Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse, by Emily Arnold McCully (Henry Holt & Co., 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.  
Kids love animal stories, and they are sure to be amazed by Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully's newest picture book about Jim Key, a 19th century horse who astonished audiences with his incredible talents.

This enchanting book is not just an animal story, however; it is also a story about slavery, the power of kindness and patience, and overcoming prejudice.  Jim's owner, Bill Key, was born a slave in 1833.  McCully's heartwarming water-color illustrations portray the child Bill, already gifted with a special way with animals, surrounded by animals of all kinds, hugging a young calf while slaves work in the field and the mama cow looks on.  We learn that after he was freed, Bill became a veterinarian, known by everyone as Doc Key.  At a time when farm animals were often mistreated, Doc Key advocated kindness to all creatures.  Doc was a talented businessman as well as a vet, and made his fortune with a special medicine called Keystone Liniment, which worked on both humans and animals and helped with a wide variety of ailments.

With his new riches, Doc Key tried to breed the world's fastest racehorse; but the little colt that was born was weak, with crooked legs.  Doc named him Jim, and although racing wasn't in the cards for this baby, Doc soon saw that he was something special; he even played fetch like Doc's dogs!  Hand-raised by Doc, Jim soon  figured out all kinds of tricks without even being taught, including learning how to open and shut the drawer where Doc kept apples as treats.

Doc couldn't help wondering what else Jim might be able to learn; with lots of patience and rewards, Doc taught Jim to recognize the entire alphabet, add and subtract, and recognize primary colors.  Doc decided to take Jim on the road, and audiences couldn't believe their eyes.  Jim was a natural performer, and loved the spotlight.

But when a newspaper reporter questioned whether Jim's intelligence was a fraud, asking "How could a little old black man with no education teach a dumb animal to do those things?" Doc brought in professors from Harvard to test Jim Key.  These experts made Doc wait outside, while they tested the horse.  The results were announced by every newspaper around:  "Jim Key Educated By Kindness."

Jim and Doc travelled the country, sponsored by the Humane Society, even appearing at the St. Louis World Fair, before retiring to a peaceful life on Jim Key Farm.

McCully's vibrantly colored watercolor illustrations capture the excitement that Jim generated among crowds everywhere, and she manages to imbue her paintings of our hero Jim with a special expression of keen intelligence.  She also does a beautiful job capturing the period details in the colorful costumes worn by the many children and adults who are depicted as spectators in the story.

McCully includes an author's note with biographical information on Bill Key and his horse, as well as a brief bibliography.

Adults who are interested in learning more about this remarkable story can turn to Beautiful Jim Key:  The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed The World, by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow, 2005), and the book's website.

Here is a photo of Jim Key and his owner.  In reading about Jim Key, I discovered that Breyer Horses had made a collectible horse of Jim Key, which is available on-line from some retailers!  The book and horse would make a fabulous birthday or holiday gift for a young horse lover!  This would also be a great read-aloud for teachers or parents to enjoy with young children; there are many lessons to be drawn from the story that could spark discussion.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Old Abe, Eagle Hero: The Civil War's Most Famous Mascot, by Patrick Young (Kane Miller, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-9.  

Civil War regiments sometimes marched into battle with animal mascots; the most famous of these was a bald eagle dubbed "Old Abe" by the soldiers of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry.  This "biography" of Old Abe starts with his early days, when he was hand raised by an Indian village and then traded to a farmer named Dan McCann.  The eagle became a family pet, and when McCann's neighbors marched off to fight in the Civil War, McCann, who couldn't fight himself because of a bad leg, sent the eagle off to war instead.  The soldiers constructed a special perch trimmed with American flags for the bird to sit on, and off he went.

Old Abe turned out to be very courageous in battle, and was an inspiration to his regiment, so much so that Southern soldiers tried to capture him.  As he made his escape, Old Abe was injured, but survived the battle, flying away behind the Northern lines.  The press loved the story, and soon Old Abe and his adventures were famous all over the country.

Old Abe had a distinguished military career, participating in twenty-five major battles before being sent home to safety, where he was given a place of honor at the Wisconsin Capitol building.  P.T. Barnum even tried to buy him, but Old Abe stayed put, visiting with the soldiers from his regiment who came to see him as well as the general public, as well as making an appearance at the Chicago World's fair.

The author, Patrick Young, is a descendent of the commander of Old Abe's regiment, and grew up hearing family stories about the eagle from his grandmother and mother.  His book was originally published with different illustrations in 1965, but the text is not at all dated and offers a lively narrative, well-suited for reading aloud.  

Artist Anne Lee makes her picture book debut with this title, and her atmospheric watercolor and ink paintings of Old Abe and his friends add a fresh touch to this story; I particularly like her images of the eagle soaring in the vast sky as he hovers over the battlefield, with an American flag below, on his way to safe haven after being injured.  She uses a palette with many shades of yellow, browns, and oranges, which evoke the sepia-toned photographs of the Civil War era, highlighted by the blues and grays of the soldiers' uniforms.

This book would make an excellent read-aloud for elementary school teachers for units on the Civil War or for discussing our national bird, the bald eagle.  It's also a heartwarming animal story that many  parents would enjoy sharing with their children.

A website devoted to the book can be found here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Storyteller, by Patricia Reilly Giff (Wendy Lamb Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

Patricia Reilly Giff is a versatile novelist, equally popular with younger readers for her contemporary Zig Zag Kids and Kids of the Polk Street School series, as she is with middle grade students, whom she has targeted with both historical fiction and contemporary novels such as the Newbery Honor winners Lily's Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods.  

Her newest release, Storyteller, tells the stories of two girls, Elizabeth and Zee, distantly related to each other across more than 200 years.  When Elizabeth's father leaves for Australia, she is sent to live with her Aunt Libby, her mother's sister, whom she barely knows.  At her house she discovers an intriguing old framed portrait of a distant relative named Eliza, known as Zee, who looks almost exactly like her.  She is immediately drawn to the picture, thinking how strange it is to look so much like someone who lived so long ago.

As Elizabeth's aunt shares with her the bits and pieces she knows of Zee's story, Giff skillfully interweaves Zee's 18th century diary, which begins just as hostilities are breaking out between the colonists and the British.  The absent-minded Zee longs to make her father and mother proud of her, but doesn't seem to be able to do anything right.  As political tensions split apart her small community, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Zee's brother and father take off to train with a militia led by General Herkimer, who comes from the same part of Europe as they do, leaving Zee and her mother alone to mind the family farm in upstate New York.

But when Zee's house is set on fire, she loses everything--including her mother.  With the help of Old Gerard, a Native American, she takes off on a journey that will require all Zee's survival skills as well as strength she didn't even know she had.  She will need every ounce of courage to overcome her shock at her loss and fend for herself, traveling through the wilderness to try to find her brother and father at the far-away fort.

As Elizabeth, in the 21st century, learns more about Zee and has the opportunity to walk where her distant relation walked, she becomes the storyteller, the heir to Zee's story, the story she'll pass on to her own children.

This is an excellent novel to pair with Gary Paulsen's 2010 release Woods Runner; both stories deal with aspects of the American Revolution that are less discussed in literature for young people, since they take place on the "frontier" or wilderness rather than in the urban political hubs of Boston, Philadelphia, or New York.  They therefore provide a much different perspective on the conflict; both also highlight the role that the Native Americans played in the Revolution, many fighting on the side of the British in the hopes that they would stop further colonial expansion into their lands.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: Emily's Fortune, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Delacorte Press, 2010)

Recommended for ages 7-10.  

Fans of comic Wild West adventures like Betsy Byars' Golly Sisters books should eat up this rip-roaring tale from Newbery winning author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, who has written over 135 diverse books for young readers.  Our heroine, Emily, is a very meek eight-year old who is tragically orphaned when her mother and her very wealthy employer are killed in a carriage accident.  Her only friend is a small turtle, Rufus, who lives in a box.

With her only living relative the evil Uncle Victor, Emily is sent off to live with her aunt Hilda in the far-away West.  Barely escaping from the "Catchum Child-Catching Services:  Orphans, Strays, and Roustabouts Rounded up Quickly," Emily gets on the train where she meets Jackson, a good-for-nothing trouble-making orphan who's also headed out West.  But soon there's TROUBLE!  It turns out that Emily is an heiress--$10 million worth, and the evil Uncle Victor is hot on their get his hands on her money!  Can Jackson and Emily catch the stagecoach, survive armed robbery, evade Uncle Victor and get to Aunt Hilda in Redbud before it's too late?

The charming black and white illustrations, large type, and relatively simple vocabulary,  make this very friendly to readers who are stepping up from series like Magic Treehouse.  Each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger in giant old-West style fonts; examples include "and who in creepin' creation do you suppose was in it?" or "And what in blinkin' bloomers do you think she saw?"

Naylor demonstrates a great sense of humor and adventure in this new book, which would be a very fun read-aloud either for classroom or at home, with strong appeal to both girls and boys.  It would also be a good book to recommend both to reluctant readers, who will be encouraged to read forward by the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapters and the action-driven plot, as well as avid readers.  

Monday, September 20, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic, 2010)

Recommended for ages 6-12.

Award-winning writer Barbara Kerley, author of the acclaimed picture books  Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and What To Do About Alice, among others, has provided a unique perspective on Mark Twain for young readers by sharing the story of how Twain's 13 year old daughter Susy researched and wrote a biography of her famous father.  

She decided to write his biography because people who thought they knew the world-famous writer were "just plain wrong about her papa."  Yes, he was a humorist, but Susy knew he was much more than that, and she "was determined to set the record straight." She observed his "fine qualities...and not so fine qualities.  Into the biography--and under the pillow--it all went."  

Although Susy began her project in secret, her mother found it and shared it with her husband.  He said it was the finest compliment he had ever received.

Kerley explores how Susy included the key elements of any biography, the subject's youth, private and public life, from how he liked to relax on family vacations to a relative's nearby farm, to how he was sometimes serious and sometimes silly. Twain enjoyed Susy's 130 page biography so much that he included passages from it in his own autobiography.

Inserted in this oversized volume are mini-journals, stapled to the book spine, which include excerpts from Susy's actual text in script, misspellings and all.

In an author's note, Kerley provides additional biographical information on Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, as well as on daughter Susy, who sadly died at the age of twenty-four.  Kerley also provides instructions on "writing an extraordinary biography," which can also be downloaded at This book would be a terrific choice to read aloud to an elementary or even middle-school class, and then have them write a biography of someone they know or are interested in.

The stylized, cartoon-like illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham, who also collaborated with Kerley on What To Do About Alice, can almost tell the story without the text.  On the cover, we see Susy wielding an enormous pen, scribbles from which appear in all the illustrations, tying the book together with a common design theme.   One of my favorite illustrations shows the Twain household's home open like a Victorian dollhouse, and we can see Twain and his family in each room, complete with him flinging oversized shirts with enormous buttons out the windows.  On illustrator Edwin Fotheringham's website, you can see many of the two-page spreads from this stunning book.

This book is particularly timely, since 2010 is the 100th anniversary of Twain's death.  Before he died, the author stipulated that his complete autobiography was not to be released until he had been dead for a century.  In November, the University of California Berkeley, which has had the manuscript in a vault, will be releasing the first volume of what will be a trilogy of his memoirs (excerpts have been published before, but not the entire manuscript).

Young people looking to read more about Twain will surely enjoy Sid Fleischman's The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West (Greenwillow, 2008).  For a good basic children's biography of Twain, you can also turn to Who Was Mark Twain, by April Jones Prince (Grosset and Dunlap, 2004). 

Related articles by Zemanta
Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Faithful, by Janet Fox (Speak, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up. 

When we first meet sixteen-year old Maggie Bennett in this engrossing historical romance, she seems like your typical upper-class young lady in 1904 Newport, Rhode Island, concerned only with her debutante ball, beautiful gowns, gossiping, and handsome young men. But her mother's mental illness and subsequent disappearance have made Newport society question Maggie's propriety as well.  Having a "really fine debut, with everything done exactly right," will make them accept her, Maggie believes.

But an extravagant debut is not in the cards for Maggie.  Instead, her father takes her on a trip out West to Yellowstone, where he finally admits that he has lost their family fortune and that they will not be returning to the lavish life she has always known in Newport society.  Shocked by what she sees as her father's betrayal, Maggie no longer is sure of her place in the world.  Despite her despair at her reduced circumstances, she nonetheless finds herself drawn to the raw beauty of Yellowstone, a place her mother visited years before, and to a handsome young man, Tom Rowland, the son of a park geologist.  At Yellowstone, can Maggie solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance and figure out her own path?

In her first novel, Janet Fox combines a hefty dose of romance with mystery and suspense.  She is particularly impressive at capturing the strange and spectacular landscape of Yellowstone, the world's first national park, as well as the sights, sounds, and even smells of the area; in fact, the book definitely increased my own desire to take a trip to experience this natural wonder for myself.  The author is well-acquainted with the area, having had a family home in Montana for over 20 years, and her own background in geology provides her with an expert's eye in describing the Yellowstone landscape.  The character of Maggie is particularly well-drawn, and changes and grows throughout the book, developing her own independent spirit.  Some of the secondary characters, particularly Maggie's odious, self-assured and wealthy suitor, Graybull, seemed more like stock characters in a romance.

This book is likely to appeal to teen readers who enjoy historical romances such as Eva Ibbotson's teen novel A Countess Below Stairs.  While there is plenty of romance, the characters do not progress beyond a kiss, and therefore the novel is a particularly good choice to recommend to readers who are looking for "clean" teen novels.

In addition to writing her own books, Janet Fox also blogs about kids books at Through the Wardrobe.  Watch for her next novel, to be released in 2011, which will be set in 1906 Yellowstone and San Francisco.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Jennifer Donnelly's newest novel weaves a spell on its readers with its riveting genre-busting blend of realistic contemporary young adult fiction, historical fiction, and even some paranormal fiction tossed in the mix.  It's the story of two fascinating young women, Andi and Alex, who live more than two centuries apart, but whose lives intersect at the close of this compelling tale.

We start out meeting Andi, a brilliant but very troubled high school senior who attends a ritzy prep school in Brooklyn; an incredibly gifted guitarist who lives for music, she is in a deep depression, tottering on the edge of suicide despite psychiatrists and pills, since the death of her younger brother, Truman, a death she feels responsible for.  Her parents' marriage has fallen apart; her father's a Nobel-prize winning geneticist responsible for unraveling the mysteries of the human genome, while her mother is a talented French artist who paints non-stop to cope with her young son's death.  When her father says she's going with him to Paris over Christmas break, she's not happy about it, but goes along to start researching her senior thesis about an 18th century French composer and guitarist.  Her father is called to Paris to analyze the DNA of an old heart believed to belong to Louis Charles, Dauphin of France and son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was believed to have died in the Tower during the French Revolution.  Some believed the young boy might have escaped, and Andi's father and his historian friends intend to put the mystery to rest with 21st century technology.

This all seems to have little to do with Andi and her problems, until, hidden in an old guitar case, Andi finds a portrait--one that looks much like her brother, but was clearly painted long ago.  In the case is also an old diary, dated April 1795.  This is the diary of Alex, who talks about a prisoner in a tower...sure enough, the portrait is of Louis-Charles, the Dauphin.  Reading the diary, Andi discovers the life of Alex, a young actress who dreams of a career on the stage, but through a twist of fate, becomes a companion to Louis-Charles at Versailles and later in Paris.  Through her diary, we experience the progression of the French Revolution, the hope and then the despair as Robespierre and the Jacobins launch the Terror.  Alex's love for the Dauphin, taken forcibly from his mother to be educated as a "good Revolutionary," causes her to endanger her own life to try to free Louis Charles, and finally, to provide the abandoned prince with some hope and light.

Andi's contemporary voice is interrupted with excerpts from Alex's diary, which we read along with Andi as she becomes more and more drawn in to the diary.  Donnelly skillfully creates distinct voices for both characters which suit their personalities and time periods.

All teen novels seem to need at least a bit of romance, and in this novel we have a relationship between Andi and a handsome young French guitarist and rapper whom she meets while performing on the street.  This character, who is of North African background, adds another element to this rich story, as Donnelly touches on the racism and poverty of these immigrants who live largely in housing projects in the Paris suburbs.  But when Virgil takes Andi to a party in the depths of the Paris catacombs, she meets a "hot goth" guitarist, who leads her into a part of the catacombs where tourists can't go.  When they exit the catacombs, things get really strange--"the men all have ponytails.  All of them."

It turns out Andi has wound up in the Paris of the Revolution, with the very musician whom she is researching for her thesis.  But is she Andi, or Alex?  And will she be able to get back to her 21st century life?

This is such a fascinating novel on so many levels, and its blend of different genres should make it an easy sell to students who might not usually pick up a historical novel.  Not only are both girls great characters, Donnelly melds the stories together in a highly creative way.  When I first started the novel, I wasn't sure if the two-story approach was going to work, but I was entirely convinced by the end.

For those who enjoy this book, a great novel to pair with Revolution would be The Bad Queen:  Rules and Instructions for Marie Antoinette, by Carolyn Meyer (Harcourt, 2010).  For teens willing to tackle a longer book, Abundance:  A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, 2006), is an engrossing fictional "diary" of the queen.  

Although the French Revolution is one of the most written about subjects in history, there don't seem to be a plethora of excellent non-fiction books about the subject written for young people here in the U.S.  Some of the more promising titles include:

Marie Antoinette, and the Decline of the French Monarchy, by Nancy Lotz (Morgan Reynolds, 2004) and
Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French Revolution by Nancy Plain (Marshall Cavendish, 2001).

However, there are several excellent documentaries that are available from libraries or Netflix:  I would particularly recommend The French Revolution, a History Channel Documentary from 2005, which provides a good overview of the revolutionary period, or for more on the doomed royal family, Marie Antoinette:  A Film by David Gruber (2006), available from PBS Video.  Teens might also enjoy the 2006 Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette (which includes only the early days of the revolution, ending when the royal family leaves Versailles).

Release Date:  October 12, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty, by Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10.

Who among us doesn't know these famous lines:
 Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...
But we are less familiar with the woman who penned those world-renowned verses, 19th century American poet Emma Lazarus.  Linda Glaser offers us a poignant view into the short life of this New York poet and philanthropist, whose words have become nearly as famous as the statue herself.    The author introduces us to Emma as a small child, growing up in a privileged environment with "plenty of everything," surrounded by other people who had "plenty of everything."  When Emma visits Ward's Island and meets very poor immigrants, Jews like herself who had made the long, hard journey to America, she wants to help them, and begins to write about the immigrants in the newspaper and in poems to raise awareness of the poverty in which they lived.  
When the huge statue of Lady Liberty is under construction in France, Emma is asked, along with other noted American authors, to write something for a literary collection that would be sold to help pay for a pedestal for the great statue.  Although the statue initially had nothing to do with immigrants, Emma imagined how it would be the first thing new arrivals would see as they entered New York Harbor, and decided to write a poem from the point of view of the statue herself.  The author describes how Emma didn't live to see the statue erected, but after her death the poem was engraved on a plaque and placed inside the entrance to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty for visitors to read.  The poem became so famous that schoolchildren learned it and it was even set to music by Irving Berlin.  But most important,
"Because of Emma's poem, the Statue of Liberty had become the mother of immigrants. And her torch was a lamp held out to welcome them."

The book includes an author's note with additional historical details on Lazarus and of course the complete text of the poem, entitled "The New Colossus."  The author also provides suggestions for further reading.

Claire Nivola's graceful folk-art style paintings are very engaging and complement the text.  The illustrations are particularly effective in contrasting the upper-class existence in Emma's house and the sad faces of the immigrants.  This book could be read aloud to children as young as kindergarten age, and I could imagine it being used very effectively in classrooms in talking about family history and immigration to the United States.

I will not be at all surprised to see this on the Association of Jewish Libraries Sidney Taylor Award list for outstanding books for children that authentically portray the Jewish experience.  However, this book has broad appeal beyond a Jewish audience, for the immigrant experience is embedded in the history of most American families.  

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: The Family Greene, by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt, 2010)

For ages 10 and up.

Ann Rinaldi is one of our most prolific and well-loved writers of historical fiction for young people, particularly well-known for stories set during the American Revolution and the Civil War.  That said, I was disappointed with her newest novel, published in May, which centers around several generations of women in the family of General Nathaniel Greene, second in command to George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Even the cover is disappointing, with its sad-faced model that doesn't seem to fit at all with the themes that emerge in the story (compared to the stunning YA covers that have been coming out lately, what teenager is going to pick this one up?)  The story is told in two parts; the first part is narrated by Katy Littlefield, who is 10 years old when our story starts.  She is sent to live with her worldly Aunt Catharine, whose husband is a prominent patriot.  Her aunt is a notorious flirt and good friends (or perhaps more?) with Benjamin Franklin.  Her aunt is supposed to teach her how to be a "lady," with lessons such as this:
You should know this, Caty Littlefield...we women have the right to flirt.  If it is kept a harmless pastime.  Men expect it from us. Done properly, it gives us power, and Lord knows we have litle of that...But it must be learned to be done properly.  
When Katy grows up, she marries a cousin of Uncle Greene, Nathaniel, 12 years older than she is. War breaks out soon after their marriage.  Her husband is quickly promoted to brigadier general, and she goes with him, as did Martha Washington, to live at Valley Forge, where she entertains all the gentlemen with her lively spirits, and becomes a "belle of the camp."

Rinaldi then cuts off this story and switches narrators to Caty's daughter, Cornelia, some years later on the family plantation in Georgia.  Cornelia is concerned with her mother's reputation when she witnesses her exchanging kisses with their schoolteacher, but Cornelia's problems escalate when her nasty older sister tells her that Nathaniel Greene is not really her father, but rather that her father was a lover of her mother's.  Cornelia becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her parentage.

This would have been a more appealing novel if Rinaldi had stuck with the first part of the narrative, perhaps enlarging on the section in which the young married Greenes are at Valley Forge.  In the second half of the novel, the character of Caty suddenly changes, without explanation, to a mean-spirited flirt who can be cruel to her children and disrespectful to her husband by her actions, which to my view go beyond most people's definition of flirting.   While some of Rinaldi's fans may enjoy this book, it definitely was not one of her best.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Review: Annexed, by Sharon Dogar (Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

Release  date:  October, 2010

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

I give British author Sharon Dogar my 2010 Chutzpah* Award for Young Adult Literature (a new but perhaps recurring award) for having the courage to re-imagine the story of the all-too-real teenager Anne Frank, who has become one of the "icons," if I dare use a Christian term, of the Holocaust.  Indeed, Dogar has come under ample criticism for her book, even before its October 2010 U.S. publication date, from no less than Anne Frank's own cousin (see the article from the N.Y. Daily News.) Or check out this article from the website Jezebel:  The Anne Frank Sex Scene You Haven't Been Waiting For (written by a columnist who admits she hasn't read Dogar's book).

So what exactly is this book that has already proved controversial?  In Annexed, Dogar imagines the story of the years hiding in the attic from the point of view of Peter Van Pels, the teenage boy whose family shared the small space with the Franks.

The novel opens in May, 1945; Peter is close to death at Mauthausen Concentration Camp, with his memories spilling into his consciousness.  "There was a girl, wasn't there?  There was a place."  Peter's narrative then returns to July 1942, when he is forced to go into hiding; his "diary" entries alternate with comments, set off in italics, from the dying Peter as he looks back on his time in the Annex.  He hates the idea of going into hiding with the irritating Anne Frank; dreams of his girlfriend Liese, who has already been rounded up by the Nazis, torture him at night, and sometimes he wakes up with his sheets wet.  He's a flesh and blood teenage boy, who wishes he could go fight instead of hide, as his family and the Franks wait for the war to end and the British or the Americans to come liberate them.

Peter's scared they'll be caught, but also scared he'll never make love to a girl.  As Anne's body matures from a little girl to a young woman, it's not hard to imagine the two trapped young people developing feelings toward each other, feelings which are documented in Anne's actual diary.  In Annexed, they have conversations about the differences between male and female sexual parts, and Anne, despite her apparent sophistication on so many subjects, is pretty ignorant on this score.  Peter, on the other hand, practices his commercial English by imagining a business letter written at the war's end requesting a shipload of prophylactics for newly freed Jews.

The sensitive Mr. Frank realizes a problem may be developing--two teenage girls (Anne and her sister, Margot), and only one Peter.  He thinks it's best if the three young people stay "just friends,"  but in the isolation of the Annex, it's not easy.  Eventually Peter realizes that he's in love with Anne.  So what about the big sex scenes in this book?  There's some gentle kisses exchanged in Peter's tiny room in the attic, "holding each other. Talking and talking and talking."  Eventually the kisses become more passionate; "Her body is against mine...our mouths press.  And I can't stop. I don't want to stop. Until Anne pulls away."  She can't wait to get that in her diary, Peter thinks.  Later he holds her "so close I forget where she begins and I end."  Do they have intercourse in this scene?  Does it really matter?  I interpreted it as some heavy exploration, not sex, but who could blame them if they did?  I thought the scene was tastefully done by Dogar, and really left the actual extent of their activity to the reader's imagination, as it should be.

But as we know, their love, whether imagined by Dogar or real, was short-lived, since all the occupants of the Annex were arrested in August 1944.  Unlike Anne's actual diary, Dogar's book goes on to describe Peter's life after his arrest, as they are all transported to a holding camp and then put on the very last train from Holland to Auschwitz, although at the time they did not know where they were going.  Dogar reconstructs what may have happened to Peter from the testimonies of other survivors, describing the horrible journey on the cattle cars and the arrival in Auschwitz, where the women and the men were separated.  Dogar describes the brutal roll calls, the selections, the inhuman work details, how the prisoners were stripped of all their humanity.  With the end of the war in sight, Peter's father urges him to survive, whatever it costs.  But Peter, along with most of the surviving prisoners from Auschwitz, is forced on a grueling death march through Poland to Mauthausen.

In Dogar's version of events, Peter dies at the camp, and from his deathbed  Peter sees Anne in his dreams..."her eyes are wide and her hands are busy writing, writing--recording each memory.  She hears everything. Sees everything. Just as she always has."  From existing records, it is unclear if Peter died on the long march or at the camp itself, just before or after liberation.  The book provides an epilogue detailing what happened to the different occupants of the Annex, as well as a brief bibliography of relevant books, DVD's and websites. Dogar explains in her preface that "reimagining can be an important part of keeping history alive...we can't change what happened to her [Anne Frank] and her family and friends.  But we can keep on telling her story, keep on thinking about what it means to be human...and try to keep the facts of what happened during the Second World War alive for each new generation, in the hope that they remain aware of how catastrophic the consequences of hate can be." Dogar's goal is surely worthwhile, and if she inspires some teens to take a second look at the meaning of Anne Frank's life and perhaps delve further into the history of the Holocaust, I say bravo to her.  I found her book sensitively written, providing a compelling addition to the Anne Frank story that will surely engage Dogar's teen audience.  I hope this will be widely purchased for school and public libraries.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The War to End All Wars: World War I, by Russell Freedman (Clarion Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Award-winning author Russell Freedman is one of the best writers out there for non-fiction for young people, and I was eagerly looking forward to reading his newest book, a history of World War I.  I'll admit it--I actually prefer good juvenile non-fiction to adult non-fiction; I love to read about history, but I don't have the patience to read through a 1,000 page biography or history book these days.  I'd rather let Mr. Freedman read those books, and then distill the essence in his powerful but crystal clear writing style in 192 pages.

We all know what World War II was about--even school kids still hear about Hitler, Hiroshima, and Anne Frank--but World War I doesn't have the huge place in popular culture these days that World War II occupies.  Yes, we might remember that the war started with the assassination of an Austrian archduke, but what was it all really about?

In the opening chapter, Freedman lays out the critical events of June 28, 1914--the date the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated by a member of a Serbian terrorist group.  Austria wanted to punish Serbia for this crime, and declared war on its neighbor.  But in a series of events that "appeared to defy logic and common sense," before long, all of Europe is caught up in a war that, as Freedman explains succinctly, "few had expected and almost no one wanted...historians continue to debate the tangled and confusing causes of the conflict, the series of accidents, blunders, and misunderstandings that swept the nations of Europe toward war...whether war might have been avoided." 

Troops were quickly mobilized, and six million troops were soon on the move in Europe.  Each country initially believed that troops would be home by Christmas, and Freedman documents the outbreak of national patriotism that erupted in all the combattant nations.  Young men of all European countries ran to volunteer, and we see poignant photographs of fresh-faced young soldiers smiling as they leave for war.  But the battles that ensued in August of 1914 brought a new kind of horror to warfare, leading to more than 100,000 deaths and several hundred thousand injured in just that brief period.  But no one could have forseen that the war would drag on for four long years, fought in trenches on a Western front that would change little over the rest of the war and spreading to other countries throughout the world.

Besides talking about the war chronologically, Freedman discusses different themes, including the changing technology of warfare, life in the trenches, in-depth discussions of particularly important battles, a discussion of the war at sea, America's role in the war, and the aftermath of the conflict. 

Freedman enriches his narrative with plenty of moving first-hand descriptions from soldiers who fought in the war; these eye-witnesses hoped that by describing the horrors of war in all their terrible details they would help it from happening again. The abundant archival photographs and maps are critical to the emotional impact of this book (this title is available on audiobook, but without the photographs the listener would miss so much of the impact of this volume that I can't imagine choosing to experience this particular book that way).  We see soldiers, both dead and alive, photographed in their trenches, wearing gas masks, washing their feet to help prevent infection, and burying their comrades, as well as photos of world leaders, civilians, and scenes of the devestated landscape. 

Freedman emphasizes at the end of the book that it is impossible for us to really understand the massive human cost of this war; 65 million men fought in the conflict, with more than half becoming casualties (either killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner), not to mention the 10 million civilians estimated to have died of war-related famine or disease.  What's more, entire towns were destroyed, farmland burned, and the European economy left in ruins. 

Perhaps the most important understanding that I took away from this volume is that World War I and II cannot really be considered as separate events and should be considered as part of the same struggle. The draconian surrender terms and humiliation doled out to the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the conflict--including the "war guilt" clause, assigning Germany the entire blame for the four-year war-- led directly to the conditions in Germany which led to the rise of Hitler, the rearming of Germany, and the beginnings of World War II.  The bitter irony of Freedman's title, The War to End all Wars, will not be lost on any of his readers, since despite the fervent hopes of those who fought in The Great War, another enormous conflict erupted less than a generation later. Russell ends his narrative with an ominous full-bleed, two-page photograph of Nazi soldiers in tanks waiting for the order to invade Poland, just 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles. 

This outstanding book is clearly a must-have for all school and public libraries, and is likely to figure prominently during "award season." While this book could be used for school reports, it makes a riveting read for anyone interested in history.  An interesting footnote:  this book is dedicated to Freedman's father, who fought in France in WWI as a teenager. 

A book trailer (actually an interview with Freedman) is available here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Review: The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, by Mary Nethery (Clarion Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8. 

There never seem to be as many fun picture books about cats as about dogs (or maybe that's just my bias?) so I was particularly delighted with this charming new picture book based loosely on actual historical events.  Set in Venice in the 1890's, the book tells the story of a struggling cafe owner, Nonna Framboni, who takes in a stray white cat and names him Nini.  There doesn't seem to be anything special about Nini, until renowned composer Verdi wanders into the cafe to work on his latest opera.  Unable to come up with just the right note until Nini meows, Verdi is thrilled and begins to frequent the cafe.  The enterprising owner puts up a sign, The Great Verdi Takes His Coffee Here, and soon customers begin to flock to the cafe to see the famous composer as well as the now-famous cat.

A progression of illustrious visitors come to visit Nini, including the king and queen of Italy, who declare National Nini Day, and even the Pope himself.  But when the Emperor of Ethiopia brings his grief-stricken daughter to see the famous Nini, seeking a miracle, Nonna wonders if Nini will be able to deliver.

What a lovely story this is about the healing power of animals and the joy they bring to humans.  Author Mary Nethery is really a master at this genre; she is also the author of Two Bobbies:  A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival and Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine, and a Miracle, two other animal stories that will warm your heart.  Illustrator John Manders, who has illustrated many children's titles including Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, uses colorful gouache paintings to portray the gold-infused Venice setting, and a whimsical, cartoon-like style which adds humor to the story.

An author's note offers some historical details about the real Nini and his fans.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Book Review: Cate of the Lost Colony, by Lisa Klein (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up. 

Lisa Klein's absorbing fourth novel plunges the reader head-first into the mystery of the lost Roanoke Colony of Virginia.  As Klein writes in an afterword, the fate of the 117 men, women, and children who landed on Roanoke Island in 1587 is "perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery in American history." 

This new novel represents historical fiction at its best; Klein creates an appealing fictional character, young Cate Archer, and inserts her into the actual events of the time in a historically believable way, and in so doing illuminates a fascinating but little-studied mystery of American history.

Our heroine, young Cate, seems to be blessed in her position as a favorite attendant to Queen Elizabeth; but the Queen's favor is fickle, and when she discovers that her current favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Cate share a mutual romantic attraction, she arrests Cate in a fit of jealousy and then exiles her to Raleigh's new colony in the New World.  Unbeknownst to the Queen, Cate craves adventure, and dreams of escaping to a new life.  She is fascinated by tales of the New World and the Native Americans who are brought across the ocean to the court as curiosities.  These include the handsome young Manteo, a Croatoan Indian who quickly learns English, and narrates parts of the story, alternating with Cate herself and Sir Walter Raleigh. 

Klein uses the actual passengers who sailed to Roanoke to populate the rest of her novel, including little Virginia Dare, considered to be the first English baby to be born on American soil.  The colonists arrive too late in the summer to successfully plant crops to sustain them through the winter, and Governor White sails back to England to beg for supplies.  But life does not go well on Roanoke; the colonists clash with the local Indians, and fight among themselves as well.  Cate, in her courageous efforts to make the colony succeed, begins to learn the local language and befriend the native women.  Help from England does not arrive...will the colonists survive?  Will Sir Walter himself come to save Cate, or should she allow herself to experience a new love in the New World, with Manteo and his tribe?

Since no one knows what really happened to the Roanoke colonists, Klein is free to imagine her own version of events, one which I found perfectly believable and fitting (and which I will not discuss since I don't want to spoil the suspense for any readers!)  The author's afterword gives details on her research and her treatment of some of the historical figures in the story, particularly Sir Walter Raleigh.

One element of the novel I particularly enjoyed was the contrast between the wealth and intrigues of life at Queen Elizabeth's court and the hardships of life at the new colony.  Klein handles depiction of the native culture in a sensitive way, although she emphasizes that nothing is known about the particulars of Manteo's people.  Instead, Klein incorporates Algonkian legends and history to imagine Manteo's personality and mindset.  Also, there is a great romantic triangle at work here between Cate, Sir Walter, and Manteo that should have great teen appeal (sorry, better than Bella, Edward, and Jacob!)

A slideshow of images related to the book that inspired the author can be found on the author's website here.

More on Roanoke:

For students who are interested in exploring Roanoke further, there are numerous non-fiction books about Roanoke for young people.  These include:

The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Jean Fritz (Putnam, 2004)
Mystery of the Lost Colony, by Lee Miller (Scholastic, 2007)
Roanoke The Lost Colony:  An Unsolved Mystery from History, by Heidi Stemple and Jane Yolen (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

Those interested in fiction about Roanoke might like to read the just-published Sabotaged, the newest volume in Margaret Peterson Haddix' series The Missing (Book 3) (Simon & Schuster, 2010).  In this novel, aimed at a slightly younger audience (10-14 year olds), two contemporary time-travelers find themselves with a missing child from history, who turns out to be Virginia Dare of the Roanoke Colony.  Haddix provides an excellent afterword with additional historical information on Roanoke.

Another option for this age group is The Lyon Saga, a trilogy about Roanoke by M. L. Stainer; the first volume is The Lyon's Roar (Circleville Press, 1997).

Teens may also be interested in a very well-reviewed new non-fiction book for adults about the colony, A Kingdom Strange:  The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn (Basic Books, 2010).

Release date:  October 12, 2010. 
Enhanced by Zemanta