Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics by Kathryn J. Atwood

Today is the last day of Women's History Month for 2015 and because the theme this year is about Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, I thought who better to turn to for today's post than Kathryn Atwood.  A few year ago, Atwood wrote a fascinating book called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue.  Now she has followed it up with a book about women heroes in World War I and once again, their stories are as amazing as they are compelling.

In Women Heroes of World War I, Atwood introduces the reader to some of the women, a few still in their teens, who decided to serve their country, despite the real dangers that they were to face.  Some became nurses, caring for the wounded as close to the front lines as they could get.  Others joined the resistance or became spies, some became soldiers fighting side by side with men, and still others were journalists, reporting events from the heart of the conflict.

Some of the women are familiar, like British born Edith Cavell who found herself in Belgium when the war started, director of a school of nursing there.  After the Germans invaded Belgium, hospitals were forbidden to care for any Allied soldiers that might find their to one of them.  Edith, ignoring the Germans, cared for wounded Germans soldiers openly, and for wounded Allied soldiers secretly.  And when these were healthy enough, she made such they had safe passage out of Belgium to the Netherlands.  Edith and her network can be credited for heroically getting a lot of Allied soldiers to safety before the getting caught by the Germans.  Her capture and punishment, which caused an uproar around the world, subsequently changed the way Germany handled women POWs at the insistence of the Kaiser.

One of my favorite stories is Helena Gleichen and her friend Nina Hollings, two ambulance drivers in Italy who sometimes found themselves driving through intense shelling to get wounded men to hospital.  Later, after training in Paris to become radiographers, they could be found driving around the Italian front with a portable x-ray machine.  With their x-ray skill, Helena and Nina were able to help the wounded in some surprising ways, for example, locating shrapnel lodged in areas that wouldn't have been found otherwise and bringing relief to the wounded man.  For their heroic work, the women were awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (the OBE).

My personal favorite is the story of Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Yes, I do mean the mystery writer.  Mary was also a journalist who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and in 1915, she decided she wanted to go to Belgium.  After all, she had nursing experience and could report of the conditions of the hospitals there, but what she really wanted to do was experience the war as soldiers do.  Mary finally did get to see the front lines, including no man's land, and even managed to get an extensive interview with the King of Belgium.  Returning home she wrote her articles, but realized the war was going to last longer than anyone thought.

Women Heroes of World War I is a well-written, riveting book.  Atwood divides the women's experiences into four sections - Resisters and Spies, Medical Personnel, Soldiers, and Journalists.  The women profiled come from different countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Russia and each of their individual stories ends with a Learn More inset listing where to find more information them.  Atwood's extensive, intelligent research is evident in all the women's stories and she includes sidebars that give additional information about the women and the war.  Also included are an Introduction, an Epilogue and many, many photographs of war and the different women in it.  An extensive and useful Glossary and Bibliography, and well as a list of websites can also be found at the back of the book.

World War I was at first greeted with incredible enthusiasm, causing young men to unhesitatingly leave school, jobs, and families to join their countries armed services.  After all, no one thought it would last more than a few months.  Women were also eager to do their part and for some that meant being in the thick of the fighting, not working on the home front.  Women Heroes of World War I not only informs the reader about these now mostly forgotten women heroes, but pays homage to them and all the women who decided to do constructive for their warring countries.   

I can't recommend Women Heroes of World War I highly enough, and what a wonderful book with which to end this year's Women History Month.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

March is Women's History Month

This is book 3 of my 2015 Any War Reading Challenge hosted by War Through the Generations

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

John Green's Crash Course: World War II

You know John Green as the author of some pretty good YA books, like The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska which have been living on the NY Times YA Best Sellers list for more that 106 weeks.  Green has won a number of awards for his books, and in 2014, was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

In 2012, after receiving a grant from Google, Green and his brother Hank began a series of educational videos on YouTube called Crash Course.  Green gives crash courses on World History, American History and Literature, while Hank covers Biology, Chemistry, Ecology and Psychology.  

Here are the three Crash Courses that John Green did on WWII.  Each is approximately 13-15 minutes long.  They really just introduce you to the topic, so don't expect in-depth detail, but they are interesting and informative.  

If you liked these, you can see all of the Crash Course topics HERE 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & The Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto by Irène Cohen-Janca, art by Maurizio A.C. Quarello

Janusz Korczak was a well-known, well-respected children's pediatrician in Poland in the early part of the 1900s.  Among his many accomplishments, he had founded an orphanage to care for some of Warsaw's young Jewish orphans. He loved children and would often regale his charges with stories he made up, including the now classic tale of King Matt the First, as well as looking after their health and cheering them up with their needed it.  And the children loved him back, affectionately calling him Mister Doctor.

On November 29, 1940, all the orphans living in the big orphanage at 92 Krochmalha Street in Warsaw, Poland were ordered to leave by the Nazis.  Accompanied by Mister Doctor and his assistant Madam Stefa, all of the children walked to the ghetto that would be their new home for a while carrying their meager belongings, softly singing, and the flag of King Matt the First.

Their new home is small, located within a two block radius, surrounded by barbed wire and armed watchman, their living quarters are cramped and dirty.  When their wagon full of potatoes were confiscated by the Nazis, Mister Doctor put on his WWI uniform and went to Gestapo headquarters, where he was laughed at, ridiculed, beaten and temporarily arrested.

Life in the ghetto grew more and more crowded as more Jews were brought in, food became scarcer and scarcer, with men, women and children dying in the streets everyday from starvation and disease.  Finally, in August 1942, the children were ordered to the train station and from there to a concentration camp and death.  But Mister Doctor was offered his freedom, after all, he was a famous doctor.  Instead, he refused and choose to accompany his children on this final journey.

The story Mister Doctor is told by a young boy named Simon to a younger, newly arrived orphan named Mietek.  Simon describes in detail how the orphanage was run, how the children were educated and how Mister Doctor took such special care of all of them.  At the same time, Simon is talking about past, he also gives detailed information to the reader about what is going on in their present situation.  Cohen-Janca has really captured the sense of longing and nostalgia in Simon's voice when he talks about life in the orphanage before the Nazis invaded Poland, and the fear and apprehension he feels about what is to come.

The story told here is a fictional reimagining of what happened to Dr. Janusz Korczak and the children in his care, but based on the true story of what happened to them during the Holocaust.  Pay particular attention to the last three paragraphs of this book and ask yourself who wrote them and why?

Like Michael Morpurgo's Half A Man, this book also looks like a chapter book with only 68 pages a simple narrative style and many illustrations, but it is also deceptively complicated and really for a middle grade reader.

The realistic black and white illustrations set against a marbled peach background are a precise reflection of the words that Cohen-Janca has written, and give the reader a real-to-life sense of the children, the doctor and their lives from 1940 to 1942.  Little touches, like the figure of Puss in Boots leaping over the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto as Simon talks about how that cat and his courageous deeds always gave the orphans courage.  But there is a subtext that says the Nazis can take away housing, food, dignity, but not the stories that means so much and help the get kids through very difficult times.

This is a powerfully poignant story that shouldn't be missed.  Additionally, at the end of Mister Doctor is information about the real Janusz Korczak, whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit, followed by a briefbut useful list of Further Reading and Resources, Children's Books by Janusz Korczak, Resources for Parents and Teachers and Related Links.

Mister Doctor was translated by Paula Ayer

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Young Michael had been told by his mother over and over again not to stare at his grandfather whenever he visited his family in London.  But Michael couldn't help it, slyly looking at a grandfather he really doesn't know very well and wondering how his face had gotten so disfigured, how he had lost part of the fingers on one hand and all of them on the other.  His mother doesn't talk about it and his grandfather doesn't talk about much of anything, let alone what happened to him.

Michael's grandfather lives a relatively isolated life on one of the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast, making a living crabbing and lobstering.  When Michael is about 12, he is sent to spend the summer with his grandpa, helping with the fishing, reading, and living a quiet life side by side without electricity, using only a generator that was shut off at night.  But Michael liked it there, it was calming and comforting.

One day, while out in the fishing boat, grandpa suddenly told Michael that the thing he liked about him was that he wasn't afraid to look at his face.  Before long, grandpa is telling Michael about his life and how things came to be as they are.

After marrying his youthful sweetheart, Annie, war broke out and grandpa joined the merchant navy.  One day while crossing the Atlantic in a convoy, his ship was torpedoed several times.  With their ship on fire and sinking, grandpa's friend Jim managed to get both of them off it and into the burning water.  They swam to a lifeboat, and even though there was no room for either of them, grandpa was pulled into it, and Jim stayed in the water, hanging on for as long as he could.

Grandpa woke up in the hospital, with a long recovery ahead of him.  Annie came to visit but grandpa could tell things were different.  When he finally returned to Scilly, they did have a baby girl, but things didn't improve.  Grandpa started drinking, living with so much hate and anger because of the war.  Eventually, Annie left, taking their daughter and never speaking to him again.  Father and daughter were estranged until she was grown and sought him out.  Their relationship was tentative at best, in part because he had always felt like half a man because people only half looked at him, and his own daughter always avoided looking at him.  It was only Michael who wasn't afraid to see his grandpa for who he was, scars and all.

This short story is told in retrospect by a now grown-up Michael.  It feels almost like a chapter book, in part because it is only 64 pages, in part because there are so many illustrations, and in part because it is told so simply, but it is a deceptively complicated story and not for such young readers.  It is really more for middle grade readers.

The ink and screen print illustrations are done in a palette of grays, oranges, blues and yellows, and are as spare as the story is intense.  Most are done from a distance to the subject, and those that are close up show no distinct features.  And distance seems to be an underlying theme of the story.  The story is told from the distance of time, about people who are just so distant from each other emotionally and physically.

I know Michael Morpurgo is a master at telling sad stories, but I found this to be a sadder story than usual, even though the end does bring closure, at the request of Michael's grandpa, bringing together his mother and grandmother, who have been estranged for years.  It really makes you sit back and think.  There was so much sadness because of what the war did to Michael's grandpa and the repercussions that resulted leaving these relatives isolated, alienated, even angry with each other, when really it should have elicited kindness, compassion and love.

For that reason, this is a story that will also have resonance in today's world, where we see so many veteran's coming back from war injured, disfigured and with traumatic brain injury.  It begs the question: how will we treat these veterans, these men and women and their families.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac

When his grandchildren ask about the medal he has received, an elderly Navajo grandfather begins to tell them "…the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war." (pg 1)  He begins his story when, at age 6, he leaves the loving confines of his family's hogan on the Navajo Reservation to be educated in an Navajo mission boarding school, not knowing what to expect.

But it doesn't take long for him to find out.  Arriving at the school, he is immediately stripped of everything Navajo - his beautiful traditional long black hair is shaved off, his Navajo clothes replaced by a uniform, the family's turquoise and silver jewelry he wore is taken never to be seen again and  his Navajo name, Kii Yázhí, becomes the anglicized Ned Begay.  But the worst was being told he could never speak his beloved Navajo language again.  The punishments were harsh for anyone caught speaking Navajo, as Ned discovered one day after greeting one of the teachers in Navajo.  And just to make sure they understand things, the students are continuously reminded that all things Navajo are bad, and their language most of all.

But Ned adjusts to life in the mission school and does very well, eventually returning home and going to the Navajo high school.  It is his hope to become a teacher, one who respects all his Indian students.  But, when Ned is 16, the United States is attacked by the Japanese, and reports of what happened in Pearl Harbor prompt his to want to join the Marines.  But he must wait a year before his parents will give him permission.

When he finally does join the Marines, he finds himself part of a group of other Navajos   Ned finishes boot camp and to his surprise, he and the other Navajos are not given the usual furlough Marines are given afterwards.  Instead, they are taken to an isolated location and Ned fears it will be mission boarding school all over again.

It is school, but it is a far cry from mission school.  In mission school, Ned and the other students would have to secretly speak Navajo, but now, they were being asked to use their sacred language to help the United States win the war against Japan.  It is Ned's job and the job of all the Navajo Marines to turn their language into a secret code.  And they cannot tell a single solitary person about what they are doing.

Eventually, Ned ships out to the Pacific theater where he is a radio operator, trained to both give and receive messages using the code he helped develop.  Ned and the other Marines fight their way across the Pacific theater of Guadalcanal, Bourgainville, Guam Iwo Jima and Okinawa, in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  All the while, Ned feels pride and satisfaction knowing that his beloved language used as a Navajo code cannot be broken by the Japanese.  Ned serves in the Pacific until the end of the war, but the reader should keep in mind that in 1945, he was still just a teenage boy.

Code Talker is a realistic novel about the war and about the life of the Code Talkers.  Bruchac wrote it using a framing technique, so the young reader knows from the beginning that Ned survived the war.  As an elderly grandfather now, Ned tells his story fluidly and fluently.  Bruchac's plot is tight and straightforward, as is the language used.  Any reference to Navajo culture, custom, or way of life is respectfully explained within the story but without taking the reader away from the story.  For my part, however, I found the narrators voice is so intimate that after a while I begin to feel like I was sitting among his grandchildren listening to his story.  That, to me, is the sign of a really good book.

One important aspect that Bruchac includes is Ned's Navajo religion.  Ned often refers to the Holy People who watch over him and help him.  He also describes different ceremonies, like the protection ceremony called the Blessingway, done before Ned becomes a marine or the Enemyway ceremony, done when Ned returns home from war suffering what we would call PTSD nowadays, and done to put him back in balance with the world.  Each morning, Ned does his morning prayers, using the pollen  he is given in his Blessingway.

Although this is a book that is also about war, and covers some of the harshest, bloodiest fighting in circumstance that are difficult to imagine, it really has a very low key way of handling the combat sections.  They are more focused on Ned and the other marines than in anything else.  And the reader learns how men (and now women) survive in combat, from living in foxholes that had to dig themselves under enemy fire, to making soup in their helmets and constantly dealing with lice and rats

You might be interested in knowing that from the original 29 Code Talkers by the end of the war there were more than 400, including men from the Choctaw, Comanche, Navajo and Hopi tribes, all using their own tribal language.  The Code Talkers were not allowed to speak of their wartime accomplishment until 1969, when their work was declassified.  In 2000, President Clinton awarded the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal, and the other Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal (which is the medal that sparks Ned's story).  Sadly, in June 2014, the last living Code Talker, Chester Nez, passed away at age.

Do read Code Talker if you are interested in Native Americans, codes and/or WWII.  It may read a little slowly at times, but it is well worth it.  Bruchac includes an Author's Note at the back of the novel, as well as a Selected Bibliography that includes books about Navajos, books about the Code Talkers and books about WWII for anyone interested in more information.

A useful discussion guide for Code Talker is available from the publisher, Scholastic

This short piece will give you a sense of what Ned Begay experienced and his legacy

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, March 13, 2015

Remembering Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett 1947-2015
Back in 2010, when I decided to start this blog, I knew I was taking a big risk given the focus of it.  I decided I needed to start with the best,  so naturally, I turned to Terry Pratchett.  Like all his fans, I was already familiar with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, but of course and as wonderful as it is, it just didn't fit my focus.  I decided to begin my blog with a not very well known book called Johnny and the Bomb.

Written in the early 1990s, Johnny and the Bomb is the third novel in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy that includes Only You Can Save Mankind and Johnny and the Dead.  I liked Johnny and the Bomb so much, I reposted it in 2013, and in 2014, I listed it as one of my Top Ten books about friendship, writing "I loved the friendship between Johnny, Yo-less, Bigmac and Wobbler, three modern boys who time travel back to 1941 and the night of the Blackberry Blitz.  This is friendship as only Pratchett can write it - funny, serious, dangerous, slapstick.." and I might add, very tongue in cheek.  If you haven't read the Johnny Maxwell series, you might want to give them a try.

I already knew that Terry had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's and when Clarion Books published a volume of his early short stories, Dragons at the Crumbling Castle, and having some first hand experience with Alzheimer's, I also knew his writing days were over.  But I still wasn't prepared for yesterday's sad news the Terry had passed away.  Especially not so close to learning the sad news that Mal Peet, another favorite author, had passed away on March 2, 2015.  Both men were such brilliant creative writers, the world is now a sadder place without them.

There are any number of tributes online to Terry, but I think the one published by Neil Gaiman and Ursula le Guin published in The Guardian say it best.

It's hard to say good-bye to an author that I like so much and who has given me hours and hours of reading pleasure, so instead I will just say Thank You for sharing your wonderful, exciting imagination with the rest of the world and for starting me off on my personal blog adventure.

Thank You, Terry

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Women of Valor: Polish Resisters to the Third Reich by Joanne D. Gilbert

When we think of partisans and resisters to the Nazis, most of us don't usually think about women.  After all, it was a hard, dangerous business to fight such a cruel regime.  But, as we learned from Kathryn Atwood's informative book, Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue, many women were willing to risk everything, including their lives, to fight for what they believed to be right.

Now, Joanne D. Gilbert has written a book that tells us about even more brave women and since March is Women's History Month and this year's theme is Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, it seems a perfect time to showcase Women of Valor.

Between 2012 and 2014, Gilbert interviewed four women who had lived with their families in Poland, but who, through different circumstances, had found their way in the surrounding forests and either joined partisan groups or found other ways of resistance when the Nazis occupied their country.

Manya Barman Auster Feldman had lived a religious, comfortable life with her parents, 3 sisters and 2 brothers in Dombrovitsa in eastern Poland until Hitler invaded it in 1939.  Suddenly, life became harder and harder and eventually all of Dombrovitsa's Jewish families were crowded into a two block ghetto.  When it appeared likely that the ghetto was going to be liquidated, Manya's father decided her, Manya, her older sister and two brothers would try to escape into the forest, leaving behind her mother and two little sisters.  Walking all night, they found the Kovpak partisan headquarters, where they were sent to different battalions.  Manya, still just a teenager, soon learned how to fight, steal, sabotage the Germans efforts, and nurse the sick and wounded.  Her story, as are all the stories included in Woman of Valor, is harrowing and amazing at the same time, and Manya herself credits luck for her many narrow escapes from death while she fought with the partisans.

Faye Brysk Schulman was also living a comfortable, religious life with her family in Lenin, Poland.  Her  older brother had learned photography and had enlisted Faye to help him.  It was her knowledge of photography that saved Faye's life when the ghetto they had been forced to live in was about to be liquidated, it was her job to take the photos that the Nazis demanded she take.  In September 1942, Soviet partisans stormed through Lenin, and warmed the remaining Jews to run.  Faye, still a teenager,  found the partisans, joined the Molotavia Brigade, where she spent the war years fighting, nursing and photographing events whenever she could steal, make or find what she needed.

Even though the rest of her family was Polish,  Lola Leser Lieber Schar Schwartz was born in Hungary/Czechoslovakia.  In 1938, when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, the Polish passports of her immediate family were no longer acceptable there.  The Lesers, including Lola, quickly fled to Poland and their extended family.  Little did Lola dream that after being continuously on the run from the Germans, hiding in all kinds of weather and places, including under a tree in the forest, it would be her Hungarian/Czechoslovakian birth that would save not just her life, but many others when she received official documents exempting her from the same treatment as the Polish Jews.  Needless to say, these documents sparked a flurry of forging more "official" documents for other Jews in peril.  Later, when her husband Mechel Lieber was arrested, Lola was even brave enough to go the Adolf Eichmann's office to try to convince him that it was a mistake.  Lola was indeed a woman of great courage.

Miriam Miasnik Brysk is the youngest of the women interviewed.  Only 4 years old when the war started, Miriam's family left Warsaw, Poland for Lida, her father's home then under Russian rule.  But when the Germans arrived in Lida in 1941, it didn't take long for persecutions to begin.  The Miasniks were fortunate because Miriam's father was a surgeon and the Nazis needed him.  In 1942, Miriam and her parents escaped the Lida ghetto with the help of a partisan group that decided they needed a doctor more than the Nazis did.  Miriam spent the rest of the war going from place to place with the partisans.  Her hair was cut off and she was dressed like a boy, had not formal education until after the war, but did possess her own gun for a while.  And she helped out wherever she could, even taking apart machine guns, cleaning them and putting them back together.

As each woman tells her story, it feels as though she is speaking to you personally, making this a very readable book and I highly recommend it.  As they wove their stories, each remembered in great detail what their lives were like before and under the Nazi reign of terror and each acted with remarkable courage.  Sadly, they all lost almost all the members of their families, often witnessing their murders.  Glibert doesn't let them stop at the end of the war, but we also learn about their lives after and up to the present.  Interestingly, they all found ways to express their Holocaust experiences though art later in life.

These are only four stories about acts of resistance, however, and, as Gilbert reminds us in Epilogue, most of the women who chose to resist the Nazis perished, taking the details of their courageous deeds with them, reminding us that what we do know about women resisters is really just the tip of the iceberg.  But let all these brave women, known and unknown, be an inspiration to us all in the face of oppression.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Gihon River Press

This is book 2 of my 2015 Any War Reading Challenge hosted by War Through the Generations

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army by Georg Rauch, translated by Phyllis Rauch

There aren't many first hand accounts of men who fought as soldiers in the German army during World War II, particularly not for young adult readers, which makes Unlikely Warrior so much more compelling and interesting to read.  Georg Rauch really takes the reader inside this relatively unknown world and give us an opportunity to see what life was like on German side of things.  Georg divides his story into three distinct parts.

The first part deals with Rauch's training for the army and his family history.  In February 1943, 18 years old Vienna-born Georg doesn't really want to be a soldier in Hitler's army , but when his draft notice arrives, he has no choice.  Reporting for training, his radio building and Morse Code hobby skills means he can train as a radio operator and telegraphist.

Now, for most Germans being in the army wasn't anything special - every able bodied male was conscripted, especially after the heavy losses they suffered on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad - expect for one thing: in Hitler's German Reich, Georg Rauch was consider to be Jewish in Hitler's Reich: Georg's maternal grandmother was Jewish, which meant his mother was Jewish, and so was he.

Sent to train in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the now Funker (radio operator) Rauch is chosen along with a few other men to be promoted to officer status.  But because he is a Mischling (a person of mixed blood), Georg believes he will not be able to serve in officer capacity and reports this to this superior officer.

Not long after, Georg finds himself at the dreaded Eastern front as a radio and telegraph operator.  Ironically, Hitler's Jewish soldier is awarded the Iron Cross in August 1944.

The second part of Rauch's story covers the time he spent in Russian labor camps as a POW and this is the most difficult  section to read.  Shortly after receiving his medal,  Rauch is captured by the Russians and spends the rest of the war as a POW.  The details of being a prisoner of war are harrowing, but despite many close calls, starvation, illness and injury, Rauch manages to survive the war and the Russian POW camps, unlike many of his fellow soldiers.

Part Three covers the end of the war and Rauch's long trek home to find his hopefully still living family.  Each part of Rauch's wartime journey is an intriguing window into the life of a German soldier.  Being 1/4 Jewish doesn't really seem to impact his time at the front or as a POW, as much as his refusal to serve as an officer does.  On the other hand, it doesn't make Rauch feel like an enemy, and one certainly would not think of him as a Nazi, not if he is 1/4 Jewish, nor does he (or any of the German soldiers he writes about) ever behave with the kind of cruelty we associate with Hitler's soldiers and so it becomes easy to read his story and emphasize with it.

Georg Rauch's easy writing style pulls the readers right into his life and his open honesty about his himself and how he feels about everything is refreshing.  He has penned a fascinating memoir is based in part on his own recollections and in part on letters he had written to his mother while in the army, letters she carefully numbered and tucked away.  Because the letters were written in situ, they make Rauch's experiences sound much more immediate and realistic than had he written his story complete from memory.  To add to the authenticity of his story, photographs of Rauch and his family are included.  Rauch's wife Phyllis has done an excellent readable translation of Unlikely Warrior from the German, perhaps so well done because it was a labor of love.

After the war, Rauch went on to fulfill his dream of being an artist, living in Mexico with his wife, who translated his memoir.  Sadly, Georg Rauch passed away in 2006 and never saw this wonderful Young Adult version of his story in print.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Remembering Mal Peet

Mal Peet 1947-2015
Today, the sad news came over the Internet that Mal Peet has passed away.  Award winning Mal Peet has been a favorite children's and YA writer of mine for a long long time and I always looked forward to his informative reviews and interviews in the Children's Book section of The Guardian.

Mal Peet's WWII novel Tamar: a Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal was one of the most intelligent YA books I have reviewed here at The Children's War and I am reposting it today in remembrance of him and in the hope that it will entice readers who aren't familiar with this wonderful writer to read his books or if you are familiar with him, you will take a moment to remember him.

You can also read his many articles, reviews and interviews at The Guardian HERE

Tamar is one of those stories that is difficult to talk about without giving too much away and spoiling the twist that comes at the end of the novel.  And Tamaris well worth the read just to get to that.  It begins in 1979, when William Hyde asks his son Jan if he and his wife would consider using the name Tamar for their expected baby, to which they happily respond in the affirmative.  It is this daughter, Tamar, who narratives the story that follows.

The story then switches to 1945, introducing Dart and Tamar, undercover names (based on English rivers) for two Dutch born, British trained agents for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) just as they are about to parachute into the Nazi-occupied  Netherlands to work with the Dutch Resistance in an attempt to reorganize it during that terrible Hunger Winter when so many people died of starvation.  Once inside Holland, Dart, who is the team's radio operator, operates under the name Dr. Ernest Lubbers, living and setting up his radio at the local mental asylum.  Tamar, under the name of Christiaan Boogart, is fortunate enough to be placed in the home of Marijke Maatens.  Tamar/Christiaan and Marijke have been lovers for a while, but when Dart/Lubbers realizes what is going on between them, he becomes very angry and jealous.  He has also fallen in love with Marjike.

The narrative moves to the spring of 1995.  Jan Hyde's daughter Tamar Hyde is now 15.  Her father has be missing for a few years and her beloved grandmother, Marijke, has recently passed away, after being placed in a nursing home because she was seemingly suffering from dementia.  Now, her grandfather has just committed suicide.  As a result of that, Tamar finds herself in possession of a box full of his World War II memorabilia.  Tamar knew that her Grandad "was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums of labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes...by anything that might mean something else.  He lived in a world that was slippery, changeable, fluid." (pg 111)  And so Tamar begins a journey to figure out that codes messages her Grandad has left regarding his life and suicide.

From here on the story alternates between 1945 and 1995 as events unfold and characters are explained.  I don't want to say too much more at this point and risk an unintended spoiler, which can so easily happen with suspense novels you feel enthusiastic about. 

Tamar is an exciting, suspenseful, very sophisticated and often gritty YA novel, but it is definitely not going to be everyones cup of tea.  A lot of readers said they had a hard time getting into the story, while others complained that it was big (379 pages)  and too slow moving, while other readers thought it was a 5 star story.  I tend to be on the side of the 5 star folks.   

Peet's teenage narrator proves to be quite formidable.  One would almost think beyond her 15 years, but given Tamar's life experiences so far, maybe her formidability is completely understandable.  Through her voice, Peet details her discoveries in a very straightforward style, clean and clear, yet it is all done in such lyrical prose that sometimes it often made me almost forget the subtext of the title.  Without my realizing that he had done it, Peet has taken that subtext espionage, passion and betrayal, wound and woven them together in a story that left me unsuspecting until the very end and then totally surprised.  In fact, after I finished it, I thought the whole novel is really a reflection of of William Hyde's love of all things enigma and that, I think, that is what makes Tamar such an unusual story.  And yet, all along the way, Tamar gives us innocent (?) hints about where things are going. 

The book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was bought for my personal library

Walker Books Australia has a very nice teacher's guide here.

This book was awarded the following well-deserved honors:

2005 Carnegie Medal
206 Wirral Paper Back of the Year
2008 ALA's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
2011 De Gouden Lijst

Thank You, Mal

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm by Karen Deans, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

It's Women's History Month and this year's theme is Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, so I thought I would begin the month with a new picture book for older readers that introduces them to the remarkable International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Shortly after I began this blog, I reviewed a wonderful middle grade book by Marilyn Nelson called  Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World.   But where Nelson's book covers the kind of music and the places where the Sweethearts played, Swing Sisters begins at the beginning.

In 1909, near Jackson, Mississippi a school/orphanage called Piney Woods Country Life School was started by Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones for African American girls.

The girls were educated, housed, clothed and fed and in return they all did chores to help keep things running smoothly and well.  In 1939, Dr. Jones started a band that he called the Sweethearts with some musically talented girls to help raise money for the school.  The music they played was called swing or big band music, by either name it was Jazz and people couldn't get enough of it.

Dean describes how the girls stayed together after leaving Piney Woods, hoping to make a living as musicians.  They would live, sleep, eat and play music, traveling around from gig to gig in a bus they called Big Bertha.  Band members came and went, and before long the band was no longer made up of only African American women, but included many races and nationalities.  As a result, they decided to call themselves the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

But while the band hit the big time, they still didn't get paid as much as their male counterparts nor were they taken as seriously, no matter how good they were.  Not only that, Dean points out, but in the Jim Crow south, because they were interracial now, traveling and performing became risky and she includes some of those scary, dangerous incidents they faced.

In 1945, as World War II was winding down, the Sweethearts found themselves on a USO tour thanks to a letter writing campaign by African American soldiers.  But sadly, the Sweethearts disbanded after the war and the members went their separate ways.

Dean does an excellent job of introducing the Sweethearts to her young readers and the difficulties an all-women's interracial band faced back in the 1940s balancing it with positive events and the strong bonds of friendship among all the members.

Cepeda's colorful acrylic and oil painted illustrations match the energy of the music the Sweethearts played with a bright rainbow palette of greens, pinks, purples, yellows, blues and orange.

So many wonderful books are coming out now introducing young readers to some of the greatest artists and musicians of the 20th century and this book is such a welcome addition.

A helpful Educatior's Guide with Common Core State Standards can be found HERE

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

You can see for yourself just how good the Sweethearts were in their heyday: