Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Review: Hero on a Bicycle, by Shirley Hughes (Candlewick, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Beloved British author Shirley Hughes is best known for her delightful picture books about preschooler Alfie and his toddler sister Annie Rose.  In 2012, at the ripe age of 84, she published in Great Britain her first children's novel, Hero on a Bicycle, which was published in 2013 by Candlewick here in the U.S.

Set in Florence in 1944, this novel centers around thirteen-year old Paolo.  He hates the Nazis but feels powerless--he's stuck between being a child and being old enough to be useful.  Paolo lives with his mother, Rosemary, an English woman who married an Italian, and his teenaged sister Constanza, a pretty girl who catches the attention of the Nazi officers stationed in town. Seeking a few thrills, Paolo rides his bicycle around town in the dark--past curfew.  But when he runs into a group of partisans--Italian resistance fighters--he becomes their messenger.  Soon his family is intimately involved, taking in downed Allied pilots, whom the resistance is trying to get to safety at the Allied lines.  Soon Paolo and his family are literally on the front lines of the conflict, and Paolo will get his chance to play the hero--sooner than he may have expected.

This is a slim novel (at 213 pages) that is a good choice for younger readers who are interested in World War II.  While providing plenty of suspense and a sense of danger, Hughes does not include any graphic violence in the novel that would be unsuitable for younger middle-grade readers.  Most of the novels for young people about World War II seem to involve the Holocaust or Jewish issues in some way; this novel provides a different perspective, as it focuses on the partisans and the Allied soldiers to fought to free Italy from the Nazi occupiers.

 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Odette's Secrets, by Maryann Macdonald (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

Please note:  The Fourth Musketeer will feature an interview with Odette's Secrets author Maryann Macdonald on April 25.  


World War II seems to supply authors, whether those for children or adults, with an inexhaustible supply of true stories for inspiration.  Author Maryann Macdonald turns to historical fiction in her new novel, Odette's Secrets, about a young Jewish girl in Paris during the Nazi Occupation.  Odette's story is told in spare free verse; we meet her Polish-Jewish parents who have immigrated to Paris with their only daughter Odette.  Odette is beloved by her gentile godmother, the concierge at her building, and has a comfortable existence until her father joins the French military, is taken prisoner by the Germans, and conditions began to worsen considerably for the Jewish population of Paris.  Soon the round-ups of foreign-born Jews begin, destined to be shipped off to the East.  Odette's mother, realizing the danger, makes a plan for her daughter and the daughters of other friends to go stay with family friends in the Vendee, outside of Nazi-occupied France, where she will be in safely in the countryside with plenty to eat.

There's one wrinkle--Odette must forget that she's a Jew.  She must blend in perfectly with the village children, learn how to cross herself, say Catholic prayers, attend mass, eat pork, in other words, do nothing that could distinguish her from other children in the village.  She becomes very good at keeping secrets--even from her closest friends.  But when her mother flees Paris to join her, suspicion follows them just the same.  Can they stay safe?  And what will happen after the war ends?  Will her father and other relatives find them back in Paris?

This is a moving, small novel that can be read quickly but delves into real issues of prejudice, bravery, and how ordinary children can survive in dangerous and extraordinary times  This novel is inspired by the life of the real Odette Myers, a story the author discovered while doing research in a Paris library; she was helped in this project by Odette's son, Daniel, who shared family photos and experiences.  Highly recommended.  


Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick, 2014)


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Recommended for ages 9-12.
Release date:  March 25, 2014
Award-winning Australian author Sonya Hartnett returns to World War II in her latest historical novel for middle grade readers.  The Children of the King blends a paranormal ghost story with historical fiction;  it takes place in England at the beginning of the Second World War, and the novel begins with the young and somewhat spoiled Cecily and her older brother Jemmy moving from their comfortable upper-class existence in London to the equally comfortable country home of their uncle, to be safe from bombs that are expected to soon begin falling on London. Their father, who appears to be someone important to the war effort, is left behind in London.  Unlike other child evacuees, they are fortunate to be with their mother while other evacuees are taken in by total strangers. Cecily begs her mother for them to take in an evacuee too, and she chooses a young girl close to her own age named May.  Cecily expects the younger May to be her little pet, obeying her in everything.  
May, however, has a mind of her own, and soon is off exploring the countryside, where she discovers the ruins of an old castle. The castle is inhabited by two young brothers, dressed in fancy, old-fashioned clothes--are they evacuees who have run away from their new home? Or could they be something more amazing--and be somehow connected with the story that Uncle Peregrine tells them (and the reader) in bits and pieces?  This story is the history of Richard III and the nephews he imprisoned in the Tower of London.  The young princes' story is interwoven with that of the three modern children, all of whom are coping with the war in their own way.  Hartnett does not spare the reader from some very vivid descriptions of the London bombings, which are contrasted with the peaceful existence in the countryside.  
This is a beautiful and touching war story, with a ghost story woven in for good measure.  As you might expect, the two stories intersect in a magical way toward the end of the novel (no spoilers). An afterword with some more information about the young princes in the tower and the London Blitz might have been a good addition, to provide some historical facts and context to go with the uncle's tales.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Women's History Month Book Review: Clara and Davie: the True Story of Young Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, by Patricia Polacco (Scholastic, 2014)

Recommended for ages 6-12.

Patricia Polacco is one of our great contemporary picture book authors, and specializes in picture books with serious content such as racism, disabilities, and even cancer, making them appropriate for older elementary school readers.  In her newest book, which fits in perfectly for Women's History Month, she explores the girlhood of one of the most famous female figures of the 19th century, Clara Barton.

Clara was the fifth child to be born into the Barton family in Massachusetts, and with her mother in ill health, she was virtually raised by her siblings, particularly her older brother Davie, whom she adored.  Joyous illustrations in Polacco's signature style show Davie showing Clara how to ride on a horse while she flings her arms in the air in delight.  She helped Davie with his chores on the farm, and had an immediate affinity for nature and particularly with animals.  But she had a speech impediment that made her shy and afraid of people; because no one understood this sort of problem in that day, her older sister punished her for not speaking correctly.  School was a nightmare for her, and finally her parents agreed she could be taught at home.  Even as a young girl, Clara had healing hands and neighbors let her treat their farm animals.  When Clara's beloved brother Davie breaks both legs in an accident, she becomes his nurse and with her coaxing, urges him back to health, giving him the courage to try to walk again.

This is a touching introduction to a famous woman from history from a unique perspective--her love for her brother.  Children will be able to easily identify with Clara's inhibitions, her love for nature, and animals, and her desire to help her brother heal.  An author's note tells more about Barton's career as a teacher, nurse, and founder of the American Red Cross.  In an intriguing historical twist, we learn that Patricia Polacco herself is distantly related to Clara Barton, on her mother's side of the family, and they own a vase which is reputed to once have belonged to Clara Barton herself.

See Mary Ann Scheuer and Louise Capizzio's post on Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month for more great suggestions on how to pair this book with other resources on Clara Barton.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Women's History Month Book Review: Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holliday and the Dog Who Loved Her, by Amy Novesky (Harcourt Children's Books, 2013)

Recommended for ages 5 and up.

Amy Novesky's most recent picture book, Mister and Lady Day, an ode to jazz great Billie Holiday and her pet dogs, just arrived at my library in time for Women's History Month.

This is Amy's fourth book on prominent female figures in cultural history; she has also penned Me, Frida (on artist Frida Khalo), Georgia in Hawaii (on artist Georgia O'Keefe), Imogen (on photographer Imogen Cunningham).  She is currently working on a picture book on sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

Billie Holiday's tragic life. which included working as a prostitute, living in a workhouse with her mother, drug addiction, a prison sentence, and more, might not seem like a natural fit for a picture book for young children, and indeed, this side of Holiday's life does not appear in Novesky's book.  Novesky focused instead on Holiday's love for her many dogs, and in particular for her boxer named Mister.  Love for a dog, of course, is a theme that children identify easily with, as do many adults (OK, I'm a sucker for a good dog story).

We first meet Billie Holiday as a young girl, dreaming of being a star, singing on a borrowed gramophone.  Illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton, whose charming illustrations are done with gouache and charcoal with collage elements, depicts Billie in a beautiful setting on a fancy chair, dressed up with a bow in her hair (perhaps a bit fanciful given the realities of her childhood!).  The next spread shows her already a star, the great Lady Day. (Illustrated 2-page spreads from the book can be seen on Novesky's website).   Novesky introduces a note of melancholy in the text from the beginning, by explaining that even stars need someone to listen to them, and that's the role Lady Day's dogs played.  We meet her small dogs, chihuahuas Pepe and Chiquita, her big dogs (a Great Dane named Gypsy, and finally her favorite dog of all, Mister, who we see in a fabulous illustration, walking with Billie on a leash wearing matching mink coats.  Instead of a sidewalk, they are walking on a piano keyboard, with the buildings of New York in the background.  Mister had the life of a star himself; he was so pampered he got to eat steak while she was performing in glamorous clubs, and he waited for her while she performed, even serving to keep eager fans at bay.

Novesky tells young readers that "Lady got into trouble. She had to leave home for a year and a day. And Mister couldn't come."  In an afterword, she explains that Billie Holiday was in fact in jail during that time for drug possession.  When she returned, Mister was there to welcome her, and even accompanied her to a grand concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.  The story ends on a hopeful note, with Billie singing her heart out, and Mister listening in the wings.

An author's note gives some more background on Holiday's life, appropriately omitting some of the uglier facts, and provides additional sources and a web resource.

There's no CD with the book, but readers could easily find CD's of Holiday's unique singing style at the library or on YouTube, which would enrich the story.

This is a moving yet charming book about a difficult subject, and could be integrated into units on Black History Month, Women's History Month, or jazz.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Women's History Month Book Review: Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud, by Tracey Fern (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2014)

Recommended for ages 7-12.

In this picture book for older readers. Tracey Fern tells the little-known story of Eleanor Prentiss, an extraordinary woman who not only navigated a clipper ship but also set a record for the fastest time from New York to San Francisco, navigating around Cape Horn in a record-breaking 89 days, 21 hours.

If you're an avid movie-goer like I am, you may have seen the two major films this year set at sea, Captain Phillips and All is Lost.  Such movies always make me think about the "olden days," when sailors navigated by the stars and a sextant.  Doesn't it seem incredible?  Even more incredible (but true) is the life of Eleanor Prentiss, born the daughter of a sea captain in 1814 and taught everything about ships, including navigation, by her father, perhaps because he had no sons.  Certainly this education was highly unusual for a 19th century girl. The sea was in Ellen's blood, and, not surprisingly, she married a sea captain, who took her along on his merchant ships as her navigator.

When Ellen's husband was given command of a new, super-fast clipper ship, Ellen seized the opportunity to get as quickly as possible from New York to the tip of South America to San Francisco and the Gold Rush.  Speed was of the essence for those looking for riches in the gold fields of California.  The book portrays the considerable dangers of the voyage, including a period when the ship was becalmed (no wind, no movement!) and also the perilous stormy waters of the Cape. Fern does a terrific job of capturing the excitement of the journey, and Ellen's triumph when she sets a world record for the fastest time for this 15,000 mile voyage.  The book is greatly enhanced by the beautiful water-color paintings of Caldecott-winning artist Emily Arnold McCully.  The seascapes, and particularly the scenes of storms, are particularly effective.  Back matter includes an author's note with further historical information, and suggestions for further reading, both books and websites, a glossary, and end pages which show a map of the Flying Cloud's 1851 Voyage.

Highly recommended for Women's History Month and for those looking for stories of strong, heroic women and girls!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review: A Death-struck Year, by Makkia Lucier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)


Recommended for ages 12 and up.

A Death-Struck Year is an excellent historical novel for teens from debut author Makiia Lucier about the 1918 flu epidemic, which continues to fascinate and frighten into the 21st century.  As the novel opens, we meet Cleo, a 17-year old orphan who's being raised by her older brother and his wife.  She's a student at a ritzy girls' boarding school in Portland when the flu epidemic begins in the United States, but despite the dire news reports about the epidemic striking East Coast cities, she feels safe enough 3000 miles away in Portland.

But when a train filled with soldiers coming home from "The Great War" brings the epidemic to the West Coast, the influenza quickly spreads and Cleo's school is shut down, with girls that have no family at home quarantined at the school.  Telling no one that her brother and his wife are out of town, Cleo escapes to her own home, where she lives alone--just for a few days, she thinks, until their housekeeper returns from a trip out of town.  But when the epidemic strikes in force, Cleo decides to volunteer with the Red Cross, putting herself in harms' way but feeling a strong pull to help out in some way.  This being a YA novel, she meets a handsome young medical student with whom she falls in love.  The Red Cross volunteers are not immune to the flu epidemic, despite wearing masks (which did little if nothing to protect them).  What will happen to Cleo and her new brave friends?

This is a well-researched and compelling historical novel that will appeal to teens 13 and up.  It paints a realistic view of the tragedy of the 1918 flu, which struck particularly hard at healthy young people, as well as children and the elderly.  The author does not try to spare the reader's feelings, and be prepared with some tissues to deal with the many tragedies described.  Highly recommended, particularly for those teen readers looking beyond the plethora of paranormal and dystopian novels that have been flooding the YA market in the last few years.

A historical note provides further background about the flu epidemic, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.