Monday, July 16, 2018

Where I Am

GREETINGS FROM SUNNY FLORIDA!


It's time for the annual Baugh Cousins Reunion. It's a get together of siblings, 1st cousins, 1st cousins twice removed, nieces, nephews, and some brave souls who have married into this group. Every year, we pick a different venue, and this year we are in sunny, warm hot Boynton Beach, Florida (we base our venue decision based on school schedules):

A bunch of Baughs being serious (except me, I'm taking the picture)
Next year: Albany, NY so we can include my 94 year old uncle in the festivities.

I'll be back next week with new reviews of good books.

(This post was originally posted on Randomly Reading)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Jazz Owls: A Novel About the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle, art by Rudy Gutierrez


It's 1942 in Los Angeles, California. America hasn't been in World War II very long, but already the country is doing maximum war effort work. And that includes Mexican American sisters Marisela, 16, and Lorena, 14, who work long, exhausting days in a cannery, canning fruits and vegetables that will be sent to the armed forces overseas. But when night comes, the sisters are escorted to the local USO by their younger brother Ray, 12, to dance the night away with navy recruits on leave before they ship out to fight in the Pacific. Oldest brother Nicolás is off fighting somewhere in the where.

Rau may only be 12, but he already identifies as a zoot suiter, wearing the large jacket and loose pants, he calls drapes, that are their signature style and giving dancers plenty of room for dancing the jitterbugging and lindy hop. One night, after dropping his sisters off at the USO, Ray heads to a private party at a place called the Williams Ranch. A fight breaks out there and some members from "the 38th Street gang" leave but later return to get revenge. Ray is beaten up pretty badly, and another teen named José Díaz is found with stab wounds, and dies the next day. Ray is arrested along with members of the gang.

Reporters slant the story about the so-called "Mexican Problem" and the zoot suiters in such a way that they influence their readers against them for being unpatriotic. First, because they are Mexican, and second, they feel the large amount of fabric in a zoot suit is a waste and should be used for the war effort instead. Eventually released, Ray and the other zoot suiters are now seen by police, reporters, and civilians as baby gangsters.

Meanwhile, Marisela meets an Afro Cuban musician named Manolito and the two fall in love and want to get married, but California's anti-miscegenation laws of 1941 prohibit them from doing that. Ironically, Marisela, though of Mexican descent and hated by whites for that, is still considered "white" under this law, and can even marry a white person, but not a person of African descent.

Tensions increase over the next 10 months, during which time the family learns that Nicolás is now Missing in Action. The trial for the murder of José Díaz also concludes with a conviction of "a bunch of Mexican kids" sent to San Quentin for life.

The convictions only serve to outrage the white sailors nearby, and one night they go on a rampage, terrorizing Mexican Americans, publicly beating and stripping any zoot suiters they find of their drapes and burning them, including Ray. Even though the police see what is happening, they do nothing to stop it, ultimately arresting a hundred kids and only two sailors.

Angry at the pervasive discrimination they experience and the unimaginable violence they witness against the Mexican American community, and the poor working conditions at the canneries and factories they employ them, especially when so many have family members fighting in a war for freedom, the Zoot Suit Riots have a profound impact on the future of all three siblings.

Jazz Owls tells the story of a not very well known part of American history. is a novel told in free verse. It is told mainly in the voices of Marisela, Lorena, and Ray, and to a lesser extent, by their Papá, Mami, Abuela, different reporters, sailors, police, and even the spirit of José Díaz. It sounds confusing, particularly since this is a relatively small volume, but each is realized to the extent that they need to be and plays a pivotal part in the narrative.

Jazz Owls is a work of historical fiction based on real events and gives readers a window into the lives of patriotic Mexican Americans living in California during World War II. By interrupting and interrogating the predominate narrative in much the same way that books about the lives of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Chinese Americans do, it draws attention not only to the roles they played in helping to win the war, but also the unmitigated bigotry they were made to deal with on a daily basis.

Ray calls zoot suits drapes, and whenever I look at Rudy Gutierrez' incredibly expressive illustration on the cover of Jazz Owls I can see exactly what he means, it is sheer drape and one of the most striking covers I've seen in a long time.

Jazz Owls is a much needed addition to the body literature about WWII historical fiction based on a real event, and I believe today's readers may be surprised at how much the story of a Mexican American family and the racial hate they faced that led to the Zoot Suit Riots will most certainly resonate with them.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Fania's Heart by Anne Renaud, illustrated by Richard Rudnicki

Back in 2015, I reviewed a book for teens called Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott. A novel in verse, it told the story of two young Polish women, Zlaka and Fania, who were slave laborers in Auschwitz in 1944. At the center of the novel is a small heart, crafted by Zlatka for Fania's 20th birthday, and signed by all of the 19 girls that Fania worked with.

Now, this inspiring story has been is retold in a picture book for older readers by Anne Renaud. Fania had survived Auschwitz, and traveled to Canada after the war, married and had a daughter named Sorale, nicknamed Sandy. As a young child, Sandy understood that her mother had many secrets, among them were why she had no relatives - no mother, father, siblings, cousins. aunts or uncles, and why there was a tattooed number on her arm.

Then, one day, when Sandy was 10, she came across another of her mother's secrets. It was a tiny book shaped heart, with a purple cloth cover and the letter F embroidered in orange thread. Opening it up, she saw lots of words in different languages, but could only read a few names. Her mother finally told her daughter her secrets when Sandy asked her about the heart.

Fania begins with her imprisonment in Auschwitz, after being torn from her home and family because Hitler hated certain people, but especially Jews. In Auschwitz, she was no longer a human being but became a number - 74207.  She describes the deplorable conditions she and everyone else in Hitler's concentration camps were forced to live under, how she and the other girls in her barrack worked as slave laborers in a munitions factory making weapons for the German army, and how they tried to sabotage the what they made whenever they could, and then, how they were forced to walk a mile to and from the their job in all kinds of weather. All the while, Fania searched for her family among the other prisoners, but never saw them.

Although they lived in constant fear and extreme hunger, Fania and her friends would recall recipes and food they loved. One day, Fania mentioned she was going to turn 20 soon. Imagine her surprise when she was secretly handed a small handmade heart-shaped card from her friends on her birthday. The heart was a cherished bit of hope and resilience for Fania: "It is an act of defiance. A symbol of strength. An expression of hope and love. My friends wanted to prove that despite all that was inflicted upon us, we could still treat each other with humanity. Their words saved me."

The heart is also the only tangible thing Fania had left from her past.


Fania's Heart is a very moving story. It is historical fiction based on the true experiences of Fania Fanier, née Landau. This is such a well written, poignant story of resistance and survival under such  unimaginable circumstances. It begins from the point of view of her daughter Sandy, but seamlessly switches to Fania's voice, always shown in quotes. To her credit, Renaud has managed to describe the horrors of living in a concentration camp under the Nazis including enough reality without getting overly graphic, given he age of her target audience.

There is an interesting Author's Note at the end of the book that briefly describes how Hitler and the Nazis believed in the racial inferiority of certain groups of people, including Jews. It goes on to describe how Fania's heart was made and hidden from the Nazis. The heart was eventually donated to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, where it is on display.

I thought that Rudnicki's realistic watecolor illustrations captured so much truth about the harsh conditions in Auschwitz, but also the intensity of the friendships the girls developed with each other. The post-Auschwitz illustrations have a bit more clarity to them than the ones that involve Fania and her friends during the Holocaust, giving them  a real sense of being a focused part of Fania's memory.

While this is an excellent telling of Fania's important story, I do wish there had been more back matter, such as a more detailed biography of Fania's life before and after the war, and a list of suggestions for further reading. For this reason, it book felt incomplete to me.

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

So, who was Fania before she became 74207? Fania was born on December 12, 1924 in Bialystok, Poland. According to the Museum's website, she ended up in Auschwitz after a boy in Bailystok pointed to her and yelled "Jew!" Fania wasn't wearing the required yellow star and was immediately arrested. She never saw her parents, her brother Leybl, or sister Moushka again. Fania found herself first in Stutthof Concentration Camp doing forced labor. In 1943, she was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was put to work in the munitions factory there. In 1945, as the Russians advanced towards Auschwitz, the Nazis decided to evacuate Auschwitz in an attempt to hide their crimes there, and Fania was part of a forced death march of prisoners. She survived the march and was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Once again, she survived and after the war, she moved to Toronto, Canada.

If you are wondering how such an elaborate heart could be made under such stringent conditions, you might want listen to the creator of the heart, Zlatka Pitluk (née Snajderhauz). It's in German or Yiddish, but there are subtitles: