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

Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel
adapted by Andrew Donkin, art by Dave Kopka, colors by Brann Livesay
Philomel/Penguin Teen, 2021, 160 pages

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. 

Lina manages to document everything that happens to her, her family, and everyone else using her artistic talent and drawing it all on whatever paper she could find and using whatever material she could draw with. She also manages to send letters to her father in another prison camp in the hope that they will reach him. But can her dream of her family being reunited after the war keep Lina's hopes and spirits up long enough to survive?

I'm always skeptical of novels that have been turned into graphic formats. It feels like a novel has so much depth that could easily get lost. But I am glad to say that Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel has made the transition successfully and it is all thanks to the wonderful images that really capture so much of what happened to Lina and her family. The text is spare yet spot on, and the images are so detailed and should be throughly explored for what they have to say, too. Take, for example, this image of the chaos at the train station as truckloads of arrested Lithuanians are forced into the waiting cattle cars: 
The confusion, fear, harsh treatment and Soviet threat is all there on people's faces and in their body language.

Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel is an excellent addition to the history WWII. The Soviet treatment of citizens of countries they occupied during WWII isn't as well known as the history of the cruel treatment of Jews and political enemies by the Nazis and a graphic novel just may be what some readers are most comfortable with, although I highly recommend the original novel, too. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Monday, October 18, 2021

Boy From Buchenwald: The True Story of a Holocaust Survivor by Robbie Waisman with Susan McClelland

Boy From Buchenwald: The True Story of a Holocaust Survivor
by Robbie Waisman with Susan McClelland
Bloomsbury, 2021, 288 pages

In 1942, 11-year-old Romek Waisman was marching to work at a munitions factory in Poland when a SS officer pulled him out of line and ordered him to get in a truck headed for a death camp. Like all the other men already in the truck, Romek had been ill. But fate stepped in and Romek was given another chance to live. 

In April, 1945, American troops liberated the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where Romek had eventually been sent. He was one of a 1,000 children who had survived the Holocaust and placed under the protective services of the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants or OSE. In June 1945, Romek, along with 426 other boys, including Elie Wiesel, was sent by train to Écouis, France, where they could be rehabilitated. Ironically, the boys were dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms that had been found in a storage room in Buchenwald so that they could discard their striped lice infested camp pajamas. On the trip to Écouis, many of the French people who saw them, mistook who they were and began throwing rocks at them.

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.

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

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. 

War written by José Jorge Letria,
illustrated by André Letria, 
translated from the Portuguese by Elisa Amado
Greystone Kids, 2021, 64 pages

Beginning with black endpapers that lighten only slightly on the first two-page spread, readers will begin to realize that the idea of war begins in darkness by those who would capitalize on our fears, symbolized here by snakes, spiders, and other crawling insects creeping and slithering through a landscape of leafless trees. These fears are then picked up by a large black hawk who carries them to one who had a wish for war. 

And he who wishes for war, motivated by hate, ambition, and spite, internalizes those fears, then uses them to infect the people over whom he rules. Soon, as "war saddens, crushes, and silences," books are burned, factories are built for the war effort, and "war begets shadowy, iron children" who can easily be indoctrinated into becoming an army of obedient soldiers.

But, in the end, all wars leave behind nothing but silent destruction after all the bullets are shot, all the bombs are dropped, and most of the people are killed. But don't be fooled, war isn't over, just turn the page to another almost black wordless two-page spread that carries the shadows of people's fears, those same snakes, spider, and other crawling insects just waiting...for another person wishing for war and filled with hate, ambition, and spite.

Readers will find a powerful indictment of war in what appears to be a simply written, simply illustrated book that is anything but simple. The images are done in a somber palette of war-like browns, blacks, grays, and greens, and printed on heavy paper. There are 14 wordless double-page spreads, and 17 double-page spreads that contains one single sentence, which means that in only 17 sentences, all the horrors of war are emotionally  conveyed. Interestingly, though this book clearly is not about one particular war, there is much to it to compare with World War II. 

A thought-provoking, sober picture book for older readers, War will likely generate many conversations and questions from thoughtful readers when used in a class, library or home school setting. 

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Monday, October 11, 2021

Where I've Been...

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.