Halloween or Year-Round Monster Trucks [Book Review]

Brilliant concept! (Why didn’t I think of this?) After Halloween, for the rest of the year, monsters drive trucks and utility vehicles. The werewolf drives a back hoe to dig deep holes for bones and squeaky toys; the yeti drives a snow plow; the minotaur cleverly drives a BULL-dozer. The witch appropriately trades her broom in for a street-sweeper. And the mummy drives (can you guess?) the ambulance, of course! Kudos for including an ogre, yeti, and minotaur among the diverse monsters. Humorous illustrations by Misa Saburi. This is a gem of a book. I only wish there had been some literal oversized big-wheel monster trucks. A year-round book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary; not only for October.

Keller, Joy and Misa Saburi (illus).  Monster Trucks. New York, NY : Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

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A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies

Mimi the Librarian’s Recommended Reading List

In Georgia Briggs’ book Icon, twelve-year old Euphrosyne has been renamed Hillary by the anti-religious government in the new “Era of Tolerance.” Her family has been killed, on Pascha (Easter) night, and she goes to live with her grandparents. Her teachers, psychologist, and even her grandfather want her to forget her past life and embrace the new secular tolerance. Euphrosyne struggles to hold onto her faith and identity in a new America hostile to religion. The one bright spot in her life is Mimi the Public Librarian, who provides thoughtful books which encourage Euphrosyne.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time before these books are censored by the new government . . .

Mimi doesn’t work at the Library anymore, but I offer you her Booklist, supplemented by a few titles of my own:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies (and surviving our own, too)

Mimi’s picks:

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak.     High school is hard enough without being outcast, too. Freshman Melinda Sordino carries a dark secret. It is only when she learns to speak her truth that she can find true healing.

 

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time.   Meg Murray’s father has gone missing, and she and her brother Charles Wallace travel across space and time to find him. She battles the monstrous IT and saves her brother and father through the power of love. Chapters 9 and 12 are some of my favorite pages in all of literature.  (I sometimes use Meg’s technique from Chapter 9 to ward off intrusive thoughts.)

 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia.       This beloved fantasy series is enjoyable on its own merits and is also well known for its Christian allegories. In Euphrosyne and Mimi’s world, it is outlawed. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” C. S. Lewis wrote: “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” He provides these brave child-heroes and child-heroines in his classic Narnia tales.

 

Lowry, Lois. The Giver.      In this society,  sameness is celebrated while pain and emotions are regulated out of existence.  Will Jonas be strong and brave enough to change things?

 

 

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars.     In Nazi-occupied Denmark, 10 year-old Annemarie helps hide her Jewish friend Ellen and learns about the courage required to resist evil.

 

 

Cynthia’s picks:

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints 4 Volumes; arranged chronologically by saints’ days.    The classic reference book on Eastern and Western pre- and post-schism saints. Offers a saint (often more than one) for every day of the year. I wish Mimi had shown Euphrosyne this book. The life of St. Hilary of Poitier, although not Euphrosyne’s patron or true namesake, might still have encouraged her.  St. Hilary is best known for fighting heresy and enduring exile for the Christian faith. Available in many medium-to-large public libraries.  A close second is the Catholic Encyclopedia, originally available in print, but now available online at http://newadvent.org/cathen/

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales.          I especially want to get my hands on The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm : the Complete First Edition translated & edited by Jack Zipes (2014) but really any edition will do. Stay away from sanitized, Disneyified versions.  C.S. Lewis wrote about the importance of fairy tales in order to teach children hope and justice: “let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.    In this dystopian future, a character commonly known as “the Savage” argues that beauty, poetry, and belief in God trump safety and mandated happiness.

 

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.              Now available online at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/  All the Savage from Brave New World had to read on his reservation was William Shakespeare, and that’s good enough for me. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotations is from the play The Winter’s Tale: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t”

 

 

Go forth and read. Books, like Georgia Briggs’ Icon, have the power to inspire and transform. And give us courage to face our post-modern, dystopian lives.

Righteous Among the Nations: The Muslims of Paris

grand mosque paris

Over sixty years later, there is so little documentation. This important story needs to be told, especially in these days of European terrorism, Islamofascism, and Islamophobia.

“Jewish or Muslim,”–and so I’ve been told, also Christian–“the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures. Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.”

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During The Holocaust relates the little-known and barely-documented story of how Alegerian diplomat Si Kaddour Benghabrit and his Muslim colleagues sheltered numerous Jews from the Nazis in Vichy Paris. Authors Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix draw heavily on the work of Derri Berkani, an Algerian-French filmmaker whose parents participated in the Kabyle Berber Resistance in France. His film “Une Resistance Oubliee: La  Mosquee” and other articles contribute to this important piece of lost history.

“Once warned, the people in hiding rushed into the secluded women’s section of the prayer room, where even Nazis and Vichy police dared not enter. [Si Benghabrit] delayed the search by demanding that the soldiers and police remove their boots. . . Taking off heavy military boots took time, giving everyone the opportunity to get out of sight.”

This book is beautifully illustrated, but do not be deceived: it is no true picture book. The long blocks of text are too complex both in terms of reading level and subject matter for an elementary-school reader.  Even I, who should know better! was at a lost where to place it until I remembered and chided myself for initially thinking that illustrated books are [only] for young children. This would work best in a multi-disciplinary lesson plan, perhaps for middle school, or for home-schoolers; for a venue with a knowledgeable, compassionate adult close at hand.

Details and statistics of how many rescued are scarce. In one registry from the Grand Mosque, over 400 unexpected children are listed, presumably Jews given a Muslim identity.  Over 1700 extra ration stubs were identified, another indicator of the number of people sheltered.

Glossary and extensive Bibliography.

A book everyone should read in these scary, troubling times of unrest.

Ruelle, Karen Gray and Deborah Durland DeSaix. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust. N.Y.: Holiday House, 2009.

ruelle girl

Additional Resources:

Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands. [book & DVD] from pbs.org

Among the Righteous on YouTube

The Righteous Among The Nations  — Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Educators’ Guide from the Publisher

 

Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.

Band of Bear Brothers [Book Review]

            soldier-bear

             Soldier Bear is the story of the bear Voytek who became both mascot and comrade-in-arms to the men of the Second Polish Corps during World War II. Caught outside their homeland due to the war, 120 Poles joined up with the British and became part of the Allied invasion of Italy and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. “Private” Voytek became a valued member of their company: in addition to improving morale, he once caught a spy in their camp and even helped carry artillery shells. For this latter action, he was immortalized forever as the emblem of the 2nd Polish Corps.

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps from Wikimedia Commons

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps; from Wikimedia Commons

The book begins strongly with an amusing anecdote, told from the bear’s point-of-view, about Voytek wandering into the women’s camp, terrifying the women and upsetting their laundry; then the narrative voice asserts itself: “The bear had at least ten pairs of undies on top of his head. One pair was hanging from his snout and he had a bra around his neck . . .” (9). Middle-Elementary readers will howl with laughter and be instantly hooked.

The company came to adopt a menagerie of animal companions including Dottie the dalmation and a mischievous monkey named Kaska who liked to ride on the back of another dog named Stalin. But Voytek’s adventures are the most interesting, and the other animals are minor characters who sometimes take up too much of the narrative—although juvenile readers, the intended audience, would likely enjoy it.

By Unknown - Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

Voytek meets a dog as a Polish soldier watches.       Photograph: By Unknown – Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

 

            Author Bibi Dumon Tak describes her writing style as “blend[ing] literary technique with fact to produce stories that are both compelling and accurate” — in other words, creative nonfiction. Then in the next sentence, she indicates that Soldier Bear is a novel. Cataloging-in-Publication calls it fiction, and juvenile fiction is where my local library has shelved it. We all would have done better to call it creative nonfiction, slap a nonfiction call number on it [940; World War, 1939-1945] and leave it there.

In structure, the book reads like a traditional biography—bearography—birth, or early life and adoption by the Polish Company; life, including the anecdotes mentioned above and others; and death, or at least farewell, as he goes on to live his post-war life in the Edinburgh Zoo. As fiction, quite frankly, it lacks dramatic tension and a strong plot arc. Its scenes are chronological; there is no big climax; and the post-war denouncement is elongated. Despite its title, this book perhaps works better as a war chronicle of the men in the Second Polish Corps.

One strength is the skill with which the author explained the war to children:

            ‘World War II started when the Germans and the Russians went into Poland, the Germans from the left and the Russians from the right. They stopped exactly in the middle, where they drew a line.

“This half is ours now,” the Germans said.

“And we’ll take the other half,” the Russians said.

Poor Poland! From that day on, the country as everyone knew it no longer existed…’

The author continues

             ‘…Then something unbelievable happened: an entire army of Germans invaded Russia.

“We thought you were our friends!” the Russians shouted at the Germans.

“Ha!” the Germans shouted back, “We’re only friends with ourselves!”…’

Similarly, grisly war details are handled with tact. The war violence gets no more explicit than one soldier reflecting how he almost got blown up, but was instead witness to a death. Spoiler alert: the death of the monkey Kaska and her baby monkey is a stand-in for the emotional toll of war. In all, the author handled the difficult aspects of war with skill and age-appropriateness.

However, American readers are likely to be taken aback by a few additional details in this telling. Note that it was originally published in the Netherlands (2008) where some of the questionable elements may be more acceptable. What is an American reader to make of a bear who prefers beer and cigarettes to honey? Fact is fact, but I expect that some parents might be uncomfortable, especially given its middle-elementary target audience. Then we have a few of the author’s descriptions sometimes veering into what we would call politically incorrect.  One of the characters disdains goodbyes filled with “sobbing away like a bunch of girls” (134) while another greets the death of Hitler with the religious expletive “Holy Mary, Mother of God” (130). To further problematize the text, I suspect this is the creative part of creative nonfiction, or invented dialogue.

I commend the publisher Eerdmans for taking on such a risky book. (In library school, we learned about an illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood that had been challenged or banned because Red was bringing wine in her basket to Grandma.) Certainly the true story of the war bear Voytek deserves to be told. Reservations aside, this book could fit into an interdisciplinary unit on war or W.W.II . or as the perfect book for the budding history buff. As Americans, we so often view the War through an American or British lens. Soldier Bear is noteworthy because it is one of the few books about the war from the Polish Army’s perspective. In sum, it is an important book.

Middle Elementary/Grade 3 and up; 145 pages with illustrations and photos. Recommended with reservations for larger libraries or specialized readers, parents, and teachers.

Tak, Bibi Dumon, author, and Philip Hopman, illustrator. Soldier Bear. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, 2011. Print.

By Pernambuko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

By Pernambuko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

Bonus Material

Actual video footage of Voytek (Wojtek) produced by British website The War Years.

2011 Documentary Film: Wojtek – The Bear That Went To War.

Article with Photos from Business Insider.

Another article from the BBC.

Daily Mail article.

Reading/Study Guide by the Publisher.

 

Follow these Breadcrumbs to a Magical Fairy-tale Novel [Book Review]

breadcrumbs-cover

Sometimes people change. Friends change. Marriages end. People move. Sometimes loved ones with problems, or friends in trouble, don’t want to be saved. These are the heartbreaking truths of adulthood that Anne Ursu beautifully and brilliantly explores in her mid-grade novel Breadcrumbs.

It’s hard for boys and girls to stay best friends as they grow older. Jack is the only person Hazel knows who has a real imagination. Once they played tea parties in the Arctic or Wonderland or outer space and invented superhero baseball (because superheroes need organized sports too), but lately Jack’s started playing capture the flag and football with the boys at fifth grade recess.

“Sometimes your friends change,” Hazel’s mother tries explaining. “Sometimes when you get older you grow apart” (86). The astute reader knows that the mother could as easily be speaking of her own divorce.  As a divorced woman myself, this double theme of loss struck me deeply; I identified with both Hazel and her mother. (I cried.)

Because of the divorce, the change in family finances lands Hazel in public school for the first time. Public school, unlike her previous school, stresses rules over creativity; she has trouble adjusting. She learns that “school [is] very easy … if you just disconnected your heart.” (117).  At the same time, Jack’s mother’s chronic depression turns his heart cold, and in true fairy-tale fashion he goes off with the white witch into an enchanted frozen woods, “and by the time [he] came to her palace, he felt nothing at all” (112). Hazel knows she is the only one who can save him.

erin-mcguire-breadcrumbs-art

Drawing by Erin McGuire

By fairy-tale, I don’t mean sanitized and happily-ever-after. Ursu’s book is breathtakingly beautiful, a moving retelling of “The Snow Queen” and a superb homage to her forbearers with her delightful allusions to “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Swan Maiden” and of course “Hansel and Gretel” and others.

Every quest is a journey into self-knowledge, and Hazel comes to realize that just “because someone needed saving” it doesn’t mean that “they were savable” (247). The term codependence never appears in the text: Hazel is a strong heroine, a “brave knight” and not a victim — Jack must and does participate in his own saving. I still applaud Ursu for introducing to readers the truth that I hope every young woman learns before adulthood: one cannot save another.

The themes of friendship and belonging are seamlessly intermingled with questions of identity, adoption, skin color, and parental problems (depression; grief) in a rich, multilayered and fully realized whole.  Brava. Stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.

An exquisite gem. Recommended for all fairy tale girls and women.

 

Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins. 2011. Print.

A Discussion Guide is available on the author’s website.

You Can Do It, Sam [Book Review]

you-can-do-it-sam-1

Sam bear helps Mrs. Bear make and deliver small cakes as gifts to the neighbors. A delightful bedtime or anytime picture book. The illustrations by Anita Jeram really make this a winner. From the bear-shaped snowman on its title page to the bear-shaped hood ornament on the pick-up truck, this is a warm book to snuggle with on a cold winter’s evening. The design on the tw0-page spread of Sam tramping through the snow with his bootprints embedded in the snow, curving from lower left beneath the text to mid-right on the facing page is near-perfect.

you-can-do-it-sam-2

The nose-to-nose affirmation of Sam’s success is equally as charming and well-done.

you-can-do-it-sam-3

Of special note to Children’s Librarians: this is a good choice for a holiday story-time in a diverse community because it doesn’t explicitly mention Christmas; the reader is free to draw his/her own conclusions about why the Bear family is delivering cake gifts. Very well done.

Hest, Amy, author and Anita Jeram, illustrator. You Can Do It, Sam. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2003.

Initially reviewed on GoodReads.