Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Kass Reich

We are pretty familiar with the story about the bear cub named Winnie who was adopted by a lieutenant in WWI and whose story became Winnie-the-Pooh. And then there's Stubby, a stray dog who became the mascot of the 26th Infantry Division, went to war and became a decorated hero, as did Rags, a Parisian mongrel adopted by radio operator James Donovan. But did you know there was also a goat who was borrowed by some Canadian soldiers from a little girl named Daisy in Saskatchewan when their train made a stop there.

Daisy wasn't really happy to lend her goat to the soldiers of the Fifth Battalion who were going off to war, but they promised to bring him back, and so she agreed, and "that's how Billy's extraordinary story began."

And what a story it is. Private Billy proved to be an able soldier, training, marching, crawling and running like any other soldier, and even getting laggers back on track, not to mention being a great comfort and morale booster. But when it came time to ship out, the colonel said it was a no go for Private Billy. His fellow soldiers had other plans, though, buying an crate of oranges (which they quickly ate) and packing Private Billy into the empty crate to sneak him on to their ship. The plan worked and luckily, Private Billy was a good sailor.

Once at the front lines, Billy also adjusted well to trench life. Nothing bothered him - not the cold, not the mud, not the noise, not the bad food, not even the rats. He continued to be a great comfort and morale booster, especially to nervous new recruits and to homesick soldiers. Of course, Billy was a goat, after all, and he was known to occasionally chow down on some important secret documents, and sentenced to jail for spying. But when morale fell, he was quickly released. Billy also saved lives on the battlefield, butting soldiers back into the trench to avoid an exploding shell.

By the end of the war, Private Billy was promoted to Sergeant Billy, and awarded the Mons Star for bravery in the face of danger. And "that's how Sergeant Billy became a decorated war hero." Happily, Billy survived the war and was returned to a somewhat older Daisy in Saskatchewan.

War is an ugly business and it's a difficult topic to introduce kids to. Luckily, there are some excellent books that can help parents and teachers broach this subject with young readers. And Sergeant Billy would be a great choice with which to do that. I say this because the first thing that struck me about Sergeant Billy is how focused it is on the goat and not on the soldiers or some of the real horrors of war. In this way, the story offers a gentle introduction to war while at the same time it makes it very clear that war is not fun despite having a goat mascot.

Messier's writing is simple, direct, and age appropriate, though none of the technical terms are explained (for example, Billy got trench foot, but what is that? my young readers asked). And Reich's uncomplicated gouache illustrations in a palette of army browns and greens work in absolute harmony with the text.

Sergeant Billy and his life on the front lines while in the Canadian army is based on a true story, and readers will find plenty of informative back matter that includes photographs of the real Billy and information about animals in war.

And for kids who really like heroic animal stories, pair Sergeant Billy with these other true stories from WWI: Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! The Pigeon Who Save the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh, Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero by Blake Hoena, Rags: Hero Dog of WWI, a true story by Margot Theis Raven, and Stubby: A True Story of Friendship by Michael Foreman

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book is an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black by Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

It's December 1944 and since September, the Nazis have once again been bombing London with their newest weapon, the V2 rocket. Harry Black, a conscientious objector, has been working on the fire brigade with fellow objectors. His moral position has caused a rift in the Black household. His father refuses to have anything to do him, claiming Harry has blackened the family name. Older brother Ellis is a soldier, back in London to recuperate from wounds suffered on the battlefield, and waiting to be sent back into combat. He also feels that Harry is a coward, but agrees to meet him at a pub called the White Horse. The two talk about a few things, including about a possible book of poems that Ellis could write and Harry could illustrate.

After talking for a while, Ellis decides to remain at the pub and Harry boards a bus home. The pub then takes a direct hit from a V2 rocket and is completely demolished. The bus was also destroyed in the hit and Harry wakes up in a hospital, seriously injured. But a nagging feeling tells him that Ellis is still alive, buried in the debris of the destroyed pub and Harry decides he must venture underneath the rubble to find and save his brother. While still in hospital, Harry meets a 14-year-old girl named Agatha, who had been a Kindertransport child in 1939 and now wants to find her parents, whom she believes are now in London.

Together, a semi-delirious Harry and a determined Agatha venture forth through the bombed and burning streets of London to find the remains of the White Horse in order to rescue Ellis and reunite Agatha with her parents. Throughout their journey, Harry stops to take the time to document everything in his notebook, which already includes copious, detailed illustrations for a planned science-fiction book called Machines of War.

Harry's journey into London's underworld to reach his brother has parallels to the myth of Orpheus and his journey to the Underworld to bring his wife back from the dead. Not surprisingly, Harry's notebook entries are explained and made clear through free verse poems by a poet named Orpheus. But who Orpheus is here is a mystery (until the end, but even then, I questioned Orpheus' identity here).

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black is not an easy book to read. It can feel confusing and muddled at times, but it is so worthwhile to stick with it to the end. This is clearly an anti-war story, catching all the particular horrors of World War II, and in fact, all wars. The Sedgwick brothers have created a hero in Harry Black, which is not surprising. Apparently, their father, a Quaker, was a conscientious objector during WWII and it is clear they consider him to be a hero for taking a stand against war that was seen as almost treasonous during WWII.

This is a carefully crafted story, part graphic novel, part verse novel, part prose novel, seemingly told from three different points of view - Harry, Orpheus, and, to a lesser degree, Ellis. Each part, each person ties into the other, adding to the story, and creating plenty of intrigue.

I found myself really caught up in Harry's first person narration, even at his most muddled, but I could have done with less of Orpheus and his songs. At times, I felt they interrupted the flow of the story too much. Also, it didn't take me long to figure out the mystery of Agatha, but maybe that was supposed to happen. After all, she pushed Harry along to act before it was too late to rescue Ellis.

Students will one day have a field day analyzing the meaning of this novel, the themes, the metaphors, the veiled references to reality contained in Harry's Machines of War work-in-progress, and the illustrations, which are so much a part of the story, don't gloss over them. The ones done in blues and whites are Harry's illustrations for his book, the black and white illustrations represent reality and belong to the story being told.   

All told, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a harrowing journey to the end but it had the kind of very satisfying, emotional ending I find appealing in books like this. And since I don't find too many really good alternative histories that take place in WWII, this was a very welcome addition to that particular genre.

This book is recommended for readers age 13
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Sunday, September 1, 2019

America at War edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn: A poem for September 1, 1939

Today is the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. I couldn't decide what to do to commemorate it so I turned to Lee Bennett Hopkins' book America at War to share some poems with my young readers. This book covers America's participation in war from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq. There are eight poems dedicated to WWII and I wish I could share all of them with you, but since my focus is on children and teens, and because children also wanted to do their bit for the war effort back then, I picked this poem by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater:

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Cape (The League of Secret Heroes) Book 1 by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante

The most frustrating part of WWII for schoolgirl Josie O'Mally is that she can't fight like her dad has been doing ever since Pearl Harbor was attacked. On top of that, all her favorite the comic book superheroes have mysteriously disappeared from Philadelphia and no one knows why. Gone are Zenobia, her sister the Palomino, Hauntima, Hopschtch, Nove the Sunchaser and just when they are needed most. Now, however, Josie, a Irish immigrant, has a chance to do something for the war effort, thanks to an ad in the newspaper calling for puzzle experts to help fight the Nazis and it just so happens that she is a whiz at solving puzzlers and ciphers. All applicants have to do is take a qualifying exam in the Carson Building downtown.

But just as the exam is ending, Josie begins to wonder why the proctor, Hank Hissler, is separating the exams by gender - girls to the left, boys to the right. Her thoughts are interrupted when a tall woman with a dog burst into the room demanding to know what Hissler is doing and if it is approved by Room Twelve. And it looks like the very same woman and dog Josie had seen earlier at the diner where she works part-time. Needless to say, the exam abruptly ended, but Josie surprised and dismayed to see he Hissler dump the test papers of the females, and just take those of the males. Josie isn't surprised to discover that her best friend Emmet Shea has also taken the test - after all, they are partners in puzzling.

As it happens, the woman, Mrs. Constance Boudica, or Mrs. B., and her dog Astra have been observing each girl, recognizing their innate courage, intelligence, strength, desire to fight injustice in the hope they can become part of the League of Secret Heroes.

In the elevator, Josie meets two of the other girls who took the exam. Akiko Nakano is a Japanese American from San Francisco. Her family is living in an internment camp, her brother is serving in the army's all Japanese 442nd regiment, and she is living with cousins in Philadelphia. Also there is Mae Crumpler, an African American from Chicago, Illinois who is living with her grandmother, a librarian, for the summer. The three of them get to talking and discover they have two things in common - they love superhero comics and solving puzzles and ciphers. But when they come into physical contact with each other, they really set of sparks - sparks that give them temporary super powers.

Now, they can not only fight neighborhood bully Tobe Hunter and his gang who took Josie's younger brother's new bikes, but they can also search for Emmett, who has gone missing, and most importantly, they can fight the Nazis who are plotting dastardly deed in Philadelphia - if only they could think up a good name for themselves. Their first order of business - rescue the six women, including Josie's cousin Kay, involved in developing a computer that will help win the war - and one that the Nazis would love to get their hands on.

Cape is a fun book to read. First of all, some of the chapters begin using comic book panels before slipping back into prose, much that way superheroes slip in and out of their secret identities. Secondly, it is part historical fiction and part fantasy, and yes, it slips in and out of those two genres, as well. Thirdly, there plenty of action, and even the ghost of one of the missing superheroes, Hauntima, who helps the girls with words of encouragement as they fight the arch rival of the women of Room Twelve. I also liked that fact that as the girls don't start of as perfect superheroes, but learn little by little what their individual powers and abilities are and how to effectively use them. The only power they have in common is flying, but working together they become greater than the sum of their powers. There isn't a dull moment in this novel, not even when they are on the ground just being their usual selves.

The language in Cape is straightforward but has a snappiness to it that has always been so characteristic of comic books. And Hannigan has really captured the everyday details of the period (I remember my mother saying how much she also hated spam and spam hash during the war). Hannigan also touched on the prejudice of the period regarding people who are African American, Japanese American, and German American. And yet, Josie, Mae, and Akiko all have loved ones fighting in the war for the Allies. Other themes in the book are loss, betrayal, and disappointment.

And there really were six women working on a programable computer called ENIAC in Philadelphia during the war (read the Author's Note for more on that and more about Hannigan's inspiration for The League of Secret Heroes series).

All in all, this is a great novel and I can't wait to read the next two - Mask and Boots.

You can download an extensive Curriculum Guide to use in the classroom for Cape HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

And you just might want to enjoy this wonderful book trailer:

Be Sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.  Thank you, Greg.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

We always like to think that this country fought heroically in WWII but the truth is that this country didn't always act very admirably, and in fact, it sometimes acted down right unconstitutionally. Which is why, on Saturday, January 12, 1946, 12-year-old Hanako Tachibana, her brother Akira, age 5, and their parents have just arrived in Japan after a long journey from Tule Lake Concentration Camp in northern California.

Having lost their home, their restaurant, their possessions, even Hanako's cat, the Tachibana family were living in internment camps since 1942, after President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066. They had ended up in Tule Lake in 1943 because Mr. Tachibana had refused to answer yes to one of two loyalty questions on a government questionnaire designed to separate loyal from disloyal Japanese American men. Ultimately, Hanako's parents decided renounced their American citizenship when pressed to do so by the government and the family was repatriated to Japan at the end of the war, a country neither Hanako nor Akira had ever been to before. 

Hanako expects Japan to look as beautiful as it had in pictures she had seen, but the reality is a Japan that is as broken and poverty-stricken as she feels. Traveling to her paternal grandparents, tenant farmers living just outside of Hiroshima and struggling to survive, Hanako witnesses soldiers and civilians, dirty, disheveled, often crippled, begging for something to eat, as well as the destruction all around her, blackened trees, buildings and homes turned to rubble, all as a result of the atom bomb that had been dropped there by the Americans.

At her grandparents home, Jiichan (grandfather) and Baachan (grandmother) welcome the family with open arms and unconditional love, despite not even having enough to eat for themselves. Hanako helps out as much as she can working in the fields, but soon finds herself in school, where she is treated like an outsider. Although she can get by speaking Japanese, her reading and writing are almost non-existence, as is her skill using an abacus. Even her long braid is cause for criticism among the other girls. 

Hanako is a sensitive, observant, questioning girl, who is growing up too quickly, but is stuck in the past and afraid of the future. One of the first things Jiichan teaches her is that the way to move forward is through kintsukuroi, which is a way of repairing broken pottery using lacquer dusted with gold, so the repaired pottery is even more beautiful than it had originally been. The trauma of having lost everything has caused Hanako to question who she is, where she belongs, and what she now believes in. She may feel like a broken piece of pottery, but Hanako figures life is more complicated than a repaired bowl.

Eventually, however, Hanako's parents decide that they would like to return to America and begin working with an American civil rights lawyer, Wayne Collins, to make that happen. Mr. Collins is putting together a class action suit to help those who were repatriated to Japan after the war to regain their citizenship and return to America. But when her parents petition is refused, the family is forced to make some hard decisions. Yet, through everything that has happened to her family, Hanako finally begins to understand her grandfather's lesson on kinsukuroi, and learns that in life gold can take many forms, and that understanding is just what she needs to be able to move forward with her life.

I won't lie, A Place to Belong is a difficult book to read. Not because of the writing, which is beautifully straightforward. Or the characters, which are drawn so well you feel like you really know them. What makes it difficult is the reality of what happens, and knowing that Hanako's life is broken because of war, because of who she is and what is done to her by her own country - the United States. In addition, descriptions of children and adults begging in the streets, of people starving and disfigured in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, of black markets taking advantage of desperate people offer a disturbing, yet realistic look at post-war Japan even as Hanako tries to piece together just who she is amid the wreckage within and around her.

A Place to Belong is historical fiction based on real events. All men of Japanese ancestry really were required to complete the so-called "loyalty questionnaire" in 1943 and they, along with their families, were sent to Tule Lake Concentration Camp if they were deemed disloyal based on their answers. Tule Lake was a harsh, cruel place where inmates were treated like prisoners and many, like Hanako's family, were deported to Japan after the war.

A Place to Belong should be read by anyone interested in WWII history, however, I think readers will definitely see parallels to much of what is happening in our world today. Be sure to read Kadahata's Afterword for more information about Wayne Collins and the work he did on behalf of wronged Japanese Americans.

You can download a reading guide for A Place to Belong from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, HERE

You might want to pair A Place to Belong with No-No Boy by John Okada. No-No Boy looks at the post-war life of a Japanese American boy who answered no to both of the loyalty questions, but did not give up his citizenship.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, with gratitude

View of barracks with Castle Rock in the background, Mar. 20, 1946, Tule Lake concentration camp, California.. (2015, July 17). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:05, August 17, 2019 from

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero by Amalia Hoffman, illustrated by Chiara Fedele

Sometimes the most unlikely people find themselves in a situation that calls for action and bravery and they rise to the occasion. This is certainly the case of Tour de France champion Gino Bartali.

Born in Florence, Italy, Gino was a small, sickly boy who found release riding a bike, even if it was a rusty second hand bike. Before long, he could outrace his friends, even those with better bikes. In sixth grade, Gino decided to learn more about cycling, and got a part-time job with Oscar Casamanti, a man who repaired racing bikes. When he was invited to ride along with some racers through the Tuscan hills, Gino persevered even as some riders dropped out. Casamanti was so impressed, he recommended Gino take part in professional races.

At 17, he began training and racing more, and by age 21, Gino had become a powerful, winning racer. In 1938, he participated in the Tour de France and despite having an accident during the race, he still managed to win. By now, Benito Mussolini had declared himself Il Duce, the leader of Italy and a ally of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini declared Jewish citizens to be enemies of the state. Kids could no longer go to public school, or play in public parks, and their parents lost their jobs. Many Jews were arrested.

Then, in 1943, Gino received a mysterious telephone call from the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. Could Gino help them? Riding his bike, Gino became a secret courier for the cardinal - making a 110-mile trip to deliver papers, photographs, and identification papers to a printer in Assisi, Italy, who then created forged identification papers that would be give to Jews in the hope that the papers would save their lives.

Gino carried on this important work until he was arrested in 1944, accused of selling guns to Mussolini's enemies. Released after 3 days, Gino went into hiding for a few months, until August 1, 1944 when the war ended in Italy and Italians were freed from Mussolini's grip.

And Gino? He went back to training for bike races, even winning the 1948 Tour de France again.

The Brave Cyclist is such an important story, and yet, one very few people knew about until now. Gino's story is a particularly important one when you realize that the punishment for helping Jews in any capacity was death, and not just for the helper, but often for their family as well. But Gino's story is also an inspiring one that proves the even one person can make a difference, that resistance can change people's fate. And the whole time Gino rode his bike great distances, often being stopped and searched by soldiers, delivering documents to be converted into forged identification papers, he had to keep his activities to himself. He could not even tell his wife so that if they were arrested, she wouldn't know anything.

In addition to an accessible written biography, Chiara Fedele's affecting illustrations are done in bright hues reflecting the happy days of cycling and racing, then switch to mostly dark hues reflecting the dark times of Mussolini's reign, complimenting and enhancing the text.

This is one of my favor illustrations. Gino has just been stopped and searched by soldiers,
now he's riding into the open field of the countryside, bringing freedom to some of Italy's Jewish citizens.
The Brave Cyclist is a picture book for older readers that is sure to generate some wonderful discussions among young readers about what they might do if they found themselves in the same circumstances as Gino.     

Author Amalia Hoffman has included an Afterword that goes into detail about Gino Bartali's life, and his heroic actions. In fact, she writes, that Gino was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel, and what greater honor can there be but to be so acknowledged. You will also find an important Select Bibliography in the back matter for further investigation.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Capstone Editions

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Funnies goes on a Blog Tour: Dear Justice League by Michael Northrop, illustrated by Gustavo Duarte

So, you all know how so many favorite Superheroes were a mainstay for American youth during WWII, right? Back then, the Justice League was formed and called the Justice Society of America (JSA), but eventually, morphed into the Justice League of America (JLA). In 2011, the JLA was reintroduced as the Justice League (JL), and that's pretty much where it stands today.*  The name may have been changed over time, but the members not so much - there's Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg.

All of this brings us to Dear Justice League. Here are America's great superheroes, seemingly perfect in every way, but haven't you ever wondered if their lives are really as perfect as they seem. Don't they have any faults, or screw up once in a while, maybe make a wrong decision, or perhaps even have some good advice for the rest of us?

Yes, they do and you can find it all between the covers of this delightfully silly, sometimes serious look at some of the Justice League's not so spectacular adventures as they answer emails from some of their fans.

One boy wants to know if Superman is super all the time, so Superman recounts a time he flew into a building because he was texting while flying (twf). This set off a series of hilarious events that he tries to handle all over Metropolis, ending in Superman getting a ticket for, what else, twf.

Does Wonder Woman have any advice for an 10-almost-11-year old? You bet she does, and it involves her 11th birthday and some cake.

Or how about Batman, always so brave, so fearless, has he ever been scared? asks a boy about to go to a new school and afraid he's going to be picked on the way he was at his old school.

Dear Justice League is divided into nine chapters, one for each Superheroes' story and a final chapter that ties it all together. There is a storyline running through each chapter that connects each story to the others involving a insectoid that escaped Hawkgirl's mighty mace. Insectoids are giant mantis-like alien bugs from the planet Molt-On and can replicate very quickly and easily so it's important for the Justice League to deal with them. But as insectoid's keep replicating exponentially, can they be stopped, even by Superheroes?

This is such a fun book to read, and I know young fans of the Justice League will love it. It has a very energetic, tongue-in-cheek text, but nothing really over the heads of young readers. And Duarte's colorful cartoon-like illustrations will no doubt appeal to kids. I liked that the Superheroes take the time to answer kid's email questions, and the way some of the stories circled back to the email writer to show how the advice they got helped them.

It seems that most kids go through a phase of being totally into Superheroes and this is geared perfectly for the age when that usually happens, a time when kids are out in the world because of school and activities and life is beginning to get more complicated and a little Superhero fantasy helps. I know my Kiddo went through a Superhero phase (and probably hasn't outgrown it yet, if truth be told).

Dear Justice League is a fun definite-must-read book for fans, and ideal for introducing kids to the Superhero realm, and might even hold appeal for reluctant readers.

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

Be sure to visit the other stops on the Dear Justice League Blog Tour:

*If you really want to read the complicated history of the Justice League, you can find it HERE

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

War is Over by David Almond, illustrated by David Litchfield

David Almond has always been one of my favorite authors, so when I saw that he had written a book commemorating the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, I knew I had to read it. If you are already familiar with Almond's books, you know they are always tinged with a bit of magic mixed into his spot on depictions of time and place, and characters who are just trying to make sense of the world around them. And so it is with this novella.

How, young John and his classmates want to know, can they be at war with the Germans, they're only children. It's 1918 and all John has ever known is the world at war. His father has been fighting in the trenches in France for so long, John barely remembers him. And his mam has been working 12 to 24 hours a day in the world's largest munitions factory near their home, making ships, and bombs, guns and shells. John worries about both his parents - his dad getting killed at the front, his mam in a accident at the munitions factory, and he just wants to know when the war will be over. First, he asked the king in a letter, but never heard back from him; next he wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury, who likewise didn't respond. There were not answers at school, either.

Then, on a class trip to the munitions factory, John sees a man speaking out against the war, telling them that children are not at war, and them showing pictures of German children, children who look  just like they do. The man, Gordon, is a conscientious objector, or conchie, and is beaten by three men, but not before John rescues a picture of a German boy named Jan.

John tries to write to Jan, but oddly enough, he runs into Jan in the woods near his home after having spent some time with Gordon, who gives him his white feather, considered to be a symbol of cowardice. John and Jan are just alike, and both agree that they are not at war with each other. But, just as suddenly as he appeared, Jan is gone.

Desperate for peace after his meeting Jan, John begins to dream of a time when there would be peace, when everyone could be friends again. And when peace finally does come, John determines that he will go to Germany and become friends with Jan someday.

War is Over is a powerful anti-war novella about a child confronting the horrors of war on the home front and expressing the kind of confusion about what he sees and hears that you would expect from a child. John's teacher's extreme jingoism is really evident in the militarist way he treats people, including his class, and his nationalist ideas, especially his contempt for Gordon, the conscientious objector. You can really the sense the contempt he feels for John, treating him as though he is a conchie-in-training. In fact, everyone, including John's mother, is afraid to be seen as unpatriotic. When John's letter to Jan is confiscated by the authorities, she almost turns her back on her own son.

Almond doesn't glorify or celebrate war and David Litchfield's black and white illustrations support that throughout the book. Though they are done in a cartoon-like style, they are no less poignant as they still capture all the horror of war in the trenches and on the home front in a town that supports war. I think one of the most effective illustrations shows the transition for children playing war into soldiers fighting at the front. This image is from Litchfield's website but I decided to use it instead of the black and white image in the book so you can see the transition more clearly, not just of the children, but of the falling leaves becoming dropped bombs:

War is Over is a powerful book that tackles some difficult themes that are as relevant today as they were in 1918. Jingoism, nationalism, patriotism, cowardice, bravery, the impact of war on children and families are all addressed as John observes the world around him. This is a heartbreaking, yet hopeful story, one you won't soon forget. Pair this with Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle for another view of how war impacts children.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Listen to David Almond talk about and read from War is Over:

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Someone recently asked me...

how many books I've read for this blog and did I have any particular favorites. Well, I've been thinking about that and while I haven't counted the number of books I read and reviewed, it's been a lot. And I've learned something from each one - maybe not something directly in the text, but the text roused my curiosity and lead me to Google or to the library or to one of my reference books for more information.

And for the most part, I've stuck to my original plan of only reviewing books I like. There have been some exceptions, but they are few and far between. All this led to the question: do I have any favorites? It turns out that I have a number of favorites - books that I couldn't wait to read and that still stand out in my mind. And after revisiting each book I've reviewed, I was really surprised by the results. Here, then, are my favorite works of fiction, 10 novels and one picture book:

The Staircase Cat by Colin Thompson - not a WWII story per se, this is a heartbreakingly poignant story about a family cat, Oskar, who lives a comfortable life in an apartment building until war comes and forces his owners to leave. Oskar survives the war and alone remains in the house with the ghosts of all those who once lived in the building. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe - a powerful novel blending fact with fiction, it is the story of Dita Adlerova, 14, transported to Auschwitz in 1943 with her parents, part of a group of Jewish prisoners transferred from the Theresienstadt Ghetto and receiving special treatment in Birkenau. There, she is put in charge of the library of 8 precious books that must be kept hidden from the Nazis within a building used as a secret school. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - an homage to the power of words, and narrated by Death, this is about a young girl's desire to learn to read, the communist foster family with whom she lives, and the Jewish man they hide from the Nazis in Hitler's Germany. 

Blitzcat by Robert Westall - this was the second book I read for this blog, and it has remained a favorite ever since. It is the story of a female black cat, mistakenly named Lord Gort, who goes on a journey across southern England looking for her human, a pilot in the RAF, and all the people she meets along the way whose lives are impacted by her being there just when they need her.

Vango by Timothée de Fombelle 
         #1 Vango: Between Sky and Earth - this is a epic adventure/mystery story that deftly mixes fact and fiction together. At 19, Vango, a master of disguise and escape, finds himself on the run for a crime he didn't commit. The main action takes place between April 1933 and Christmas Eve 1935, when Hitler and Stalin are both in power. But by the end, Vango (and the reader) are wondering who he is and why is he the subject of an international manhunt.  

         #2 A Prince Without a Kingdom - Vango is still on the run in this sequel, and after more epic adventures, all is revealed. It's hard to talk about this book without spoilers, but it is every bit as riveting as the first book. The time frame is here, running from 1936, through WWII and the Holocaust. In my review, I wrote I regretted Vango's story isn't a trilogy, and I still regret it, but than the author gave us another wonderful book...

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle - this clever mix of fact and fantasy, it is the story of Joshua Pearl, who is forced to leave the fairy land he came from, and mysteriously finds himself in 1936 France, and taken in by a famous marshmallow maker. As his memories of his home and the girl he loved begin to fade, Joshua begins collecting items in an attempt to find his way home. Meanwhile, the Nazis are on the march in Europe.

Felix and Zelda family of books) by Morris Gleitzman - Felix, a young Jewish boy leaves the safety of the French orphanage his parents put him in and sets off to find them. Along the way, he meets Zelda, 6, and the two travel together throughout Nazi-occupied Poland. Each book follows the events of the book that came before it, chronicling Felix's struggle to survive, to fight the Nazis and to create a new family for himself. Felix's story is heartbreaking yet poignant at the same time. The only book I didn't like is Book #4, Now, which takes place in 2009 and Felix is 80 years old.   
         #1 Once
         #2 Then
         #4 After
         #5 Soon
         #6 Maybe
The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper - The story of the FitzOsborne family begins in 1936 on the small island kingdom of Montmaray, which they live in a run-down castle. As European politics and the Nazis begin to impinge on their idyllic world, the Fitz-Osbornes are forced to leave Montmary for life in London. And while Book #2 is a nice look at high society in 1930s London, once again the reality of politics and Nazis are ever present there. Book #3 finds the FitzOsbornes fighting the Naizs at home and abroad. 
         #2 The FitzOsbornes in Exile
         #3 The FitzOsbornes at War

Flavia de Luce Mysteries by Alan Bradley - these books are a pure indulgence for me, even though they just barely have anything to do with WWII, and not all of them, at that. Flavia is an 11 year old sleuth, using chemistry to solve all the murders that seem to occur with relative frequency in Bishops' Lacey. 
         #4  I Am Half Sick of Shadows

But my all-time favorites are the two All Clear books by Connie Willis     
         #1 Blackout
         #2 All Clear
And although I don't often re-read books, I re-read these recently and they are still as good for me as ever. 

What are my favorite non-fiction books? I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stolen Girl by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

**This review contains a spoiler at the end**

Ever since the war had ended, Ukrainian born Nadia Kravchuck and her adoptive mother Marusia have been living in a displaced persons camp in Europe. But now it's 1950 and 12-year-old Nadia has just arrived in Canada with her mother Marusia to join her  adoptive father Ivan, already living in Brantford, Ontario. On her first night in her new home, several people come to visit and Nadia is introduced to Mychailo, a fellow Ukrainian immigrant with whom she will be attending school and receiving English lessons at a neighbor's house.

Unfortunately, Nadia is also plagued with nightmares and flashbacks, none of which make sense to her at first, although she feels that they have something to do with her past, a past she doesn't remember. She knows that although Ivan and Marusia aren't her real parents that they love her as if she were their own child. But who is she really? When Mychailo tells her that she doesn't sound Ukrainian and that she looks like a Nazi to him, Nadia worries that maybe that's who she really is. But Mychailo also seems like her, taking her to the library,  and reminding her to call Ivan and Marusia mother and father, or the Canadian authorities will take her away. 

Disturbed by that she might indeed be a Nazi, the nightmares and flashbacks increase, often triggered by what seem to be totally unrelated things, and finally Nadia remembers that her name used to be Gretchen Himmel and that she was a member of a Nazi family.

Later, on the first day of school, Marusia presents Nadia with a new ethnic-looking outfit that she had handmade her, despite working long, hard hours on her farm job. At school, the teacher is kind, but when a boy says she looks like a Nazi, she runs away in humiliation. Luckily, another new girl named Linda sits next to Nadia in class and the two become best friends.

Nadia eventually begins to adjust to her new life, but continues to be plagued by flashbacks to her past, causing her a great deal of confusion. Little by little, however, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together and form a picture of her life as Gretchen Himmel, daughter of a high ranking Nazi official, his cold, distance wife and his other daughter Eva. But the dreams and flashbacks continue, leading Nadia to believe that Gretchen Himmel is not her real identity. And gradually, more puzzle pieces fit together, finally falling into place through the most innocuous of triggers - a piece of candy. 

Stolen Girl is one of the most emotionally draining books I've read, and knowing before hand who Nadia really is didn't lessen the tension one bit. The novel centers around Nadia's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and the way it manifests in her after her traumatic wartime experiences. It has to one of the hardest conditions to successfully write about in a young person for young readers to really understand, but Skrypuch has managed to do just that in the ways Nadia's past reveals itself to her through her dreams and flashbacks.

                                                               **Spoiler Alert**
Stolen Girl is also one of the most compelling books I've read about the Lebornsborn Program. With her blond hair, blue eyes and young age, Nadia was a perfect Aryan-looking fit for this Nazi program designed to strengthen the Hitler's master race. Children like her were kidnapped, sent to Germany to be Germanized and than adopted by a Nazi family. Interestingly, other children who did not fit the Aryan picture were sent to labor camps, and Skrypuch gives hints about who Nadia/Gretchen really is when she sees a girl in an German labor camp of Ostarbeiters (workers from Eastern Europe) who looks just like her, and is in return noticed by the same girl. 

If you read Making Bombs for Hitler, you already know some of Nadia"s story and why she was recognized by the young Ostarbeiter. You may recall from that book that in 1943, after the Nazis shot their mother and the Jews she had been hiding, Lida, 8, and her younger sister Larissa, 5, were kidnapped from their grandmother's home in the Ukraine and sent by cattle car to Germany, along with all the other Ukrainian children the Nazis took. Days later, arriving at a slave labor camp in Germany, Lida and Larissa were forcibly separated from one another, and from that point the story follows only Lida's life in the labor camp. If you haven't already read Making Bombs for Hitler, and the other companion book, The War Below), I highly recommend it. Stolen Girl, the companion to Lida's story, is the story of what happened to Larissa after being taken from her sister. 

Stolen Girl is gripping novel that demonstrates how the trauma of war lives on long after the war has ended. It's a suspenseful, visceral journey that proves once again Skrypuch's talent for bringing difficult stories to life. 

This book is recommended readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Soldier Dogs: Air Raid Search and Rescue by Marcus Sutter, illustrated Pat Kinsella

Matt Dawson, 12, is angry and unhappy. It isn't bad enough that the family has been relocated from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Canterbury, England so Matt's father could work for the war effort in England. Now that the United States has entered the war, older brother Eric immediately returned home and enlisted in the Marines. Matt is angry at Eric for leaving, and at his parents for letting him. Adding to his irritation, foster sister Rachel keeps tagging after him. The only thing that makes it all bearable is Chief, Eric's well-trained German Shepherd, left in Matt's care.

Of course, both Matt and Rachel knew what to do in case of an air raid, but so far Canterbury had been lucky. But Canterbury's luck changed on the night of June 1, 1942. When the air raid sirens began, Matt, Rachel and Chief are sent to the shelter deep in Canterbury Cathedral. On their way, they hear the roar of the Luftwaffe approaching and they aren't far away. But when Matt's mom finally arrives at the shelter with his dad, they are bearing bad news - Eric is MIA.

Upset and even angrier, Matt runs out of the shelter just as incendiaries and bombs begin to fall on Canterbury. Followed by Chief, boy and dog both get disoriented when a bomb explodes near them. Matt heads upstairs, eventually finding himself on the cathedral's roof where the fire watchers are feverishly working to remove incendiary bombs and prevent a fire. And just as he starts back downstairs, Matt discovers Rachel has followed him, and with bad news - she saw Chief run into the streets of Canterbury - no doubt confused and looking for Matt.

Heading out to look for Chief, Matt and Rachel find themselves in the middle of a catastrophic blitz. And in the midst of that, they witness a parachute landing in a canal not far from them. Rushing to help, they discover a German soldier tangled in his parachute who convinces them he will turn himself in if they help save him from drowning. But can this German soldier be trusted?

Meanwhile, Chief is having dangerous adventures of his own. After he runs into a burning building to save a man's life, he finds himself in the hands of an American solider named Landry. Not knowing how well trained Chief is, Landry immediately thinks that Chief is a real natural search and rescue dog, and begins taking him as he searches for survivors among the fire, dust and rubble caused by the bombing.

In all the chaos, will Chief, Matt, and Rachel ever be reunited with each other and with their family?

Air Raid Search and Rescue is an exciting, action-packed adventure alternately narrated in the third person from the point of view of Matt and Chief. I don't usually like novels that anthropomorphize animals by giving them language but it really worked here for showing the reader two different perspectives of the action and of course, for paving the way for Chief's future endeavors in the war.

Rachel's backstory is also interesting. She was a child of the Kindertransport that brought Jewish children from countries occupied by Nazis to England in 1939/40. She was immediately drawn to Matt, and he treated her like any 12-year-old would an annoying little sister - until the bombs start to fall. It is nice to watch their relationship evolve.

Sutter includes a lot of back matter in this novel, answering questions readers might have about dogs in war, the Kindertransport, and the bombing of Canterbury. There is also a WWII timeline. And as a real bonus, there is a pull-out poster of Chief and on the back is information about the the bombings that became known as the Baedeker Air Raids:

As you can see, Canterbury was the last of the Baedeker Air Raids, named after the famous guidebooks produced in Germany. It was Hitler's plan to obliterate all of the most famous cultural sites in England according to the book in retaliation for England's bombing of German cities. In the case of Canterbury, the bombing raid was pay back for the RAF's bombing of Cologne, Germany.

I actually read this book thanks to Ms. Yingling Reads review of it. I had already read a book about another Baedeker air raid, The Exeter Blitz by David Rees, which was also very good, and thought it would be interesting to read another - and it was. Those interested in WWII novels might want to pair these together.

Air Raid Search and Rescue is the first book in the Soldier Dogs series, and I am really looking forward to reading them all. They will certainly appeal to young readers interested in WWII history and the roles that dogs played.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Re-reading Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

I decided to re-read Blackout and All Clear not long ago. I read them back in 2010, and while I don't usually re-read books, I did these because I always felt that I had read them too quickly. And the fact is I loved them as much the second time around as I did the first. Then I re-read my review and decided, 9 years after I wrote it, to repost it. This is what I wrote on November 17, 2010:

"I have just finished reading Blackout and All Clear and find myself wishing that Connie Willis could have kept going. After reading these two books totaling 1,168 pages, I find I have become quite attached to the characters and had a hard time saying goodbye when I came to the end. They are just that good!

The books are based on a simple enough premise. In 2060 Oxford, history is studied by traveling back in time to observe, collect data and interpret events firsthand under the tutelage of Mr. Dunworthy, the history professor in charge of time travel. The story centers on three students interested in different aspects of World War II. Michael Davies, disguised as Mike Davis who wants to go to Dover as an American war correspondent to observe the heroism of the ordinary people who rescued British soldiers from Dunkirk; Merope Ward becomes Eileen O’Reilly, working as a servant to Lady Caroline Denewell in her manor at Backbury, Warwickshire in order to observe evacuees from London; and Polly Churchill becomes Polly Sebastian, a shop girl by day working in the fictitious department store Townsend Brothers on Oxford Street, who wants to observe how Londoners coped during the Blitz.

In Blackout and All Clear, Willis makes it clear that there are certain cardinal rules of time travel. First, the traveler may not do anything to alter a past event. But that was supposed to have been taken care of so that it couldn’t happen. In addition, an historian is not allowed to travel to a divergence point, a critical point in history that can be changed by the presence of the historian. Nor can a predetermined drop site open if there is a “contemp” nearby who might see what is going on. Furthermore, once they have arrived at their destination, the historian is required to return to 2060 Oxford and report in. If they don’t do this, a retrieval team is sent to bring them back to Oxford. One other thing, time traveling historians are not supposed to have contact with each other while in the past.

That being said, Mike ends up in Dunkirk, saving a life and Eileen is prevented from returning to Oxford at the end of her stay by an outbreak of measles among the evacuees. Both ultimately travel to London, seeking Polly, hoping to use her drop to get back to 2060, but Polly’s drop has been compromised by a bomb and has stopped working. These extended stays do not result in the arrival of retrieval teams; but in much more complex adventures and worries. Have they altered the future unintentionally? Or unalterably? And if so, what does that mean for the future? And will the historians ever get back to 2060 Oxford?

In addition to Mike, Polly and Eileen, Willis has drawn some interesting supporting characters in Blackout and All Clear, all very different from each other and all of whom I found myself caring about. There is Sir Godfrey Kingsman, the well known actor who is part of the entourage in Polly’s bomb shelter, though he did get on my nerves with his constant quoting of Shakespeare, yet he was still endearing. He always referred to Polly as Viola from Twelfth Night because of the way she arrived at his bomb shelter her first night, and she was going by the last name Sebastian, the name of Viola’s twin brother, something to keep in mind as you read. And Colin Templer, 17 and besotted with love for Polly and who had promised to rescue her if anything went wrong. Colin wants to go to the Crusades so he can use the paradox of time travel to close the four year age difference between himself and Polly. Eileen’s life was plagued by Alf and Binnie Hodbin, brother and sister urchins evacuated from London to Backbury, pranksters and troublemakers extraordinaire. Mike had Commander Harold, elderly captain of the Lady Jane who unofficially went across the English Channel to participate in the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk and changed the course of Mike’s time travel.

Connie Willis has done a brilliant job writing Blackout and All Clear, even though I know I will probably have to reread both books again to really appreciate them [yes, that's exactly what happened]. When I first read Blackout, I didn’t pay close attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter, so sometimes they were a little confusing. I found myself preoccupied with questions about why I was suddenly in 1944 or 1945 and who were Mary Kent and Ernest Worthing and how did this connect to Mike, Polly and Eileen?  Blackout sets up all the questions and All Clear answers them.

Throughout both novels, the three main characters are confused by what has happened to them, and the chaos of the period, such as not knowing when or where bombs may fall, adding to their sense of helplessness once Polly's knowledge of when and where bombs will fall is exhausted. As in the real war, anger, anxiety, confusion, fear, frustration and helplessness are exactly the array of emotions that the reader experiences along with Mike, Eileen and Polly. Yet, all is not doom and gloom. Willis balances these with instances of hope, courage, selflessness and heroism. She also injects some very comical scenes into the story, such as an angry bull and the deployment of rubber tanks in a muddy, foggy pasture to fool the Luftwaffe, or the constant antics of the Hodbins. And of course, there is the dry wit of the British and their ‘carry on’ attitude after a blitz attack. I really like the fact that Willis keeps the story focused on the plight of the stranded historians, rather than jarring the reader by going back and forth between them and Oxford 2060.

Blackout and All Clear are both chock full of action, information, comedy, tragedy and everything else that goes into making a great story. They are not really meant for YA readers, yet they are perfectly suitable for high school kids, and even some younger ones. So without reservation, I would definitely recommend Blackout and All Clear to readers in their teens and to everyone else. It is a wonderful a tale about survival and heroism."

These books are recommended for readers age 13+
These books were purchased for my personal library.

Willis described the blitz and the bombs that hit Oxford Street, where Polly worked, in amazingly realistic detail.  Check out the following for an online exhibition of the West End at War including photos and maps of the blitz in that area, the same area that plays a large part in Blackout and All Clear

The following has online information about the Docklands and East End during the war, another area highlighted by Connie Willis;

Sunday, June 16, 2019

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 (I Survived Series #13) by Lauren Tarshis, illustrated by Scott Dawson

It's Monday, May 3rd, and Hugo Ballard, 11, is about to embark on an exciting journey flying from Germany to New Jersey on the Hindenburg, one of two zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1937. Hugo had already had one big adventure, living in Kenya with his mom, dad, and younger sister Gertie for a year. But now Gertie is sick with malaria and needs to get home to NYC for the right medicine as quickly as possible and the zeppelin could get the family there in only three days.

The Hindenburg is big, almost as big as the Titanic, but it's a highly flammable gas, hydrogen, that gets the zeppelin off the ground and flying. And that's a pretty scary thought for Hugo and Gertie, but almost immediately, Hugo makes a new friend, Martha Singer, or Marty as she prefers. Marty is a zeppelin pro, this is her eight Atlantic crossing in one, thanks to her dad who works for the company. "It's magical" she tells Hugo, and indeed, it seems to be so. Even Gertie is looking and feeling better.

The next morning, Tuesday, May 4th, at breakfast, however, Hugo's good feelings about being on the smooth-riding zeppelin with a new friend are somewhat diminished by the appearance of Nazi Colonel Joseph Kohl, known for his viciousness (even Gertie thinks he looks like a snake) and two other Nazi officers. When they leave, one of the passengers says that he believes the Nazis are looking for a spy on board the zeppelin.

On Wednesday, May 5th, the day before the zeppelin is scheduled to arrive at the airfield in New Jersey, Mr. Singer offers to show Hugo and his dad around the ship, even taking them into its main body, usually off limits to passengers. While there, Mr. Singer hears a terrible, unfamiliar growling noise. Alarmed, he starts to call the ship's captain, when Hugo realizes it is none other than their dog, Panya, who was put into the cargo hold for the trip. But their tour is interrupted with news that Gertie is once again very sick. After a long, scary night, Gertie's finally fever breaks and the only thing she wants is Panya.

But when Hugo sneaks down to get the dog, he sees someone else there. Is this the spy who is sneaking German secrets back to the United States? Apparently Colonel Kohl thinks so, too. After threatening Hugo with his gun, he manages to get away and get Panya to Gertie. But does an even deadlier fate await the Ballad family when the Hindenburg suddenly erupts in flames while landing?

A WWI Recruiting Poster
I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is, like all the I Survived books, very exciting with themes of courage, resilience, and the importance of family. And Tarshis is genius at being able to weave these into a gripping tale in the midst of a dangerous historical event without distorting any of the history. She has included lots of information within the story about zeppelins, how they work and their use, even during World War I when they were used to drop bombs on civilians in both France and England. I knew airplanes were used for that, but I didn't know about zeppelins.

Nor does she shy away from Nazi violence or cruelty and yet it is never gratuitous. In this novel, Colonel Kohl is portrayed as the kind of cold-blooded Nazi who would not think twice about shooting Hugo to get what he wants. But Tarshis also always makes sure to surround her protagonist with kind people, too, as she does here with Hugo's parents, Mr. Singer, and Marty. And her protagonists are also kind people. Hugo risks a lot to make his sister happy, but he knows what he has to do. And when the ship erupts in flames, his first thought is how to save his family.

Tarshis has also included even more information about zeppelins and the Hindenburg disaster in her back matter, beginning with the question "Would you want to ride on a zeppelin? To which my answer would be unequivocally no, thank you, although I do appreciate the excitement and spectacular views of such a ride. There is also a section about the possibilities of why the Hindenburg disaster happened (to this day, no one knows), More Hindenburg Facts, and a Selected Bibliography.

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is one of four books that are focused on World War II, beginning with I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944, and I Survived the Battle of D-Day, 1944. Each excellent and informative, and age appropriate.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

If you would like to know more about zeppelins, be sure to visit

And if you are curious about what Hugo saw on his tour of the Hindenburg, this is the best example of the inside of it I could find (you can even see the catwalk where Hugo had to walk to get Panya for Gertie):