Friday, July 24, 2015

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Back in 1902, E. Nesbit wrote a book called Five Children and It about five brothers and sisters: Cyril, 10 and called Squirrel; Anthea, 8 and called Panther; Robert or Bobs, 6;  Jane, 4;  Hilary, the baby called the Lamb because his first word was Baa.

The family had just moved from London to the countryside in Kent and it is there that the children discover a Psammead (Sammy-ad) or sand fairy living in their gravel pit. The Psammead is a rather disagreeable, grumpy creature, centuries old, but who has the power to grant wishes.  The problem is that each wish only lasts until sunset.  The children wish for all kinds of adventures but when one goes terribly wrong, the Psammead agrees to fix it only if the children promise never to ask for another wish but the children decide instead they never want to see their sand fairy again.

Nesbit wrote two sequels to Five Children and It, one in 1904 called The Phoenix and the Carpet and one in 1906 called The Story of the Amulet.  Though they featured the brothers and sisters, it is only in the 1906 novel that the Psammead is again featured.

Fast forward to 2014.  Once again we meet the five children and their Psammead in Kate Saunder's novel Five Children on the Western Front, her novel inspired by Five Children and It.  The story opens with a Prologue in 1905.  The children are staying in London with Old Nurse while their parents are away with the Lamb.  The children have found the Psammead in a pet store and now he lives in Old Nurse's attic.  One afternoon, when the children are granted one more wish, they find themselves in the study of their old friend, the Professor named Jimmy in the year 1930.  While the children are happy to see him, he is in the position of knowing their future and his tears makes for a very poignant beginning.

The main part of the novel begins in October 1914.  Cyril (now 22), Anthea (is 20), and Bobs (18 years old) are now young adults, Jane is 16 and in high school, the Lamb is 11 and there is a new addition to the family, 9 year old Edith or Edie, as she is called.  To everyone's surprise, once again, the Psammead is found sleeping in the gravel pit of the house in Kent.  The Lamb and Edie have always been envious of all the adventures their older siblings had with the Psammead and are very excited to see him back.  That is, until they learn that he can no longer grant wishes.  It seems the Psammead is stuck in this world until he makes amends for his rather cruel wrongdoings centuries ago when he was the ruler of his kingdom, and the only wishes that are granted are some of his own and always have to do with his past behavior.

At the center of the novel, however, is the Great War and how it impacts everyone's life, even the Psammead.  With England at war with Germany, Cyril can't wait to enlist and do his part for England.  Bobs is still at Cambridge, postponinging his enlistment until he is finished; Anthea is in art college in London, and doing volunteer war work, where she meets and falls in love with a wounded soldier who just happens to be helping the Professor with his research which just happens to be related to the Psammead.  Anthea is forced to see her young man secretly because  she knows that her mother wouldn't approve of him since he is out of their class.  And poor Jane desperately wants to go to medical school, which her mother refuses to allow, afraid she won't ever get married if she does go.

Very often, when one author attempts to write a novel based on another author's characters, it just doesn't work.  No so with Five Children on the Western Front.  I thought Kate Saunders did an exceptional job capturing the personalities of each of the children and the curmudgeony Psammead originally created by Nesbit.  It is easy to believe that these are the people the children would have grown up to be.

Saudners has also done a good job depicting the impact of the war on both the home front and the Western Front.  Food shortages, lawns turned into potato fields, young girls driving ambulances in London and in France, life and deatth in the trenches are all there.  Saunders has also shown how the Great War was a dividing line between the traditions of the Edwardian era (represented by the children's mother) and modernity(represent by the children), especially in the ideas about class structure and the position of women in society.

There are lots of humorous bits mixed in with the more sober moments, and the scenes of war are not a so graphic that they will scare young readers.  The new addition of Edie is charming, especially her unconditional love for the Psammead, with whom she spends a lot of time just chatting and oddly, for such a grump, he seems to enjoy her company as well.

I have to confess that it has been a long time since I read Five Children and It and probably won't re-read it now that I've read this novel.  However if you want to read it, you can download it for free at Project Gutenberg.  Five Children on the Western Front was published in England and I had to buy a copy through the Book Depository (free shipping), but it can be bought at Amazon.  Hopefully, it will make its way across the pond soon, for everyone's enjoyment.

Five Children on the Western Front is highly recommended for anyone who like a well-done combination of speculative fiction and  historical fiction, and a novel with heart - bring tissues.

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday #16: Top Ten Books that Celebrate Diversity

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

This week's top ten topic is books that celebrate diversity.  I don't think my choices could be called  books that celebrate diversity, but they certainly put a spotlight on the way World War II impacted diverse people in different way.   I chosen 11 books that had a real impact on me as a reader when I read them.

1- Mare's War by Tanita Davis

This is one of the first books I read when I began this blog and I liked it so much I bought a copy for my niece.  Mare and her granddaughters are taking a trip to a family reunion during summer vacation.  The girls are bored and unhappy, wanting to stay home with their friends instead.  As they drive along, Mare begins to tell them about her time in the Women's Army Corp or WACS in WWII.  Because Davis wove in so many historical facts about Mare's, the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, the readers learns a lot about what like was like for the women in this African American, all-female unit, the only one to serve overseas. (YA)

2- Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

When I reviewed this book, I wrote that I knew almost nothing about the role India played in WWII.  In 1941, Vidya, 15, wants nothing more than to join Gandhi's Freedom Fighters.  Seeing a Freedom Fighters demonstration, Veda rushes to join it, but it results in her father being beaten by a British policeman, leaving him brain damages. Vidya keeps the details of what happened to herself, until her brother announces he is going to join the voluntary British India Army.  How could he fight for and defend the people who destroyed her beloved father's lie.  There is a lot of information in Vidya's story about Indian traditions and religion.  (YA)

3- The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescured Jews during the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle

The Grand Mosque had been given to the Islamic community in Paris in gratitude to the Muslims who fought in WWI.  In 1940, after France was invaded by the Nazis and began rounding up Jews for deportation, the members of the Grand Mosque, many of whom were in the French Resistance already, realized they had the means to help the French Jews and began sneaking them in the mosque until they had what they needed to escape.   (Picture Book for older Readers)

4- When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Although Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, once World War II began, things began to get even harder for the Korean people.  In this story about the Kim family, the reader learns through the alternating narration of Sun-hee, 10, and her older brother, Tai-yul, 13, how much of their culture was sacrificed including their Korean names and forcing them to accept Japanese culture and language.  Outwardly, the family accepts the Japanese demands, but at home the hold tightly to their Korean culture.  As they begin to lose the war, the Japanese take it out on the Korean people, but despite everything, small acts of defiance abound as the Koreans desperately hold on to their real identity. (MG)
5- Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah 

This speculative fiction novel about an unwanted daughter, Ye Xian, who is thrown out of her home by her father when she is disrespectful to her stepmother.  Ye Xian is taken in by Grandma Wu, and soon becomes an expert at kung fu and part of the Secret Dragon Society that helps the oppressed.  China has been under Japanese occupation since 1937 and now, in 1942, they have a different kind of mission.  Ye Xian and the other members of the society must try to save 5 downed American fliers before the Japanese find them.  This part of the story is actually based in reality, as is the cruel way the Chinese people were treated by the Japanese occupiers.  Though fantasy, there's lots of Chinese culture and tradition to be learned about.  (MG)

6- No Surrender Soldier by Christine Kohler

The main character in this novel is a 15 year old Charmorro boy, Kiko, living in Guam in 1972 and an elderly Japanese soldier, Seto, who has been living in hiding since WWII and doesn't know the war is over.  This is an odd coming of age story for both Kiki and Seto, who was only a young man when he went into hiding from the Americans on Guam.  There is quite a bit of information about Charmorro customs and traditions, and is it very interesting to see how Seto lived in his underground cave, concealing his presence for so many years. (YA)

7- Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Until the vaccine was discovered, there were outbreaks of polio all the time.  During WWII, even the President suffered with it.  In September1944, with her father in Europe fighting, Ann Fay Honeycutt, 13, is also diagnosed with polio. The novel follows her treatment and her friendship with an African American girl she meets in the hospital.  Catawba County, NC was particularly hard hit by polio and Ann Fay's story nicely documents what was done about it.  Since there are so few cases of polio these days, it is interesting to read about how clothes and favorite toys were burned, swimming wasn't allowed, and how a makeshift hospital was constructed to handle all the cases there.  (MG)

8- Code Talkers: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac

This is a historical fiction novel that tells about how the Navajo language and the Navajos who spoke it were used to send unbreakable coded messages during WWII and helped with the war.  But more than that, it is the story of what life was life for Native Americans within their family and when they were sent to an "Indian School" to be educated and where practicing their native culture and traditions could result in severe punishments.  This is the kind of novel that can make your blood boil when you read about how Native Americans were treated.   And even though they became real American heroes, it wasn't until 2000 that what they contributed to the war was acknowledged. (MG?YA)
9- Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury

This is one of the most disturbing books I've read.  Eddy Okubo, a Japanese American living in Hawaii, is only 16, but lies about his age and joins the army,  Seven weeks later, Pearl Harbor is attacked and from then on Eddy and the other Japanese American soldiers are treated like grunts.  When a Swiss emigre convinces President Roosevelt that he can train dogs to sniff out the Japanese, Eddy and 24 other soldiers of Japanese descent, are sent to Cat Island, MS where they serve as "hate bait" in the dogs training sessions.  This is, sadly, based in reality.  This is an interesting look at the kind of xenophobia that resulted after Pearl Harbor. (YA)

9a- Dash by Kirby Larson

When it was decided that Japanese Americans were to be put into internment camps for the duration of the war, they all lost everything they had worked for - homes, businesses, cars, cherished mementos from family in Japan.  For Mitsi, 11, it meant losing her best friends and her dog.  Later, at the internment camp, families are forced to live in dusty, smelly horse stalls, and later to dusty barracks in the middle of nowhere.   It's hard to believe now that this country could treat its citizens and its legal immigrants in such an appalling manner (well, actually, and I'm ashamed to say this, but maybe it isn't, after all). (MG)

10- T4 by Anne Clare LaZotte

This novel-in-free-verse is about a deaf girl, Paula Becker, who is 13 and living in Nazi Germany when the Nazis pass a law that allows them the euthanize disabled people, including children, to help create a master race that is free of any disability and also eliminate the cost of caring for them.  T4 is the name give to the program.  In desperation, Paula is taken to a safe haven where she learns sign language, but when the Nazis come to search the house, Paula must be taken to another safe haven.  T4 killings stopped in 1941 but Paula's life and other's with disabilities weren't safe until the end of the war. (MG)

It was interesting to go back and see what books I've read that I applied the keyword Diversity to.  One thing I noticed is that I have no reviews of LGTBQ books.  Any recommendations, besides Postcards from No Man's Land by Aidan Chambers?  I would appreciate any suggestions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Battle of the Bulge by Rick Atkinson

Judging from my stats, there are still a lot of readers interested in books about WWII.  Like me, most are interested in fiction and stories of courage and survival, whether they take place in countries under Nazi occupation/siege, near the front lines, or are stories about the home front.  Not many really seem want to read the details of military strategy or battles fought.  But sometimes a book like that comes along and the author has made it so interesting, it appeals to everyone.  Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson is one of those writers who can bring major WWII battles to life, and adapting his adult books for young readers.  He did it in D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 and he has done it again in Battle of the Bulge.

By December 1944, it was looking pretty certain that Germany was going to lose WWII.  Refusing to accept defeat, Hitler came up with a plan he called Herbstnebel (autumn mist).  It was to be a surprise attack against Allied Forces in the forest of the Ardennes in Belgium, and Hitler ordered that nothing in the plan was to be altered, even though his advisers had grave doubts about the success of Herbstnebel.

And the surprise element of Hitler's last ditch Western Front offensive hit was indeed a surprise attack for the Allies.  Unlike the D-Day invasion, the Allies did not have time for planning, so the surprise element of the attack resulted in one of the worst battles of World War II for them.  How bad?  According to Atkinson, in just one day of the fighting, December 19, 1944, 9,000 American soldiers were captured by the Germans.

The Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, 1944 and ended in German defeat on January 25, 1945.  Much needed American reinforcements arrived on December 26, 1944 with General Patton, and proved to be a great boon for the Allies.  It must have felt like a Christmas present to the soldiers already at the front.

Atkinson used the same format for Battle of the Bulge that he used in his D-Day book for young readers.  There is plenty of informative front matter to help readers understand the main part of the book.  This consists of maps, who the key players were, Allied and Axis Commands, and a timeline of the war.  Atkinson's Back Matter is even more extensive and consists of many interesting topics, especially the kind that young readers might want to know about after reading the book and seeing the copious photographs he includes.  Topics like what U.S. soldiers wore in a battle that happened during such a bitter cold, snowy winter (as you can see below), or what weapons were used, and even what happened after the Battle of the Bulge ended, even the use of dogs on the battlefield.

The book is divided into four sections, each section covering both Allies and Axis sides.  The first section covering the Western Front form the beginning of the war to November 1944, for readers whose knowledge may need to be refreshed or for readers who know nothing about the war.  Atkinson's second section focuses on Hitler's Plan; section three follows the events as they unfolded on the actual day of the German offensive; and finally the days following that.

In war, planning and fighting a battle are very complex parts of war, consequently, writing about a battle cannot possible be done as a linear narrative.  For that reason, it sometimes feels as though Atkinson has simply cut and pasted parts of his adult book to make this a book for young readers.  But this is meant to be an introduction to this important, pivotal battle and in that respect, I think Atkinson does a very good job.  As always, his research in impeccable, and his writing clear and, while taking into account he is not writing for an adult, he does not condescend to his readers, either.

The Battle of the Bulge was never something I was particularly interested in after watching a old movie about it on TV when I was a tween.  It was cold, and bloody and, not knowing anything about it before  I watched the move, I didn't really understand it.  Natuarlly, I never felt inclined to read anything about the battle of the bulge t before this book.  I feel like I have a much better handle on the events of this offensive now and hope it will help kids understand its importance in the overall WWII events, too.

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mischief and Malice by Berthe Amoss

It's 1941 and in New Orleans, Addie Agnew, 14, is a girl with a vivid imagination and some big growing pains.  Addie had been living with her Aunt Eveline in a house that she loved and that contained all her memories.  But when Aunt Eveline passed away, Addie was forced to move next door and live with her Aunt Toosie, Uncle Henry and her cousin/rival Sandra Lee.  But luckily for Addie, her strong Catholic faith and the communion of saints allows her to keep a running conversation with Aunt Eveline, who was and still is her moral compass.

Addie has always been best friends with Tom, a next door neighbor, but when his father Louis suddenly shows up, she falls head over heels in love with the older man, despite the fact that he had deserted Tom and his mother ten years ago.  And after Louise asks Addie to go to the train to pick up Tom, she is sure he feels the same way about her.  Tom, however, refuses to speak to his father and friction flares between him and Addie over it.

Meanwhile, a family has rented out the house that Addie lived in with Aunt Eveline.  Addie discovers their real home is a plantation called Oakwood, just north of New Orleans, so they are not planning on remaining in the house for long.  And they have a daughter, Norma Jean Valerie, who is rather thin and sickly.  She's Addie's age, and soon the two girls are friends.

Addie's life revolves around her family, her friends, her school, an upcoming dance that she doesn't want to go to and a Christmas play she is helping the nuns at her Catholic school put together, and of course, boys, crushes, and being in love with an older man and with always trying to best Sandra Lee and never succeeding.  It all sounds like pretty normal stuff, until Addie overhears a strange conversation between Louis and Mrs. Valerie.  Realizing they are up to something, their conversation leads her to do some investigating on her own, and pretty soon she has a real mystery on her hands to try and solve.  And, it turns out, the mystery involves her directly and the house she loves so dearly.  How could she possible have any connection to Louis and Mrs. Valerie's connivances?  She never met the Valeries before and Louis has been gone since she was four years old, much too young to get involved with anyone's schemes. Or is it?

And to top all that, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the US enters World War II.

Mischief and Malice is a sequel to a book called Secret Lives, written 30 years ago.  I hadn't read Secret Lives, so when I first started reading Mischief and Malice I was a little lost among all the names and Addie's relatives and their back story, but it didn't take long to catch on.  I think that is because it is written in the voice of a very chatty, lively 14 year old with lots of thoughts that are really explanations for the benefit of the reader.

Addie Agnew is the first person narrator and her thoughts and observations contain a certain honesty not often found in many coming-of-age characters but very well defined here.  Her confusions, her crushes, and conscience all make up a nice well rounded character.  Addie is a typical teenaged Catholic girl and her religion is a real part of her life.  She reminded me so much of some of my friends at that age who were Catholic.  

I did love the competition between Addie and her cousin Sandra Lee.  That reminded me of my sister and me when we were growing up.  But I also loved how they could pull together when the situation called for a united front.

The mystery isn't really a big deal and comes towards the end of the novel, but Mischief and Malice is a wonderful work of historical fiction giving us a window into life just before the US entered the war.  War was certainly on people's minds, in reality and in this story, but took a backseat to everyday life before Pearl Harbor.

I had a lot of fun reading Mischief and Malice and kudos to Berthe Amoss for taking up Addie's story again.  Will there be a third Addie story?  I hope so.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Ig Publishing

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Movie Matinee #7: Yankee Doodle Dandy


Yankee Doodle Dandy is a historically not terribly accurate bio-film about the life of George M. Cohan (James Cagney).  It begins when he is summoned to the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There, he begins to tell the President the story of his life, beginning with his birth on July 4, 1878 in Providence, RI, where his father was performing in vaudeville.  The scene then leaves the Oval Office and flashes back to that date.

From there on, in voice overs, Cohan narrates each scene change as time go by, and he and his sister Josie grow older and join in their parents vaudeville act, becoming The Four Cohans.  We seea very talented though somewhat arrogant George as a boy starring in Peck's Bad Boy, and blowing the family's chance to play Broadway with his demands.

Later, George meets Mary, the girl he will marry, and for whom he wrote the song "Mary is a Grand Old Name."  The whole time the family is performing, George is writing musical theater scores, but no one is interested.  Finally, he meets Sam H. Harris, also not succeeding in selling his material, and the two become partners and successes with their production of Little Johnny Jones, most noted for the songs "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway."

When the US enters World War I in 1917, George tries to enlist, but is told he is too old at 38.  Leaving the recruiting station, he runs into soldiers and an Army marching band, and as he listens to them,  the song "Over There" begins to formulate in his head.  

But Cohan's professional successes and failures isn't the only storyline.  The movie also follows his family life, though only when it suits Cohan's story.  For instance, his sister get engaged and we never find out what happened to her until later we learn that both his mother and sister have already died.  And after Cohan marries Mary, there is no mention of their three children, or his first marriage, for that matter.  The whole movie I thought they were childless because of his career.

Eventually, Cohan retires and travels the world, but when he is offered a part on Broadway playing the President, he jumps at the chance to go back to the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.  And that's when he is called to the White House.  Thinking he is in trouble, instead he is give the Congressional Medal of Honor for his two songs,  "You're a Grand old Flag," written in 1906 for Cohan's musical play George Washington, Jr and "Over There" written in 1917.

Original Sheet Music courtesy of the Library of Congress
The finale is priceless, even if anachronistic.  As Cohan leaves the White House he joins a parade of soldiers singing "Over There" and obviously heading off to fight in WWII.  Cohan received his Medal of Honor in 1940, a year and a half before the US entered the war.  But, so what, it is still an ending that is sure to bring a tear to the eye.  

Besides James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy has a wonderful cast.  There is Walter Huston as his father Jerry, and Rosemary de Camp as his mother Nellie, Cagney's real sister Jeanne ss his Cohan sister Josie, and Joan Leslie as his wife, Mary.  Richard Whorf played Sam Harris, Cohan's partner and one of my favorites, S.Z. Sakall, has a small but pivotal part in the film (Sakall played Uncle Felix, the chef in Christmas in Connecticut).

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a little corny, a whole lot energetic and off the charts flag waving patriotic propaganda now that the US had entered WWII.  Still, the dancing numbers are wonderful, and although James Cagney is not Fred Astaire, I loved the tap dancing scenes.

Movie premiere May 29, 1942 in New York City, as a war bonds benefit
(Public Domain)
Yankee Doodle Dandy has been named as one of the American Film Institutes 100 Greatest American Films; James Cagney won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role; and the Library of Congress chose it to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historicaily or aesthetically significant."  And while it is certaainly historically significant, there is one scene that bears this out in a rather offensive way when The Four Cohans are seen performing in blackface.  Historically accurate, sadly yes, but no less odious to the modern viewer.

Here is the offical movie trailer from 1942:

As long as this is a Yankee Doodle day, I thought I would also include a copy of the Uncle Sam movable paper puppet you can put together.  It's been circulating around the Internet for a while and we actually made one yesterday, but it went home with one of the kids and I didn't have time to make another.  I printed it out on 8 1/2" by 11"white card stock, cut it out and just followed the directions.  As far as I know, it was from an old postcard, printed in London, from around 1914 (I couldn't find a recent copyright, so I assume this is in the public domain now).

Oh, this modern world!  I actually rented Yankee Doodle Dandy from iTunes and watched in on my iPad with headphones.  A weird, yet rather pleasant experience