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 Adalyn and Chloe's father is a WWI veteran who suffers from PTSD, has basically withdrawn from life, and everyone must tiptoe around him so as not to upset him.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