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.

Piper [book review]

piper

Piper the dog runs away from a mean master and finds a loving mistress. A grim and disappointing offering from the author of the lighthearted “No More Kissing” and Blue Kangaroo books. Sad beginning, happy ending. Good word choice conveys tone: “fierce” and “grimly.” Dark illustrations (oil? not sure) do a skilled job of conveying the scenery of the text, especially the “lonely crooked house” with a gray sky background and the (from the dog’s point of view) intimidating cityscape painted (?) in browns and grays. I credit the author with expanding her repertoire and acknowledge that my expectations for a lighter book may have influenced my reading. Probably too dark to use in preschool story-time, but perhaps it might fit into a lower elementary unit on not-fitting-in, animal cruelty, or perseverance. The best part is when Piper “took care of” the rabbits by playing with them instead of hunting them because the master poorly explained the command. Then the rabbits brought him food. I would have liked to see more of the rabbits.

Chichester Clark, Emma. Piper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, 1995. Print.

Reviewed on GoodReads

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Children’s Books Set in New York City

            Although I grew up in Central New Jersey, a little over an hour from Manhattan, our family rarely went into New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty when I was young—so young that all I remember is climbing all those many stairs; afterwards, my parents stopped at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My father, sightseeing in a t-shirt that warm summer day, was turned away from dining because he wasn’t wearing a tie. It was the 1970’s. Today my memories of 9/11 and the architectural marvel of the Twin Towers are mixed with the shame I felt upon seeing my father denied admittance.

Apart from that one visit to the Statue of Liberty and a crazy spontaneous trip to Rockefeller Center one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school, we didn’t go into New York. Everything I knew about New York I learned from Children’s books. These are some of my favorites:

house east 88 lyle

          Bernard Waber’s splendid Lyle, Lyle Crocodile features a lovable (yes: Lovable Lyle is another title in the series) crocodile who is more roommate or house-guest than pet. Crocodile or not, he has real personality. The illustrations in The House on East 88th Street recreates New York’s Upper East Side with a verisimilitude I didn’t recognize until I became an adult. Everything I know about New York brownstones I learned from Lyle.

Magic in the Park

          Ruth Chew’s 1972 Magic in the Park taught me everything I needed to know about city parks. (It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Central Park as I’d long thought, but Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) The childhood parks of my suburban hometown lacked ravens, pigeons, lakes, and islands; a magical tree was no more fantastic that a park big enough to hold a lake!

elephi

          I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Jean Stafford’s 1968 Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ to re-read it and verify, so I can’t confirm if this is actually set in Manhattan or any quintessential city. Does it really matter? It feels like New York. One GoodReads reviewer confirms it is “full of 1960s NYC period details” while an Amazon reviewer claims “New Yorkers will love the book.” I absorbed its epic New York Cityness without even realizing it.  Today, as an adult, walking through my new hometown of Philadelphia, I’ll see cats surveying the world from curtained ledges above the street and think of Elephi. Regrettably, I assume this book is out of print since I’m having such difficulty finding it.

George Seldon’s classic 1960 The Cricket In Times Square? Meh. It was assigned reading in third or fourth grade.

            And trendy sophisticated Eloise (Kay Thompson, 1955) always seemed too entitled for my working-class tastes.

The Number One Best All-Time Children’s Book set in New York? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of course!

mixed up files

This 1967 E.L. Konigsburg book remains a classic. Its descriptions are so strong I still can see them 30 years later: the children pack clothes in the violin cases which act as their luggage when they run away from home. Every time I see a museum fountain with coins I want to wade in and gather up the money. And when I visit certain museums, I am still seized by the thought of crossing the red velvet rope to lie upon famous beds in bedroom exhibits.

All those authors brought New York to me.

secret life of pets

          A new story—a movie, a cartoon—recreates New York with the versimulitude of these books. The Secret Life of Pets is well plotted, entertaining, highly visual, even laugh-aloud funny for adults sans children. Best of all is the animated cityscape, beautiful, skillfully displayed. (I can’t comment on the sewers.) Someday a child-grown-up will recognize the Brooklyn Bridge and think “there’s that bridge from The Secret Life of Pets.” And that’s a good thing.

secret life pets bridge 2

          When you can’t get to New York, let New York come to you through books and film.

 

Cold Companions

Yep, our pipes froze. Interestingly enough: the hot water, not the cold. I guess flushing the toilet overnight was enough to keep the cold water flowing.

Mindful of my Russian friends celebrating Christmas today, I share this Russian folk tale about the cold:

Russian Churc.h Photo by A. Savin.

Abramtsevo museum-reserve in Moscow Oblast, Russia. Church of the Holy Mandilion. Jan. 2013. Photo by A. Savin via Creative Commons

A husband and newlywed wife are walking in the forest. He is hunting, and she is keeping  him company for part of the way. Suddenly, she starts crying. “Don’t cry, dear,” the peasant consoles. “I’ll be back soon.”

“That’s not why I’m crying,” the wife says. “I’m crying because my feet are cold.”

“It’ll be okay,” my fiancé told me about our pipes. One way or another, it will be. I’m still thankful for home and heat and a roof over my head. We joined a gym yesterday. At least we have a place to shower.

 

Paraphrased from Aleksandr Afanasev’s Russian Fairy Tales. NY: Pantheon, 1945, 1973, p. 282.

Happy Birthday, Eric Carle

In honor of renowned children’s book author-illustrator Eric Carle, born June 25, 1929, I offer my homage to his classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”:

The Very Busy Manager

There was once a very busy children’s librarian. She sang songs and performed fingerplays. She visited schools, told stories and promoted Summer Reading. She did the hoky-poky and turned herself around and, when the opportunity arose, she spread her fairy wings and became a manager.

On Monday, the toilet overflowed. She called Facilities and left work at 5:05 p.m.

On Tuesday, she held a staff meeting. She got in early at 7:30 a.m. to prepare.

On Wednesday, The Friends of the Library book sale ran until 6 p.m. and made $251.25.

On Thursday, she attended the Library Board Meeting. The Board debated polices until 9 p.m. before deferring the vote for one month.

On Friday, the Union filed a Grievance. She brought the contract and files home with her and read in bed until midnight.

On Saturday, she had one lost preschooler, two staff absences, three roof leaks in the 300’s, four incidents of vandalism or theft, five teenagers arguing until the police were called and six broken machines: a clock with a run-down battery; an overheated electric pencil sharpener; downed telephones; glitchy circulation scanners; a photocopier paper jam; disrupted internet; and a crashed server. That night she had a glass of wine and went to bed early.

On Sunday, the Library was closed. (It was Summer.)

On Monday, the sun shone brightly. The computers and plumbing worked; a Board member brought flowers; a patron wrote a thank you note; she amicably shook hands with the Union representative over coffee; and a college student came back to show his A+ paper.

She realized she wasn’t a very busy children’s librarian anymore. She was a very busy manager! But as she sipped her coffee and reread the thank you note, she remembered the student’s A+ paper. She was a very proud Librarian.

carle caterpillar

Links

Eric Carle biography.

The Official Eric Carle website with Very Hungry Caterpillar coloring page.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

A video interview with Eric Carle from Reading Rockets.

Too cute! The Very Hungry Caterpillar children’s birthday party planner from Pottery Barn Kids. Check out the lantern and recipes.

 

“The Very Busy Manager” was originally published in July 2010 in the Vol. 7, Number 7 issue of Library Worklife e-journal. Copyright by the author.

Image: Cover to Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Promotional usage constitutes Fair Use.