, cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, and service men have spent time decorating the graves of deceased soldiers buried in our many national cemeteries. For me, that means the scouts from Riverhead, NY have once again volunteered to place flags on soldier's graves in Calverton National Cemetery, including one that is important to me, and for that, I would like to say thank you to each and every one of them.


Enjoy your Memorial Weekend plans, but while you do, take a moment to think about those who fought and died for our freedom.

"Aye, bring the fadeless evergreens, the laurel and the bay,
A grateful land remembers all her promises today;
And hearts that gave their treasures up when manhood was the price.
Now bring the sweetest offerings and bless the sacrifice."
Kate Brownlee Sherwood

In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon

I absolutely loved reading Timothée de Fombelle's two historical fiction novels, Vango: Between Earth and Sky and Vango: A Prince Without a Kingdom, so when I saw that he had another new work I couldn't wait to read it, too. And it was, quite simply, wonderful.

de Fombelle has spun a mesmerizing tale that seamlessly weaves together the world of fairy tales and the real world over different time periods. He begins his tale, in this world, with a 14 year old unnamed, unreliable narrator, who heart has just been broken by a girl who once was a fairy, stumbling upon the house of a recluse named Joshua Pearl. Inside the house, the narrator discovers hundreds of suitcases collected by Joshua Illiån Pearl. Asked what is in the suitcases, all the narrator is told is that they contain things needed for him to return to where he came from.

Who is Joshua Pearl and where did he come from? The narrator writes "the only thing I'm sure about are these first words: "Once upon a time." A young boy standing outside a marshmallow shop in Paris in 1936 is taken in by a man and his wife, owners of Maison Pearl, a couple whose son, Joshua, had died two years earlier. Not knowing how he ended up at the shop and with only bits of memory from his past life, the boy stays with the couple, who treat him like their own son. During Christmas, 1938, the boy found his first link to where he came from in a book of fairy tales that mysteriously appeared in the the kitchen of Maison Pearl while he was cleaning up. He knew then that he had to leave to find his way back to where he came from.

Meanwhile, fascism is on the march in Europe, and when war breaks out, the boy secretly enlists in the army under the name of Joshua Pearl. In June 1941, Joshua and a companion are captured by the Germans and sent to a prison camp in Westphalia, but not before telling his companion the truth about himself. In the camp, Joshua discovers a man wearing a mermaid's scale around his neck, a second link to his former life. Eventually escaping the stalag with the mermaid's scale, Joshua ends up fighting in the resistance. There, his captain tells him that the war will stop only when the world is really to believe, but they are not ready yet, so they must have tokens of proof about what is happening.

It is these words and having already acquired the Mermaid's Scale that sets Joshua Pearl on the quest of collecting tokens of proof that will take him back to the Kingdoms, back to where he came from.

In between the tale of Joshua Pearl, whose real name is Illiån, the reader also learns the story of Oliå, the fairy that Illiån loves and wants to return to, not knowing that she had given up her powers as a fairy to be near him in the real world. But before she did that, she was cursed and told that the moment he looked at her, she would disappear forever, she could only see him from a distance. Despite their love, they could never be together.

As for Illiån, before he became Joshua Pearl, he was the younger brother to Iån, who seized power to rule over the Kingdoms from his father, the King, at age 13, with the help of Taåg, an old genie, and Iån's godfather and adviser. Iån orders that Illiån be killed because he has also fallen in love with Oliå. But Taåg disobeys Iån and banishes Illiån to a far away world from which there is no return.

Or isn't there.

Three intertwined stories lines over three time frames makes for a difficult novel to review without spoilers, though I've tried not to include any. If I have, I apologize in advance. I know this sounds like such a complicated novel, but it is a such skillfully and meticulously crafted, that the readers goes from story to story, time period to time period without getting confused. Not that it is a flawless work, but the flaws and holes in the plot are minor enough that they don't take away from the story at all.

Each character is well defined, and each world is totally imaginable. At times, de Fombelle keeps the reader in such suspense about what will happen next, it is hard to put down. I began reading this on the train from NYC to Washington DC, and I could have ridden for as long as it took me to finish in one sitting (alas, that didn't happen and I had a busy few days ahead of me with not much reading time).

In the end, it is that 14 year old boy, now a man with a wife and family of his own, who goes back to that house of the reclusive Joshua Illiån Pearl, and who ultimately writes this story using those precious tokens of proof.

The Book of Pearl does an absolutely brilliant job of asking the reader to consider this: do we create stories or do stories create us, or perhaps, is it a combination of both.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabella Cardinal

On the night that the Nazis took all the adults in their town away, sisters Rachel and Toby are separated from their parents but not before they are given a shoe paste tin with three gold coins in it. Not knowing what is going to happen to them, they are told to use the coins only if they have to, that they would know when the time was right. And most importantly, they must promise to try to always stay together.

Two years later, the sisters are now in Barrack 25 in Auschwitz, along with many other Jewish girls. Every other day, the girls build a wall of heavy fieldstone, and then, they tear it down only to begin again. When a girl gets sick, she is taken to the hospital and never seen again. Everyone in the barrack knows what has happened to her and do their best not to get sick, despite insufficient clothing, food, and bedding in bad weather.

When Rachel becomes ill, there is nothing Toby can do to prevent her from being taken to the hospital while she is working. Discovering Rachel gone when she returns, Toby knows she needs to do something quickly, or she will never see her sister again. Is this the right time to use the gold coins her parents gave them?

Using her wits, some clever planning, some luck, and the gold coins, Toby manages to get Rachel out of the hospital and back to the barrack. But the next day at roll call, she pays dearly for what she has done when the guard sees Rachel on line but not in her roll book. The guard whips Toby on her back with the leash of her dog, but she didn't send Rachel back to the hospital. Both sisters survive the war and walk out of Auschwitz together.

The Promise is a compelling and inspirational picture book for older readers about the importance of keeping promises, of family, and of the strength of sisterly love, particularly under the kinds of circumstances Toby and Rachel found themselves in trying to survive Auschwitz. And although it is a fictionalized biography, it is based on the real life experiences of sisters Toby, mother of author Margie Wolfe, and Rachel, mother of author Pnina Bat Zvi.

Photos of Toby and Rachel
The illustrations by Isabella Cardinal are done in a mixed-media of collage and photos together with textural drawings and finished in Photoshop, and really capture the emotions that sisters were feeling, and the anger and hate the guards had for them. The Holocaust was a very dark time in history and the illustrations aptly reflect that.

Holocaust picture books are always a difficult subject for young readers - how much graphic description to include. If too much is included there's the risk that the young reader will be so traumatized by what they read, that they never want to read about the Holocaust again. And although Toby and Rachel, like everyone in a Nazi concentration camp, faced beatings, brutality, starvation, and death everyday, Wolfe and her cousin Bat Zvi have managed to find a balance between the mistreatment and the love and resilience that kept these two sisters fighting for their lives.

The Promise is an important addition to the literature of the Holocaust, especially as it recedes into history. Keeping the Shoah alive by remembering it is so important now.

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

You can read in interesting interview with authors Margie Wolfe and Pnina Bat Zvi and illustrator Isabella Cardinal HERE

Monday, May 7, 2018

The War Below by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

The novel Making Bombs for Hitler is the story of Lida Ferezuk, who was taken from her home in the Ukraine, put in a cattle car and sent to a slave labor camp, where she eventually ended up making bombs for the Nazis. In that same cattle car was Luka Barukovich, also taken from his home in Kyiv, Ukraine. Lida and Luka become friends and watch out for each other in the slave labor camp, but when the opportunity for escape arises, Luka decides to risk it at Lida's urging.

The War Below begins in 1943 with Luka hiding in a truckload of corpses, hoping to escape the camp, return to his home in Kyiv and find his father, who had been taken away by the Nazis and sent to Siberia. Now, wounded, wearing a hospital gown and bare foot, Luka jumps from the truck about two kilometers from the camp, in the rain, and finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned farm. The farm, however, is the home of Helmut and Margarete, an elderly couple who feed and clothe Luka, and urge him to remain with them until spring. But when he discovers that their son is a power-hungry officer from the camp he has just escaped, Luka decides it is time to leave.

By now, the Nazis are losing the war, and there is constant bombing around Luka by the British and Americans. Sticking to wooded areas, Luka meets Martina Chalupa, a girl who has been living and surviving in the woods for a while. The two decide to continue on together, and between Luka's knowledge of natural medicines and remedies (thanks to his pharmacist father) and Martina's survival skills, the two do well together.

Eventually, Luka and Martina run into members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an underground (literally) resistance group. Both Luka and Martina decide to stay and fight with the resistance, Luka as a medical helper and Martina as a soldier. Luka stays with the resistance until the end of the war in 1945, when he is told to head west rather than east. Stalin has decided that if Russians and Ukrainians were captured by the Nazis, put to work and survived, they are traitors to the Soviet Union and are put to death.

Eventually, Luka makes his way to a displaced persons camp, where he begins searching for  his mother and his friend Lida, in the hope that they both survived the war. Eventually reunited with Lida in the DP camp, he is lured away again with the promise that his father has been found and is living in Kyiv. Anxious to see him, Luka boards a truck with other Ukrainians returning home. It very shortly turns out that they have been duped by NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and the plan is to kill them as traitors. But if you have read Making Bombs for Hitler, you pretty much know how Luka's story does not end on that truck.

The War Below, originally published under the name Underground Soldier, is every bit as solid a novel as Making Bombs for Hitler. Both books have been reissued, and they are part of a trilogy. The third book, called Stolen Child, is the story of what happens to Lida's younger sister Larissa, and, I am sorry to say, it is the only one I haven't read yet, but I am hoping it will be reissued as well.

Luka is a strong, resourceful, compassionate character, though he is also racked with guilt at not being able to save his friend David, killed in the Nazi massacre of Babi Yar in 1941, and at leaving Lida behind when he escaped the labor camp, and at not being able to help Martina more. Skrypuch very cleverly incorporates background information about what Luka experienced in Kyiv when the Nazis arrived, so that the reader really understands what is going on for him.

When I wrote about Making Bombs for Hitler, I said it was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what went on in the Nazi slave labor camps. I had the same reaction with The War Below. I haven't really read much about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), and how they operated and found it fascinating. Yes, I've written about other resistance groups, but I find they are all unique (see Uncle Misha's Partisans by Yuri Suhl, also about the Ukrainian resistance)

The novel is narrated in the first person by Luka, and it is a captivating novel. From the moment I began reading, I couldn't put it down. And, although there is a lot of overlap with Making Bombs for Hitler, repeating information you might already know, it really doesn't take away from the story at all, but also means this can be read as a stand alone novel.

Skypuch is not afraid to confront and interrogate the cruelties of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, and I again feel that I should warn readers that there are some graphic descriptions that might not be suitable for some sensitive readers. But, I also have to say that the overall story is one that shouldn't be missed, mostly because the Eastern Front is not one most of us are terribly familiar with, though that is beginning to change.

Be sure to read the Author's Note at the back of the book, and you might also find the brief description of the certain historical events included in The War Below to be helpful.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book is an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

To Die But Once (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #14) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's May 1940 and, while Britain is at war with Germany, nothing much has happened so far on the home front, except lots of talk about the possibility of England being invaded, and continued preparations for the war. But now that the so-called phony war has ended, things are heating up.

For 15 year-old Joe Coombes, already an apprentice for Yates and Sons, painters and decorators, it now means a job painting the buildings at every RAF airfield in the country with a special new fire-retardant paint. But the vapors from the paint give Joe headaches, and when he is found dead from an apparent fall, it's all chalked up to being a suicide rather than the fatal blow on the head he received from the two men following him as Joe was out walking one night (NOT a spoiler - it happens in the Prologue).

Joe's parents, owners of a local pub, ask Maisie to investigate what happened to their son, and Maisie readily accepts, having watched all the Coombes children, Joe, Archie, and Vivian, grow up in their close-knit family. The family has always been well provided for, but now, with the war finally beginning to heat up, Maisie notices that both Archie and Vivian are living better than most people, always wearing fashionable clothing, having nice living conditions, and even smoking expensive cigarettes from packs of 20 instead of cheap Woodbines, "sold by the one's and two's" and not even bothering to finish them.

Luckily, Maisie still has gas coupons, so she drives several times down to Hampshire with her assistant Billy Beale, the last known area Joe had worked in, and begins questioning everyone who had contact with Joe, including his fellow workers, his landlady and the air force. Everyone liked Joe, but no one can help much. And Maisie notices that she is now being followed by a car with darkened windows, all the way back to London.

Meanwhile, Maisie's best friend Priscilla Partridge has been having a problem with her middle son, Tim, ever since his older brother joined the RAF. Tim also wants to be involved in doing work for the war effort, but is still too young. She asks Maisie is Tim might visit Chelstone, Maisie's country home inherited from her deceased husband. The hope is that Maisie can talk to him, her father will keep him busy with farm chores, and her young evacuee Anna, 5, will be thrilled to have him there as she recovers from measles. 

The war in Europe isn't going well for the British and French, and they soon learn that the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) are being driven to the coast of Dunkirk by the German Army and are basically sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe. But when a call goes out for any craft that can cross the English Channel in an attempt to rescue the stranded soldiers, Tim and his friend Gordon Sanderson suddenly go missing as does one of Mr. Sanderson's boats.

As if the death of Joe Coombes and the possibility that Tim went to Dunkirk as part of the rescue flotilla isn't enough, Maisie has also decided to begin looking into the possibility of adopting Anna, though things don't look good for her as a single woman. 

And just how does that nice man living in the same building as Maisie's office fit into the plot?

I really enjoyed this Maisie Dobbs mystery. There is lots of interesting every day information about life on the home front included as the Germans get closer and closer to the English Channel and the possibility of invasion become real. Invasion was something people really worried about during WWII, with good reason, considering the number of countries Hitler had already invaded. On top of that, there is worry about the sons who have already enlisted and are fighting in France - Billy's son Billy Jr. in the army, Tom Partridge flying in the RAF, both boys Maisie is quite fond of.

I found the mystery interesting and there were quite a few surprises I don't see coming - which I like in novel. And the subplot of the missing Tim allows Winspear to include a lot of information about events in the spring of 1940, just before the Battle of Britain began.

And as much as I loved reading the three Maisie Dobbs novels that take place just before and during WWII, and plan to read any future mysteries of hers in this time period, this novel made me realize that I don't much care for Maisie's character. I find she is too perfect and that she has too much of a flat affect - she never gets angry, or has a good laugh, or a good cry. Sometimes, when she thinks about her late husband and the child she lost, there is a sense of tearless sadness, or when she is with Anna a kind of motherliness about her, but even at that, I don't get a feeling of warmth. Odd that, to like the books in a series so much, but not the main character. Even odder, it doesn't spoil the novels for me at all.

What I did find interesting, and you may as well, is that the the story of young Joe Coombes is based in part on Winspear's father's WWII experiences as an apprentice painting building at military airfields with a new fire retardant emulsion. You can read what Winspear writes about this on her website HERE.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and I can't wait to see what Maisie's next novel will bring.

This book is recommend for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from EdelweissPlus

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Interview with Kirby Larson, author of Code Word Courage (Book 4 of Dogs of World War II)

It's September 1944 and fifth grader Billie Packer is anxiously awaiting her big brother Leo's visit, the first one since he joined the Marines. There's so much she wants to talk to him about, like how to get Hazel to be her best friend again. But when Leo arrives, much to Billie's disappointment, he isn't alone, he's brought his buddy Denny, a Navaho, and an injured dog they found near the highway. It doesn't take long for Billie to get friendly with Denny, and to fall the dog, that Denny had named Bear. 

Before Denny leaves, he tells Billie that he thinks Bear's purpose is to help her find what she is looking for. Soon, Leo ships out to the Pacific, Denny is recruited as a Navaho code talker, and Billie's life settles into a routine of school, chores, taking care of Bear, and hanging out with Tito, a Mexican boy in her class. Although Billie has been bullied by two boys in her class, their real target is Tito. When the bullying gets ugly and something happens to Tito, Billie finally realizes what she has been looking for, thanks to Bear. And thanks to Bear, in the middle of a battle, Denny also learns what is important to him.  

Readers who have read any or all of the previous Dogs of War series, which includes Duke, Dash, and Liberty, will surely enjoy Code Name Courage. Readers new to this series will find that their is so much to learn about the home front in these novels. They are all so well-written, well-researched, and historically accurate. In the following interview, I asked Kirby Larson about her research, what inspires her and what she hopes readers will get from her books. 

Did you always want to be a writer?
Though I have always loved reading and writing, I never knew writing was a career option until college; and then, it was journalism, which became my major.
Kirby Larson

Were you always partial to historical fiction? Why?
When my daughter was in 6th grade, she introduced me to the historical fiction of Karen Cushman (Catherine, Called Birdy) and Jennifer Armstrong (the Mary Meahan series). I fell in love with those books, wishing such rich treatments of history had been available when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I heard a snippet of my own family history, however, that I was drawn to writing historical fiction. That first foray turned out to be Hattie Big Sky and I haven’t looked back since.

Can you tell us something about your research process for your historical fiction novels?

Oh dear. What don’t I do during the research process?! I read every single first- hand account/primary document I can get my hands on, including recipes! I interview experts, and those who have lived through the time periods/experiences I’m writing about. For example, for Dash, I spoke to women who had been incarcerated in war relocation camps during WWII. And for my latest book, Code Word Courage, I read every Navajo Code Talker memoir published. I also interviewed a Code Talker, as well as the son of a Code Talker. I read old newspapers, read books published during the time periods I’m writing about, collect old maps, train timetables – you name it. I do whatever I need to do to feel confident I can recreate a slice of the past for today’s young readers.

I wonder, what were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process for Code Word Courage and the other Dogs of War novels?

There are so many surprises – I’ll share a few. I was astonished to realize that normal American families loaned their pets to Uncle Sam during WWII (Duke); I was amazed to learn that, despite being sent to horrible, barren places, the incarcerees of Japanese descent created beauty with scraps of lumber, or found shells or greasewood branches (Dash); I was astonished and humbled to discover that 400 Navajo men helped to create a code based on the language they once had been punished for speaking (Code Word Courage). 

Each of the Dogs of War stories feature a triangular relationship between a young person, their dog, and an older person. What inspired you decide to write a series of WWII stories where a dog is the catalyst for the strong bond that develops between the three of them?

The honest truth is that the first book written, Dash, (the second book published) was inspired by the love of one person for her dog. Once I had written that story, inspired by Mitsi Shiraishi, I knew each of the stories that followed would also involve a dog. It was one of those serendipitous gifts that writing can bestow.

In Code Word Courage, you tell both Billie and Denny’s stories in the first person. I can understand how you could write Billie’s story but I wonder what sources did you draw upon to get into the mind and heart of a Navaho Code Talker?


As I mentioned above, I read every single first-hand account, memoir, newspaper article, etc. to help me understand the factors that would have shaped the character I’m writing about. I also rely on my imagination and empathy to put myself in any character’s shoes. Though those who were part of WWII are diminishing in number, there are still a few veterans surviving. I was able to interview Dr. Roy O. Hawthorne, whose experiences as a Code Talker shaped the creation of Denny’s story. In addition, Michael Smith, son of Code Talker Samuel “Jesse” Smith Sr. read my manuscript for accuracy. 

I laughed when I read Hobie Hanson, the main character in Duke, wore PF Flyers (my own personal sneaker choice). All of your Dogs of War stories (in fact, all your historical fiction) have this kind of authenticity to them without overwhelming readers with too many normal, but accurate details about what life was like for kids on the home front. How do you know when you’ve included enough realistic details?  And how do you decide on what to include, considering most of today’s readers may not be familiar with many of them?


I am so lucky to have a terrific first reader, and a terrific editor who kindly but firmly tell me when I am shoehorning in too many of the great facts I’ve learned about a past time and place. If it were left to me, I would share EVERY fascinating detail I uncover. But then my stories would read like history books and that’s not what I’m trying to create. As for deciding what to include, I have tremendous respect for my readers who, even if they might not understand every detail in a book, are smart enough to figure out the essence of each story.

What do you hope today’s readers will take away from your WWII stories?

One of my goals as a writer is to leave room for my readers to take away from each story what they need to take away. That being said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if my readers felt inspired to be kinder and more tolerant after reading one of my books.

I have really enjoyed reading all four of the Dogs of War stories. Will there be any more Dogs of War books?
I have learned never to say never but, at this point, I am ready to step away from WWII for a time. I am working on a novel with a slightly older main character (16) set in pre-crash 1929. After that, who knows?!

One last question - do you have a favorite dog story not written by Kirby Larson?
Oh my goodness. Must I choose only one??? I can’t, so, here are a few: Love that Dog (Sharon Creech); How to Steal a Dog, and Wish (Barbara O’Connor); and Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate Di Camillo). Books about dogs I haven’t yet read but are on my nightstand: Chasing Augustus (Kimberly Newton Fusco); Good Dog (Dan Gemeinhart) and Following Baxter (Barbara Kerley). 

Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my passion – writing historical fiction for young readers. I am grateful for your interest.

Kirby

Thanks you, Kirby.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ruby in the Ruins written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

I mentioned in my review of Voices from the Second World War that writer/artist Shirley Hughes was one of the people who contributed her wartime experiences to that excellent collection of oral histories, and that she had also written a book based on them (see Whistling in the Dark).

Ruby in the Ruins is Hughes' latest picture book, one that takes place just at the end of WWII. Everyone in Ruby's London neighborhood is celebrating the end of the war with block parties, including Ruby and her Mum. 

But, though the fighting may have ended, the memory of the Blitz is still fresh in their minds. There were all those nights when the air raid sirens went off, and people were supposed to go to their nearest shelter. And kids had been sent out of London for safety, but Ruby and her Mum stayed - just in case her dad, who is in the army, got leave and could come home to visit for a visit. 


Those scary days and nights may be in the past, but all around her, Ruby sees houses had been bombed and blackened, and now they were fenced off piles of rubble that need to be cleared up. And while Ruby's friends have already welcomed their dads home from the war, she and her mum have to wait a long time for her dad.

When Ruby's dad finally does come home, Mum welcomes him with open arms, but Ruby doesn't know what to say to him. And besides that, now everything has changed. Ruby sleeps in the small attic room instead of with Mum, and  has forgotten that her tall dad takes up lots of space. Not only that, but she continues to feel rather shy around him.



But when her Mum allows Ruby to go off with two neighbor boys that she knows, they decide to explore the fenced off ruins of some bombed out buildings. When an accident happens, it proves to be just the catalyst that helps Ruby overcome her resentment and shyness towards her dad.



The detailed illustrations are done in ink, watercolor, and gouache, and, because Hughes has drawn them from her own memory of the war, have a real air of authenticity about them. The bombing damage to London's buildings was extensive and the fascination of playing in the rubble must have been irresistible for kids at that time, just as Hughes depicts, but also dangerous.

Ruby in the Ruins is a charming story with a pleasing ending, but it never become sugary sweet. What it does do, as Shirley Hughes always does so well, it look at the end of the war from the point of view of a child who world suddenly changes. The war is over, its no longer just Ruby and her Mum, and she experiences an expectable awkwardness when her Dad returns after being has been gone for such a long period of time. Post war picture books are in short supply, and I can't recommend this one enough.

Ruby in the Ruins will be available in the U.S. on May 8, 2018

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Voices from the Second World War: Stories of War as Told to Children of Today

When I was in college, I discovered a book by Studs Terkel called The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. Terkel had collected the memories of a wide variety of people, providing a good overview of how each interviewee was impacted by the war. If you haven't read The Good War yet, I highly recommend it.

Oral histories have always fascinated me, so when I heard about Voices from the Second World War, I was pretty excited to see what it was all about. It turned out to be a unique collection of short, first person recollections (most are only 1-2 pages, some longer) told to some of today's young people, and though the book is basically Britain-centered, there is still plenty included for all children to appreciate.

The book is organized into 16 sections that follow the course of the war from outbreak to the fall of Japan. Interviewees relate their experiences in the RAF, the U.S. Navy, working as a Land Girl or a code breaker, being evacuated to London in 1938 with the Kindertransport from countries being threatened by Hitler, leaving family behind and often never seeing them again, being evacuated from London to the countryside when war was declared in 1939, fighting in the Resistance, surviving the Holocaust and POW camps. Readers will also read what the navigator of the Enola Gay has to say about the bombing Hiroshima, as well as hearing from a survivor of that bombing. It is affecting and compelling to read about how different people reacted, endured, and survived the circumstances this terrible war threw at them.

All of the stories are equally important, though some readers will surely recognize at least a few of the people interviewed. There is, for example, Sir Nicholas Winton, the humanitarian who saved 669 children in 1938 when he organized the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport to bring them to Britain and place them in homes where they would be safe from the Nazis (Sir Nicolas passed away shortly after being interviewed by Amélie Mitchell and Daniel McKeever.

Readers may also be surprised to learn that two favorite children's authors, Shirley Hughes and Judith Kerr, both had wartime experienced. Shirley was 12 when the war started, and living near Liverpool with her mother. She told her interviewer that at times the war was very frightening, at other times, it was very boring, but she had involved herself in doing things like collecting salvage for the war effort. When the Nazis started bombing the docks in Liverpool, Shirley stayed where she was rather than be evacuated to safety. Shirley Hughes has written a few books about WWII, including Whistling in the Dark, an novel based on her own wartime experiences.

Judith Kerr's experience began in Berlin almost as soon as Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Because her family was Jewish and her father was an outspoken critic of Hitler, it soon became apparent that the family needed to leave Germany. Packing only what they could carry so that they wouldn't arouse suspicion, Judith decided to leave her beloved pink bunny behind. The family made it to Switzerland, then to London in 1936. Fans of Kerr can see where the inspiration for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit came from.

Each memory provides the reader with a personal window into the past told by those who actually lived it. What is particularly nice is that all the memories were collected by school children, some of whom you will meet at the beginning of the book.

In addition, each memory includes black and white photos, most are personal, but there are lots of photographs from the war in general. There is also an Index of Subjects, and an Index of Interviewees, as well as a useful Glossary.

As more and more of the witnesses to World War II die and take their stories with them, it is important to record their memories. Fortunately, what Terkel did for adults with The Good War, these young people have done for other children with Voices from the Second World War.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Monday, April 9, 2018

Live in Infamy (companion to The Only Thing to Fear) by Caroline Tung Richmond

Live in Infamy continues the alternative history begun in The Only Thing to Fear. The premise of both books is simple - it's 80 years after the Allies have lost WWII, and the Axis powers have divided up the United States into three territories - the Eastern American Territory (EAT) ruled by the Nazis, the Western American Territory (WAT) ruled by Imperial Japan, and the Italian Dakotas. And like all oppressive regimes, there is a resistance movement seeking to thwart and overthrow them. The Only Thing to Fear focused on the Eastern American Territory and resistance leader Zara St. James, who is also an Anomaly.

In Live in Infamy, Richmond takes the reader to the Western American Territory (WAT). where they meet Ren Cabot, a 16 year-old Chinese American whose Chinese mother was in the resistance and executed five years earlier. Since then, Ren and his father have worked together in the family's tailoring and cobbling business. A resistance movement still exists in the WAT but now essays by someone known only as the Viper are circulating and causing unrest among the people, and especially ruling Crown Prince Katsura, who wants nothing more than the catch the Viper. And no one suspects that Ren is the Viper, including his father, Paul Cabot, and cousin Marty.

Paul Cabot has recently been summoned to Fort Tomogashima, also called the Fortress, to help with sewing uniforms for an upcoming Joint Prosperity Ball. But one night, Marty brings him home with a badly injured hand, and Ren discovers they are both in the resistance. It is decided that Ren will take his father's place in the Fortress, where two other resistance members are already embedded.

Once inside the Fortress, the plan is to kidnap the Crown Prince's daughter, Aiko, during the ball, and take her to Alcatraz. Marty has intel that there are prisoners being held there, and when Ren learns his mother might be one of them, the mission becomes personal. But it is more than just about rescuing prisoners. Alcatraz is also being used as a laboratory for experiments with Anomalies.

Before the war, the Nazis had been involved in genetic testing in their concentration camps. The result was super soldiers called Anomalies, each of whom has a particular super human ability. Used by both the EAT and the WAT, the number of Anomalies has been dwindling quickly, and need to be replaced. More testing has resulted in a genetic breakthrough called V2, a joint effort of the Empire and the Nazis. The Joint Properity Ball is a chance to deliver V2 to Alcatraz while everyone's attention of focused elsewhere. But the resistance also really wants that V2 and the fifteen remaining Anomalies in Alcatraz.

At the Fortress, Ren also discovers that the Viper's essay's against the Empire are a focus of the Crown Prince's anger, so much so that he is willing to, and does, execute anyone caught with a copy of an essay - and copies are circulating widely. Marty and the resistance have come up with a wild, convoluted plan, but if the mission fails, Ren's cover could easily be blown.

Live in Infamy is not just a dramatic companion to The Only Thing to Fear, it is also a worthy one, and I think Richmond has really honed her writing chops for this second novel. She has included just enough twists and turns to make the story interesting, exciting, and suspenseful but not so much that the reader has trouble following the plot - and the best part is that it is a stand alone novel. Which means that if you missed reading The Only Thing to Fear, that's OK, although you might want to read it as well.

I thought Ren was a nicely developed character, one whose anger at the injustice and treatment of racially different and racially mixed people is totally justified. Other characters, like Marty, Mr. Cabot, and even Greta Plank, who plays a large part in Ren's time within the Fortress, aren't quite as developed as I would have liked them to be given their roles in the story's plot, but I don't think that diminishes the overall enjoyment of the novel.

I should also mention that there are some violent scenes so this book may not appeal to more sensitive readers.

I personally found reading Live in Infamy an intriguing alternative history of WWII, particularly at this moment in time. Richmond tackles race and biracial themes as well as political persecution, and the role of the resistance. These are themes readers find in books about WWII, but they are also once again coming to the surface in today's world, so although this is an alternative history, it will no doubt resonate with today's readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press

Monday, April 2, 2018

Hula for the Home Front (A Nanea Classic Book 2) by Kirby Larson

It's February 1942, almost two months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Nanea Mitchell, 9, is getting ready to go back to school. But school won't be the same for her and her friend Lily now that their other friend Donna has been sent back to the United States with her mother. And then, she finds a new girl sitting in Donna's seat at school.

To make matters worse, the new girl, Dixie Morena, is given the important job of class War Stamps monitor, a job Nanea thought she should have been given. It's a job that involves the weekly sale of war stamps to the kids in the class, with the hope of winning a coveted Minuteman Flag if they buy enough stamps. Nanea tries to be friendly, but Dixie doesn't seem interested, in fact, she seems bored - always yawning and putting her head on her desk. But after an incident that finds both girls in the principal's office, Nanea, Lily, and Dixie finally become friends.

Nanea is also worried that her older brother David will enlist as soon as he turns 18 in May. David does a lot of volunteer work for Lieutenant Gregory, but wants to do more for the war effort. Older sister Mary Lou, 15, also does volunteer work for the war, and is never without her knitting, making needed items for soldiers.

Nanea comes up with the idea of forming the Honolulu Helpers, a club to help the war effort for kids
her age. Volunteers would do things like collecting bottles, babysitting so mothers could take first-aid classes, working in Victory Gardens, baking cookies, serving meals, and maybe even helping out in hospitals. But despite school, friends, and the Honolulu Helpers, Nanea still worries about her brother, the night time air raid drills, and the possibility of losing her beloved dog Mele again.

She is so afraid of losing Mele, that Nanea keeps her close by except during school. One day, as she is playing some records in her room, Nanea notices that Mele is moving to the music. Naturally, Nanea decides to teach her to hula, which, thanks to some tasty cookies, Mele picks up quite quickly. Later, at the USO show, the soldiers is so entertained by her hula dancing dog, that Nanea comes up with an idea of how to bring Mele to the soldiers in the hospital, who couldn't come to the show. But how to do that if dogs and kids aren't allowed in hospitals? Nanea enlists the help of Lieutenant Gregory, maybe he can convince the hospital to find a way.

Meanwhile, Nanea's class is falling behind with war stamp purchases, and it looks like there will be no Minuteman flag for them. But their teacher, Miss Smith, has a surprise guest come in a give them a pep talk. Will that help?

When you read an American Girl story, it's a safe bet that nothing too awful or scary is going to happen. They essentially present the life of a 9 year-old girl during a period of change and focus on how main character adjusts to those changes. There is lots of historical information introduced along the way, and the Nanea books are no different. Kirby Larson, who has had plenty of experience researching and writing historical fiction for young readers, has written the first two books, Growing Up with Aloha and this one.

I thought Hula on the Home Front was a well written work, that easily carried over from the first book and increased our understanding of what it was like being a 9 year-old at that time and place. Nanea is a sweet, generous character, but like all girls at some point, she also has to deal with feelings of jealousy and learn how to gracefully accept the new girl in her life, even as she misses her old friend. But Nanea also must deal with other big changes that impact her life - her father is often away from home working double shifts, while her mother helps out at the Red Cross. Then there is rationing, blackout curtains, and the Dogs for Defense program. Would Dogs for Defense want Mele? Could Nanea part with her beloved dog?

I do think it would be nice if more about Lily's family, who happen to be Japanese, were also included, especially given what was happening in the US at the time. Larson does introduce the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, but doesn't really go into any detail about it. Could there be a book about Lily in the works?

Nanea is a nice addition to the WWII American Girl books, though I'm sorry they won't be publishing as many different ones as they did with the original historical characters. My kids, at home and in school, really loved reading those books and most never even owned a doll.

A lot of Hula on the Home Front does presuppose that the reader has read the first book where most of information about Hawaiian life and culture was given. There is still some given here, along with Hawaiian words with pronunciation and meaning found at the back of the book. Readers also do learn more about the meanings behind the movements of hula dancing, and its purpose.

As always, do read the section Inside Nanea's World for more information about war stamps, clubs formed by kids and other war time efforts. Though not a nice as the earlier American Girl stories, it is still helpful.

Hula on the Home Front will please AG fans, as well as those who like WWII history.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library.

The 1942 Minuteman Flag Nanea's class hoped to win was
 awarded by the Treasury Department

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Change of Heart by Alice Walsh, art by Erin Bennett Banks

This is the story of a young African American hero, Lanier Phillips, who survived the sinking of his ship, the USS Truxtun, caused by a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. 

To help readers understand Lanier, Walsh begins his story with his childhood. He grew up in Georgia, in the 1930s, living under the constant threat of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. Watching the homes, schools, and barns of his black neighbors being burned to the ground, barred from enjoying the same privileges as white people, and always fearing for his life, bitterness and resentment grew inside Lanier.

When the United States entered WWII, Lanier decided to join the Navy in the hope of escaping racism. Sadly, he discovered that life in the Navy wasn't any different than life back in Georgia. Black sailors were given separate sleeping quarters from the white sailors, and were required to eat their meals standing up in the pantry. Forbidden from eating in the same mess hall as the white sailors, Lanier was also required to serve them their meals and wash the dishes, do their laundry, and shine their shoes. Bitterness and resentment were eating him up.

Then, on February 18, 1942, the USS Truxtun ran into a fierce winter storm, colliding with the jagged, steep cliffs off Newfoundland. As the ship began to sink, lifeboats full of white sailors tried to make it to land in the storm, but most of the boats didn't make it. Finally, it was the time for the black sailors to try to reach land, but the boats were gone and all they had were rafts. Lanier had to quickly decide to go or stay. Would black soldiers be welcomed by the residents, or would they do something else to them?

In the end, Lanier climbed into a raft that capsized, throwing him in the sea. Lanier made it to the shore, and collapsed from exhaustion. When he woke up, Lanier discovered he was in Newfoundland, where he was taken in and nursed back to health by a local woman, Violet Pike. Many of the people who helped the sailors from the USS Truxtun had never seen a black man before, and they also didn't seem to have any of the prejudices he was so accustomed to. In fact, he was treated with respect and dignity by his rescuers. When it came time to leave their home, Lanier felt that because of the kindness he had experienced, he had lost the bitterness and resentment that had always been with him.

A Change of Heart almost sounds like it should be someone's idea of historical fiction depicting the transformation of an African American man when he finally treated him with love, respect, and compassion after living a life of discrimination and fear because of the color of his skin. And yet, it is a true story. Lanier Phillips always considered his experience with the Newfoundlanders the catalyst that changed his life. Lanier went on to have a successful career in the Navy as a sonar technician, and also became a Civil Rights pioneer with Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Change of Heart is a heartwarming, inspiring picture book for older readers that palpably depicts the racism and fear of Lanier's early life in contrast to the way he was treated in Newfoundland, and shows how one experience can really help a person to see things differently. Adding to this uplifting story are the oil painted illustrations done in Erin Bennett Banks' signature angular style.

Be sure to read the About Lanier Phillips at the back of the book to learn more about this remarkable man.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 17 year-old Danny Graham joins the navy. But before he leaves for boot camp, he and his brother Colton, 12, are out fishing one day when a German U-boot suddenly surfaces, injuring Danny and putting him in a coma.

Angry at the Germans for what happened to his brother, and feeling like there is nothing he can do, Colton decides to take Danny's enlistment papers and take his brother's place in the Navy. Tall for his age, Colton doesn't really look 17, but the country was desperate for fighting men and didn't look that closely at him, although different people do question his age.

Colton, now called Danny, gets through boot camp, and even manages to impress his company commander with his knowledge of knot tying. Along the way, Colton makes two good friends, Josef Straub, legally in the Navy, and Woody, a 15 year old who also lied about his age in order to enlist.  After graduating from boot camp, he is sent to Miami for subchaser training along with Straub and Woody. Subchasing was the job he requested in order to pay the Germans back for what they did to the real Danny.

The three friends are eventually deployed on a patrol craft, whose job is to escort convoys of merchant ships up and down the eastern seaboard, looking for U-boats and wolf packs (groups of submarines), and attacking them before they could attack the convoy. Later, Colton's patrol craft is assigned to escort a convoy in the North Atlantic during the Battle for the Atlantic. Conditions in the North Atlantic are terrible, mostly because of the freezing weather and rough seas, but eventually a wolf pack attacks, and Colton's ship is sunk. A handful of survivors find themselves in the North Atlantic in a lifeboat surrounded by sharks for a number of weeks. Finally, they are rescued along with some captured Germans, and Colton finds himself in a New York City hospital, recovering from a serious leg wound. And then his mother, who has had no idea where her son was or what he had done, shows up...

Sink or Swim is definitely not a character driven story. It is, however, a real action-packed novel that gives detailed realistic descriptions about everything Colton experiences in the Navy. And while this may sound like the exciting Navy adventures of a 12 year-old, there is enough truth in Colton's story to show the other side of war - death, destruction, fighting, and the fact that the Germans they run into are just young teenage boys, too.

I did think that Watkins did a great job of maintaining a certain innocence in Colton. He is, really, just a seventh grader when he joins up. Feeling a tinge of guilt that his mom doesn't know where he is and what he's doing, he dutifully sends home his pay each month, sans $1.00 for himself. Compare that to his friend Woody, who spends it as quickly as he gets it.

Although this isn't a character driven novel, I did like the cast of characters that Watkins put Colton in touch with. Sometimes they could be a bit nasty to him until he proved himself, but for the most part they were a pretty nice bunch of men. It was refreshing to read about men who didn't need to feed their manly egos in war for a change. And I think that helps make this a much more appealing story for middle grade readers.

Watkins includes a nice glossary of Navy terms and of different events, like the Battle for the Atlantic, that might not be familiar to all readers. He clearly did a good deal of research for Colton's story, and has woven in lots of historically accurate facts that make this book so interesting to read. And readers may be surprised to learn in the Author's Note that Colton's story is based on the true-life story of a boy named Calvin Graham. Watkins includes a number of books and articles he read while writing Sink or Swim, including two about Calvin. One of them, "The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old" can be read online.

Sink or Swim is an exciting story that should appeal to WWII buffs, history buffs, and the fast pacing makes it particularly appealing for reluctant readers.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelly McMorris

This is the 7th Ranger in Time novel in this series, but I have to confess, it is the first one I've read. The overall premise is simple: Ranger is a golden retriever that has been trained as a search-and-rescue dog but has failed to pass the official test. It seems he keeps getting distracted by squirrels. Ranger lives with Luke and his sister Sadie. One day, while playing in the garden with Luke, Ranger finds a mysterious first aid kit complete with a strap that can go around his neck. Whenever the first aid kit begins to hum, Ranger knows that somewhere, someone is in trouble, and once he has the kit around his neck, Ranger will be transported through time to help whoever needs him.

This time Ranger is transported to Normandy Beach just as the D-Day invasion is beginning. Walt Burrell, an African American soldier in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, is also at Normandy Beach, packed tightly in a landing craft waiting to storm the beach. As part of the 320th, Walt's job is to hoist up the giant barrage balloons once the beach has been secured so that enemy planes can't fly over and bomb the American soldiers.

Meanwhile, Leo Rubinstein is living on a farm just beyond Normandy Beach. Leo is going by the name Henri Blanc to hide his Jewish identity from the Nazis. On the morning of the invasion, the Blanc family prepares to take shelter from the constant barrage of bombs and gunfire. But Leo gets caught in a bomb hit in the house while looking for his sister's cat.

Ranger finds himself on Normandy Beach next to Walt, who figures they brought a dog along to sniff out landmines. At first, Ranger doesn't know why he was sent to this chaotic place, but when Walt realizes his friend Jackson didn't make it to the beach, man and dog race back to the water to rescue Jackson and, thanks to Ranger, two other men.

But even after all that, Ranger knows his work isn't done. Dodging gunfire and avoiding Nazis soldiers, Ranger makes his way to the Blanc farm, where he finds Leo, who is unhurt but knocked out. But when his sister's cat runs away towards the beach, Leo follows and there is nothing Ranger can do to stop him.

Back on the beach, it is still absolute mayhem, with gunfire, shelling, and bombs going off, and then there are the landmines all over the area. But Ranger isn't trained to sniff out landmines. Can Ranger, Walt, and Leo survive the allied invasion?

I've always enjoyed Kate Messner's other books and I really enjoyed reading this one. I found the writing to be clear, with straightforward descriptions, realistic characters and lots of excitement. I think Messner has captured the feeling of finding oneself in the midst of a very scary, very chaotic situation, whether man, boy, or dog.

Ranger in Time is the ideal chapter book for all readers, but the excitement of a time traveling dog and the places he finds himself in may entice even the most reluctant readers. To her credit, Messner makes sure Ranger is always a dog - he doesn't think in words, but goes by his instincts and what he recognizes from his training, making it an even more interesting story. Sometimes, even Ranger doesn't know why he is somewhere, until trouble presents itself.

There is lots of historical fact woven into this D-Day story, and Messner has included a list of sources she used, as well as a list of books for further reading. And while Walt is a fictional character, he is based on a real life hero of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion named William Dabney. You can find out all about him and all the other the research Kate Messner did for D-Day: Battle on the Beach in the back matter or you can read it online HERE.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library