Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Nanea: Growing Up with Aloha by Kirby Larson

By the time Mattel rebranded the historical dolls from the American Girls collection, my Kiddo’s doll days were behind her, so I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on with any of these new dolls until I read that Molly, the WWII girl on the home front, was being retired. Molly was the fun favorite in our house, and we were sad to see her.

Now, however, there’s a new WWII girl in the American Girls collection and her name is Nanea Mitchell, a 9 year old girl who lives on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. She has two older siblings, a sister named Mary Lou, 15, and a brother named David, 17. Their mother was born on the island and is Hawaiian, and their dad came from Oregon and is white. 

It’s 1941 and Nanea would like her parents to stop treating her like a baby and give her more responsibility. With the help of her friends, Lily, who is Japanese, and Donna, who is from California, Nanea decides to enter a contest that requires contestants to do a number of nice things for others.

In the first few chapters of Growing Up with Aloha, readers see that Nanea’s life is pretty much what you would expect - there’s school, friends, her little dog Mele, but there are also hula lessons with her grandmother, practicing for the big USO Christmas show, and making lei’s to be sold on Boat Day - the day ships full of tourist arrived in Hawaii. Luckily, there are also a few opportunities for Nanea to do some nice things for others.

But on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor is attacked and everything changes overnight. Nanea’s dad, who works in Pearl Harbor’s shipyard, and Richard, a Boy Scout with first aid training, both leave immediately to see what they can do to help. Everyone is scared, and there are all kinds of rumors about more attacks coming, and to make thing more difficult for the people, the radios are knocked offline. And then, Nanea realizes that her little Mele is missing.

Lily’s father is immediately taken into custody by two FBI men because he is Japanese and Lily's anger and fear cause her to suddenly have trouble being friends with Nanea and Donna. 

Once war is declared, it doesn’t take long for the women of Oahu to mobilize for the war effort, and despite missing her father, brother and dog, and despite the changes war brings, it is an opportunity for Nanea to prove just how responsible she can be. Will she succeed in accomplishing the requirements of the contest in time, though?

This is a first book (so far, there are three) and so there’s lots of introductory information in it, which, at times, make the storyline it a little awkward, but it’s a very interesting look at the impact the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on the people of Oahu as seen through the eyes of a 9 year old girl. 

Growing Up with Aloha also contains a lot of interesting information about Hawaiian culture and life, and there is a liberal sprinkling of Hawaiian words used (there’s a glossary with pronunciation help in the back). 

Nanea’s home front story is very different from Molly’s, mostly because her story is set in 1941 in a place that did get bombed, and Molly's stories are set in 1944 in a relatively safe place in middle America. And, whereas Molly was more about the war in Europe, I suspect Nanea’s will be more about the war in the Pacific.

Growing Up with Aloha was written by Kirby Larson, no stranger to middle grade WWII books (see my reviews of Liberty, Dash and Duke). I found this to be every bit as satisfying, readable, and informative novel as Larson's other historical fiction.

The word Aloha is defined in the glossary as meaning hello, goodbye, love, compassion, and it does mean those things, but it is more than that. The school that Nanea and her friends go to is named after Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917), Hawaii’s first queen and last monarch and who is credited with saying that Aloha Spirit “… is hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable.” As you read Growing Up with Aloha, you’ll notice here are many examples of Aloha Spirit in the book as Nanea herself comes to understand it better. 

And do read Inside Nanea's World at the end of the book for more background information about the effects the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on her and the other Hawaiian people.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Movie Matinee #9: Miracle on 34th Street

My Kiddo's old VHS
*** Contains Spoilers ***

It's been 70 years since the movie Miracle on 34th Street was released in theaters, but for me, it has always been the go-to movie that ushers in the holiday season. 

The film was actually made in 1946, so it still the sense of the country coming out of its war-time deprivations. People were still hungry - not so much for turkey and all the trimmings, but for peace and prosperity. But Miracle on 34th Street is also a cautionary tale about the kind of commercialism doing without for so long can lead to, while still celebrating the idea of the American Dream - a family, a house in the suburbs - all it takes is a little faith. So, you could say that he real underlying theme of the movie is simply Peace on earth, Goodwill towards all people.

The movie opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The man hired to play Santa is found drunk by a charming, elderly, gentle well-dressed white bearded man, whose name just happens to be Kris Kringle. Kris is hired on the spot to replace drunk Santa by Doris Walker. Doris, a realist at heart, is ironically is in charge of making this fantasyland of a parade a reality. 

Meanwhile, Doris’s young daughter, Susan, a realist and a sceptic who does not believe in Santa Clause, is watching the parade from their apartment window with neighbor Fred Gailey, a handsome lawyer who just happens to be single and very interested in Doris when he learns she is divorced. 

Kris is such a great Santa, he’s hired by Macy’s to be their holiday Santa Clause stand-in. The only problem is that Kris isn’t much interested in Macy’s profit margin, but rather he’s more about making kids happy on Christmas morning. Poor Kris ends up in Bellevue’s mental hospital, to be psychologically evaluated. 

In the meantime, Kris has befriended Fred Gaily and little Susan, who is beginning to doubt her realist upbringing and think maybe there could be a Santa. So she tells him what she wants for Christmas - a house in the suburbs. All Kris can do is promise to do his best to deliver on her Christmas wish.

Eventually, Kris ends up in New York's Supreme Court defended by Fred, and things don’t look promising, but Fred manages to prove Kris is really Kris Kringle, thanks to the post office delivering 21 bags of letters addressed to Santa Clause - and it doesn’t hurt that the judges’s son is a big believer, too. 

Susan is very disappointed on Christmas morning when she finds nothing about a house under the Christmas tree (Fred’s influence). But sure enough, later in the day when she, her mother and Fred are driving out to visit Kris, there’s the house and there’s Kris’s cane in it. Did he or didn’t he? That is for the viewer to decide for her/himself.

(I like this whole movie, and the message is sends, but my very favorite scene in Miracle on 34th Street are when Kris is still Macy’s Santa and a little Dutch refugee is brought to see him. The look on her face when he begins to speak to her in Dutch is priceless.) 

Here are some interesting facts about Miracle on 34th Street:

The Macy’s parade scenes were really filmed during the 1946 parade, which a very cold morning. In the scenes of Santa waving to the crowd from his sleigh was really Edmund Gwenn, who plays Kris in the movie. And each of parade scenes only had one chance to get it all right. 

The scenes that take place in Macy’s were really filmed there, but after hours when there were not customers around.

It was so cold when the scene where Susan spots her dream house that the camera’s froze and they had to wait for the cameras to throw before they could continue. Neighbors invited the cast into their home to warm up.

You may recall that in the parade scene outside Susan’s front window, There were six balloons in the parade in 1946, but it is Harold the baseball player balloon is floating by Susan’s window. Harold hasn’t been seen again since 1946.. Well, this year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the movie, they are reintroducing Harold: 

You can find more interesting facts about Miracle on 34th Street HERE
You can find the original NY Times movie review by Bosley Crowther (June 5, 1947) HERE

The new 70th anniversary DVD 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Refugee by Alan Gratz

In Refugee, Alan Gratz has seamlessly woven together the stories of three refugee children and their families from different time periods and different places in the world and brought their harrowing experiences together as each flees their homeland in the hope of finding safety and freedom elsewhere.

On Kristallnacht in 1938 Berlin, Nazis enter and destroy contents of the home of the Landau family, terrorizing Josef, 12, his younger sister Ruth, his mother, and arresting his father, Arron. When his father finally returns home, he is a broken man after spending time in Dachau. Luckily, the Landau family has secured tickets and the needed visas to emigrate to Cuba. 

On board the MS St. Louis, a luxury passenger ocean liner, the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany are treated well all the way across the Atlantic, but for Josef, the trip also brings stress. His father refuses to leave their cabin, insisting it is all a Nazi trick to send them to a concentration camp. When Josef turns 13 on the trip, he is able to make his Bar Mitzvah with the help of other passengers and ship’s crew. It would have been wonderful for Josef, if only his father could be at his side. 

When the ship reaches Cuba, it is held offshore for what feels like endless days. Then comes the news that Cuba has cancelled all visas and ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters. The ship sails to the US, where the passengers are also refused entry. But if no country will take this ship full of Jewish refugees, the only recourse is to return to Germany and certain death.

For Isabel, 11, living in Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, immigrating to the United States, el norte, is only an impossible dream. That is, until 1994, when Castro announces that anyone who wishes to leave Cuba would not be stopped. Then, Isabel discovers that her best friend Iv├ín’s father has been secretly building a boat to travel the 90 miles to the Florida coast with his family.

Isabel is determined to go with them when her Papi is threatened with imprisonment by the Cuban police. Discovering that there is no gasoline for the escape boat, Isabel sells her beloved trumpet for what they need. In the middle of the night, two families, 9 people in all, pile into the boat, including Isabel’s pregnant mother, and take off for el norte, and hopefully leaving their homes in Havana behind. 

Fleeing the the US isn’t as easy a just enough gasoline, there is also the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. If you make it to the beach, you can stay, but if they catch you still in water, you are sent back to Cuba. Everything goes well for a short time, but then the trip begins to run into all kinds of problems and el norte seems even further away than before. Will they all make it before their boat sinks or the US Coast Guard finds them?

For Mahmoud Bishara,12, life in Aleppo, Syria in 2015 means trying to make himself invisible and making sure his younger brother Waleed is safe. But when the building the Bishara’s live in is hit and destroyed by a missile attack, the family knows it is time to leave Syria with its violent civil war behind and try to find refuge in Germany. 

Starting out in a Mercedes, and heading to Turkey, the Bishara’s have food, money and cell phones, but are soon caught in the cross hairs of fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims once again, losing most of what they are carrying, including the car. Luckily, they manage to keep a cell phone. They finally make it to the border town of Kilis, Turkey by walking, and where Mahmoud’s father finds a ride to Izmir, Turkey and the possibility of a ferry to Greece. But they also discover that there are people along the way who will do anything to take advantage of the plight of desperate Syrian refugees in a country where they are not welcomed.

After waiting days for a ferry to arrive, they finally board an overly crowded, not very sea worthy  boat. But when a storm hits, they are thrown overboard into an angry sea, where Mahmoud must make a heartrending decision in order to try to save at least one person in his family.

Each of these stories are heartbreaking and harrowing to read and really bring home what it is like to be a refugee in a world that just doesn’t want you. Gratz draws out the tension by telling the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud in alternating chapters, each chapter ending in a bit of a cliff hanger, not for the sake of drama, but to emphasize the level and frequency of danger that is faced by refugees.

And though their stories are separated by time and place, Gratz manages to highlight the universal similarities refugees faced in the 20th and 21st centuries. Though each protagonist stands on the cusp of adulthood, they all must take responsibility and make hard decisions that impact their families and the outcome of their flight when the adults around them are incapable of doing it. 

Readers can trace the route Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud traveled to their final destinations with the maps found at the back of the book (and I continuously referred to them while reading), and please read the Author’s Note for more information about these young heroes.

Facing hardship, trauma, loss, hunger, and invisibility, the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud form a poignant look at life on the run. But ultimately, each one gives us reason to hope. 

A useful discussion guide from the publisher can be found HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Friday, November 10, 2017

Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell

I can still remember watching the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, especially that stunning performance of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean ice skating to Bolero, for which they earned perfect scores down the line.

Yet, less than 10 years later, that once beautiful city was under siege by Serbs and Bosnian Serbs, a blockade that lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, with daily sniper shelling and mortar attacks. 

Flowers for Sarajevo is based on a true story that came out of the siege. It is narrated by Drasko, a young (fictional) boy who works with his father, Milo, selling flowers in a bustling marketplace in Sarajevo, one where Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Christians mingle and shop together. But overnight, Drasko observes, everything changes, Sarajevo is being torn apart, and men, even his father, are being sent to the battlefield to fight.

Suddenly, merchants who were once friendly when Milo was there, have become mean and are pushing Drasko aside, forcing him into the worst corner of the marketplace. One good thing about it, he says - he can hear the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra rehearsing.

Then, one day in May 1992, a mortar shells hit a bakery where 22 people who were waiting in line to buy bread are killed. The very next day, at the very moment the people were killed, a cellist comes out of the rehearsal hall, sits among the rubble that was once the bakery, and plays Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello. He does this for 22 days days in a row, “one day for each family without a loved one,” Drasko tells us.

Flowers for Sarajevo is one of the most affecting books I have read for this blog so far. Perhaps it is because the author does not go into any real detail about the Balkan War itself, but lets the reader experience it through the eyes of a young boy who ethnicity isn’t given. What the reader focuses on instead is that small marketplace and the tragic event that took place there, and then, the meaning of the cellist’s daily performance. 

Which is probably why McCutcheon doesn’t give the name of the cellist, or even the name of the piece that he plays everyday. Somehow, it seems fitting not knowing right away (you will find it, however, in the Author’s Note). In that way, it focuses only on honoring the dead and the families they left behind, not about who the cellist is. 

In this beautifully done picture book for older readers, we are reminded that the language of music has the power to unite us, that courageous acts have the power to inspire us, and both have the power to give us hope.
Verdan Smailovic playing in the rubble in Sarajevo
The ink, charcoal, and graphite pencil illustrations are done in a palette of dark, somber shades, except for the brightly colored flowers that Milo and Drasko sell. And just as the story wants us to focus on Drasko and the cellist, so do the illustrations, often having them is sharp focus, and the streets and buildings that surround them in soft, almost transparent focus. The illustrations are all extremely dramatic even in their simplicity. 

McCutcheon includes a short history of wars in the Balkans over the years, and more information about the cellist, whose name is Vedran Smailovic. There is also a CD of John McCutcheon narrating the story, as well as his song “Streets of Sarajevo,” and a performance of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor played by Vedran Smailovic, among other things.

You can find a Teacher’s Guide to Flowers for Sarajevo from the publisher, Peachtree Publishers HERE 

And in June 1992, the NY Times published an interesting piece about Sarajevo and Vedran Smailovic. You can find it HERE 

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