Monday, May 31, 2021

A Day for Rememberin': Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This was originally posted on my other blog, Randomly Reading, but since it is Memorial Day today, I thought I would posted it here, too. 

A Day for Rememberin'
Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
written by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 40 pages
Most of us don't really know much about Memorial Day except that it's a time when we honor those who lost their lives in combat defending United States and the democratic principles upon which it was founded. And maybe some of us know that it was originally called Decoration Day, a day when families would go to the cemetery with flags and flowers to place on the graves of their fallen loved ones. But how many of us know about the origin of Memorial Day?

Well, now Leah Henderson has explored this question and has written a picture book for older readers that tells the story of one such origin and has chosen Eli, the ten-year-old son of formerly enslaved parents, as the narrator. It's 1865 and the Civil has ended with the Confederate surrender. And for nine days, Eli has wondered where his Papa goes to so early every day. Eli imagines him doing all kinds of things, but he isn't allowed to follow Papa because he is going to school, and as his mother reminds him, " have the hard earned right to learn...Masters locked away learning 'cause knowledge is its own freedom." 
Finally, though, on day ten, Papa wakes Eli up early and they join a procession of other formerly enslaved men and boys and head to the Charleston, South Carolina racetrack, once used for the entertainment white plantation owners. During the Civil War, the racetrack had become a prison where Confederates put captured Union soldiers, who were starved and treated so badly that even the enslaved women would try to sneak the men whatever morsels they could spare. 

Eli discovers that the men have been working to create a cemetery for the 257 dead Union soldiers who had been held in the racetrack. And it's here that Eli has a paintbrush put in his hands to help whitewash a fence with the other children. 

The next day, Eli is up early again, and heads out with his parents to join the procession other Black families heading to the racetrack, now a cemetery. Eli proudly carries the American flag, and the women carry flowers with which to decorate the newly dug graves. 
While this may be a work of historical fiction, the cemetery, called the Martyrs of the Race Track that was created in Charleston, South Carolina by formerly enslaved men, women, and children, is considered by some scholars to be the first observance of Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day. In her Author's Note, Henderson writes that she was inspired to write to story after seeing a photograph of about "200 Black children getting ready for what looked like a parade." Curiosity sparked, research led Henderson to the cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, where she learned that the Decoration Day parade to the former racetrack included over 10,000 newly freed enslaved people were led by about 3,000 Black children. Henderson chose the fictional Eli and his parents to tell their story.

A Day for Rememberin' is such a poignant story about how one community honored the men who they believed fought for them, but also, as Eli reminds readers, about the fear that enslaved people lived with every day, wondering if their loved one would come home at the end of the day, or be sold to someone without their knowing. 

And who better to illustrate this moving, affective story than Floyd Cooper. Using his signature method of oil erasure in earth tones of yellows and browns seems somehow so perfect for this story. The hazy effect of this method doesn't diminish the details and the closeups of people faces really captures their different emotions. 

Besides the Author's Note, back matter includes a short essay on The Roots of Decoration Day, a Timeline of Decoration Day/Memorial Day, a list of other cities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Endnotes, and a Select Bibliography. 

David W. Blight a scholar who believes that the birthplace of Decoration Day is Charleston, South Carolina. You can read two of his interesting articles about this HERE and HERE.

Full disclosure: I read a digital watermarked ARC received from the publisher.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+

In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

Sunday, May 23, 2021

MMGM: The Good War by Todd Strasser

The Good War by Todd Strasser
Delacorte Press/Random House, 2021, 192 pages

I was in college taking a Propaganda course when I read Todd Strasser's The Wave. It's a story about how readily people will give up their individual rights and personal freedom to become part of a dominating peer group in a classroom experiment designed to show students how Germans were persuaded to support Nazism. It was a simplified experiment, but the part that Strasser got right was that we are all responsible for our own actions and to question a leader and never follow him blindly. Now, we have The Good War in which Strasser gives readers a somewhat updated version of The Wave, but takes it to a virtual battlefield.

Ironville Middle School has had to cancel football for lack of funds and taking advantage of that, seventh grader Caleb Arnett had worked with math teacher Ms. B on a grant that provided state of the art gaming computers to the school. Now, for the first time, there would be an eSports club, despite the Principal's skepticism about gaming. Eight students show up for the inaugural meeting, including loner Zach Cook and bully Crosby Fugard, and soon a game is chosen and teams are formed. 

The game, The Good War or TGW for short, mimics the Allied and Axis forces in World War II. Emma Lopez is chosen to be team captain for the Allies, and has Caleb, Zach and Nathan on her team, while Gavin Morgenstern is the Axis captain with Crosby, Tyler and Mackenzie on his side. The eSports Club meets once a week after school, and it doesn't take long for the players to really get into it. Soon, the Axis players are all wearing Nazi type clothing and speaking in fake German accents. Sadly, most of the students don't really have an understanding of World War II and what happened. For them, it's just a video game.

Things really get out of hand when there is a malware attack during a club meeting that features Nazi symbols, leading to a fight between two opposing players. After all Caleb's hard work to get these computers, this the end of eSports Club?

The Good War is told in the third person alternating voices of Caleb, Zach, Emma, Nathan and Crosby. Each of these students have issues and it is interesting to see how they evolve over the course of 10 weeks. Caleb is overly extended thanks to his hovering parents who want him to excel in everything; loner Zach is a fidgety boy with multiple tics, but is a great skateboarder and gamer, while quiet Emma lives in her older sisters shadow, unable to stand up for herself. Crosby, who mother has cancer and is going through chemo, is the most vulnerable of the group. He plays TGW online with a white supremacist who is slowly radicalizing him. 

Through the members of the eSports Club, Strasser explores themes of bigotry, prejudice, the misuse of social media, racism, and bullying. While it is a little hard to believe that a middle school would allow students to play a game like The Good War, which is rated Mature, I could still suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story. And what about Ms. B's lack of leadership and control over the eSports Club? In my teaching life, I have met a few Ms. Bs, which is sad to say. 
I wrote a dissertation on how novels for girls were used to indoctrinate them into NSDAP thinking, so naturally, I found The Good War and The Wave to be interesting books that tackle the theme of indoctrination and belonging. There was a reason Hitler courted German youth but you might be surprised to learn that German parents weren't quite as supportive as we have been lead to believe. Which made me wonder, where were all the parents of the kids in the eSports club? 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle

Sunday, May 16, 2021

MMGM: War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman

It's 1941 and life has been difficult for Millie McGonigle''s family lately. First, there was the Depression. Her dad lost his job, and still hasn't found one. Younger sister Lily is sickly with lung problems and takes up all her mother's attention, while younger brother Pete, 5, wants all of Millie's attention. Then the war started in Eurpoe and Millie began worrying that the Nazis might just come over to San Diego and drop their bombs. To make matters worse, on Millie's twelfth birthday her beloved Gram Tillie suddenly passed away, but not before she gave Millie a blank notebook and told her "Things that seem lost or dead - keep them alive and safe in your book. Whatever is lost stays alive if we remember it." And so Millie turned her notebook into The Book of Dead Things, Mission Beach, San Diego, Californiz, 1941. Now, Millie combs the beach looking for all kinds of dead things to draw in her book. 

And then the news that Gram's cousin Edna would be coming to live with the McGonigle's and Millie would have to share her bed with her. Edna is a little off center, seemingly unaware of what's going on around her and that there is a war happening. One good thing that happens is the her nemesis Dicky (Icky) Fribble's aunt and cousin Rosie move in with his family. Rosie is older than Millie, but the two girls hit it off immediately.

Then Pearl Harbor is attacked and everything changes again. Her dad gets a job as a clerk in the Navy Exchange, unable to join the army because of a heart murmur, and her mom begins welding school. Now, there are air raid drills in school, heavy black curtains on the windows at night, and rationing. Soon, kids are playing war games and collecting metal, fat and newspapers for the war effort. And, of course, Japanese hatred soon rears its ugly head in none other than Icky Fribble and his mother. Through it all, Millie continues to add drawings of dead things to her notebook. 

War and Millie McGonigle is such an interesting story. It takes place between Saturday, September 20, 1941 and Sunday, February 28, 1942, mimicking Millie's diary entries, so most accountings are on Saturday and Sunday, with only a few on weekdays. 

Millie is a sensitive character, who wallows in grievances, afraid to let go and enjoy life, because what if... But, over the course of the novel, she begins to change and watching that happen at the pivotal age between childhood and being a teen is what makes her so interesting. Add a war to that time, and you have a lively, endearing character. And while Millie's obsession with her The Book of Dead Things sounds rather morbid at first, it becomes an exploration of what to value in life for her. 

Readers will find plenty of daily home front details in this character driven novel. But my favorite aspect of the book is that it is set at the beach at a time when it was not such an attraction for tourists. In that respect, it will remind readers of Jennifer L. Holms' books Turtle in Paradise and Full of Beans, even though they take place in Key West, Florida. They all share the same salty air, smelly seaweed, cawing seagulls atmosphere that is so beachy. Cushman has really nailed the setting aspect of the novel. 

Hand this to readers interested in historical fiction, WWII, tween girls, and anyone looking for a good home front story.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eBook gratefully received from NetGalley

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle

Sunday, May 9, 2021

MMGM: In A Flash by Donna Jo Napoli

It's July 1940 and though there is a war going on, Simona, 8, and Carolina, 5, have just learned that they will be moving from Italy to Tokyo, Japan for perhaps a year or two. It's only been half a year since their mother died, and now they will be leaving their beloved Nonna, too, in four days. The father, a chef, has been offered a job at the Italian embassy, cooking for the Italian ambassador and his wife, both of whom refuse to eat Japanese food. 

Four days after arriving in Tokyo, Simona begins public school, not knowing the language or having any friends. But by December, she and Carolina have both learned enough Japanese to get by, though Simona still has no friends at school. And within a year, they are both fluent and quite assimilated into Japanese customs. Simona still has no real friends, except Aiko who refuses to acknowledge her at school. Although Simona and Carolina are the children of a servant, the Japanese kids believe they are rich and living luxuriously and that is why they are snubbed. 

When the United States is attacked by Japan and enters the war, everyone assumes America will easily be defeated by Japan. After all, Japan, Italy, and Germany had signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 pledging to come to each other's aid should their country be attacked. But everything changes in 1943 when Italy surrenders to the Allies. Suddenly, Italians are Japan's enemy and they are all forced into an internment camp, where Simona and Carolina are separated from their father.   

The sisters are able to escape, and begin to make their way across the countryside. As they make their way though Japan, they are able to survive with the help of three women living together, including a manga artist, then with help from a blind washerwoman in Tokyo where their father used to bring the embassy's dirty sheets, and ultimately finding themselves in a Catholic mission in Hiroshima in the spring and summer of 1945.

In a Flash is, to say the least, a harrowing story to read, yet it is compelling and hard to put down as well. Napoli has certainly done her research on what it was like to live in Japan during WWII. What makes this story unique is that the it is written in the first person perspective, by a citizen of one of America's enemies living in a country of another enemy. But while Simona is Italian she isn't political, she is much more an observer and reporter of what she sees around her, often without understanding it. She may sometimes voice some of the propaganda she has been told about the United States, and often observes the behavioral result of Japan's propaganda in those around her, but she remains a child trying to make sure she and her sister survive.

It was difficult reading about the "patriotic" propaganda, but even more difficult was the incredible level of rationing and starvation inflicted on people in the name of victory because it was so realistically portrayed. On the other hand, Simona and Carolina's will to survive in the face of adversity is the stuff of great historical fiction.

I read a lot of Napoli's books and In a Flash is now one of my very favorites. There are a lot of themes and a lot of information to be gleaned from this compassionate thought-provoking, eye-opening novel.

Front matter consists of a map of Japan and back matter consists of a Postscript, Notes on Research, and an extensive Bibliography.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

After the War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer used to write books for kids about sports like rugby and football (soccer), but more recently he has turned his storytelling skills to historical fiction. Last year, I read D-Day Dog, a story I found to be very informative, as does the present-day protagonist Jack. This year, I was intrigued to read After the War after hearing about it for an event on World Book Day, March 4, 2021 in connection with the Anne Frank Trust

After the War is a fictionalized story based on true events that happened after the war ended. In 1945, 300 Jewish children who had survived life in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust were sent directly to the Lake District in England. 

It's summer 1945 when 15-year-old Yossi, and his two friends Mordecai and Leo arrive in England in one of 10 planes, each carrying 30 young Holocaust survivors. They have been told they are safe now, that they will all have enough to eat and a room of their own with a bed and electricity, and most importantly, there will be no guards. But after six years in a concentration camp, could they really trust that? 

Arriving at the Calgarth Estates on Lake Windmere, where they will live for the next few months, the children find it difficult to trust people and what they say, and to give up the survival habits that kept them alive in Auschwitz, especially when it comes to food. So despite there always being enough to eat, Yossi, Leo, and Mordedai stuff as much food as they can into their pockets to save for later - just in case there isn't enough food then. 

Slowly, however, they begin to gain weight, becoming healthier and stronger. They even begin to develop trust again, thanks to the the kindness of the people of the Lake District and those in charge of them at Lake Windmere. Soon, they are back in school and learning English, and since their stay is only temporary, they also need to start thinking about the future and what they will do. The Red Cross arrives visits to obtain information about the children's families in order to try to reunite them with relatives who might have also survived. Yossi hopes that they will find his father, whom he wants to believe is still alive, even though they were separated on a death march towards the end of the war. Yossi watched as his younger sisters and mother went to the gas chambers the night they arrived in Auschwitz, but he and his father were selected to work. 

Hoping against hope that the Red Cross will find his father, Yossi is unable to think about moving on. The three friends, who have become family to each other, want to stay together, but can't agree on how to do that. Mordecai, who is deeply religious, wants to join the Jewish community in Leeds after they reached out to the children at Lake Windmere, while Leo wants to go to Palestine, believing they would be safest there. 

But recovery and recuperation aren't as easy as clean sheets and enough to eat. Yossi, who is the main protagonist, is haunted by his memories of the things he witnessed before the war in Poland after the Nazis invaded and life first in the ghetto and later in Auschwitz. These memories are seamlessly woven into the story as incidents in Yossi's present ignite flashbacks in his past. Sensitive and caring, Yossi has a minor breakdown one day when he seems to have given up and, not seeing any point to it, refuses to get out of bed. Laying there, he recalls his father's words "...if we let ourselves go, the Germans will think they are right, that we are not human." His father believed that getting up and washing every morning in Auschwitz was an act of defiance, of resistance to the Nazis, and Yossi determines it is still true. Will the memory of his father give Yossi what he needs to be able to get up and move on?  

People sometimes forget that when a war ends, it isn't over, that there are always serious after effects. In this short, very readable novel, those after effects are clearly presented. Palmer depicts the children's survivor behavior in their present circumstances, relating it back to what happened in the concentration camps in the most heartbreakingly poignant way. And while he doesn't graphically describe the cruelty and the atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jewish men, women, and children, he gives enough detail that readers can get a clear picture of what happened then and the challenges the children now face.

After the War is a powerful book about courage, friendship, hope and resilience and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Be sure to visit Tom Palmer's After the War webpage for more information, including a link to read the first chapter, a link to hear about his researching and writing After the War and so much more.

Although After the War is fiction, you can find more information about the children who were brought to Lake Windmere at the The Lake District Holocaust Project HERE (BTW10% of author royalites are donated to The Lake District Holocaust Project). 

After the War is published by Barrington Stoke in a dyslexic friendly font, layout, spacing and page tint that makes it easier to read (and since I'm dyslexic, I can honestly say it does). 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library