Monday, March 29, 2021

Rescue by Jennifer A. Nielsen

It's February 1942 and Meg Kenyon, 12, is living on her Grandmère's farm with her French mother in Nazi occupied France. She hasn't seen her English-born dad since he left in May 1940 after receiving a telegram from London and Meg believes he has been imprisoned by the Nazis, if he is even still alive. Before he left, he created a jar full of coded messages for her to solve - deciphering each other's coded messages was something they both enjoyed doing. Now, however, there was only one message left and Meg has been putting off solving it. 

Meg has also been selling some of the vegetables from Grandmère's farm on the black market while secretly working for the resistance. When she unscrambles a message from them that reads Follow the German, Meg knows just who that is - newly arrived Lieutenant Becker, friendly upfront, cold-blooded underneath. And unfortunately, he now knows Meg's face now, after he figures out she was following him.

But Lieutenant Becker is temporarily forgotten about when Meg gets home and finds a badly wounded British officer, Captain Henry Stewart, in the barn, who claims to know Meg's father. After much sneaking around to help Captain Stewart, it turns out that he was on a rescue mission which he can no longer carry out. That's not all Meg discovers - it seems her mother has been working as a secret radio operator for the resistance. 

It turns out that the rescue mission Captain Stewart parachuted into France to carry out involved three Germans, Albert, Liesel, and Jakob, posing as a family named Durand. Since Captain Stewart is too injured to carry out his mission, it is decided that Meg would lead the Durands to Spain and safety. Before she leaves, she is given a note from her father that Captain Stewart delivered, written in coded language. The next day Meg finds the Durands hiding in a cave where she also finds Captain Stewart's backpack full of spy paraphernalia and a warning not let anyone see what's in it. Fortunately, Meg was told that there are resistance workers along the way who are aware of the mission and can provide some assistance, but for the most part, the four are on their own. 

As if their journey weren't difficult enough, Lieutenant Becker is on Meg's trail, suspecting her of resistance work. And just as they get to the point where they should head to Spain, Meg solves her father's message and insists they go to Switzerland instead. But why? And why would he say not to trust one of the "Durands" and which one?

Rescue is an exciting book, full of mystery, intrigue, danger, and betrayal. It's the kind of book my today self thinks is at time preposterous yet I know my 11/12-year-old-self would have hung on every word and every moment of danger. But my today self also knows that codes and ciphers were very popular during WWII, so it isn't surprising that Meg and her dad have their fun with them. Would I let a 12-year-old do what Meg is asked to do? Not a chance, but during the war, kids did this and more. 

Captain Stewart was part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), as was Meg's father, and he arrived in France with his bag of spy tools, including a spy manual, which Meg refers to often. I liked that Nielsen used the rules from the book for some of her chapter headings. Since they worked in so well with what happens in the chapters they head, I suspect it was a made up book, but fun nevertheless. 

Nielsen has included a section called Secret Codes at the end of the novel for readers intrigued by them that includes all kinds of different codes they can try. I was one of those geeky kids who loved codes and secret languages growing up and still have a fascination for them.* There is also a section called The Special Operations Executive for readers unfamiliar with this organization created by Winston Churchill in 1940. 

Rescue is an exiting book that should appeal to anyone who likes historical fiction about WWII that includes plenty of adventure and danger.

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

*I'm pretty sure my fascination with codes and coding is how I ended up in Information Technology, creating programs and teaching kids and adults about computers.  

Friday, March 19, 2021

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares
Candlewick Press, 2021, 32 pages

How many times have we watched an American president or a visiting foreign dignitary laying a wrath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and not really thought much about either the unknown soldier or the soldier guarding him? Maybe you've visited even the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a school trip to Washington, DC and have a photo you took somewhere on your phone. We may all think differently after reading this excellent picture book for older readers that focuses on this important monument honoring America's unknown fallen heroes and the select few who guard them.
             "I am an Unknown. I am one of many."

Told in the first person voice of one unknown soldier standing in place for all, he tells the reader about the many soldiers who were once the living and loved sons, fathers, husbands, brothers who fell in battle during WWI. When the war was over, most of them went home to families who would mourn them, burying them in graves that would remember and honor them. But for others, those were could not be identified, there was not place to honor the sacrifice they had made.

In 1921, our narrator was given a hero's funeral, laying in state in the Capital in Washington, DC, where mourners who had lost loved ones that never came home could grieve and find some sense of closure. Then, on November 11th, at 11 o'clock, our narrator's symbolic coffin was taken to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. From then on, the narrator says he was always alone. Over the years, people began to visit the hillcrest where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is, but, he says, it was mostly "for the view and not the meaning."

Then, at the stroke of midnight on July 2,1937, our unknown soldier was suddenly not longer alone. From then on, every day and night, in all kinds of weather, the sentinel guards were there, to honor the unknown fallen. Men and women from every race, religion and creed are part of the Tomb Guard. Marching back and forth in their vigil, each guard takes 21 steps in one direction, followed by 21 seconds of silence, then 21 steps back and 21 seconds of silence over and over on his watch and each step with its own click. To understand just how dedicated the Tomb Guard's are to their watch, readers are first introduced to The Sentinel's Creed.

Eventually, the remains of an unknown soldier from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were also laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just like our WWI narrator, these fallen soldiers first lay in state at the Capital, and once again, mourners could make them their owe, because "[t]heir stories were different and the same." Interestingly, thanks to DNA, the soldier from the Vietnam War was identified and returned to his family. 

People still come to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but now it is to pay honor and not to picnic and marvel at the view. 

Placing this history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb Guards in the voice of an nameless, faceless fallen soldier, Gottesfeld's text gives this book a personal measure of poignancy and melancholy that is rare in the picture book, even one for older readers. But at the same time, he brings a level of honor and reverence to it, as well. Readers will probably never watch a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier the same way again. 

Matt Tavares illustrations, done with pencil and digitally painted, are both realistic and visceral at the same time, completely matching Gottesfeld's poetic text. Have some tissues handy as you read this beautifully done work. The dust jacket shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and his guard in daytime, this is what you will find underneath:

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. If you are looking for a picture book to share with your young readers this coming Memorial Day, this is definitely one of the better choices for that solemn day.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
I received this book for free from Candlewick Press in exchange review. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Brooke Smart

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed 
the Course of Two World Wars
by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Brooke Smart
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 48 pages

This picture book for older readers tells the story of a remarkable woman who developed new code- making and breaking techniques, helped capture bootleggers, and even managed to catch a few Nazi spies. 

When she was a child, Elizebeth Smith loved poetry and Shakespeare was her favorite author. She appreciated the structure and patterns she noticed in his poetry. Not surprisingly, Elizebeth graduated college in 1915 with a degree in English Lit, but she also studied Latin, Greek, and German. 

Looking for a job in Chicago, Elizebeth was introduced to George Fabyan, a wealthy eccentric Shakespeare fan who invited her to become part of a group of researchers on his estate, Riverbank, who were looking for proof that Francis Bacon was the real writer of Shakespeare's plays. Her job was to look for secret messages left by Bacon in the plays. Who knew this job would eventually lead to Elizebeth's helping to capture Nazi spies?  

Well, Elizebeth never found any coded messages but she did find friendship in the person of William Friedman, a scientist. The two friends spent part of their time together devising secret notes and challenging each other to decode them. Soon, they were in love and married. 

When the United States entered WWI in 1917, Riverbank was converted to a code-breaking unit called the Riverbank Department of Ciphers. Elizebeth, William, and their cipher staff set about decoding enemy communications and developing new code-breaking techniques. 

After the war, Elizebeth went on the work for the Coast Guard. They needed help with smugglers who were hiding bootleg liquor and communicating with each other using coded messages. Could Elizebeth crack the codes, so the bootleggers could be caught? She could and did, often testifying at the trials of the smugglers.

When the United States entered WWII, Elizabeth's code-breaking skills were once again needed. In 1942, she joined the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and began setting up a code-breaking unit. Yet, when her decoding talents helped with the capture of some Nazi spies, the FBI director took all the credit for himself. Nevertheless, Elizebeth carried on and helped put American Velvalee Dickinson in prison for spying for the Japanese by decoding her letters about buying "dolls." 

Then came Germany's Enigma code-making machine, which created seemingly unbreakable codes. Thanks to a lazy Enigma operator, Elizabeth and her staff were about to break the codes after months of hard work. They didn't know that in England, code-breaker Alan Turing had also broken the Enigma codes.  

I loved the way Elizebeth's own words were strategically worked into the stylized watercolor and gouache illustrations so readers can get a real sense of who Elizebeth was and what she thought about the groundbreaking work she did. I also loved the ribbons of coded messages the wrap around a number of pages like a lasso capturing secrets, including the Nazis that Elizebeth's decoded messages helped catch. And if you are interested in trying your hand at decoding. those ribbons are coded messages. Check out the back matter for help solving them.

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter is a fascinating biography about a woman who did so much and received so little credit for her hard work. It is packed with interesting information about Elizebeth's personal and professional life. 

Besides information about Codes and Ciphers, back matter includes a challenge to Crack The Code, information on Cryptography Today, a Timeline and a Selected Bibliography.   

You can also find some Activity Sheets to download courtesy of the publisher, Abrams Books HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library

Monday, March 8, 2021

History Smashers: Pearl Harbor by Kate Messner, illustrated by Dylan Meconis

Reading History Smashers: Pearl Harbor, made me realize that I've read and reviewed a lot of books about the events of December 7, 1941, but most of them were novels - good novels but fiction nevertheless. Amazingly, I've never read a nonfiction book about Pearl Harbor for this blog, so I was pleased to read this new book by Kate Messner from her series History Smashers

Messner takes a look not only at the facts surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor, but also looks at some of the myths and legends that have circulated ever since. And she begins at the beginning, debunking the popular idea that the attack "happened completely out of the blue, with no warning and nothing to suggest there might be trouble." By carefully and succinctly looking at Japanese history from 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry led an expedition to try to open up isolationist Japan to trade with other countries, Messner shows how opening this small island country led to its desire for more land and more natural resources, eventually leading to the invasion of Manchuria and China in the 1930s.

 Following Germany's lead, Japan also set her sites on islands in the Pacific already colonized by other nations, including the US. After Japan signed a agreement with Germany and Italy in which they promised that if one were attacked, the others would help defend them. Feeling protected and now quite militarized, Japan invaded French Indochina.

Next, Messner looks at the errors in judgement made by the United States that led to such devastation when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. She goes back to 1924, when an army officer named William Mitchell was sent to evaluate the preparedness of US forces in the Pacific and Far East. He warned that Japan was thinking about expanding its empire, had its sites sent on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and that that would eventually lead to war. But by 1939, Americans didn't want to go to war and so President Roosevelt tried negotiating with Japan to maintain peace. While Japan readied itself for the attack, by training pilots, redesigning torpedoes for the shallow waters where the American fleet had been moved to, mistakes, miscommunications, and incomplete intelligence gathering all led to what ultimately felt like a surprise attack to Americans, all of which Messner carefully looks at.   

History Smashers: Pearl Harbor is a short but very informative, well researched look at the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only does Messner lay out her facts and debunk the myths surrounding the attack that led America into WWII, but she takes this very complicated event and makes it accessible to young readers. Plus, she takes the narrative beyond Pearl Harbor and looks at the racist treatment and incarceration of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the US. 

Messner includes lots of informative sidebars introducing readers to people, places, and histories, as well as lots of photographs and maps. There is extensive back matter that includes A World War II and Pearl Harbor Timeline, an Author's Note, Books, Websites and Museums to Visit for further exploration, and an excellent Bibliography.

This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in WWII. How good is it? Well, I thought I knew a lot about Pearl Harbor, but even I learned a few new facts.

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

Thursday, March 4, 2021

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus

First they lost their parents and were taken care of by their cold, distant grandmother. Now she's gone, too, it's June 1940 and there's war on. So it's decided that the orphaned but with an nice inheritance Pearce children - William, 12, Edmund, 11, Anna, 9 - would be evacuated from their home in London. The plan is that they will be sent to the countryside with a school they never attended, in the hope that they will find a proper family that wants them, but to not say anything about their inheritance to be sure that they are wanted and not their money. Naturally, the schoolmistress, Miss Carr, resents the three additions to her responsibilities and isn't exactly welcoming, especially when William insists the siblings not be separated and Edmund gets into trouble right off the bat.

Arriving at their destination, the Pearce siblings are passed over until finally the Forresters, a family with two boys William's age, decides to pick them. At first, it seems like a good situation. Anna is given her own room and doted on by Mrs. Forrester, while William and Edmund share a room with Jack and Simon Forrester. But, it turns out that Jack and Simon resent the siblings, bullying William and Edmund at every chance and finally getting Edmund into serious trouble. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Forrester are convinced their sons can do no wrong. 

Luckily, there's a nice library in the village and soon William, Edmund and Anna begin to go there afternoons after school. All three are big readers, and they find a real welcome when they meet the librarian, Mrs. Müller. Mrs. Müller has her own problems - she is married to a German who went home before the war and there's been no word about him since. Of course, it is assumed by the villagers that he is now a Nazi. Naturally, they ostracize Mrs. Müller and she is considered an unsuitable billet for evacuees. 

Though life is pretty comfortable at the Forrester's, it soon becomes apparent that the billet isn't going to work out for the Pearce sibs and they are placed in a different home. Mrs. Griffith, whose husband of away fighting, is considerably poorer than the Forrester family and is the stressed out mother of four children. The Pearce siblings share an unheated room upstairs with one bed and a chamber pot, so they don't have to use the outhouse in the night. They are also expected to help out with the housework, help care for the children and surrender their ration cards and in return they get to be hungry and cold and get lice.

Luckily, William, Edmund, and Anna still have the warm, cozy library to which they can escape. and the always welcoming Mrs. Müller. Plus, she always has the best book recommendations for them. But when they discover their books, including library books, being torn up to use in the outhouse, they storm out of the Griffith house, determined to not return, and head to the church for warmth and because they are to be in a Christmas pageant that night. Mrs. Müller, who has suspected things weren't going well for the Pearce siblings, takes them home with her that night.

You may think that is the end of the story, but, no, it isn't. 

I just love a good, cozy middle grade novel with just enough tension and frustration to me keep reading and this novel certainly meets that criteria. And the scenes in the library are described with such comfortable coziness, even on a cold day, that I wished I could have joined them. 

William, Edmund, Anna, and Mrs. Müller are fleshed out with their distinct personalities and shared similarities. All four love to read, and there feels like a comfortable quiet sense of companionship in the library scenes that throughout the novel I kept thinking how sad it was they the Pearce children couldn't be billeted with Mrs. Müller. It felt like such a perfect fit compared to the Forresters and Mrs. Griffith. Luckily, the kids are their own best friends, and support each other no matter what. 

I like the way Albus has really captured some of the hardships people faced during WWII. Many evacuees were not welcomed in the towns and villages of the English countryside, and the words "filthy Vakies" graffitied onto a wall in this story pretty much sums it up. Some were only taken in for their ration cards, but still went hungry all the time. And then there is the suspicion many people had at that time towards anything and anyone German, here it is aimed at Mrs. Müller. The only thing missing was the words "fifth column." 

A Place to Hang the Moon is a wonderful choice for readers who like books about the kids who are faced with seemingly impossible challenges of the WWII home front. If you loved The War That Saved My Life as much as I did, this is definitely a book you will enjoy. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House