Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

It's February 1939, and Parisian Odile Souchet has just landed her dream job as a librarian at the American Library there. Odile has been visiting the library since she was a child and already knows many of the people who frequent it on a daily basis. Meanwhile at home, and much to the amusement of Odile and her twin Rémy, her father, a police captain, has been inviting protégés from various precincts to the house for Sunday dinner, in the hope she will be attracted to one. And finally, it happens - a blond policeman named Paul, who actually shows up at the library bearing daffodils and looking for reference books.

Odile also meets Bitsi, the friendly children's librarian who loves reading as much as she does, and wealthy, but unhappy Margaret, the wife of an attaché at the British embassy who can't adjust to living in Paris, missing her mum, England, and speaking English.

Odile brings Margaret into the library fold as a volunteer while teaching her French. Like Odile, Margaret blooms in the library, finding friends, confidence, and meaning in her life and the two women become fast friends. 

It feels like an idyllic life until France falls to the Nazis and everything changes. Libraries in Paris are now controlled by the Nazis, who have already closed some and banned certain books. When the day for the inspection of the American Library arrives, it turns out that Miss Reeder, the director of the American Library, knows the inspector, Dr. Fuchs, a librarian himself. He basically leaves the most of the library's books intact, but forbids some to circulate and says certain people, namely Jews, may no longer be allowed into the library. Miss Reeder is determined to keep things going, however, and everyone pitches in to secretly deliver books to the homes of the banned Jewish subscribers and to send books to soldiers to help keep up morale.  

Meanwhile, Rémy has fallen in love with Bitsi, has joined the army and is taken prisoner. Odile has fallen in love with Paul, and Margaret's husband has left Paris. But when Odile learns about some of the things Paul is doing, and begins to notice changes in Margaret, she starts to question her feelings towards both of them, and unwittingly betrays Margaret to Paul.

Juxtaposed to Odile's life and these events in wartime France, is the story of Lily, a bored, lonely teenager living in 1980s Froid, Montana, right next door to the elderly, mysterious and reclusive but worldly Mrs. Odile Gustafson, the town's only war bride. Wanting to know more about her and what makes her so different from the other ladies in Froid, Lily decides to make to do a school report on France, hoping to get help from Mrs. Gustafson. And surprisingly, Mrs. Gustafson does agree to help her. Over time, the two become friends, and when Lily's mother passes away, Mrs. Gustafson is there for her. 

I found the chapters with Lily's story to be somewhat of a relief from the tensions of WWII, even though she experiences her own tragedy. Lily is a wonderful character - nosy, curious, looking for a way out of Froid and into the wider world. And Odile is just the person to lead her there. But, it is through her friendship with Lily from 1983 to 1988 that we learn what happened to Odile after the war and how she ended up in Froid, Montana. 

I was first attracted to The Paris Library because it was about a library in Paris during WWII. What lifted it out of good book and put it into great book for me was the inclusion of real people who worked in the ALP at that time, like Americans Miss Reeder, the directress, and library trustee Clara de Chambrun, as well as the Russian born head librarian Boris Netchaeff. Even the German library inspector, Dr. Fuchs, was a real person and a professional acquaintance of Miss Reeder. All of this added such a sense of authenticity to the novel and allowed for some interesting history to be worked into the story without seeming forced.

And I loved being in the library with Odile, Miss Reeder, Boris, and everyone else. Even the subscribers who spent their days there, reading, talking, arguing were so realistic, perhaps because they reminded me of the habitués I used to know at the NYPL when I was doing research. Each one of Skeslien Charles' characters were brave, defiant and loyal, even through the darkest days of the war.

If you are looking for a book about books with themes of community, communication, friendship, betrayal and resistance, you can't go wrong with The Paris Library.

You can find a detailed Reading Group Guide courtesy of the publisher Simon & Schuster HERE.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from the publisher.
Dorothy Reeder April 1939

Monday, February 22, 2021

Andrew Higgins and the Boats That Landed Victory in World War II by Nancy Rust and Carol Stubbs, illustrated by Brock Nicol

Andrew Higgins and the Boats That Landed Victory in World War II
written by Nancy Rust and Carol Stubbs,
illustrated by Brock Nicol
Pelican Publishing, 2020, 32 pages

How many times have we seen photos or film of that pivotal day, June 6, 1944 and the Normandy landings during WWII and focused only on the brave soldiers storming the beach, without giving a second thought to the odd looking boats that brought them there? Now you can get to know the man who delivered those soldiers and their equipment to the beaches of Normandy and who helped bring about the end of the war. 

Born in 1886 in Columbus, Nebraska, Andrew Higgins always loved boats, but and he loved a good challenge. When he was 12, Andrew built his first boat, a wrecked sailboat he found in the river by his house. Yet, after all his hard work, he found his rebuilt sailboat was too slow for his taste. So, he challenged himself to build a bigger, faster boat. Speed seems to have had a great deal of appeal to Andrew, but school didn't and so he quit and became solider, then a farmer, a truck driver, and later owned a lumberyard. But nothing satisfied him.

Andrew began designing boats when he opened a lumberyard in New Orleans, and needed something that could move his cut trees through the shallow waters there. Another challenge for Andrew, who designed a flat bottom boat to do the job. Naturally, as the lumber business slowed down, boat building became Andrew's main focus. In fact, he built such great boats for those shallow waters that his landing boats, a/k/a Higgins boats, could "crunch through driftwood, bounce over logs, climb a beach, ...wham up on a sloping concrete sea wall." They were so good that more and more people wanted them.

During WWII, Andrew made all kinds of boats for the military, including PT boats and Higgins boat with its drop down ramp that could be used for transporting soldiers and heavy equipment like tanks from large ships to beach shores. Andrew had to hire more workers to build his boats, and because he believed in a workforce that was diversified and treated people fairly, he hired women, people of color, then started a childcare center and a free clinic. Not only that, he paid equal pay for equal work. Andrew Higgins and his boats were a success story on the home front as well the as the fighting front lines.

Thanks to the Higgins Boat and their ability to move soldiers and large equipment even under the harshest circumstances, wars would be fought differently from then on. After the war, President Dwight Eisenhower said that Andrew Higgins was "the man who won the war" thanks to his Higgins Boat.

I had never heard of the Higgins Boat, even though pictures of it are so common. Yet, when I asked a friend whose father was in the Navy if she ever heard of a Higgins Boat, she knew exactly what it was and role it played in WWII, but she didn't know anything about the man who designed it. Hence, the need for a well done biography like this one. And in fact, I found Andrew Higgins and the Boats That Landed Victory in World War II not only informative, but really interesting. 

I loved this well-written, accessible picture book for older readers, but besides excellent writing, the text is extended and enhanced by the very detailed, very realistic painted illustrations by artist Brock Nicol. He chose a bright palette for the images of Andrew growing up and seeking his passion, and switched to a palette of army greens and browns for the WWII images. I think he really captured Andrew Higgins' life and his work as befits an American hero. 

Back Matter includes a Glossary, an Author's Note, and a list of Important Dates in the life of Andrew Higgins. You may also want to watch this interview from September 2020 with authors Nancy Rust and Carol Stubbs by curator Josh Schick at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans 

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was an F&G gratefully received from the authors. 
An iconic image of a Higgins Boat on D-Day

Monday, February 15, 2021

Mei Ling in China City/Mei Ling en la Ciudad China by Icy Smith, illustrated by Gayle Garner Roski

Mei Ling in China City/Mei Ling en la Ciudad China
written by Icy Smith, illustrated by Gayle Garner Roski
East West Discovery Press, 2020, 47 pages

An interesting story about the real life for one Chinese American girl in 1942.

It's September 1942, and Chinese American Mei Ling, 12, is missing her best friend Yayeko Akiyama. Because she is Japanese American Yayeko, her family and all west coast persons of Japanese ancestry have been sent to what the government calls relocation centers after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States entered World War II. The Akiyamas were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, she writes to Mei Ling.

In their exchange of letters, Yayeko says she is bored in Manzanar, where there is no school yet, and she wakes up with dust all over her face every morning. No only that but she has not privacy - they live in a barracks, meals are in a mess hall, even the showers and latrines lacked privacy.  

Mei Ling Lee, who lives in China City in Los Angeles, is getting ready to celebrate the Moon Festival. Putting on her red silk dress, so that she can help out in the family restaurant Chung Dat Loo, Mei Ling is sent on some errands. 

First, she is to pick up more paper lanterns to decorate the restaurant, and then stop at the bakery for more moon cakes. On her way there, Mei Ling stops at the Kuan Yin Temple to say hi to her friend Johnny Yee. Johnny is selling fortune telling sticks and incense for seven cents to tourists. Later he will perform the traditional lion dance in the big Moon Festival parade. 

Mei Ling also runs into her friends Ruby, Francis and Doris selling American Flags and Chinese opera tickets for $1.00 to raise money for the United China Relief Fund to help the women and children refugees in China, suffering under Japanese occupation. Naturally, Mei Ling offers to sell some of both at the restaurant. The person who sells the most wins a new Chinese silk jacket and a $100. Chinese banquet gift certificate.

But when Ruby comes by the restaurant later, she tells Mei Ling that someone has already raised more than $70. and will probably win. Mei Ling decides to offer a free glass of orange juice with each flag and opera ticket. Setting up her stand outside the restaurant, she and Ruby are very surprised when Chinese actress Anna May Wong stops by for a flag and ticket, then pays with a $300. check making Mei Ling the winner. 

Mei Ling writes to Yayeko in Manzanar and tells her that she is giving her the new jacket and saving the gift certificate for when she returns home. 

That is the basic story about Mei Ling, her friend Yayeko, and the day of the Moon Festival (which was September 24, 1942), but there is so much more information packed into the bilingual picture book for older readers. China City, where Mei Ling lives, was a bustling area before it was destroyed by fire in 1949. And you can practically draw a map of her day as she does her errands, but you don't have to because you will find one on the endpapers.  

Many of the Asian Americans who lived in China City also worked as extras in movies, including Mei Ling and her friend Johnny Yee, and an  actors' agent, Mr. Gubbins, has his office there. So it may be why it is not surprising that Anna May Wong was at the Moon Festival.

There is so much more Chinese culture and tradition packed into Mei Ling's story. Much of it can be found in the phenomenal illustrations by Gayle Garner Roski (1941-2020). Though she wasn't of Chinese ancestry, her boldly colored watercolor illustrations and realistic settings throughout this book really capture what China City looked and felt like in 1943. 

There is also extensive back matter that includes many photographs and additional information. Mei Ling and Yayeko lost touch over the years, but were reunited in their 90s thanks to the original publication of Mei Ling in China City in 2008
A 1940s photo of the restaurant owned by Mei Ling's family

Besides this new bilingual English/Spanish edition of Mei Ling in China City, it is also available in English/Chinese and English/Japanese editions.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from a friend


Monday, February 8, 2021

We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance by Deborah Hopkinson

Exactly one year ago, I reviewed We Had To Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport by Deborah Hopkinson. In that book, Hopkinson used the Kindertransport stories of real children to show today's readers what life was like under Nazi oppression and the difficult choices parents had to make to keep their children safe. 

Hopkinson's newest book, We Must Not Forget, looks at the ways in which Jewish children and teens survived the Holocaust despite the Nazis best efforts to rid Europe of its Jewish population. The book is divided into three parts, each part covering a country that the Nazis invaded and occupied. Part One: "Fleeing from Evil, Hiding from Horror" includes stories from Germany and the Netherlands; Part Two: "Families Torn Apart" looks at stories from France; and Part Three: "Desperation and Defiance" are stories from Poland. Within each part is a short introduction to each person, followed by pertinent key dates and a photo album relating to each individual country. 

Using personal testimonies, letters, oral histories, memoirs and archival photographs, Hopkinson has provided a wide variety of experiences and perspectives on what each person profiled lived through. Hopkinson skillfully weaves these personal stories of each Jewish family with information about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, and their invasion and occupation in the Netherlands, France, and Poland needed to understand the desperate fight to survive that Jews in those countries were in.

And fight they did. German teenager Fred Angress, living in the Netherlands with his family, was able to get a position with the Jewish Council after his father was arrested, never to be seen again. His job not only delayed Fred's own deportation, but Fred found ways to help as many Jews as he could, including smuggling them out of the gathering place where deportation began.

In France, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants or OSE homes where set up for Jewish children and teens where Alfred and Ernest Moritz went after a stranger told their mother to get them away from the registration line they were on where names and addresses of all Jews in their area were recorded and get them to safety. At the OSE home they went to, Alfred and Ernest were give false ID papers and ration cards. Ultimately, the brothers ended up living with a French peasant woman and passing for Christian until France was liberated.

Other children, like Ruth Oppenheimer and her older sister Hannah were sent to England on the Kindertransport. One brother was already living in South America, the other in the United States. Younger sibling Michael was rescued by a Quaker organization, and finally, younger sister Feo was taken to live in an OSE home. All six Oppenheimer siblings survived the Holocaust, but sadly their parents perished in Auschwitz.

Sisters Gertrud and Herta Michelsohn were deported from Germany to the Riga Ghetto in Latvia in 1941 with their parents. After their parents were sent to a death camp, the sisters found strength to go on with each other, even surviving a winter death march in 1944. Eventually, they ended up in Sweden, survivors of the Holocaust.

After her family was forced to move into the Nowogródek ghetto in what was then Poland, Paula Burger's mother made her promise to look after her little brother Isaac if anything happened to her parents. After they disappeared, Paula learned that her father had made arrangements to have his children smuggled out of the ghetto. One night, in the fall of 1942, that's exactly what happened. Paula and Isaac were taken to their father, where he was in hiding in the forest after joining the Bielski partisans. The Bielski's were a large family with 12 children. The partisan unit was formed after their parents and two brothers were killed by the Nazis. Led by eldest brother Tuvia Bielski, the partisans sabotaged the Nazis, blowing up trains and bridges, as well as going after collaborators and informers. Paula, Isaac, and their father remained in hiding with the Bielski partisans until July 1944 when the area was liberated by the Soviet army.   

These are just some of the survivors readers will meet in this fascinating, well-researched book. Each of the 12 people profiled have their own unique story of survival to tell, though each lost loved one, killed by the Nazis. It's sometimes hard to grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust and its victims, but reading these eyewitness personal accounts helps to bring what happened closer to us now that so many survivors are no longer living. And thanks to Hopkinson's in-depth knowledge of the Holocaust, she is able to make what can feel like a very complicated subject much more comprehensible. 

There are copious  photographs throughout each part, as well an invitation to "Look, Listen, Remember" at the end of each profile, where readers can listen to survivors tell their story. Extensive back matter includes a Glossary, a Timeline of WWII, a list of Museum Websites and Online Resources to explore, Oral Histories, Articles, and Interviews by and about the people in this book, an extensive Bibliography and of course, source notes (because Deborah is a truly consummate researcher).

And if you think these stories are just in the past, I would suggest you reconsider. After all, the past is never past. Nationalistic right wing extremism is on the rise in Europe and the United States and once again, Jews are being singled out. Let these stories serve an a reminder and a warning.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was gratefully received from the author