Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade, A Thanksgiving Story by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner

It's Fall 1918 and the kids living on the Lower East Side in NYC are getting excited about the upcoming Ragamuffin Parade, especially Loretta "Rettie" Stanowski, 9. All you need to do to be in the Ragamuffin Parade is to dress up like a beggar, and Rettie certainly has enough ragged clothes to do that, right down to the holes in her shoes.

Being in the Ragamuffin Parade is simple enough, too. All kids have to do is walk down Broadway on Thanksgiving morning and people will toss pennies to them. Of course, it's a scramble to get any pennies, but Rettie really needs to get as many as she can. Her father has been away at war, and her mother has been ill, luckily not with the influenza that is running rampant in Rettie's neighborhood and throughout the rest of the country as well. If her mother gets sick with influenza, Rettie, her two little sisters and baby brother would be sent to live in an orphanage. So, Rettie carefully cares for her sisters and the baby, and now, she would really like to get something special for their Thanksgiving dinner. But what if the Ragamuffin Parade gets cancelled because of the flu epidemic?

Rettie with her baby brother
Rettie has already been doing everything she can to make a few extra pennies, including washing rags for the rag man. After shopping one day, Rettie finds a health service nurse posting a quarantine sign on the door of Mrs. Klumpenthal, the building manager. Now who would keep the building clean enough to satisfy the Board of Health? Rettie quickly negotiates 25¢ a week to do the work. Luckily, the nurse said Rettie's mother does not have influenza and gives her a tonic to help her get better.

Rettie with the health service nurse
Rettie has a lot on her shoulders, but a few weeks later, her mother begins to feel better thanks to the tonic she took, and finally, on November 11, 1918 come more good news - the war comes to an end. As an act of thankfulness, President Woodrow Wilson declares November 25th as the day the country would celebrate Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving morning, dressed in her raggedy clothes, Rettie heads to Broadway for the Ragamuffin Parade, collecting enough pennies to buy apples and a pumpkin to go with their dinner of stewed cabbage. As snow falls outside, and a kitten drinks a bowl of milk, Rettie, her mother, her sisters and brother gather together for the first hopeful Thanksgiving in a long time.

Thanksgiving Day
Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade is another entry in the Tales of Young America series (see also Paper Son by Helen Foster James ), presenting a moment in history through the experience of a young protagonist in a picture book for older readers. Each book in the series is informative and well-researched, Through Rettie, young readers can learn about the influenza epidemic that swept the country in 1918, the hardships felt by some families when their breadwinner is away at war, and about life in a tenement neighborhood like the Lower East Side, and how this meant that sometimes kids like Rettie had to do the work of adults despite being so young.

Rettie's family and neighborhood are richly and energetically depicted in David Gardner's wonderfully detailed, full-color water-color and pencil illustrations, capturing the expressions and emotions all the characters, and the crowded, noisy streets of lower Manhattan.

Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade is a wonderful choice for anyone interested in American history on the local level. It is also an excellent addition to books about Thanksgiving. Be sure to read the Author's Note at the back for more information about the difficulties faced by Rettie and the rest of the country in 1918.

If you ever visit New York City, you might want to travel down to the Lower East Side and visit the Tenement Museum. 

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

It seems that most people outside of NYC have never heard of the Ragamuffin Parade on the Lower East Side, or in any of the other boroughs, and in fact, my NYC-born Kiddo never has either. I remember learning about it in 4th grade when we studied NYC history and we were taught that it was the precursor to both the Thanksgiving Day Parade that we know today, and to Halloween Trick or Treating, not something that was really popular until after WWII.

Source: Bain News Service
Noble includes this photo in her Author's Note. If you look closely, you'll notice that some of the kids are wearing masks. This was not uncommon, cheap masks were sold for the Ragamuffin Parade in candy stores. Because of that, the Ragamuffin Paraders are sometimes referred to as Thanksgiving Maskers, but the goal is the same - to beg for money (in fact, you might recall that the Ragamuffin Parade is mentioned in the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith:

"Most children brought up in Brooklyn before the First World War remember Thanksgiving Day there with a peculiar tenderness. It was the day children went around "ragamuffin" or "slamming gates," wearing costumes topped off by a penny mask."

You can find out more about the Ragamuffin Parade tradition HERE

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Grenade by Alan Gratz

It's April 1, 1945 and for 13-year-old Hideki Kaneshiro, the war has become very real when his Okinawan school is bombed by offshore American battleships. Hideki and the other students of the Blood and Iron Student Corp are immediately given two grenades, one with which to kill as many Americans as possible and one with which to kill themselves, and sent on their way to fight.

On an American ship heading to Okinawa as part of a large invasion force of GIs and Marines, is Private Ray Majors, just a boy himself really, having enlisted in the Marines as soon as he turned 18 to get away from an abusive father who had fought in WWI and never really recovered.

Hideki is a gentle soul, an Okinawan who loves and honors his family and his ancestors, and who has learned to look at the world with a photographer's eye, thanks to the Japanese photographer, Lieutenant Tanaka. It was the Lieutenant's job to take pictures of Okinawa for generals to formulate their defense. Hideki became his assistant and Lieutenant Tanaka showed him how to frame a picture with his fingers in a rectangle and to ask what story the picture will tell, not just in the moment, but before and after the photograph was taken.

Ray is also a gentle soul who doesn't like the idea of killing anyone, but who knows that in war it is kill or be killed. As the Americans move inland after arriving in Okinawa, Ray begins to experience mixed feelings about the war. And although he has studied the brochure they were given detailing the difference between native Okinawans and the Japanese, and learning a few Japanese phrases, the other men in his unit don't really care about the difference, killing anyone who looks like they could be Asian. After facing his first kill or be killed experience, Ray begins to collect the photos of fallen Japanese soldiers and Okinawan people who have been killed.

As Ray and the other Marines move inland, Hideki moves towards the coast hoping to find his older sister, Kimiko. Despite being a fifth-year student, Kimiko was sent south work as a nurse in the southern part of Okinawa. Inevitably, along the way, Hideki and Ray meet and as you might expect, the outcome is disastrous, but far from the end of their story. 

Grenade is an action packed novel told from a duel third-person point of view. The chapters alternate between Ray and Hideki and are separated into two parts - before and after Ray and Hideki's fateful meeting. Gratz places these two poignantly drawn, sensitive characters in the midst of the last battle in WWII, the Battle of Okinawa, code named Love Day, and shows his readers the brutal cost of war not just in the lives of soldiers but also in the lives of innocent Okinawan families caught in a war they didn't want to be part of, and in the destruction of their farms and cities, and their cultural and religious objects and landmarks.

But in the end, Gratz also gives readers a lens through which they can find hope and redemption in the midst of war by introducing mabui, a concept of the Ryukyuan religion. Mabui is said to be the essence of the self, which is transferable from person to person, and can also found in a person's likeness, such as photos and drawings. Mabui found photographs plays a very important part in Grenade and ultimately, these photos tell a very potent story about war and the destruction of everything in its path, but also of the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Some of Gratz' descriptions may be too graphic for sensitive readers, and there is a Note to the Reader in large letters that the book contains terminology used in WWII in order to accurately reflect this historical period. There is also a helpful map of Okinawa in 1945 showing where places in the book are located.

Grenade is a powerful book that successfully interrogates themes of loss, abandonment, and fear, as well as change, family, hope, and survival, and should appeal to readers who like WWII fiction, historical fiction, or just like a good book.

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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Poppy Field by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Today is Veterans' Day in the United States and Remembrance Day for the rest of the world. And while it is important to honor and say thank you to those who serve and have served in the armed forces, today is even more special. It is the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, or World War I as it later came to be called.

No one had ever experienced a war like WWI before. New weapons were developed that had devastating results on both soldiers and civilians. From the air, planes could now drop bombs on battlefields and cities; at sea, submarines could now torpedo battleships and cargo ships carrying food and supplies; and on the battlefield, tanks with machine guns and canons could roll over no man's land and attack their enemies in the trenches, while chemical weapons like chlorine, mustard gas and flamethrowers were also used in trench warfare. It's no wonder so many returned suffering from PTSD.

To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, Michael Morpurgo has written a lovely book that tells a fictionalized story of how and why the poppy have became the flower that symbolizes the sacrifices made by those who have fought in their country's wars.

Young Martens Merkel lives on a farm in Flanders near Ypres in Belgium with his mother and grandfather. The farm, once part of No Man's Land in WWI, is in the middle of a vast poppy field and surrounded by several cemeteries. Sadly, Martens father was killed while plowing one of his fields by an unexploded shell. There is also a part of a poem written on an old wrinkled paper, framed and hanging on the hallway wall in the Merkel home. It is the beginning of a poem and Martens loves to hear his grandfather tell the story connected to that poem.

When Martens' grandfather's mother Marie was an eight year old girl, she used to sell eggs at a field hospital to the English soldiers. In the spring of 1915, the poppies were in bloom and Marie would pick some to give to those who bought her eggs. One morning, there weren't many soldiers to buy eggs, but Marie noticed one sitting nearby, writing in a notebook. Irritated at her for interrupting him, he threw the now scrunched paper he had been writing on away, but he asked Marie if she would place her poppies on the grave of his best friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had been killed the day before and who loved poppies. The poppies immediately began to blow away, but the soldier didn't seem to mind and began writing again - a poem dedicated to his friend.

Marie's mother read and translated what was on the paper she kept, and the whole family agreed that the words were too precious to throw away. Her father made a frame and hung it on the wall. The
poem is, of course, In Flanders Fields by John McCrea, a Canadian surgeon and Lieutenant-Colonel.

There is much more to the story Martens' grandfather tells, which becomes a nice blending of the fictional Merkel family history and some factual wartime history, including war's aftermath. Michael Morpurgo has a wonderful ability to take real events and write a story around them that works perfectly for young readers, entertaining and informing at that same time. Here, he says in an interview, he wanted kids to understand why it is important to remember those who fought in a long ago war by bringing it into the present, as well as showing the impact war has on civilians. And he has done an outstanding job of that with Poppy Field.

The 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I is perfect timing, since it has been in the news so much this weekend and kids can witness world leaders acknowledging the men and women who served their country, and who gave their lives then, just as they do now.

Be sure to read the Afterword for more information on the history of In Flanders Fields, John McCrea, and how the poppy became the symbol of remembrance.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased from Book Depository for my personal library.

Don't forget in all the commemorations, however, that this is also Veterans' Day in the US and 
remember the thank all veterans for their service. 
In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Kingdom Falls (Book 3 of the Ravenmaster Trilogy) by John Owen Theobald

When last we left Anna Cooper and her boyfriend Timothy Squire, it was June 5, 1944 and the D-Day invasion was about to begin. Timothy and his friend Arthur Lightfoot, both sappers, are on their way to France with orders to disarm bridges wired by the Nazis so that the Allies could pass over them safely when they arrive. Book 3 begins the very next day - June 6, 1944.

Anna, still in London, has learned that the father, Wilhelm Esser, she believed to be dead, has had a big hand in developing Hitler's Vengeance Bombs, or V2 bombs that are so fast and powerful, there is no escaping or surviving them. After her father gives her the information about how the bombs work, and where they are being sent from, Anna decides to hide her father in the Tower of London, her official home.

But having the information about the bombs doesn't mean anyone will listen to Anna. Especially after an not after she loses her pilot's licensee and is stripped of her wings. Anna may have been grounded but her fellow pilots in the ATA aren't and their commander, Pauline Gower, isn't above turning a blind eye on the use of Spitfires with which Anna and her friends can practice dive bombing under the tutelage of Joy Brooks. Joy, you will remember, is an African American pilot who couldn't fly for the Untied States, but was welcomed into the ATA. And, oh yes, Anna manages to get some wings and papers to fly, just maybe not her own.

Meanwhile, Timothy Squire and the other men in D-Company are in France, but not where they should be, landing in a swampy river and losing most of their equipment and a few men. Eventually, Timothy and Arthur get separated when they are attacked by Germans, and Timothy is sure Arthur has been killed. Timothy is eventually found by a group of French partisans and spends the rest of the war fighting with them.

When his family receives notice that Timothy is missing in action, Anna never loses faith that he is alive and will return to her.

A Kingdom Falls is an exciting third novel. There is perhaps more action both on the battlefield and at home in it than in the previous novels as the war draws to a conclusion, but that would be expectable. And readers should never lose sight of the fact that Anna and Timothy are still just teenagers. But war matures young people fast, and Theobald has taken that into consideration as he developed his characters. It may not be quite as obvious with Anna and Timothy, but is sure is with Anna's friend Florence Swift. In These Dark WingsFlo spent the blitz in Canada, learning about comics and ice cream. She returned to England in What the Raven Brings, but it is in A Kingdom Falls Flo decides to become a nurse in France, and you can see how she has changed.

One of the things I liked about The Ravenmaster Trilogy is that Theobald writes from different points of view, and in A Kingdom Falls readers knows just what is happening to tow more familiar characters, including pilot Cecil Rafferty, rich, handsome, but rejected by Anna, and, of course, Flo. The switching of point of view throughout is not the least bit confusing and really adds to the excitement and tension of the novel. I have to confess that I secretly wanted to hear directly from Anna father, the Nazi Will Esser. I really wondered what he would have to say, but readers learn much from his through his interactions with Anna.

I am sorry to have to say good-bye to Anna and Timothy now that the trilogy has come to and end, but I was glad that Theobald brought it all to a very satisfying conclusion.

A Kingdom Falls, and in fact, all three books in The Ravenmaster Trilogy, offer an exciting window into many aspects of World War II and how it impacted the lives of young people. Theobald handles themes of war, friendship, loyalty, love, betrayal and survival in the lives of his characters realistically through his engaging narrators. I can't recommend this trilogy more.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was sent to me by the author, John Owen Theobald