Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Interview with Kirby Larson, author of Code Word Courage (Book 4 of Dogs of World War II)

It's September 1944 and fifth grader Billie Packer is anxiously awaiting her big brother Leo's visit, the first one since he joined the Marines. There's so much she wants to talk to him about, like how to get Hazel to be her best friend again. But when Leo arrives, much to Billie's disappointment, he isn't alone, he's brought his buddy Denny, a Navaho, and an injured dog they found near the highway. It doesn't take long for Billie to get friendly with Denny, and to fall the dog, that Denny had named Bear. 

Before Denny leaves, he tells Billie that he thinks Bear's purpose is to help her find what she is looking for. Soon, Leo ships out to the Pacific, Denny is recruited as a Navaho code talker, and Billie's life settles into a routine of school, chores, taking care of Bear, and hanging out with Tito, a Mexican boy in her class. Although Billie has been bullied by two boys in her class, their real target is Tito. When the bullying gets ugly and something happens to Tito, Billie finally realizes what she has been looking for, thanks to Bear. And thanks to Bear, in the middle of a battle, Denny also learns what is important to him.  

Readers who have read any or all of the previous Dogs of War series, which includes Duke, Dash, and Liberty, will surely enjoy Code Name Courage. Readers new to this series will find that their is so much to learn about the home front in these novels. They are all so well-written, well-researched, and historically accurate. In the following interview, I asked Kirby Larson about her research, what inspires her and what she hopes readers will get from her books. 

Did you always want to be a writer?
Though I have always loved reading and writing, I never knew writing was a career option until college; and then, it was journalism, which became my major.
Kirby Larson

Were you always partial to historical fiction? Why?
When my daughter was in 6th grade, she introduced me to the historical fiction of Karen Cushman (Catherine, Called Birdy) and Jennifer Armstrong (the Mary Meahan series). I fell in love with those books, wishing such rich treatments of history had been available when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I heard a snippet of my own family history, however, that I was drawn to writing historical fiction. That first foray turned out to be Hattie Big Sky and I haven’t looked back since.

Can you tell us something about your research process for your historical fiction novels?

Oh dear. What don’t I do during the research process?! I read every single first- hand account/primary document I can get my hands on, including recipes! I interview experts, and those who have lived through the time periods/experiences I’m writing about. For example, for Dash, I spoke to women who had been incarcerated in war relocation camps during WWII. And for my latest book, Code Word Courage, I read every Navajo Code Talker memoir published. I also interviewed a Code Talker, as well as the son of a Code Talker. I read old newspapers, read books published during the time periods I’m writing about, collect old maps, train timetables – you name it. I do whatever I need to do to feel confident I can recreate a slice of the past for today’s young readers.

I wonder, what were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process for Code Word Courage and the other Dogs of War novels?

There are so many surprises – I’ll share a few. I was astonished to realize that normal American families loaned their pets to Uncle Sam during WWII (Duke); I was amazed to learn that, despite being sent to horrible, barren places, the incarcerees of Japanese descent created beauty with scraps of lumber, or found shells or greasewood branches (Dash); I was astonished and humbled to discover that 400 Navajo men helped to create a code based on the language they once had been punished for speaking (Code Word Courage). 

Each of the Dogs of War stories feature a triangular relationship between a young person, their dog, and an older person. What inspired you decide to write a series of WWII stories where a dog is the catalyst for the strong bond that develops between the three of them?

The honest truth is that the first book written, Dash, (the second book published) was inspired by the love of one person for her dog. Once I had written that story, inspired by Mitsi Shiraishi, I knew each of the stories that followed would also involve a dog. It was one of those serendipitous gifts that writing can bestow.

In Code Word Courage, you tell both Billie and Denny’s stories in the first person. I can understand how you could write Billie’s story but I wonder what sources did you draw upon to get into the mind and heart of a Navaho Code Talker?


As I mentioned above, I read every single first-hand account, memoir, newspaper article, etc. to help me understand the factors that would have shaped the character I’m writing about. I also rely on my imagination and empathy to put myself in any character’s shoes. Though those who were part of WWII are diminishing in number, there are still a few veterans surviving. I was able to interview Dr. Roy O. Hawthorne, whose experiences as a Code Talker shaped the creation of Denny’s story. In addition, Michael Smith, son of Code Talker Samuel “Jesse” Smith Sr. read my manuscript for accuracy. 

I laughed when I read Hobie Hanson, the main character in Duke, wore PF Flyers (my own personal sneaker choice). All of your Dogs of War stories (in fact, all your historical fiction) have this kind of authenticity to them without overwhelming readers with too many normal, but accurate details about what life was like for kids on the home front. How do you know when you’ve included enough realistic details?  And how do you decide on what to include, considering most of today’s readers may not be familiar with many of them?


I am so lucky to have a terrific first reader, and a terrific editor who kindly but firmly tell me when I am shoehorning in too many of the great facts I’ve learned about a past time and place. If it were left to me, I would share EVERY fascinating detail I uncover. But then my stories would read like history books and that’s not what I’m trying to create. As for deciding what to include, I have tremendous respect for my readers who, even if they might not understand every detail in a book, are smart enough to figure out the essence of each story.

What do you hope today’s readers will take away from your WWII stories?

One of my goals as a writer is to leave room for my readers to take away from each story what they need to take away. That being said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if my readers felt inspired to be kinder and more tolerant after reading one of my books.

I have really enjoyed reading all four of the Dogs of War stories. Will there be any more Dogs of War books?
I have learned never to say never but, at this point, I am ready to step away from WWII for a time. I am working on a novel with a slightly older main character (16) set in pre-crash 1929. After that, who knows?!

One last question - do you have a favorite dog story not written by Kirby Larson?
Oh my goodness. Must I choose only one??? I can’t, so, here are a few: Love that Dog (Sharon Creech); How to Steal a Dog, and Wish (Barbara O’Connor); and Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate Di Camillo). Books about dogs I haven’t yet read but are on my nightstand: Chasing Augustus (Kimberly Newton Fusco); Good Dog (Dan Gemeinhart) and Following Baxter (Barbara Kerley). 

Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my passion – writing historical fiction for young readers. I am grateful for your interest.

Kirby

Thanks you, Kirby.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ruby in the Ruins written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

I mentioned in my review of Voices from the Second World War that writer/artist Shirley Hughes was one of the people who contributed her wartime experiences to that excellent collection of oral histories, and that she had also written a book based on them (see Whistling in the Dark).

Ruby in the Ruins is Hughes' latest picture book, one that takes place just at the end of WWII. Everyone in Ruby's London neighborhood is celebrating the end of the war with block parties, including Ruby and her Mum. 

But, though the fighting may have ended, the memory of the Blitz is still fresh in their minds. There were all those nights when the air raid sirens went off, and people were supposed to go to their nearest shelter. And kids had been sent out of London for safety, but Ruby and her Mum stayed - just in case her dad, who is in the army, got leave and could come home to visit for a visit. 


Those scary days and nights may be in the past, but all around her, Ruby sees houses had been bombed and blackened, and now they were fenced off piles of rubble that need to be cleared up. And while Ruby's friends have already welcomed their dads home from the war, she and her mum have to wait a long time for her dad.

When Ruby's dad finally does come home, Mum welcomes him with open arms, but Ruby doesn't know what to say to him. And besides that, now everything has changed. Ruby sleeps in the small attic room instead of with Mum, and  has forgotten that her tall dad takes up lots of space. Not only that, but she continues to feel rather shy around him.



But when her Mum allows Ruby to go off with two neighbor boys that she knows, they decide to explore the fenced off ruins of some bombed out buildings. When an accident happens, it proves to be just the catalyst that helps Ruby overcome her resentment and shyness towards her dad.



The detailed illustrations are done in ink, watercolor, and gouache, and, because Hughes has drawn them from her own memory of the war, have a real air of authenticity about them. The bombing damage to London's buildings was extensive and the fascination of playing in the rubble must have been irresistible for kids at that time, just as Hughes depicts, but also dangerous.

Ruby in the Ruins is a charming story with a pleasing ending, but it never become sugary sweet. What it does do, as Shirley Hughes always does so well, it look at the end of the war from the point of view of a child who world suddenly changes. The war is over, its no longer just Ruby and her Mum, and she experiences an expectable awkwardness when her Dad returns after being has been gone for such a long period of time. Post war picture books are in short supply, and I can't recommend this one enough.

Ruby in the Ruins will be available in the U.S. on May 8, 2018

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Voices from the Second World War: Stories of War as Told to Children of Today

When I was in college, I discovered a book by Studs Terkel called The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. Terkel had collected the memories of a wide variety of people, providing a good overview of how each interviewee was impacted by the war. If you haven't read The Good War yet, I highly recommend it.

Oral histories have always fascinated me, so when I heard about Voices from the Second World War, I was pretty excited to see what it was all about. It turned out to be a unique collection of short, first person recollections (most are only 1-2 pages, some longer) told to some of today's young people, and though the book is basically Britain-centered, there is still plenty included for all children to appreciate.

The book is organized into 16 sections that follow the course of the war from outbreak to the fall of Japan. Interviewees relate their experiences in the RAF, the U.S. Navy, working as a Land Girl or a code breaker, being evacuated to London in 1938 with the Kindertransport from countries being threatened by Hitler, leaving family behind and often never seeing them again, being evacuated from London to the countryside when war was declared in 1939, fighting in the Resistance, surviving the Holocaust and POW camps. Readers will also read what the navigator of the Enola Gay has to say about the bombing Hiroshima, as well as hearing from a survivor of that bombing. It is affecting and compelling to read about how different people reacted, endured, and survived the circumstances this terrible war threw at them.

All of the stories are equally important, though some readers will surely recognize at least a few of the people interviewed. There is, for example, Sir Nicholas Winton, the humanitarian who saved 669 children in 1938 when he organized the Czechoslovakian Kindertransport to bring them to Britain and place them in homes where they would be safe from the Nazis (Sir Nicolas passed away shortly after being interviewed by Amélie Mitchell and Daniel McKeever.

Readers may also be surprised to learn that two favorite children's authors, Shirley Hughes and Judith Kerr, both had wartime experienced. Shirley was 12 when the war started, and living near Liverpool with her mother. She told her interviewer that at times the war was very frightening, at other times, it was very boring, but she had involved herself in doing things like collecting salvage for the war effort. When the Nazis started bombing the docks in Liverpool, Shirley stayed where she was rather than be evacuated to safety. Shirley Hughes has written a few books about WWII, including Whistling in the Dark, an novel based on her own wartime experiences.

Judith Kerr's experience began in Berlin almost as soon as Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Because her family was Jewish and her father was an outspoken critic of Hitler, it soon became apparent that the family needed to leave Germany. Packing only what they could carry so that they wouldn't arouse suspicion, Judith decided to leave her beloved pink bunny behind. The family made it to Switzerland, then to London in 1936. Fans of Kerr can see where the inspiration for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit came from.

Each memory provides the reader with a personal window into the past told by those who actually lived it. What is particularly nice is that all the memories were collected by school children, some of whom you will meet at the beginning of the book.

In addition, each memory includes black and white photos, most are personal, but there are lots of photographs from the war in general. There is also an Index of Subjects, and an Index of Interviewees, as well as a useful Glossary.

As more and more of the witnesses to World War II die and take their stories with them, it is important to record their memories. Fortunately, what Terkel did for adults with The Good War, these young people have done for other children with Voices from the Second World War.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Monday, April 9, 2018

Live in Infamy (companion to The Only Thing to Fear) by Caroline Tung Richmond

Live in Infamy continues the alternative history begun in The Only Thing to Fear. The premise of both books is simple - it's 80 years after the Allies have lost WWII, and the Axis powers have divided up the United States into three territories - the Eastern American Territory (EAT) ruled by the Nazis, the Western American Territory (WAT) ruled by Imperial Japan, and the Italian Dakotas. And like all oppressive regimes, there is a resistance movement seeking to thwart and overthrow them. The Only Thing to Fear focused on the Eastern American Territory and resistance leader Zara St. James, who is also an Anomaly.

In Live in Infamy, Richmond takes the reader to the Western American Territory (WAT). where they meet Ren Cabot, a 16 year-old Chinese American whose Chinese mother was in the resistance and executed five years earlier. Since then, Ren and his father have worked together in the family's tailoring and cobbling business. A resistance movement still exists in the WAT but now essays by someone known only as the Viper are circulating and causing unrest among the people, and especially ruling Crown Prince Katsura, who wants nothing more than the catch the Viper. And no one suspects that Ren is the Viper, including his father, Paul Cabot, and cousin Marty.

Paul Cabot has recently been summoned to Fort Tomogashima, also called the Fortress, to help with sewing uniforms for an upcoming Joint Prosperity Ball. But one night, Marty brings him home with a badly injured hand, and Ren discovers they are both in the resistance. It is decided that Ren will take his father's place in the Fortress, where two other resistance members are already embedded.

Once inside the Fortress, the plan is to kidnap the Crown Prince's daughter, Aiko, during the ball, and take her to Alcatraz. Marty has intel that there are prisoners being held there, and when Ren learns his mother might be one of them, the mission becomes personal. But it is more than just about rescuing prisoners. Alcatraz is also being used as a laboratory for experiments with Anomalies.

Before the war, the Nazis had been involved in genetic testing in their concentration camps. The result was super soldiers called Anomalies, each of whom has a particular super human ability. Used by both the EAT and the WAT, the number of Anomalies has been dwindling quickly, and need to be replaced. More testing has resulted in a genetic breakthrough called V2, a joint effort of the Empire and the Nazis. The Joint Properity Ball is a chance to deliver V2 to Alcatraz while everyone's attention of focused elsewhere. But the resistance also really wants that V2 and the fifteen remaining Anomalies in Alcatraz.

At the Fortress, Ren also discovers that the Viper's essay's against the Empire are a focus of the Crown Prince's anger, so much so that he is willing to, and does, execute anyone caught with a copy of an essay - and copies are circulating widely. Marty and the resistance have come up with a wild, convoluted plan, but if the mission fails, Ren's cover could easily be blown.

Live in Infamy is not just a dramatic companion to The Only Thing to Fear, it is also a worthy one, and I think Richmond has really honed her writing chops for this second novel. She has included just enough twists and turns to make the story interesting, exciting, and suspenseful but not so much that the reader has trouble following the plot - and the best part is that it is a stand alone novel. Which means that if you missed reading The Only Thing to Fear, that's OK, although you might want to read it as well.

I thought Ren was a nicely developed character, one whose anger at the injustice and treatment of racially different and racially mixed people is totally justified. Other characters, like Marty, Mr. Cabot, and even Greta Plank, who plays a large part in Ren's time within the Fortress, aren't quite as developed as I would have liked them to be given their roles in the story's plot, but I don't think that diminishes the overall enjoyment of the novel.

I should also mention that there are some violent scenes so this book may not appeal to more sensitive readers.

I personally found reading Live in Infamy an intriguing alternative history of WWII, particularly at this moment in time. Richmond tackles race and biracial themes as well as political persecution, and the role of the resistance. These are themes readers find in books about WWII, but they are also once again coming to the surface in today's world, so although this is an alternative history, it will no doubt resonate with today's readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press

Monday, April 2, 2018

Hula for the Home Front (A Nanea Classic Book 2) by Kirby Larson

It's February 1942, almost two months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Nanea Mitchell, 9, is getting ready to go back to school. But school won't be the same for her and her friend Lily now that their other friend Donna has been sent back to the United States with her mother. And then, she finds a new girl sitting in Donna's seat at school.

To make matters worse, the new girl, Dixie Morena, is given the important job of class War Stamps monitor, a job Nanea thought she should have been given. It's a job that involves the weekly sale of war stamps to the kids in the class, with the hope of winning a coveted Minuteman Flag if they buy enough stamps. Nanea tries to be friendly, but Dixie doesn't seem interested, in fact, she seems bored - always yawning and putting her head on her desk. But after an incident that finds both girls in the principal's office, Nanea, Lily, and Dixie finally become friends.

Nanea is also worried that her older brother David will enlist as soon as he turns 18 in May. David does a lot of volunteer work for Lieutenant Gregory, but wants to do more for the war effort. Older sister Mary Lou, 15, also does volunteer work for the war, and is never without her knitting, making needed items for soldiers.

Nanea comes up with the idea of forming the Honolulu Helpers, a club to help the war effort for kids
her age. Volunteers would do things like collecting bottles, babysitting so mothers could take first-aid classes, working in Victory Gardens, baking cookies, serving meals, and maybe even helping out in hospitals. But despite school, friends, and the Honolulu Helpers, Nanea still worries about her brother, the night time air raid drills, and the possibility of losing her beloved dog Mele again.

She is so afraid of losing Mele, that Nanea keeps her close by except during school. One day, as she is playing some records in her room, Nanea notices that Mele is moving to the music. Naturally, Nanea decides to teach her to hula, which, thanks to some tasty cookies, Mele picks up quite quickly. Later, at the USO show, the soldiers is so entertained by her hula dancing dog, that Nanea comes up with an idea of how to bring Mele to the soldiers in the hospital, who couldn't come to the show. But how to do that if dogs and kids aren't allowed in hospitals? Nanea enlists the help of Lieutenant Gregory, maybe he can convince the hospital to find a way.

Meanwhile, Nanea's class is falling behind with war stamp purchases, and it looks like there will be no Minuteman flag for them. But their teacher, Miss Smith, has a surprise guest come in a give them a pep talk. Will that help?

When you read an American Girl story, it's a safe bet that nothing too awful or scary is going to happen. They essentially present the life of a 9 year-old girl during a period of change and focus on how main character adjusts to those changes. There is lots of historical information introduced along the way, and the Nanea books are no different. Kirby Larson, who has had plenty of experience researching and writing historical fiction for young readers, has written the first two books, Growing Up with Aloha and this one.

I thought Hula on the Home Front was a well written work, that easily carried over from the first book and increased our understanding of what it was like being a 9 year-old at that time and place. Nanea is a sweet, generous character, but like all girls at some point, she also has to deal with feelings of jealousy and learn how to gracefully accept the new girl in her life, even as she misses her old friend. But Nanea also must deal with other big changes that impact her life - her father is often away from home working double shifts, while her mother helps out at the Red Cross. Then there is rationing, blackout curtains, and the Dogs for Defense program. Would Dogs for Defense want Mele? Could Nanea part with her beloved dog?

I do think it would be nice if more about Lily's family, who happen to be Japanese, were also included, especially given what was happening in the US at the time. Larson does introduce the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, but doesn't really go into any detail about it. Could there be a book about Lily in the works?

Nanea is a nice addition to the WWII American Girl books, though I'm sorry they won't be publishing as many different ones as they did with the original historical characters. My kids, at home and in school, really loved reading those books and most never even owned a doll.

A lot of Hula on the Home Front does presuppose that the reader has read the first book where most of information about Hawaiian life and culture was given. There is still some given here, along with Hawaiian words with pronunciation and meaning found at the back of the book. Readers also do learn more about the meanings behind the movements of hula dancing, and its purpose.

As always, do read the section Inside Nanea's World for more information about war stamps, clubs formed by kids and other war time efforts. Though not a nice as the earlier American Girl stories, it is still helpful.

Hula on the Home Front will please AG fans, as well as those who like WWII history.

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

The 1942 Minuteman Flag Nanea's class hoped to win was
 awarded by the Treasury Department

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Change of Heart by Alice Walsh, art by Erin Bennett Banks

This is the story of a young African American hero, Lanier Phillips, who survived the sinking of his ship, the USS Truxtun, caused by a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. 

To help readers understand Lanier, Walsh begins his story with his childhood. He grew up in Georgia, in the 1930s, living under the constant threat of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. Watching the homes, schools, and barns of his black neighbors being burned to the ground, barred from enjoying the same privileges as white people, and always fearing for his life, bitterness and resentment grew inside Lanier.

When the United States entered WWII, Lanier decided to join the Navy in the hope of escaping racism. Sadly, he discovered that life in the Navy wasn't any different than life back in Georgia. Black sailors were given separate sleeping quarters from the white sailors, and were required to eat their meals standing up in the pantry. Forbidden from eating in the same mess hall as the white sailors, Lanier was also required to serve them their meals and wash the dishes, do their laundry, and shine their shoes. Bitterness and resentment were eating him up.

Then, on February 18, 1942, the USS Truxtun ran into a fierce winter storm, colliding with the jagged, steep cliffs off Newfoundland. As the ship began to sink, lifeboats full of white sailors tried to make it to land in the storm, but most of the boats didn't make it. Finally, it was the time for the black sailors to try to reach land, but the boats were gone and all they had were rafts. Lanier had to quickly decide to go or stay. Would black soldiers be welcomed by the residents, or would they do something else to them?

In the end, Lanier climbed into a raft that capsized, throwing him in the sea. Lanier made it to the shore, and collapsed from exhaustion. When he woke up, Lanier discovered he was in Newfoundland, where he was taken in and nursed back to health by a local woman, Violet Pike. Many of the people who helped the sailors from the USS Truxtun had never seen a black man before, and they also didn't seem to have any of the prejudices he was so accustomed to. In fact, he was treated with respect and dignity by his rescuers. When it came time to leave their home, Lanier felt that because of the kindness he had experienced, he had lost the bitterness and resentment that had always been with him.

A Change of Heart almost sounds like it should be someone's idea of historical fiction depicting the transformation of an African American man when he finally treated him with love, respect, and compassion after living a life of discrimination and fear because of the color of his skin. And yet, it is a true story. Lanier Phillips always considered his experience with the Newfoundlanders the catalyst that changed his life. Lanier went on to have a successful career in the Navy as a sonar technician, and also became a Civil Rights pioneer with Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Change of Heart is a heartwarming, inspiring picture book for older readers that palpably depicts the racism and fear of Lanier's early life in contrast to the way he was treated in Newfoundland, and shows how one experience can really help a person to see things differently. Adding to this uplifting story are the oil painted illustrations done in Erin Bennett Banks' signature angular style.

Be sure to read the About Lanier Phillips at the back of the book to learn more about this remarkable man.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 17 year-old Danny Graham joins the navy. But before he leaves for boot camp, he and his brother Colton, 12, are out fishing one day when a German U-boot suddenly surfaces, injuring Danny and putting him in a coma.

Angry at the Germans for what happened to his brother, and feeling like there is nothing he can do, Colton decides to take Danny's enlistment papers and take his brother's place in the Navy. Tall for his age, Colton doesn't really look 17, but the country was desperate for fighting men and didn't look that closely at him, although different people do question his age.

Colton, now called Danny, gets through boot camp, and even manages to impress his company commander with his knowledge of knot tying. Along the way, Colton makes two good friends, Josef Straub, legally in the Navy, and Woody, a 15 year old who also lied about his age in order to enlist.  After graduating from boot camp, he is sent to Miami for subchaser training along with Straub and Woody. Subchasing was the job he requested in order to pay the Germans back for what they did to the real Danny.

The three friends are eventually deployed on a patrol craft, whose job is to escort convoys of merchant ships up and down the eastern seaboard, looking for U-boats and wolf packs (groups of submarines), and attacking them before they could attack the convoy. Later, Colton's patrol craft is assigned to escort a convoy in the North Atlantic during the Battle for the Atlantic. Conditions in the North Atlantic are terrible, mostly because of the freezing weather and rough seas, but eventually a wolf pack attacks, and Colton's ship is sunk. A handful of survivors find themselves in the North Atlantic in a lifeboat surrounded by sharks for a number of weeks. Finally, they are rescued along with some captured Germans, and Colton finds himself in a New York City hospital, recovering from a serious leg wound. And then his mother, who has had no idea where her son was or what he had done, shows up...

Sink or Swim is definitely not a character driven story. It is, however, a real action-packed novel that gives detailed realistic descriptions about everything Colton experiences in the Navy. And while this may sound like the exciting Navy adventures of a 12 year-old, there is enough truth in Colton's story to show the other side of war - death, destruction, fighting, and the fact that the Germans they run into are just young teenage boys, too.

I did think that Watkins did a great job of maintaining a certain innocence in Colton. He is, really, just a seventh grader when he joins up. Feeling a tinge of guilt that his mom doesn't know where he is and what he's doing, he dutifully sends home his pay each month, sans $1.00 for himself. Compare that to his friend Woody, who spends it as quickly as he gets it.

Although this isn't a character driven novel, I did like the cast of characters that Watkins put Colton in touch with. Sometimes they could be a bit nasty to him until he proved himself, but for the most part they were a pretty nice bunch of men. It was refreshing to read about men who didn't need to feed their manly egos in war for a change. And I think that helps make this a much more appealing story for middle grade readers.

Watkins includes a nice glossary of Navy terms and of different events, like the Battle for the Atlantic, that might not be familiar to all readers. He clearly did a good deal of research for Colton's story, and has woven in lots of historically accurate facts that make this book so interesting to read. And readers may be surprised to learn in the Author's Note that Colton's story is based on the true-life story of a boy named Calvin Graham. Watkins includes a number of books and articles he read while writing Sink or Swim, including two about Calvin. One of them, "The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old" can be read online.

Sink or Swim is an exciting story that should appeal to WWII buffs, history buffs, and the fast pacing makes it particularly appealing for reluctant readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelly McMorris

This is the 7th Ranger in Time novel in this series, but I have to confess, it is the first one I've read. The overall premise is simple: Ranger is a golden retriever that has been trained as a search-and-rescue dog but has failed to pass the official test. It seems he keeps getting distracted by squirrels. Ranger lives with Luke and his sister Sadie. One day, while playing in the garden with Luke, Ranger finds a mysterious first aid kit complete with a strap that can go around his neck. Whenever the first aid kit begins to hum, Ranger knows that somewhere, someone is in trouble, and once he has the kit around his neck, Ranger will be transported through time to help whoever needs him.

This time Ranger is transported to Normandy Beach just as the D-Day invasion is beginning. Walt Burrell, an African American soldier in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, is also at Normandy Beach, packed tightly in a landing craft waiting to storm the beach. As part of the 320th, Walt's job is to hoist up the giant barrage balloons once the beach has been secured so that enemy planes can't fly over and bomb the American soldiers.

Meanwhile, Leo Rubinstein is living on a farm just beyond Normandy Beach. Leo is going by the name Henri Blanc to hide his Jewish identity from the Nazis. On the morning of the invasion, the Blanc family prepares to take shelter from the constant barrage of bombs and gunfire. But Leo gets caught in a bomb hit in the house while looking for his sister's cat.

Ranger finds himself on Normandy Beach next to Walt, who figures they brought a dog along to sniff out landmines. At first, Ranger doesn't know why he was sent to this chaotic place, but when Walt realizes his friend Jackson didn't make it to the beach, man and dog race back to the water to rescue Jackson and, thanks to Ranger, two other men.

But even after all that, Ranger knows his work isn't done. Dodging gunfire and avoiding Nazis soldiers, Ranger makes his way to the Blanc farm, where he finds Leo, who is unhurt but knocked out. But when his sister's cat runs away towards the beach, Leo follows and there is nothing Ranger can do to stop him.

Back on the beach, it is still absolute mayhem, with gunfire, shelling, and bombs going off, and then there are the landmines all over the area. But Ranger isn't trained to sniff out landmines. Can Ranger, Walt, and Leo survive the allied invasion?

I've always enjoyed Kate Messner's other books and I really enjoyed reading this one. I found the writing to be clear, with straightforward descriptions, realistic characters and lots of excitement. I think Messner has captured the feeling of finding oneself in the midst of a very scary, very chaotic situation, whether man, boy, or dog.

Ranger in Time is the ideal chapter book for all readers, but the excitement of a time traveling dog and the places he finds himself in may entice even the most reluctant readers. To her credit, Messner makes sure Ranger is always a dog - he doesn't think in words, but goes by his instincts and what he recognizes from his training, making it an even more interesting story. Sometimes, even Ranger doesn't know why he is somewhere, until trouble presents itself.

There is lots of historical fact woven into this D-Day story, and Messner has included a list of sources she used, as well as a list of books for further reading. And while Walt is a fictional character, he is based on a real life hero of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion named William Dabney. You can find out all about him and all the other the research Kate Messner did for D-Day: Battle on the Beach in the back matter or you can read it online HERE.

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



Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II (an Inquire & Investigate Book) by Carla Mooney, illustrated by Tom Casteel

This history of the Holocaust is such a complicated, often confusing history that teaching it can be difficult - especially to upper elementary/middle school students. Most students have read novels that take place during World War II and the Holocaust, and while they certainly help to explain things, teaching the facts can still be difficult. How do you reckon the intentional destruction of 11 million people, including the attempted extermination of the entire Jewish race, 6 million of whom did indeed die at the hand of the Nazis, with the desire of one man bent on achieving his own ends of creating a master race.

To help students and teachers understand the Holocaust better, Carla Mooney, who has written over 70 books for kids and teens covering science, social studies, and current events, has written a book to help readers learn about the Holocaust. In Chapter One, she begins with a brief, but detailed history of anti-Semitism, a history that began over 2000 years ago when the Romans exiled that Jews after defeating them and taking over their land in the Middle East, then brings the reader through the Enlightenment, the Great War and finally to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.

Chapter Two traces the rise of the Nazi party, the use of propaganda to sway the German people, the early treatment of Jews, the Nuremberg Laws, and finally the violence of Kristallnacht, including the destruction of Jewish businesses and homes, the arrest of Jewish men, and the killing of other Jews.

Chapter Three details the occupation of different European countries by the Nazis, increased persecution of Jews, the different ghettos Jews were forced to live in until they were ultimately liquidated and the Jews sent "east" to concentration camps.

Chapter Four looks at the Final Solution and the different, inhumane ways the Nazis used for eliminating Jews, including mobile killing squads, slave labor camps, and finally the creation of extermination camps, some capable of killing as many a 6,000 people a day.

Chapter Five covers the end of the war, the liberation of concentration camps and the humanitarian crisis that followed, including the large number of displaced persons.

Chapter Six asks the question how could the Holocaust happen? And there are lots of reasons for it, beginning with the fact that other countries simple did not want to offer refuge to Jewish refugees by increasing their limits on immigration, as well as countries that collaborated with the Nazis.

Chapter Seven looks at the ways people found to resist the Nazis and save some Jews, including children, and Chapter Eight look at the legacy of the Holocaust.

So what makes this book different? The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II is not a book where the student passively receives information. This is an interactive book that helps readers understand the Holocaust using the Inquire and Investigate section found at the end of each chapter. Students are taught the use and value of primary sources, and there are activities for them that pertains to the particular chapters being studied. Here, for example, are the activity pages found at the end of the Introduction:

In addition to being interactive, you will also find sidebars that give more details, including Vocab Labs, Bear Witness sections, and key questions. There is also a detailed timeline, copious photographs and illustrations, a Glossary and a list of Sources. For students who can't used the QR code scans, there is a list at the back of the book of the websites used.

If you are a teacher or a student, or just have an interest in finding out more about the Holocaust, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Nomad Press

Monday, March 5, 2018

When the Flu Comes Calling...



Before I begin getting back to the business at hand, let me just say I have been sick with flu for the last two weeks (yes, I had the flu shot). I never had the flu before and it was horrible, including two days I didn't think I was going to ever be OK again. If the flu does come calling, take care of yourself and, if you can, take the time needed to recover. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley

This is the 9th Flavia de Luce mystery and the 6th book I've reviewed here. Of course, I do know it is now June 1952, Flavia has turned 12, and that aside from the odd mentions, WWII no longer plays much of a part in the stories.

As I said, it is June 1952, and six months have gone by since Haviland de Luce, father of Flavia and her sisters Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), passed away after an illness. Though the family estate, Buckshaw, was left to Flavia, her Aunt Felicity, bully and tyrant, arrives from London and decides it is to be sold and Flavia will go to London to live with her. Given six months to mourn, Flavia, Feely, and Daffy, are on a trip planned by faithful retainer Dogger, where, after punting along a river, they land in the village of Volesthorpe, near the notorious St.-Mildred's-in-the-Marsh church. It was here that Canon Whitbread allegedly poisoned three ladies in his congregation with the communion chalice, for which he was hanged. Yes, Dogger certainly does know his Flavia, poisons are her thing.

But when Flavia fishes out the Canon's son Orlando from the river by the church, new questions arise. Flavia cleverly manages to get some stomach fluid from the corpse for later analysis before the arrival of Constable Otter. As clever as he is unfriendly, Constable Otter quickly lets her know that her help is absolutely unwanted, an attitude that causes Flavia's suspicious nature to be on guard.

Away from her own well equipped chemistry lab at Buckshaw, Flavia and Dogger find they must improvise in order to carry out the investigation into Orlando's death. Luckily, Dogger, who seems to have an abundance of all kinds of knowledge, also turns out to be a genius at using whatever is at hand. I loved how Dogger made an improvised microscope (pg 85), especially clever and amusing after Otter condescendingly manplained to Flavia what a microscope is (pg 45). Still, Flavia is disappointed that Orlando wasn't poisoned, but she has become more and more aware that there are, nevertheless, sinister things under foot in Volesthorpe, and she is determined to get to the bottom of them all. And, as it turns out, there is plenty to get to the bottom of.

When I first began reading The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, I was feeling a little disappointed. It definitely has a slightly different feel to it than the previous 8 books. But as I got further into the story, I began to enjoy it as much as the other Flavia books, but it never lost the feeling of difference. I've thought about it and this is what I think:

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place is the next to the last Flavia de Luce mystery and, at 12, Flavia is entering adolescence. No longer a child, she is maturing and it shows - kudos to Bradley for portraying the subtle ways in which this happens. I realized it had actually began in book 8, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd after Flavia returned to Buckshaw from boarding school in Canada. Most notable is the way she now sees Dogger as more of an person in his own right and an equal and less as a servant, and there are changes in her relationship with her sisters, particularly Daffy, whose literary passions turn out to be pretty useful for solving murders. Don't get me wrong, Flavia is still as enthusiastic about solving murders, performing chemical experiments and learning about poisons as ever she was, but now her life is expanding.

Being away from the confines of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacy also allows Bradley to bring in more varied but no less eccentric characters. There is Orlando Whitbread's mentor Poppy Mandrill, former actress now confined to a wheelchair; Arven Palmer, the landlord of the Oak and Pheasant and his wife, Greta Palmer; three roustabouts from the traveling Shadrach's Circus and Menagerie as well as the proprietor, Mrs. "Dreadnought" Dandyman; the village's undertaker F. T. Nightingale, whose son Hob befriends Flavia; and last but not least, Dogger's old friend (?) Claire Tetlock - each with their own secrets to be uncovered.

Like most of Bradley's plots, this one will require you to suspend your disbelief, not because he has delved into fantasy, just into things improbable, exciting but improbable. But is wouldn't be a Flavia de Luce mystery if the improbable were left out, would it?- then it would just be a book about a girl who likes chemistry. If you love a little off the wall, somewhat noir mystery with unconventional characters, this is the book/series for you.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

When most of us think about Jackie Robinson, it's in the context of his breaking the color barrier by becoming the first African American man to play major league baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Jackie was a great baseball player, and I have that on authority of everyone I knew growing up in Brooklyn who remembered the day the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series. They say there literally was dancing in the streets that day. But baseball wasn't the first time Jackie challenged segregation's accepted status quo.

In The United States v. Jackie Robinson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen looks past his life as a Dodger, and focuses on his early experiences growing up in segregated Pasadena, California and, later, his life in the United States Army.

As a boy in Pasadena, Jackie's mother Mallie had taught her children to stand up for what was right, even if that was difficult to do. Mallie lived by example, refusing to be bullied out of the white neighborhood the Robinson had moved into. Jackie loved sports and was a great athlete in school, and as his parents had hoped, he was recruited to play for UCLA. And although he was a one of the country's most successful college athletes, people still saw him as a black man, including his teammates and coach. Discouraged that only white players could become professional athletes, Jackie left college and joined the army when the United States entered WWII.

And it was in the army that Jackie faced his greatest challenge. It turned out that the army was no different for Jackie than Pasadena and college had been. When he joined up, the army was still segregated, and Jackie was forced to deal with discrimination every day. When he tried to join the baseball team, he was told in no uncertain terms that he could only play on the 'colored team' which simply did not exist.

Then, in 1944, the army was ordered to end segregation on all military posts and buses. So, when Jackie sat in the middle of an army bus and refused to move to the back when the white driver demanded that he do so, it was Jackie who was arrested and who faced a court-martial. Like his mother, Jackie stood up for what was right, and after five hours of testimony by different people, he received a not-guilty verdict.

Bardhan-Quallen presents Jackie Robinson's early life clearly and concisely, making it fully accessible in this picture book for older readers. She has not only captured Jackie's learned sense of justice and fair play, but also the fact that changing laws doesn't change people's learned prejudices, as readers will see in the book. And while this may be a work of historical nonfiction, the message in it will resonate in today's world. Nevertheless, kids will certainly discover a hero in Jackie Robinson, a courageous man who lived life with quiet dignity and integrity coupled with a firm belief in standing up for what is right. 

R. Gregory Christie's straightforward acryla gouache illustrations also reflect the quiet dignity of Jackie Robinson's life, and they also carry their own powerful message to the reader. 

Bardhan-Quallen has included a timeline of both Jackie's life and events that impacted it. She also has an important Author's Note for understanding what the times were like during Jackie's life, and a Bibliography for further exploration.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson is an inspiring depiction of this lesser known episode in Jackie Robinson's life.

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army by Enigma Alberti, illustrated by Scott Wegener

Not too many people know about the Ghost Army and what they did during the war, but they played an very important part in the Allied victory. In this second book in the Spy On History series, readers meet Sergeant Victor Dowd, a Brooklyn boy, was hand picked by the Army to become part of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, a/k/a the Ghost Army.

Victor, along with the rest of the hand picked members of the Ghost Army, had been chosen because of their artistic talents. After basic training, the members of the 603rd had developed and tested inflatable guns, planes, tanks, and vehicles as well as figuring out how to disguise bomber planes and coastal defense to fool the enemy. Now, along with the 3132 Signal Service Company Special, they would get to test their deceptions for real.

After the successful Normandy invasion, Vic and his platoon arrived on Omaha Beach in France, along with their inflatable "equipment" and wasted no time setting up their inflatable howitzers. But would it fool the enemy?

That was the question the Ghost Army asked themselves each time they moved forward. Their job was to fool the enemy into thinking they were a fully armored division ready for battle, when in reality there was nothing but realistic inflatables and finely tuned sound effects imitating every possible sound typical of real division.

As the Ghost Army worked its way through France, Belgium all the way to the Rhine and their longest and greatest deception, readers can use the spy craft tools to try to solve the mystery of Victor's missing sketchbook.

Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army is a novel based on real events and and real people,
including Vic. And all of the different incidents that are included in the novel also took place. For instance, Alberti includes the story of Christmas 1944, when Vic and the other Ghost Army soldiers put together boxes of goodies like candy, gum, and food from their own rations for some of the refugee children in France. One little boy never smiled, and Vic wonders what terrible things he had already been through. Vic even drew a picture of him:
To help them do that, there is a sealed Top Secret envelop included at the front of the book that contains the four spy craft tools to help readers will need to find the clues that are scattered throughout the book to help them solve the mystery of where to find Victor Dowd's missing sketchbook. The tools include a cipher wheel, a red acetate sheet, a WWII "poop sheet" containing information about specific units, as well as morse code, and a sheet of vellum featuring patches of the Ghost Army and the battalions they impersonated.
The Spy on History series is a great way for kids to add to their knowledge of history. This is a middle grade book and by then, most kids have learned about WWII, but this adds to that by providing a look an some of the more unusual aspects of that conflict. And at the same time, they get to use their problem solving skills as they try to solve the mystery.

When I was a classroom teacher, and even in homeschooling situations, Friday afternoon was always cool down time and the kids were allowed to play strategy games. This would be an ideal addition to the other games. 

Here's a question you can give the kids to think about while they read Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army:
If you were a member of the Ghost Army, which of your creative skills would you utilize to deceive the German troops?
Personally, I'm not very artistic, but I'm a good problem solver, so the only thing I would be good for are idea about how to go about deceiving the enemy.

Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army is a wonderful and fun way to learn about the important role the Ghost Army played in helping the Allies win the war.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided by the publisher, Workman Publishing



Sunday, January 28, 2018

From the Archives #30: Three Books by Munro Leaf


Most of us are familiar with Munro Leaf’s iconic anti-bullying-be-yourself book The Story of Ferdinand, especially now that it has once again been made into a movie. Ferdinand, you may recall, is a bull who refuses to fight, preferring instead to peacefully smell the flowers. Ferdinand was written in 1936, and since it takes place in Spain, critics quickly equated it with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In fact, the story of the “peaceful” bull was burned by the Nazi’s and banned in General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, bellicose countries where Ferdinand was considered to be anti-fascist and subversive for attempting to promote a pacifist agenda. 

When the Untied States entered WWII after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Leaf enlisted in the Army and while serving, he wrote two books that offer suggestions for ways in which children could participate in the war effort as the country quickly mobilized for war. After all, everyone wanted to do their bit for the war effort, including children. And, it was felt that the best way to help war-time anxieties in the young was to take advantage of their youthful energy and natural desire to help.

In his book, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, Leaf offers suggestions for kids age 7 and up on what they can do. The book's objective are clearly laid out in the book’s blurb:

"Munro Leaf knows that boys and girls from seven or eight up are interested in their country's war and have a right to be. He tells them what they want to know about constructive war-time behavior - incidentally good citizenship for peace-time, too. He gives dozens of practical suggestions - based on actual plans of Government Departments, and made joyful and inviting by his own lively drawings in red and black - for things boys and girls can properly do to help their country in this crisis. He tells them how they can become a real part of the job that every American citizen must share to bring Victory and Peace.

"In the family, in the neighborhood, in the community, this book will create new cooperation, new interest, new spirit, in giving boys and girls their part in the big job. It is their hat, too, and they are eager to put it on. The book will help parents, organizers and teachers to know how to use the vast energy and eager spirit of millions of young American citizens."


The suggestions are simple - from keeping themselves strong and healthy, maintaining a cheerful attitude, helping to create a harmonious atmosphere at home by doing chores cheerfully, to gathering scrape metal and paper, working in community gardens, learning first aid, running errands, and simply by being a good neighbor and a good citizen. 

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans, along with the same kind of quirkily illustrated black and red girl and boy stick figures was quickly followed by shorter book called My Book to Help America, published “at the suggestion of the U.S. Treasury Department.” Essentially a shortened version of the Handbook, it reiterates the ways kids can get involved in the war effort. The difference is that this is a book that have another purpose:






At the very end of the book was a Savings Bond booklet that kids could use to paste their stamps in each time they bought one, and once they read $18.75 in stamps, they could trade their booklet in for a savings bond, worth $25.00 at maturity in 10 years.

Kids actually did embrace they suggestions Leaf makes in these books, though how far their actual influence went can't really be measured. Still, it goes to the power that books have to teach and inspire action in young readers. And yes, the Axis powers also used these kinds of propaganda tools to influence and inspire their young readers.

Needless to say, of the three books here, The Story of Ferdinand is fortunately still a beloved children's book.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
1936, Viking Books, 72 pages;

A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Frederick A. Stokes, 64 pages

My Book to Help America written and illustrated by Munro Leaf
1942, Whitman Publishers, 32 pages

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot" by Michael O. Tunnell

When I was young, I thought that when a war ended, everything simply went back to being normal. Then my dad took me to England and Wales to meet his family and, even after all those years since WWII had ended, there were still so many places where you could see war damage. That trip changed my whole perspective on war, as I realized that recovery was just not that easy.

Nowhere is the aftermath of war more telling and poignant than in the story of the Candy Bomber and the Berlin Airlift. In Candy Bomber, Michael Tunnell gives a brief, but excellent accounting of events that led to the Berlin Airlift. After WWII had ended, Germany was divided up into four occupied zones. Berlin, which suffered heavy bombing towards the end of the war, was right in the middle of the Soviet zone, and was divided in half - the eastern half was occupied by the Soviets, the western half of Berlin was occupied by the Allied powers.

The Soviets, in an effort to drive the western powers out of their half of Berlin, cut off supply routes for desperately needed shipments of food. To keep western Berliners from starving, the RAF launched Operation Plainfare, while the Americans began Operation Vittles in 1948. One of the American pilots who flew foodstuffs to Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin was Lt. Gail Halvorsen, whose life was changed during one of his deliveries thanks to two sticks of Doublemint gum.

There were always groups of kids around the fence of the airport whenever Halvorsen landed, and one day he walked over to them. A few knew snatches of English, and told him what their life was like. Before leaving, he pulled two sticks of gum from his pocket, broke them in half and gave them to some to the kids. Realizing that the kids probably hadn't had any sweets in a long, long, time, if ever, Halvorsen decided to try dropping candy from his plane. But with so many planes landing in Tempelhof, how would the children know his plane? The answer was simple - he would wiggle his wings for them.

It wasn't long before Halvorsen became known to Berlin children as Oncle Wackelflügel (Uncle Wiggly Wings) or der Schokoladen-flieger, as kids anxiously awaited his candy drops. Pretty soon, his buddies began donating their own sweet rations, and as more parachutes were dropped, Halvorsen's simple plan just kept growing. Soon, donations of candy from around the world began arriving at the Rhein-Main Air Force Base, where he was stationed. Then, the whole operation was nicknamed Operation Little Vittles and Lt. Gail Halvorsen was catapulted into fame as a media figure.

The Berlin Airlift ran from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949, but for Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen, his fame has lasted a lifetime.

Tunnell has put together a comprehensive biography of both Gail Halvorsen and the Berlin Airlift, incorporating anecdotes of kids who had received candy, letters and drawings Halvorsen received from kids during the airlift, and lots of photographs, attesting to his fame during and after the airlift. There are also maps to half kids understand how things evolved after the war, showing the odd way Germany and Berlin were divided up.


The story of Candy Bomber Gail Halvorsen was a little remembered story, but one that certainly should appeal to young readers. At a time when heroes are really needed, I couldn't help but think about what a wonderful role model Halversen is, demonstrating how one person can make such a difference in the lives of people. And adding to this touching story is the fact that 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

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




Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wordwings by Sydelle Pearl

It’s January 1941 and Rivke Rosenfeld, 12, is living in the small sanctuary of a synagogue within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto with her younger sisters, Tsipoyre and Sorele. Both their parents and their Bubbie (grandmother) have died of typhus, and now they are cared for by their Zadye, their grandfather. 

Despite the cold, and secretly at night, while everyone is sleeping, Rivke is moved to begin recording what life for the Jews in the Ghetto is like at the hands of the Nazis. It is a risky thing to do, and she knows full well she could be killed on the spot if such a record were ever found. Yet, Rivke is propelled to take this risk after witnessing German soldiers cruelly shaving off Zayde’s beard with a knife, and then attacking other Jews in the street, including the man Rivke calls the Peddler of Wind.  Rivke begins keeping her diary in the margins of a book of Hans Christian Anderson stories given to her by Batya, the children’s librarian in the Ghetto, stories that Rivke loves.

One day, Rivke asks the Peddler of Wind what he carries in the sack he always has with him. He answers wind wishes, and just as she asks if he has any fairytale wind, there is a strong wind begins to blow. Scared, Sorele begins to cry, and Rivke starts telling a story of her own about a young Polish boy who loved to blow the Shofar on RoshHaShanah. By the end of the story, everyone is spellbound, and it is clear the Rivke, a lover of stories, has found her own voice as a storyteller.

The story, one of hope, becomes known among the Jews in the Ghetto as the “The Jewish Geese.”
Batya, who has already recruited Rivke to help with the secret children’s library, introduces her to Dr. Emanuel Ringelbaum. Feeling her story is too important to lose, he has Rivke write it down. Later, it
is made into a book for the library, with illustrations by Gela Seksztajn, an artist who works with and draws picture of the children in the Ghetto. Rivke learns that Dr. Ringelbaum is head of a secret project called the Warsaw Ghetto Archive, intended to be a collection of artifacts about what is happening in the Ghetto, and which will ultimately be buried for safe keeping until the war is over.


Portrait of a girl by Gela Seksztajn found in
the Ringelbaum Archive
Wordwings is one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long time because there is so much in it to to think about. One the one hand, Rivke’s story is a factual accounting of what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto - the starvation, the disease, the fear, the inhuman treatment of Jews by the Nazis, but it is also about the importance of family, hope in the midst of despair, the secret kitchen at Nowolipki 68 serving food smugglers have brought in, underground resistance to Nazi oppressors, and the power that stories have to help get us through difficult times. Or, as Rivke says, “…if you let your heart listen to the stories, then their magic will bring a light to your eyes and energy to your step. And pretend bread is better than no bread at all.” (pg 110)

And the fact is that within the Ghetto, and as terrible as conditions were, a cultural life did thrive for the people who were forced to live there. That is made clear in Wordwings with the inclusion of Rivke’s storytelling, Batya’s library, and Dr. Ringelbaum’s Archive, both of which really existed.  

One of the things I liked is the way Pearl has so seamlessly combined fiction and reality. Those Rivke, her sisters and Zadye are fictional characters, they continually interact with people like Batya, Gela, Dr. Janusz Korczak who ran the Orphans Home, and Dr. Ringelbaum. When you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, you will learn more about the persons included included in the novel and their fate.

Wordwings is written completely from Rivke’s point of view in the first person (after all, it is her diary), and her diary runs from 9 January 1941 to 9 May 1941. The ending may feel a bit abrupt, until you remember that the diary ends, not because of anything historical happening, but because Rivke has reached the end of the Hans Christian Anderson book, and it was time to put it into the Archive. 

I highly recommend Wordwings to anyone interested in the Holocaust, WWII, or simply historical fiction. It is a valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust, and has been named a Notable Book for Older Readers by the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
I wish to thank Sydelle Pearl and Guernica Editions for providing me with a review copy of this book.

You can learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto at the Jewish Virtual Library.

You can discover more about Dr. Ringelbaum and the archive by visiting the online Yad Vashem exhibit about it.

Besides Hans Christian Anderson, Yiddish storyteller I. L. Peretz is also mentioned, and you can find out more about him at the Jewish Virtual Library

I was sorry I didn’t pay more attention to the places Rivke mentions in Wordwings, but you may want to do that. If so, here is a useful street map of the Warsaw Ghetto:
MAP:
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Warsaw, vol. 16, col. 347-348. 
(FYI: the Warsaw Ghetto existed from October 31, 1940 to September 21, 1942, the final day of deportations to Treblinka, and also Yom Kippur).