Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Great Escapes #1: Nazi Prison Camp Escape by Michael Burgan, illustrated by James Bernardin

Nine-year-old Bill Ash knew he wanted to be a pilot even before the day in 1927 when he saw Charles Lindbergh in Dallas, Texas. But the Depression hit his family hard and left little time to think about flying. Then, in 1939, war was declared in Europe and, wanting to fight Hitler, Bill went to Canada to join the Royal Air Force there. Turns out, Bill was a natural in the air.

By 1942, he was flying missions from England to Europe in a Spitfire. And he was successful, that is, until March 24, 1942, when his plane was fired on. He crash landed in France, and with the help of some kind French people and the French resistance, almost made it back to England via Spain. But almost doesn't count - Bill was discovered and arrested by the Gestapo in Paris.

Bill was questioned and tortured to give up the names of the people who helped him in France. Thinking about the young girl named Marthe who had helped him, Bill was able resist the many beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, he was sent by cattle car headed to Germany. There he was sent to a Nazi prison camp for POWs called Stalag Luft III. 

Once he reached Stalag Luft III, the urge to escape was great. But the first attempt failed and Bill found himself spending two weeks in solitary confinement a/k/a the Cooler. Undaunted, Bill and some of his fellow POWs kept trying to escape, followed by two weeks in the Cooler and nothing to eat but bread and water. 

When Stalag Luft III became crowded, Bill and others were sent to another POW camp in Poland via cattle car, which proved to be yet another failed escape attempt. In Poland, Bill and 24 other men decided to dig a tunnel from inside the latrine. They figured the smell of the latrine would keep the fastidious German soldiers away. Finally, in March 1943, thirty-three men were ready to escape. And Bill did make it to freedom, until he was caught...again. After even more escape attempts, Bill found himself back in Stalag Luft III, where he discovered he was known as the Cooler King.

Back where he began life as a POW, there were more escape attempts until finally in 1944 came the good news that the Allies had landed in France, and by 1945, they were in Belgium on their way to Germany. Bill and the other prisoners were forced to march from Stalag Luft III to Spremberg, Germany, where they were loaded on to cattle cars. By now, Bill and other POWs were ill, and taken to a military hospital outside Bremen, Germany. By the time he had recovered, the British were shelling the camp Bill was in, not realizing there were POWs there. Bill made one last escape attempt. This time he succeeded and was able to tell the approaching British tanks just were they Germans had positioned their tanks. 

Finally, after 13 attempted escapes, the war was over for Bill Ash and he was a free man.

Bill Ash in his Spitfire meeting the
Canadian Prime Minister
Great Escapes
is a debut series and it is getting off to an exciting start with Nazi Prison Camp. Presenting Bill Ash's story in this short, but action-packed historical fiction novel is a great way to get reluctant readers reading as well as giving kids interested in WWII stories something different. After all, most kids know about Nazi concentration camps, but not much about what happened to POWs, and may have even just assumed they were immediately killed. 

There are sidebars to Bill's story in the first three chapters with information about The Depression, Concentration Camps, Spitfires and Other Aircraft of World War II, The Resistance to German Rule, andThe POWS of World War II. These are all topics readers will encounter throughout the novel. Sometimes I find sidebars intrusive in historical fiction. It was nice to read them at the beginning of Bill's story so that the exciting escapes weren't interrupted with information and readers already know what they need to know. And since it is a story about POWs, it is also a good way to introduce them to the Geneva Conventions that "spelled out how countries would treat prisoners of war."

There is a Selected Bibliography and an Author's Note in the back matter. A map is included at the beginning, but I wish it were a more detailed map to give young readers a sense of place and distance. Descriptions of Bill's escape attempts are detailed and riveting. Bill Ash's story is a survival story par excellence

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

Bill Ash passed away in 2014 at the age of 96. You can read his informative obituary HERE 

Friday, July 17, 2020

War Stories by Gordon Korman

Much to his parents chagrin, twelve-year-old Trevor Firestone can't get enough about World War II - it's the subject of the video games he plays, the models he builds, the books he reads. But Trevor especially loves hearing the soldier stories his 93-year-old great-grandfather (G.G.) Jacob tells him after he  enlisted in the army at the tender age of 17. 

Trevor always considered G.G. a war hero, but now it's the 75th anniversary of D-Day and 1944 Normandy invasion. And G.G. has been invited to the ceremony at Sainte-Régine, where he is to be the guest of honor as the only surviving member of his unit that participated in the battle that liberated the town from German occupation.  

Now, Trevor is about to embark on a dream trip with his dad and G.G., retracing his grandfather's WWII journey that began when he lied about his age to enlist, then found himself at Fort Benning as part of Bravo Company, where he immediately earned the nickname High School, and ends 75 years later.

Before they even leave Connecticut, Trevor's dad is worried about some messages posted on Facebook. Messages like "Stay in America, Jacob Firestone" and "Sainte-Régine will never forgive you." But what could these messages mean? All G.G. will say is "If this is the past catching up to me, so be it. I've been carrying it around for seventy-five years." 

As the trio of Firestones arrive at each milestone in G.G.'s army career, the story switches to 1944 and what actually happened. Sometimes this kind of alternating timeline can be so annoying, but Korman has really handled it well. Everything they do in contemporary time mirrors what happened to Jacob in 1944. In War Stories, their parallel journeys give the reader a real picture of war without a lot of explanation that would take away from the story. 

Once the Firestones get to France, things start happening - incidents like slashed tires, and a dead bird under their car's windshield wipers. As they get closer to Sainte-Régine, the Facebook messages take on a ominous threatening tone. And Trevor has been noticing a blond girl about his age everywhere they stop. Coincidence? He thinks not, but who could she be and why does she seem to be following the Firestones?

I always enjoy reading Gordon Korman novels and sharing them with young readers. They are usually fun and whimsical but always with a great message sandwiched in them. And while War Stories still retains some of the signature Korman humor, it's a much more serious book. 

In the chapters that are about Jacob's time in the army, Korman makes no bones about the horrors of war and the toll it has on people's lives. It's a lesson Trevor has to learn, and he does, slowly as they follow in G.G. experiential footsteps.I think WWII is an important part of world history and the part that each country played in it. However, I'm not a fan of violence and war. True to my Quaker roots, I am a pacifist. 

Trevor is a great character, who isn't as narrow a thinker as he at first appears. Away from his game controller, he's able to look around him and see what the world is really like. And thankfully, Korman lets him come to his own conclusions about the things he learns on his dream trip. His dad a great character as well, but ironically, it's Jacob Firestone who is the real MC. He's a richly drawn if flawed character, both as both an overly zealous 17-year-old soldier and as a crusty 93-year-old nonagenarian. His wartime experiences are grim and realistically presented. But when he recognizes that the enemy is a teen just like him. it leads terrible consequences, leaving readers to wonder if G.G. really deserved the bronze star he earned and to be honored at Sainte-Régine. 

It should be mentioned here that G.G. is Trevor's dad's grandfather, who had raised him after his parents died, and explains how a 12-year-old in 2020 has a relative who fought in WWII. It may seem like a stretch, but I have a 94-year-old uncle who is grandfather to a high school student, so I had no trouble with the aging here. 

War Stories is a novel that will remind readers that while war games have no permanent consequences, real life war does, and those consequences can last a lifetime.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-Galley gratefully received from the publisher, Scholastic Press, and EdelweissPlus

Monday, July 6, 2020

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, illustrated by Harmony Becker

My brother and I used to watch Star Trek reruns religiously. We were too young to know about WWII and this country's treatment of Japanese Americans, and their relatives who were born in Japan but unable to become American citizens. Which isn't surprising since they didn't teach it in school, either. But you know what they say about history, if you don't ignore it, you are bound to repeat it. And sure enough, as this book shows, we have. But we also are learning more about people's experiences in the WWII Japanese American internment camps, in both fiction and nonfiction. And now, we have heard from George Takei, helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the old Star Trek shows, witty social media commentator, political activist, and most importantly, outspoken critic and survivor of America's internment camps. 

Realizing that most Americans do not really know much about what happened to the Japanese Americans in WWII, Takei first turned his wartime experiences into a Broadway musical called Allegiance in 2015. The play centers on a family, much like Takei's own, sent an internment camp in Wyoming and their different reactions to being imprisoned behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards. 

In addition to Allegiance, George Takei has written an excellent, detailed graphic memoir, that is more accessible and ideal for young readers to learn about this dark part of American history from someone who lived it. Structured as a Ted Talk being given by Takei, as well as an interview with NPR, it begins in the middle of the night as their father wakes George and his older brother Henry up and tells them to quickly get dressed. followed by a knock on the front door of their home by two armed guards in 1942. Executive Order 9066 had been signed by President Roosevelt and all people of Japanese descent were being rounded up to be sent to prison camps. 

Losing their successful dry cleaning business, and forced to practically give away their possessions, the Takei's are first sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack. There,  they were housed in former horse stalls until October 1942, when they were sent to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, and later to Tule Lake, California. 

Jumping back and forth between the 1940s and the present allows Takei to contextualize the personal with the public, the past with the present, giving a much broader picture than just one person's memoir, increasing it relevancy for today's readers. He does this by including specific people and events, such as his own early activism with Martin Luther King, the 1998 awarding of the Medal of Honor to veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and Fred Korematsu, his conviction for refusing to obey Executive Order 9066, and his subsequent lawsuits claiming there was racial bias attached to the Order. Fred's conviction was thrown out, but not the Order. Sadly, Takai brings readers into the present with the Supreme Court striking down the Korematsu decision under Trump v. Hawaii, allowing the United States to once more discriminate against a particular people - asylum seekers from Mexico and South American put in cages, as well as the controversial Muslim ban, disallowing Muslims to enter the United States. 

But the main part of Takei's narrative is what happened to his family. He has really captured how degrading, how humiliating and painful an experience it was for his parents, who tried their best to shield their children from the grim reality of what was happening. 

I think the most poignant part of the memoir is the government's realization that they had an abundant source of potential soldiers in the camps, but only if they proved their loyalty. Takei's father struggles with the two questions #28 and #29  regarding where one's loyalty lay - United States or Japan. Answering yes to both questions got you in the army, answering no got you a train ride to Tule Lake, a harsh internment camp for those whose loyalty was questionable. The Takei's were sent there in 1944.   

The illustrations are done in comic book style, and rendered in black, white and shade of gray giving is a kind of cold starkness that describes this part of American history so accurately. 

Pair They Called Us Enemy with Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo and Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

You can find a useful Teacher's Guide courtesy of the publisher Random House HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

In this novel told in alternating voices, one in the present, one is the past, the lives of two teenage girls have interesting parallels. 

No one was more surprised than 16-year-old New Jersey native Alice Prewitt to discover she had inherited an apartment in Paris' 9th Arrondissement from her beloved Gram, Chloe. Surprised because it is an apartment that had oddly never ever been mentioned, not to Alice, nor to Gram's daughter, Alice's mother. And it's not just any apartment, as Alice, her mom and dad discover, but what turns out to be a virtual time capsule of her Gram's family from the 1930s and 1940s. And the surprises don't stop there.

Going through some old photos in the apartment, Alice discovers that her Gram also had a sister named Adalyn Bonhomme that no one knew about. But why had Gram never mentioned a sister or the at-one-time-so-elegant apartment? Returning to the apartment a few days later to do more exploring, Alice is excited to find Adalyn's diary which she had begun on May 30, 1940. Writing about the Nazi occupation of France, Adalyn sounds ready to resist however she can.  But when Alice finds some magazine clippings with happy pictures of Adalyn dressed in high fashion and partying and a newspaper photo to her sitting in an expensive restaurant with six men wearing Nazi armbands, she finds her discoveries hard to process. Could Adalyn have been a Nazi collaborator? 

Yet, the deeper Alice digs into the lives of the Bonhomme family during the war, the clearer a picture of a dysfunctional family emerges. Adalyn and Chloe's father is a WWI veteran who suffers from PTSD, has basically withdrawn from life, and everyone must tiptoe around him so as not to upset him. Their mother is the image of privilege, buying costly rationed items on the black market, and attending society parties. The two sisters are very close, but as Adalyn's wartime resistance activities increase, she worries that Chloe's outspokenness and her distain for the Nazis will jeopardize the family. Meanwhile, she finds herself very attracted to Luc who is the leader of her resistance group, and who doesn't seem to feel the same attraction for Adalyn.

Alice's family is just as dysfunctional. The family tiptoes around Alice's mother's depression.  It's understandable that she would be depressed after just losing her mother, and then discovering the Paris apartment was left to her daughter instead of her, but it's also clear she has been depressed off and on Alice's whole life. I thought her father was kind of passive, content to wait out his wife's depressions, not wanting to upset her and waiting for her to ask for help, which she never does. As Alice says her "family's first language is small talk" so important issues are never addressed. Sadly, he doesn't seem to see what this is doing to Alice. Alice retreats to a cafe to do her family research,where she meets her love interest Paul, a student and aspiring artist. 

I really wanted to like The Paper Girl of Paris more than I did. But I felt there was just too much going on and it began to feel chaotic. I would have loved a story about Adalyn, her family and her resistance work. I really liked all of the historical elements in Adalyn's part of the story and how the diary gives a nice picture of life, which is then expanded in Adalyn's own narration. I think that these two things easily could have been presented without Alice's intervention.

So I'm sorry to say that I could have lived without Alice's story all together. She just wasn't as compelling a character as Adalyn. I thing Alice's story would make a nice novel about a contemporary girl dealing with a passive father and depressed mother. Her character turns the book into something of a mystery that needs solving, but it could have just as easily unfolded with that. I just felt that in The Paper Girl of Paris, she added nothing beyond being a plot device to get to Adalyn's more interesting story and her narration felt intrusive.   

Should you read The Paper Girl of Paris? Yes, if you like historical fiction wrapped in a mystery. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Remembering Vera Lynn (20 March 1917 - 18 June 2020)

This week, Vera Lynn passed away at 103-years-old (1917-2020) . And while most kids probably don't know who she is, especially American kids, Vera Lynn played an important role during World War II. Known as the "Forces' Sweetheart," she helped sing the allied forces to victory with her sentimental songs and very distinct voice. Although "The White Cliffs of Dover" was the song that first made her commercially popular, it is her iconic recording of "We'll Meet Again" in 1942 that she is best known for. Both songs, along with "As Time Goes By" were frequently played by my dad, who had a bunch of her records, and they are among my earliest memories, despite being born long after the war ended. 

Later, when I was writing my dissertation, I wrote a chapter on the importance of music as a morale booster. Naturally, when I made a WWII playlist to listen to for inspiration, I chose were these three favorites by Vera Lynn, to put on it, among others. 

I can't do justice to Vera Lynn's illustrious life and career, nor can I capture just what she meant to the British people (and apparently my Welsh dad) when they needed her most, but you can read her lovely obituary here in The Guardian

Monday, June 15, 2020

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru

Superman was both a popular comic and radio show during World War II, but once the war was over, there were no more Nazis to fight. So, Superman's creators turned their sights to the home front and, at the request of the Anti Defamation League, they took on the KKK. Beginning on June 11, 1946, the radio show ran a 16 part story called "Clan of the Fiery Cross." Each episode was 15 minutes long and sponsored by Kellogg's Pep Cereal. The story proved to be extremely popular, except of course with the Klan, who encouraged members to boycott Kellogg's products. 

Flash forward to 2019. Leave it to Gene Luen Yang to take the story from the radio show and give it his own magical touch turning it into a graphic novel and making it as relevant today as it was in 1946. The premise is basically the same: a Chinese American family - Dr. Lee, his wife and two children, Tommy and Roberta - have just moved out of Chinatown and into a new house in the center of Metropolis. 

Roberta is a rather timid soul, not at all happy about leaving the comfort and safety of Chinatown. Tommy is much more outgoing, but the two siblings really care about and look our for each other 

High schooler Tommy loves to play baseball and is an ace pitcher. On a walk to explore their new neighborhood, he and Roberta meet neighbor Jimmy Olsen who just so happens to also coach a baseball team. But when Tommy beans star batter Chuck Riggs on the head with a baseball during a tryout, Chuck goes ballistic with racial slurs about the Lee siblings. Chuck is immediately fired from the team. At home, it turns out, Chuck's uncle Matt is head of the local Klan of the Fiery Kross and after hearing what happened, he decides it's time for Chuck's initiation into the terroristic activities of the Klan. Chuck's initiation is to help the Klan "burn away America's impurities" and drive the Lee's out. After a cross burning on their lawn and an attempt to burn their home, the Lee's African American neighbors, including Inspector William Henderson of the Metropolis police arrive to help put out the fires. The next morning, reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent arrive to get the story for the Daily Planet.

Meanwhile, Superman is have problems of his own. The war may be over, but after Superman defeats Atom Man, avenger of the master race, he is left in a weakened state. Under the swastika bearing device that gives Atom Man is super strength is a green crystal (Kryptonite) that causes Superman to smell ash and rot and something else that is familiar, but he just can't remember what it is. The effect of the crystal on Superman continues, causing him to have strange dreamlike interactions with his parents who died when Krypton was destroyed. Suddenly plagued with self-doubt about his purpose and place as a foreigner on earth, Superman struggles with his identity.

Superman's struggle with his identity mirrors that of Roberta Lee's struggle to fit in and accept this part of Metropolis as her new home. Tommy is a great big brother to Roberta, and Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane all offer support as she struggles to find herself and fit in.

I really love a good Superman story and Superman Smashes the Klan is one of the best I've read. The story was originally issued in three limited edition comic books before the graphic novel was published, which is also divided into three chapters. Yang has diversified the characters more than the original 1946 radio program, and has made Roberta Lee and Superman the main protagonists. He has cleverly kept the story in the past yet the overriding issues haven't yet been resolved and the issues of identity and racism will definitely resonate with today's readers. Chuck and his uncle are perfect examples of how racism is passed on from one generation to another. Chuck almost becomes what his uncle wants, mostly because he is afraid to stand up to him for fear of what his uncle will do to him and his mom. Yang gives readers a Chuck who is at the point where he can become racist or reject it. His feelings of helplessness are so real and it's a hard choice for a kid to make. But I loved how Yang handled it.

One of the things Yang emphasizes is the importance of being a part of an accepting community. Tommy and even Roberta have supportive parents and they both find friendship immediately with the new baseball team Tommy joins. Roberta also find friendship and acceptance with Superman, who takes her under his cape, and Lois Lane, who becomes a kind of mentor for Roberta's writing aspirations. Yang also gives his characters much more agency than they were ever given in the old Superman stories. No longer passive "victims" of evil doers waiting for Superman to rescue them, they often take matters into their own hands to help themselves. 

The art for Superman Smashes the Klan was done by Gurihiru, a Japanese team of two women, Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano, who have had lots of experience doing the artwork for a number of DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse comics. Their work here is done with a palette of bold and subtle colors, and each of the cells are clean and uncluttered, and really help move the story along. 

Be sure to read Yang's essay "Superman and Me" in the back matter. It is interesting, informative, historical and not what you might expect. 

Superman Smashes the Klan is everything I could want in a graphic novel and more. 

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library

You can listen to the original 1946 radio version of "Clan of the Fiery Cross" HERE

Monday, June 8, 2020

Peter's War: A Boy's True Story of Survival in World War II Europe by Deborah Durland DeSaix and Karen Gray Ruelle, illustrated by Deborah Durland DeSaix

Back when this was a new blog, I reviewed a book written by Deborah Durland DeSaix and Karen Gray Ruelle called The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust. It is a book that has stuck with me ever since, so when I received an ARC of their new book, I was pretty excited. Peter's War is the story of a young boy who was able to survive the Holocaust thanks to quick thinking and the help of caring French citizens.

Peter Feigl, born in Berlin to loving parents, was only three-years-old when Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933 and began his war against Europe's Jews. Sensing they were in danger despite being secular Jews, the Feigl's had Peter baptized in a Catholic church, then moved from Germany, first to Czechoslovakia, and then to Vienna, Austria. But even though he was a baptized Catholic, the kids still taunted him for being Jewish. 

When Peter was about nine-years-old, Hitler and the Nazis marched into Austria and declared it to be part of the German Reich, and once again, Peter's parents decided it was time to move - this time to Brussels, Belgium. But only two years later, the Nazis invaded Belgium and this time they arrested Peter's father. 
Fleeing to France
Peter, his mother and grandmother decided to flee to France, joining the crowds of people on the road with the same idea, despite the frequent strafing from Nazi planes overhead. When they reached Paris, they were told to go to Oloron-Sainte-Marie for help, but once there, they were arrested and taken to Gurs, an internment camp in southern France. Eventually, they were released and went to Auch, where they were miraculously reunited with Peter's father. But France wasn't safe either, now that the Nazis had defeated the French. 

Peter's parents decided to send him to a summer camp in Condom. His father visited him once, giving him a package of valuables for safe keeping. After that, both of his parents were arrested and disappeared. Peter was on his own in a hostile country. When the police came to arrest him, the camp director tricked them each time. And even though she managed to get him passage on a ship to the United States, the Nazis closed the port in Marseille and Peter, now 13, was trapped and alone in France. 

In 1943, however, Peter was "sent to a children's home in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a tiny village in the mountains" (here Peter's story is somewhat reminiscent of the novel Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus). Though happy here, Peter found himself on the move again, this time to a boarding school in Figeac, France.  Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for Peter, now 14, to find his way into the French Resistance, where he was especially helpful because he spoke fluent German. 

This is the drawing Peter made of his border crossing into Switzerland
in his diary
But when the Nazis came to Figeac looking for males between 16 and 54, it was time for Peter to leave France and escape to Switzerland, which he did on May 22, 1944. Peter Fiegl was finally truly safe. 

Peter's War is an interesting account of one boy's determination to survive despite losing his family and having to be continuously on the run from the Nazis. And it also highlights how determined the Nazis were to capture every Jewish person, either to exterminate them or to simply work them to death. It also shows readers that there were people who cared enough to risk their own lives to help Peter. 

This is a picture book for older readers and it is a useful book for introducing a school unit on WWII and National Socialism to young readers. After his father came to visit him in camp, just before he and Peter's mother disappeared, Peter started keeping a diary, which he continued to do throughout the war. These diaries explain why the authors had so much information about Peter's activities and feelings throughout the war. Excepts of these diaries appear alongside some of the illustrations throughout the book, as do photographs of Peter, his parents, and the places where he lived. 

Peter's War is an meaningful addition to Holocaust literature, and now that there are fewer survivors to bear witness, as this book does, stories like Peter Feigl's become more important than ever. 

A map of the places Peter lived in to avoid the Nazis

Aside from this helpful map at the front of the book, back matter includes extensive Notes, a Bibliography, and Recommended Resources. The only thing I wish had been included is a timeline.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book is an ARC received from Holiday House

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Firebird by Elizabeth Wein

"I am not a traitor" or so claims Anastasia Viktorovna Nabokova, Nastia for short. She is accused of landing her plan in German held territory and although it held personal risks for her, her action defied Stalin's Order Number 227 issued July 1942, disallowing retreat by demanding "Not one step backward." But Nastia did it anyway. Is she a traitor? After you read her story, you can be the judge.

Nastia had just finished high school and working as a instructor at the Leningrad Youth Aeroclub, the only woman except for the Chief Flight Instructor, on the day that Germany begins her invasion of the Soviet Union. Nastia, along with her fellow (male) pilots immediately go to enlist, but while the men are accepted, she is sent back to the Aeroclub to train more pilots. There, the Chief tells her to write to Marina Raskova, a famous Russian pilot who has access to Stalin, if she wants to fly in the war.

Fighting is in Nastia's blood. Her parents were both important participants in the 1917 Russian Revolution, fighting in the Red Army, and her father had been the driver of the wagon that transported the bodies Czar Nicholas II, and his family after they were executed. And although Anastasia was the name of the Czar's youngest daughter, Nastia's parents named her that because of its meaning - rebirth.

As the German's push forward, the pilots are forced to evacuate the Aeroclub and their training planes are taken to a safe place. Nastia and the Chief end up in Moscow. There, they are finally allowed to fly in the war, and the Chief chooses Nastia to be her wingman (meaning Nastia will be positioned behind the Chief's plane). But when the Chief makes a decision to ram a German plane after she runs out of ammunition, Nastia must make a snap decision as well when she sees her parachuting out of her plane and being shot at - land and help the Chief or return to the air base. It's pretty clear from the opening line of this novella what Nastia's choice is. What isn't clear? What Nastia discovers when she lands. Boy howdy, I did not see that coming.

Narrated in the first person by Nastia, Firebird unfolds as an exciting novella as she defends her actions to the tribunal who will determine her fate. It is a short, easy to read book, written in five parts plus a Prologue. The time frame is short, only running from early summer 1941 to spring/summer 1942, but it is a year of change, loss, success and growth for Nastia.

As her story unfolds, Wein has managed to include enough actual history and information about the Russian Revolution and the assassination of the Romanov family so that readers who may not be familiar with it won't get lost or lose interest in Nastia's story. In addition, Nastia is not part of the famous Russian Night Witches who were trained by Marina Raskova, but Wein does acknowledge them in Firebird.  Be sure to read the Author's Note where Wein separates the facts from fiction she used in the novella.

Nastia is a great character, and Wein really brings her to life, but I particularly love her descriptions of the Chief from her bleach blond hair and make up put on like armor to her men's clothing and fancy French corset - what an enigma!

Firebird is another book published by Barrington Stoke. Barrington Stoke publishes books that are adapted for dyslexic and reluctant readers. I've read a number of their books now, and I highly recommend them for ALL readers.

Pair this with Elizabeth Wein's book White Eagles, a book about the Polish Air Force Reserve and the twin brother and sister who volunteer to fly for them during WWII. These will appeal to anyone with in interest in aviation and/or WWII.

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

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Hunger Winter: A World War II Novel by Rob Currie

It's 1944 and the Gestapo would like nothing more than to capture Dutch resistance leader Hans Ingelse. So far, Ingelse has managed to avoid capture and continue his resistance activities. But, since his wife had died two months earlier, the Gestapo now  have his three children in their sights. In the middle of the night, on November 11th, a neighbor risks his life to let 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse know that the Gestapo has arrested his older sister Els for her resistance activity, and now, they are on their way to the Ingelse home in Oosterbeek for Dirk and his 6-year-old sister Anna.

Luckily, papa had already begun to teach Dirk what to do in certain situations to avoid capture. Dirk wastes no time getting Anna up and out to begin the trek to their Tante Cora's house in Doorwerth, taking what little food they had. Meanwhile, Els is being held in an interrogation center in downtown Oosterbeek, and it doesn't take long for the torture to begin. The Gestapo is sure Els will break and tell them where her papa is, but she's stronger and more determined than they realize.

Dirk and Anna safely reach Tante Cora's the next day, and feel somewhat safe there, but hungry, since all food is confiscated by the Nazis. And they must still be cautious now that they are in danger of being picked up by the Gestapo. Instead, Dirk and Anna get picked up in a Nazi razzia, a roundup of any able-bodied person to work in munition factories. There, a sergeant decides to give Anna to a friend who had recently lost his daughter, as a replacement. Hearing that, Dirk is determined to escape, but how? The factory is so well guarded. Luckily, on November 22nd, the Allies begin to bomb that part of Holland. As the guards take cover, a bomb hits, giving Dirk and Anna an opportunity to escape - right into a minefield. But, Dirk figures out the path through the field and soon they are on their way to Oma and Opa's farm in Nijmegen. But, before they get there, Anna sprains her ankle, and they need to stop at a farmhouse near Driel. There, they are met by a elderly couple, and a Nazi officer holding them at gunpoint. He claims he wants to turn himself over to the Americans in Nijmegen, but is this just another trick to catch their papa?

Meanwhile, the Gestapo still hasn't gotten Els to talk, so they decide to amp up the torture, transferring her to a Luftwaffe base in Rotterdam on November 26th, just before the Allies dropped bombs on that city.

Will the Ingelse family survive capture and be reunited with papa, if he is even still alive? Now that the Americans have liberated Nijmegen and are pushing forward, the Nazis seem to be getting more and more desperate to capture Hans Ingelse, refusing to acknowledge that the German Reich might actually be losing the war.

Hunger Winter is certainly an action-packed novel, with very appealing characters that readers can root for (well, truth be told, I found Anna very annoying).  Personally, I would have liked a little more about Els, who is my favorite character. There's also a bit of mystery surrounding what has become of the children's father, and that isn't revealed until the end, and it quite a revelation, but readers never really get to know him.

I thought Currie really captured the starvation of the Dutch people due to the lack of food during the winter of 1944-1945. Tante Cora has Dirk dig up the bulbs in the garden for soup, there is a hint about the fate of her stolen dog that might not be caught by younger readers, trading valuables with farmers for food only to have it taken by the Nazis, and of course, collaborating with the Nazis for extra rations.

It did bother me that the Nazi officer Dirk and Anna meet at the farmhouse on their way to Oma and Opa's turns out to be someone their father went to school with. That was just more coincidence than my adult sensibility could accept, but probably not for my nine-year-old self, so I don't think younger middle grade readers will have a problem with it, either.

Back matter includes a section called What Really Happened?, an interview with the author, Rob Currie, Discussion Questions for teachers, and Key World War II Dates for the Netherlands, as well as maps. I read an ARC, with included everything but the maps.

Hunger Winter is a nice work of historical fiction and not many take place in the Netherlands for this age group. If I were teaching a WWII unit, I would pair it with Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, originally published in 1962, as a nice resistance compare and contrast component.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

It's August 1945 and Zofia Lederman, 18, has been recently liberated from Gross Rosen Concentration Camp. She is recovering at a hospital, but is determined to return to her family's home to Sosnowiec, in what had been Poland before the Nazi invasion in 1939. After all the Jews there were rounded up, the Lederman were ultimately deported to Auschwitz. Only Zofia and her younger brother Abek, survived the selection process upon arrival, both ending up in Birkenau. Before they were separated, Zofia promised Abek she would find him at the end of the war.

Zofia is convinced that Abek is still alive and waiting for her at home. But home is no longer home, taken over by squatters and ransacked. And Abek isn't there, nor has he been seen in Sosnowiec since the war ended. Here, however, Zofia learns that prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau had been sent to either Bergen-Belsen or Dachau. And so early one morning, Zofia leaves Sosnowiec with some stolen money, a small suitcase and goes in search of Abek. 

Arriving in Munich, Germany in September, Zofia finds her way to Foehrenwald, an adults only displaced persons camp. Since Abek would only be 12 by now, there is no chance of finding him in there. But Zofia is give a bed in a cabin with two other girls - Breine and Esther. And she meets the reclusive, angry Josef, to whom she feels a compelling attraction, and who eventually becomes her lover.

Though at first standoffish, Zofia slowly begins to settle into life at Foehrenwald. Thanks to her family's prewar business making fashionable custom clothing for women, Zofia's is an experienced seamstress and finds a purpose in the camp altering clothing for the women there, including a wedding dress. And just as she begins to come to life again, a boy claiming to be Abek shows up at the camp looking for Zofia. 

There are several mysteries woven into Zofia's story, which begin to become apparent as she replays memories about her family, the roundup that ultimately brought them to Auschwitz, the selection process in which she and Abek were sent to the right, her dreams about the last time she saw him, her single-minded need to find him now and to finally be able to go home. This is all described in some of the most heartrending prose I've ever read:
"And when we got to Birkenau, there was another line dividing into two. In that line, the lucky people were sent to hard labor. The unlucky people - we could see the smoke. The smoke was the burning bodies of the unlucky people.
On this continent, I need to find only one person. I need to go home. I need to survive. I need to keep my brain working for only one person.
Because everyone else: Papa, Mama, Baba Rose, beautiful Aunt Maja - all of the, all of them, as the population of Sosnowiec was devastated - they went left." (pg. 14)
As Zofia begins to feel alive again in Foehrenwald, she also begins to unravel the mysteries hiding in her own memories, as well as truth hiding in the enigmatic Josef. Against this, Hesse provides the reader with a very realistic picture of what life was like in a displaced persons camp after the war ended. She has really captured the chaos of so many people looking for loved ones whom they had been separated from and now hoped had also survived life in concentration camps, like Miriam. She and her twin sister were victims of Nazi experiments, now she obsessively writes letters in the hope of finding her sister. And as Zofia discovers, anti-Semitism didn't stop just because the war ended. But Hesse also shows the kindness of people, like Sister Therese at Kloster Indersforg, a displaced persons camp for children, who gives Zofia just enough hope that Abek is alive to keep her going.

While Zofia looks for Abek, Hesse interrogates the idea of what home will be to people who have lost everything and almost everyone that they had identified as home before the war. Just before the Lederman family was rounded up, Zofia had embroidered the story of their family in alphabet form and sewn it into Abek's jacket, so he wouldn't forget. In one of her dreams, Zofia tells Abek: "When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. And we will be whole, and everything will be fine. I promise I will find you." (pg. xiv) As Zofia rewrites this alphabet in a post war world, it looks very different, but will it become her way to find a new home and rebuild her family?     

That being said, no one was more surprised than I was when I got the the end of The Went Left and the mysteries were solved. I did not expect what I read. 

They Went Left is a book everyone should read.

You can find a great discussion guide provided by the publisher, LittleBrown, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Blog Tour: Bear and Fred: A World War II Story by Iris Argaman, illustrated by Avi Ofer, translated by Annette Appel

Bear and Fred: A World War II Story by Iris Argaman,
illustrated by Avi Ofer, translated by Annette Appel
Amazon Crossing Kids, 2020, 39 pages

Children often pick a loved object that becomes their best friend, something safe and comforting that can help them through difficult and stressful times. That is certainly true for young Fred, growing up in Delft, Holland. Based on a true story, and set during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Holland, Bear and Fred tells the story of young Fred Lessing's experiences and survival during the Holocaust and is told entirely from the point of view of his beloved bear.

Fred has always loved his little yellow teddy bear, who was never given a proper name, even after a dog attacks it, ripping off one ear and causing his head to wobble.

Click to enlarge
And bear is there the night, just after Fred's parents tell him that he would be going to Amsterdam to live with his grandfather, that the family is warned to leave their home and go into hiding immediately. Fred doesn't understand what is happening, or why he is told to never tell anyone where he is from or who he is, but at least he has his teddy bear. Fred is happy to see his grandfather, until he realizes his parents won't be staying. But after his grandfather sews a yellow star onto his clothing, Fred's mother returns, rips the star off and takes Fred away to live with a stranger and once again his mother must leave.

Click to enlarge
The strange lady is nice, and there is even a neighbor boy to play with, but Fred misses his parents and brothers, being alone is sad and the world is a scary place. Luckily, Fred has bear to comfort him. Then, one day, the war is over and Fred is reunited with his parents and brothers, "We are a family again!" Eventually, Fred and his family move to America.

Bear and Fred begins with a Prologue and Epilogue explaining how and when Fred's bear ended up in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. In between, the story explains why Fred's bear is so important to them. As Fred put it: "...[bear] had an important mission - to go to Israel to be part of an exhibition with other toys from the Holocaust, and there he would tell our story to children who would come to visit..."*

Bear and Fred is a particularly gentle, yet compelling Holocaust picture book. Nowhere are the Nazis mentions, nor are their abuses highlighted. But Fred was only 4-years-old when Holland was invaded by them, and six when his family was warned of a pending roundup. Iris Argaman has really captured how his feelings of confusion and fear are based on the behavior of people around him and things he is told. Having Fred's bear narrate provides just the right insight needed to keep this about Fred and not the world around him.

The story was originally written in Hebrew, and the translation is seamless and accessible, yet loses none of the poignancy, and I have to say I found myself tearing up while reading. 

The digitally rendered line illustrations are in complete harmony with the text. The simple images before and after the Holocaust are done in subtle colors, while the years during WWII are done in a palette of grays with touches of yellow, an interesting artistic statement (particularly interesting to me because when I was young, I always imagined those years in black and white, as though color and sunshine couldn't exist then).

The author has included a short Historical Note at the front of Bear and Fred and back matter consists of a letter written to young readers from Fred's Bear, and an informative Author's Note about how this story came to be written.

Bear and Fred is a richly expressive picture book for older readers, touching on themes of friendship, loneliness, family, and love.

* This quote came from an article published by Yad Vashem entitled BEAR, about Fred and his best friend. You can read it HERE.

You can read more about Iris Argaman's journey to write and publish Bear and Fred HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from Blue Slip Media

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sunday Funnies #36: Snoopy vs. the Red Baron

One thing about sheltering in place because of the coronavirus is that it gives me time to go through things and get a little more organized. This week I spent time organizing and cleaning out my digital files for The Children's War and found a bunch of things I'd saved for future posts and forgotten about. One of the subfiles I went though was called "Snoopies." When I originally began this blog, Snoopy was my avatar and muse, and I posted a few strips that Charles Schulz wrote to commemorate D-Day, the WWI Christmas Truce, and Veterans Day.

The Peanuts comic stripe explored lots of themes that Schulz returned to again and again, and one of those was Snoopy as his alter ego, the WWI flying ace, sitting in his Sopwith Camel (the red roof of his dog house), flying into battle in search of his nemesis the Red Baron, whom readers never see and whom Snoopy never defeats. The World War I flying ace appeared for the first time in the Sunday Funnies on October 10, 1965 with the following strip:
Snoopy and the Red Baron became so popular that just a little over a year after this strip was published, in November 1966, an English group called The Royal Guardsman recorded an album dedicated to these enemies.

Most of us are probably familiar with the song "Snoopy's Christmas" but if you are curious about the other tunes included on this album, you can listen on Spotify or YouTube Music.

Well, back to organizing and getting the piles of books on my floor back on the shelves in some order. How are you spending your time at home?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blue Skies by Anne Bustard

It's 1948 and the war has been over for three years, but not for 11-year-old Glory Bea Bennett. She's been hoping for a miracle - that her beloved MIA father, who was last seen alive storming Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 and is now presumed dead, will someday still come home. And it looks like Glory Bea is going to get her least that's what she thinks.

Grateful to the United States for helping to liberate France from Nazi occupation, the French people have are sending 49 boxcars* on what is called the Merci Train, all filled with gifts for the United States. And one of those boxcars is going to travel through and briefly stop at Glory Bea's small town of Gladiola, Texas. Slowly, as the town begins to prepare a celebration for the train's arrival, Glory Bea allows herself to become more and more convinced that her dad will be on that boxcar stopping on Valentines Day, which also happens to be her parent's wedding anniversary. She's sure just wants to surprise her and her mom. After all, why else would the Merci Train stop in Gladiola, and wouldn't it be just like her dad to plan a big surprise like that? she thinks.

There's only one problem - now her dad's best Army buddy, Randall Horton, has arrived in town to visit with the Bennett family and Glory Bea is not happy about the fact that he is spending a lot of  time with her mother, laughing, going out, and just enjoying each other's company. Angry and resentful, it seems the more Glory Bea tries to make his visit unpleasant, the longer Randall stays.

Glory Bea keeps her idea about her dad's return to herself, only telling her best friend Ruby Jane about it. Meanwhile, she begins to prepare for his homecoming, but now it looks like Randall is planning to settle down in Gladiola. Well, once her dad is home, her mother will lose all interest in Randall.

But when the Merci Train finally arrives in Gladiola, Glory Bea's miracle is definitely not what she expected.

Blue Skies is an interesting work of historical fiction that really shows the extent to which WWII impacted the lives of those who lived through it long after the fighting ended and that finally by 1949, people were beginning to finally move on with their lives. And while I loved the idea of bringing the Merci Train into the story, I did have a hard time with Glory Bea's holding on to the idea her dad was still alive but just hadn't come home yet for such a long time.

That being said, I still really liked this novel. There's so much going on beside Glory Bea's obsession. Her grandmother is a matchmaker, and she's trying to follow in her footsteps matching Ruby Jane and neighbor Ben Truman, and totally missing Ben's real crush.

An important side story in the book is that of Ben's father who returned from the war a changed man, suffering from PTSD. When Randell Horton arrives in town, and goes to visit Mr. Truman, just being able to talk about the war with someone who was there finally begins his healing, but there's no doubt he has a long road ahead of him.

One of the things I really enjoy when reading historical fiction are the little everyday things that are included, giving the reader a real sense of what life was life for kids back then. For example, the way movies play such a big part in the lives of Glory Bea and Ruby Jane, and the tradition of going to the soda fountain for Dr. Pepper floats afterwards.

Bustard has also really captured the patriotic spirit of places like Gladiola after the war. It's a small, friendly community where everyone knows and look out for each other. This is very evident in the parade that is being planned for the Merci Train's stop there or when Glory Bea and Ben hop on a train without a ticket.

I have to admit that at first I found Glory Bea an annoying, self-centered character, but as I read on I began to feel more empathy for her. I can understand the difficulty of losing a parent that you feel so attached to as a child. It happened to me, and it happened to my Kiddo, and life is hard for a long time. Coming to terms with loss can be a hard, sad journey, but Bustard allows Glory Bea to have her journey her way.

If you have read or are planning to read Blue Skies, you can find a list of interesting resources and links, including an Educator's Guide, HERE. There's even a playlist of songs from that time period (one of my favorite things is an author's playlist for historical fiction).

If you are looking for a compelling middle grade book about WWII and its aftermath, you can't go wrong with Blue Skies.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Simon & Schuster

* There were 49 Merci boxcars in all - one for each state and a 49th for the District of Columbia and Hawaii to share. The Merci train, also called the French Gratitude Train, was sent as a thank you not only for America's part in the liberation of France, but also for the more than 700 boxcars of much needed supplies on The American Friendship Train sent to France in 1947.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Village of Scoundrels written and illustrated by Margi Preus

It's December 1942, and Inspector Perdant has just arrived in the small mountain village of Les Lauzes, located in southeastern Vichy France, and not far Switzerland's border. Officially, Perdant's job is to "maintain positive relationships with the locals," but unofficially, he understands his job is "to identify evidence of illegal activities and unregistered Jews, foreigners, communists, and undesirables." (pg 38)

No sooner does Perdant settle in than he takes an immediate dislike of the teenagers who sled at high speeds through the village's main street at night. And as Perdant begins to observe the comings and goings of village residents, he becomes increasingly suspicious of these teens, convinced that they are up to something and there are Jews sheltering among them and that the villagers are in on it. 

And indeed, Perdant's suspicions are correct. In the center of Les Lauzes is a high school that is "meant to 'promote peace and international unity' and attracts teens from all over France, many of whom live in different boardinghouses in the village. Les Lauzes is a village full of secrets, and these teens attending school are part of that. Living in a boardinghouse named Sunnyside is an expert Jewish forger of documents, ration books, and identity cards who turned himself into Jean-Paul Filon, 17, and whose base of operations is the barn of Monsieur Mousset, a farmer. Jean-Paul often works with siblings Sylvie and Léon. Into Jean-Paul's life comes Jules, a 10-year-old goatherd who knows the mountains around Les Lauzes better than anyone and who offers his services as a delivery boy of forgeries.

Then there is red-headed Philippe, a Boy Scout with survival training, who escorts people escaping the Nazis through the mountains and across the Swiss border. Not well known among the teens, Philippe sleeps by day, and travels by night. Celeste, a wealthy girl from Paris, thinks she is too scared to be of any help to the resistance until she is asked to take a risky trip to deliver a message for the maquis.

In mid-December, the Gestapo arrive in Les Lauzes, taking up residence in a hotel right next to the Beehive, as boardinghouse with twenty children living there, most of them Jewish, including teenage Henni, as is the director of that residence. Most of the  children there, including Henni, were released from Gurs, a concentration camp in southwestern France.

This is a character driven story and is told from alternating points of view, including Pendant. The characters are all based on actual people, with the exception of Jules. One of the things I liked is the inclusion of a mystery woman with a limp who carries a suitcase around with her and sometimes herds the goats. The implication is that she is Virginia Hall, an American spy. I also feel that the village of Les Lauzes is itself a character in its own right, and is based on the real village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

And into this mix of characters, Margi Preus weaves a fictionalized story of resistance, courage, cleverness, community, and danger, all of it based on real people and true events in the face of Nazi occupation. What makes the resistance activity work is that nearly everyone in the community is involved, including ordinary citizens, pastors, farmers, teachers, families, and of course, the teens, just as it was in reality.

Preus has included a Pronunciation Guide of names and places used, and back matter includes an extensive Bibliography. But most interesting of all is her Epilogue. Here she documents the actual people that her characters are based on and what happened to them after the war, as well as information about the actual places included in the book.

There are illustrations done by the author, but I read an EARC and never saw the final art so I don't feel I can comment of them. That aside, Village of Scoundrels is an exciting, well-written work of historical fiction about a different aspect of the French Resistance.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Friday, April 10, 2020

On the Horizon by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Kenard Pak

On the Horizon by Lois Lowry,
illustrated by Kenard Pak
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 80 pages

Imagine looking at old family home movies and discovering something in the background that suddenly jolts memory and reflection. Well, that is exactly what happened to Lois Lowry when she had some of her family's old home movies restored and realized as a young child playing on Waikiki beach with her grandmother in 1940, her father's camera had also captured the USS Arizona in the distance heading to its berth in Pearl Harbor:
She Was There
We never saw the ship.
But she was there.

She was moving slowly
on the horizon, shrouded in the mist
that separated skies from seas
while we laughed, unknowing, in the breeze.

She carried more than 
twelve hundred men
on deck, or working down below.
We didn't look up. We didn't know.

It is only as an adult, Lowry says in her Author's Note, while showing the restored films to friends, that the USS Arizona is finally seen. As you probably already know, it sank when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and most of the sailors onboard were killed - among them, twin brothers, members of the ship's band, two brothers, one a survivor, one not but reunited years later in death.

From 1941, Lowry jumps to August 6, 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima, and again highlighting individuals who were there - among them, a young boy named Koichi Seii, who would later become known as Allen Say, a child pulled from the rubble and reunited with his father, teenage girls running the trams, and a little boy on a red tricycle.
The cloud appeared over the distant hill,
blossoming like strange new flowers in spring, 
opening, growing. But the world was still.
When the cloud appeared over the distant hill,
silence has fallen. There were no sounds until 
rain came. Not true rain, but black drops falling
from the cloud that appeared over a distant hill,
blossoming like strange new flowers in spring.

On the Horizon is written in three parts- the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Lowry family's life in post-war Japan - and uses a variety of poetic forms. One of the things that she has accomplished is to show the randomness of war - especially who lives and who dies (a randomness we are witnessing again as the Coronavirus chooses its victims).  It is perhaps one of the most affecting books I have read about WWII, and I found often myself tearing up as I read. I believe it is because of the way Lowry has brought the distant near. In this slender book of poems, she shows us that sometimes history can feel like one is looking at something far away on a misty horizon, but by giving face and voice to those who were there she brings it to the forefront, and history becomes closer, people become individual human beings. This is a book of poems I believe I will be returning to again and again.

Kenard Pak's black and while pencil and digital illustrations are a perfect compliment to each one of the poems.

You can find a useful Teacher's Guide HERE

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

This is one of my favorite poems from On the Horizon:

The hospital ships had names that spoke of need:

The carried the wounded and ill.

That morning, Solace was moored near the Arizona.
She sent her launches and stretchers across.
The harbor has a film of burning oil.
Scorched men were pulled one by one from the flames
and taken to Solace.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The King's Justice (a Maggie Hope Mystery #9) by Susan Elia MacNeal

I can't believe this is the ninth Maggie Hope mystery I've read. It seems like just yesterday I was reading #1 - Mr. Churchill's Secretary - and yet, it was back in 2012.

Maggie Hope has always been like such an intelligent, level-headed pillar of strength to me, but in The King's Justice we see a different side of Maggie, a more devil-may-care woman and who could blame her given all she has been through already.

It's now March 1943 and Nicholas Reitter, the Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer known as the Blackout Beast, and whose last victim was almost Maggie, has been sentenced to death for his crimes (see The Queen's Accomplice, Maggie Hope Mystery #6). Not sure she can ever put her experience with the Blackout Beast behind her, Maggie has refused to have anything more to do with spying for Churchill's SOE and is no longer working for MI5. Even DCI James Durgin, whom she is dating, can't change her mind, not even to help find a valuable stolen Stradivarius violin. 

Instead, Maggie has has taken up traveling around London on a rickety motorcycle, smoking and drinking too much, and volunteering to work with the 107th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers, defusing bombs that were dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. Known as the "Suicide Squad" it is a troop of conscientious objectors, most of whom are Itailan COs. 

But now, it seems there is another serial killer on the loose in London, one quickly nicknamed Jimmy Greenteeth. A number of suitcases full of clean white bones have been found during low tide in the Thames River, along with a white feather. Could the bones belong to London's conscientious objectors, possibly even friends of Maggie? But none of the men not showing up for work have been reported missing. Durgin is stumped and Maggie still refuses to help him solve the case.

But then, just days before his execution, Nicholas Reitter, now being held in the Tower of London,  claims he can help the police fine this new serial killer, but the only person he will speak to is Maggie Hope. And there's a condition attached to his information - Reitter wants a Royal Pardon from His Majesty, King George VI to stop his execution. Knowing this pardon will never happen, and angry with Durgin that he won't warn the COs about the white feathers found with the bones, Maggie ultimately finds herself involved in the Jimmy Greenteeth case when the young man she has been training, Milo Tucci, goes missing.

Perhaps not quite as action-packed as past Maggie Hope adventures, The King's Justice is nevertheless an exciting, complicated mystery. At first I thought that there would be a problem with linking this book up to a past story and using a specific events and recurring characters. I wondered if new readers might get lost unless there is enough background info given without spoiling too much of the action in each story. Not to worry - new readers don't need to know all the details from The Queen's Accomplice, but could well be inspired to begin reading Maggie's mysteries from the very beginning,  or just Book #6.

Old friends of Maggie, like myself, will enjoy her new adventure and, without giving anything away, you know what we are all hoping for in Maggie Hope #10, given how this ends.

One of the things I like really like about Maggie Hope mysteries is the attention to detail author Susan Elia MacNeal gives to presenting an in-depth picture of wartime London in her descriptions, and in this one particularly, the treatment of conscientious objectors, and enemy aliens, as well as in her use of British history, i.e. Jimmy Greenteeth is named after Jenny Greenteeth, a character in English folklore who would pulled people into a river and drowned them (and allows MacNeal to interrogate gendered ideas about who is capable of killing).

I am almost never disappointed when reading a Maggie Hope mystery, and now, I can't wait to see what #10 brings for her.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Funnies #35: Comics, Polio, and the March of Dimes

On March 26, 2020, amid the terrible Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world , we celebrated the 67th anniversary of the announcement that a vaccine had been discovered that could kill the polio virus. The result of research by Dr. Jonas Salk, clinical trials began in 1954 with  schoolchildren, called Polio Pioneers, all over the country some receiving the vaccine, other a placebo. By 1955, it was announced that the vaccine was a success.

The vaccine brought an end to the polio epidemics that had begun in Vermont in 1894 and that affected so many people, especially kids. Adults also suffered from polio, and one of the most well known was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was diagnosed in 1921, and left paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. The 1930s and 1940s saw a number of polio epidemics around the country and in 1937, FDR helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. It was this foundation that funded research on polio, including the work of Dr. Salk.

Interestingly, it was actor-comedian Eddie Cantor who coined the phrase March of Dimes for the foundation's fundraising efforts in 1938. Fundraising attracted lots of actors and actresses, but they weren't the only ones to get involved in raising money to fight polio. Comics books were also right on the forefront, too, appealing to youthful readers to make contributions to the March of Dimes by offering free fan club memberships and autographed postcards. For example,

Sensation Comics #15, March 1942

All-Star Comics #9 Feb-March 1942
All-Star Comics # March 1944

Action Comics #70 March 1944

Once so feared, polio is now almost non existent. Which gives me hope that we will also defeat the Coronavirus in the not-to-distant future. Meanwhile, may I recommend a few books about kids dealing the epidemics and pandemics?

Once, I Was Loved written and illustrated by Belinda Landsberry
Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter
To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson by Barbara Haworth-Attard
Risking Exposure by Jeanne Moran
Secrets at Camp Nokomis, a Rebecca Mystery by Jacqueline Dunban Greene

Stay Safe, Stay Home, Stay Strong

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rosie: Stronger than Steel written and illustrated by Lindsay Ward

Rosie: Stronger than Steel written and illustrated 
by Lindsay Ward
Two Lions, 2020, 40 pages

When a country goes to war, it mobilizes all its resources to help win that war. That was certainly true during World War II when men enlisted, children collected paper and cans, people donated whatever metal objects they could, and, women found themselves working in factories and fields, doing jobs traditionally held by men, all to help with the war effort.

The important work of women, those in the factories, collectively and iconically known as Rosie the Riveter and those working in the fields, appropriately known as the Land Girls, is highlighted in this appealing picture book through the eyes of a one-of-a-kind tractor.

The tractor is made out of donated items, then welded, riveted, painted green, given a lovely rose tattoo, and befittingly named Rosie. All the work is done by a group of women singing as they work.
As she leaves the factory, Rosie promises:
               "I plow and I dig.
                 I dig and I plow.
                   No matter the job,
                this is my vow."

Then, it's off by plane, ship, truck and train, until Rosie finally arrives at her destination - an overgrown farm in England in desperate need of tending. Between Rosie and the Land Girls, working day and night, they spent endless days in the fields, even as enemy planes fly overhead, helping to  provide desperately needed food to troops fighting in Europe to help win the war.

Together, Rosie and the Land Girls also hauled milk containers, and freshly picked produce. They even clear more land together, "Day after day. Year after year." Until finally, Victory! And the war is over.

But what happens to Rosie now that the war is over?

March is Women's History Month and I can't think of a better book for introducing young readers to some of the important contributions of women during WWII. Ward situates Rosie using newspaper headlines that encapsulate not just her story about one tractor's journey, but the historical background upon which it is based.

Rosie: Stronger than Steel is in part written in rhyming verse, and in part, lyrical language. The rhymes are repeated throughout the book, and if your young readers are anything like mine, they will have those verses memorized and in no time at all, you will be hearing "This is our Rosie, / stronger than steel. / She'll plow all the land / with the turn of her wheel."

The engaging illustrations are done using color pencils and cut paper and have a decidedly retro feel to them. I liked the way Ward used a brown palette for the factory illustrations, and a lush green palette for the farming images. True to life, the factory images age also diverse.

My young readers are 4-5-years-old and they saw this mainly as a story about a tractor that helped people during a war. Older readers will appreciate the roles of women as well as the call for action during the war, making this a great book for use both inside and outside the classroom/home school room.

Back matter includes a very informative Author's Note about the women who inspired Ward to write Rosie and a bibliography of books about the Women's Land Army, Rosie the Riveter, and Ford tractors.

All readers will love the We Can Do It spirit that permeates the story of Rosie: Stronger than Steel.

Meet the Author:
Lindsay Ward is the creator of the Dexter T. Rexter series as well as This Book is Gray, Brobarians, Rosco vs. the Baby, and The Importance of Being 3. Her book Please Bring Balloons was also made into a play. Lindsay lives with her family in Peninsula, Ohio, where she often sees tractors from the 1930s and 1940s. Learn more about her online at And you can follow her on Twitter at @lindsaymward.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was gratefully received by me from Blue Slip Media.