Saturday, December 18, 2021
It's Christmas Eve, and realizing how fortunate they are, Batman and Robin have decided to spread some Christmas joy to those less fortunate, particularly the loneliest man in the the world.
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Chokecherry does have one thing happening that could put it on the map. After some dinosaur poop is discovered there, a group of paleontologists are sent to work on a dig hoping to find more dinosaur evidence. Among them is the Levinson family - the only Jewish family in town and daughter Dana Levinson is a student at the middle school, and who is very disturbed by the appearance of a swastika.
Meanwhile, prankster Lincoln Rowley, 13 and called Link, and his friends are caught trying to dump 80 pounds of smelly dinosaur poop through the mail slot at the paleontologist's office in town. When Link is caught in the act, his father bans him playing any school sports. Link's father has a dream of turning Chokecherry into the next great tourist attraction, complete with a Disney-like amusement park. But no sooner is the first swastika washed away, but more of them begin showing up in various places around the school.
The school's answer to this is to hold a three week course in tolerance education, but the swastika's keep showing up and so does some surprising history. It seems Chokecherry was the scene of an incident in 1978 that involved KKK groups surrounding the town's foothills with burning crosses, referred to as the Night of a Thousand Flames. It's a subject Link's father does not want brought up, but talking to his parents about it reveals a surprising history in Link's family. His mother's mother, who is Catholic, is really Jewish, given to some French nuns for safety as a baby in 1941 when the Nazi's were occupying France and her parents were about to be arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Link, who up until now hadn't taken the swastikas seriously, is stunned by this news. If his great grandmother was Jewish, his grandmother is Jewish, that means he and his mother are technically Jewish, too. When Link begins to annoy Dana with question about Judaism, she suggests he get bar mitzvahed. Which he decides is a great idea and arranges lessons with the closest rabbi 100 miles away.
Meanwhile, it doesn't take long for a TikTok vlogger named ReelTok to latch on to the events in Chokecherry and start broadcasting right in the middle of town, hoping to stir things up. When ist becomes clear that the students are getting nothing out of the tolerance education they are being given, it's clear they need to do something else to counter the swastikas that are still showing up. Following the lead by the real school that collected 6 million paper clips, one for each Jewish person who perished in the Holocaust, the students at Chokecherry Middle School decide to make a paper chain with 6 million loops. It's an ambitious project and soon the whole school is behind it, gluing paper links together. But when they run out of construction paper in Chokecherry and the principal cancels the whole project, it feels like the person drawing the swastika's has won. But have they?
This is a Gordon Korman book so you know it is told from the perspective of different characters, with Link being at the center. It's not a format that always works, but Korman is a master at it and it work in his hands. It provides insight about each character, what they are thinking and how they are reacting to the events as they unfold, so it's very in-the-moment.
Linked is told with a lot of Korman humor despite the seriousness of the Holocaust. The fact that the students are bored and turned off to the tolerance education but enthusiastic about the paper chain points to the fact that participatory learning might be better. At least, as a teacher, I think so, especially as the Holocaust recedes and students see it as just another topic in history. To his credit, Korman includes a lot of Holocaust history in this novel in such a way that the students really get they idea of what it was like.
I loved how the theme of linking used. When you think about the novel, so many links come to mind. For example, Link's grandmother, who is still living, links past and present, while the fact that most people in Chokecherry think the racist Night of a Thousand Flames never happened links it to the importance of remembering those who perished in the Holocaust, signified by the loops of the paper chain. Other themes explored are identity, racism, redemption, community. Oh, yes, there is also a big surprise towards the end of the book.
Monday, December 6, 2021
Thursday, November 25, 2021
Alice Winfield, 12, her mother Posie, father Alan, and older sister Louise, 18, are part of a unique group of people with forgettable faces, "nonfaces that were like tabulae rasas or blank slates." (pg 6) And British Rasas had been serving their country as spies since the days of Henry VIII. Now, however, Louise has decided to leaving spying and have plastic surgery that would give her a recognizable face - something that Alice just can't understand.
But it's 1944, and before she has too much time to think too much about it, Alice is parachuting into Germany with her mother on her first real spying mission and joining her father in Berlin. Her mission is to spy on Adolf Hitler. Posing as a schoolgirl named Ute, Alice wins the Reichs Praktikum for a chance to be an intern in Hitler's household, going where he goes and assessing his mental health. Her mentor for this spy mission is Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, Reichs hero and secretly part of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to kill Hitler, and now Alice is right in the thick of that conspiracy.
In the midst of this intrigue Alice/Ute meets David, a starving Jewish boy who has been hiding out in the house his family used to lived in before they were deported. The house is now occupied by Colonel Ernst Schmelling, a high ranking Nazi. David has been eating scraps of food out of the Schmelling garbage cans to survive. Alice begins sneaking food to David and they gradually become friends. Oddly enough, David never forgets her, recognizing her face each time they meet.
On top of all that, one day Alice is sure she has seen Louise among the crowds of people in Berlin. But what would she be doing there? Is she a double agent, or has she gone over to the other side? Whatever it is, Alice is determined to find Louise and confront her.
With the war turning in the Allies favor, especially after the failure of Operation Valkyrie (not a spoiler, we all know what happened), and the success of the July 6, 1944 Normandy landings (D-Day), things are becoming quite dangerous as the tension mounts.
It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I was hooked. The whole business about Rasa confused me at first, but once I realized it was a fiction, I just went with it. It was interesting to see the last days of the Third Reich through Alice's eyes, and Lasky included lots of good information about what it was like to be in Hitler's inner circle.
But there were some things that bothered me. It was a little to repetitive at times, especially in the beginning of the book. And I kept wondering how the local baker was about to bake such wonderful bread and cookies in 1944, when most people were starving (except Nazis, of course). There was also a big error on page 102, which I think was just a typo - it said that was the commandant of Auschwitz was Rudolf Hess, but it was actually Rudolf Höss. Rudolf Hess was a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1944. You can see how easy it is to confuse the two names, though. One last thing bothered me - on page 114 it says there isn't a cozy name for mother in German, but that's exactly was Mutti is. These things will definitely not spoil your reading of Faceless, but as a person with a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literature who's also a little OCD, I just couldn't let them go. However, despite these things, I really did enjoy reading this novel.
Sunday, November 21, 2021
When America went to war in 1941, men enlisted in droves to defend their country. But that left the workforce at home depleted and America needed people to step up production of war materials of all kinds. Women were perfectly willing to fill that need and in 1942, American women pulled on some overalls, wrapped their hair in a scarf, slung on a tool belt, and the figure of Rosie the Riveter was born.
It didn't take long for the image of Rosie the Riveter to become an icon in WWII popular culture. There were songs, posters, magazine covers, even a movie about Rosie. She was the hero that kept the home front going all through the war. But then the men returned and wanted their jobs back. Dvojack writes that Rosie had become such a powerful symbol that women could use in their fight to remain part of the workforce and then Rosie became a movement, with rallying cry "We can do it!"
|If you look closely, you'll notice all the women and girls are wearing something red with white polkadots.|
Monday, November 15, 2021
Sunday, November 7, 2021
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II by Michal Skibinski, illustrated by Ala Bankroft
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel adapted by Andrew Donkin, art by Dave Kopka, colors by Brann Livesay
I can't believe it has been 10 years since I first read Between Shades of Gray. It was one of those books that introduced me to a new aspect of WWII and it had such a profound influence on me when I read it, one that has stayed with me ever since. Although the novel is still certainly well worth reading, so is the new graphic novel about what happened to 15-year-old Lina Vilkas and her family.
Lina is arrested by the Soviet secret police or NKVD along with her mother and younger brother, Jonas, taken from their home in Kaunas, Lithuania on the night of June 14, 1941. Loaded into a truck along with other families that had been rounded up, the Vilkas soon find themselves at a remote train station, where other truckloads of arrested Lithuanians are arriving.
Everyone is put into crowded cattle cars that just sit there for days. During that time, Lina meets Andrius and the two sneak out together at night. Lina is hoping to find her father since they don't know what has happened to him. Just before the trains leave the station, she finds her father in another train.
The family is happy to know he is still alive even if they don't know what will happen to him. When their train finally leaves the station, they spend the next 42 days traveling to a remote area of Siberia, where they are forced to sign a paper that convicts them of crimes against the Soviet Union (their crime - simply being Lithuanian) and sentences them to 25 years of labor.
Life in Siberia is hard, the winters are brutal and the degradations constantly inflicted by the Soviets make things even more difficult. Over time, Lina and Andrius find that they are attracted to each other, but often harsh conditions come between them. Eventually, they are separated when Lina and her family are sent to another prison camp in Siberia, where she finds life with Andrius even harsher.
Monday, October 18, 2021
At Écouis, there was plenty of food, clean sheets and bathrooms, but after years of starvation and mistreatment, the boy were somewhat feral. That, combined with anger, caused them to behave violently at times, to steal, and to hoard.
In between learning how to adjust to life after living under Nazi oppression for so long, Romek slowly regains memories of his loving family and his happy childhood before the Nazis invaded Poland and his experiences working in the munitions factory and later in Buchenwald. Throughout his ordeal, Romek held on to the idea that after the war and liberation, he would return to his home in Poland, where his family would all be there waiting for him. Much of his journey, then, is about coming to terms with the reality of what happened.
At one point, Romek's older sister is found and he journeys back to Germany to see her, but when she tells him she will be married soon and moving to Palestine, he returns to Écouis. There, he also meets a wealthy French couple Jean and Jane Brandt, who want him to meet their children. Jane begins taking Romek on cultural excursions, but when they offer to adopt him, he declines.
After finally accepting the fact that only he and his sister survived, in 1948, at age 17, Romek emigrated to Canada, to begin a new chapter in his life and where he changed his name to Robert (Robbie) Waisman. Robbie married and had children, but it was many years before he could speak about his experiences under the Nazis.
Boy From Buchenwald is a riveting read, and certainly one that is needed now as more and more survivors of Nazi atrocities are dying off. Robbie tells his story in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, which might be confusing to some readers since it isn't always linear. And many of the incidents that Robbie writes about may also be difficult for them, but, despite that, this is a book that should be read and discussed. Robbie and his friends were so traumatized by what they experienced, yet they were still able to go on and lead productive lives. Ultimately, then, this book is quite inspiring and shows just how strong the human instinct to survive can be.
Pair this book with Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein for another important survivor story.
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
War by José Jorge Letria, illustrated by André Letria, translated from the Portuguese by Elisa Amado
War is a thoughtful, honest though grim look at the common factors all wars share, from its first glimmerings to its end and beyond.
Monday, October 11, 2021
OK, I know I hold on to my devices way too long but 2021 seems to have become the year of device death for me. First, it was my smartphone. I could no longer update it and it began to slowly be unable to access much of anything and the battery pretty much didn't even hold a charge. So, I replaced my old phone in March.
No sooner did my phone get replaced, but my iPad slowly began to not let me access so many websites I use regularly. Plus, the battery no longer held a charge, and since I use my iPad for work and for reading digital books, it needed to be replaced in June.
Come September, and my desktop decided to follow my phone and iPad into the device graveyard. So I ordered a new desktop in August and it sat in Shanghai for ages because there are so few freight flights out of China now. But, it finally arrived this weekend and I've been setting it up. Luckily, I was smart enough to have an external backup drive on my old computer because by the time I got the new one, it had really given up the ghost.
In all fairness, my old computer was bought in 2011, and I had increased the memory at one point and I have to say for a 10-year-old computer, it served me well.
Meanwhile, I've been busy reading lots of books and will begin posting reviews shortly.
Hopefully, device-wise, I hope I'm set for at least the next few years.
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Daniel Duncan
Beatrice always seemed to be the person who was different. As a girl, she preferred tools to sweets, enjoyed taking mechanical things apart and putting them back together, often improving them. Instead of a bike, Beatrice began saving for a motorcycle at age 10.
Could Beatrice figure out how to solve the problem in a timely, cost effective way that wouldn't require taking apart the planes engine? Of course she could - and did.
The Girl Who Could Fix Anything is a wonderful picture book for older readers. Rockliff shows readers that here was intelligent, persistent woman who followed her passion, loved to find out how things worked, and found ways to fix or improve engineering problems, but who also made mistakes, something I think is important for young readers to know about. The writing is light but informative, and the technical details, for example, the fix Beatrice came up with for the RAF, are presented in an easy to understand manner. The subtly colored digitally created illustrations completely harmonize with the text. Back matter includes an Author's Note that provides more about the life of Beatrice Shilling, as well as Selected Sources.
The Girl Who Could Fix Anything is a book that should be in every STEM home, classroom, and school library. Beatrice Shilling is an inspiration to young girls everywhere who might just be a little different from their peers, having an interest in engineering and how things work.
Monday, September 20, 2021
In 1931 Berlin, ten-year-olds Erik and Hans are best friends with big plans for the future - Erik plans to become head zookeeper at the Berlin Zoo and Hans plans to open a kiosk outside the zoo and sell strudel. But right now, Erik is collecting flies to feed the young swallows he has just rescued. Hans has an Uncle Karl who introduces the boys to flying, which they love, and eventually causes them to become Luftwaffe pilots even though they never supported Hitler and the Nazis.
Although she comes from a family where the girls are all named after flower, in 1927 Plymouth, England, Violet decides to name her daughter Ruby Amaryllis. Not only does Ruby have a different name, but she is born with red birthmarks scattered over her face, causing her feel self-conscious and to shy away from people as she gets older. As if birthmarks aren't bad enough, older brother Will, 8, has no use for his new sister, and as children, he never lets her forget that. Ruby's mother Violet's best friend is Clarry Penrose from Oxford, who is given the honest of becoming Ruby's godmother.
Peter Penrose, now a doctor has married Vanessa and they have six children, including Kate, born in 1928 and who is their youngest. As it happened, Clarry is also Kate's godmother. Into this mix is unofficial cousin Rupert, who is as exciting and interesting to the Penrose children as is Han's Uncle Karl to him and Erik. But Kate is the only one who doesn't get to experience any adventures with Rupert. Kate is a sickly child, with lung problems and a constant cough, and by the time she would have been old enough, WWII had begun. But she is also inquisitive and a keen observer, and begins to keep a diary of everything that happens to everyone else.
Dog lives in East London and no one knows just how old he is. He is kept chained up in the scrapyard, and is supposed to bark away potential thieves, but dreams of running free. The only kindness he experiences is the scrapyard girl who at least acknowledges him with an occasional "hello, dog" and who, at the start of the war, attaches a luggage tag to his collar with the name Pax burned into it. Not long after, Pax is released to fend for himself, but luckily meets the kindhearted Rupert.
The story that unfolds is told in alternating chapters that recounts how the war impacts the lives of each of these five character until their lives converge. It's an unusual format, but one the works beautifully and the non-linear timeline is not at all confusing. Don't worry if you haven't read the first book. While it is well worth reading, The Swallows' Flight stands alone and there is a even brief family tree for each of the human characters.
McKay's writing is just beautiful and she has skillfully created a heartwarming, inspiration novel that includes appealing character's with distinct characteristics and personalities. There is just enough information about what is going on in the world, especially Germany, to give historical context to the individual stories. There is a glossary in the back matter as well as some historical background.
The Swallows' Flight is available now in the UK and will be available in the US on October 19, 2021
Monday, September 13, 2021
The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America by Norman H. Finkelstein
After providing some rudimentary information about the rise of the Nazis and their treatment of Jews through the 1930s in Germany and countries which they invaded, and ultimately Hitler's "Final Solution," Finkelstein turns his focus to those Jews who had sought safety in Italy. Italy had early on allied itself to Hitler, but Italians often refused to help them deport Jews. By 1943, Italy's fascist dictator had been overthrown and Allied troops had liberated southern Italy, but German troops were quickly moved into Central and Northern Italy, and immediately began deporting all the Jews they captured to death camps in Poland.
Then. in 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order setting up the War Refugee Board to rescue as many "persecuted minorities of Europe" as possible. Immigration laws were bypassed because the refugees who would be rescued were considered guests of the president and would not be allowed to stay in the US once the war was over.
A diverse group of 982 refugees living in Rome were selected, most of whom were Jews, and after a rough two-week trip aboard the USS Henry Gibbons, followed by an overnight train trip from New York City to Oswego, New York, the refugees arrived at Fort Ontario on August 5, 1944. And though they were welcomed by the people of Oswego, for many refugees living in a confined space like the fort, surrounded by a chain link fence toped with barbed wire and watched by guards made many of them skeptical. And yet, the fort's barracks had been converted into furnished apartments for them, complete with laundry, bathing and toilet facilities for men and women, there was plenty to eat, though the refugees ate in dining halls instead of in their makeshift apartments.
Soon, many of the refugees found work, while their children were allowed to attend school outside the fort. They could speak on the telephone with their family members already living in the US, but they were not allowed to visit anyone (well, there were a few forays out of the camp by some teens that no one knew about). Creating a safe haven for the 982 refugees was not without its problems and Finkelstein doesn't skip over these. The biggest problem was what to do with them when the war ended. The refugees had all signed an agreement that they would return to their homeland once the war was over, but now many had adjusted to living in the US and had no home or family to return to, and wished to remain in America. This resulted in a long legal fight and Finkelstein devotes a lot of time to it.
The Shelter and the Fence is a great introduction to this overlooked part of World War II history. It is easy to read, and there are lots of photographs and text boxes containing personal reflections by some of the people who were part of the rescue effort. I did find that at times I found the writing was confusing and I had to go back and reread parts of the book. Some things were too glossed over and without knowing the history could be disconcerting. This would make it a book that is best used as a supplementary text for social studies classes. The book does describe the many kindnesses on the part of the people living in Oswego, as well as those who did not want the refugees in their town or country.
And while saving 982 people may seem like a token rescue compared to the overwhelming number of people who perished during the Holocaust and even the refusal to allow the 937 refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939 to enter the US, it needs to be remembered that every life is important and so this rescue should not be trivialized.
The Shelter and the Fence is a compelling book and I think that the plight of the refugees will definitely resonate with today's readers when once again America's borders have become an issue.
The New York Times published an article a year ago (September 11, 2020) about the 982 refugees who lived in Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY and you can read it HERE.
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Now, war is coming and Peter's father has voluntarily signed up to fight, which means that Peter must go live with his equally cold, strict grandfather hundreds of miles away, and that means that Pax must be released into the wild, despite lacking the skills and instinct to survive there.
The first night at his grandfather's house, Peter realizes the mistake he made setting Pax free and decides to go find him and take him home. At the same time, Pax, who doesn't understand what has happened, is trying to patiently wait for his boy to come and get him in the same spot where he was dropped off.
Peter packs a backpack and takes off in the night, but things don't go a planned. His second day out, Peter breaks his ankle and is taken in by Vola, a war veteran with a prosthetic leg living in a secluded part of the forest. She sets Peter's broken bone, and for the next few weeks, the two live in less than perfect harmony, although Vola does help Peter build his strength up for the day he will go in search of Pax again.
Meanwhile, Pax has been taken under the wing of an older fox named Grey. But a younger female called Bristle smells the scent of human on him and refuses to accept Pax. Bristle is also very protective of her brother, Runt, who is curious about Pax and more willing to accept him. As the war comes closer to them, a terrible accident becomes the catalyst for a tentative accord between Pax and Bristle for the sake of their survival.
Can Peter's plan to find Pax and return home conceivably come to fruition as the war comes closer, and Pax becomes more acclimated to living in the wild, while Peter must deal with delays in returning to the place where he last saw Pax?
Pax is narrated in alternating chapters by Peter and Pax. At first, I was a little hesitant about chapters told from the point of view of a fox. Anthropomorphizing Pax felt like it would spoil what sounded like a wonderful story about the connection between a boy and a fox. But Pennypacker has a note in the front explaining that readers should understand the italicized words in the Pax chapters represent the "vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression" of complex fox communication, and in an NPR interview, she further explained that she had consulted a fox expert, who vetted the book for her.
Pax is a wartime story about loss, grief, trauma, and betrayal, but also about healing, caring, acceptance, and redemption, which all sound like the usual war story tropes. But Pax is a wartime story unlike any other. For one thing, it is an unspecified war in the present time, in a place with no name. Yet, that doesn't diminish the horror, destruction, and death that war brings not just to people, but to animals and the environment, and while Pennypacker doesn't spare the reader from those horrors, none of them are gratuitous or terribly graphic. I found what does add to the horror of war is how normal some things are - there is television, there are cell phones, there are kids going to school and playing baseball, a sport Peter loves.
As soon as I received an ARC of Pax, Journey Home, the sequel to Pax, I knew I had to reread the first book and that is just what I did. The writing is elegant, and the story is every bit as beautiful and poignant as the first time I read it. Whether or not you have already read Pax, I highly recommend it, especially if you plan on reading Pax, Journey Home.
Monday, August 30, 2021
Now, in the summer of 1941, Natt and his mother, along with 26 other people, have been traveling in a cattle car for more than six weeks after being arrested and are on their way to Siberia. The journey is nothing short of a lice-infested "Train of Horrors, finally ending in Novosibirsk, in southern Siberia. There, they are taken to an outdoor schoolyard where they will be staying. Natt is still haunted by the terrible thing he did after his father was arrested. His mother was told she could see his father through a window at a certain time, but when she and Natt walked by, Natt turned his head away from the window, an act he is sure he will never forgive himself for and is convinced his father won't either.
Life in Siberia allows for a certain amount of movement, simply because escape is pretty much out of the question. But life is hard hard. There is never enough to eat, clothing is old, dirty, patched, and never warm enough. And each time their circumstances change, Natt thinks things can't get any worse, and yet they do. But Natt also makes friends wherever he goes, who can often help in get wants he wants. There is Irena, 18, who voluntarily travels to Siberia in the same cattle cart as Natt and the others, in order to try and find information about her exiled parents. Natt lives with her for a while when his mother is arrested for "stealing potatoes" after being set up by an official who needed to meet her arrest quota. And there is Olga and Peter, siblings who live in Novosibirsk and whose father has an important and useful-for-Natt job. And Gabi Mindru, 11, whose mother takes Natt in when Irena leaves to find her parents, and who nurses him back to health when he gets deathly ill. Through Gabi, Natt meets Igor, 16, whose father is an NKVD captain, but who also proves helpful to Natt, nevertheless.
Like the first book, A Boy is Not a Ghost is an very readable novel, and narrated in the first person by Natt, who is as beguiling as ever. His story, which begins when Natt is 11-years-old ends towards the end of the war when he is 15, as you might have surmised, it is a book about fighting to survive every day against all odds. Natt, who often misread people and their motives in the first book, learns to make himself invisible, and to communicated in code and to understand when others communicate to him in code. I wrote about the first book that Natt held on to his innocence in part because there were always enough kind people in his life who really liked him, and though no longer as innocent as he once was, Natt is still an extremely likable boyand people are often willing to help him.
He is still writing to his best friend Max in Switzerland, though he never hears from him and the reader never finds out if he made to safety. But Natt's letters are a wonderful shortcut vehicle for more giving information about what is happening with Natt and the other exiles in Siberia.
Though it is a sequel, A Boy is Not a Ghost can be read as a stand alone novel, though I would recommend reading both books. The author, Edeet Ravel, has included a lot of information relevant to Natt's experiences under Soviet occupation in the book's back matter that I would also recommend reading. I read an eARC and did not see all of the chapter illustrations or map that will be in the published book.
A Boy is Not a Ghost will be available on September 7, 2021.