Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Blog Tour: Mari's Hope by Sandy Brehl

Mari’s Hope is the third book in the Odin’s Promise Trilogy. In the first book, In Odin’s Promise, Mari is only 11 when the Nazi’s invade her beloved Norway on April 9, 1941. Life as she knew changes overnight, and slowly, she learns that the Norwegians in her village and all over Norway are not taking the invasion and occupying German solders lying down - an active and successful resistance springs up almost immediately and by the end of the novel, after suffering a heartbreaking loss, Mari herself is part of the resistance.

Book Two, Bjorn’s Gift, begins in August 1941. When German officers move into their home, Mari's family move in with her grandmother in order to continue their resistance work, even risking sheltering refugees in the attic. Bjorn is away, now a full time part of the resistance, and Mari decides to secretly record everything that is happening at home for him to read after the war. Mari is also disappointed when she learns her old friend Leif and his family seem to have become collaborators.  

Mari’s Hope begins in February 1943. Mari is now 14 years old and while still part of the resistance, she has also become a highly regarded assistant to Dr. Olsen, often visiting the sick in their  isolated homes spread out on the mountainside around her village of Ytre Arna. Food, fuel to heat homes, and a shortage of medical supplies have caused major problems for the folks who refuse to help the Nazis, including Mari’s family. 

Mari is also able to travel to Bergen, to visit her sister Lise, a nurse, and to take her examinations to become a health aide. There, she meets Hanna, a smart, lively, not easily scared 8 year-old, and her friend Rolf, 14. But on her second meeting with Rolf, Mari and Hanna find him suffering serious injuries after some Norwegian Hitler Youth beat him up, and Mari ends up performing resistance tasks for him in Bergen before returning home. 

Mari soon finds herself traveling again to Bergen. This time it is to try to get some needed medical supplies, using a clever ruse concocted by Dr. Olsen and a friend of his in Bergen. She goes a third time to Bergen to try to help out after a harbor explosion destroys much of the area in April 1944, and  to find Hanna and her older sister Julia, fearing that they may have perished in the intense fires.

At home, Mari is still having difficulties with her old friend Leif and his collaboration with the Nazis, and of course, there is still the despised German officer Klein, whom Mari had nicknamed Goatman in Odin’s Promise, an alcoholic who is known for his excellent ability to trace illegal radios, one of which is owned by Mari's family.

Brehl’s realistic depiction of life under the Nazis, of the way spontaneous resistance groups formed, of the fears, the deprivations, and even some of the happy times is probably the strongest appeal the Odin’s Promise Trilogy has for me. Authenticity in historical fiction is important, and I felt that Brehl had really nailed it, and yes, the terrible explosion in Bergen really did happen. 

One of the other things I really liked about each book in the Trilogy is the consistent message that each of us can make a difference under difficult circumstances if we work together, and Mari’s family is the perfect example of that idea. Resistance is a theme that really means a lot to me and I found the large and small acts in Odin’s Promise, Bjorn’s Gift, and Mari’s Hope gave me some hope that something as odious as the Third Reich can be overcome. 

Mari’s Hope takes the reader up to and just beyond the end of the war, and while there is some heartbreak in this novel, there are some nice surprises as well. And Brehl ties things up with a satisfying conclusion so there are no hanging ends. Much to her credit for creating such appealing, realistic characters, I did find that I was somewhat sad to close the book at the end of Mari’s Hope after traveling along on her wartime journey these past few years. 

The Odin’s Promise Trilogy are three books that will appeal to anyone interested in WWII, the Norwegian resistance, and themes about family, friends, and life on the home-front in a war.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the author

About the Author: Sandy Brehl is the award-winning author of a Norway historical trilogy for ages ten-thru-adult. (ODIN’S PROMISE, BJORN’S GIFT, and MARI’S HOPE) She also writes a blog about picture books (http://Unpackingpicturebookpower.blogspot.com) and contributes to a blog about historical works from middle grade readers (https://thestoriedpast.org). She’s an active member and volunteer with SCBWI-Wisconsin. Sandy writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young readers of any age. A retired educator living in the Milwaukee area, Sandy offers programs for schools, libraries, and adult groups. 

Learn more at www.SandyBrehl.com 
                   Follow on Twitter @SandyBrehl and @PBWorkshop
                                     Facebook: Sandy Brehl Author

Be sure to visit the other stops on the Mari’s Hope Blog Tour:
9/6/Rosemary Kiladitis - Mom Read It
9/7 Trisha Perry - Mindjacked
9/11 Jenni Enzor - Jenni Enzor
9/12 Stephanie Lowden - Golowd
9/18 Suzanne Warr - Tales from the Raven

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

It’s the summer of 1940 and Peggy, 16, younger brother Ernest, 11, and their mum have moved in with Uncle Fred and Aunt Myra, sheep farmers in Romney Marsh on the Kentish coast not far from the English Channel. Their father is gone, and Ernest thinks he is fighting in the war, but Peggy seems to know something more about where he is and so do the townspeople, who threat them with some amount of disdain.

Ernest is a bit of a neurotic boy, and like many, he's afraid that the Germans are going to invade any minute. He has gotten hold of the leaflet “If the Invader Comes…” issued by the War Office, which, rather than shoring up his courage, only makes Ernest more fearful.

Out riding his bike one day, Ernest sees a plane catch fire and crash land. When he reports it, as per the leaflet, everyone assumes it was a German plane that was swallowed by the marsh along with the pilot. But during the night, Peggy wakes up and discovers the injured pilot hiding by the henhouse.

It turns out the pilot, Henryk, is a Polish refugee who is flying with the RAF. Peggy decides to hide him in an abandoned church, and brings his clean clothes that belonged to her father, and some food. Henryk doesn’t want to return to the RAF, he has lost is love of flying, and has decided he just can’t fight anymore. As his story unfolds, Peggy learns about his escape from Poland after the Germans invaded, his travels to other countries to fight, and the loss of his family, including the tragic death of his three younger sisters.

Ever vigilant for invading Germans, Ernest eventually finds out about Henryk. As he gets to know him, he’s really torn - wanting to like Henryk but disturbed by what he believes to be Henryk’s LMF or Lack of Moral Fiber. Ernest has been bullied ever since arriving  in Romney Marsh and worries about his own LMF. In his need to prove his courage, Ernest’s wavering leads to all kind of dangerous complications for Peggy and Henryk, who meanwhile are finding themselves attracted to each other.

That Burning Summer is told from the alternating points of view of Peggy, Henryk, and Ernest. It begins with a copy of the leaflet from the War Office, and each of the seven chapter begins with the instructions of what to do in case of an invasion, instructions that are reflected in Ernest’s struggles with his fears of an invasion, his own possible lack of courage, and later with his feelings about Henryk. I though Syson did a masterful job of weaving each instruction into the unfolding of Ernest's story without making it sound forced.

But this is really Peggy’s coming of age story. Unlike her friend, Peggy doesn't really have feelings about boys, and certainly not about her own sexuality. Readers watch as she discovers her developing feelings for Henryk, and becomes aware of her budding sexuality. Besides the coming of age theme That Burning Summer also explores ideas of courage, cowardice, family, and loyalty in all her characters.

It is not a well-known fact that many Polish pilots flew for the RAF after their country was invaded and Syson brings how it came about nicely as Henryk's story unfolds. In addition, Syson includes interesting everyday details about wartime life in a small village, and a sub-story about where Peggy and Ernest’s father really is and why, along with a mystery as to who is sending cruel notes to their Mum. Another sub-story concerns an opportunistic bully who seems to know just how to get under Ernest’s skin, adding realism and depth to the novel. 

The novel really only covers the events of the summer and early fall of 1940, but there is also an epilogue set in 1946 that brings readers up-to-date with Peggy and Henryk's fate. 

That Burning Summer is a historical fiction novel that should appeal to readers who are interested in WWII, and especially those who also like a touch of romance.  

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was a PFD received from the author

FYI: "If the Invader Comes" Leaflet (click to enlarge)


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

When last we left our evacuees, Ada Smith and her younger brother Jaime, they had been taken away from Susan Smith (no relation), with whom them had been living after being evacuated from London, and brought back to London by their mother despite the constant bombing. Sure enough, one night during an air raid, they don’t make it to the shelter because of Ada’s severely clubbed foot, and in the midst of everything, Susan appears to take them back to her house in the countryside.

Now, with her club foot surgically corrected, thanks to the generosity of her best friend’s wealthy parents, Lord and Lady Thorton, Ada returns to the country with Susan and Jaime. And, since Susan’s house has been destroyed by a bomb, they will be living in a cottage on the Thorton estate. 

Then word comes that Ada’s mother was killed in a bombing raid, and Ada finally begins to feel that maybe she isn’t the terrible person her mother always said she was. When Susan becomes their legal guardian, Jaime immediately begins to call her Mum, but Ada can’t bring herself to do that, and actually resents that Jaime could do it so easily. Calling Susan Mum would require a level of trust that she will always be there, and as Ada knows all too well, you just can’t count on that during a war.

When the government requisitions the Thorton manor for war use, the very formidable Lady Thorton moves in with Susan, Ada and Jaime. And when Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany is brought there by Lord Thorton to receive math instruction from Susan, so that she can eventually join him in his secret war work in Oxford, things really get tense. Ada and Jaime are convinced that Ruth is a spy, but Lady Thorton takes an immediate dislike and intense to Ruth, seeing her only as a enemy German, and the reason her son Jonathan had joined the RAF and put his life in danger.  

Ruth and Ada don’t hit is off, either, until they discover a mutual love for horses. But Lady Thorton refuses to let Ruth anywhere on the estate property, except the cottage, and especially the stables. When Susan gives her horse Butter to Ada as a gift, Ada lets Ruth ride her in secret and slowly the two girls develop a fragile friendship.

There is lots going on in The War I Finally Won, which I liked. War is a chaotic, confusing, demanding time and Bradley has really captured that. At the same time, the characters that appeared in The War That Saved My Life have the same feel to them, as they should, and even Jaime, whom I felt was a little thin as a character before has become a more developed personality. 

The thing I found most interesting was the relationship between Susan and Ada. In the first book, it seems so clear cut, but now, Ada keeps Susan at an unexpected distance. Why? With her mother dead and gone (no, that is not a spoiler), I had expected that the three of them would form a nice, lasting family unit. But, ironically, it will take more loss, more sorrow and the realization that anything could really be gone in the blink of an eye for Ada to finally see the need to let herself trust more and that is the war she must finally win. 

The War I Finally Won is so more than just a satisfying coming of age sequel. While it explores the theme of trust, within that theme, it also explores the idea of how we define family. For those who haven’t read the first book, The War That Saved My Life, I would highly recommend doing so (though it isn’t necessary to enjoy this second book). Luckily, The War I Finally Won won’t be available until October 3, 2017, so there’s still plenty of time to read, or for some to re-read book 1.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from the publisher

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Paris Spy (a Maggie Hope Mystery #8) by Susan Elia MacNeal

When last we left Maggie Hope, her college friend Sarah Sanderson and her old boyfriend Hugh Thompson, both now Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, were preparing to go to France to work undercover, while Maggie was excitedly expecting her newly discovered half sister, Elise Hess, to arrive in London from Germany.

It is now June 1942 when The Paris Spy opens and France has be under German occupation since June 1940 and the Nazis have quite comfortably ensconced themselves in Paris, enjoying the finer things the city has to offer. 

Sarah and Hugh, code named Sabine Severin and Hubert Taillier respectively, have also arrived in Paris, she as a dancer, he as a cellist to work undercover as part of a Paris ballet company. Their assignment is to collect a bag of sand sample SOE agent Erica Calvert had collected from the beaches of Normandy, France, in preparation for the proposed invasion and it is imperative that those sample not get into the hands of the Nazis. 

Maggie has also arrived in Paris hoping for discover what happened to her half sister. Elise never showed up in London, as planned.

More importantly, however, she is there to try to discover what happened to SOE agent Erica Calvert - is she dead? Alive? Compromised? Her radio transmittals have been coming through to England but without the required security check. And what about her sand samples? 

After months of waiting in the home of two resistance workers, Maggie has finally received her forged identity papers, becoming Paige Kelly from Ireland, in Paris to shop for her trousseau. Ireland was neutral during the war and so Maggie is free to move around as she pleases. She immediately checks into the Hôtel Ritz, now headquarters for the German Luftwaffe, and home to designer Coco Chanel, who in reality did live there for 37 years, including the war years, and who immediately befriends Maggie, who just happens to be wearing a Chanel suit when they meet.

And to add to the danger of simply operating in an occupied area, the Nazis seem to know exactly who the SOE agents are and what they are doing in France, which can only mean one thing - there is a mole in SOE. But who can it be? And will Maggie find out before all the SOE agents’ lives are put in jepardy?

There is a lot going on inThe Paris Spy. There’s mystery and intrigue mixed with the really odd glamour that was Paris after the Nazis arrived. MacNeal has really captured the two sides of the German officers who were running operations there. On the surface, they demanded the finer things associated with France - lots of champagne, the finest foods, and the best accommodations. Below the surface, the level of physical and mental cruelty is stunning. 

And in-between is Coco Chanel. Chanel has long been suspected of being a Nazi collaborator. MacNeal’s depiction of her is ambiguous at best, and it is up to the reader to decide whether or not she is a Nazi spy, or a double agent in The Paris Spy. Of course, there is the whispered comment Chanel made to Maggie on page 245…   

I personally felt this was a particularly interesting novel. Although Maggie has rubbed shoulders with all kinds of big players from WWII - from the Queen and Winston Churchill to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, among others -  I felt like this was a more thought provoking story and not just a good historical fiction mystery. Not because Maggie, Sarah, or Hugh have changed, but there was more of an insider’s look into how and why things were done and events that unfolded in it. 

The Paris Spy is sure to please fans of Maggie and, aside from maybe not totally understanding how Elise Hess comes into the picture, it can be read as a stand alone historical fiction novel, not just as part of a mystery series.

I am now eagerly looking forward to Maggie Hope #8

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette

Born in Oakland, California in 1919, Fred Korematsu was a young Japanese American who wanted more out of life than working in his parents nursery growing roses. He had been a boy scout, had a bit of a mischievous streak, ran track and played tennis in high school, and loved to dance to the jazz music of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. 

At twenty-two, he had a girlfriend named Ida, an Italian American girl whom he had to date secretly - both of their parents disapproved of them as a couple. Fred took a job building ships to save for a snazzy Pontiac, and planned on marrying Ida (despite family objections). 

But on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Fred’s life turned upside down. But after President Roosevelt sign Executive Order 9066 which forced all Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps, Fred decides to defy the order. Claiming he is Spanish and Hawaiian, Fred gets away with his ruse for a while, but eventually the authorities find and arrest him.

Fred’s arrest leads to a friendship with ACLU lawyer Ernest Besig, who represents him in court, believing that the internment of Japanese Americans is wrong and a violation of their rights. Meanwhile, Fred finds himself living in a horse stall at Tanforan race track. Sadly, no one at Tanforan is proud or supportive of Fred’s stand against Executive Order 9066, not even his family.

Eventually, Fred is sent to an internment camp in the middle of nowhere in Topaz, Utah. Ernest Besig is still working on his case, but ultimately even the United States Supreme Court agrees with the President that it is a “military necessity” to intern the country’s Japanese Americans. 

While he lost his case in 1944, and believed that was the end of it, little could Fred imagine that his simple act of defiance would ultimately resurface many years later, after evidence of government misconduct is discovered in relation to the internment of so many Japanese Americans and the loss of everything they loved and had worked so hard for. In 1983, Fred finds himself back in court when his case is reopened. This time, Fred wins and that win leads to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which grants reparations to the Japanese Americans interned during WWII.

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is a fascinating book, and part of what makes it so engaging is that it is told using various means. Each important aspect of Fred’s personal story is related at the beginning of every chapter in free verse. This gives the reader a more intimate picture, accompanied by Houlette’s simple but affective illustrations, of who Fred really was and what he was up against, as well as his reasons for defying an Executive Order. 

Fred’s story is followed by factual information pertinent to what has proceeded it, the national events that impacted his life. Each of these pages contains definitions, and a timeline, as well as plenty of photos that also illustration the information presented. 

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is the first book in the new Fighting for Justice series, and it is a truely excellent book for introducing young readers to this shameful aspect of WWII on the home front. Back matter includes Source Notes, Bibliography, a personal reflection by Fred’s daughter Karen Korematsu about her father, and a section on “Speaking Up for Justice: From Fred’s Day to Ours: with suggestions for what young people can do in today’s world, a world that is seeing a resurgent of the kind of thinking that put people into internment camps in the first place. 

A word about Fred’s name: his parents named in Toyosaburo, but his 1st grade teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t learn to pronounce it, and suggested Fred, instead. I wonder how that made him feel.

If you have ever really wondered whether one person can make a difference in the world, Fred Korematsu’s story will definitely be one that will reassure and inspire you.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was bought for my personal libraty

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hedy's Journey: The True Story of a Hungarian Girl Fleeing the Holocaust by Michelle Bisson, illustrated by El primo Ramón

In Hedy’s Journey, Michelle Bisson tells the true life story of her mother’s flight from the Nazis and her home in Hungary in 1941. 

Although Hungary was allied with the Axis powers, Germany and Italy, during the 1930s and early 1940s, Hungarian Jews were not rounded up and deported to concentrations camps until 1944, when Nazi Germany finally deposed the Prime Minister and occupied the country.

But that didn’t mean Hungary was a safe haven for Europe’s Jews. Far from it, as Hedy Engle learned when her cousin Marika, a Polish Jew who was visiting with Hedy’s family in Budapest, was ordered to report to the deportation office there in 1941. Sent to a concentration camp, Marika and her family were never heard from again. Hedy’s family knew that if the Nazi’s were going to round up Polish Jews in Hungary, it wouldn’t be long before they came for Hungarian Jews.  

As if to emphasize their precarious position, in the summer of 1941, Hedy’s father, a successful jeweler, was sent to a labor camp. Luckily, he was released in three months. And that was when the family decided it was definitely time to leave Hungary.  But even with visas to enter the United States in hand, only three train tickets could be found to take them to Lisbon, Portugal, and a ship across the Atlantic Ocean. It was decided that Hedy’s parents and younger brother Robert would be the first to leave Hungary, and Hedy would follow a week and a half later. Then, when they would reunited in Lisbon, they all would board a ship to America and freedom.

Imagine being a 16 year-old Jewish girl traveling alone through Nazi-occupied Austria. Hedy’s trip to Portugal was fraught with fear and caution. Although she didn’t look Jewish and most people treated her as though she weren’t, the sight of German soldiers in Vienna was still a frightening experience for the teenaged Hedy. When she finally arrived in Lisbon, her family breathed a sigh of relief. But then, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the US entered World War II. 

As if they hadn’t already dealt with enough challenges and setbacks, the Engle family now found themselves stranded in Portugal with worthless tickets for a ship that was not longer available. Eventually, the family does secure passage on a ship that comes with its own setbacks and challenges, but ultimately, the family arrived in New York harbor and freedom.

Hedy’s Journey is a true story about courage and daring in the face of fear. It is based on the memories that Hedy shared with her daughter, author Michelle Bisson. There are photographs of the family at the end of the book, along with information about what happen to the family after arriving in the U.S. Readers will also find a map of the journey the Engle family undertook, as well as a timeline of events. 

Hedy’s Journey is an ideal book for introducing young readers to the Holocaust. It is done as an illustrated book. It is really in part graphic form, and in part a picture book for older readers. The story is told in narrative, though, rather than text bubbles. The illustrations are done in subtle sepia tones, giving it an old fashioned quality, with shades of gray, but Hedy’s clothes are highlighted in dusty pink. 

The journey of Hedy and her family may not sound like a terribly dangerous or distressing flight from the Nazis if compared to other similar accounts, but it is wise to remember that for Jews every moment that they lived under this regime was dangerous. Fleeing held it own dangers, but for many like Hedy and her family, they thought it was worth the risk.    

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In This Grave Hour (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #13) by Jacqueline Winspear

It’s September 3, 1939 and just as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces over the radio that England has declared war on Germany, Maisie has a strange visitor. Dr. Francesca Thomas, a former member of the WWI Belgian resistance group La Dame Blanche and who, through her association with the British Secret Service, is the person who trained Maisie in all things spy in book #13 - Journey to Munich, wants her to investigate the assassination-like death of Frederick Addens. Addens seems to be just an ordinary engineer working at St. Pancras station, but he is also a Belgian refugee who escaped to England during WWI and never returned to his homeland.

Soon after Maisie begins her investigation of Frederick Addens, more Belgian expats who arrived in England with him are also killed, executed in the exact same way as he was. But the victims just don’t seem to have anything in common with each other besides being Belgian expats.

Given that, Maisie decides to take a clandestine trip to Belgian to see if she can find any  information or answers as to why these particular people were killed. Maisie enlists the help of her old friend from the Secret Service Robbie MacFarlane, who manages to get her on a transport plane. And despite having a very small window of opportunity to investigate in Belgian, Maisie does indeed discover the information she needs to solve her case.

There is, of course, another story thread that is much more personal. Maisie’s country home, inherited from the deceased husband, has received two rather boisterous brothers evacuated from London, and one 5 year-old girl named Anna. Maisie enlists the help of her dad and stepmother for the boys, but no one seems to know where Anna came from. They only know that she was evacuated from London with the rest of the kids heading to Kent, and now she refuses to speak or let go of the small suitcase she arrived with. Finding herself getting too attached to the little girl, Maisie decides to give her assistant Billy Beale the job of finding out who Anna is and where she came from. 

In the end, both mysteries are solved. Though I found the motive for the murder of the Belgian refugees a bit thin, the rest of the novel is a really solid mystery and worth reading, especially if you are a Maisie Dobbs fan already. In mysteries, it is always the excitement of the investigation that I enjoy most, so that a rather lame motive didn’t bother me, and only occupies a small portion of the book. The thread concerning Anna was interesting, emotional and somewhat predictable, yet oddly satisfying. 

What I did like was seeing how Winspear has really done some spot on research regarding what the English home front was like during those early days of the war and her depictions are as interesting as they are authentic. The book takes place during what was called the “Phony War.” This was the first nine months after war was declared, and people were at the ready, but nothing was happening. The Blitzkrieg came later, in April 1940. That characters keep forgetting their gas masks when they go out is probably more true to life than not. Blackout curtains, cheap tea biscuits, mothers retrieving their evacuated children, and lack of petrol are just some of the things Winspear captures during this quiet period of the war, but sadly, the actual fact that people killed dachshunds and german shepherds because they are German dog breeds is also included.

I highly recommend In This Grave Hour for lovers of mysteries that are borderline cozy. I call it borderline because there are some mildly graphic depictions that may upset some sensitive readers. It took me a while to really get into the Maisie Dobbs’ mysteries, but once I started, I was hooked. Needless to say, now I am looking forward to Maisie Dobbs #14, To Die But Once, but, alas, I will have to wait until next year to read it.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Funnies #25: PSAs from Superman and Batman

I think these PSAs speak for themselves - as relevant today as when they were originally published.

PSA for World Refugee Year 1959-1960

PSA from Action Comics #141 February 1950

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story by Sandra Moore, illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

This is the story of a bonsai tree that was lovingly dug up on the island of Miyajima almost 400 years ago by a man name Itaro Yamaki, as a souvenir of the trees that had touched his heart on that beautiful, lush island.

Itaro cared for the bonsai for over fifty years, passing it on to his son Wajiro when he could not longer care for it. And so generation after generation of the Yamaki fathers and sons passed on the care and careful sculpting of Miyajima, as Itaro has originally named it.

Miyajima thrived year after year, even after the Yamakis moved to Hiroshima. But on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped that decimated the city and killed many of its citizens. The Yamakis and Miyajima both survived, and eventually Hiroshima was rebuilt as the population again began to grow.

When the United States was celebrating it bicentennial in 1976, it was decided that Miyajima would be sent as a gift from the Japanese people to the American people in the hope that they would always live together in peace. And so the resilient Miyajima became known as the tree of peace, and given a place of honor in the National Arboretum in Washington DC. 

This is an interesting fictional autobiography of a single bonsai tree. It is written in the first person from the tree’s perspective, which often doesn’t work but does here. Miyajima tells its story in simple, straightforward narrative. But it is Kazumi Wilds illustrations that really bring Miyajima’s story home. Her soft, gentle illustrations of almost 400 years of careful tending of the bonsai tree are done in a palette of bright greens, bright blues and beige against an essentially white background contrast sharply with the pages of grays and browns depicting the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and destruction it caused. I personally found these illustrations to be as effective than the accompanying text, and may generate a strong emotional response from readers, just as they did from me. It so simply yet clearly demonstrates what happened that terrible day.

The Peace Tree from Hiroshima is an excellent picture book for older readers introducing kids to this particular aspect of World War II and its aftermath. This is Moore’s debut children’s book and she has written a very poignant story with age appropriate themes of friendship, resilience, war, and peace. Moore has also included a glossary, and facts about the different kinds of bonsai, much of which I did not know before I read it.

Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back to this book. Some facts were altered for the sake of the story, and the Note explains what really happened and why. 

2017 is the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). What better time to read The Peace Tree from Hiroshima, especially now, when talk of using nuclear bombs is being threatened by some of the world’s leaders.  


If you are ever in Washington, DC, you can visit Miyajima at the National Arboretum:


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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Mr. Benjamin's Suitcase of Secrets written and illustrated by Pei-Yu Chang

When I was in grad school, getting ready to write my dissertation, I read a lot of Walter Benjamin’s literary criticism, particularly what he wrote about children’s literature and toys. Benjamin was a prolific writer, cultural critic and philosopher. He was also a German Jew who had left Germany because of Hitler and Nazism, and, like so many other German intellectuals at the time, he moved to Paris. But after France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Paris’s German population knew they were at risk and it was time to leave Europe. And that’s where the story of Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets begins.

But getting out of Europe wasn’t all that easy, so Mr. Benjamin sought out the help of Mrs. Fittko. Pack light so as not to draw attention to yourself, she told the few people she was willing to lead to safety. But on the night of their escape, Mr. Bennie, as Mrs. Fittko calls him, doesn’t pack lightly, in fact, he packs a big heavy suitcase, one he could barely carry. The problem is that the suitcase would have to be carried over rough terrain and then across the mountains and it was heavy and awkward.

Couldn’t Mr. Benjamin just leave the suitcase behind? Mrs. Fittko asks again. No, he can’t, as he tells her “The contents of this case can change everything.” But just as the group arrive at the border and the possibility of safety is just ahead of them, the guards refuse the allow Mr. Benjamin over the border crossing. He returns to the hotel where he had spent the previous night, and then, Mr. Benjamin and his mysterious suitcase simply disappeared. And to this day no one knows what he had been carrying that was so important to him.

This historical fiction picture book for older readers is as unusual as it is interesting. It is based not only on what actually happened to Walter Benjamin and why he was forced to flee, but also on the mystery surrounding the fate of the suitcase and its contents, which he tells Mrs. Fittko are “more important than my life.”

I have to admit, I never thought I would see a children’s book written about Walter Benjamin yet I really like the way some things were presented. I thought the way it shows that intellectual ideas were such a threat to the Nazis that they felt it necessary to arrest those people “who had extraordinary ideas" was very effective throughout the book, as represented by the importance of the suitcase and Benjamin's need to hold on tightly to it. I also liked that the soldiers who were arresting people didn’t have swastikas on their armband, but a kind of generic mark making it relevant to any act of this type. I did enjoy the variety of people speculating about what they thought was actually in Benjamin’s mysterious suitcase, which also defects the reader from wondering what Benjamin's fate was (in fact, he committed suicide after being turned back).

The textured mixed-media illustrations are wonderful. They are both quirky and serious. Look closely at the different bits that go into making the collages on each page, they almost tell their own story. I thought the one below was really effective at conveying the fear that people must have lived with during that time

This is a book I would definitely recommend for units on WWII, or even on units about refugees. Benjamin was a refugee twice over - once fleeing Germany, once trying to flee Nazi occupied France. Pei-Yu Chang has successfully depicted a world where ideas and opposition are seen as dangerous by those in power, making this a potent and relevant story for today's readers.

You can find a detailed essay on Walter Benjamin, his suitcase, and his attempt to flee the Nazis HERE

Who exactly was Mrs. Fittko? She was a courageous Holocaust activist who helped many people escape the Nazis over the Pyrenees working with her husband and with Varian Fry. Find out more about Mrs. Fittko HERE  

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Diana's White House Garden by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by Jen Hill

When the United States entered World War II, people of all ages on the home front were urged to do whatever they could to help the war effort. Naturally, Diana Hopkins, the ten-year-old  daughter of President Roosevelt's chief adviser Harry Hopkins and White House resident, wanted to help, too. But everything she tried, just didn't work out well in the White House. 

So, when the President said that he wanted everyone to grow their own food as part of the war effort to keep both soldiers and citizens strong and healthy, that included the White House lawn. Diana jumps at the chance to help out with the President's proposed Victory Garden and before she knows it, she is sporting a pair of overalls, turning the soil, fertilizing it, and planting beans, carrots, cabbages, and tomato plants. Even Mrs. Roosevelt helps out on occasion.

With the help and guidance of Mrs. Roosevelt, George, the groundskeeper, and Fala, the President's little scotty dog whose job it was to keep the rabbits away, Diana's garden thrives. By harvest time, flouishing has a flourishing garden ready for picking and eating. 

Diana’s garden was made famous when newspapers and magazines published pictures of her working in her garden, wearing her overalls, an inspiration to kids all over the country to follow her lead: 


Diana Hopkins works in the White House Garden while her
parents look on (AP Photo and NY Times May 11, 1943)
Diana’s White House Garden is a lovely picture book work of historical fiction for young readers that shows how kids can sometimes do things that can make a big difference. Without going into the specifics of World War II, the need and desire for a Victory Garden comes across in a very age appropriate way and the real emphasis is on helping out, perseverance (especially after rabbits eat her first sprouts) and the rewards to be reaped as a result, including the feeling of accomplishment.

The simple line pencil, gouache, and digital drawings done in a palette of earth tones on a cream background reflect not just the time period, but also the idea of working in the soil. Of course, Diana’s big, red tomatoes, lovely orange carrots, and deep green cabbages might inspire any to create their own Victory Garden, even today.  


I loved the inclusion of an illustration of Diana reading Wonder Woman comics while listening to the radio. If you look closely, you will see she has been reading Wonder Woman’s first appearance in Sensation Comics and the very first comic devoted to Wonder Woman - a nice pop culture touch.

One bit of reality: President Roosevelt wasn't really very keen on a Victory Garden, it was Mrs. Roosevelt’s idea. It was only after he had seen and tasted the fruits of their labor that the President became enthusiastic. You can read all about it at City Farmer News. However, this by no means should diminish your enjoyment of Diana’s White House Garden. 

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, July 14, 2017

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff

This is a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years and just never got around to reading. But I recently read two very interesting articles about the author, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, which spurred me to action. I pulled the book off the shelf and finally read it. And while it is usually considered a WWI story, it is really much, much more than that.

Born into a Brahmin family, Mukerji had raised pigeons growing up in Calcutta, India in the early years of the 20th century just like so many boys his age and caste did at that time. Calling upon his own experience with his flock of 40 birds and the experiences of others, Mukerji writes about this special pigeon’s life story. Almost from the moment it was born, it’s young owner knows this is a special pigeon, beautiful and smart. The young master decides to name him Gay-Neck or Chitra-griva, Hindu meaning “painting in gay colours.” 

At first, it is up to Gay-Neck’s parents to teach him to fly, and to defend himself against hawks and eagles, a pigeon’s natural enemies, but soon his master takes over with the help of Ghond, a family friend and hunter who is familiar with India’s forests, mountains, and wild life. Together, they take Gay-Neck on trips further and further from home in Calcutta, releasing him to see if he will return to Calcutta. Gay-Neck’s training is successful, but not without mishaps, including having to retrain him after he becomes frightened to fly again because of a hawk attack. 

When WWI begins, Ghond and Gay-Neck are sent to the front as part of the Indian Army. Gay-Neck performs masterfully as a carrier pigeon saving lives during the war, but ultimately both Ghond and Gay-Neck are invalided out and sent home. Ghond suffering with physical wounds and both suffering from PTSD. Both must be healed now.

I found Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon to be a very interesting book for a number of reasons. First, there is the story of just how a homing/carrier pigeon is trained, something I’ve wondered about whenever I’ve read a book about their use in war. Mukerji goes into quite a bit of detail about this, carefully describing how to begin training them and why a trainer might have to tie a pigeons’s wings to prevent it from flying, as well as the retraining process after the pigeon has been attacked or become frightened as Gay-Neck did on the battlefield.

Gay-Neck is also a window into the life of an Indian boy from a high caste. Gay-Neck’s young master (like Mukerji himself), has the leisure time and money to spend on raising his flock of pigeon’s, living in a two story private home with a flat roof for the pigeon coops.  There is no mention of the British until the war, even though India was still a colony of the British Empire, nor any mention of the poorer people in Calcutta. 

But it is Mukerji’s descriptions of natural and religious life that really makes this novel. Whether they are in the jungle, dealing with a tiger, an angry elephant, a killer water buffalo, or resting and meditating at a lamasery with the lamas, or describing the majesty of the Himalayas,  the writing is always beautiful and the language simply poetic. even when Mukerji is graphically describing the action on front lines. At times, during the war, Mukerji writes from Gay-Neck’s point of view since his master was only a teenager and couldn’t accompany his bird to the front. Thus, the reader is able to read what Gay-Neck sees and experiences, from a wild dog at the front, to machine eagles spitting fire in the sky. 

And, the dramatic black and white graphic illustrations by Russian-born artist Boris Artzybasheff are the perfect compliment to this book. 




While I enjoyed finally reading Gay-Neck, what I am not sure about is whether this is a book that would appeal to today’s young reader. Plus, sensitive readers should be aware that there are some graphic descriptions throughout this book.

Gay-Neck won the Newbery in 1928 and I believe, the author is the only Indian author to have won that award to day. You might want to read these recent articles about Dhan Gopal Mukerji. You can find them HERE and HERE

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