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.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

I was inspired to read this novel when I read about it on Mr. Ripley’s Enchanted Books 
last June. So I ordered a copy from The Book Depository and began reading the day it arrived and finished it in one sitting. Needless to say, it is a really good novel.

It’s February 1941, and even though it isn't usual, older sister Sukie Bradshaw has decided to take siblings Olive, 12, and Cliff, 8, to see a movie after tea. But no sooner do they get through the newsreel but the air raid siren goes off. To make matters worse, Sukie has disappeared. Leaving her brother at the Underground shelter, Olive goes in search of Sukie, and just as she reaches her sister, another bomb falls way too close to them. When Olive wakes up in hospital, she learns that Sukie is still  missing, and that she and younger brother Cliff are going to be evacuated to Budmouth Point, on the Devon coast, for safety. 

Olive has already lost her dad to the war when his plane was shot down, and can’t bear that her sister may be gone too. But how can she figure out where Sukie is and who the man she met just before that bomb fell is if she’s in Devon? Still, as soon as she is able, Olive and Cliff are sent to live with Queenie, the sister of their London neighbor, and Sukie's supposed pen-pal. 

Things don’t work out at Queenie’s, who is always busy doing all kinds of work in the cellar, and using Olive to make deliveries for her around the village. It gets especially hairy after Olive is forced to share her room with Esther Jenkins, an evacuee with whom Olive already has a contentious relationship. Olive and Cliff soon find themselves living with Ephraim, the lighthouse keeper. Life is better at the lighthouse, where Ephraim insists on doing everything, where the food is better and Cliff even has a dog to pal around with. 

It doesn’t take long for Olive to realize that there’s an awful lot of activity on the lighthouse radio, much more that seems right. Meanwhile, Olive is also trying to work out the coded message she found in the coat Sukie was wearing the night she disappeared. The longer Olive is lives in Budmouth Point, the more she realizes that Sukie’s disappearance just might have something to do with the clandestine activity she's noticed among some of the village residents…but what could it possibly be?

Letters from the Lighthouse is an exciting adventure and Olive is very appealing, lively narrator. There was something about her story that reminded me so much of the books I read about kids in WWII that were written during the war. The thing I noticed in those books was the ability to carry on despite the uncertainly of the future. One always hopes for the best, and that is the feeling that Carroll captured writing about Olive's search for Sukie - she is so convinced her sister is okay somewhere in the world and she needed to figure out where.  

As Olive's story unfolds, Carroll also provides the reader with a window though which to see and understand just what it means to be a child and live in a country at war and under siege, realistically depicting the fears and the privations, as well as the importance of family. the value of friends and neighbors, and need to learn trust and tolerance. Heading each chapter with expressions, warnings, and advice that were common during the war also helps give the novel a sense of authenticity.

As much as I enjoyed Letters from the Lighthouse, I did have a few plot points that bothered me - like how did Olive end up with the coat Sukie was wearing when the bomb fell in London, and how what happened to Sukie actually happened. They were explainable, but not to my satisfaction. BUT, these were not game changers for me, and if you like historical fiction about WWII, they shouldn't be for you either. 

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Monday, June 26, 2017

Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II, a Memoir by Krystyna Mihulka with Krystyna Poray Goddu

Nine-Year-Old Krysia Mihulka’s story actually begins without her even knowing it on the night of August 23, 1939 when the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The treaty peacefully divided up Poland - Nazis occupying the western half, the Soviets occupying the eastern half.

What does this have to do with a 9 year old girl living in Lwów, a small city in eastern Poland? Everything. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as it came to be called, sealed the fate of this young girl and her family once the war began. After the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Germans on September 1, 1939, the Soviet army invaded and occupied eastern Poland as per the Pact on September 17, 1939. 

The Mihulka family, father Andrzej, mother Zofia, Krysia, and younger brother Antek, 5, had lived a quiet, happy life surrounded by extended family and friends before the invasions. But her father, a respected lawyer, had been part of the Polish Army defending his country against the Nazis, so that when the Soviets came, he was forced into hiding, as all lawyers and judges were being summarily executed. Later, the Soviets arrived at the Mihulka home in the middle of the night looking for him, and proceeded to arrest Krysia, Antek, and their mother. The Soviets, they said, wanted to get rid the world of the “bourgeois rich” aka capitalists, like the Mihulkas.

At the railroad station, they were put into already crowded cattle cars. Eventually, they began the long, hard trip to a remote work camp on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Conditions there are terrible - bitter cold winters without blankets or clothing to keep warm, and a constant gnawing hunger. Krysia’s mother is subjected to constant nighttime interrogations about her husband whereabouts, and the children experienced both fear and anxiety, never knowing if she would return from those brutal sessions.

Then, in 1941, the Polish prisoners were suddenly granted amnesty after the Germans began their invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union signed the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance on July 12, 1941 (the Soviets needed the help of Britain, who was an ally of the exiled Polish government). 

Krysia and her family left Kazakhstan, and went to Uzbekistan, where they were able to reunite with some family members. After a while, the Mihulka family made their way to Persia (present day Iran), and in 1944, Krysia and Antek were sent to Africa, where they were living when the war finally ended. It wasn’t until two years later that they discovered their father’s fate. 

For all the history that is included in this memoir, I found it to be very accessible, written in a voice that is at once young but knowledgable, even though the author is now in her in her 80s. Difficult concepts or unfamiliar historical events are clearly explained for even the youngest of readers. Krysia shares both her own experiences and fears in clear detail that is age appropriate, being truthful but without being too graphic (and those times were often graphically violent). 

There is a map to help young readers track the journey Krysia and her family went on beginning with Lwów and ending in Iran. This is followed by Polish pronunciation guide at the front of the book, which I found very helpful, and an Author’s Note explaining why she finally decided to tell her story with the help of her daughter and co-author, Krystyna Mihulka Goddu.  

I would definitely pair this incredibly interesting memoir with a book called The Endless Steppe written by Esther Hautzig which, you may recall, is also about the author as a young Polish girl, Esther Rudomin, and her family who were exiled to a labor camp in Siberia, Russia. Krysia and Esther’s true stories have much in common though told from two different perspectives.

The fate of families like Krysia’s is not a story that is often told, but it is a poignant, important one and this book helps bring it to light. She relates the events that happened to her in a simple, direct, easy to understand narrative style. And, I think, Krysia’s story will certainly resonate with readers given the current refugee problems in the world today.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was a EARC received from Edelweiss+