Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! The Pigeon Who Save the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Robert MacKenzie

During World War I, carrier pigeons were frequently used by the army to deliver important messages because of their innate ability to find their way home, even if it means flying over ground combat and going great distances. For one lost battalion, it was a matter of life and death.

In 1918, a battalion of the US infantry was fighting in France, surrounded by the enemy, when their radio communications went out. No one knew where these soldiers were located to send help and rescue them. There was only one chance to save themselves - send a message back home, attached to the leg of their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami.

Flying through gun fire aimed at him by a German soldier, Cher Ami managed to avoid being hit and kept flying. Even when the Germans send a hawk after the pigeon, he managed to fly at the sun and blind the hawk just before it could sink its talons into the pigeon.

Arriving at the army's base in England, Cher Ami delivers his message, and as the army prepared to rescue their fellow soldiers, Cher Ami found his nice comfortable nest for a hard earned rest and a job well done.
The message Cher Ami carried that saved the Lost Battalion
There are lots of versions of Cher Ami's story out there, but this one is aimed at young readers who probably don't know a lot about war in general, and WWI in particular. And it really doesn't give much information about war, nor is much needed. What this book does do is give kids a nice, age appropriate fiction biography of one famous heroic carrier pigeon and highlights the importance of the role they played for helping soldiers in dangerous situations (although they did more than what this story shows).

Burleigh doesn't give details about the battle that the battalion was involved in, not does he give names to any of the soldiers. This is definitely Cher Ami's story. Cher Ami's tale is complimented by the realistic illustrations of Robert MacKenzie, which are done in a palette of mainly browns and burnt oranges for the battlefield and dull smoky blue for the sky, presumable from all the weapons being shot.

I do have one problem with this fictional bio. We see Cher Ami being shot at, but the reader is not told that he is hurt. Cher Ami was actually seriously wounded on this trip, which proved to be his last. He didn't die, but one of his legs was badly hurt, so doctors fashioned him a wooden prosthetic leg to replace the injured leg. I would have like to see this within the story, not pushed in an Afterword at the end of the book.

As a book about carrier pigeons and what they are capable of, Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! would be an excellent teaching tool. It would also be useful as part of a WWI unit, but not as a primary resource.

A Cher Ami Coloring Book is available to download for free at the Home of Heroes, where you can also read more about the Lost Battalion of WWI

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnam Boy's Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, art by Brian Deines

The plight of refugees have been in the news a lot these days because of the war in Syria. As more and more borders are closed to them, it might be a good time to remember another group of refugees who arrived on North America's shores and have contributed so much to their adopted country.

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and the communist government took over South Vietnam, daily life became so difficult and unbearable that families were willing to risk escaping their country in rickety boats not made for long sea voyages. But these boats were the only way out, unless you were rich.

In the Ho family, six year-old Tuan's father and older sister Linh were had escaped Vietnam in 1980 and made their way to Canada. Now, in 1981, it is Tuan's time to escape with this mother and two sisters, Lan, 9. and Loan, 10. His youngest sister Van, 4, would  have to be left behind for now. She is just too young for the trip. No one, not even the neighbors must know what Tuan and his family are up one dark night as they sneak out of the house.

Their journey to freedom begins after a truck drops them off close to the water's edge. Running for their lives, dodging soldiers and their gun fire, they are picked up in a skiff. Still dodging bullets, the overcrowded skiff takes them to a fishing boats further out in the sea.

It is hot and humid and there isn't much drinking water. When the boat springs a leak, Tuan's mother and aunt help bail out the water as quickly as they can. On the third day, the boat's engine dies and the refugees find themselves adrift on the huge and unpredictable Pacific Ocean. One day six, an American aircraft carrier is spotted and the refugees are welcomed aboard.

The Ho family, we learn, survives they harrowing ordeal, and are reunited with Tuan's father and sister in Canada. And yes, Van and her grandmother both arrive in Canada in 1985, safe and sound.

Adrift at Sea is told from Tuan's point of view, and aimed at readers about the same age as he was when he escaped Vietnam. Such a young narrator may not capture the truly difficult and risky trip in the kind of detail a book for older readers might, but he still very clearly depicts the fear, the hot sun, lack of water, and relief at being rescued at an age appropriate level that any young reader will be able understand.

Skrypuch has included a number photos of the Ho family, both in Vietnam and in Canada. She has also included a brief history of the "boat people" as the refugees came to be called. The refugees faced not only the kinds of problems that the Ho family dealt with, but there were storms, pirates and always the threat of dying of thirst and hunger, and sometimes, they found that they were not welcomed everywhere.

Using a color palette mainly of oranges, yellows and blues, Deines's highly textured oil on canvas illustrations capture all the secrecy, fear, and perils, all wrapped up in the dangerously hazy, hot, and humid weather that these refugees faced in their desire for freedom and a better life.

Adrift at Sea is a powerful historical nonfiction story that can certainly help shed light on events of the past that share a similarity to those that are happening in the world today.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Pajama Press

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Queen's Accomplice ( A Maggie Hope Mystery #6) by Susan Elia MacNeal

It's 1942 and Maggie is back in London after her trip with the Prime Minister to meet with President Roosevelt. She's working in an SOE (Special Operations Executive) office on Baker Street, and is understandably surprised one night when she learns that her friends have fixed up the house she inherited from a grandmother she didn't even know she had. When her old collage friend shows up after her home blows up, Maggie is glad for the company - it's a house that holds some bad memories for Maggie.

On her job, Maggie is dealing with a misogynist boss who couldn't be more dismissive of her constant appeals for equal pay for the young women who are trained operatives and being sent into enemy territory or benefits for their families should anything happen to them. When it appears that an agent in France may be compromised, Maggie can't even get him understand her seriousness of the situation. Heck, she can't even get him to call her by her actual name. Apparently, the only use "Meggie" has is to fetch him his cuppa.

And, just as Londoners begin enjoying a bit of a break from the nightly bombing by the German Luftwaffe, under cover of the intense blackout conditions a mad man, dubbed the Blackout Beast by the newspapers, emerges who begins imitating the murders of Jack the Ripper and targeting the young women who are working for the SOE. These are women in London for a short time before beings sent overseas and their unfamiliarity with their surroundings and having no friends or family nearby makes them particularly vulnerable. Readers will certainly be surprised when they discover how this new Jack is able to overcome these trained agents so easily.

Because all the victims are SOE agents, Maggie gets sent to Scotland Yard to work with Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin, who also seems a bit of a misogynist at first and not at all happy about working with a female MI-5 operative. Working together, Maggie begins to see a mathematical pattern emerging as they investigate the murders, while DCI Durgin prefers to rely on his gut feeling. As the two get closer to solving the crime, they begin to appreciate each others methods a little bit more...and maybe even each other.

If you have been reading Maggie Hope mysteries as I have been, you know that by now it is a little like visiting an old friend. We know all about her friends, her boyfriends, her family history. And yet the novels never feel stale. In The Queen's Accomplice, Maggie's college friend Sarah, a dancer by profession, and her old boyfriend Hugh Thompson, are about to be sent to France as SOE operatives, passing themselves off as a married couple. Her old boyfriend John Sterling is still in California, working for Disney creating wartime propaganda. Maggie believes her mother, Clara Hess, a German and a high level Nazi supporter, and whom she never knew until the war, is dead. And her newly discovered German half sister Elise Hess had been sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, but Maggie is now excitedly expecting her in London.

The Queen's Accomplice seemed like perfect book to read during Women's History Month, since MacNeal really highlights some of the difficulties women doing war work encountered back then. The parochial attitudes will no doubt resonate with some readers in today's new world.

And I was very happy to see MacNeal's reference to Lion Feuchtwanger's 1925 novel Jud Süß which is a formidable counter to the horrible, anti-Semitic movie made by the Nazis.

There is lots going on in her life, but Maggie Hope is a cozy mystery reader's delight.

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Seeking Refuge: a graphic novel by Irene N. Watts, illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker

Back in 2014, I read and reviewed a trilogy by Irene N. Watts called Escape from Berlin. The first book, Good-bye, Marianne, tells the story of Marianne Kohn, 11, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin, with her mother. Her father has been missing since before Kristallnacht and her mother is working in an orphanage. It was through her work there that Marianne was able to secure a last minute place on the Kindertransport.

Seeking Refuge is the graphic form of the second book in the trilogy, which is called Remember Me, and picks up where Good-bye, Marianne leaves off.  Marianne has just arrived in London, where she is sent to live with the very wealthy and very snobbish Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie Jones. Mrs. Abercrombie Jones immediately changes her name to Marianne* to Mary Ann, gives her a small room in the servants quarters and has her helping out around the house. Luckily, Marianne is allowed to go to school where she makes a friend named Bridget O'Malley. But when the two girls come up with a plan to find a someone who will sponsor Marianne's mother so she can also leave Germany for England, Mrs. Abercrombie Jones finds out and puts a stop to it, angry that she has been humiliated in front of her friends. Once the war begins, however, Marianne is evacuated out of London with the rest of her school and away from the Mrs. Abercrombie Jones.

From London, Marianne finds herself in Wales, but has a hard time finding a family that wants her. Finally, she finds herself in the home of a couple who have recently lost their daughter and expect Marianne to take her place - almost literally. When that doesn't work out, she is taken to another place, where she is met with a wonderful surprise.

I am a big fan of graphic novels. They are very appealing to reluctant readers and can be used in classrooms to supplement social studies classes. They are fast to read and don't require the kind of time as would a novel. Of course, that means that the graphic novel has to be done well, since it must convey the same information as a novel using a combination of words and illustration.

For that reason, I was very apprehensive about recommending Seeking Refuge at first. Even though I had read the novel, I was a little lost. I think I was a little put off by the fact that the illustrations are done in shades of gray and white, and that there is absolutely no other colors throughout. Ironically, for years whenever I thought about Nazi Germany and WWII, I thought about it in shades of gray. as though the sun never shone throughout the war and the Holocaust. Yet, the more I thought about what I was reading, the more I realized that here was a graphic novel that had actually succeeded in getting the story across and that the illustrations were perfect for the subject matter.

Both Watts and Shoemaker have created a story that really manages to convey the fear, the tension, the unease of a refugee arriving in a country where she is not really welcomed by everyone, and even looked down on by some. No one takes into consideration how a 11 year old girl might feel having just left her family behind in a dangerous place, never knowing if she will see them again, knowing no one in the foreign country that she was sent to for safety and not really understanding the language that well. It's pretty daunting, when you think about it. And hopefully, this is a book that will get young readers thinking, particularly in a time when we are seeing refugees seeking a safe place only to have the welcome mat pulled out from under them.

I did discover that an earlier graphic novel was published some years ago that tells the first story in the Escape from Berlin trilogy called Goodbye, Marianne which I know is still available but I haven't read it yet. I did think that Seeking Refuge stands on its own, but I would like to read the first graphic novel someday.

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

*In German, the final e has a soft uh sound, as in Emma

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Mitchells: Five for Victory by Hilda van Stockum

It is July, 1943 and John Mitchell, father of the five Mitchell children and an electrical engineer, has just left from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to join his ship.

Back home, the three older Mitchell children, Joan, 10 1/2, Patsy, 8, Peter, 6, along with two friends decide to form the Five for Victory Club to help with the war effort. The purpose of the club is to help people who need it, to collect scrap and bottles, to help in their mother's victory garden, and even to do some babysitting. Anything they earn pays for stamp to paste in their V for Victory Bond book and eventually to exchange that for a bond. And the children believe they have found the perfect place to hold their club meetings - a small playhouse in the yard of an empty house they call the 'white elephant.'

No sooner do they get the playhouse all set up, however, than a mother, Mrs. Trotter, and her son, Henry, 12 and a bully, move in the house, and the first thing Henry does is kick them out of the playhouse.

Meanwhile, their mother, Rita Mitchell, has decided to rent a room for some extra income. The first woman, Mrs. Merryvale, to move in doesn't last long. She may have written a book about how to discipline children, but in fact, she doesn't really seem to like them very much and the Mitchells are way to unruly for her. Her leaving, however, is based on a complete misunderstanding which is because of a very funny misunderstanding.

The next boarder is a businessman named Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer believes he has lost his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter in the bombing of Rotterdam (Holland) in 1940, although he never had any official word about that. Luckily, he really likes the Mitchell children, especially Angela, age 3.

And it turns out that Mrs. Trotter has a young refugee girl named Una, who is about 8 years old, living with her beside her son Henry. Henry doesn't much care for Una and delights in tormenting her whenever he can. When the Mitchel children discover Una, they all become instant friends.

There is one other subplot concerning Lieutenant Mitchell's admonishing to his family NOT to get a pet while he is away. Well, you can certainly guess what happens there.

The Mitchells: Five for Victory was written in 1945 as the war was coming to an end.  In the novel, Hilda van Stockum has created a charming look at everyday life on the home front and peopled it with an endearing, lively family. The book takes place over the course of one year and there are three generations living under one roof, Grannie (and Mr. Spencer), mother and the five children, so you know that there are lots of antics as well as ups and downs.

We hear a lot about refugees these days, and I think the story of Una will resonate with today's young readers. Van Stockum has really captured the trauma of a child who has lost her family in the war, and who was shuffled from country to country by people whose language she didn't understand, until she reached the United States, to be fostered by Mrs. Trotter. One particularly poignant scene takes place in a movie theater, where Una is left alone to watch a film while Mrs. Trotter and Henry shop for clothes for him. The movie she's left at is Journey for Margaret, a film about a young girl who has been traumatized by the Blitz. Judging by Una's reaction to the movie, it is clear that van Stockum had a very good understanding of how she felt.

Today's readers may find it odd that the children have so much freedom, but that was how it was back in those days. They may also find a few things a little outdated, like the children calling an escalator the moving stairs, but none of that detracts from the novel, in fact it really serves to give it a feeling a authenticity and charm. And yes, I find the van Stockum is a master at giving each of her characters just enough quirky characteristics to make them interesting, but still believable.

The Mitchells: Five for Victory is the second WWII novel by Hilda van Stockum I've read (The Winged Watchman was the first) and I have to say, they are as different from each other as possible and yet both are really interesting stories. I understand there is a third one called The Borrowed House that takes place in van Stockum's homeland, Holland, that I would like to read.

Should you fall in love with the Mitchell family as I did, you will be happy to know that their adventures continue in two more books that take place after the war is over. They are Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by Boissevain Books