Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Daniel Duncan

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything by Mara Rockliff,
illustrated by Daniel Duncan
Candlewick Press, 2021, 48 pages
I love picture book biographies that introduce kids to people and their achievements that they might otherwise never hear anything about. Case in point is this new biography about Beatrice Shilling (1909-1990) and her important WWII engineering accomplishments. 

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. 

When she was older, Beatrice was eventually hired as an apprentice by one of the few woman engineers, Miss Partridge, whose job it was to bring electricity to people. And it was Miss Partridge who encouraged Beatrice to go to university to study engineering. Not surprisingly, she was the only female in the class. And also not surprisingly, despite graduating with honors in electrical engineering, only the men in her class could find jobs. 

Beatrice had to settle for a job writing handbooks about plane engines (I used to write handbooks for computer users, so I know just how bored Beatrice must have been). But eventually, she was given a hands on job, and met George, a man much like Beatrice, who became her husband. Beatrice loved her new job, but her expertise was really put to the test when WWII began and the RAF were losing pilots and planes when their engines suddenly quit in the middle of a dive during a dogfight.

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. 

This book is recommended for readers 7+
This book was eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay

Yes, The Swallows' Flight is a book about WWII and, yes, it is a companion to the WWI novel The Skylarks' War (Love to Everyone in the US) that told the story of siblings Clarissa (Clarry) and Peter Penrose and their friends, and whose children play a part in this novel.  In fact, this novel revolves around 5 children whose lives eventually come together - Erik and Hans in Berlin, Kate Penrose in Oxford, Ruby in Plymouth, and a scrapyard dog in London, though for the most part, the timeline isn't linear.

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

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America by Norman H. Finkelstein

In 1944, 982 Jewish refugees living in Italy were allowed to come to the United States, "invited" by President Franklin Roosevelt. Their story is one that is often overlooked or just given cursory mention in the history of America and the Holocaust, especially where middle grade readers are concerned. Now, librarian and history teacher Norman H. Finkelstein has written a history of this event aimed at those young readers. 

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.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Shortly after the death of his mother, 7 year-old Peter found a very young orphaned fox kit and brought it home. His cold, strict father said he could keep the it but only "for now," but five years later, the kit, whom Peter named Pax, is a much loved, domesticated fox, sensitive to Peter's emotional needs and aware of the sometimes sudden cruel anger of his father. 

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.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library