Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

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“Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard… Maybe the snow will come soon. She feels herself smile. And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow” (Kaurin 2017, p. 95).

According to her author’s note, Marianne Kaurin was inspired by a single idea to write this story: What if, during the German occupation of Norway in 1942, a single member of a Jewish family happened to be away from home when the Nazis came to take them to the concentration camps? As Kaurin explains, 532 Norwegian Jews were sent aboard the Donau to Auschwitz, where only nine survived. In addition to being inspired by her own family’s history (many of the characters in the book are named after family members or friends of her family), Kaurin wanted to explore the idea of a bizarre twist of fate that would spare one member of a large family during this dark time in history. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve always been fascinated with the history of World War II, as well as the history of the Holocaust. Because of this, I usually find historical fiction based upon this time period to be incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. This work was no different.

The novel focuses on a young girl named Ilse Stern, who is eagerly awaiting autumn, when she believes her life will change for the better. Devastated after being stood up on a date by Hermann Rod, her crush since she was a little girl, Ilse scolds herself for being so easily tricked. What Ilse doesn’t realize, however, is that Hermann is hiding many secrets – both from her and his entire family. The year is 1942, and Ilse’s family is Jewish in Norway, a country being occupied by German soldiers. Ilse’s sister, Sonja, longs to work as a seamstress in a local theater, though her father has always expected her to take over the family business when he retires.

Sonja and Ilse’s father, meanwhile, has been coping silently with a failing business and a steady stream of hate, trying to hide the nasty messages on his shop windows every morning. The novel jumps from character to character as the story progresses, allowing each character to share his or her ambitions and desires with the reader. The story reaches its climax one day when Isak (Ilse and Sonja’s father) is taken suddenly and sent to a labor camp, prompting his worried family to wonder whether they should flee for the safety of neutral Sweden.

I really enjoyed the poetic quality of this book, as it helped to immerse me in this time and place. Marianne Kaurin’s writing has an almost lyrical quality, making it very pleasing to read. Autumn, as its place in the title implies, is incredibly important to the story, as it represents the season in which warm, bright summer transitions to hard, cold winter. At the beginning of the novel, Ilse feels like being stood up is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, but soon finds a much darker and colder winter coming for her and her family. I thought this use of foreshadowing was both inventive and well-placed, as it warns the reader of what is to come. That being said, I found myself getting a little thrown off by the constant tense switches, as Kaurin would swap from past to present tense within only a couple of sentences. I suppose there was likely a symbolic reason for this that I was missing, but it was sometimes confusing to read.

Even though I love reading historical fiction about the Holocaust and World War II, I’m usually fully aware going into it that it’s likely not going to end happily for any of the characters involved, even if they’re non-Jewish Germans. In this case, however, I had no idea this was historical fiction until after I started reading it, as I went in mostly blind. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a simple love story between Ilse and Hermann, but turns much darker and deeper as the novel progresses and more is revealed. The instant the novel Ilse explained to the reader that she and her family were Jewish, my stomach dropped. I then knew exactly what I was in for with this story. It’s nowhere near as dark as The Book Thief in tone, but it still manages to be devastatingly sad in the end.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, as this would ruin the entire book, but I will say that this was an incredibly powerful and moving read. I don’t think I will ever tire of devouring stories about the Holocaust, even if they often leave me feeling depressed and wondering why any of this was allowed to happen. Books like this are a grim reminder of all that was lost during the Holocaust, but I believe it’s incredibly important to continue sharing stories from this time period, both fictional and true. If we refuse to let the horrors of this time period dull with time, we are far less likely to let another Holocaust happen. Experiencing how inhumanely our fellow humans were treated simply because of their religion should not only horrify us, but inspire us to take action when we see injustices taking place in our own time period.

Almost Autumn, though short, is beautifully written and will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that deals with the Holocaust and World War II. It’s a fairly quick read, and one that appeals to reluctant readers. I’m very pleased that I had the chance to read it, even if it did trod mercilessly on my heart.

Reference:

Kaurin, M., & Hedger, R. (2017). Almost autumn. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“Tonight, there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars… and connected by the same silken thread” (Ryan 2015, p. 578).

This book was absolutely incredible in every sense of the word. It was told incredibly creatively, with three realistic stories that intertwine with just a hint of magic thrown in. I listened to the audio-book version of this title, which added beautiful pieces of music and distinct narrators for each child’s story. As I read each section, I desperately wanted to know what would happen to each child. I got invested in each story, only for the narrative to move onto the next story. Fortunately, all three stories were equally captivating, with believable characters who each had very compelling conflicts to overcome. Just as I was itching to know what happened to Friedrich, I became equally invested in Mike’s story, and then in Ivy’s story after that. Ryan did a wonderful job leaving me in suspense, but making me care just as deeply about the third child as I did the first.

Echo begins with the story of Otto Messenger, a boy who is sold a mysterious harmonica by a gypsy woman in his small German town. With the harmonica is an unfinished story book about three princesses who are left to die by their cruel father the king when they are born. Thanks to the interference of a kind nursemaid, however, the three sisters – Eins, Zwei, and Drei – are given to a witch in the forest to be cared for in her cottage. After the death of their father, the three princesses are given the chance to return home to their brother and mother, but not before the witch curses them, confining them to a woodwind instrument until the day they are able to save a soul on the brink of death. Otto hears their tale and helps seal their souls into the harmonica, which is then passed on to three children many years later. The rest of the novel follows the stories of Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, each of whom is facing their own tribulations related to the conflicts of World War II. As the harmonica comes into each of their lives, the children’s stories become intertwined in a way that none of them could have ever expected, culminating in the moment the three sisters are finally able to save the life of a person on the brink of death.

Though I enjoyed all three stories, it was Friedrich’s story that affected me the most. I have read many fictional stories about World War II and the Holocaust, and they never fail to fill me with anxiety and leave me worrying about the fate of the characters involved. Friedrich’s story was unique in that he was not Jewish, but a pure-blooded German who happened to have a highly visible birthmark on his face, thus making him an “undesirable” in Hitler’s Germany. While his older sister finds herself sucked into Hitler’s regime, he and his father turn against it, putting themselves in extreme danger as political dissenters. It was interesting to see the perspective of an average German who did not agree with Hitler during this time, as many stories about this time period tend to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. As someone with German heritage, I found Friedrich’s story to be the most compelling of the three.

Though Friedrich’s story personally affected me the most, I appreciated the portrayal of injustices in each child’s story. In Mike’s story, he and his brother are mistreated by both the owner of the orphanage and by others (such as the shop owner) who see them as lesser and unworthy simply because they are poor. Even though both Mike and Frankie are highly educated and well-behaved children, they are treated differently because they were not born into the upper class. In Ivy’s story, she directly observes the injustices done to Japanese citizens in America during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She also experiences injustice herself, when she realizes that Mexican children in her town are forced to attend a different school than the white children because they are seen as dirty and uneducated. Ivy, like Mike, is treated differently than others even though she is well-educated and speaks fluent English. Each child’s story portrays injustice in different ways, but helps to teach readers about darker parts of American and German history, during times when certain individuals were treated as being lesser because of their race or social status.

My favorite thing about this book, however, was how Ryan skillfully tied each child’s story together with the magical harmonica. The fairy tale at the beginning, as well as Otto’s story of finding the book, helped to set a mystical tone before the novel jumped into reality with the story of the three children. Ryan uses this story as a bookend at the very end of the novel, when the three sisters are finally able to save a life and return to their castle. The most powerful words in the opening are, “Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed” (Ryan 2015, p. 6). Though this isn’t mentioned again until the very end, each child’s story seems to (no pun intended) echo these words, as each one is able to pull themselves out of a terrible situation through the hope and power provided by the harmonica’s music.

Even when I had a clear idea of where the story was going, Ryan still managed to surprise me with the sheer amount of detail she worked into the narrative to tie the five stories together. The most magical part of the book, in my opinion, is the concert at the end, when the three characters (as well as the magical harmonica in Kenny’s coat pocket) come together, and we are finally able to see how the harmonica affected each of them in positive ways. We also get to see how the harmonica ended up in Friedrich’s possession after being given away by Otto, and what eventually happens to the three sisters who first enchanted the harmonica. I had a feeling that Kenny would be the one the harmonica ultimately saved, as Ivy transfers it to him to keep him safe during the war. That being said, the harmonica saved all three of the children in a way, as it gave them hope during a time when hope seemed entirely lost. Each of them ended up being world-renowned musicians due to their experience and talent with the harmonica, fostered by their passion for music.

I found the ending of this book to be incredibly clever, and while it was already wonderful, it was the epilogue that really sealed the deal for me and pushed this book into the “spectacular” category. I’ve come to love historical fiction in recent years, and the element of magic only helped to further my enjoyment of this novel (as fantasy is my favorite genre). The novel discusses themes such as intolerance and injustice without talking down to children, showing them parts of history that some people would rather forget. I could easily see this novel appealing to children who don’t normally enjoy historical fiction, as the fantasy element and narrative quality of each of the stories makes it feel much more like a fairy tale than traditional historical fiction.

I would also highly recommend listening to the audio-book version of this story, as the music is integral to the emotions behind each character’s journey. I found myself getting chills and goosebumps when the orchestra played “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of the novel, as it seemed like a perfect way to tie all of the stories together through music. I also enjoyed the melodic quality of each narrator’s voice, and the fact that each character was given a distinctive voice for their part of the story. Intricate touches like this made the audio-book a wonderful performance, and I likely enjoyed this more than I would have if I[‘d simply been reading silently to myself. Regardless of how you enjoy it, however, I highly recommend giving Echo a try, even if you don’t generally enjoy historical fiction. It’s an incredibly engaging and beautiful story that speaks to the power of music to improve lives and fill people with hope for the future. It was a truly magical tale, and one I’m glad I was finally able to read for myself.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M., Bramhall, M., De, V. D., Andrews, M., & Soler, R. (2015). Echo: A novel. New York, N.Y: Scholastic Audiobooks.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

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“It wasn’t that Beto wanted to tell the story. It was that he had to. He hoped that, after, he could begin to dream of the fragile joy of the months before the explosion and of the family that they had made for themselves in the woods. They had been happy, for a time, before the rules found them. Before the terrible price was exacted for their transgressions. For the crossing of lines. For friendship, for love” (Perez 2016, p. 196).

This book was incredibly difficult to get through, and I found myself having to take frequent breaks in order to process what I was reading. On the one hand, I found it incredibly powerful and engaging, with characters who feel like real people rather than caricatures. On the other hand, I felt like the book was a constant slog of misery and heart-break, only serving to depress me and remind me of the horrors and injustices of the world. I found myself gasping in shock at some of the events of the novel, and often wanted to step in to protect the characters from what was happening. Ashley Hope Perez is, without a doubt, an amazing author, and it’s very clear that she did intense research when writing and preparing this book.

Out of Darkness takes place in New London, Texas, in the year of 1937. The story focuses on Naomi Vargas and her two half-siblings, Cari and Beto, who have just been sent to live with their estranged father Henry. Henry has a history of sexual abuse and alcoholism, and Naomi resents him for inadvertently causing the death of her mother after repeated miscarriages and the bloody birth of her half-siblings. While he is the biological father of Beto and Cari, Henry is merely Naomi’s stepfather, giving him all of the excuse he needed to sexually abuse her at a young age. Perez uses the 1937 New London school explosion to frame the narrative, telling a compelling story about love, loss, family, and the compassion and humanity we can find in others during times of tragedy.

The first thing I feel like I have to say about this book is that I wanted Henry to die from the very first page. I absolutely hated him as a character, and found myself grinding my teeth at some of the horrible things he did to Wash, Beto, and Naomi. He is a textbook abuser, using his authority as the head of the household to not only make advances on Naomi, but to emotionally abuse Beto and Cari at every opportunity. He threatens to kill Beto’s cat several times throughout the novel, and frequently treats Wash as being less than human simply because of the color of his skin. As if that weren’t enough, he feels ownership over Naomi, claiming a right to her and her body and becoming enraged when he later learns that she has fallen in love with Wash. Terrible as it might be, I had to cheer when Beto finally killed him in the end, ending his reign of terror over those around him.

Vile as he was, there were times when I felt that Perez was almost trying to make Henry sympathetic, leading the reader to believe he was trying to do better and live an honest life. I would find myself sympathizing with his desperate attempts to make things work… And then I would remember how he frequently raped Naomi’s mom until forcefully impregnating her (despite protests from her doctor), and how he forced a young Naomi to perform sexual acts on him for his own twisted pleasure. I quickly lost any and all sympathy I might have had for him when I was reminded of his past actions, especially after seeing how they continued to affect Naomi, who was forced to tiptoe around him for fear of setting him off. Despite his own faults, and the fact that he was a raging alcoholic, Henry still had the nerve to treat Wash like trash, making me wish <i>he</i> had been in the school instead of Cari near the end. I recognize that Henry’s viewpoints reflected the views of many during this time period, but he somehow managed to be so vile and unforgivable that I judged him even more harshly for it than I would other characters.

The romance between Naomi and Wash felt extremely authentic, and I found myself rooting for them despite the odds. Because this book had already gone to incredibly dark places, I knew it wasn’t likely to end well, but I kept hoping anyways that they would somehow make it out okay. Perez was obviously looking to portray realistic circumstances, but the novel felt so dark and devoid of any hope at times that it was hard to continue. To be fair, I didn’t really expect a book centered around a massive tragedy to be happy and end well, but I wished there had been just a little more joy in the book before all hell broke loose at the end. The quiet moments with Naomi and Wash were touching, and I was happy to see the two characters (both of whom had been treated terribly by society) find solace in one another. I only wish they’d managed to escape Henry’s control and abuse in the end.

This book honestly didn’t feel like a young adult novel; it felt more like reading a horrific piece of adult historical fiction, with themes such as racism, rape, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and violence. I felt so incredibly sorry for Naomi, who’d lived an incredibly rough life up until the beginning of the book, and was severely punished for trying to enjoy the only small modicum of happiness she’d been able to find in Wash. I must admit that the ending of the novel left me a sobbing puddle of emotion, wondering why such horrific things have to happen to such genuinely kind and caring people. I was concerned for Beto, who likely carried the scars of what happened for the rest of his life (as the end of the novel hints). I was happy to see Henry punished for his actions, but also devastated that Wash, Cari, and Naomi had to die first. The characters are fictional, but written in a way that makes them seem real, so I felt a genuine loss at their tragic demise. The story was heart-breaking and frustrating, and while realistic, I think it needed more light moments to balance out the tragedy of it all.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was the commentary on religion. Though Henry claims to have found religion throughout the novel, it doesn’t stop him from doing vile, terrible things. Similarly, Perez hints throughout the story that religion often gives individuals an excuse to be hateful towards others while patting themselves on the back and feeling holy. Even the preacher, though he seems to be more tolerant and forgiving of others, sees no problem with Henry trying to woo and marry his underage stepdaughter as long as he doesn’t “give in to his urges” before they’re married. Part of this might just be a mark of the times (couples married much younger back then), but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I applaud Perez’s efforts to demonstrate that religion does not always make a holy person; in fact, it can often give someone an excuse to be even more vile than they were before.

Though this book ripped my heart out and repeatedly stomped on it, I had to admit that it is an amazing work of young adult fiction. This isn’t a story I would recommend to the faint of heart, nor to the inexperienced or reluctant reader. It is powerful, but incredibly heavy and depressing, filled with moments that will leave the reader screaming at the injustice of the events taking place. Perez injects a sobering amount of realism into the work, never letting you forget that this is taking place in 1930s America rather than a fantasy universe. Though the characters are fictional, their experiences are based on real world accounts from the time period, reminding us of the horrors of the past. If you are interested in an engaging work of fiction about a real disaster, or if you’re simply a masochist who loves being made to cry, I would highly recommend Out of Darkness.

Reference:

Perez, Ashley Hope. (2016). Out of Darkness. Paw Prints.

Fire from the Rock by Sharon M. Draper

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“I don’t understand why people are so mean to each other, why one group of people can hate another group of people so much. It makes my head hurt to think of it, but I see it everywhere now. I can see it in the eyes of the bus driver who really doesn’t want me on his bus, and the man at the Rexall drugstore, who thinks I’ll probably steal something.I can feel it in the whispers of people who walk behind me on the street. I wish I was still young like Donna Jean, who is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, making long necklaces of Pop-it beads and only worrying about whether she’ll run out of red ones” (Draper 2007, p. 130).

Thus far in my “Youth Literature for a Diverse Society” class, I’ve been asked to read quite a bit of heavy material. This material has ranged from stories of abuse to stories about teenage pregnancy and the horrors of poverty. All of the literature on the list so far has helped to provide a window into the lives of others, whether they come from a unique culture (as in An Na’s A Step from Heaven) or from a lower socio-economic status (as in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff). This week’s reading has been no exception to that rule, but it has been the first to discuss the hardships of integration in Southern schools. I found this book to be incredibly powerful and moving for many reasons, the most poignant being that this scenario actually happened. As Sharon Draper states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, “Sylvia Faye and her family are fictional, but the nine students who integrated the school are very real” (Draper 2007, p. 229). Though I’d heard of the Little Rock Nine before, I’d never given much thought to how difficult their journey to integration truly was… until now.

Fire from the Rock, though dealing with the very real issue of integration in public schools in the 1950s, focuses on the story of a fictional girl named Sylvia Patterson. Until now, Sylvia has only had to worry about doing well in school, navigating the social world of boys and school dances, and being a good daughter and role model to her younger sister Donna Jean. The novel begins in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, as the school district is beginning the process of integration. When Sylvia is recommended for the list of students who will integrate into Central, the local all-white high school, she and her family must make a crucial decision: Should Sylvia risk her safety (and the safety of her family) to help change the world, or keep things exactly the way they are?

Though this book does a wonderful job of describing the hardships of African Americans during the time of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, I was impressed to see that this wasn’t the sole focus of the novel. Sylvia’s best friend is a white girl named Rachel Zucker, whose family fled from Germany during WWII. It is made clear throughout the novel that Rachel’s father survived the horrors of Auschwitz, only to come to America and be faced with more scorn from other white people. One of the white women on the school board actually remarks to Sylvia that she doesn’t have any “real” white friends, as there was heavy discrimination even within the white community during this time. In addition, Draper doesn’t paint all white people as being racist, bigoted and hateful; there are actually quite a few young people who are entirely willing to integrate, and only a few (specifically the Crandalls) who still see African Americans as being lesser than white people. I appreciated Sharon Draper’s ability to show the horrors of segregation without painting all white people as the enemy; I think she did an incredible job of portraying this difficult time in history accurately and fairly.

Along with portraying some of the white characters as helpful and sympathetic, Draper also added several African American characters who handled integration the wrong way as well. For example, Sylvia’s brother Gary, as well as her school crush Reggie, are both portrayed as being full of anger, willing to bomb stores and hurt people to enact change. Near the end of the novel, Reggie’s flirtation with violence comes to a head when he accidentally bombs the Zuckers’ store, nearly killing Sylvia and everyone else inside. Draper is clearly using this to show that violence is never the answer, and that answering hatred with hatred never works. Again, this was incredibly eloquent, wise, and fair to the time period, showing that things were not quite as clear-cut as we may believe. The addition of historical details (mentions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine, Elvis Presley, etc.) help to paint a fairly accurate picture of what it might have been like to live during this tumultuous time in American history, and I feel as though I learned a lot more about integration and the conflicting politics of the time period.

Often when I read books set during particularly controversial periods in history, I can’t help but compare them to the political climate of today. It seems that history has a dangerous tendency to repeat itself, and I see many parallels between the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. I often wonder what I would have done id I’d lived during the time of segregation. Would I have stood up for my fellow human beings, or would I have hidden on the sidelines, afraid to make waves? I’d like to think that I would’ve been one of the white people helping with the integration process, as I try my best to advocate for the civil rights of others today. The uncomfortable truth is, however, that I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted if I’d lived during the time of segregation; none of use really are. Reading books like Fire from the Rock help to propel us out of our privileged comfort zone, reminding us that things were far from equal not even a century ago in the United States.

It might be a tired old cliche to say that “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it,” but I think there’s a reason this phrase has not died out over the years. It’s crucial that we never forget historical events like slavery, the Holocaust, and segregation; these are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, because we now recognize how fundamentally wrong these things were. If we choose to ignore the historical truths that make us uncomfortable, we risk forgetting they ever happened, leading us to discriminate against others in entirely new ways in the future. It’s a dangerous cycle, and one that I think novels like Fire from the Rock are trying to end. By putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we can build empathy and understanding, helping us to work with other cultures, races, religions, and sexualities to create a world that is accepting of everyone, not just the majority.

I’m of the belief that we are far more alike than we are different, and I’m grateful to this book for reminding me of the privilege I’ve had for most of my life. I’ve never once had to fear for my life while heading to school, or worry that there might not be a school tomorrow for me to go to in order to get my education. I’ve never been discriminated against because of the pigment in my skin, or bullied and spat on because I’m part of a minority group. I think more people need to recognize that privilege does exist, and be empathetic to those who have not grown up with the same privileges. Reading diverse literature helps us to experience the hardships of others through the comfort and safety of our own homes, and open our eyes to the lives of those who are different from us. Sylvia and her family might be fictional, as Draper says, but the students who bravely faced the hatred and opposition of angry mobs to go to school every day were very real, and they have my full respect. This was an excellent work of historical fiction, and one that I would encourage everyone to read. If you’re willing to leave your comfort zone in order to face uncomfortable truths from the past, there’s no telling what you might learn.

Reference:

Draper, S. M. (2007). Fire from the rock. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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“I knew Susan wasn’t real. Or, if she was a tiny bit real, sometimes, at the very best she was only temporary. She’d be done with us once the war was over, or whenever Mam changed her mind” (Bradley 2015, p. 202).

“She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. ‘You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!’ My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful” (Bradley 2015, p. 214).

I’ve read many books in my day, but none have made me angrier than this one. I wasn’t angry with the book itself, of course; the book was beautifully written and full of wonderful, engaging characters. From the very first page, however, I developed an unrelenting hatred for “Mam,” wishing the novel would take pity on its readers and end her in a brutal way. I know; these are strong words for a fictional character in a children’s novel. I just absolutely cannot stand to see child abuse in any form, even if I know it’s only fiction. Sadly, there are many children out there who have faced (and are currently facing) the abuse Ada and Jamie must face in this book, a thought that made the abuse in this novel all the more real and infuriating. Mam simply serves as an easy target for the rage I have towards anyone who would harm a child. That being said, I absolutely loved this book, and found it to be another incredibly moving work of historical fiction.

The War That Saved My Life is set in London, England, during the very beginning of World War II. The story follows a little girl named Ada, who has been locked away her entire life due to her clubfoot, which her abusive mother finds shameful and humiliating. Ada’s “Mam” frequently beats her, locks her away, refuses to feed her properly, and forces her to spend the night in roach-infested cupboards for minor offenses. Though her “normal” brother Jamie receives slightly better treatment, the two are highly abused and living in complete filth and squalor. This changes when an order is sent out, requiring all of London’s children to be sent to the countryside for safe-keeping during the war. Though Ada’s mom refuses to let her go, Ada decides she’s finally had enough of her horrible circumstances and runs away with Jamie in tow. The two feel unwanted at first, but eventually end up in the home of a lady named Susan Smith, who treats them with the kindness and compassion they’ve never had from their mother. Though reluctant at first, Susan soon grows to love the children as her own, showing Ada that she might be worthy of love after all. The War That Saved My Life is a beautifully told story of love, courage, and how it’s always possible to find freedom and peace… even in the middle of a war.

Ada was such an easy character to root for. My heart broke for her, just as it has for many of the protagonists in the books I’ve read this semester. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so cruel to her own child, denying her necessary treatments and hiding her away like some sort of “freak.” Part of me wondered how a child like Wonder‘s Auggie would have fared in such conditions, without a supportive and loving family willing to help him through his medical conditions. This, of course, was even more heart-breaking, as I know there are parents out there who would abandon any child who wasn’t “perfect” from birth. What Mam does to Ada is, arguably, much worse than abandonment. She locks Ada in cupboards for trying to get food, beats her relentlessly even for looking out the window, and constantly belittles her because of her clubfoot, calling her a “freak” and a “lousy cripple.” There were times, while reading this book, that I got so angry I had to put it down. I honestly wouldn’t have minded if a bomb had dropped on Mam while the children were away, leaving them free to live with Susan forever. It was a horrible thought, of course, but would’ve been a fitting end for such a cruel, nasty character.

I also loved the theme of freedom throughout this novel, and the irony of a character gaining peace and freedom during one of the world’s most tumultuous times. Though World War II was raging around her, Ada could only focus on her own personal war, the war being waged against her by her own abusive mother. The title of this novel is extremely appropriate, as Ada is only able to see what a real, loving family looks like after fleeing bombs in London. Susan is eccentric and brash, but caring, teaching Ada to read, write, and sew. While in the country, Ada also learns how to ride a horse, making her feel alive and free as she never has on her own two feet. The novel incorporates elements of the real life war into the plot effortlessly, adding moments that make Ada reflect upon her own life with new eyes. For example, in one scene, Susan makes Ada a brand new dress, and Ada feels so guilty wearing it (still feeling like she’s nothing) that she has a complete breakdown on Christmas Eve. The next day, air force pilots from a nearby air base come to visit and play with her and her brother, pilots who later end up dead as the war intensifies. When Ada realizes this, she comes to a stunning realization:

“I understood why I’d been upset on Christmas. I’d felt overwhelmed; I really couldn’t help myself. But now, thinking back, it seemed a little silly to be unhappy about a dress when the pilots were dead. If I had it to do over, I would at least have learned their names” (p. 285).

Though Ada has suffered a number of cruelties in her own life, she holds a great deal of compassion for those fighting in the war. It gets to the point where she has to step out of the theater during the newsreels before the movie, unable to stomach the horrific images of men losing their lives to the war. At one point, Ada volunteers to help bring water to refugee soldiers, and can hardly believe her eyes when one man asks her to write a letter one minute and is dead the next. Though many people know the terrible tragedies of the Holocaust during this time, few stop to think about the horrors taking place in other countries. As the novel progresses, the war becomes worse and worse, the death toll rises, bombs are dropped nightly, and food must be rationed off to citizens. What had once been a distant concept for Ada becomes very real, leading her to fear for her safety and the safety of those around her. This novel does an excellent job of focusing on an individual’s story while relaying the horrors of the time period, including details and specific historical events (such as the Battle of Dunkirk) to add to the realism of the story.

Though it might seem terrible for a child to witness the horrors of war, this was sadly the reality of the time period. This novel does not shy away from the fact that WWII was a nasty, bloody war, but it chooses to focus on a very different kind of injustice, one that might’ve taken place anywhere and during any time period. Framing the story of an abused girl with a clubfoot with the events of World War II add historical detail to an incredibly human story, helping the reader to see this time period in an entirely new light. For Ada, the war might be horrifying, but it is also a blessing, as it allows her to escape her own personal nightmare in order to find a better life. In the end, she’s able to see her own worth and value, and realizes the beauty and warmth of having friends and family, people who support and love you. Though many parts of this novel (especially the abuse) had me fuming, I was so happy to see Ada get her happy ending, and I’d love to see what happened next. I imagine the townspeople helped Susan to rebuild her house, Ada got her foot surgically repaired, and her and her brother were officially adopted. This is certainly a book I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to, however.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or if you simply enjoy stories of bravery, courage, and hope, you will absolutely love this book. It shows the events of World War II from the incredibly unique perspective of a crippled little girl in England, a perspective I’ve certainly never seen before in literature, much less children’s literature. It has moments that will make you laugh, cry, and rage at the book, and will ultimately take you on a miraculous journey through the life of one very special little girl.

Reference:

Bradley, K. B. (2015). The war that saved my life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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“Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at my face, my kerchief, my shift neatly tucked into my shirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel” (Anderson 2008, p. 134)

“I prayed that Colonel Regan was there. I prayed he would fall ill and die a terrible death for lying to me and betraying me and letting them break my body. Whenever I heard the words ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom,’ I wanted to spit in the dust” (Anderson 2008, p. 158).

Of all the books I’ve read so far this semester, this is perhaps my favorite. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but this novel gripped me from the very first page and did not let me go until the very end. Even after, I found myself immediately wanting to pick up the sequel and keep going, though realistically I won’t have time to do so until after this semester is over (one of the joys of graduate school). I’ve always been a fan of Anderson’s work (I absolutely loved Fever 1793 and Speak), and this book certainly lives up to the very high standards I’ve set for her in my mind.

Chains centers around a young slave girl named Isabel living during the American Revolution. At the beginning of the story, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth have just been set free by their master, a kind woman named Mary Finch. Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, Miss Finch has recently passed away, leaving them at the mercy of her cruel nephew. Ignoring his aunt’s wishes, the new master sells the girls to a man by the name of Mr. Lockton, a Loyalist from New York. Once in New York, Isabel finds herself immediately swept up in the brewing conflict between Loyalists and Patriots, delivering secret messages to Curzon, a young slave boy who soon becomes her first and only friend. It is through her secret duties as a spy for the Patriots that Isabel learns a harsh lesson: “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals not always awarded equally.

As I say with many of the books I review on this blog, I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this one. From the very beginning, the novel intrigues its audience with a moving, thrilling story, one with new twists and turns on every page. Even though this story is told through the eyes of a slave girl in 1776, I found myself drawn to her, immediately invested in her plight and rooting for her to succeed. At the same time, I found myself cursing “Madam,” Isabel’s cruel new mistress throughout the novel. Anderson is a master of getting her readers to care about the characters, making them both believable and sympathetic.

While this book focuses on the plights of everyday citizens during the Revolutionary War, it never feels like reading a textbook about the time period. Sure, there are excerpts from real historic documents at the beginning of each chapter, but these serve more as added details than they do critical plot points. The story is, first and foremost, a story of a little girl fighting to earn her freedom; the Revolutionary War simply provides an exciting backdrop to the main story. What intrigued me the most about this story was Anderson’s ability to make me truly think about ideas such as “freedom” and “liberty.”

In the Declaration of Independence (cited on page 270 in the novel), it states that “all men are created equal.” As we quickly learn throughout the story, however, all men were not created equal in the eyes of slave-owners (or even still today). Many times throughout the novel, Isabel finds herself slighted, ignored, or forgotten after being promised her freedom, even though she provides invaluable assistance to the Patriots. She goes as far as risking her own life to deliver information for the taste of freedom, only to be forced to help herself in the end. Curzon, too, is given the short end of the stick, left to rot in prison after becoming a Patriot soldier and aiding in the fight.

One cannot even list on both hands the number of injustices in this book alone, providing an extremely realistic picture of what life must have been like for slaves caught in the middle of the conflict during this time period. No matter which side they chose, they were still confined to slavery at the end of the day, something that not many people think about when they consider the American Revolution. Perhaps the greatest irony of the Revolutionary War is that, while these men were fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government, they were totally content to enslave and imprison others simply for the color of their skin. To me, this makes a very powerful statement, one that I think is still relevant today.

Given today’s racially tense climate, I think it’s more important than ever that we choose not to forget the horrors of slavery, apartheid, and segregation. Our country has come a long way since the days of owning and selling our fellow human beings, but we have proven in the last year alone that we still have a very long way to go. Books like these are incredibly important, especially for children, as they remind new generations of the horrors that should never be repeated. I thought Anderson’s use of the Revolutionary War as a framing device for this issue was incredibly clever, as it reminds us that not all of us are entirely “free,” even today. It also reminds us that “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals, and they often come with a very hefty price. In Isabel’s world, freedom is not always free, especially for those who likely deserve it the most. It’s been said many times that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. I believe this novel is giving us that reminder in a very subtle manner, by giving us a glimpse of the past that many have already forgotten (or choose not to remember).

Regardless of whether or not this message will ever sink in, I’m grateful that this book exists, and I plan to read the rest of the series as soon as I am able. If you have even the slightest interest in historical fiction, or if you’re just interested in reading a riveting, pulse-pounding story of freedom and adventure, then you should definitely give this series a shot; I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Reference:

Anderson, L. H. (2008). Chains. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Week 13 – Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

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“Eleven-year-old Stella is a deep thinker who often sneaks out of the house and writes under the starlight. Writing helps Stella makes sense of life in segregated 1932 Bumblebee, North Carolina. There’s plenty of action: cross burnings, house burnings, a snakebite, a near-drowning, and a beating. But at its core, this story is one of a supportive African American community facing tough times” (Schneider, 2015).

While this book is not technically a young adult title, it is one of many titles I’ve read for this class that could be considered “crossover” fiction. Much like Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, and El Deafo by Cece Bell (other titles I have reviewed on this blog), I feel as if this is a book that could be enjoyed by both children and teens. Where Fairest and El Deafo were much lighter and more suited for children, I feel as if Stella by Starlight is suited more for mature children and young teens (though I also thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult). It focuses on very serious historical issues, and deals with heavy themes such as racism and prejudice, which might be difficult for younger or weaker readers to understand.

The story focuses on Stella, a young girl growing up in the segregated south in the 1930s. Her small town of Bumblebee, North Carolina has been mostly peaceful in recent years, but trouble begins to brew the night she and her brother Jojo witness a clan rally taking place by the pond near their house. The Ku Klux Klan, angered at the prospect of African Americans being given the right to vote, have become much more active, setting Stella’s community on edge. This story, told from Stella’s perspective, presents the outrageous events of the 1930s through the eyes of an innocent child. While there is no murder or lynching in the story (though lynching is mentioned briefly), a great deal of the violence of this time period is shown: a black family’s house is burned down, Stella’s friend Tony is viciously attacked by grown white men, and a white doctor refuses to help Stella’s mother when she is bitten by a deadly snake. Overall, it is an excellent introduction for younger readers to the history of the segregated south; it is tastefully written, but does not skirt around the historical issues.

During my time working in the children’s section of a local bookstore, I was constantly being asked for new and exciting works of historical fiction for children. Unfortunately, I had never read much of this genre as a child, so I never had many suggestions. Lately, it seems as if more and more intriguing works of historical fiction are being written for children and teens, and I think that’s wonderful. Children, just like adults, need to know about our nation’s history, especially the darker parts that we don’t usually feel comfortable discussing. I was surprised at just how relevant this book is to our own time, as there is still a great deal of prejudice and racism in the country today. In the deep south especially, there are still heavily segregated communities, and areas where the two races almost never mingle. In writing fiction that focuses on this difficult part of our history, Sharon Draper is shedding light on a time period that, as much as we’d like to forget it, is a period that we absolutely have to talk about today.

Besides the heavy themes in the novel, I also really enjoyed the narration provided by Stella. Because she is young, Stella is a little naive, but she has  wisdom and intuition beyond her years. Take the following quote, for example, as Stella is attempting to write about herself: “Besides, sometimes things that look pretty, like secret fire in the darkness, are really pretty ugly” (Draper, 2015, p. 67). In this quote, Stella moves from discussing her looks to talking about the burning cross she saw at the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, we see this idea played out over and over again: the pristine white hospital has a sign on it that says “white patients only,” and the doctor’s beautifully decorated saddle and freshly pressed KKK robes symbolize the darkness and hatred that comes from racism. That is a powerful connection for an eleven year old girl to make, but one that is absolutely believable during a time when even African American children had to fear for their safety around white people. As I said before, these issues are still extremely relevant to our own society; while we have made great progress, racism is still alive and well, and it shows in both the formation of the Black Lives Matter group and the increased interest in issues of police brutality and white-washing in Hollywood.

The reason I believe that this book is suited for both children and teens is because of the darker issues it deals with. While the blow is softened a little by the child’s point of view, the realities of history are not sugar-coated. The white doctor (and revealed member of the KKK) does not mend his ways at the end; in fact, it is revealed that he is abusive to his own wife and daughter as well as being highly racist. These are extremely heavy issues for a children’s book, but issues that absolutely need to be discussed. I would gladly use this book in an elementary or middle school history class, as it is an excellent book for starting a dialogue about racism and prejudice. This book would also be a wonderful addition to any Black History Month display, as it deals with a part of history that is not often talked about in children’s fiction. While some parents might feel uncomfortable with their children reading this book, I think it’s crucial that they sit down and read it for themselves before deciding, as this book has the potential to be an excellent teaching tool for issues of race and racism.

References:

Draper, S. M. (2015). Stella by Starlight. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Schneider, D. (2015, Fall). Draper, Sharon M.: Stella by Starlight. The Horn Book Guide, 26(2), 80.

Week 3 – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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“When Death tells a story, you pay attention. Liesel Meminger is a young girl growing up outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, and Death tells her story as “an attempt—a flying jump of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.” When her foster father helps her learn to read and she discovers the power of words, Liesel begins stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor’s wife’s library. As she becomes a better reader, she becomes a writer, writing a book about her life in such a miserable time. Liesel’s experiences move Death to say, “I am haunted by humans.” How could the human race be “so ugly and so glorious” at the same time? This big, expansive novel is a leisurely working out of fate, of seemingly chance encounters and events that ultimately touch, like dominoes as they collide. The writing is elegant, philosophical and moving. Even at its length, it’s a work to read slowly and savor. Beautiful and important” (Kirkus, 2006).

In what is perhaps John Green’s most widely read work, The Fault in Our Stars, there is a quote that has stuck with me since I first read the book. It happens after the main character, Hazel, has just finished reading what quickly becomes her favorite book: “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book” (Green, 2012, p. 33). While I certainly felt that way when I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, I have never felt it stronger than I did after reading Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief.

The novel, narrated by the personified character of Death, follows the story of young Liesel Meminger, a little girl in Nazi Germany whose family has fallen on hard times. Unable to care for her and her younger brother, Liesel’s mother attempts to leave them in the care of foster parents. Unfortunately, however, Liesel’s younger brother does not survive the trip, leaving Liesel to enter a world of uncertainty alone with her new foster parents, the Hubermanns. What follows is a tale of love, family, and the joy and sorrow that words can bring.

What can I possibly say about this book that hasn’t likely been said already? It was absolutely, beautifully heart-wrenching, and it certainly gave me a new perspective on World War II and Nazi Germany. In this novel, we are presented not with a story of a Jewish person (though many novels have done this in a wonderful way), but with the story of a young, poor German girl. That is something I hadn’t experienced before reading The Book Thief, and it was a refreshingly unique perspective. The horrors of the Holocaust are still presented in this book, but they are presented through the eyes of an innocent young girl, one whose family just so happens to be harboring a Jewish man in the basement. We follow Liesel through life as she makes friends, gets to know and love her new family, and learns to both love and hate the written word. Every single chapter of this novel feels as if it was pain-stakingly written to give the biggest emotional punch at every turn, and I really appreciated the sheer creativity of Zusak’s writing style.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the novel (for me, at least), comes near the end, as Liesel is reading the book that Max (the Jewish man her family had been harboring in the basement) has left for her. Calling this fable “The Word Shaker,” Max goes on to describe Liesel as a young girl who has discovered the power of words. Instead of using them for evil as Adolf Hitler has, however, this girl has used them to extend a hand of friendship towards a man she is supposed to hate (Zusak, 2006, pp. 445-450). This is a truly powerful metaphor, as it carries a theme that is prevalent throughout the novel: that words can be both beautiful and terrible, causing as much harm as they do joy. In the end, Liesel can’t decide whether she loves the words she’s been taught to read, or whether she hates them for presenting the world as something it is not. As we watch her grow and mature, Liesel becomes more and more relatable, going from wide-eyed innocence to being hardened by the terrible things going on around her. Her love of literature, too, spoke to me, as I have often sought the refuge of the written word when trying to escape my own problems.

I would absolutely use this book in a history classroom, as I firmly believe that reading a novel like The Book Thief can make history that much more real and accessible to students who are learning about specific moments in history. For me, personally, books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Elie Wiesel’s Night shaped my understanding of the Holocaust, and truly made me see what a horrific event it really was. The Book Thief not only brings some of these horrors to light, but does so in a new and interesting way; by presenting it from the point of view of an innocent young German girl rather than a Jewish person. It is incredibly unique, beautifully written, and will shatter your heart into a million pieces. I am by no means a lover of historical fiction, but this novel has completely changed my mind towards the entire genre. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is either a fan of historical fiction, or to someone who has never enjoyed historical fiction but is looking to break into the genre with a truly wonderful title.

In the end, I suppose Death himself says it best when he declares, “…I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race…I wanted to ask [Liesel] how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant… I am haunted by humans” (Zusak, 2006, p. 550). That, in essence, is the overall message of this work, and why I believe it’s an extremely important work of fiction. The best books are the ones that truly make us think about the world around us, and allow us to examine both the good and the evil within ourselves (and humanity as a whole). While reading The Book Thief, I experienced every emotion a person can possibly experience, and Zusak’s words carried me on a journey I will never forget. I believe even the most picky of readers can find something to gain from this book; if nothing else, it is a stark reminder of their own mortality. Given the current political climate in the United States, it is more important than ever that we remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, and why we spend so much time studying it in school. For, as it is often said, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.

References:

Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. New York, NY: Dutton Books.

Kirkus. (2006). The Book Thief. Kirkus Reviews, (2).

Zusak, M. (2006). The Book Thief. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.