Sunday, December 20, 2020

🎄🎶Your Hit Parade #8: I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus sung by Gracie Fields

Just when I thought I had pretty much covered all the popular Christmas music from WWII, I discover another song. Unfortunately, I couldn't find much about this song, since NYPL Performing Arts Library, my main source for musical information, is closed because of the pandemic, but I did find out a few interesting tidbits.

I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus was written by Spencer Williams and Lanny Rogers. Williams was an African American, who was born in New Orleans and known for his blues music. Williams suffered from wanderlust, and lived in Europe for a while. He was living in England when he wrote I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus with Lanny Rogers and according to Billboard, it was one of Spencer Williams' most popular songs. I couldn't find anything out about Lanny Rogers.

I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus was first sung by Gracie Fields in France at a troop concert in 1939 and became a big hit for her. In fact, the sheet music sold over 750,000 copies in the month before Christmas. It was also recorded by Vera Lynn in 1939, which you can listen to below. 

And here are the lyrics to I'm Sending a Letter to Santa Claus, in case you want to sing along:
I met a little fellow with a letter in his hand,
He asked me if I'd post it in the box for Fairyland.
I slipped it in the mailbox for that little curly head,
It seemed to make him happy very happy as he smiled and said

I'm sending a letter to Santa Claus.
My letter I hope he'll receive.
Oh, I wonder if he will please remember me
When he calls on Christmas Eve.
He'll get a lot of letter for playthings
From other girls and boys.
But I want my soldier daddy,
He's better than all the toys.
And so I'm sending my letter to Santa Claus
To bring daddy safely home to me. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Saving Hanno: The Story of a Refugee Dog by Miriam Halahmy

It's November 1938, almost two weeks after Kristallnacht, and life is getting even more difficult for German Jews. For Rudi, 9, it means being picked on by the Hitler Youth boys in his Frankfurt school and now his kind teacher has been replaced with a cruel Nazi teacher. That afternoon, Rudi and his best friend Emil skip school and never return. By January 1939, Rudi and his older sister Lotte, 16, are pretty bored being at home, but when he is told that they will be traveling to England to live with a couple there, he doesn't want to leave his parents. The worst part is that Rudi will not be able to take his beloved dachshund, Hanno, with him. Now he really doesn't want to leave. Luckily, someone volunteers to take Hanno to England and put him in quarantine, then if all is well, he and Rudi will be reunited.

That makes leaving home a little better, but Rudi still doesn't want to leave his parents. Besides, he doesn't speak any English and then he learns that Lotte won't be living with him, that she'll be with another nearby family. 

The couple Rudi lives with, Auntie Irene and Uncle Don Evans, are very kind and patient, but Rudi is reticent to speak English. They do seem to know that he can't eat pork, so that isn't a problem though Rudi does miss Friday night Shabbos with his parents and Lotte. What he really worries about is school. What if the kids there don't like Jewish German boys and are mean, picking on him the way the Hitler Youth always did. But Rudi immediately makes a friend, a genial boy named Sidney Scudder. And through Sidney, Rudi makes even more friends.

Things are really great when Hanno comes out of quarantine. Rudi takes him everywhere during summer vacation and all the kids love him. But as summer goes by, England going to war with Germany becomes more and more of a possibility. In September 1939 war is declared, and the possibility of losing Hanno looms again. It seems the everyone is have their pets put down because of the war and rationing. When Rudi hears Uncle Don and Auntie Irene talking about having Hanno put down, Rudi knows he must act to save his beloved dog's life. But what can he do? Perhaps Sidney has an idea.

Saving Hanno is a story about an aspect of World War II that most people don't know or just don't want to think about. But the act of putting pets down was quite widespread at the beginning of the war in Britain. Pets weren't allowed in shelters, and rationing meant little left over for feeding a pet. This is the dilemma that Rudi faced with Hanno. After all he had given up - his home, his parents, to some extent even his sister - how could he give up his beloved Hanno, this time with no hope of getting him back? 

Besides depicting the fate of one beloved pet, Saving Hanno also illustrates two different situations that Jewish kids who were sent to England on the short-lived Kindertransport (1938-1940). Rudi is very welcomed by the childless Don and Irene Evans, who show consideration for his dietary needs,  as well as just treating with kindness and understanding. Lotte, on the other hand, ends up in a family that treats her like a free servant, keeping her out of school and giving her only one day off a week. One can only imagine what other situations the Kindertransport children found themselves in. 

Throughout his stay in London, Rudi never loses hope that his parents will find a way to leave Germany and get to England. To keep that hope alive, he keeps a notebook of things they might find helpful once they arrive. I thought it was a sweet touch, but also lets readers know some of the day-to-day things Rudi faced as a refugee.

After I finished reading Saving Hanno, I discovered that Miriam Halahmy had written an early book called The Emergency Zoo, a longer novel that is about the saving animals about to be put down because of the war. Now, I can't wait to read it. Saving Hanno is an ideal book for kids in the early middle school grades, while The Emergency Zoo looks to be a book for kids in later middle school. 

I think Saving Hanno is a story that kids will definitely like.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library 


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy by Kenneth C. Davis

Germany's constitution, written at the end of WWI, was one of the most democratic charters ever produced. It isn't surprising, then, that Kenneth Davis begins his comprehensive history of five 20th century dictators with the story of how Adolf Hitler used Germany's new democratic constitution to become the absolute ruler one of the world's most repressive and destructive governments - and the way it was done was completely constitutionally correct.

Davis then devotes a chapter to the history of democracy from antiquity to the American Revolution, pointing out just how fragile the concept of democracy is, especially when its enemies seek to dismantle democratic governments and solidify power for themselves. What follows is a biography of five dictators, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddim Hussein, and their power grabs.

Davis shows that in their early lives, none of the Strongman - dictators who used any and every means possible to acquire power - showed any sign of what they were to become. Most had nondescript early beginnings, often with doting mothers and cruel fathers. Yet, all became charismatic figures, convincing people to support and follow them and to even commit atrocities in the name of their individual ideologies.

Following a short biography of their early lives, Davis traces the influences surrounding their rise to power, their seizure of power and their political philosophies for ruling their respective countries. Davis shows how each used propaganda to manipulate their citizens. For example, Mussolini recognized the need to control mass media and the beneficial use of fascist propaganda films shown in movie theaters, a lesson that the other four dictators learned all to well. And all found it important to mobilize young people with an eye to the future, such as the Mussolini's Vanguards, the Hitler Youth, Stalin's Young Pioneers, Mao's Red Guard, Hussein's Lion Cubs. 

Davis don't analyze these five dictatorships, nor does he compare them to each other. Rather, each is designed to serve as a warning - democracy can disappear so easily, all it takes is one antiestablishment populist leader claiming he speaks for the people and promising to return power to them. As Davis shows, they begin to dismantle democracy and move towards authoritarianism and he gives for warning signs:

1- Rejection of the democratic rules of the game;
2- Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;
3- Toleration of encouragement of violence;
4- Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

If these warning signs so familiar or recognizable, you can see why this is not just an important historical lesson, but a timely work of our own time.

But Davis doesn't leave the reader feeling helpless in the face of a potential charismatic dictator. Indeed he gives the reader a blueprint of the Strongman's playbook for getting power and what to expect once he is in power. Most importantly, Davis tells the reader not to fall into the trap of thinking it can't happen again - because it can.

At the beginning of each biography, readers will find a time line tracing each dictator's life in the context of the place and times in which he lived and his rise to power. There are also a wide range of photographs throughout the book. Back matter includes an extensive Bibliography, including general and dictator-specific reading for further investigation. 

Davis has written an very readable, very relevant work that easily serves as a jumping off point for anyone interested in government, politics and the rise and fall of political systems.    

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Book of Lost Names, a Novel by Kristin Harmel

I don't usually review adult novels on this blog, with the exception of mysteries, which are my guilty pleasure, but I found the description of this book intriguing enough to get it from the library. The author, Kristin Harmel, has written a number of books set in WWII and I suspect I will be reading more of them. The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the French Resistance, and the artistically talented people who used their skills to forge life-saving documents. 

It's 2005, and 86-year-old Eva Taube Abrams is still working in a Winter Park, Florida library when she reads an article about a German librarian, Otto Kühn, who is trying to return books that were looted by the Nazis towards the end of WWII to their rightful owners, or at least their families. What catches Eva's eye is a picture of a book called Epitres et Evangiles, a book she hasn't seen in over sixty years. She immediately makes a plane reservation to fly to Berlin and find Otto Kühn to get her book back.

Flashback to July 1942. The Nazi occupation of France has brought out a lot of anti-Semitism among the French, and now roundups of Jews are starting. Before her father is taken away by the Nazis, he tells Eva to visit his employer who will provide her with forged documents he has already paid for. But Monsieur Goujon only gives her all the materials she needs to forge her own documents. 

The forgeries, though not perfect, work and before long, Eva and her mother are on their way to Aurignon,  a small village in France's free zone. It doesn't take long for Eva's papers to be recognized as forgeries, but luckily it is by a member of the French Resistance. Soon, she finds herself in a secret library within the town's Catholic church, working with fellow forger Rémy Duchamp and creating documents for fleeing Jews and RAF pilots who need to get back to Britain.  

But when it came to forging documents for unaccompanied escaping Jewish children, Eva is adamant about preserving their real identity somehow. That way, if they survive the war, they can know who they really are. At first, Rémy is just as adamant about not keeping a record, but, afraid of losing Eva's forging talents, he works up a code that allows the names of the children to be hidden in a book called Epitres et Evangiles

There is definitely an attraction between Eva and Rémy, though neither acts on it, and Eva believes he was killed after the Aurignon resistance is betrayed. 

I can't say I was emotionally swept up in The Book of Lost Names, but I certainly did enjoy reading it enough that I finished it in one sitting.  It's clear that Hamel has done her research and put together an exciting tale of resistance and survival, and, lost love. It is a story based on a newspaper article in the NY Times about how the Germans were trying to find the owners of books stolen by the Nazis that Harmel read. I always find this slice of reality gives a story a real feeling of authenticity. 

The story goes back and forth between past and present, and one of the things I found interesting is that the present is narrated by older Eva, while there is an omniscient narrator for the past. Eva is such a realistic protagonist. She embodies all the fear, desperation, doubt, and courage of a young women caught in a life and death struggle to save herself and her mother, always believing that her father will one day come back to them. 

Two things I didn't like about this book were 1- Eva's mother, whose bitterness and anger didn't help Eva in her struggle to keep them out of Nazi hands; and 2- a few too many coincidences and close calls that probably wouldn't have happened under Nazi occupation.

Nevertheless, I would still definitely recommend this book for teens and adults.

You can find a reading guide for The Book of Lost Names courtesy of the publisher, Simon & Shuster, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, November 30, 2020

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed

I first learned about Noor Inayat Khan while reading Kathryn Atwood's brilliant YA book Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue. Noor's WWII experiences as a radio operator for Winston Churchill's SOE (Special Operations Executive) is now made more accessible for younger readers with Sufiya Ahmen's excellent fictional biography.

Noor was an unusual yet totally logical choice for the SOE. She was born in Moscow, Russia to a white American mother and an Indian Muslim father. The family moved from Moscow in 1914 to London, where Noor's three siblings were born, and finally, in 1920, they settled in Paris, France. 

Ahmed begins Noor's story in May 1927, as the family journeys to India to visit the place where her father had died in February. It's there that Noor begins to realize just what it means to be her father's daughter. It makes her a princess with a famous royal ancestor - Tipu Sultan, who was a hero of colonial resistance and had been killed in 1799, "fighting like a tiger to save his people." (pg 17)

Fast forward to June 1940. With the Nazi invasion of France, the Khan family leaves Paris and relocates in England, just as the Blitz begins in full force. Finding rooms in Oxford, Noor's brother Vilayat wants nothing more than to join the Royal Air Force (RAF), but ends up in the Navy instead. Meanwhile, Noor uses her Red Cross certificate working in a military hospital. But getting caught in a daylight air raid while on a day trip into London makes Noor realize she wants to do more for the war effort. She decides to join the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force). There, she becomes Nora Baker and is sent to Yorkshire for training in November 1940, where the weather is cold and windy, and the exercises are physically challenging. It is also there she discovers she has a real ability for Morse Code. 

Noor in uniform
After her WAAF training is complete, Noor is assigned to work in Bomber Command, but when she applies for a new commission, she's sent to Wiltshire for a 7-week training course. Afterwards, she is called for an interview, but when they ask her how she feels about Indian Independence from the British Empire, she is convinced that her answer, that she "believes the Indian people should be given their freedom," (pg 64) spells the end of her career. 

Instead, thanks to her excellent communication skills and her ability to speak French like a native, Noor is asked to become part of Churchill's SOE and begins training for her eventual return to France to work undercover as the first woman radio operator with the Resistance there under the code name Madeleine. The majority of the book is devoted to Noor's war work and are some really exciting chapters. Unfortunately, Noor was betrayed and as she is getting ready to leave France, she makes a poor decision and ends up captured by the Gestapo. It is, as Ahmed writes, the beginning of the end. 

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan is written in the first person in Noor's voice. The book is organized in chapters that reflect Noor's activities in a given month. This makes it easier for readers to follow Noor's many adventures in India, England, and France.  

I was very curious to read My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan, first because I already knew about her life and work during WWII in France, and second, I was curious to see how it would be handled for young readers. And I thought that given the complexity of the subject matter, Sufiya Ahmed to a really great job of synthesizing the material for her target age group. Most kids have probably never heard of Noor, and it is especially important for young Muslim readers to know about her. 

What was particilarly good to see is that yes, Noor is a hero, but as Ahmed shows, she is not without flaws, doubts, and weaknesses, and sometimes she's even headstrong and impulsive. But Ahmed also shows how her parents were great influences on Noor, as were her ancestors. 

One thing of note, Ahmed points out, is that Noor had originally wanted to become a children's author. She loved tells tales to her siblings growing up and had even published a book of short stories called Twenty Jātaka Tales in 1939 and which I highly recommend since it is still in print. 

My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan is a definite must read for young readers interested in WWII history and/or women war heroes. It should be of particular interest to young Muslim readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Attacked at Sea: A True World War II Story of a Family's Fight for Survival by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

In 1941, the Downs family - father Ray, mother Ina, Lucille, 11, and Sonny, 8 - had hoped that by spending some time in Columbia, South America and Costa Rica in Central America, where Ray worked for the United Fruit Company, they would be able to save enough money to buy a house and new car when they returned to the United States. But now that the US had entered the war, they decided it was time to return to their home in Texas and their oldest son Terry, 14, who was staying with his grandparents. Ray also hoped to join the Marines when they were back in the U.S. 

On May12, 1942, the family set sail from Costa Rica on the SS Heredia, a luxury liner turner freighter. The Downs parents were somewhat concerned about the trip. German submarines had been hunting, attacking and sinking American ships in the Atlantic Ocean and along the eastern seaboard, and now they had begun to infiltrate the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico as well. 

The ship was equipped two mounted machine guns and Navy Armed Guards who kept watch 24 hours a day for German submarines. Sonny and Lucille were curious about everything on the ship and the crew willingly answered their questions. In fact, as the only two kids on board, they were treated somewhat specially by the captain and crew. 

Meanwhile, two German subs had entered the Gulf on the lookout for ships like the Heredia. Most of the Heredia's trip was uneventful, but close to home, the Navy guards thought they spotted something in the water and the captain decided to change course for Corpus Christi, Texas to see if he could get any information. The Downs family, ready to be home, wanted to get off the ship in Corpus Christi, which was closer to their home, but were not permitted to. They were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans the next day. 

That night, while the passengers were sleeping, the Heredia was hit with a torpedo, followed by more hits. The Downs family managed to make it out of their two staterooms together, but were separated by a rush of water on the deck that sent Ray, Ina and Sonny into the Gulf. 

All four family members survived being sent overboard. Eventually, Sonny found his father, and together with the captain and another passenger managed to get one of the ship's rafts in the water. Lucille was found on the ship by one of the crew who convinced her to jump overboard. Once they were in the water and together with other crew members, he fashioned a raft out of a hatch cover for her to sit on while they held it and swam away from the sinking ship. Ina landed in a slick of warm gooey oil that coated her face, eyes and the coat she had on. Unable to see very well, Ina clung to a piece of flotsam. 

The family spent 24 hours in the water before they were rescued, during which time they suffered from hypothermia, dehydration, and sharks swimming around them. The time spent in the water, hoping to be rescued in time, makes up the bulk of the book. 

The Downs Family

Attacked at Sea is a compelling story of courage and resilience, all the more so because it is not fiction. In fact, I could not put it down. Tougias and O'Leary present the events in the kind of objective journalistic style, including details that fiction might leave out. The writing style, though less emotional that fiction, feels all the more compelling. What is really interesting is the way Tougias told the story from the points of view of each family member individually, as well as the two German captains of the submarines patrolling the Gulf for ships to add to their records. 

Tougias and O'Leary also continue the story with somewhat detailed information of the aftermath of the sinking of the Heredia and the impact it had on the lives of those they wrote about. To date, only Sonny is the only family member still living.  

Back matter includes A Note from the Authors and an extensive Bibliography. Also included are photographs of the family, the German captains, the ship, and some crew. 

Attacked at Sea should appeal to anyone interested in exciting true WWII stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The House by the Lake: The True Story of a House, Its History, and the Four Families Who Made It Home by Thomas Harding, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup


The House by the Lake: The True Story of a House and the Four Families Who Made it Home
written by Thomas Harding, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
Candlewick Press, 2020, 48 pages

We don't often think about the history of a house, and yet a building can actually be a silent but important witness to history. At least that's what author Thomas Harding must have thought when he wrote his first book about the house by the lake. Curious about a slice of family history, he began researching the summer house that was built by his great-grandfather, Dr. Alfred Alexander, on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. The result was the 464-page book The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany. Published in 2015, it is the story of the five unrelated families who lived in the house through 100 years of 20th century Germany history. Amazingly, this fascinating history has been adapted into a very accessible picture book for older readers that loses none of the history and poignancy of the adult book. 

In 1927, Harding's grandparents and their four children moved into the house, spending happy days there, swimming in the lake, raising chickens, growing asparagus and listening to stories at night. But when the Nazis came into power, a group of soldiers forced the Alexander family out of their summer home, leaving it empty.

A year later, a new family moved in - a father, mother and two little boys. As the little boys grow older, they joined Hitlerjunge. But when the father was order to fight in Hitler's war, the family decided to leave the house altogether and run away.

With the war still raging, a husband and wife sought refuge in the empty house. It was a cold, bitter winter, but they were able to safe and stay warm in the house. But they too fled the house as the war ended when the Soviet army arrived, shooting at the house from the tanks, chipping the fireplace and breaking the windows.

Next came "the man with the fluffy hat" who fixed the damage done to the house by war and who made the house feel alive again with his children and their activities. But then, the man heard the sound of Soviet soldiers building a wall through the backyard of the house by the lake. Life became gray as the children were made to work and the man began to spy on this neighbors. 

After many years, the wall came down, but the man in the fluffy hat had aged and found it harder to take care of the house. After he died, it was 15 years before the house was once again fixed up by another young man until it shone like new. A picture of the young man's great-grandparents was hung over the fireplace and "Once again the house by the lake was happy."

Readers are probably not used to a building being a protagonist, and feel the story should be told from the point of view of the families that lived in the house instead. But this is the house's story more than it is their story, and like its human occupants, the house's history is organic and changing. I actually like that Harding kept the focus on the house. 

House as protagonist allows for some interesting symbolism. The freedom to come and go symbolized by open door of the first family contrasted to the key to the house in the hands of the Nazi soldier getting reader to close the house up and the loss of freedom. The key motif returns toward the end of the book when the last occupant, Harding himself, returns to the house, opening the door again.You might also notice the black cat that roams freely in first pages, last seen walking out the door, and returns at the end. The changing condition of the house over time is also symbolic of war and peace.

The text has an almost fairytale quality to it, while the mixed-media illustrations show more than the words say, filling in a lot of the details. The illustrations are textured and layered, with small and large details, even while they have an almost unfocused, dream-like feel to them. Happy times are captured is bright, colorful hues, while war and occupation are done in a much darker palette. 

The House by the Lake is a fascinating look at history through the lens of a stationary object and a valuable classroom tool for studying history. 

FYI: Who are all the un-named people who occupied the house? Short biographies of the four different occupants are included in the back matter. 

You can find a very useful Teacher's Guide for this book courtesy of the publisher HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Trapped in Hitler's Web by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

It's October 1942 and Ukraine is now occupied by Nazi soldiers, having already defeated the Soviet occupiers. Maria Fediuk, 11, has just made the difficult decision, at her friend Nathan's urging, to leave her home in Viteretz and travel to the German Reich. There, she hopes to get a job so that she can send money home to help out her mother and sister Krystia, 12. But, the real reason for leaving Ukraine is that Nathan is Jewish and it would only be a matter of time before his was captured by the Nazis. Luckily, he has false identity papers to keep him safe. 

Before they leave, Maria is able to get a message to her family to let them know where she is going.  They had been assigned to work in a metalworks factory in Austria and loaded into a train cattle car with other children, most of whom were stolen by the Nazis for work. Nathan and Maria believe their work cards will protect them. But along the way, each time the train stops, some of the kids are selected and taken from the train. Which is how Nathan and Maria are separated in Salzburg, when he is selected for work there and she goes on to Innsbruck. 

There, Maria discovers that the girl who filled out her work card didn't put down a metalworks factory, but rather a farm. Taken to the Huber farm, Maria is given a cow stall to sleep along with another girl named Bianka. The farm is owned by Herr and Frau Huber, but he is off fighting and his wife runs things, along with her parents, Herr and Frag Lang. They are required to turn over all food produced to feed Nazi soldiers and are watched carefully by a cold, cruel Blockleiter named Doris Schutt. 

The work is hard, but it doesn't take long for Maria to figure out that the Hubers and Langs are not Nazis. Polish/Ukrainian workers are only allowed 600 calories a day, but as Maria and Bianka are harvesting potatoes, Frau Huber whispers to Maria that she is allowed to take two potatoes, but to not let anyone see her do it. It also becomes clear that Frau Huber is worried about her husband and son Otto, both serving on the Eastern Front, and resentful that her daughter is a staunch member of the Hitler Youth, even going so far as to call her mother Frau Huber instead of mutti.

As the war stretches on, Maria realizes how lucky she is to be at the Huber farm, but worries constantly about her mother and sister back home, and about Nathan, whom she learns, is building a bridge in Salzburg. After she learns that neutral Switzerland isn't that far from Austria (now called Ostmark), Maria is determined to get to Salzburg to find Nathan and tell him how to escape. When Otto is injured, Frau Huber takes her on the trip to Salzburg where he is in hospital. There, Maria is able to meet with Nathan for a short time and tell him about Switzerland. He wants her to go with him, but she feels she needs to say at the Huber farm in case her mother and sister come looking for her. 

Trapped in Hitler's Web is, like all of Marsha Frochuk Skrypuch's novels, based on real-life events (read the Author's Note at the end of the novel to understand how and why this is a personal story for her). It is not what I would call action packed, but it is definitely a story that will keep you reading while biting your nails. 

There aren't that many books that take place in Austria, and it is interesting to note that the area around Innsbruck, where the Huber farm is, wasn't bombed until much later in the war, giving Maria a certain sense of safety for a long time. I liked that the Hubers and Langs were not Nazi supporters (with the exception of daughter Sophie), even though Maria was conflicted about their treatment of non-Aryans. Most people assume if you were Aryan, you were a supporter of Hitler, but that isn't really the case. Most people were bullied and threatened into doing what the Reich required of them, just like the Hubers are. 

Lots of everyday details like this are included in the story and it really gives readers a good sense of what life was like under Nazi occupation. Even though Sophie Huber didn't have a big part in the story, I read a book called Ostmarkmädel for my dissertation and she could have stepped right out of that book, she was so realistically drawn. She also includes information about how the different foreign workers are treated based on where they come from. For example, Aryan workers are treated much better than Slavic workers like Maria and Bianka. And how, while everyone else is starving, luxury food items are always available to high ranking Nazis. And how the Nazis germanized the names of countries, cities and towns that they occupied.

I actually read Trapped in Hitler's Web without realizing that it is a sequel to Don't Tell the Nazis which I haven't read yet. So I can tell readers know that this is most definitely a stand alone novel. Anything you need to know from the first book is included in Maria's story. 

This novel will certainly appeal to readers interested in historical fiction about WWII and the Holocaust, and will no doubt end up fans of Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and her WWII fiction, if they aren't already.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Monday, October 26, 2020

How I Learned Geography written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

How I Learned Geography 
written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 32 pages

In his powerful memoir Chance, Escape from the Holocaust, recalls the time when his family was living in Turkestan and his family went to the market to buy bread, but came home with an enormous, colorful map instead. I found the story particularly interesting because I had read Uri Shulevitz's picture book How I Learned Geography when it first came out in 2008. 

In September, 1939, Uri and his family are forced to flee their home in Warsaw, Poland when the Nazis invade their country, leaving almost everything they owned behind. They flee far east, eventually coming to a city "...of houses made of clay, straw, and camel dung, surrounded by dusty steppes..." that was very hot in summer and very cold in winter.  

One day, Uri's father goes to the market to buy some bread. Late in the evening, he comes home but without any food for the family to eat. Instead he has bought a large, colorful map of the world. Angry, Uri and his mother both go to bed hungry, listening to the couple who lived with them in their small room smacking their lips while they eat what little bread they have. 

The next day, Uri's father hand the map, which covers the entire wall, and their "...cheerless room was flooded with color." Fascinated with it, Uri spends his days studying every detail of the map, even drawing it on whatever scrape of paper he could find. 
Thanks to that map and what looked like a foolish purchase, Uri finds escape from the difficult conditions he and his parents finds themselves in. Uri uses his imagination to travel far and wide, from deserts and snowy mountain tops, to the tropics and to big cities, spending ..."enchanted hours far, far from [their] hunger and misery." 

How I learned Geography is a poignantly written story, told in Shulevitz's straightforward, but spare language. He doesn't go into describing things in depth, allowing his own watercolor and ink illustrations to fill in the details for his. And they do - wonderfully well. Pay particular attention to the variety of facial  expressions and body language Shulevitz has captured. For instance, take a look at how Uri's father's changes in the three illustrations above.   

How I Learned Geography has a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk feeling to it, where an act of folly turns out to be just the thing that is needed. Uri's family ended up impoverished and hungry because of the Nazis invading their homeland, Jack's because of the giant stealing their possessions. The difference, of course, is that Uri's story is based on his life.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, October 12, 2020

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

If the name Uri Shulevitz sounds familiar to you, it is probably because he has won four Caldecott Medals in his career as a children's book writer and illustrator. What most people don't know is that Uri and his parents managed to escape the Holocaust by, as Uri writes, "blind chance deciding [their] fate." (pg 65)

Living in Warsaw, Poland with his parents, Uri is only 4-years-old and a budding artist specializing in stick figures when the Nazis begin bombing his country before they invade it. No longer feeling safe, first his father leaves and makes his way to Bialystok, then part of the Soviet Union. Finding a place to live and a job, he tries to return to his family, but is caught and returned to Bialystok. Instead of going back to them, he writes for Uri and his mother to join him. Traveling by smuggler's truck and on foot, mother and son make it to the Soviet Union, leaving all their family behind in Poland.

But when the Soviets order refugees to register for Russian citizenship, the Shulevitz family is denied because of Uri's name. The official is sure he was named after a well-known Zionist. When his father loses his job for not being a citizen, the family finds themselves without an income. Luckily, Uri's father finds another job, but soon, they are again forced to move, and find themselves in a labor camp in the Archangel region of Russia, when Uri is 5-years-old.

It is there that the Jewish people are told that they are no longer considered enemies of the Soviet Union now that the Germans are attempting to invade Russia, and that they are free to travel anywhere they wished. When Uri is 7-year-old, the family travels to Soviet Turkestan. They spend three year's there, often without any food in freezing cold winters and unbearably hoy summers, until the war finally ends. 

But just because the war is over, doesn't mean things return to what they once were. Instead, when the family goes back to Poland, they are greeted with rampant anti-Semitism and the sad news that  no other family has survived the Holocaust. Once again, they are on the move, ending up in a Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria. There, in 1946, Uri's father discovers that a brother is also still alive. and living in Paris. The Shulevitz's leave the DP camp for Paris. 

Although Uri Shulevitz's first person narrative gives a linear account of how he and his parents were lucky enough to not fall into the hands of the Germans, he does so through a series of linked vignettes and his own drawings.  And he chronicles what happened to them during that time, in such a way that it feels almost intimate, like his talking directly to you, and only you. And given how much the Shulevitz family experienced, it's hard to believe this chronicle only covers 8 years of Uri's life, from 4 to 12. 

Most of what he is relating is wrapped in anti-Semitism, hate, starvation, illness, separation and loss, but there are, of course, also moments of laughter, of kindness, of sharing and helping, reminding the reader that no matter how terrible war is, there are still some good people. What clearly stands out is just how much love this family had for each other. If they hadn't, they just might not have survived. Uri says one of the things that really sustained him was his mother's stories. And all through their ordeal, both his mother and father encouraged Uri to continue drawing.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is an interesting account in that it is almost devoid of Nazis. It is not the kind of Holocaust story we are accustomed to reading. But it does gives young readers yet another look at what being a Jewish family in Nazi occupied Europe and their enemy the Soviet Union was like. We keep learning more and more about the Holocaust, thanks to survivors like Uri sharing their stories. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from the publisher.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Rip to the Rescue by Miriam Halahmy

It's 1940 and London is being bombed nightly by the German Luftwaffe. Wanting to do his bit for the war, and tall for his age, 13-year-old Jack Castle convinced the wardens that he is 17 (and kept the fact that he is deaf in one ear to himself) so he could become a messenger boy.  Now he rides his bike through the destroyed neighborhoods of London every night delivering important messages to fire brigades. Not only does it make him feel proud to be doing his bit, but it also gets him away from his angry, authoritarian father. Mr. Castle served in WWI and lost his lower leg. Now he has an ill fitting prosthetic, and a bad case of PTSD, and he's taking it all out on Jack. His parents don't know about his messenger activities, and Jack has convinced them that he goes over to help his grandfather to the shelter. Granddad does know what Jack is doing and lets him keep his equipment in his flat.

One night a bomb explodes so close Jack is thrown from his bike. Injured and dazed, after the All Clear, he is helped to an emergency room by a young girl his age named Paula, then to home. The next day, Paula comes by and she and Jack head out together. But they soon run into Rocky and his gang, boys from Jack's school who have always ganged up on him because of his deaf ear. One of the boys, Ned, seems to be pals with Paula's younger sister Becky, 10. 

On his way home later, there is a day raid and seeing a neighbor attending to his Granddad, Jack is heading home when he hears scratching behind a broken wall. It turns out to be a dog, hungry and cold. Knowing he can't take the dog home after freeing him, so he brings it to his grandfather's, who is delighted. Named Rip because of his one ripped ear, the dog turns out to be a great companion for Jack, who ends up leaving him with Paula and Becky during the day and taking him on his messenger rounds at night.

One day, after another day bombing, Jack and Paula hear a woman screaming about her baby buried under a pile of rubble that had been her home. Sensing someone is trapped, Rip runs up the pile and starts pawing and barking. Sure enough, he's located where the baby, still alive, is located. Soon the baby is freed and Jack wonders if Rip has the ability to locate people buried alive under rubble. 

There's a lot going on in Jack's story. Halahmy has captured the fatigue of Londoners brought on by the unrelenting nightly bombings by the Germans, spending sleepless nights in the Underground, basements, and even in crypts. Jack's nightly bike rides show readers a city torn apart, but also people who meet the enemy with courage and determination.

For all Jack has been the victim of bullies in school, he is now quite the hero. As he and his new friends Paula and Becky begin to trust each other more, they share their secrets - Jack tells them about his deafness and the bullying, Paula and Becky tell him they are Jewish but to keep it private. Becky is rather devil-may-care about things, but Paula is so afraid that the Germans will invade, she shows Jack the hideout she creating for her family. 

His new friendship with Paula and Becky cause Jack dilemma's throughout. As brave as he is as a messenger, and as embarrassed as he is when Paula witnesses his father's behavior, Jack wonders if he will ever be able to stand up to his father's constant berating? And will his father ever see him for who he is? When he catches Ned stealing food, does Jack tell or show compassion when he learns why Ned steals and keep his secret? And when a sudden raid happens close by, will Jack reveal Paula's hideout to others?

Rip to the Rescue is a fast read because it is a real page-turner. Full of action, suspense, and danger, it is sure to hold the attention of young readers. 

And you can download an Educator's Guide, courtesy of Holiday House, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Displacement written and illustrated by Kiku Hughes

It's 2016, and Japanese American Kiku, 16, and her mother are on vacation in San Francisco from their home in Seattle. Kiku's grandmother had lived in San Francisco before the attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Executive Order 9066, calling for the roundup and incarceration of all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. After looking for house where they lived, Kiku's mother is disappointed to see it has been replaced with a mall. When she goes in to see what's there, Kiku stays outside and that's when the first displacement, as she calls them, happens.

Suddenly, Kiku finds herself in the audience of a violin recital where a young version of her grandmother, Ernestina Teranishi, is performing. Kiku didn't know her grandmother, but she did know that she had been a gifted violinist. Returning to the present, Kiku and her mother head to the hotel, and hear Donald Trump calling for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the US. 

Before leaving San Francisco, Kiku displaces again, this time after Executive Order 9066 has been issued and she finds herself in a line of people being watched by armed guards. Again, returning to the present and heading home to Seattle, Kiku realizes how little she knows about her own Japanese culture and history, in part because her grandmother never spoke to her mother about what happened to the Japanese Americans in the camps. 

Back in Seattle, Kiku displaces once again, finding herself reduced to being Number 19106, and traveling on the same bus as the Teranishi family, heading to Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack where the Japanese Americans are forced to live in horse stalls that still smell of manure. There, Kiku lives with a roommate, Aiko Mifune, right next door to the Teranishi family.

Kiku's first two displacements were for short periods of time, but now she finds herself living in the past for an extended time. This means that Kiku can learn something about her grandmother and great grandparents, but it enables author Kiku Hughes to show what went on behind the barbed wire and armed guards. The overcrowding, the poor quality of the food, the lack of privacy in the latrines and showers are part of daily life there, but so is the tenacious spirit of the Japanese people, who are determined to turn their living conditions into something better. Kiku even finds a love interest.

By the time Kiku is transferred to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, she knows she won't be returning to the present anytime soon, and determines to make the best of her situation. Once again, she finds herself living near her grandmother and even her love interest from Tanforan. The whole time she is torn as to whether or not to introduce herself to her grandmother, or merely to continue to observe her from afar. Life in Topaz is a real eye-opener for Kiku. People who had been productive and law-abiding are now incarcerated and deprived of their civil rights. When the government issues a loyalty questionnaire,  those who refuse to answer yes on questions 27 and 28, and renounce their Japanese ancestry, face harsh punishment, including Kiku friend Aiko. But after after someone was shot and killed, people really begin to worry about their safety. Does Kiku ever return to the present? Yes, of course, and at a very interesting point in her story. But does her experience in the past change her?  

Displacement is somewhat autobiographical for author Hughes, who also never knew the grandmother who had been in the internment camps during the war. Sending Kiku back in time enables her to show the personal and community trauma that was inflicted on people who had done nothing wrong. What I found most telling is Kiku's feelings of helplessness and her gradual acceptance of her incarceration. That was scary, given today's world. 

I think Hughes really captured Kiku's emotional truth, and through her, readers also know the emotional truth of her grandmother and all the other Japanese people who had been incarcerated for no other reason than their race. Though the word interned is generally used to describe what happened, Hughes chooses to use incarceration, given that people had no freedom and lived surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, it really did resemble prison-like conditions. 

Displacement is one of the best graphic novels I have read about the Japanese American experience in WWII. You might want to pair it with George Takei's They Called Us Enemy.

You can find an interesting and enlightening interview with Kiku Hughes HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an eARC gratefully received NetGalley

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sunday Funnies # 37: Superman's Origin Story - Meet Superboy

Story Continued Below

From his first appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics #1 and all the way through World War II, Superman was a very popular figure. And yes, how Kal-El arrived in Smallville from Krypton as a baby and was adopted by Ma and Pa Kent, who renamed him Clark Kent, was explained from the beginning. But what about his childhood? Jerry Siegel thought about that and toward the end of 1938, he presented the idea to Detective Comics, but DC they turned it down - twice. Siegel had wanted Superboy to be a bit of a prankster, but the DC didn't think that would jive with the do-good image of Superman. 

Unfortunately, in March 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the artist behind the Superman character, had already sold the rights to the super hero's franchise, so they essentially no longer had a say in Superman matters.

Then, in 1944, after seeing the successful introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder into Batman stories, DC changed its mind about a Superboy story line. But by now, Jerry Siegel was in the Army and writing for Stars and Stripes while stationed in Hawaii. The Superboy origin story, which appeared in More Fun Comics #101 and published in late 1944 (issue date Jan/Feb 1945), was credited Jerry Siegel, but actually written by Don Cameron, and was supposedly drawn by Joe Schuster, though there is speculation that it was only drawn in his studio, not by Joe himself.

Superboy appeared in seven issues of More Fun Comics before he was moved to Adventure Comics #103 (issue date April, published February 1946), where he celebrates his 10th birthday, and finally, in 1949, the by now teenaged Superboy gets his own comic book. The first issue of Superboy appeared (Mar/Apr 1949, published January 1949). Superboy has had a number of incarnations over the years, but here is the original story:

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Assignment by Liza M. Wiemer

It's senior year for Logan March and Cade Crawford, students at Riviere HS in upstate New York and they are thrilled to be in the same history class with their favorite teacher, popular Mr. Bartley. But they find themselves shocked and appalled when Mr. Bartley gives them a assignment which they find unacceptable. The assignment is to debate the Nazi's Final Solution by researching the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942 during which the fate of Europe's Jews was decided and then taking a side for or against the decision to exterminate all Jews. And rather than having students choose their own position, they are randomly assigned pro or con. 

While some of the kids in their class immediately begin to embrace their inner Nazi, Logan and Cade are open and clear about their opposition to the assignment, and they flat out refuse to do it. After speaking with Principal McNeil, they receive an email saying that he and Mr. Bartley would like to meet with them.  Before that happens, Cade and Logan head up to Fort Ontario, where the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center is located. a place known for having harbored 982 Jewish refugees from August 1944 to February 1946. There, Logan and Cade work on an alternative assignment based on this rescue to bring with them when they meet with Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley.

Although Mr. Bartley agrees to offer their assignment as an alternative for students who feel the way Logan and Cade do, the two friends are still not satisfied. After talking to her father, who tells Logan about an organization called Humanity for Peace and Justice, she and Cade must decide if and how far they are willing to take their opposition to the Wannsee Conference assignment into the public realm.

Although the novel is centered on the assignment to debate the fate of Europe's Jewish population as if the students were Nazis sitting around that table in Wannsee, there is a lot going on. Naturally, an assignment like this would bring out the best and the worst in students, as well as those who have no real opinion, and Wiemer hasn't ignored them. The novel is told from different perspectives, including Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley, and gives readers some needed insight into the thinking of these different characters, though the majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Logan and Cade.  

Neither Logan or Cade are Jewish. I didn't actually find Logan to be a very interesting character except for her passionate stand on the assignment. Her father is a professor, and not terribly available to her, nor are they struggling financially. Cade is much more interesting. His family runs the Lake Ontario Inn and his parents are very dependent on his help to keep things going and it's clear they have money problems. Cade used to be very close to his grandfather before he passed away. He and Cade's grandmother came from Poland before WWII, and before he died, he told Cade about something that happened in Poland that plays strongly into Cade's decision to oppose the assignment. 

The Assignment is based on actual events and students, which I remember reading about when it went public. And I remember that my reaction, as a teacher, as someone who wrote a dissertation on an aspect of the Third Reich, and as a human, was that this was not an assignment to give to any student. Yes, teach them about the Holocaust, including the Wannsee Conference, but don't make them take sides in a debate about genocide. And I felt the same way as I read this novel. 

At one point, Mr. Bartley shows his class the movie Conspiracy . This was an HBO film from 2001 that re-enacted the Wannsee Conference with several well-known and well-liked actors playing the parts of the Nazis. It's a tough film to watch, and I'm not sure I would show it to high school students, certainly not without a trigger warning. 

The Assignment an excellently written book and it will undoubtedly get readers thinking about what they might have done under the same circumstances. And it is definitely a book that will resonate in today's world. While I read, I kept thinking about William Faulkner's line, "The past is never dead. it's not even past." What do you think?

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

Author Liza Wiemer published an Opinion piece that you might be interested in reading. You can find it HERE

The New York Times recently (September 11, 2020) published an article about the 982 refugees who lived in Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY. You can read it HERE

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Mask (The League of Secret Heroes) Book 2 by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante

I was really excited to read Cape, book 1 of The League of Secret Heroes trilogy, so I was really looking forward to reading book 2. And Mask does not disappoint. Set during WWII, which happens to be the golden age of comic books, the League of Secret Heroes is part comic book, but mostly novel, and consists of Josie O'Mally (Cape), a white Irish American girl from New York City, Akiko Nakano (Mask), a Japanese American girl from San Francisco, and Mae Crumpler (Boots), an African American girl from Chicago. When the three of them meet, they discover that together their individual superpowers can be released. And it's a good thing because all their comic book superheroes like Zenobia and Hauntima are either gone or merely ghosts of their former selves and losing their powers quickly.

After defeating the Hissler in Philadelphia, a Hitler follower who was trying to get coding secrets, the three girls a/k/a the Infinity Trinity have teleported themselves to San Francisco. This used to be Akiko's home until President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 for the roundup of all persons of Japanese ancestry who were then transported to internment camps. This included Akiko's family, who were sent to the Manzanar, where they still are. Except for her brother who is serving in the Japanese American 422nd Infantry Regiment and her mother who is missing.

But our superheroes no sooner arrive in San Francisco, then they receive a coded message and head to San Francisco Bay, were the navy has docked several ships, to try to decipher it. Then, just as Akiko thinks she's spotted her mother walking with a suspected spy in the crowd, a parade of bagpipers go by, and she loses her. The parade is followed by a giant blimp flying overhead, navigated by Side-Splitter, and dropping bomb balloons. Suddenly, there are a lot of clowns, all dressed alike, swarming the waterfront, ready to do Side-Splitter's bidding. And Side-Splitter knows just who the Infinity Trinity is. After a battle between them on the waterfront, the girls finally head to the new League of Secret Heroes headquarters, thinking Mrs. B had been the one to leave the coded not for them.

It turns out that two crack cryptologists, Genevieve Grotjan and Elizabeth Friedman, had left the note, hoping for the Infinity Trinity's help decoding some messages they were sure was a business owner sending secret codes to the enemy. Between Akiko's missing mother, the balloon bombing Side-Splitter and his minions of devoted clowns, and now decoding a spies messages, Josie, Akiko, and Mae have a lot to work on. If only their favorite superheroes were able to help. 

Mask is every bit as exciting as Cape. Hannigan has managed to blend fantasy and reality in such a way that the adventure never stops nor does the suspense. And just as she had in Cape, she's brought in a number of historical figures (Elizabeth and Genevieve and Noor Inayat Khan, and Velvalee Dickinson) and believably blended them into the story - but never loses the comic book feeling that is so much a part of this series.

But at the same time that the Infinity Trinity, Side-Splitter, (and the Hissler from the first book) are perfect comic book characters, there is a lot of history to be found woven throughout the adventure. America's internment camps, the racism directed a Japanese Americans, the magnitude of what they lost when Executive Order 9066 went into effect, the 422nd infantry Regiment are all a part of Akiko's story. The idea for the bomb balloons may sound far fetched but they also stem from reality. How? Read the Author's Note to find out about this and other interesting facts that have been worked into the story. 

This is a second book in a series and there is always the question of whether book 2 will stand alone. I found that whenever the story referred back to the first book, there was enough background information that if you haven't read it, you wouldn't get lost. 

If you are looking for a fun work of historical fiction, Mask (and Cape) are sure to please. 

You can find some probing discussion questions and activities courtesy of the publisher Simon & Schuster HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar

It's 1938 and Papa has been in Cuba for three years, working to save money to bring the rest of his family there from Poland and away from the  increasing Nazi threat to Jews. Normally, it would be the eldest son, Moshe, who would be the first child to join his father, but 11-going-on-12-year-old Esther Abraham, the eldest daughter, makes such a convincing case to Papa, that she is chosen to join him, much to her mother's consternation. 

But, on her own, Esther travels through Poland, Nazi Germany, and Holland, boards a ship to cross the Atlantic, only to learn that the first stop is Mexico, not Cuba and that she will be the only passenger when they leave port. But Esther, being a naturally friendly girl, has made friends with the animals on board, spending time with them until they reach Havana, Cuba and the next delay.

In the end, Papa is there and, before they head to the town where he lives, he has to conduct some business, introducing Esther to Zvi Mandelbaum. It turns out Papa's job in Cuba is as a itinerant peddler, not the shopkeeper his family thought he was, and he gets his wares from Mandelbaum, who immediately gives Esther a pair of sandals so she can take off her hot woolen stockings. 

From the moment Esther began her trip, she decided to write down "every interesting thing that happens" in letters for her younger sister Malka. That way when the rest of the family are finally in Cuba, they can read the letters and it will be as if they had been together the whole time. (pg 2) The result is detailed descriptions of the people Esther meets, the places she goes, and her daily life with Papa.

Esther is friendly, outgoing, and smart, picking up Spanish quickly. And she is also quite enterprising, helping her father sell the items he is given by Mandelbaum. Despite being the only Jews in the town of Matanzas, almost everyone friendly and giving, accepting her and her father. But after Esther sews herself a new dress to wear in the hot Cuban weather, she soon begins a successful trade as a dressmaker to help make money to bring her family to Cuba. 

Their lives in Cuba are basically pleasant and enjoyable, filled with new friends of diverse backgrounds, including Manuela and her Afro Cuban grandmother, and the Changs from China, as well as the local doctor and his wife, Señora Graciela. It is she who gives Esther a sewing machine that helps her begin her dressmaking business. But Cuba are not without its Nazi sympathizers, including the doctor's brother, Señor Eduardo. He wants to start a Nazi party in Cuba with an anti-immigrant agenda to get rid of the Jews there.

As the situation in Europe becomes more perilous for the Jews there, it becomes more and more imperative to get the money to bring the whole Abraham family to Cuba. 

Esther's letters to Malka are quite detailed. And though the story may not be the kind of exciting tale we are accustomed to from this period in history, it is still a wonderful window into a life we don't often read about. Small wonder it reads so authentically. Behar based this novel on her grandmother's experience of traveling to Cuba in 1927 to join her father. Like Esther, her family had lived in Govorvo, Poland. And like Esther, one beloved family member didn't make to Cuba. 

I enjoyed reading Letters from Cuba a lot. Sometimes I just don't want a lot of action and an epistolary novel like this is just the ticket for an evening of reading during COVID-19 time. Esther is a great character - a bold feminist yet respectful of her elders, especially Papa, and her religious traditions. I can't even imagine letting an 11-year-old girl travel from Poland to Cuba, part of the way in Nazi territory, all by herself. She is a character with perseverance, fortitude, and a maturity beyond her age, as well as a pretty good business woman.

Behar includes an extensive and very interesting Note from the Author about her family and how they settled in Cuba, and her research for writing this book. There is also a list of Resources for further reading.

An Educator's Guide is available to download courtesy of the publisher Nancy Paulsen Books HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from Nancy Paulsen Books through NetGalley

Monday, August 24, 2020

Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan

It's June 3, 1943 and twin Latinx sisters Flaca and Curata have just stumbled upon Dr. James Rogers, a naval geophysicist and a few sailors digging in their Mexican American Los Angeles neighborhood of Chavez Ravine. After almost getting into a fight with the sailors for lewd remarks directed at Curata, the sister return home. Later that night, after their mother falls asleep, the girls take the family pickup truck and head to downtown Los Angeles to hangout and party with friends, all of whom are part of the city's Zoot-suit culture. But when a sailor bumps into Curata, a fight begins. 

Some of the sailors chase Curata into a dead end alley. Scared and with no place to escape, a manhole cover opens and a large lizard-like creature climbs out and scares the sailors away. When Curata faints, the lizard takes her into the underground tunnel he came out of, followed by Flaca. And unknowingly also followed by one of the sailors working for Dr. Rogers, who immediately calls the scientist. 

The lizard doesn't speak, but seems to understand Curata and Flaca and takes them home through the tunnel. It turns out that the creature, whom they call Chulito, has become separated from his family. The next morning, they decide that he should be reunited with them, if they are even still alive. After all, they understand separation and loss, they lost their dad, a soldier, in the war. But the night before, police and servicemen beat and arrested the mainly Mexican American Zoot-suiters in Los Angeles, resulting in the start of the Zoot Suit Riots. 

Deciding to disguise the lizard, they put him in one of Flaca's Zoot suits. But before they even leave their neighborhood, they encounter Dr. Rogers and his sailors looking for Chulito. A fight ensues between the sailors and the Flaca and Curata's other Zoo-suit friends, but the sailors manage to capture the lizard. Desperate to get him back and help him find his family, the sisters get some help from a very unexpected person. But will they find Chulito?

Done in two tone panels of black and yellow, Lizard in a Zoot Suit is an interesting look at a particular time and place in history. At first, it seems like just an excitying historical science fiction story, until you discover that some of it is based on reality. Curata and Flaca are great characters. Curata wears skirts that she's rolled up to make shorter and has a real soft heart for animals, which is why Chulito appeals to her so much. Flaca has a hot temper when it comes to racist remarks, especially when directed at her and her sister, which is how she sometimes gets into fights, and dresses in Zoot-suits when they go out. Both are proud Mexican Americans, proud of their father's service despite losing him, and both are kind, caring teens. 

Right from the start, readers will know that Dr. James Rogers is a smarmy corrupt scientist looking to make a fast buck and a claim to fame on the back of Chulito, and the sailors he gets to help are all white and racists, and all to happy to go after Zoot-suiters with their fists. 

The result is a graphic novel that brings together the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, the legend of an underground reptilian race living in tunnels under Los Angeles, and the treatment of the Latinx community displaced by housing discrimination. 

Written in English, Finnegan throws in lots of Spanish, most of which is easily understandable by context alone. I did look up pachucas, which in this case means Zoot-suiter. 

Pair Lizard in a Zoot Suit with Margarita Engle's verse novel Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots for another perspective of Los Angeles' Zoot Suit culture and riots.

You might also be interested in reading about how author Marco Finnegan can up with the idea for his graphic novel. You can find it HERE

And you might also like to read about the real person looking for the underground reptilians. You can find it HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

This is the story of Francesca "Frankie" Mazza, narrated by Pearl, a teenage ghost who feels just a little bit closer to life when she is around Frankie. Frankie is a 14-year-old Italian American living in an Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow in Chicago with her younger sister Toni and her older brother Vito. The Mazza children aren't orphans, but were placed in the Guardian Angels Orphanage by their father, a shoemaker, after the death of their mother. And every visiting Sunday, he showa up bearing meatball sandwiches, spaghetti with butter, a apple for each and sometimes a new pair of shoes. Then one Sunday, he visits with news that he and his new wife would be moving to Colorado, and he would be taking Vito with him, but leaving the girls at the orphanage.

Left behind, and missing Vito, Frankie withdraws into herself for a while, at which point Pearl's story begins to unfold. Pearl is convinced she died as a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic that swept the world. And she has acquired a ghostly fox for company as she roams around the orphanage, the shores of Lake Michigan, reads The Hobbit over the shoulder of a library patron, where Pearl meets Marguerite, an African American ghost who can actually knock books off shelves. Like Frankie and Pearl, Marguerite also has a tragic story and also like them, her story slowly unfolds.

Once Frankie begins to join her friends again, she finds herself working in the kitchen, preparing meals for the nuns. And that's where she meets and falls in love with Sam. And the feeling is mutual. But Sam is almost 18-years-old and once war is declared in Europe, it is just a matter of time until, like Vito, he is drafted and sent to fight Hitler.

When the nuns discover what went on between Frankie and Sam, she is harshly punished, and then she and Toni are kicked out of the orphanage. Living with their father, their stepmother, and three of her children just may be a deal breaker for Frankie.

Thirteen Doorways doesn't just take the reader on a journey through the problematic and tragic lives of Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, to their individual ends, it also challenges the reader to think about the doorways we are confronted with in life and what might lie behind them. As events in their lives are recalled, as doorways are opened, wolves are revealed. Do we open the door and go through, not knowing what can happen, but taking control of our lives and our experiences or do we deny ourselves agency, staying ensconced in a life not really lived, however abusive and unhappy it may be?

Ruby has written a novel that is populated by a whole host of characters besides Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, who all play a part in their stories to greater or lesser but always relevant degrees. In doing so, to my mind, at least, Ruby just may have redefined the old Henry James' notion of the "loose baggy monster' and given it dignity and literary value.

Though not a book about WWII, it does, nevertheless, frame the world that Frankie lives in and the world that Pearl haunts. And in doing so, Ruby gives the reader some real insight about what life was like during those years, especially for poor Americans.

I began reading Thirteen Doorways slowly, much more slowly than I usually read books, savoring every word. But I found Ruby's writing so beautiful, so lyrical, so mesmerizing that it didn't take long before I realized I couldn't put it down. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who like this kind of tale, I can't recommend it highly enough for so many reasons.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library