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