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Essentially, a journal about books written for children and young adults about World War II.
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1. Top Ten Tuesday #16 - Top Ten Books I Read in 2014


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

Picking the top ten books I've read in 2014 was no easy task, so I've decided to list the top ten books I've read here on The Children's War and list the top ten books I've read on my other blog Randomly Reading.

(I liked these books all equally well, so the list isn't from favorite to least favorite)

1- Dash by Kirby Larson
Mitsi and her family lose everything when they are forced to live in an internment camp, including her beloved dog Dash.  Luckily, a kind neighbor agrees to care for Dash.

When a cruel German captain orders the killing of the last of a small herd of Przewalski's horses, a young Jewish girl tries to save the mare and stallion that survive, even if it means putting herself in danger.  

I love a good mystery and I love historical fiction, so this mystery series is perfect.  Maggie Hope is a great main character, an American who found herself in England at the start of World War II and remained there.

This graphic novel, illustrated in a palette of wonderful colors, tells the story of a Japanese American teen and his American mom forced to go into an internment camp and the nightmares he has about his dad, stuck in Japan when Pearl Harbor was bombed while caring for his elderly parents.

With his signature collage illustrations, Sis writes about the life of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, his love of flying and its connection to writing The Little Prince.  A beautiful picture book for older readers. 

This was a fun novel to read.  It's a great New York story, but also a nice introduction to monuments men who saved works of art in Europe during WWII.

This is a poignant World War I story about a boy, his dad and PTSD.  When his dad's letters stop coming from the front lines, his young son wonders why.  Then an overheard comment in King's Cross  Station results in discovery and surprise for the son.

This is a two for one because I read both this year and couldn't decide which to list.  Besides, I'm really hooked on these post war mysteries.  Young Flavia de Luce is quite the amateur detective, complete with her own lab.  These are fun mysteries and I can't wait to read the next one.

I loved Hartnett's The Midnight Garden and this is just as wonderful.  Two children, evacuated to the country during WWII, meet two boys who seem to be from another time.  And they are, but it is all connected as only Hartnett can do. 

My mom was a nurse and so I have a real soft spot for them.  This nonfiction book about nurses caught in the Pacific war, their dedication to their patients, even under harsh circumstances as POWs, is an excellent addition to women's history, especially during wartime.  

11- The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin
Another favorite nonfiction book, I learned so much about this almost completely unheard of event that happened in WWII, perhaps because it involved African American sailors.  This is really one of the best books I've read this year.






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2. Hunt for the Bamboo Rat by Graham Salsibury

Zenji Watanabe is 17 years old in the summer of 1941, a Nesei born on Honolulu to Japanese parents.  Naturally, he is fluent in both Japanese and English.  He has also just graduated from high school and is thinking about studying Buddhism in Japan, Meanwhile, he was working to help support his family - mother, older brother Henry, younger sister Aiko, father deceased.

All that changes when Zenji's JROTC commanding officer Colonel Blake shows up at his house one day.  He wants Zenji to be interviewed and tested, but for what?  To travel to the Philippines to translate some documents from Japanese to English.

But when Zenji arrives in Manila, he is instructed to stay at the Momo, a hotel where Japanese businessmen like staying, to befriend them and keep his ears and eyes open.  He is given the key to a mail box that he is required to check twice a day to be use for leaving and receiving information and instructions.  Zenji is also given  a contact person, Colonel Jake Olsten, head of G2, the Military Intelligence Service, and even a code name - the Bamboo Rat.

In December 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific begins.  It isn't long before the Americans are forced to withdraw from Manila.  Zenji chooses to remain, giving his seat on the last plane out to another Japanese American with a family.  Not long after that, he is taken prisoner by the Japanese, who torture and threaten him trying to make him admit he is the Bamboo Rat, and considering him a traitor to his county - Japan.

Eventually, the Japanese give up and Zenji is sent to work as a houseboy/translator for the more humane Colonel Fujimoto.  Fujimoto seems to forget that Zenji is a prisoner of war, and begins to trust him more and more.

By late 1944, it's clear the Japanese are losing the war in the Pacific.  They decide to evacuate Manila and go to Baguio.  Even though food is in short supply, Zenji starts to put some aside for the day he may be able to escape into the jungle and wait for the war to end.

But of course, the best laid plans don't always work out the way we would like them to and that is true for Zenji.  Will he ever make it back to Honolulu and his family?

WOW! Graham Salisbury can really write an action-packed, exciting and suspenseful novel.  Salisbury was born and raised in Hawaii, so he gives his books a sense of place that pulsating with life.  Not many authors explore the Japanese American in Hawaii experience during World War II and not many people realize that they were never, for the most part, interned in camps the way the Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians on the west coast of the US and Canada were.  And although Hawaii was only an American territory until it became a state in 1959, if you were born there, you had American citizenship, just like Zenji continuously tells his Japanese captors throughout Hunt for the Bamboo Rat.

At first, I thought Zenji was too gentle, too innocent and too trusting for the kind of work he was recruited to do, which amounted to the dangerous job of spying.  But he proved to be a strong, tough character even while he retained those his aspects of his nature.  Ironically, part of his survival as a spy and a POW is based in what his Japanese Buddhist priests had taught him before the war.

One of the nice elements that Salisbury included are the little poems Zenji's mother wrote.  Devising a form of her own, and written in Kanji, it is her way of expressing her feelings.  They are scattered throughout the book.  Zenji receives one in the mail just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and keeps it with him as long as he can, deriving comfort from it.

Like the first novel I read by Salisbury, Eyes of the Emperor, one kept me reading straight through until I finished it.  It is the fourth novel in his Prisoners of the Empire series, and it is a well-crafted, well-researched story, but it is a stand alone novel.  Zenji's story is based on the real wartime experiences of Richard Motoso Sakakida.

True to form, Salisbury brings in a lot of history, along with real people and events, but be careful, fact and fiction are seamlessly woven together.  He also includes the tension between the Filipino people and the Japanese after the Philippines are occupied by the Japanese and the cruel treatment of the Filipino people.   And included is the tension between Chinese and Japanese in Hawaii because of the Nanjing massacre of Chinese civilians in 1937/38.

All of this gives Hunt for the Bamboo Rat a feeling of authenticity.  There is some violence and reading the about Zenji's torture isn't easy, so it may not appeal to the faint at heart.

Hunt for the Bamboo Rat is historical fiction that will definetely appeal to readers, whether or not they particularly enjoy WWII fiction. And be sure to look at the Author's Note, the Glossary and additional Resources at the end of the novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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3. Bear on the Homefront by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat, illustrated by Brian Deines

In A Bear in War, a young girl named Aileen Rogers sends her beloved teddy bear to her father, a medic in Europe with the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles during World War I, in the hope that it would keep him safe from harm.  Unfortunately, Aileen's father didn't return home, dying on the battlefield, but Teddy did.

Now, it is 1940, the world is at war again and England has decided to send as many children as possible to Canada to keep them safe.  Aileen Rogers is all grown up, working as a homefront nurse, whose present job is excorting the English children to their wartime foster homes.  And yes, she still has Teddy, carrying him in her pocket in hope that seeing him will help the children feel less afraid.

As a ship arrives, Teddy notices that two small children, Grace and younger brother William, 5, look particularly lost and afraid.  With a long ocean voyage behind them and now facing a long train ride across Canada, Aileen and Teddy take them under their wing.  William is allowed to keep Teddy when they arrive at their destination.  And so, for the rest of the war, Grace, Teddy and Wiliam live on a farm, helping their host family and keeping in touch with the parents by post.

The war lasted five years, and by the end, William was 10 years old.  Grace and William return to England and their parents, and Teddy is returned to Aileen.

This lovely, gentle story about separation is narrated by Teddy, an old hand at being away from Aileen, and so someone who really understands the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that William feels at being so far away from his mom and dad.  Sometimes, just having a warm and furry toy is enough to provide just the right amount of reassurance needed to get through something difficult.

Along with and complimenting Teddy's narration are beautiful, realistic oil paintings by Brian Deines.  These illustrations are the same softness to them that Teddy's words offer.

Author Stephanie Innes created A Bear in War and Bear on the Homefront used family memorabilia, including letters, photographs, Aileen's journal and, of course, Teddy.  Teddy was donated to the Canadian War Museum.  You can hear about it in the short video below (after the annoying ad).


This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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4. Your Hit Parade #4: Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)

In honor of the return of my very favorite variety of apple, the *Honey Crisp, returning to produce shelves now, I have had the song "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" running through my head now for the past two weeks and I thought it would be interesting to explore the song's WWII roots.

In the spring of 1942, things were not going well for the United States, now at war in Europe and the Pacific.  In fact, things were really looking bad in the Pacific, where the US was losing in the Philippines and would end up surrendering in Bataan and in Corregidor to the Japanese.  Yet, even as the US was losing the war in those early days, Americans were still wanting and listening to war-related  music, but mostly of the novelty or sentimental variety and if only to boost morale.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" proved to be a real favorite during those dark days, but it was not originally a war-relate song.  It was written in 1939, with music and the lyrics by Sam H. Stept, Lew Brown and Charles Tobias and was called "Anywhere the Bluebird Goes," but the name was changed when it was used in a play called Yokel Boy starring Judy Canova.  According the Playbill, Yokel Boy opened  July 6, 1939 and closed January 6, 1940, after only 208 performances.

But the song's popularity increased after the US entered the war.  In early 1942, it had been recorded by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, and with vocals by Beneke, Marion Hutton (older sister of Betty Hutton), and the Modernaires.  Miller's version of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was very popular and stayed on Billboard's charts for 13 weeks in 1942.

Billboard January 2, 1943 pg 27
In May 1943, the movie Private Buckaroo, a musical comedy about army recruits after they are finished with basic training, was released.  In it, the Andrews Sisters travel around the US, performing at USO dances in uniform  accompanied by Henry James and his Orchestra.  One of their most popular songs in the film was "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."  The song was a perfect fit, since it is about a young soldier who is off to war and is basically asking his sweetheart to stay true to him while he is off fighting, something that was happening every day in real life.


"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" proved to be a very big hit for the Andrews Sister, and though not as big as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", it does have that distinctive swing style Maxine, LaVerne and Patty Andrews were so well known for, as you can see in this clip from the movie:



In his 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning oral history of World War II, The Good War, author Studs Turkel interviewed Maxine Andrews about the wartime experiences of Andrews Sisters. This is what she said about "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree":
"I remember we sang it up in Seattle when a whole shipload of troops went out.  We stood there on the deck and all the young men up there waving and yelling and screaming.  As we sang "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," all the mothers and sisters and sweethearts sang with us as the ship went off.  It was wonderful.  The songs were romantic.  It was a feeling of - not futility,  It was like everybody in the United States held on to each other's hands."

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was so popular that during 1942, three different versions were recorded and all ended up on the pop charts - Glenn Miller's The Andrews Sisters, and Kay Kyser and his band.


*The Honey Crisp is the only apple that should be refrigerated other it gets mealy real quick.

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5. Hitler in Paris: How a Photograph Shocked a World at War by Don Nardo

Even before he seized power and became the chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler had done two things that most people seeking political office rarely did at that time - first was that he used a private plane with his own pilot to campaign quickly all over Germany.  The plane was so much faster than a train or car, and much less tiring.  The second thing he did was to have a personal photographer to record his every move.  That photographer was Heinrich Hoffmann.

You probably know, if only from reading The Extra by Kathryn Lasky, that Leni Riefenstahl made several propaganda films, but her most famous film of all was Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and showcasing Hitler.  She was a talented and innovative filmmaker, and a good friend of Hitler's (despite later denials of not knowing anything about was was happening in Nazi Germany and the occupied countries), but for still photography, it was Heinrich Hoffmann that Hitler wanted.

Hoffman was a very talented photographer, who loved to take pictures of people in moments when their guard was down, and recording their spontaneous actions/reactions.  But he was also gifted at the posed photograph and the iconic June 1940 photograph he took of Hitler standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, flanked on one side by Albert Speer and on the other by Arno Breker, is the one that Don Nardo has chosen to focus on in his book Hitler in Paris.  It is this photograph that best represents Hitler's dominance in Europe.  Standing at the Eiffel Tower, in a now defeated France, and with conquered countries to the North, South and East of France, Hitler's sights are now to the West and Britain.  One can only imagine how people must have felt when they saw this photo.  But what brought Hitler and Hoffmann to this point?

Nardo gives the reader a parallel history of each man early life - both middle class, but with very different family circumstances.  Events in Hitler's early life, a cruel father with whom he often fought, held feed his anger and hate at those more fortunate, and was later spurred on and fueled by Germany's defeat in World War I, for which he desperately wanted to seek revenge.

Hoffmann, by contrast, was taken under his father's wing and taught the art of photography.  Nardo describes Hoffmann as a very likable man, who claimed (like Riefenstahl) that he was not political, his relationship with Hitler was strictly personal and he had no knowledge of what was happening around him.  Eva Braun worked in his photography studio and it was Hoffmann who introduced her to Hitler (you may recall that from reading Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman).

Taken on the same trip to Paris by
Hoffmann
This is a short, 64 page book that is filled with information and photographs, all taken by Hoffmann.
 Nardo has done a pretty good job at presenting these two men with objectivity and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about them and the circumstances depicted in the book.

Nardo also used lots of primary and secondary sources to write Hitler in Paris, giving the book a real sense of time an place, as well bringing these two controversial figures to life.  Additionally, he has included a useful timeline, a glossary, a list of additional resources, source notes and a selected bibliography.  There are also copious photographs of Hoffmann's, which are all now in the public domain.

Hitler in Paris: How a Photograph Shocked a Word at War will probably have great appeal to history buffs interested in the 20th century, WWII, and/or Nazi Germany.  But it will also appeal to serious serious budding photographers and even to those who are more experienced as a study in how one emblematic photograph can convey so much.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library


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6. Sunday Funnies #19: Thanksgiving Day Edition



I have a lot to be thankful for this year.  First, my Kiddo is happy and healthy and living in California with her new husband and I will be seeing them at Christmas when they come to visit.

I'm thankful for my friends and family, even if I don't get to see them very often.  And I am thankful for my online friends, even though I haven't met many of them.  One of the things I love about blogging is getting to know so many people all over the world, an opportunity that can be found in few other ways.   Thank you to all my followers and readers.  Your presence on my blog is much appreciated.

Thanksgiving was hit hard in WWII because of rationing and it wasn't lost on the people who drew comic strips for the newspapers, as you can see:

November 25, 1943 Rationing on the Home Front:


November 25, 1943 Rations on the Front Lines:



I wish everyone a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving



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7. The Tattered Prayer Book by Ellen Bari, illustrated by Avi Katz

When young Ruthie finds a tattered prayer book in a box of old photographs marked Germany in her grandmother's house, she gets quite a surprise.  The prayer book in written in Hebrew and German and had apparently been burned.  Even more surprising - her grandmother tells Ruthie that the book came from Germany and it belongs to her father.

When Ruthie asks her dad about it, he tells her that he was born and lived a happy life in Hamburg with his family, and with lots of cousins and friends.  But, when the Nazis took over the government in 1933, all that changed.  Soon, Jews weren't allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, schools.  Old friends became instant bullies.

Then, in November 1938, Nazis began a night of destruction, Kristallnacht, destroying Jewish business and synagogues, setting them on fire.  When Ruthie's dad saw what was left of his synagogue, he also saw burnt prayer books all over.  He reached for one and hid it in his coat - a reminder of the place where he had once been so happy.

One day, while he and his father were in a shop, Nazis came down the road probably to arrest the men.  Ruthie's Grandpa slipped out the back door, while her dad ran home to tell his mother what happened.  Days later, Grandpa came back home and told his family he had to leave, sailing for America with his son Fred.

Every night, her dad opened his burnt, tattered prayer book and prayed.  Finally, in June 1939, visas arrived for Ruthie's dad, mother and brother Sid.  Other friends and family members were leaving Germany, too, for Argentina and Israel.  Others, sadly, had to remain in Germany.

On board the ship, after the Sabbath candles were lit, Ruthie's dad showed the prayer book to his mother, expecting her to be angry, but she wanted it to be a reminder of the good life they had had in Germany and a source of strength for the future.

Recalling what happened so long ago in his life in Germany, after making such an effort to forget it all, Ruthie's father realizes how important that burnt, tattered prayer book had been to him and how much what it symbolized is an important part of himself.

The burnt prayer book is a symbol of both the happy, good life Ruthie's dad and his family shared before the Nazis came to power, and at the same time, the terrible years that followed.

Often, when we talk about the Holocaust, it is about the mass roundups of Jews, the death camps they were sent to, and the attempt to systematically destroy an entire race of people.  But nothing happens in a vacuum and neither did the Holocaust.  Between the years 1933 and 1938, Jews were subject to all kinds of degrading treatment by Hitler's henchman in the SA and the SS, and by ordinary citizens who turned their backs on friends overnight.

In The Tattered Prayer Book, Ellen Bari has written an informative, but gentle picture book for older readers (age 7+) about those deplorable years in a way that kids will definitely understand.  It is an ideal book for parents who wish to introduce their children about the Holocaust themselves before they learn about it in school.  Teachers, however, will also find it to be an excellent book for teaching the Holocaust, as well.

The illustrations by Avi Katz are done in sepia-tones that are reminiscent of old photographs and burnt paper, again reflecting that balance of good and bad times that the prayer book represents.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher

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8. The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

This novel opens on October 27, 1942.  Helmuth Hübener, 17, has been imprisoned on death row in Plotzensee Prison, Berlin, charged with high treason against the Third Reich.  He had hoped the court would show lenicency because of his age, but that hope was now gone.  Sentenced to death, Helmuth recalls, in a series of flashbacks, the events in his life that led him to this day.

As a young child living in Hamburg, Helmuth hears his grandparents talk about their dislike of the Nazis and their leader, Adolf Hitler and Opa's predictions that Hitler wants war.  But Helmuth likes playing with his toy soldiers and thinks maybe he will be a soldier when he is old enough to fight.

But when Hitler seizes power in 1933, Helmuth sees everything around him change.  Teachers and schoolmates show their support for the new chancellor and begin harassing the Jewish students, Germans are told to boycott Jewish stores, enforced by SS and SA destroying their businesses.  Un-German books and movies are forbidden, and Helmuth is afraid that means Karl May's beloved stories about America's wild west, until his brother Gerhard tells him they are Hitler's favorites, too.

In 1935, Helmuth's mother begins seeing a Nazi named Hugo Hübener.  Hugo changes everything in their home and after the two marry, moves the family away from Opa and Oma.

In 1938, at age 12, Helmuth begins a new school, where he is immediately labelled a troublemaker by his teacher, a Nazi.  He is punished by having to write an essay with the title "Adolf Hitler: Savior of the Fatherland."  Helmuth knows he must bite the bullet and write the essay his teacher expects and in the end, even his teacher has to admit that he is a talented writer.  Helmuth is also required to join the Jungvolk, the younger version of the Hitler Youth.

When his older brother Gerhard is inducted into the army in 1939, he is sent to Paris for training.  Once the war begins, Helmuth suspects that the Reich's radio is not giving the German people the truth about what is going on.  When Gerhard returns from France, he bring a new forbidden short wave radio back with him., but hides it and tells Helmuth to leave it alone.  At first, Helmuth resists the temptation to listen to it, but after a while he can't resist any longer and each night, sets up the radio to hear the BBC broadcasts done in German.  And just as he suspected, the German people are indeed being lied to about German successes in the war.

Helmuth, who is a devout Mormon and who practices his faith throughout, convinces his two best friends from church, Rudi Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, to help him create leaflets transcribing the BBC broadcasts to be distributed all over Hamburg.

Helmuth, Rudi and Karl are turned into the Gestapo by a supposed friend, put on trial and sentenced. Helmuth is the only one sentenced to death for high treason.  He had promised Rudi and Karl he would  take full responsibility, so they were only sentenced to imprisonment for a few years (which were shortened more when Germany lost the war).

It is through the flashbacks, that Bartoletti skillfully shows us Helmuth's development from a child who enthusiastically  supports the Nazis to an adolescent who critically questions what he sees going on around him to a courageous young man willing to risk death in order to tell people the truth about Hitler and the Nazis.  It makes for a very powerful story.

The Boy Who Dared is historical fiction based on a true story and is one of the reasons why Helmuth's story is so compelling.  I think that it is important for today's readers to understand that not everyone in Germany supported Hitler and his politics, but so many chose to remain silence about their feelings, like Helmuth's mother who told him that silence is how people get on sometimes. (pg 95)  In fact, we never really know how Helmuth's mother really feels.  She married a Nazi, but her family was basically against Hitler.

At the back of the novel, there are photographs of Helmuth, his friends and family, as well as an extensive, not to be skipped over Author's Note explaining how Bartoletti researched the novel and the people she interviewed.

Helmuth was the youngest resister of the Third Reich to be executed.  His story really makes you stop
Helmuth, age 16
and think about whether or not you might have had the kind of courage of your convictions that Helmuth had.  Did his actions impact anyone who knew him or read the leaflets he wrote?  Except for his stepfather, Hugo, who did become a changed man after Helmuth's execution,we will never know, but hopefully Helmuth's story will inspire others to find courage within themselves to speak out against injustice and lies regardless.

If you are moved by The Boy Who Dared, and would like to know more about what life was like for young people like Helmeth during the Third Reich, then be sure to look at Susan Campbell Bartoletti's excellent nonfiction book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. 

Scholastic offers an extensive lesson plan/discussion guide for readers of The Boy Who Dared which you can find HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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9. Gifts from the Enemy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Craig Orback

Gifts from the Enemy is based on Alter Wiener's book From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography. 

It is many years after the Holocaust and Atler begins his personal story of survival by telling the reader that he was an ordinary person with an extraordinary past.

Alter was only 13 when the Nazis invaded Poland, including his small village of Chrzanów.  Up until the invasion on September 1, 1939, the Wiener family, Papa, Mama, and brother Schmuel and Hirsch had lived a comfortable happy life.  His mother was a generous woman and every Shabbath she made sure there was enough food to share with the homeless and less fortunate.

But soon after the Nazis arrived, Jews no longer had any rights - they could not go to school, the park, to the synagogue, and a curfew was imposed making all Jews prisoners in their own homes.  Before long, the Nazis came for Alter's father, killing him.  A year later, they came for his brother Schmuel.

When Alter was 15, the Nazis came for him in the middle of the night.  He never saw any of his family again. Atler was sent to a prison labor camp, where he and the other prisoners were always cold and hungry, and forced to work long hard hours.

While working in a German factory, a German worker caught his attention and pointed to a box.  Later, Alter went to see what she was pointing at.  Underneath a box was a bread and cheese sandwich.  This went on for 30 day and Atler believes that this woman not only helped to save his life, but taught him the valuable lesson that "there are the kind and the cruel in every group of people."

After the Russian Army liberated the camp Alter was in, he tried to find the woman who had shown him some kindness at a time when kindness towards Jews was forbidden.   He never did discover who she was, but he has never forgotten her.

Trudy Ludwig has taken the adult version of Alter Wiener's story and simplified it for younger readers, yet it never sounds condescending or patronizing.  The book is written from Alter's point of view, and as he recounts his experiences, Ludwig is able to include a lot of historical information in his narrative about the Nazi occupation of Poland and about the horror that was the Holocaust without overwhelming or frightening the reader.

Gifts from the Enemy was illustrated by Craig Orback.  His realistic oil paintings are light in times of freedom, happiness or hope and appropriately dark during the days of Alter's imprisonment by the Nazis.

With its message of hope at the end, Gifts from the Enemy is an excellent choice to begin the difficult talking about the Holocaust with children, especially as a read aloud.  And to help do that, Ludwig has included information about hate, the Holocaust, a vocabulary for what might be unfamiliar words for many kids, as well as discussion questions and activities for young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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10. Veterans Day 2014

Honor to the soldier and the sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause.  

Abraham Lincoln




IT IS THE VETERAN

It is the Veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the Veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Veteran, who saluted the Flag,
It is the Veteran, who serves under the Flag,
To be buried by the flag
So the protester can burn the flag.
Anoymous

To all Veterans, Thank You for your Service!


In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001








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11. Movie Matinee #6: The Book Thief

I've waited a whole year to watch this movie.  When it opened, I had just reread the novel and wanted to put some distance between the written word and its cinematic representation.  Also, the critics really didn't like this movie.  In his New York Times review of November 7, 2013, Stephen Holden, described The Book Thief as a "shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch."    At rogerebert.com, critic Godfrey Cheshire echoes this sentiment, writing that there is a distinct air of solipsism in the film, that main character Liesel never undergoes a transformation, so that the actual tragedy [that is the Holocaust] is reduced to the role of kitschy backdrop.

Sounds like a colossal flop, doesn't it?

But, let's not forget that in her March 27, 2006 review for the NY Times Janet Maslin snarkily referred to the novel as "Harry Potter and the Holocaust."  Yet, it has been on the NY Times YA best seller list almost consistently since it come out and almost everyone who reads it, loves it.

OK, back to the movie with a Spoiler Alert

It's  April 1938 and the voice of Death begins to tell the story of young Liesel Meminger, on a train with her mother and brother traveling to their new family.  The children are being taken from their mother because she's a communist.  When Liesel's brother dies on the trip, he's buried by the side of the tracks.  One of the gravedigger's drops his manual and it becomes the first book Liesel steals.

Arriving at the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann on the ironically named Heaven Street, it soon becomes apparent that Liesel can't read and she becomes a target for the class bully, Franz Deutsche.  So, gentle, kind-hearted Hans teaches her how to read in the basement of their home, using chalk to list the words she learns on the walls.  Rosa Huberman appears to be a hard-hearted women who calls every one Saumensch (pig) and takes in the Bürgermeister's laundry to make some money.

Liesel becomes friends with neighbor Rudy, who is immediately smitten with her.  Rudy also admires runner Jesse Owens, and works hard to emulate his skill, which earns him a place in a special Nazi school when he turns 14.

After Kristallnacht in November 1939, Max Vanderburg arrives ill at the Hubermann's home one night seeking refuge.  Max is on the run from the Nazis because he is a Jew, but his father had saved Hans's life in WWI and so the Hubermann's willingly take him in despite the danger to themselves and Liesel if they were to be caught.

During a book burning, Liesel steals another book.  But this time someone sees her and when she next delivers the Bürgermeister's laundry, his wife invites her in to see and use their library to her heart's content.  Unfortunately, when her staunch Nazi husband discovers it, he throws Liesel out and fires Rosa.  Later, when Max becomes very ill, Liesel starts to sneak into the Bürgermeister's library to borrow books to read to him.   Liesel and Max are definitely kindred spirits when it comes to their love of books, reading and words.

Despite living in Nazi Germany, Liesel is surrounded by people who love her and whom she loves.  But Death soon visits again and Liesel loses everyone she loves.  Death also informs us that Liesel grew up, married (not Max), had children and grandchildren, and became a successful writer.

Not everyone disliked this movie as intensely as the two critics above.  And neither did I, although I do think it is a somewhat flawed film.  Cinematically, it is a beautiful film.  It was directed by Brian Percival, whom you might remember directed some of the Downtown Abbey episodes.  And there is a definite Downtown feel to The Book Thief, mostly notably in the cinematic color palette Percival used.  It was done in dark shades of browns, blacks, and red so that the bright red, white and black of the Nazi flag really stands out, as does the fire yellows in the book burning scene.

Living in Nazi Germany meant leaving in constant fear, but I didn't necessarily feel that that in the movie, as much as in the book.  Sure, there were air raids and house searches looking for hidden Jews and constantly being hungry, there was even a scene where Jews were forced to march through the streets in a roundup.  And when Hans stands up for a Jewish acquaintance, he finds himself drafted into the German Army despite his age.  But there was a certain lack of feeling on the part of the characters even while they are endearing themselves to you.

The person I watched the movie with thought it was odd that Liesel and Rudy were both in the Hitler Youth, but they would have had no choice, that was mandatory by then.  Penalties for not letting your children join were harsh and stiff.  But it is clear, even as Germany is losing on the Eastern Front, Liesel believes what she has been told - that Germany is winning the war.

The book burning seems strangely out of place.  Book burning were done in the early 1930s,  In all my research, I don't recall hearing about book burnings happening the late 1930s or early 1940s.  It seems a  plot device to bring Liesel and the Bürgermeister's wife together on a mutual appreciative ground.  Her dead son was also a lover of books and the library that temporarily is made accessible to Liesel belonged to him.

Five years pass during which Liesel lives with the Hubermann's that we see and in all that time, Liesel and Rudy don't get older.  The only concession to time passing this the length of Liesel's hair, but Rudy never matures beyond his original 12 years.

Those are my main gripes about The Book Thief.  On the whole, I did like the film, and thought the acting was excellent.  Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play the Hubermanns,  Sophie Nélisse plays Liesel and Nico Liersch is Rudy.  Some complaints were made because the characters speaks English with German accents with the occasional German word.  My feeling was that it bridged the fact that I was watching a German story in English and helped to keep the sense of place.

This film is recommended for viewers age 13+
This film was purchased for my personal library


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12. Two Dog Heroes of WWI

 Rags: Hero Dog of WWI, a true story
written by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Petra Brown

This is the story of a mongrel dog who was surviving by his wits in Paris when he was found by an American soldier named James Donovan during an air raid after the Americans entered WWI.

Private Donovan felt sorry for the hungry, scruffy, scared pup, giving him the very suitable name Rags.  When the air raid was over, Donovan took Rags back to his army base, where he was ordered to pack up this gear so he could leave for the battlefield that night.  And yes, Rags went with him.

It didn't take long for Rags to become a favorite with the soldiers and to adjust to infantry life in the trenches.  He was immediately put to work, chasing mice and rats out of the trench where Donovan was fighting.  Donovan was a radio operator and soon Rags was delivering important messages all up and down the trenches.

It didn't take long for Rags to become quite the hero.  In October 1918, little more than a month before the war ended, Donovan and Rags were both seriously injured in a terrible battle, but not before Rags got a message through that helps the Allies win the battle.  At the army hospital, a kind doctor found Rags and took care of his injuries.  From then on, Rags was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and walked with a limp.  Sadly, Donovan did not survive his injuries.

Rags: Hero Dog of WWI is really a picture book for older readers, though there are not real resources at the back of the book.  It is well written, but though the story is based on an actual dog, it is really historical fiction.  Still, it is an inspiring work and is sure to please kids who like animal stories.  By the same token, it introduces the reader to some of the horrors of war in a gentle, age appropriate way.

The soft, muted realistic illustrations by Petra Brown are sure to tug at the heartstrings.  I know they did mine.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero
written by Blake Hoena, illustrated by Oliver Hurst

Like Rags, Stubby (named that because of his stubby tail) was also a scruffy stray who began to follow Private J. Robert Conroy around his army base in New Haven, CT after Conroy had given him some leftover food.  Soon, Conroy made a place for Stubby to sleep under his bed and a friendship was born.  It didn't take long for Stubby to become the mascot of the 26th Infantry Division and in August 1917, he sailed to France with the soldiers.

On the battlefield, Stubby's keen sense of smell served as a warning when the enemy starting using mustard gas to attack the soldiers.  The mustard gas would have burned their skin and lungs so they couldn't breath if Stubby hadn't warned them.  Soon, the soldiers learned to follow Stubby's cues.  He sense of hearing warned them when a bomb was coming so they could take cover, and he even helped capture a German soldier crawling over no man's land to drop a grenade in the trenches.

When the war ended, Conroy went to Georgetown Law and Stubby went with him, becoming the football team's mascot.  Stubby died in 1926.

Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero is a similar story to that of Rags, but for younger readers.  It too is well written and straightforward, with back matter that includes a glossary, books for further reading and even a Critical Thinking using the Common Core section.

Oliver Hurst's oil painted and pencil folk art type illustrations are done in a palette of browns, greens and blues, giving Stubby's story a real feeling of the battlefield, where I don't imagine there were too many bright colors anywhere, since soldiers was to blend in the background.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was received from the publisher

Dogs were not officially used in World War I, but both Rags and Stubby were two of the exceptions.  In fact, each received a write-up in the New York Times when they died.

You can read the obituary for Rags HERE and Stubby's HERE (oddly located at the bottom of the page about the Metropolitian Museum of Art)

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13. Halloween, Donuts and Soul Cakes


HAPPY HALLOWEEN


I was thinking about Halloween and what kind of post to do this year, which is hard since Halloween wasn't a big deal during WWII and really wasn't even much of a children's holiday.  Halloween and trick or treating didn't become a such a big thing for kids until after the war.  

Searching through my virtual folder marked Halloween, I came across this old ad from a 1943 Life Magazine.  I had already done a Weekend Cooking post called Victory through Donuts about the hard-working canteen women of the Red Cross, who went all over this country and Britain handing out coffee and donuts to soldiers, and thought I was done with donuts of WWII.   


But when I saw that little square at the end of the illustrations, reminding people to invite servicemen to their Halloween Party, and to serve donuts, I began to wonder why donuts are so much a part of Halloween festivities.

Enlargement from the above ad.

Turns out, there is a reason for it and it has noting to do with servicemen or WWII, but is interesting nevertheless.  So, what's the scoop?

It all began with an old English custom, mostly likely stemming from the very early Middle Ages, if not actually from the dark ages.  All Hallows Eve (October 31st) was traditionally the time that the dead return to earth along with all manner of dark forces, such as witches, ghosts, goblins, and devils, to wreck havoc and mischief.  And it was a day when Christians would stay home and lit fires to keep away any of these spirits.  On the next two days, All Saints' Day, also called All Hallows Day, and All Souls' Day, it was the custom of the poor and destitute to go out begging, or a-soulin', from door to door and singing their traditional soul song.

When a beggar did come to someones door, s/he would be given a small round cake called a soul cake in return for a promise to pray for those who had died in the household during the past year and who might still in Purgatory.  The cakes were a type of shortbread and had a cross drawn on it to make it as an alms cakes, and sometimes it would also have currants sprinkled on the top.  They would look something like this:

From NPR, where  you can get the recipe
Legend has it, however, that the beggars were more interested in the food they received and not terribly in the prayers they promised in return.  One woman decided to cut a hole in the middle of the soul cake, fried it in deep fat and gave them out to anyone who came a-soulin'.  The circle was a reminder of eternity, where we will all end up someday.  Whether true or not, it is the precursor to having donuts at Halloween.

You may remember that Peter, Paul and Mary had a song called A-Soalin' on their 1963 album Moving (which also had Puff the Magic Dragon on it).  Their version pretty close to all the old version I have seen, and you might think that the last stanza was attached to the original song  by the trio because of its reference to Christmas.  This isn't entirely wrong since the poor and destitute went a-soulin' or really a-wassailing at Christmastime as well as on All Saints' and All Souls Days:


Well, this is a long way from donuts, soldiers and WWII, but here is a reminder to enjoy a donut for Halloween with your own trick or treaters, after all,


NB: I've give just a basic description of soulin' and soul cakes.  There are actually a number of descriptions about the origins of these traditions, and the roots of  Halloween.  You may even recall that soul cakes were mention in the novel Catherine, called Birdy by Karen Cushman.

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14. A Less Than Perfect Peace by Jacqueline Levering Sullivan

It's January 1950 and for most people, WWII has been over for five years.  But not in the Howard household in Tacoma, Washington.  It was only fours years ago that Annie Leigh's father, who had been MIA, returned from the war, and spent time in a convalescent hospital learning to adjust to his blindness.  Now, he's home, but is starting to withdraw more and more, refusing any more help with his blindness, unlike Uncle Billy, who had also come home from the war with PTSD, and had gotten help for it.  Now, the Howard Brothers are planing on starting a carpentry business together - one that won't require Annie's father to leave home.

On top of that, her mother, who seems to be extremely most self-absorbed and domineering, has started her own beauty salon, a long time dream finally realized, but a bone of contention between her and her husband.  The family needs the money the salon will bring in, but it takes up a lot of her time, or maybe, Annie speculates, what takes up her mother's time is really the florist, Mr. Larry Capaldi, whose shop is downstairs from the salon and who frequently picks Mrs. Howard up and drops her off.

Into all this come Jon and Elizabeth VanderVelde, refugee twins from Holland who have come to  Tacoma to live with their Aunt Dee and Uncle Hendrick.  They live on the estate of a wealthy family,  Aunt Dee is the cook and housekeeper and Uncle Henrick is their driver.  Jon and Elizabeth immediately become friends with Annie Leigh, but they are also carrying their own emotional baggage, especially Jon.   The twins spent the war living under Nazi occupation, and witnessed the terrible killing of their parents, to which Jon responded in ways that left him with his own nightmares and PTSD.

Luckily for Annie, her beloved Grandma Howard from Walla Walla comes for an extended stay and can offer Annie some support, advice and stability when needed.  Meanwhile, Annie gets to know Jon better, and the two find they are attracted to each other, despite his black moods.  But after he  surprises her by telling her the truth about what happened on his family's farm towards the end of the war. Annie begins to question her feelings for Jon.   But, Annie's biggest surprise come when her mother announces that she is pregnant, and Annie can't help but wonder who the real father is.

Yes, this coming of age story is packed with problems that Annie fears might collapse her world.  But in the process of seeking solutions, Annie learns to appreciate what those who were directly involved in the war experienced.  And in her attempt to find solutions and make everyone's world better again, she must learn to sometimes step back and let things unfold without her help.

A Less Than Perfect Peace has some nice elements to it and creates a very realistic sense of place and time, giving the reader an interesting window into the beginning of the Cold War, which is also a good metaphor for what was going on in the Howard family at the time.  At times the story did drag, and it seemed like there were just too many different story threads, but it all works out in the end and it does mimic how real life happens.

When my mother suddenly lost the sight in one of her eyes, I saw how truly panicked she was about it, and the idea of losing sight in both eyes was a really scary thought for her.  I could understand Mr. Howard's desire to stay in the safe confines of his home, where he knew his way around, and to be so resistant to admitting to himself that he is blind and therefore handicapped, even when there were programs and guide dogs to help him maneuver the world again.  His character shows what a paralyzing emotion fear can sometimes be.

I should mention that this is a sequel to Annie's War, which I haven't read yet, but enough background information is given by narrator Annie Leigh in A Less Than Perfect Peace so that it is a nice stand alone novel and a novel that will certainly resonate with many young readers especially those who are or have family members stuggling with PTSD.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was borrowed from a friend

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15. Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

Life is pretty comfortable for Gabriella Schramm, 13, called Gaby by friends and family.  Living in 1932 Berlin, her upper middle class family is better off than most Germans at the time.  Her father is a renowned scientist, teaching astronomy at the University, and is friends with Albert Einstein.  Her mother, an former pianist who gives lessons at home now, hob nobs with Baba, a well-respected Jewish society columnist for the only newspaper in Berlin that isn't pro-Nazi.  Gaby's older sister, Ulla, is scheduled to begin studying at a conservatory in Vienna next year.  And Gaby, who loves to read anything she can get her hands on, including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain and my personal favorites Rainer Maria Remarque and Erich Kästner, is looking forward to reading Heinrich Heine's poetry in Gymnasium after summer vacation.

But things are beginning to change, both within Gaby's family and all over Germany.  First, Ulla insists on remaining in Berlin for the summer instead of going to the family's lakeside vacation home, claiming she has a bookkeeping job at the cabaret where her boyfriend Karl, an engineering student, works.  But when Karl and Ulla come to visit, Gaby begins to suspect that Karl is a Nazi supporter.  She had already suspected the same thing of the family housekeeper, Hertha and the man who maintains their Berlin apartment building.  In fact, Gaby has noticed a significant increase in the number of Brown Shirts (SA) and Black Shirts (SS) all over Berlin despite the ban on them.

Back in school after vacation, Gaby and her best friend Rosa are overjoyed to begin studying literature with the very beautiful, kind, well-dressed Frau Hofstadt, who is picked up everyday by a mysterious limousine.  But, at home, the talk is more and more about the political situation, which in 1932 is all over the place, though everyone is relieved when the Nazis loose seats in the Reichstag (Parliament), hoping that that will be an end to Hitler and his Nazi party.

But that's not what happens at all and through all kinds of twists and turns, Hitler is named Chancellor by President Hindenburg at the end of January 1933.  And with amazing speed, Gaby watches her previously safe, happy world fall completely to pieces.

The period 1919-1933 was such a complicated time in German history and politics.  The Nazis referred to it as the Kampfzeit, the time of struggle to gain acceptance and power for their radical policies.  Lasky covers only 1932-1933 in Ashes and kudos to her for successfully tackling it in a novel for young readers.  There is lots of talk about events that actually happened, and Lasky provides enough information to understand it without overwhelming or boring the reader.

Ashes is a well-written novel, and although it is a little slow in places, given the time and place of the action, it is indeed a worthwhile read.   I particularly loved that each chapter begins with a quote from a book Gaby loves and which foreshadows what happens in that chapter.  And since Gaby witnesses the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933, it is all the more poignant a reminder of some of what was lost in that tragic event.

The novel is told from Gaby's point of view, which gives us her very subjective, but very astute observation, not only of what is happening around her, but how she thinks and feels about it all,  A fine example of that is when she witnesses her former math teacher, Herr Berg, being removed from her school by the Nazis for being Jewish, and disappears.  The reader feels her shock, disgust, sadness and  despair all at the same time.

Some of the scenes may feel a little cliche and I am not the first person to realize that Karl resembles Lisle's Hitler Youth boyfriend from The Sound of Music, and that there is a scene similar to one in Cabaret, in which everyone in an outdoor Biergarten joins a Hitler Youth in singing a Nazi song.  But, these scenes also make a necessary point (and people have traditionally joined in singing in Biergartens in Germany, it wasn't just a Nazi thing to show support).

Ashes is a nice contribution to the body of Holocaust and World War II literature and on its own, a very interesting book about a very complex time made accessible by good research and skillful writing.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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16. Top Secret Files of History: Spies, Secret Missions, & Hidden Facts from World War II by Stephanie Bearce

World War II is like an iceberg - the parts of it that we read about in history books or even learn in the classroom are really just the tip of the iceberg.  Below the surface, hidden from sight, are all kinds of secrets, deceptions and subterfuge that helped win the war.  So, what are some of them?

Well, Stpehanie Bearce has culled some of the more interesting aspects of wartime secrets and put them together in this small, but very interesting book.  Young readers will learn not only how one became a spy for England, training in the grand estates around the country requisitioned for that purpose, but they will read about the Ghost Army that fought the war with rubber trucks, tanks, planes and weapons.  Rubber?  That's right.  And that's not all they did.

Kids will how read about how an Australian journalist turned spy called The White Mouse became a bane of Nazi existence because of her ability to give them the slip while working with the French resistance.   Or how one man, Christopher Hutton, invented the silk map, making life so much easier for Allied pilots and parachutists, because their maps were now so lightweight and indestructible.  Hutton went on to invent other useful things for soldiers, including a special Monopoly game that could be sent to POWs and contained escape equipment.

There is lots of interesting information about secret missions, like, exactly what Julia Child was cooking up during the war.  Or the secret city that really didn't exist but did exist, and designed to fool the Japanese.  And readers will learn all about Rat Bombs, Bat Bombs and Doodlebugs.

But my personal favorite was the section on Code Talkers.  I've always liked codes and ciphers, especially the Enigma (one of these days I am hoping to post instructions for making a simplified Enigma out of a Pringles container).   And I, like many of you, have heard of the Navajo Code Talkers, but never really understood how the coding worked.  Bearce gives a short history about this special group of men, and how they devised their code, and includes a simplified dictionary for solving her Code Talker's Challenge.

In fact, in each of the five sections that the book is divided into there are corresponding projects that kids can do or things they can make, such as a simple spy obstacle course or a fingerprint kit, or even a book safe.

Scattered throughout each chapter are sidebars of even more interesting information or facts that will intrigue readers, such as how Ian Fleming came up with the name Jame Bond for his famous agent 007.  And at the back, you will find Bibliography and a list of websites where readers can get additional information on all the topics covered.

Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is sure to please budding history buffs and anyone else who just likes a secret.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher

A 5 copy giveaway of Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is going on over at Goodreads until October 28, 2014, so head on over there if this sounds like a book you would like to own.

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17. Crow Call by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

It's autumn 1945 and young Liz's dad is home after being away for a long time fighting in the war.  In fact, he has been gone so long, that he has become a stranger to Liz, who is feeling shy and a little afraid of him.

November is hunting season and father and daughter are going out to look for crows, because crows eat the crops.  But first, there is a new rainbow plaid hunting shirt to be bought for Liz, so big it hangs to her knees.

On the big day, Liz and her dad get up very early, drive to the diner for breakfast, and then off to find crow and to maybe become reacquainted with each other.  Liz's job is to blow on the crow call whistle just the right way to wake the crows up, her dad's job is to kill the crows with his hunting gun.

As they walk to a good hunting spot, Liz asks her dad if he was ever afraid in the war.  he says, yes, he was scared, scared of lots of things, "Of being alone.  Of being hurt.  Of hurting someone else."  When Liz admits to also being scared sometimes, he asks if she is scared now.  "I start to say no.  Then I remember the word that scares me.  Hunter."

When they stop and Liz blows her crow call, crows from all over come flying over, and the more she blows it, the more crows come.  But no shot is fired, instead her dad just watches her delight in what she is doing.

With one more blow, father and daughter head back to their car hand in hand.

Crow Call is Lois Lowry's first ever picture book (surprising for such a prolific writer).  It is a fictionalized autobiographically based story, taken from a day she actually did spend with her father after he returned from the war.

Lowry addresses many issues in Crow Call, but I think the most important is Liz's fear of her father, a stranger has been away fighting and presumably killing other human beings, which is why I think their conversation about being afraid is so important.  Liz needs to see her father as a loving, caring person again, not as a hunter.  It is such a gentle story of how a father and daughter must find and learn to trust each other again after a long separation and while it takes place in 1945, it is a story that will resonate with so many of today's children who parents are or have been deployed overseas for long periods of time.

The gently muted realistic illustrations done by Russian-born artist Bagram Ibatoulline are done in watercolor and aryl-gouache using a palette of earth tones, which perfectly match the mood set in the text, reflecting the end of autumn, and, metaphorically the war, but highlighting Liz's rainbow colored shirt.

Fans of Lois Lowry will certainly appreciate this lovely picture book for older readers.  And Crow Call would pair very nicely with Suzanne Collin's picture book Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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18. Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

In spring 1944, Hungary was occupied by German soldiers and in the city of Debrecen, a ghetto was formed at the end of April.  Thinking her family was lucky because their apartment fell within the walls of the ghetto, Hanna Mendel continued to believe she would be able to attend Budapest Conservatorium of Music, where she had just been selected for a hard won place as a piano student.

But in the middle of a night in June 1944, a knock on the door by officers informed them that the Mendel family,  parents, high-spirited, defiant older sister Erika and Hanna, 15,  was ordered to assemble outside the synagogue at 8 the next morning.   Before leaving, Hanna rips the C-sharp from her beloved piano and takes it with her.  The next morning the Mendels, along with all of Debrecen's Jews, begin their long trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Once they arrive at Auschwitz, the family is split up, but luckily Hanna, Erika and their mother are able to stay together in the same barrack, even sharing a bunk.  Put to work in the quarry, one day Hanna sees her music teacher playing piano with an ensemble made of up inmates and called the Birkenau Women's Orchestra.  Piri thinks that maybe she can get Hanna a place in it.

When that doesn't work out, Hanna is sent to audition with five other inmates for the camp's cruel commandant.  Believing she doesn't stand a chance at being chosen, the commandant leave the choice to his totally disinterested son, Karl Jager, who points to Hanna.

Day after day, Hanna trudges to the commandant's house to await the order to play for him and any guests he may have.  The only perks to playing for the commandant is a warm shower everyday (the commandant detests dirt), shoes, a warm coat and a warm house while she's there.  The only extra food is leftovers she must steal and risk getting caught and shot.

Gradually, however, she discovers that Karl Jager harbors his own dangerous secrets and is not as disinterested or as indifferent as she originally thought.  When he treats her kindly, Hanna finds herself more and more attracted to him.  But returning to the barrack at the end of each day, she sees that her mother and Erika are cold, starving and barely surviving.  To make matters worse, her mother, who had started going mad during the roundup in Debrecen, is having more and more trouble surviving the selections each time they are done.

Their one hope is that the Red Army is really moving east as rumored around the camp and that they arrive in time.

Playing for the Commandant is certainly a very readable book.  I read it in one day.  It is told in the first person by Hanna, a very observant 15 year old and on many levels her voice rings true.  Her descriptions of the camp, of the cruelty inflicted on innocent people are spot on.  When she talks about the lice, the smells, the moldy bread or about how skeleton thin her sister and the other women are becoming, you can clearly see and smell what she is describing.

Despite everything, Hanna'a father had told her to survive at any cost to tell the world what happened to the Jews of Europe and so, she is determined to do what her father wanted.

But when she talks about the danger of stealing scraps of leftover food, or of  living under the pressure of always having to please the commandant, Hanna's fate feels just as capricious or dangerous as her fellow inmates.  For example, when the gardener, a Jew, steps on the grave of the commandant's dog, he is shot in the head for it.  But, when a girl at the commandant's house drops a tray with tea and cakes on it, I thought for sure that when she is removed from the house, she is also killed, but she shows up later, and I have to admit, I was surprised to see her again in the novel.

But, Hanna's growing romance with Karl is very most disturbing and a real flaw in the novel.  I guess I thought Hanna should be thinking more about food than a boy.  She didn't get that much more to eat than her sister, and what she got, she shared with Erika.  Also, at one point, Hanna gets angry at the people, ordinary farmers, who watch her walk to and from the commandant's house every day and do nothing.  I got mad at Karl for being against what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, but who passively sits by and watches it all happen.  I would be curious to know how others feel about this part of an otherwise good novel.  

Yet, despite this criticism, in the end, I thought that Playing for the Commandant is definitely worth reading for its message of survival and hope, but not for its gratuitous romance.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This was an EARC received from NetGalley

Though Playing for the Commandant is a complete work of fiction, Jews actually were often used to play music for the Nazis.  Here is the obituary of Natalie Karp, a famous pianist who played for Amon Goeth's birthday on December 9, 1943.  She and her sister allowed to live because of the beautiful piano playing that night.  Goeth was the cruel commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów Concentrtion Camp in Poland (you may recall Goeth from Schindler's List).




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19. My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

One summer day in 1941, while Peter Dixon, 12, is in the woods checking his snares to see if he's caught a rabbit to supplement the meager amount of food her and his mam get with their ration coupons, the air raid siren goes off.  Not knowing what to do, Peter starts running for home and the safety of their Anderson shelter, but before he gets there, a German plane crashes so close to him, Peter is knocked out.

It doesn't take long for the whole village to come out to see what happened, including all the children who want to try to get souvenirs from the wreckage.  And that's how Peter meets Kim, a girl about his age, with short hair and dressed like a boy.  The two become instant friends.

Peter and Kim decide to go back to the wreckage that night to look for their own souvenirs, even sneaking inside the plane.  After almost getting caught by the soldiers guarding the plane, the two end up with a gun belonging to one of the dead Germans in it.  Running off towards the woods to hide, they stumble upon a third German from the plane, who had parachuted out but was badly hurt.

Seeing the gun, the German begs them not to hurt him and they decide to take him to Peter's hiding place in the woods.  They clean him up and over the next few days, they learn that his name is Erik, and the three become friends, as much as that can happen when you can't speak each others language. Hiding and feeding Erik is difficult but Kim is afraid the army will shoot him on the spot and she is convinced that if they take care of Erik, than the same kindness will be shown to her brother Josh, in the RAF, or Peter's father in the army if they shot or injured and found by the enemy.

Peter, however, just wants his dad to come home.  Than maybe Mr. Bennett, who owns most of the land surrounding the village, who stop coming around to see his mother so much.  And maybe the older boys in the village will stop bullying him so much about his mother and Mr. Bennett.

Things get more complicated, but in the end, all the elements of this story come together in an exciting, maybe a little predictable, but definitely satisfying denouement.

I found myself immediately pulled into My Friend the Enemy.  It is a compelling story right from the start.  Peter is a sensitive boy, a bit of a loner and rather timid who seems to have spent much of his time with his dad, the gameskeeper for Mr. Bennett's land.  Kim, on the other hand, is a confident girl. a bit of a tomboy, and not the least bit afraid of standing up to bullies older and much bigger than she is.

It is also an exciting story, with plenty of action and historical detail.  Times were tough during the war, food was in short supply and people lived their lives in fear of bombing raids.  Smith incorporates all that into his story, giving the dilemmas Peter wrestles with - to help a German soldier, to steal food from his mother to feed Erik, to accept Mr. Bennett's help even as he begins to suspect the bullies are right about him and his mother - a very realistic quality so  necessary in good historical fiction.

I did like that it takes place in the same north-eastern area of England as Robert Westall's book and, in fact, My Friend The Enemy did remind me somewhat of books by this favorite author.  Unlike the Blitz in London, the north eastern coast was one of the places that was bombed only because German planes were dumping them to lighten their load as they returned home from a bombing raid, a fact Dan Smith includes in his novel, but not a place you read about much in WWII books for young readers.  My Friend The Enemy gives readers another perspective on the war as it happened in England.

Young readers will definitely find this a book to their liking, especially readers interested in WWII and what like was like on the home front for kids around their age.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley

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20. Enemy of the Reich - The Noor Inayat Khan Story

Back in September 2011, I reviewed a book called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood.  This is a truly wonderful book about such brave women and ideal for young readers interested in history.   One of the women that Kathryn wrote about was Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was the daughter of an Indian father and an American mother.  She was born in Moscow, but lived and was educated in France.  She was raised in the Muslim faith.  After college, Noor began to write and illustrate children's stories, but then, World War II began.

Noor went to England and joined WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), ferrying planes for the RAF.  She learned how to operate a radio in the WAAF and was eventually noticed by the SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Because Noor spoke French with native fluency, she was an ideal candidate for their overseas operations.

After training as an SOE agent, Noor arrived in France, using the code name Madeleine, during the night of June 16, 1943.  She successfully evaded the Nazis and sent hundreds of radio messages, including some about the upcoming D-Day invasion, until she was arrested by the Gestapo around October 13, 1943.  Eventually, after being repeatedly beaten and tortured, she was sent to Dachau, where she was executed on September 13, 1944.

Last night, local PBS stations aired a one hour program called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.  This excellently produced program really brings Noor's life and her activities fighting the Nazis to life in this docudrama starring Grace Srinivasan as Noor and narrated by Helen Mirren.  Noor's story is one you won't want to miss and luckily, since it is on PBS, it will probably be repeated.



Or, you can watch the entire program HERE until September 30, 2014.

And you might want to check out Kathryn's book to see who else she have included in her book of women heroes during WWII.

Oh, I said that Noor wrote children's stories after college.  Well, her stories have been translated into English and are still available:

This program is recommended for viewers age 13+

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21. The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

Have you ever imagined what the world would be like if the Axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, had won World War II.  Well,  author Caroline Tung Richmond has done just that in her debut novel The Only Thing to Fear.  

It's been 80 years since the Allied Forces lost the war and surrendered after being defeated by Hitler's genetically-engineered super soldiers.  The United States has been divided into three territories, the Western American Territory ruled by Japan, the Italian Dakotas, and the Eastern American Territories ruled by the Nazis.

For Zara St. James, 16, living in the Shenandoah Valley in the Eastern American Territory, life has been hard.   She has lived with her Kleinbauer (peasant) Uncle Red since her mother was killed by the Nazis in a Resistance mission when Zara was 8.  Since then, Uncle Red has wanted nothing more to do with Resistance matters, but Zara can't wait to join Revolutionary Alliance, and with good reason.
English on her mother's side, Japanese on her father's, Zara is considered a Mischling by the Germans and there has never been a place for mixed-race children in Nazi society. But Zara is also hiding a secret, one that would mean instant death - she is an Anomaly, able control the air around her.  Anomalies are the result of genetic testing by the Nazis in their concentration camps in the 1930s and, as super soldiers, they helped them win the war.  But only full-blooded Aryans can be Anomalies, everyone else is put to death instantly.

Into all this comes Bastian Eckhartt, son of the formidable Colonel Eckhart, commanding officer of Fort Goering.  Bastian attends the elite military academy where Zara is assigned cleaning duties and lately she has noticed he has been looking her way more and more frequently.  But what could the son of a powerful Nazi leader possibly want with a Kleinbauer who garners no respect whatsoever?  The answer may just surprise you.

I was really looking forward to reading The Only Thing to Fear when I first heard of it.  There aren't many alternative histories for teen readers about the allied Forces losing the war to the Axis powers and what that would have meant for the future.  Unfortunately, this doesn't come across as an alternative history so much as it really just another dystopian novel.   What seems to be missing is a strong sense of ideology - on both the Nazi and the peasant side.  The Resistance was there to overthrow the cruel Nazis, but there is not sense of how or why they will make the world better if or when they succeed.

Richmond's world building was pretty spot on, though not terribly in-depth.  I really like the idea of generically engineered Anomalies, which added an interesting touch.

Zara is quite headstrong and can be a bit whinny and annoyingly brave in that she takes chances without thinking through the consequences.  Zara has a lot to learn, and a lot of growing up to do, even by the end of the novel (or maybe it is going to be a series and she can mature at a later date).

One of the things that always amazes me in books about people fighting for their lives is that there is always time for romance.  Yes, Bastian is originally interested in Zara for reasons that have nothing to do with romance, yet even as things take a dangerous turn, they both find they are attracted to each other.

The Only Thing to Fear is definitely a flawed novel, but still it is one worth reading.  As I said, it is Richmond's debut novel, and though you might find it a bit predictable, it is still a satisfying read.

The Only Thing to Fear will be available in bookstores on September 30, 2014.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley

Sophisticated readers might also want to take a look at Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award winning alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

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22. A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus

It's 1940, and British soldiers have just been evacuated from Dunkirk, but Dodo (Dorothy) Revel and her younger brother Wolfie, 8, still haven't heard from their Pa, Captain Revel.  When a telegram arrives, Spud, the children's housekeeper, tells them the sad news that their Pa is missing.  Later that night, however, the children overhear Spud talking to someone that seems to indicate something else about Pa.

Next thing Dodo and Wolfie know, they are being evacuated to Dulverton, North Devon.  Billeted with a reluctant woman whose son is off fighting, their only relief is at school with their kind teacher Miss Lamb.  One day, on their way home from school, Dodo and Wolfie find a newborn foal.  For Wolfie, it's a miracle.  Pa had loved horses and knew a lot about them, much of which he had already taught Wolfie.  Dodo and Wolfie decide to hide the foal, now named Hero for Captain Revel, with the help of a local boy named Ned.

When word breaks that Captain Revel is being charged with desertion and disobedience at Dunkirk, Mrs. Sprig decides she can't have his children living with her.  Luckily, they end up with Miss Lamb and her elderly father, Rev. Lamb.  There is even a place for the growing Hero there.

Life is better with the Lambs, though not at school.  The whole nation is following Captain Revel's court-martial and his children are bearing the brunt of people's anger.  It is a slow process and as time goes by life gets harder, with increasing shortages and rationing.  Hettie Lamb has been watching over a small herd of Exmoor ponies, which are slowly disappearing.  During a particularly cold snowy winter, the ponies are rounded up, and, along with Hero, put into a pen where they can be fed.  But one night, the ponies and Hero disappear.  Wolfie is devestated.

When Rev. Lamb dies, Hettie is told she must move and so the three of them go to live in County Durham, a coal mining area in Northeast England.  There, Dodo gives art lessons to the children of a coal mine owner, while Hettie teaches school.  The war has now ended and Captain Revel is serving a two year sentence and still hoping to have his name cleared.  He had always worked to improve condition for coal miners, and now, even in prison is continuing that work.

But when the truth about Ned, the boy who had helped Wolfie with Hero back in Dulverton, and the shady activities he had been bullied into doing by his father come to light, things begin to change.  Is it possible the Ned holds the key to what happened to Hero?

I really enjoyed reading Sam Angus's novel Soldier Dog when it first came out, so I was excited to read A Horse Called Hero.  And I wasn't disappointed,  it is a very compelling, though somewhat predictable, story with lots of coincidences.  What is nice about this story are the glimpses the reader gets into so many aspects of life during the war.

There are the pacifist demonstrations in Knightsbridge the children witness while out shopping with Spud.  Sometimes we forget that not everyone supports war.  The crowds of children and parents on Praed Street heading to Paddington Station was palpable.  And although evacuation was difficult under the best of circumstances, Dodo and Wolfie's story show how absolutely capricious the whole process was.  Mrs. Sprig was a horrible, narrow-minded woman with friends just like herself and wasn't able to really welcome these two scared, displaced children into her home.  It makes one wonder how often that or worst happened in real life.  

However, Angus draws a lovely picture of the relationship between Wolfie and Captain Revel in the letters exchanged throughout the war, much of which was advice on caring for a horse.  Wolfie's hero worship of his father is touching, never flailing even when the circumstances surrounding Captain Revel's arrest are revealed.  Captain Revel was clearly a very compassionate character and it is one of the best fiction father/son relationships I've ever read.

The reader also learns so much about what life was life for coal miners and the pit ponies, as they were called.  These horses pulled tons of coal out of the mine each day, never seeing daylight once they were  deep in the mine.  The men and horses labored under dangerous conditions and that was what Captain Revel was working to change.

Two things did bother me - we never find out how old Dodo is, only that she is older than Wolfie.  And a map showing the relationship of London, North Devon and County Durham would have been nice (maps are almost always nice in historical fiction).

But, in the end, the novel really asks the readers to consider what makes a hero.  For that, it is a novel  well worth reading.

This book is recommended for readers 9+, but proably better for 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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23. The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

Werner Reich is just a young boy when he arrives alone at Auschwitz.  His father had died a few years before, he was separated from his mother when the Nazis took her and his older sister was supposedly hiding in plain sight with a Christian family.

Werner may be young but he quickly assesses that the best chance to survive Auschwitz is to appear not to be weak.  So, climbing up to the third rung of  the triple decker bunks in his barracks, scared and lonely, Werner meets his bunk mate, Herr Herbert Levin.

By day, Werner and the other men and boys stand hours for roll call, then move heavy rocks from one place to another, eat the watery soup and stale bread, then try to sleep so they can do this all over again the next day.

One night, however, the guards come in and wake Herr Levin up, demanding magic.  Giving him a deck of cards, Herr Levin performs all kinds of magic tricks for the guards entertainment.  His magic also delights Werner, who thinks Herr Levin might be favored with an extra piece of bread, but his thinking is quickly straightened out by his bunk mate.  "This is not a game and it is not a show…if I displease the guards, if I fail in my magic, if I run out of tricks, if they tire of me…my life will be over."  Werner quickly grasps the capriciousness of life in a concentration camp.

Then one night, Herr Levin teaches Werner how to do a card trick, one just for Werner only.  Magic helped keep Herr Levin alive in Auschwitz so far, maybe it will help Werner, too, he tells the boy.

Eventually the two are separated, and towards the end of the war, Werner is forced to walk on a Death March from Auschwitz to Germany, a walk he survives.  Herr Levin also survives, but the two have no idea what happened to the other.

Werner remained interested in magic throughout his adult life, performing tricks for his family and friends after marrying and migrating to the United States.  But he never found out what happened to Herr Levin until one day he was reading a trade magazine about magic…

and discovered that his Auschwitz bunk mate Herr Levin was none other that the renowned Nivelli the Magician, eminent pre-war magician known all over Europe and who, after the war ended, had been performing in the United States.

It must be so difficult to write books for young readers about the Holocaust that aren't too scary, too grime, too graphic, but istis doable and many parents and teachers find that they are a sensitive way to introduce the heinous circumstances of the Holocaust to their kids.  Canadian author Kathy Kacer, who has written many books for young readers about the Holocaust, seems to instinctively know how to make a Holocaust book accessible and informative without frightening young readers.  And she has done just that in The Magician of Auschwitz, a picture book for older readers.

What makes The Magician of Auschwitz such a fascinating story it that it shows so clearly how one small act of kindness can make such a difference in a person's life - in this case, maybe even helping to save it.   The themes of hope and friendship forbidden in a place where often it really was (understandably) every man for himself are reflected in the muted, subdued illustrations, almost as though they are being hidden from the Nazi captors.

The watercolor illustrations by Gillian Newland are indeed dark and foreboding grays, blacks, browns and gray-green, reflecting life in a concentration camp, with only small touches of red on the playing cards and the swastika on the guards armbands.

Though based on the experiences of the real Werner Reich and Herbert Levin or Nivelli the Magician, however, this is a fictional retelling of their story, told from Werner's point of view.  As a biographical picture book for older readers, there should have been more souces in the back matter than just the author's one extensive "How it Happened" explanation.  However, readers will still enjoy reading this and seeing the accompanying photographs of Werner as a youth and as an older man.  Sadly there is only one photographs of Herr Levin and his wife.

You might find the trailer for The Magician of Auschwitz by the author of interest:


This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was obtained from the publisher

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24. The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum

Original 1962 Edition, which is what I read
Books about the Netherlands during World War II are generally about the Dutch Resistance, but Hilda van Stockum has focused more on the daily experiences of one very close knit, religious family living, but without ignoring Resistance activities.  

At ten years old, Joris Verhagen can barely remember what life was like before the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 when he was 4.  Life is hard for the Verhagen family - father, a 4th generation millwright, mother, Dirk-Jan, 14, Joris and Trixie, 4, but because they lived in a working windmill, things were not quite as hard as for others in their small village.   Now, after four years of Nazi occupation, everyone is hopeful that the Allies will soon arrive.

The novel is told as a series of connecting vignettes that show how the family quietly worked hard to resist the Nazis.  And so there are some wonderful moments in which their occupiers are outsmarted, like the downed RAF pilot who Joris discovers hiding in an old abandoned windmill and the amusing way that he was he was hidden in plain sight by Joris's Uncle Cor before escaping back to England.

Or the two little girls who come to stay with the Verhagens after their parents are forced into hiding and their absolute faith that St. Nickolas will show up at the Verhagen door with Christmas surprises.

Even little Trixie has a very surprising story.

There are some scary, tense moments as when Leendert, an adolescent, becomes a landwatcher for the Nazis, even though his own parents are against them and threatening to turn his own father in.  Always trying to win favor with the Nazis, Leendert like to throw his weight around, like pushing a young girl off a broken-down bike with wooden wheels, causing her to loose consciousness, but not before she manages to toss her satchel into the bushes.  Joris later discovers, when he retrieves the bag for her, that it is full of Resistance newspapers.

There is so much more that happens to the Verhagen family, and their friends and neighbors, all related with such compassion.  But at the heart of everything, is the Winged Watchman.  It is the Winged Watchman that ultimately saves the day for so many of them.

The two main characters, besides the windmill, are Joris and brother Dirk-Jan, who are portrayed as quite heroic, but not without a certain amount of fear.  And who can blame them, living in an atmosphere of betrayal and danger.  The most striking descriptions are of the hunger and homelessness that so many Dutch experienced by the winter of 1944 (known as the Hunger Winter) because the Nazis confiscated more and more of the food grown in Holland for themselves and because so many homes were bombed.

The Winged Watchman was written in 1962 and may feel a little dated and the writing may seem a little stiff to today's young readers, but it is still a compelling story of resistance and courage.  The family is deeply religious and van Stockum shows how that also helped the Verhagens preserver throughout.

I also learned two intersting facts about windmills in this novel.  The Winged Watchman is not a mill used for grinding, but was used for draining the water out of areas below sea level in order the reclaim the land below the water.  The reclaimed land is called a polder.  The water is diverted to a canal and is kept out of the reclaimed land by a dyke.  This kind of windmill, of course, plays an important role in The Winged Watchman, so it helps to understand what it is all about.

The other interesting fact I learned is that windmills were used to send coded messages from member of the Dutch Resistance to other members right under the nose of the otherwise ever vigilant Nazis.  The messages were read according to the location of the windmills sails, or the different color stripes of cloth tied onto them and sent windmill to windmill.  Most Dutch citizens were ferociously patriotic, with only a few traitors like Leendert.

Hilda van Stockum was born in Rotterdam, Holland, and she clearly loved her country very much,
though by the time World War II began, she was living in the US, having married an American.  She based many of the occurrences in The Winged Watchman on letters and stories of relatives who remained in Holland.  Van Stockum was a prolific writer and in 1935, her short novel A Day on Skates: the Story of a Dutch Picnic was a Newbery Honor book.

The Winged Watchman is still in print and can be found in most bookshops and libraries and is still a worthwhile book to read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was a hand-me-down from my sister


 

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25. New Indices

When I saw how frequently the categorized indices on my other kid lit blog Randomly Reading were visited, I began to think about doing the same thing for The Children's War.  Little did I realized what a project that would be, but it is done now.

Aside from the Index - always a work in progress, which lists posts by month, there are now 7 new categorized indices (I never used that word before and now I've used it twice).  They are:

Picture Book Index
Chapter Book Index
Middle Grade Index
YA and YA/Adult Index
World War I Index
From the Archives, Movie Matinee, Sunday Funnies, Your Hit Parade, and Telly Time are Indexed together
Weekly Cooking and other interesting bits are also indexed together


Book reviews are loosely categorized according to whether they are Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Speculative Fiction, or Nonfiction.  The Middle Grade Index also includes Interactive and Activity Books.

I haven't included every post (they are listed in the month by month Index, though).  My criteria for including a post is that they had to be about WWII (and occasionally WWI).

My hope is that this will make it easier to find whatever one is looking for.

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