Monday, October 25, 2010

War Boy: a Wartime Childhood by Michael Foreman

I have wanted to read War Boy for a while, but had to wait because I needed to get it through Interlibrary Loan. I love ILL, and have been able to get so many great books using it. Thank you, NYPL.

War Boy was written and illustrated by Michael Foreman and the result is a charming book about his early childhood during World War II. His purpose is clearly to show what life was like for him, and with variations, for many other kids in wartime England. It is structured in a series of vignettes or memories, which are, by turns, humorous, sad, frightening and heartwarming. Altogether, they give a trenchant impression of Foreman’s early years and the war’s impact on his life and the lives of those around him.

Relying primarily on his own beautiful watercolor illustrations, with minimal text, Foreman literally paints a picture of life in Pakefield, Lowestoft, a small town on the east coast of Suffolk, England during the war. Because of its location, Lowestoft was a target for German bombing raids due to its being a coastal town, its large naval base and the Minesweeping Service that was also located there. It seems only appropriate, then, that Foreman would begin his story by describing the night an incendiary bomb came through the roof of his house, and exploded up the chimney. His older brother Pud put the fire out by throwing wet sand on it that was kept in the backyard. Foreman has enhanced this story, as he does throughout the book, with drawings of cigarette cards, enthusiastically collected by kids before the war, in this case, showing in pictures what to do if an incendiary bomb landed in your house. This is probably Foreman’s earliest memory of the war, since he was born in 1938 and the bomb fell on April 21, 1941.

Foreman’s mother had a small shop in Pakefield and a wide variety of soldiers and sailors spent time there because of its welcoming and homelike atmosphere. As a small child, he learned some very colorful language thanks to these guys, and was often dressed up as a soldier or sailor and drilled by them: “I was often inspected in the shop, then marched up and down the pavement while massed ranks of tea drinkers shouted ‘Left Right, Left Right, About Turn, Pick Them Feet Up.” (pg 28)

Included in Foreman’s account are the games played by the children in the area, candy they ate, loved and often didn’t get, schooldays and holidays, as well as some of the local characters one seems to find in all small towns. Interspersed among these ordinary aspects of life are detailed drawings of common wartime items like barrage balloons, airplanes such as Dorniers ans Stukas, and Anderson and Morrison shelters and how they all work.

Though nothing is written about in great detail, the world that Foreman lived in comes through clearly and concisely. It is a book recommended for readers ages 7-9, but I think that older kids would enjoy it as well, in part because Foreman includes the kinds of things kids often think are funny, especially those that involve bodily functions. Foreman not only writes and illustrates his own books, but has illustrated many other books in his very distinct style.

An exhibition of War Boy was presented by The National Army Museum in London, which unfortunately closed in June 2010. However, thanks to Culture24videos and YouTube, there are four short videos of an interview with Michael Foreman at the museum which I include here:

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted today by

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

From the Archives #2: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

Did you run across that queer sort of legend about a wild goose? It was all up and down the beaches. You know how those things spring up. Some of the men I brought back were talking about it. It was supposed to have appeared at intervals the last days between Dunkirk and La Panne. If you saw it, you were eventually saved. That sort of thing…
The Snow Goose was originally published as a short story in the Saturday Evening Post in the 9 November 1940 edition. A year later, it was released as a novella and won honorable mention in the O. Henry Memorial Prize competition.

The story centers on the reclusive, lonely, deformed painter Philip Rhayader, living in a lighthouse in the remote marshes of the Essex coast. One day, a young girl, Frith, the child of fishing people, brings him a snow goose that had been shot. Although she didn’t know Rhayader, she, like everyone else, was afraid of him because of his looks. Nevertheless, she overcomes her fear because Rhayader also has a reputation for loving all nature, and has created a sanctuary for birds flying south to live in until the spring comes and they head north again. Rhayader asks Frith to help him bandage the snow goose, and while they work, he tells her that it is a Canadian goose, making up a story about how it had lost its way in a storm and ended up off the coast of England. That winter, Frith comes regularly to visit the goose and Rhayader, but in the spring when it flies north, she stops visiting. Without them, Rhayader begins to feel his intense loneliness again and paints a picture of Frith as she looked the day she brought the snow goose to him. But each winter the snow goose returns and so does Frith. This goes on for several years, until one year neither of them returns. When the snow goose finally comes back to Rhayader’s sanctuary, it is more than a month before Frith visits, and when she does, Rhayader realizes she is no longer a girl. He also knows that the snow goose is not going to leave him and fly north again in spring.

The next spring, 1940, all the other birds migrate north earlier than usual because of the war, but, just as Rhayader had said, the snow goose remains behind. As she and Rhayader watch the birds flying away, Frith suddenly feels frightened:

“…and the things that frightened her were in Rhayader’s eyes – the longing and the loneliness and the deep, welling, unspoken things that lay in and behind them as he turned them upon her.” (pg 26)

Frith leaves and stays away for three weeks, but curious to see if the snow goose did indeed remain, Frith again overcomes her fear and visits Rhayader. She finds him busy packing his little sailboat. He explains to her that he is going to Dunkirk, to help rescue the soldiers stranded there. As he sails away, the snow goose follows him and this is where the legend of the snow goose begins.

This is also the part of the book where I always start crying, even as I write this.

The story is written in the style of legends or fairy tales, giving it that surreal quality that these types of stories often have (well, when they aren’t a Disney production.) The dialogue, what little there is, is written in dialect and may be difficult for young readers. In many ways, it is a classic beauty and the beast story, but without the characteristic kind of happy ending they always have.

The Snow Goose is an extremely sentimental; but also a very appealing story. As testament to its appeal, it has remained in print continuously since 1941. I had originally read the 1941 edition of The Snow Goose a while ago, which I had checked out of the library at Hunter College. I did not find it in the children’s section there. For this post, I checked it out of the local branch of the New York Public Library and it was in with Juvenile Fiction. My personal opinion is that it is a story more likely to be appreciated by older readers, perhaps kids in the 8th grade and up. It is a short story, though a complicated one and the intimation of Rhayader’s feelings for Frith and her response may add to that for younger readers still accustomed to fairytale romance.

The original 1940 copy of The Snow Goose, exactly as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post has been made available online at:

The story was also made into a television movie by BBC and shown in the US as a Hallmark program in 1971. It starred Richard Harris as Philip Rhayader. Like Johnny and the Bomb, it has been put on YouTube in 10 minute increments and may be seen at

thanks to mark042683.

I have mixed feelings about the illustration in the version I used, even though the artist, Angela Barrett, was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award in 2009. Barrett is a talented artist, but I did not like her depiction of Rhayader. I thought she made him too primitive looking. I did like the way she envisioned Frith, the uncultivated, innocent child of the marshes. This, I thought, was the most hauntingly beautiful illustration of Philip Rhayader’s arrival at Dunkirk, and my favorite of Barrett’s illustrations (pgs 36-37.) I think she has really captured the legend-like quality of the story in them.

Warning: Keep some tissues nearby when reading The Snow Goose.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When by Annette Laing

This is a time travel story centered on a mystery with a bit of a twist. When Hannah Dias and her brother Alex must move from exciting San Francisco to dull and boring Snipesville, Georgia, they are not happy campers. And camp at the local college is exactly where their father has them enrolled – Alex in baseball camp, Hannah in a writing program. Alex is a disaster at baseball, as is Brandon Clark, a fellow camper. Naturally they gravitate to each other. At lunch, Alex and Brandon run into Hannah and that is the end of camp, but the beginning of their time travel adventure.

The three new friends decide to head to the library to play computer games, but while there, Brandon finds an old ID card stuck in a book called Children in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945 and belonging to a boy named George Braithwaite. Meeting a history professor at a computer terminal, she explains that everyone in World War II England was required to carry this kind of identity card, and suggests that the owner may be living in Snipesville and had left the card in the book. But as the kids leave the library, they notice that the campus has changed - they no longer are in Snipesville, but in 1940 England.

They are quickly swept up in the evacuations taking place by a woman named Miss Tatchell, turned over to her by the rather shady Mr. Smedley, from the Ministry of Health. Hannah recognizes Miss Tatchell as the history professor they met in the library. Brandon, convinced she can help them get back to their own time, runs off to find her, but runs in Mr. Smedley instead. Next thing he knows, he is on a train back to London with Smedley.

The story gets a little complicated from here. Brandon, after arriving in London, is caught in a Blitz that enables him to get away from the devious Smedley, but in a time travel twist, he winds up in 1915 England, where he becomes an apprentice to the local dentist, a kind Scotsman named Mr. Gordon. Meanwhile Hannah and Alex are billeted with an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Archer. Mrs. Archer is a distrustful, nervous, paranoid person, who calls Smedley after a while to have Hannah and Alex placed elsewhere. Luckily, Hannah learns what is happening and she and Alex run away in the middle of the night to the home of Mrs. Devenish. Mrs. Devenish is the local magistrate, a woman with some authority in a world when women didn’t have much of that, and who, unfortunately, thinks that Hannah is somewhat of a spoiled brat. Yet, despite already having an evacuee and her granddaughter living with her, she agrees to take in Hannah and Alex.

At first, the kids have no idea why they have traveled to wartime England, but slowly, very slowly things unfold that lead them to the end of the mystery – they don’t exactly solve it so much as they are necessary actors in the events that lead up to the solution of what has happened to a young black evacuee named George Braithwaite who has gone missing. The story was a little slow in the beginning, but not to the extent that I was tempted to put it down. I did like the way the author dealt with time travel- no explanations, no gimmicks. Hannah, Alex, Brandon and their surroundings just morph. Even their 21st century American accents, clothing and money morph into1915/1940s English accents, clothing and money. The name Dias is anglicized to Day, but Brandon becomes George Braithwaite in 1940, George Clark in 1915. And Hannah IS annoyingly bratty, complaining about everything, which annoyed me as a reader, whereas the boys had a much more go with the flow attitude. Brandon is an interesting character because he is black, a point that is emphasized and turns out to be a vital part of the mystery. I also liked the way events unfolded as the kids got closer to solving the mystery, it kept me reading late into the night to find out what happened. For example, I kept wondering why Brandon ended up in 1915 England instead of staying in 1940 England, and why the Professor kept showing up but seemingly not helping?

I liked this book. I found it well written, and the depiction of 1940s England realistic, as is the workings of a dental office in 1915 – not a place I would ever like to be in. It is definitely a book for middle grade readers and the time travel element may make it a tempting read.

I sincerely hope that now, between Keep Smiling Through and Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, I can finally get the words to We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn out of my head. I think I will have to take it off my IPOD for a while.

We’ll Meet Again
Words and Music by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles
Recorded by Vera Lynn in 1939

Let's say goodbye with a smile, dear,
Just for a while, dear, we must part.
Don't let the parting upset you,
I'll not forget you, sweetheart.

We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day.
Keep smilin' through, just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.

So will you please say hello to the folks that I know
Tell them I won't be long
They'll be happy to know that as you saw me go
I was singing this song

We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day

Monday, October 11, 2010

War, Women and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II by Catherine Gourley

When I went to college, I wanted to become a photo-journalist. I had this idea that I would travel around China and send back scintillating stories and pictures of life there. I have no idea why I picked China, except that it seemed to be much more of an unknown in the early 1980s then it is now. Well, life got in the way and I never made it to China, but I have continued my interest in photo-journalism.

I first used War, Women and the News in the library, when I was looking for some basic information about Dickey Chappelle, a woman who covered war from World War II to Vietnam. She died in 1965 in Vietnam, when a land mine exploded; she was the first woman journalist to die in battle. There was a nice section on her in Gourley’s book, and I found everything I needed.

This week I checked out War, Women and the News from the library to read for today. And I am sorry to say, disappointment set in. The book is a compilation of personal stories about the brave and daring women who reported the news during the war. Gourley begins it with an account of two women, Dorothea Lange, a photographer and Martha Gellhorn, a writer, who did field research for the government on the poor, the hungry, and the homeless during and after the depression. These two women, Gourley believes, were among the trailblazers who helped pave the way for future wartime women reporters. She also includes some information on columnists, Dorothy Thompson and Anne O’Hare McCormick, who wrote during the 1930s and on Franklin Roosevelt’s early years as president. Unlike reporters she explains, columnists do not gather the news, rather they interpret it.

Finally, on page 53, she introduces her first female war journalist, Therese Bonney. Bonney was a photo-essayist who referred to the pictures she took as “truth raids.” She was known for her book of photographs called Europe’s Children, pictures showing the hardships the Nazis had wrought on these young victims, a book that shocked Americans and Europeans, bringing the war home in a powerful way.

My disappointment in this book was surprising. I knew Gourley’s work from three American Girl books that are still around the house – Welcome to Felicity’s World, Welcome to Samantha’s World and Welcome to Molly’s World. These were so well done, providing a wealth of information about each time period. The problem I found with War, Women and the News is that it jumps around so much and feels too unfocused. I started reading about Bonney, and then came a section on “Resisters and Partisans,” then back to Bonney. And it continues like that. Gourley ends the book with Christiane Amanpour as an example of a beneficiary of the World War II correspondents because of her reporting in the various recent war zones for CNN.

If you sit and read War, Women and the News from cover to cover, this book might feel confused, but for very basic information about the individual journalists, it is a good book. There are lots of photographs to accompany each chapter and biographical insets about different correspondents. It is recommended for middle school readers.

War, Women and the News won the following awards:
Bank Street Best Books of the Year
Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best
Parents’ Choice Board

The Library of Congress also has an online exhibit called “Women come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers and Broadcasters during World War II.” It is also about other women correspondents during the war and might be appealing to anyone interested in journalism. It can be found at

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted today by

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, John

Today is John Lennon’s 70th birthday. There are two things I have always loved about John Lennon – his music and his sincere anti-war belief. John raised my awareness about the damage caused by war when I was very young and it has stayed with me always. And passing on that awareness is the reason why I write a blog about the portrayal of children in World War II books for young people. I don’t believe that war is ever good, but sometimes it happens and it is always devastating. World War II was a particularly destructive war because it was a total war, and total wars involve total populations, including children. And in the case of this war, that meant lots of kids, as well as their families, their friends, their homes, their schools, their churches, their sense of safety and security. As Winston Churchill told the House of Commons on 20 August 1940:

The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire
population, men, women and children. The fronts are everywhere.
So as I read and write about World War II, I think of John Lennon’s words

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
and hope we learn from what we read.

You may call me a dreamer.  But I'm not the only one.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Sweethearts of Rhythm. The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Music was such an important part of the Second World War and no music defines that time more than swing does. Most people have heard the giants of this era, such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie. But few know about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl swing band.

Marilyn Nelson has written about the incredible women who were the Sweethearts of Rhythm from a unique perspective – that of the instruments that they played. The premise is that the instruments have ended up in the same pawnshop in New Orleans. The shop owner has closed up for the day and on the evening of 28 August 2005, the night before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the instruments discover that they were once part of the same swing band in the 1940s:

With a twilit velvet musky tone
as the pawnshop door is locked,
an ancient tenor saxophone
spins off a riff of talk.
“A thousand thousand gigs ago,
when I was just second-hand,”
it says, “I spent my glory years
on the road with an all-girl band.”
From a shelf in the corner, three trombones
bray in unison: They say
they, too, were played in a gals’ swing band
way back in the day.
Then effortlessly, a blues in C
arises out of a phrase
and the old hocked instruments find the groove
and swing of the Good Old Days.
The instruments reminisce about the places they played in and the women who played them, all in anapestic and dactylic meter. Included with each instrument’s memory is the name of the person who played it, accompanied by beautiful illustrations of what is being remembered.

The Sweethearts of Rhythm were unique for their time. They were not only an all-girl band, but they were international. Though mostly African-American, the other band members were Chinese, Mexican, Native American, Hawaiian, and white. The band played sold-out shows in such well-known venues as New York’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater, the Royal in Washington DC and the Regal in Chicago, and traveled to Europe to play for the troops at USOs in 1945. The band even played in the Jim Crow south, although, Nelson writes in her Author’s Note, since people of color were not allowed to play with white people, the white women would have to darken their skin to avoid arrest, and all the band members ate, slept and lived on their tour bus together to avoid other problems with the law.

This is an interesting 80 page picture book, meant for older kids about 9-12 years old. Because the poems are in the voice of the instruments, Pinkney has done a brilliant job of illustrating this book. He has used bold hot and cool colors to vividly convey the texture of the individual sound of each instrument in the illustrations of the players, the events of the war on the home front and the front lines. Yes, I really loved these illustrations and the Artist’s Note at the end of the book is well worth reading.

Marilyn Nelson includes a bibliography for further reading and/or research. What a great Social Studies project an interested student could do on this first-rate group of musicians. And I can honestly say they were first-rate because I have heard them.

Now, thanks to bobjazz11 on YouTube, you can hear them too:

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, but… it remains to be seen whether I really have talent.
5 April 1944 (pg 247)

Today is the last day of Banned Book Week and I thought I would take a look at the history of Anne Frank’s famous diary and how it made its way into the arena of controversial books.*  Anne received her diary for her 13th birthday and used it to record her intimate thoughts and feelings about growing up and about life in the annex where she was in hiding from the Nazis for two years with seven other people.  Since it was first published in 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl has turned out to be a real chart topper – it is among one of the best selling young adult books of all time and it tops the list of commonly banned children’s books in public schools nationwide.

Its post-war history began when Anne’s manuscript was given to Otto Frank, the only surviving occupant of the secret annex, by Miep Gies when he returned home in1945 after being liberated from Auschwitz. As it happened, Anne had written two versions of her diary while in hiding, designated now at Version A and B. Version A is the original version. Version B is a rewrite of Version A and was done by Anne in 1944. She was hoping to publish it after the war was over. Version C is the diary edited by Otto Frank, a pick and choose combination of Versions A and B, in which he wrote in an epilogue that few kids probably read (including myself): ‘Apart from very few passages, which are of little interest to the reader, the original text has been printed.’

Version C is the edition that I read. It was sitting on a shelf at home and, one day when I was 11, I picked it up and read it. At some point, later on, I remember finding out that the diary had been edited. My friends and I, in our youthful zeal for truth, were incensed to think that her father had censored his daughter’s work, which amounted to about 30 percent of the original diary, having to do mostly with sexual references and Anne’s criticism of the other occupants of the attic.

This editing also proved to be most unfortunate when David Irving, a Holocaust denier, made allegations that Otto Frank, recognizing its financial possibilities, had written parts of the diary himself, and so it could not be taken seriously since it was a forgery. Claiming that a young girl’s record of her life in hiding is a sham also constitutes some form of censorship. Although it doesn’t seek to stop one from reading it, it does call into question its reliability for some people and devalues what had been Anne’s experience.

But Anne’s father wasn’t the diary’s only censor. The original Dutch publisher wanted certain tasteless or unseemly passages eliminated, mostly having to do with her development and sexual curiosity. The German publisher censored their edition of the diary by removing anything that would be offensive to German readers. In the United States, in 1982, it was challenged in Wise County, Virginia due to protests of several parents who complained that the book contains sexually offensive passages and undermined adult authority when Anne criticizes her mother. According to Dawn Sova in her book Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, people have objected to the diary because Anne writes about the mistreatment of Jewish people. In 1983, four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the diary to be rejected because it is a “real downer.” In1998, it was removed for two months from the Baker Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas after two parents charged that the book was pornographic. The book was returned after students waged a letter-writing campaign to keep it, and the review committee recommended the book’s retention. In 2010, The Diary of a Young Girl: the Definitive Edition was challenged and removed from the shelves of all Culpepper County, Virginia public schools and replaced with the original edition edited by Otto Frank (Version C.) The reason for this was one parent’s concern over the sexual nature of the unedited Definitive Edition.

Anne’s diary is now almost as infamous as it is famous. Recently it was the subject of a work by Francine Prose called Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. In it, she looks at the diary not simply as the causal writing of a teenager but as a real work of art and Anne as a serious, prodigious writer. Anne has indeed achieved her goal of becoming a talented writer, and, through her writing, she has achieved her other goal of living on even after her death, but not without controversy and most unfortunately not the way that she had dreamed it would happened.

A page from Anne's diary

A more in depth look at the history of Anne’s diary can also be found at

This is an excellent site about Anne Frank and I would encourage everyone to explore it.

*I will look at the content of the diary in the near future.