Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross

When seventh-grader Charlotte "Charlie" Roth is given a family tree project to do for school, she decides to try to find out what happened to her great aunt and namesake, Charlotte "Lottie" Kulka, older sister to Charlie's Nana Rose. The family has always assumed that Lottie had perished in the Holocaust, but now Charlie wants to learn more about her and maybe even discover what really happened to her. Lottie had been a talented violinist living with her family in Vienna, and had been sent to Budapest, Hungary to study music there just before the Nazis annexed Austria. Lottie's younger sister Rose and mother survived the incoming Nazis by fleeing Vienna after their father and husband was arrested. He to was never heard from again.

Nana Rose is more than happy to help Charlie, and sends her an old diary of Lottie's that she had managed to save. The only problem is that it is looks like it is written in German, but when a friend's grandmother tries to read it for Charlie, she tells her it is a music journal that includes all the people she went to concerts with and that it is not only written in German, but in Hungarian, too. Two names stand out - one is Nathan Kulka and the other is Johann Schmidt.

Using mementos, old photos, letters, Lottie's journal, and Nana Rose's scrapbooks and memories, Lottie slowly begins to form a picture of who Lottie was, but she is not closer to finding out what happened to her. Nana Rose knows who Nathan Kulka was, but never found him, either. The son of a dentist, she thought maybe he might also be a dentist and living in Connecticut after the war, but she had never followed up on it. Could it be that he was indeed a long lost relative who might be able to shed some light on Lottie's fate?

Like her namesake, Charlie is also a talented violinist and is hoping to be named the school's orchestra concertmaster, an honor usually reserved for 8th graders. In between research, school, family life, and thinking about her crush, Charlie spends as much time as possible practicing for her audition. When the results come in, Charlie is surprised to learn that there is a boy who is crushing on her.

Searching for Lottie is a novel based on Susan Ross's family history, which you can read more about on her website Here and in her Author's Note at the end of the book. I thought that Charlie's quest to discover what happened to Lottie, her life as a middle schooler, and her aspiration to become concertmaster were nicely intertwined in this short novel. I loved seeing Charlie's determination even in the face of disappointment, her courage in approaching strangers, not all of them friendly, to find out more about Lottie, and her patience with her grandmother, who is clearly the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. Nana Rose's fading memory highlights how imperative it has become to record stories regarding the Holocaust that might otherwise be lost forever, especially as more and more witnesses to it pass away. 

One thing I was surprised by is that Nana Rose never tried to get in touch with the person in Connecticut she thought could be Nathan Kulka, despite her great love for her missing sister. I know she said it was too painful, but still, Kulka isn't a common name and she could have returned to this later when she had some distance from the past.

Still, I thought this was an interesting novel, and despite one or two terribly convenient coincidences, one I would recommend. Ross does manage to let her readers know that the trauma of the Holocaust is real and deep, but without being overly graphic, making this a good book for kids in the 4th, 5th, 6th grades who may just be learning about WWII.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Golden Tresses of the Dead (a Flavia de Luce Mystery #10) by Alan Bradley

It's autumn 1952, and although Flavia de Luce and her sisters, Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne) are still distraught over the loss of their father less than a year ago, the Buckshaw household is getting ready for Feely's marriage to Dieter. Dieter, you may remember, was a former prisoner of war, a German pilot shot down over England by RAF pilot Reggie Mould. Now, Reggie is Dieter's best man at his nuptials.

All goes well at the wedding until Feely makes the first cut of her wedding cake, and discovers a severed human finger where the slice used to be. Feely's subsequent hysterics naturally gives Flavia a chance to wrap the finger in a napkin and whisk it away to her laboratory upstairs, where she is soon joined by Dogger, who had previously been her father's valet and loyal family's servant. You may recall that at the end of Book #9, The Grave's a Fine and Private PlaceFlavia and Dogger had gone professional, establishing Arthur W. Dogger & Associates, Discreet Investigations. Needless to say, they immediately begin investigating the finger and lose no time in identifying it as belonging to a famous guitarist, Mme. Adriana Castelnuovo.

Before they get too far with the mystery of how Mme. Castelnuovo's severed finger ended up in Feely's wedding cake, they are hired by a Mrs. Anastasia Prill. Mrs. Prill believes that several letters of a delicate nature have been stolen from her home. Her father, Dr. Augustus Brocken had been a homeopathic practitioner and the developer of Brocken's Balsamic Electuary, a miracle cure all balm, which made him oodles of money. Now, though, the elderly Dr. Brocken has been living in an unresponsive state in Gollingford Abbey, a very expensive private hospital. But no sooner do they begin piecing together the clues to the missing letters then Mrs. Prill is found dead in her home, a suspicious cup of coffee nearby.

In the middle of all this, Flavia's friend and wife of the vicar, Cynthia Richardson, asks if two missionaries from Africa, Miss Doris Pursemaker and Miss Ardella Stonebrook, can stay at Buckshaw for a while, a request to which Flavia grudging agrees. It doesn't take long for Flavia and Dogger to wonder if the severed finger, the Brocken family's intrigues and the two missionaries are somehow connected to each other.

Flavia, who has been acutely feeling Feely's departure from Buckshaw, "Feely, with whom I had been engaged in an eternal joust since the day of my birth; Feely whom I always loved; Feely whom I sometimes hated" (pg 32), stoically throws herself into investigating these new mysteries as a way of avoiding this new loss in her life.

And Bradley writes this novel with the same zeal with which he has always approached his Flavia novels. And now he has given Flavia a foil in the form of Undine, her younger orphaned cousin now living in Buckshaw. Undine has always felt like an intruder there, treated more like an annoyance than someone who might have some good detection ideas, and she has been trying to prove herself to Flavia the whole time she has been living in Buckshaw. Will she ever get Flavia's respect?

Bradley has a way of incorporating interesting bits of trivia into his novels and this one is no different. I found the idea of the London Necropolis Company fascinating and I suspect fans of Flavia will too. And riding the same rails from Waterloo Station to Brookwood that this one famous funeral train traveled on is the first official act of Arthur W. Dogger & Associates and seems just so absolutely appropriate.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead is as delightful to read as all the previous books. It is supposed to be the last Flavia de Luce novel, but boy, it sure doesn't feel that way and let's hope it isn't.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book is an EARC received from NetGalley

Sunday, February 17, 2019

MMGM: The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

It's the summer of 1946 and in Birdsong, South Carolina, Gabriel Haberlin has just tuned 12 and received a brand new Schwinn Autocycle Deluxe for his birthday. Excited to test it out and show his friend Patrick, Gabe sets off not paying too much attention to a stoplight ahead of him that has just turned red, and it's too late for him to swerve out of the way of an oncoming car. Lucky for Gabe, someone pushes him out of way just in time.

That someone is Meriwether Hunter, a black man looking for work. Gabe, so grateful to him not just for saving his life, but for fixing his mangled bike on the spot, convinces his father, owner of a garage that is listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, to give Meriwether a job fixing cars. It seems Meriwether is a genius at fixing things. The only problem is that the other mechanic, Lucas Shaw, really doesn't like black people and rumor has it that he either belongs to the Ku Klux Klan or at least has friends who belong.

Gabe's mother has always thought of Birdsong as a "peaceful, pretty place" but that's because the Haberlins are white. For the black people living on "The Other Side," Birdsong is a segregated, potentially dangerous place, as Gabe discovers when he befriends Meriwether. And as they spend more time together, Gabe begins to look around him and see just how life really is for those living on The Other Side: his school so much better than the school the black children go to, he has access to the public library, while Meriwether's daughter Abigail, an avid reader at 10, can only use the makeshift library in her church, and Gabe begins to notice the large number of signs everywhere saying Whites Only, and the way white people refer to African American adult men as "boy" or "uncle" and women as "auntie," including his friend Patrick.

But a mystery surrounds just how Meriwether learned his excellent mechanical skills fixing cars, and why he refuses to answer when asked about it. When Gabe returns from Charleston after attending a July 4th parade honoring local servicemen who fought in WWII, including Gabe's Uncle Earl who was at the Battle of the Bulge, Meriwether's truth comes out. He, too, had fought in WWII as part of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion a/k/a the Black Panthers, had also been at the Battle of the Bulge, and had proven himself as a great mechanic throughout his service. Gabe learns not only are there no parades for African American veterans who served honorably in the war, in the south, they are also being advised not to let people know about their service so as not to bring harm to themselves or their family.

Everything comes to a head when a mysterious package shows up on Meriwether's doorstep putting the family in grave danger.

As I started reading, I thought it was interesting that Brenda Woods wrote this from a white boy's point of view. But as I kept reading, I realized that this story couldn't be told any other way. By looking at the injustice and inequality that African American were subjected to in the Jim Crow south through Gabe's awakening eyes, Woods was able to create a richly layered story.

Despite growing up in a home where he was taught to "treat all folks, regardless of color, with courtesy and respect. And be as good a person as you can be" (pg 50), Gabe's friendship with Meriwether that summer of 1946 is a real coming of age summer where the truth of injustice and inequality becomes an undeniable reality to him.

And through Gabe, Meriwether's story becomes all the more poignant and, for the reader, all the more informative. For example, the fact that Uncle Earl participates in a big parade celebrating the white veterans makes the lack of a parade for black veterans that much more painful for Meriwether. It really highlights how during the war American lives were in the same danger as the white soldiers, that they were fighting every bit as hard as them and that many fell in action as well, and yet they received not honors when they returned home accorded white soldiers, only threats to their lives.

Meriwether Hunter's story really shows how the war may have ended for the world, but another fight, the fight for justice and equality, continued for African American veterans.

Woods has written a novel that is both serious and often amusing, especially when Gabe gets together with his camera toting, slang using cousin Tink. And to underscore his coming of age, his crushes on a local girl and on Tink's liberal neighbor from NYC. I loved Meriwether's daughter Abigail, who was not afraid to speak her mind and I know in my heart of hearts that if these were real people, the future Gabe and Abigail would be out there in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement fighting for change.

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

You can read an interesting article by Brenda Woods about The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA HERE

And if you would like more information about the treatment of African American veterans after WWII, the following may be helpful:

"More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored": Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers by Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr.,

The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Veterans by Peter C. Baker,

Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans from the Equal Justice Initiative

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

Sunday, February 10, 2019

#MMGM: How I Became a Spy: A Mystery of WWII London by Deborah Hopkinson

It's 1944, American servicemen have arrived in London and everyone is talking about the pending invasion of France to break the Nazi stronghold in Europe and end Hitler's reign. London is being bombed once again by the Germans, and for Bertie Bradshaw, 13, and his rescue dog Little Roo, it means finally being old enough to become a messenger for the Civil Defense post in his neighborhood.

One night, as the air raid sirens begin, Bertie bumps into an American girl in a blue coat about his age, who drops a little red notebook. Bertie picks it up to return, but the girl has already run off and so has Little Roo, down a different street and straight to a unconscious woman laying on the sidewalk. Determining that she isn't a bomb victim, Bertie reports the incident to his Civil Defense post, but when they return to the spot where the women was laying, she is nowhere in sight. What could have happened to this mysterious lady?

Back home, Bertie pulls out the red notebook to see if he could find the owner's name. Instead, he finds notes made by someone in training with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) to become a spy. Fascinated by what has been written, Bertie keeps reading until suddenly the writer begins using random letters that just look like gibberish. Thinking it might be a cipher, Bertie decides to talk to his best friend David, a German Jewish boy who had come to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport, and is a Sherlock Holmes fan who also happens knows all about ciphers.

The next day, a Saturday, Bertie and Little Roo head over to where most of the Americans are staying hoping to find the girl in the blue coat. Realizing it was a long shot, the two begin walking when Bertie notices that he is being following by a man. Dodging the man, Bertie decides to follow him instead and is led right to Baker Street, to a place called the Inter-Services Research Bureau. Thinking this might just be the SOE offices he read about in the notebook, there's no time to investigate what it's all about because suddenly his arm was grabbed by none other than the American girl in the blue coat, demanding he return the red notebook immediately. But why? A 13-year-old girl can't be training to become a spy, can she? But how is the notebook connected to this American girl named Eleanor Shea?

Right from the start there's a lot going on in this exciting mystery/adventure novel. It turns out that Eleanor knows that the notebook belongs to Violette Romy, a former French tutor of hers. David is able to help with some of the cipher in the notebook, but not all of it. As secrets about the impending top secret invasion and the French Resistance are revealed to the three friends, they also discover a series of double crosses and traitors putting both Violette's life and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis in jeopardy.

But that still leaves a question about the identity of the unconscious lady and the man following Bertie. Mystery abounds.

I loved reading How I Became a Spy. Not only is it full of historical references, but for added interest and authenticity, Hopkinson has also peopled it with some real, if not necessarily, familiar people, such as General Dwight Eisenhower, Leo Marks, a SOE code maker, and she modeled the character of Warden Ita, of the Civil Defense after the real air-raid warden E. Ita Ekpenyon, who was born in Nigeria. The story is narrated by Bertie, who is a lively character despite living with the memory of his paralyzing fear during the Blitz that caused injury to his older brother, Will and who alway feels like he has disappointed his father.

The novel takes place over the course of one week, beginning on Friday, February 18, 1944 and ending on Thursday, February 24, 1944, plus an Epilogue dated Sunday, July 2, 1944. The one week perimeter adds to the excitement and tension of needing to decode the pages written in cipher and then getting the information into the hands of the right people.

The bombing of London by the Luftwaffe in 1944, often referred to as the "Baby Blitz" isn't generally the setting for historical fiction, let alone that written for middle graders, making this a great addition to the body of home front literature.

One of my favorite things about How I Became a Spy is that Hopkinson has included four different ciphers scattered throughout the book, allowing readers to learn about some of the different kinds of ciphers they work alone with Bertie, David, and Eleanor. There is a Simple Substitution Cipher, a Caesar Cipher, a Atbash Cipher, and a Mixed-Alphabet Cipher. And at one point, they make and use a Cipher Wheel. I really liked this hands on activity for kids to try.

How I Became a Spy is an engaging historical fiction novel with engaging characters that will surely have wide-spread appeal. I can't recommend it highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided to me by the author

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

World War II: From the Rise of the Nazi Party to the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb (an Inquire & Investigate Book) by Diane C. Taylor, illustrated by Sam Carbaugh

The history of WWII is so big and so complicated, with roots going back to WWI, that it can sometimes (understandably) overwhelm students. Sure, they may like to read novels set in WWII, but they are usually about how main characters faced and met different kinds of challenges, which is great but they don't really give kids the whole picture of what this war was about.

So, how does a teacher, whether in the classroom or home schooling, help their young students understand how and why the world found itself at war again just 20 years after the "war to end all wars" had ended?

To answer that question, Diane Taylor goes back to World War I. In Chapter One, The First World War, Taylor gives a brief but detailed history of the causes for that the war, looking at the early alliances European countries formed as a way of avoiding conflicts and their lingering distrust of one another, especially Germany, so that by 1914, they were all primed for a war that just needed a spark. That spark came when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Austria were assassinated 1914. Taylor then brings the reader through the war, why the United States was pulled into it into the conflict, and the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war.

Chapter Two, Hitler's Rise to Power, traces the rise of Adolf Hitler beginning with the economic factors that made it possible. The end of WWI and the reparations Germany was required to pay to the Allies helped bring about severe inflation, and that together with Hitler's National Socialist party, his anti-Semitic agenda and his desire to make Germany great again appealed to many Germans. It was just a matter of time until Hitler found a way to seize power and become Chancellor of Germany,

Chapter 3, The War in Europe, looks at the war in Europe, beginning with Germany's invasion of Poland, followed by the invasion of other European countries in Hitler's quest for more and more Lebensraum (living space) for German colonization. It also covers the Battle of Britain a/k/a the Blitz, Hitler's attempt to invade Russia and the beginning of the Holocaust.

Chapter 4, The Bombing of Pearl Harbor, details the U.S. entry into WWII, after a sneak attack of the American navy fleet in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the U.S. response declaring war on Japan, and its ally Germany, home front fears of Japanese loyalty, and America's decision to open up concentration camps for Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, and the role of minorities in the still segregated armed services.

Chapter 5, War in the Pacific and Asia, covers the beginning of the war in the Pacific, America's unpreparedness against the strongly militarized Japanese, the capture of Americans and the Bataan Death March, the Japanese practice of death before dishonor, and the use of incendiary bombs against Japan, as well as the building of the Burma Road, needed to help supply China with essentials. The war in the Pacific was a very bloody war, yet most people on the home front were more focused on the war in Europe, and the reasons why are also looked at.

Chapter 6, War's End, looked at the factors that finally brought WWII to an end, beginning with the African and Italian Campaigns, and the invasion of Normandy or D-Day, the liberation of Europe and finally the liberation of Hitler's concentration and death camps, followed by the use of the atom bomb and the end of war in the Pacific.

Chapter 7, Legacies of World War II, focuses on the many stateless people who wandered Europe after the fighting stopped, having no place to call home, the birth of Israel, the Nuremberg trials of Nazis for crimes against humanity, and the new role of the United Nations and eventually the establishment of the European Union.

Why is World War II: From the Rise of the Nazi Party to the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb such a stand out book for teaching upper middle grade and high school students about WWII? Like all the books in the Inquire & Investigate series, this is an interactive text that gives enough information about each topic, designed to get kids to explore more in depth and to help them understand the causes, the aftermath, and consequences of a war of global magnitude. Along with photographs and maps, each chapter has sidebars with additional information and vocabulary labs, key questions, and prompts for more exploration. There are also pages with projects about different aspects of the war to inquire and investigate:

Teachers can also download a useful Classroom Guide to use with this book, courtesy of the publisher, Nomad Press.

Pair this this with The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II by Carla Mooney and Great World War II Projects You Can Build Yourself Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt for an in-depth study of WWII.

If you are a teacher or just interested in WWII history, I can't recommend these books highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was provided by the publisher, Nomad Press