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1. 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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2. 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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3. Dash by Kirby Larson

Last year, Kirby Larson introduced us to Hobie Hanson and his dog Duke.  Hobie somewhat reluctantly volunteered Duke to be part of the country's Dogs for Defense program.  This year, Larson introduces us to Mitsi Kashino and her dog Dash.

It's January 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  So far, things haven't been very different for Mitsi, 11, and her family, Japanese Americans living in Seattle, Washington.  But on the first day back to school, after the Christmas holidays, all that suddenly changes.  First, Mitsi's two best friends aren't at their usual meeting place, and at school they give her a cold shoulder.  Other classmates also ignore her in class and at recess.  On the way home from school in the rain, she is surrounded by a group of high school boys, who trip her causing her to fall and who tear up and kick everything in her school bag into puddles.  Luckily, a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker comes along and breaks it up.

Change becomes even more apparent.  Cameras and radios had to be turned into the government, some of the Japanese men are being taken away by the FBI and even Mitsi's grandmother, Obaachan, must register as an alien because she was born in Japan.  Getting to know Mrs. Bowker seems to be one part of Mitsi's life that is pleasant, that and the comfort of her beloved little dog Dash.

But then April comes and with it the news that the Kashino family, along with all the other Japanese American families living in Seattle are to be sent to an internment camp for the duration of the war.  Each family member can being just one suitcase.  Naturally, Mitsi assumes she can bring Dash with her, but when she finds out that no pets are allowed in the camp, she is devastated.  What can she do with Dash to keep him safe?  Knowing that Mrs. Bowker lives alone, and might want some company, Mitsi asks her if she would be willing to take care of Dash temporarily.  Luckily, kind-hearted Mrs. Bowker agrees.

Losing everything, including her dog and her two best friends was a hard blow for Mitsi.  Now, Mitsi and her family must adjust to their new life behind a barbed-wire fence, surrounded by soldiers with rifles watching their every move.  One bright spot for Mitsi are the wonderful letters she receives from Dash, telling her about life with Mrs. Bowker.  But even that isn't quite enough to pull Mitsi out of the depression she falls into.  But a new best friend just might do the trick.

I have always believed that every persons experience of World War II is similar but different from everyone else.  And each novel I read reflects that.  Dash is based on a true story and much of what Mitsi does is taken from that story, giving the novel its sense of reality.

Dash spends a lot of time what life was like between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and life in an internment camp.  It would seem that it took a while after the initial shock of the bombing on December 7, 1941 for people began to be aware of such anti-Japanese feelings that they could turn on old friends and neighbors so vehemently, as it did with Mitsi and the kids she went to school with.  In that respect, Larson gives the reader a good picture of what it was like.

Larson also gives a good depiction of the internment camps, which were really fit only for the horses many of them were meant to house, and life was always dirty and unpleasant.  She really conveys the sense of betrayal, loneliness and the fear of the family coming apart that Mitsi experiences on top of losing everything she has known her whole life.

I like the way Larson shows the reader that even in times of great distress and hardship, good things can happen and in the end this is a story about the strength of family, the value of true friendship and learning to appreciate what is really important.

Dash will be of special interest to anyone who is a dog lover, or has an interest in WWII history on the home front.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was obtained from the publisher

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4. Stay Where You Are & Then Leave by John Boyne

For Alfie Summerfield, the first five years of his life had been grand.  He was a happy little boy, and his dad and mum were happy with each other and with him.  His father, Georgie Summerfield, delivered milk and drove a milk float every morning pulled by a horse name Mr. Asquith.  It was Alfie's dream to some day be big enough to ride along side his dad and help.  Alfie's Granny Summerfield, who lived right across the street, always liked to come around for a bit of a gossip.  And Alfie had a best friend, Kalena Janáček, whose father came from Prague and ran the sweet shop.

But all this changed on Alfie's fifth birthday, because on July 29, 1914, World War I officially began and a few days later England joined in.   And even though he promised he wouldn't, Alfie's father immediately enlisted anyway.  Then, Mr. Janáček's store windows were broken and someone wrote on the shop door "No Spies Here!"  Soon enough, the government came and took father and daughter away to an internment camp on the Isle of Man.

At first, letters from Alfie's father arrive regularly, but then they begin to dwindle down and down and after two years, no more letters arrive.  Alfie's mum tells her son it is because his dad is on a secret mission for the government.  But times get hard and Mrs. Summerfield, who already takes in laundry, becomes a Queen's Nurse, which means most of the time Alfie is on his own.  And so, he decides it is time to do his bit.  He steals Mr. Janáček's prized shoe shine box, walks over to King's Cross Station and begins shining shoes three days a week (Alfie still attends school two days a week).

Then one day, almost four years after the war began, something amazing happens.  While shining the shoes of a doctor, the papers he is reading get blown out of his hands.   As he and Alfie scurry around King's Cross to retrieval the papers, Alfie discovers on one of them that his dad is alive and is in a hospital, the same one the doctor works at.  From that point on, Alfie decides that he is going to go get his dad and bring him home.  He is convinced that all that his dad really needs is to come home to recuperate and soon things will be happy again, just like they were before the war.  But on his first trip to the hospital, Alfie is not prepared for what he discovers.

Alfie is one of those quirky characters that Boyne seemed to write so well.  He reminded me a little bit of Barnaby Brocket (The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket) and he was certainly a more realistic 9 year old than was Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  It felt as though Boyne's third boy protagonist has more depth and is a more well developed character than the other two.

Georgie Summerfield is not a well developed as Alfie, but he in interesting nevertheless.   Georgie has the same blind enthusiasm for the war that so many young men had when it first began. The war, the government told them, would be over by Christmas, but by jingo, they didn't say which Christmas and four years later, the reader sees how Georgie's enthusiasm has spiraled down as he lives the realities of the trenches and then suffers the consequences of the enthusiasm.

I did think that the first three quarters of the novel did a really good job of presenting life during World War I on the home front, rather than the trenches, although there is some of that in Georgie's letters home.  The last quarter became a little preposterous, and the end a little predictable, but I thought other things made up for that.

Boyne addresses two issues in Stay Where You Are & Then Leave.  The first is that of conscientious objectors.  As enthusiastic as Georgie was to get into the war, his best friend Joe Patience feels just as strongly about not wanting to fight.  Joe is a compassionate person, who strongly believed that he was not put on earth to kill anyone cost him dearly - loss of lifetime friends, jail time, and beatings.  Boyne delicately presents it all at the same time as making the reader understand Joe's position.

The other issue is that of shell shock or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it is called nowadays.  In the novel, the reader sees how skeptical people were about shell shock, believing it to be more cowardice than illness, until it hit home personally for them.  On Alfie's two visits to the hospital his dad is in, as he goes through the wards looking for him, Boyne gives us a very clear picture of what shell shock can do the a person's mind.  I think this part of the story will resonate with many of today's children whose loved one returned from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.

Though somewhat flawed, this is a nice book for anyone who is interested in historical fiction, and especially the impact of WWI on the people left at home.  And yes, you will discover the meaning of the title if you read the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC received from Net Galley

Stay Where You Are & Then Leave will be available on March 25, 2014

A person who drives a milk float delivers milk to customers and in 1914 would be delivering it is something that looks like this:


This is my World War I book for my 2014 War Challenge with a Twist hosted by War Through the Generations.
This is book 6 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

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5. Molly Takes Flight by Valerie Tripp, illustrated by Nick Backes

Ever since the war began, Molly has been having a hard time dealing with all the changes it brought in her family.  Her dad is still in Europe with the army, her mom is busy with her Red Cross work, Jill has been volunteering at the Veteran's Hospital, even Ricky has a job mowing lawns in the neighborhood and younger brother Brad is off to camp every day.

Now, it is August and Molly is visiting her grandparents farm by herself for the first time.  Now, here with grandpa, grammy and the familiar smells of her grandmother's kitchen, it feels more like old times to Molly.  Until she realizes that her favorite Aunt Eleanor isn't there and when she asked where she is, Molly is told she is away, "as usual" according to grandpa.

But when Molly and grandpa return to the house after picking a melon from the garden, Aunt Eleanor is home.  Still, Molly's excitement that she will be able to do the same things with Aunt Eleanor this year that they have always done together on the farm quickly turns to disappointment when she is told that her aunt won't be home the next day.

Later that night, while stargazing, Aunt Eleanor tells Molly she has applied to join the WASPS, or Women Airforce Service Pilots, and that, if accepted, she will be testing and transporting planes for the Air Force, and even helping to train pilots.  Molly is not quite as happy about this as Aunt Eleanor would have liked.

Aunt Eleanor leaves early every morning, returning home at suppertime.  Molly spends the next few days alone, feeling lonely without her family at the farm,  angry at the war and now angry at her aunt, and maybe even a little jealous that she wants to spend Molly visit flying instead of with her.  Then, one night, Aunt Eleanor doesn't get home until Molly is already in bed.  When she goes in to see if Molly is awake, Molly's anger gets the best of her and she snaps at her aunt, accusing her of not caring about anything anymore, except flying.

The next morning, Aunt Eleanor wakes Molly up very early and tells her to get dressed.  In the car, when Molly asks where they are going, all she is told is that she'll see.  Arriving at the airfield, Molly and Aunt Eleanor walk over to the plane her aunt has been practicing with.  To her surprise, Molly is handed a helmet, told to put it one and the next thing she knows, she and Aunt Eleanor are flying over grandpa's farm.


Can Molly and Aunt Eleanor be reconciled, now that Molly has had a taste of the exhilaration that flying gives her aunt?

Molly Takes Flight is actually a very small book (just 47 pages), one of five separate short stories that were originally published by the Pleasant Company in 1998 about Molly McIntire, an American girl growing up in WWII (the stories has since been combined into a single book, one for each historical doll).

Written by Valerie Tripp, and illustrated by Nick Backes, who have done a number of the original American Girl stories together, Molly Takes Flight is a well written, well researched short story.   It follows the same format that all the stories about the American Girl historical dolls have - a story followed by several pages giving information about the main theme - in the case the WASP program begun in 1942 and organized by Jacqueline Cochran.

Stars also play an important part in this story.  Molly looks at the North Star each night, just as her dad told her to, and thinks about him.  And she and her aunt star gaze whenever Molly visits the farm.  At the end of Molly Takes Flight, there is a simple, but fun craft project for making a star gazer out of a round oatmeal container.

This copy of Molly Takes Flight is my Kiddo's original one, and it doesn't feel like that long ago we were reading it together, but now I have it put away with her Molly doll and her other American Girl books for the next generation, whenever that happens.  And even though Molly has been retired, her books are still available.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my Kiddo's personal library

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6. Across a War-Tossed Sea by L.M. Elliott

It's September 1943 near Richmond, Virginia and Bishop brothers, Wesley, 10, and Charles, 14, have been living with the Ratcliff family for over three years now, after being evacuated from war-torn London.  And there is nothing Charles, called Chuck by his American family, would like more than to return home and do his bit for the war, but his parents still refuse to let him.  Besides, Wesley still has frequent nightmares about firebombs hitting their home during the Blitz and about the possibility of being torpedoed by Nazi submarines while crossing the U-boat infested waters of the Atlantic and Charles feels responsible for taking care of him when they happen.

The Ratcliffs are a large farming family.  Patsy, the only girl, is 16 and has a boyfriend named Henry flying missions overseas, next is Bobby, 15, who has become a great pal of Chuck's, followed by Ron, 12, Wesley's real nightmare, and lastly are the twins, Jamie and Johnny, 7.  The war is a constant presence in this novel, making it truly a home front story.

Life isn't always easy for the Bishop brothers.  Ron has always jumped at every opportunity to bully Wesley.  So when Wes ends up skipping two grades and, much to Ron's annoyance, lands in his 7th grade class, the bullying only intensifies.  Charles, who has become quite muscular from farm work, has made it onto the football team along with Bobby.  Everyone must help out on the farm and the work is long and difficult, because of a dWes has a fascination for Native Americans that he has read about and longs to meet one, but when he does, much to his surprise, Mr. Johns is nothing like what he expected.  Wes also befriends a young African American boy, and learns first hand about segregation and prejudice.

And Chuck must come to terms with his feelings about the German POWs that are brought into the area and used to help on the farms, and, ultimately, on the Ratcliff farm as well.  The more he sees them, the angrier he becomes and the more he wants to go home and help.  Chuck is also dealing with a crush he has on Patsy, which is especially hard on him, since he knows that her heart belongs to someone doing just what he wishes he could do.

Across a War-Tossed Sea follows the Bishop boys and the Ratcliff family through the year up to and a little beyond the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France in June 1944.  It is a nice home front book that gives a good idea of what life was like for people in the United States, interspersed with letters exchanged between the boys and their parents, giving the reader a good picture of life in England under siege.  In fact, this is really like a series of vignettes all connected to each other.

Given all the things that happened in this novel, I thought it was odd that after living with the Ratcliffs for over three years, the boys would feel like new arrivals and make the kind of mistakes that would most likely happen in their first year.  But that didn't diminish my feelings about the story.

I thought Across a War-Tossed Sea was an exciting, interesting, thought provoking novel documenting life on the home front and the adjustments that had to be made by everyone during World War II.  At the end of the book, there is a very informative Afterword giving a short recap of what was going on in Europe, the evacuation of children overseas that sometimes ended in tragedy and further explaining many of the things referred to in the novel, such as U-boats, V-bombs and secret air bases (a particularly amusing part of the novel, even though it involves a runaway German POW).

Across a War-Tossed Sea is a companion book to Across a War-Torn Sky, which follows what happens to Patsy Ratcliff's boyfriend, Henry Forester, after he is shot down over France on a flying mission for the Air Force.  And, bringing things full circle, they are both companion pieces to A Troubled Peace, and the end of the war.  Luckily, I have not read the two companion books yet, so I have them to look forward to.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC received from Net Galley

Across a War-Tossed Sea will be available on April 1, 2014, meantime have a look at this very nicely done trailer:

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7. On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck

You can't go wrong when you chose a book by Richard Peck to read and On the Wings of Heroes is not exception.  This gentle home front story takes place in middle America, in a family like so many others at that time.

Before the war, narrator Davy Bowman tells us, it was always summer, except when it was Halloween or Christmas.  Summer meant exciting games of Hide and Seek with all the kids, including his big brother Bill and his dad, Earl, the biggest kid on the block.  Halloween 1941, Davy is a cub scout who thinks he and his best friend Scooter could get one more year of trick or treating in before they were too old for it, and before the war took away all sweet treats.  And that Christmas, Davy and Scooter both hope against hope to get the new shiny two tone cream and crimson Schwinn bike in the window of Black's Hardware.  But then, Pearl Harbor is bombed and life changes for everyone.

School is now overcrowded with "Eight-to-Five Orphans," new kids from other places whose mothers are working in factories so no one is home during the day.  Air raid drills are the order of the day, in case of an attack; scrape is being collected by all the kids;  dimes are brought in to school once a week to buy war bonds; and Victory Gardens are dug and tended everywhere.

And Davy's hero, big brother Bill, joins the Army Air Corps, causing his family to live a constant state of pride, fear and anxiety, which becomes unbearable fear when they receive the news that Bill went missing in action while flying a B-17 over the English Channel.

As Davy takes us through life during the war, he recounts episodes with class bullies, three of the girls who are part of the Eight-to-Five Orphans; a little extortion ring collecting their dime protection money each week when it is time to buy bonds,; an old lady who has a genuine Pan American car in her garage that Davy and Scooter discover during a scrap collection excursion and who holds an even greater surprise for them than the buckshot she fires when she discovers them in her garage; and the old lady who hordes everything, including every newspaper she has ever received.  All these eccentric characters are given their own background story, including families created by Peck with a kind of depth and charming believability, so they become more than just plot devices.

On the Wings of Heroes is an historical fiction novel that will give you a sense of the war from the perspective of a preteen boy and will leave you with a warm feeling of family and community, of love and support.  Ironically, some of Peck's descriptions of neighborhood life, such as Halloween or playing Hide and Seek, are not so very different from my own memories of those things many years later, providing a comforting kind to timelessness that connects people through time and space.

On the Wings of Heroes is a serious, entertaining and thought-provoking novel.  Peck writes, even about war, with lots of humor, and I dare say, experience, since he would have grown up during WWII, just as Davy does and giving the novel a real sense of authenticity.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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8. The Prime Minister's Secret Agent (A Maggie Hope Mystery #4) by Susan Elia MacNeal

Maggie Hope is back!  As you may recall, Maggie is a Brit who was raised by her aunt in the U.S. after her parents alleged death in a car accident.  After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in mathematics, Maggie went to England to sell the house she had inherited from a grandmother she didn't know existed.  While there, World War II started and Maggie stayed in England to do her bit for the war.  Oh yes, and she found out her parents were still alive.  Her father, Edmund Hope, is a codebreaker at Bletchley and her mother, Clara Hess, is a Nazi spy.

In this fourth book of the Maggie Hope Mystery series, it's autumn 1941 and Maggie is back from her mission in Berlin, Germany, living in Asisaig, Scotland, training SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents for spying operations in France and Germany, while she tries to heal herself own broken body and spirit.  Maggie Hope has serious PTSD.

Early one morning, after sending her trainees off on a rocky run along the shore, Maggie spots a dead sheep with open, oozing black sores.  Later, when she is in Edinburgh to see her friend Sarah Sanderson in a dance performance, the lead ballerina collapses and dies on the stage, with the same kind of black sores that the sheep had.  Soon, another dancer and her friend Sarah are also hospitalized, deathly ill and with the same sores.  Jolted out of her depression, Maggie determines to get to the bottom of what is causing this.  The case is solved quickly enough, but Maggie is none too happy when she discovers in the course of her investigation that the government is experimenting is some unusual secret weapons.

At the same time, Maggie's mother is a prisoner in the Tower of London and has been sentenced to execution on December 7th at 12 noon.  Clara possesses lots of knowledge about Nazi Germany that the British would like to have, but she will not give it up until Maggie or Maggie's father  agree to visit her, something both have refused to do.  And time is running out for Clara.

Meanwhile, Churchill is fervently hoping the Americans will enter the war before it's too late for Britain to survive.  Though Roosevelt is adamant about not wanting to get involved he is willing to send help to Britain in the shape of what Churchill calls "all of their oldest destroyers, held together with tape and taffy.  They're keeping their best at Pearl Harbor…" (pg 125).

And speaking of Pearl Harbor, the Americans seem to ignore every indication they have received that an attack by Japan is imminent, despite having already cracked the Japanese code.  This was perhaps the most exciting part of the novel, reading the build up to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing it was inevitable and reading about who knew what and what they did or didn't do with whatever knowledge they possessed.

Although I really enjoyed reading The Prime Minister's Secret Agent, it is a somewhat different novel than the previous three Maggie Hope mysteries.  As I said, the mystery was solved more easily and quickly than usual, but there is still more happening.  The focus switches from what is going on with Maggie, with Clara Hess, with Churchill, with important American officials, including J Edgar Hoover, and with important Japanese representatives and there is even a nice cameo appearance by Ian Fleming. It may sound a bit confusing, but it actually works quite well.

I have to admit that when I was reading the bits about Clara Hess, I did think to myself "oh dear, Susan has jumped the shark."  But no, I read on and it all made sense.  She is good at what she does.

While The Prime Minister's Secret Agent lacks some of the action of the previous novels, it does deal with some moral issues around fighting a clean or dirty war, particularly with regard to the idea of intelligence and whether to withhold it or share it, and the development and ethical use of chemical and biological weapons because of how they can impact innocent civilians.

MacNeal has, once again, done some great research for this novel and I urge you to read her Historical Notes at the back of the book.  There's lots of good stuff there that will enlarge on your appreciation of The Prime Minister's Secret Agent.

I think for fans of Maggie Hope, you won't be disappointed by this novel.  For those who aren't familiar with Maggie, this is a fine stand alone novel, enough background is provided so you won't feel lost or confused.  In fact, you may even be enticed to read the previous mysteries.

Here's a bit of good luck - there's another Maggie Hope Mystery in the works.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an E-ARC from NetGalley

This is book 3 of my 2014 Crusin' Thru the Cozies Reading Challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Review
This is book book 10 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry
 

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9. The Comic Book War by Jacqueline Guest

It's 1943 and Robert Tourand, 15, misses and worries about his three older brothers who are off fighting in Europe with the Canadian armed forces.   So when he finds a small piece of a meteorite, it becomes a kind of magical charm for him.  Thanks to it, Robert soon, he begins to see and believe a cosmic connection between what his brother write about from the front line in their letters, and the heroes in the comic books he obsessed with.

And so, he pairs brother to comic according the their parallel experiences: favorite brother Patrick is assigned The Maple Leaf Kid, brother James and Sedna of the Sea go together because James could use her wisdom, brother George, a pilot, is paired with flying ace Captain Ice.  Their assignment: to keep his brother's safe.

It all works nicely until his mother finds a pair of torn pants and decides Robert need to be taught a lesson.  Now, she decides, his weekly allowance, his only means of buying the newest editions of the comic book that contain secret messages about his brothers, would be better spent on war stamps.  Now, Robert needs to figure out a new way to make sure he can buy his three favorite comics every month.

And it seems that ever since his found his magical piece of the universe, luck has been with him.  When his teacher announces that the student who collects the most fat for the war effort will win four completely filled books of war stamps, valued at $4.00, Robert thinks he's found the answer to funding his comic addiction.  But despite his best efforts, he didn't expect such stiff competition from Crazy Charlie (Charlene) Donnelly, a girl as much on a mission as Robert.

So, when fat collection doesn't yield the needed money, Robert decides to take a job as a telegram delivery boy.  Trouble is, Crazy Charlie has the same idea.  They are both hired, and as more and more telegrams need to be delivered, Charlie seems to be able to get around Calgary some much faster than Robert on her dilipated second hand bike compared to his sleek newish Raleigh.  Robert is so busy thinking about his comic books, he never bothers to ask Charlie about herself.  Nor does he think about what is in the telegrams he is delivering, until one arrives at his house in Charlie's hands.

At first, I didn't much care for The Comic Book War.  I found Robert to be a very unappealing character, too focused on himself and completely lacking in empathy for anyone else.  Ironically, Robert and Charlie are both loners, outsiders that could have been friends from the start, if Robert had been able to see beyond himself.  But as I continued to read, I began to see Robert in a different light, as a person who could actually have some compassion for the recipients of the telegrams he was delivering.

I also thought that Robert was a little too old to be so obsessed with comic books, even for the WWII time frame.  But this is, after all, a coming of age novel.  I began to think about how kids will use all kinds of ways to cope with fear, loss and trauma.  Robert keeps his fear about his brothers (and about growing up) from overwhelming him using magical thinking (always a good defense mechanism) that his comic book heroes will keep his brothers (and him) safe.

Charlie, who was much more in touch with reality, was a good contrast to Robert, despite her own problems in life.  I would have actually liked to have read more about Charlie, who is a story in her own right.

It is always interesting to find a Canadian story about kids in WWII because they have such a distinct perspective.  Canada was still part of the British Commonwealth in 1939, and even though it declared war on the Axis powers independently of Britain, it sent troops overseas to fight with the British Expeditionary Forces and the RAF.

Two nit-picky things did bother me.  Kids did not carry their school books to school in backpacks back them.  They used school bags or carried them in their arms.  And I did wonder about why lights were left on so freely at night.  I thought all of Canada had blackout precautions during the war.  But I could be wrong on these.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was received from the publisher

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10. The House Baba Built: An Artists Childhood in China by Ed Young

 About a year ago, I reviewed Allen Say's autobiographical work Drawing from Memory and the effect World War II had on his life growing up in Yokohama, Japan.  Ed Young's The House Baba Built is also an autobiographical work and describes his life in Shanghai, China during the war.

Ed Young's father was an engineer and realizing that war was coming to China, he decided he needed a safe place for himself, his wife and five children to live in.  The safest place would be around the foreign embassies in Shanghai, known as the International Settlement.  But land there was expensive and so Baba (an affectionate term for father) made a deal with a landowner - Baba would built a house on his land with the proviso that his family could live in it for 20 years.  The family moved into the house in 1935 and for the first few years that they lived in Baba's house, life was good.  There was a lovely swimming pool, where friends and family would gather in summer, there was lots of pretend playing, lovely gardens and even a roof that made a great roller skating area.  Life wasn't rich in goods, but it was rich in so many other ways.

But when the Japanese invaded Nanking in 1937, Baba had to build an apartment where the kids roller skated because relatives from there had escaped to Shanghai to live.  After that, the effects of the war began to be felt more and more.  And in 1940 a family who had escaped Hitler's Germany, the Luedeckes, also moved into Baba's house.

The three families living in Baba's house were very fortunate.  Even after things changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the loss of British and American protection, the house that Baba built was able to withstand the war, and even when bombs were being dropped directly on Shanghai, they missed the house completely.

When the 20 years were up, the Young family honored their contract and turned the house over to the landowner.  By then, most of the children had grown, married and gone their own way.

It was during the war, living in Baba's house, that Young discovered his talent as an artist.  Given crayons and paper to use while recovering from a cold, his first attempt at drawing was a cowboy that didn't quite match what was in his mind.  But he sought guidance and the rest is history.  For The House Baba Built, he used a mixed media, which gives it depth and texture.  Young's family is shown in an interesting combination of old photographs and drawings, there are all kinds of collages (my favorite art form), and some of the pages fold out to reveal even more of the life of the Young family in Baba's house.

Most of the book consists of vignettes that are put together to resemble the collages, rather than a linear history of Young's early life.  However, there is a timeline at the end which can help orient the reader if needed.  And there is an extended section at the end of the book of later photographs, including Baba's house, as well as a diagram of the house and some facts regarding how the house was built to bombproof it.

All in all, The House Baba Built is an interesting book for all kinds of readers, but especially a reader who likes to explore each and every page of an illustrated book.  This is a work that proves itself to be an insightful look at some of the early influences on a beloved author/illustrator.

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


Facts First! Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by ProseandKahn



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11. Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff

It is 1944 and Jayna's big brother Rob, the only family she has, is a cook in the Navy.  Jayna and Rob were separated for years, placed in separate foster homes after the automobile deaths of their parents.  But when Rob turned 18, he got custody of Jayna.  Only now Rob has received his orders to report to his ship for deployment to the war in the Pacific.  Rob have made arrangements for Jayna to stay with thier landlady Celine for the time he is away.

Rob may be a great cook, but Jayna has a way with making homemade soup that even he can beat.  Could this be a family talent?  The night before he leaves, Rob tells Jayna he found a small blue recipe book with a name and an address in Brooklyn.

When a dreaded telegram arrives with news that Rob is missing in action, Jayna decides to find the recipe book.  Inside, there is a picture of a woman standing in from of a shop called Gingersnap, the same name her mother used called her, or so Rob claimed.  Jayna didn't remember her parents, who were killed in a car accident when she was very young.  Unhappy at Celine's and feeling very alone in the world, Jayna packs up a few things, including Theresa, the turtle she takes care of, and set off early one morning to find what she hopes might be an unknown grandmother named Elise.

Accompanying her on the trip to Brooklyn is a ghostly presence, or at least part of one, who wears Jayna's pink nail polish and can read her thoughts.  But she wasn't much help when Jayna takes the wrong train and ends up in Coney Island.  Leaving Theresa and her suitcase on the boardwalk, she goes down to the water's edge.  And naturally, the suitcase with the recipe book is stolen.  But Jayna remembers the address and, in distress, take the train to find the store with the name Gingersnap.

Yes, it is exactly where it was supposed to be.  And there is a kindly looking elderly lady behind the counter.  Mustering up her courage and encouraged by her ghost, Jayna walks into the store and no sooner is she standing in front of the lady when she knocks a wedding cake of the counter.

Ready to give up, Jayna runs out the store's back door and hides in the overgrown garden there, falling asleep. When she wakes up, she is hungry, miserable and stiff.  To make matters worse, now Theresa is missing.   But, seeing Elise in the back of the store making some dinner,  Jayna shores up her courage and knocks on the door.

Will this kind lady be her grandmother?  At last, a family member and a tie to her unknown parents?
Maybe, maybe not.

You can't go wrong when you pick up a book by Patricia Reilly Giff to read and Gingersnap is not exception.  The plot may be a little predictable, but the characters are believable and basically kind and caring, which is always nice to see in a novel.  WWII was a chaotic time and all kinds of things happened that caused children to become orphans, so it was nice to see Jayna's desire and determination to be part of a family.

I loved reading reading all the little details Giff included in Gingersnap, and especially about my hometown Brooklyn in the war.  The lackadaisical attitudes about school and Elises's difficulties running a bakery with all the shortages due to rationing are the kinds of real life details that go into making good historical fiction.

My very favorite part of the book is Jayna's soup recipes that are scattered throughout.  Depending on what is going on in her life, Jayna prepares soups like "Don't Think About it Soup" or "Feel Better Vegetable Soup."

And about that ghost - when you read Gingersnap I think you will agree that this is not really a true blue ghost story and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for her presence.

This is a great book about food, family, hope and courage, and whether you are or are not a Patricia Reilly Giff fan, one you will want to read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL


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12. 26 Fairmount Avenue: The War Years by Tomie dePaola

Last year, Tomie dePaola won The Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award and his extensive interview with Lee Wind on the SCBWI blog reminded me that I still haven't read Tomie's books about his home front experiences during World War II.  He wrote about them in the last four of the eight books that make up his 26 Fairmount Avenue series, subtitled The War Years.

This post probably contains spoilers


In Book 5, Things Will Never Be the Same, begins in January 1941, first-grader Tomie had just received his two best Christmas presents - a Junior Flexible Flyer sled and a diary with a lock and key, and so Book 5 begins with his very first diary entry.  With all the charm, honesty and bluntness of a very precocious and artistic 6 year old, Tomie takes us through the year 1941, diary entry by diary entry.  Each chapter begins with a short diary entry and the rest of the chapter goes into more depth everything that was going on at the time.  And 1941 is an exciting year for Tomie.  Through his diary, Tomie presents a wonderful picture of what life was life in that year preceding America's entry into the war.  Things he writes about include the day to day family life of the dePaola family, and the world of a first grader, for example, learning about President Roosevelt and the March of Dimes, and not being able to swim in the summer because of a Polio scare; the excitement over seeing Disney's Fantasia in the theater, his disappointment over who is second grade teacher is, about his tap dancing lessons which he loves, and of course all the holidays over the course of the year.  But all this changes on December 7, 1941.  Tomie writes in his diary:


As the dePaola's listen, along with the whole country, to the radio announcer talking about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tomie's mother says to her family, "Things will never be the same."

Unlike Things Will Never Be the Same, which covers a whole yearBook 6, I'm Still Scared, diary entries only cover one month, December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1941, but is is a powerful month for second grader Tomie.  Not quite understanding what has happened and the implications of war, Tomie is a scared little boy and to make matters worse, no one really wants to explain what's going on to him.  Luckily for him, after listening to Roosevelt's speech on the radio, the family go to visit Tomie's grandparents and his grandfather, Tom, takes some time he talk to him about his fears.  But life had indeed changed.  At school, there were air raid drills, and at home, an air raid shelter had to be created in the basement just in case.  And Tomie had to contend with being called the ENEMY because of his Italian heritage.  War was everywhere.  Even at the movies showing a children's feature, the newsreels showed London in the Blitz, and Tomie realized it was the first time he had seen what war was like.  At the end of December, young Tomie is still scared.

Book 7, Why?, begins on January 1, 1942 and runs until April 29, 1942.  In his new diary, Tomie gives more details of his day to day life.  He writes about his excitement about being able to stay up late for New Year's Eve, of going to help in his grandfather's grocery store, and of his first surprise air raid drill at school.  But his real trouble comes when his teacher starts teaching the kids to write in cursive and refused to allow Tomie, a lefty, to hold the pen in a way that worked for him.  And Tomie talks more about his older brother Buddy and how angry/annoyed Buddy gets with him.  But perhaps saddest of all are the entries about his cousin Anthony A/K/A Blackie.  Blackie was a favorite cousin who had joined the Army Air Corps.  Tomie seemed able to adjust to everything involving the war - like rationing and air raid drills - but the news of Blackie's death is just incomprehensible to him.  In the end, he is left asking himself Why?

Book 8, For the Duration, is the final book in the 26 Fairmount Avenue series and begins on May 1, 1942 and runs through... Well, that's hard to say.  It seems that early on, Tomie's diary key disappeared.  While there are not more diary entries, Tomie still talks about his life and in 1942, patriotism is in full swing.  At school, Tomie gets very sad and runs out of the room when the class starts singing the Army Air Corps anthem.  At dancing school. there is a lot so rehearsing for a wonderful recital, but there are also bullies in the schoolyard who take his new tap shoes and start tossing them around.  And there are victory gardens and ration books and helping again in his grandfather's grocery.  Things between Tomie and his brother Buddy get worse and in the end, it is Buddy who has taken the diary key.  But one thing Tomie learns to understand completely is that some things disappear (chewing gum, fireworks) and other thing come into being (war bonds, war stamps), all "for the duration."

The 26 Fairmount Avenue series is an extraordinary group of chapter books recalling Tomie dePaola's early life living in Meridan, Connecticut.  For the most part, they are a series of vignettes told in great detail and include whimsical illustrations by Tomie thoughout the books.   Much of what Tomie writes is funny, charming, sad and so typical of kids that age.  Though I haven't reviewed for first four books here, I would really recommend the whole series to anyone who is a Tomie dePaola fan.  My only gripe is that we are left hanging about Buddy and the diary key.

And if you are a Tomie dePaola fan, be sure to read Lee Wind's interview with him:
Part 1 can be found here
Part 2 can be found here
Part 3 can be found here

These books are recommended for readers age 7+
Things Will Never Be the Same was borrowed from the Children's Center of the NYPL
I'm Still Scared was borrowed from the Yorkville Branch of the NYPL
Why? was borrowed from the Morningside Heights Branch of the NYPL
For the Duration was borrowed from the Bank Street College of Education Library

Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by Tammy at Apples With Many Seeds



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13. Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Lee Stone

I first heard about the Triple Nickles when I read the book Jump into the Sky by Shelly Pearsall, the story of a young African American boy whose father was a paratrooper in 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or the Triple Nickles.

Now, Tanya Lee Stone's Courage Has No Color tells the true story of the Triple Nickels, America's first and only all black unit of paratroopers in World War II.  She begins their story by describing in graphic detail what it feels like to jump out of an airplane and parachute back to earth, to give you an idea of the level of courage it takes to be a paratrooper.  It is not something I think I would want to ever do.    

From there she writes about the kind of treatment black soldiers received in the military: segregated and relegated to service work and treated like servants.  It was demeaning and demoralizing to the men who joined the military to fight for their country and freedom.  One man, Walter Morris, a first sergeant in charge of Service Company of The Parachute School, saw how being treated like servants was affecting the men serving under him.  Morris devised a plan to teach his men how to feel like soldiers again.  It was his plan to teach them what they needed to know to become paratroopers.  And so after the white serviceman were finished practicing for the day, and the black servicemen arrived to start cleaning up after them, they also began their training.  And someone noticed how well they learned what was needed to become a successful paratrooper.  Pretty soon, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, long a proponent of equality, got into the act.

In 1941, The 99th Pursuit Squadron, or the Tuskegee Airmen, was formed and the men trained to be the country's first African American aviators.  And in 1943, these airmen were finally sent into combat overseas.   But the 555th Paratrooper Infantry Battalion was finally formed in February 1943.  Though trained as paratroopers, the Triple Nickles would never be used in combat, instead they were sent to Oregon to fight fires.  Turns out those fires were started by balloons sent over by Japan for that very purpose.

All of this and much more about the people and history of the 555th is detailed in Courage Has No Color, including an in-depth explanation of how they got their name - yes, there more to it than just 555.  It is a fascinating book covering this little known aspect of the United States military and World War II and an exceptional contribute to the history of African Americans in this country.

Stone has done an exemplary job of gathering primary source material, including interviews with some the of members of the 555th and lots of archival photographs, to bring to life the courage and heroism of these men and their accomplishments even against all odds.  Included is a very eyeopening timeline of the desegregation and the Triple Nickles,

Sadly, the United States Military was not desegregated until 1950.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was obtained from the publisher

Oh yes, remember that description of jumping out of an airplane I mentioned, well, you too can experience what it is like to be a paratrooper by reading it here.

A very useful teaching guide including Common Core connections, can be downloaded here.

6 Comments on Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Lee Stone, last added: 2/22/2013
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14. Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia

When I was 10 years old, I was diligently knitting away at a mitten when I realized I had made a mistake.  Imagine my surprise when my dad sat down beside me, took my knitting and fixed my mistake.  Turns out, my dad knew how to knit rather well.*

So, I knew I wanted to read Knit Your Bit the moment I first heard about it.  The United States had entered World War I in April 1917, and lots of men rushed to enlist, leaving their families behind.  This is true for young Mikey, whose Pop is also a soldier and who has just shipped off to fight overseas in Europe.  Mikey is very frustrated that he has to stay home and can't do something big and important to help the war effort, too.  Nevertheless, he turns up his nose when his mother asks if he would like to learn to knit for the soldiers along with his sister.  Mikey turns the offer down, because, well, boys don't knit!

But when his teacher announces that there will be a three-day Knitting Bee in Central Park to make hats, socks and scarves for US servicemen overseas, Mikey is challenged by a girl to learn to knit and participate - boys against the girls.  And so it is settled - the Boys' Knitting Brigade vs. the Purl Girls.

The only problem is - knitting isn't quite as easy as the boys thought it would be.  Yet, they soon master knit, and then it is on to purl.  Mikey works on socks, friend Nick on a muffler and Dan works mostly on tangling and untangling his yarn.

The first day of the Knitting Bee finally arrives and there are lots of people participating - men, women, girls and, yes, even other boys.  And there's also lots of food, a band and before they all know it, it is time to cast on.

As Mikey does his best trying to knit a pair socks, he learns a mighty important lesson from a disabled soldier about what it really means to do something big and important to help the war effort and the brave soldiers overseas.  But who wins the challenge? The Boys' Knitting Brigade or the Purl Girls?

Knit Your Bit  is based on a three-day knitting bee held in Central Park in August 1918 and sponsored by the Navy League Comforts Committee.  It is a heartwarming story that might even bring a tear or two to your eyes.  Hopkinson has seamlessly woven in Mikey's story with this event to produce a wonderful story that shows that sometimes what counts it isn't how well you do something, rather what counts is doing something out of your comfort zone, doing your best and doing it in the right spirit.  Wonderfully humorous pen, ink and watercolor illustrations by Steven Guarnaccia add much to the enjoyment of Knit Your Bit.  The lines are clean and simple, yet delightfully expressive, and I really liked how they reflect the clothing of the period.

Hopeinson has provided lots of back matter including a Red Cross knitting poster from WWI, an Author's Note which you should be sure to read all about the real Knitting Bee and sources for more information.

Though this is a story that all will enjoy, sending gifts to loved ones fighting in a war is long held tradition and for that reason, I think Mikey's story will particularly  resonate for readers in today's world, especially those who have or know someone who has a relative deployed overseas.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher as part of a Knit Your Bit Blog Tour.
For other stops on the blog tour, be sure to visit Deborah Hopkinson's blog.

And guess what?  You can still Knit Your Bit.
All you have to do is visit The National WWII Museum to download patterns and learn how to participate.  Your knitted scarves will be sent to veterans all over the country.

Want to know more?  HistoryLink.org has a wonderfully detailed essay on Knitting for Victory - World War I, complete with photographs, posters and even an ad.

I always like to look up these kinds of historical events in the New York Times and sure enough, here is the article announcing the results after three days of knitting:



*Oh, and my dad the knitter - poor guy was in his fifties when I was born, so yes, he knitted as a young boy for WWI.

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15. The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden, illustrated by Niki Daly

When I was a girl, I used to love ice skating in Central Park, either on the pond if it were frozen enough or the skating rink.  There was nothing like the feeling of gliding across the ice on a cold winter's day.  So when I saw The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden sitting on a bookshelf, I knew I just had to read it.

Written in free verse, the story is set in the Netherlands in December 1941.  Ten-year-old Piet Janssen was born to ice skate.  His father's family had made and repaired ice skates for many generations, and Piet is looking forward to the time he is old enough to skate in the Elfstedentoct just like his hero , Pim Mulier.  Mulier has skated the 200 kilometer/124 miles race in record-breaking time in a bitter cold December, much like Holland was experiencing in 1941.

But Holland is under German occupation and although there is no restriction on skating, there just are much of the need supplies left for Piet's grandfather to make or repair skates.  In fact, there isn't much of anything left after the Germans took what needed.   But for Christmas, Piet receives a little red notebook.  In it, he begins to plan and train for his entry in the Elfstedentoct...someday.

The Janssens are kind people and help others whenever they can, especially during the bitter cold winters that Europe has been experiencing since the war began.  One Friday, when Piet comes home from school, excited to show his mother his perfect spelling test, he learns that the father of a school mate has been arrested for possessing a radio and sending messages to the Allies.  It is decided that his children, Johanna and her little brother Joop Winkelman, need to get away to safety.

Which means that Piet, Johanna and Joop would skate the frozen canals to Brugge, Belgium, a distance of 16 kilometers/10 miles past German checkpoints all along the way, a long distance for two 10 year olds and one 7 year old after a day at school.

And so the three skaters begin their journey.  They don't get far before they run into their first German sentries, who stop them and become very suspicious when they see the Elfstedentoct map Piet had drawn in his red notebook for training purposes.  A nice border map, one guard says.  Finally the other guard recognizes the name of the race.  The children are allowed to go on, but can they fool every sentry at every guard house they will have to pass and arrive safely in Brugge or be caught and arrested?  And even if they get by the guards, can little Joop complete the arduous journey?

The Greatest Skating Race was such an exciting story and so well told that I had to keep checking the spine of the library book I was reading to remind myself that it is fiction.  And although this is technically a picture book, it is really designed for middle grade readers.  It is an engaging and beautifully written story that demonstrates the bravery and courage of children caught up in a war and their understanding of just how serious things were.  An exciting story, it really captures the fear and tension that people experienced living under Nazi occupation continually felt.

The illustrations by Niki Daly, which are done in colored pencil, ballpoint pen and watercolor with digital enhancement, beautifully convey the freezing winter weather, the beauty of the country and the fear, the determination and even the innocence of the children in cold wintry tones.

The Elfstedenstoct is a real race that can only be done if the ice in the canals along the 11 city route are all frozen to 15cm.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like a race will be held in 2013 and in fact there hasn't been one since 1997.

Pim Mulier (1865-1954), Piet's skating hero, did indeed complete the Elfstedentoct just as it is described in The Greatest Skating Race.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from The Bank Street College of Education library

6 Comments on The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden, illustrated by Niki Daly, last added: 3/2/2013
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16. Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow

Of course, after reading Saving Zasha, we all wondered where she really came from and who was the German soldier she was with.  Well, Randi Barrow has written a prequel that pretty much answers those two questions.

Finding Zasha begins with the September 1941 Siege of Leningrad.  When German soldiers surround the city and cut off all supply lines, life becomes more difficult for everyone living in Leningrad, including Ivan, 12, and his mother, a factory worker.  There is never enough food or heat and people are dying of starvation all over the city.

When her apartment is hit by a bomb, an elderly neighbor, called Auntie by everyone, moves in with them and begins to teach Ivan how to survive under siege, lesson she learned in WWI.  As winter comes on, and the blockade holds, the three survive on the cans of beans Auntie had hidden away.  Then one day, Ivan's mother announces that her job is moving to the Ural Mountains for safety and she must go with it - but without Ivan.

It is decided that Ivan will go live with his Uncle Boris and Auntie will live with her sister-in-law, Galina, as soon as the ice road across the frozen miles long Lake Ladoga can hold the weight of transport trucks and they can leave Leningrad.  In January, the ice is finally thick enough and Ivan and Auntie set out on their journey.  When no one meets them on the other side of the lake, they are fortunate enough to be offered a ride by a friendly sleigh owner.

At last, they arrive at Galina's home and Ivan settles in there for a few days before going on to Uncle Boris.  He meets Polina, a girl about his age, who seems to know every nook and cranny of the area.  It turns out that Polina, along with Galina and now Auntie, are working as partisans under the leadership of Petr, and along with other villagers.  This is right up Ivan's alley and he too joins the partisans, staying at Galina's instead of traveling on to Uncle Boris.

Not long after this, the Germans arrive.  Ivan has been playing his concertina for Auntie and Galina's pleasure and as the Germans roll in, their commander, Major Axel Recht, comes to the door to listen to Ivan play.  With him are two German Shepard puppies.  And when Commander Recht leaves, he takes Ivan with him.

Now, basically imprisoned in the makeshift Nazi headquarters, it is Ivan's hope to discover useful information he pass on the the partisans.  Luckily, the cruel animal trainer who is to teach the puppies to hate and kill Russians, gets news that his son has been injured in fighting, and leaves immediately to be by his side.  Ivan convinces the commander that he has experience training dogs and can do the job.  And of course, Ivan begins to plot how he can get the puppies, Zasha and Thor, away from Recht's cruelty.  This won't be easy - Recht is a sadistic, vengeful man, who loves his whip.  And when he forces Ivan to watch a German soldier being whipped for a minor breach, the full extent of his cruelty becomes apparent.

But Ivan's plan of escape may happen sooner that he expects when Recht and his soldiers must leave the village soon to go help in the fighting at Tikhvin where things are not going well for the Germans.  Can Ivan succeed in escaping Recht with both of his prized puppies?

This is a nice historical fiction work about Russia in WW2, an area not frequently explored in novels, though lately some really excellent works have been published. Another book depicting the terrible conditions in Russia during the war and how they impacted the ordinary Russians that people this story is always welcome.  And certainly all the historical facts in this novel were spot on - the siege of Leningrad, the ice road over Lake Ladoga, the fighting at Tikhvin, a battle that helped turn the tide for the starving people in Leningrad.  Be sure to read the Barrow's information and timeline about these things at the end of the book.

But Finding Zasha left me with very mixed feelings.  I actually enjoyed the first part of it quite a bit, but I felt that the story was sometimes forced in order to create a history for Zasha.  And I thought that the second half and the ending were rushed in order to get to the end of the war and the point at which Saving Zasha could begin.  Although the story is filled with adventure and danger, I didn't find myself holding my breath at the places where that should have happened.

Sadly, I didn't care much for Ivan, either.  Rather than strong and brave, I found him to be too headstrong, impulsive and public to be a partisan.  And the other partisans accepting him as one struck me as took simplistic.   He was basically an unknown to them and had proved himself trustworthy yet.

Yet, at the end of the day, I would recommend reading Finding Zasha.  It is still a well written novel, and there is much to cull from this book for fans of Zasha and/or Randi Barrow.  And I hear there is a third Zasha book on the horizon.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an E-ARC from Net Galley

I found the concept of the ice road very intriguing and so I looked it up.  It took Ivan and Auntie quite a long time to cross Lake Ladoga in a truck in Finding Zasha.  The ice road was almost 17 miles long and was constructed under enemy fire in the winter of 1041/42.  But it lived up to its nickname The Road of Life during the Siege of Leningrad when it allowed limited food supplies to be brought into the beleaguered city and allowed others to leave if they had places they could go to.

The Ice Road - April 1942 (you can see the ice
starting to melt)

6 Comments on Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow, last added: 3/7/2013
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17. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool


Sometimes, when you read a debut novel that also wins a Newbery, your expectations for next novel by the same author are way too high.  That was exactly what I was thinking when I picked up Navigating Early at the library and I must say I was very pleasantly surprised when I began reading and realized that I was not to be disappointed.

The book begins just after World War II has ended in Europe and 13 year old Jackie Baker's father, a Navy captain, has returned home to Kansas, not because of the end of fighting, but to bury his wife.  Not knowing what to do with their son Jackie, he enrolls him in the Morton Hill Academy for Boys, a boarding school in Maine.  

Not happy about this and somewhat of a misfit in the school, Jackie discovers a boy living in the janitor's workshop instead of the dormitory.  Early Auden, that strangest of boys, as Jackie describes him, is also a misfit, a boy who uses rituals to organize and navigate the world.  He also has an extraordinary ability for mathematics.  Numbers, Early tells Jackie, tell a story, specifically a story about Pi, that most mysterious of numbers: "The numbers have colors - blues of the ocean and sky, green grass, a bright-yellow sun.  The numbers have texture and landscape - mountains and waves and sand and storms.  And words - about Pi and about his journey.  The numbers tell a story." (pg 66)  

Early and Jackie becomes friends.  And it turns out that Early, like Jackie, has suffered a loss of someone important to him.  Fisher Auden, a hero and a rowing legend at Morton Hill, was Early's older brother who went to war right after graduation.  But after a dangerous mission, Fisher is declared Missing in Action, presumed Dead.  Early, however, is convinced that Fisher is hiding in the Maine woods and has decided to find him during a school break.

Jackie, disappointed that his father couldn't come to get him for the break, decides to join Early on his quest along the Appalachian Trail to find Fisher.  

And what a quest it is.  It is a story about how Jack, Early and Pi lost heir direction in life and how they tried to navigate their way back to it.  And along the way, they meet all kinds of strange people, like the  pirates searching for treasure, a Norwegian still pining for his first love, a 100 year old woman stilling waiting for her son to come home.  As the boys travel along the Appalachian Trail, Early narrates his story about Pi's journey in an attempt to earn the name Polaris which his mother had given him.  

And as the boys travel along, there are lots of coincidences, lots of twists and turns in Navigating Early, but never a dull moment.  In the most enchanting language, Vanderpool weaves a taut, complex, entertaining story.  I found myself anxious to get back to Jack and Early whenever I put the book down and, like Jack, I wanted to hear more and more of Pi's story.  

Whenever a book is set in or after WWII, I ask myself why that time period.  The war impacted everyone in some way or other.  It brought Jackie's father home before it was over.  But more importantly, it showed how lost some people were when it was over.  Jackie's father knew the Navy, how the operate, organize, control his ship.  But in Kansas, after his wife's death, he was faced with an inability to navigate his world there.  And this led to his inability to guide Jack, who without mother and father, also has difficulty navigating the world.  Fisher was also a lost soul because of the war, and Early completely lost his way of navigating the world when Fisher went missing.  And so while Navigating Early is about navigating, it is also about finding your direction again, just as Pi must.  Some many had to grapple with that after the war.  

A lot of people have used the words autistic or Asperger's to describe Early.  Yet, it is not for us to diagnose him and to her credit, Vanderpool does not label Early either, but merely has Jackie call him "that strangest of boys" which would be more apropos for the time.  

This is a wonderful novel, and I think it is not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL


4 Comments on Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, last added: 3/14/2013
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18. Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian

On September 1, 1939, Operation Pied Piper commenced and thousands of children were evacuated from London to the English countryside to keep them safe from the war that was just beginning.

Among the evacuees to Little Weinwold is William Beech, 8, left in the care of Tom Oakley, a widower and a rather crusty loner.  William is much to small for his age, frightened of everything and covered in black and blue bruises.  Inside he duffel, Tom find a belt with a large buckle and instructions to use it on William whenever he sees fit.  Appalled by what he sees that first day, Mr. Tom, as he tells William to call him, begins to soften towards the boy, taking him out and buying him some appropriate clothing and boots, feeding him well and doctoring the bruises.

As William's body heals, he comes out of his frightened shell and even develops a fondness for Mr. Tom's dog Sammy.  But William has a bed-wetting problem that continues despite everything.   Soon William meets Zach, another evacuee, and they become best friends.  And other kids begin to join in on their fun.  And it turns out that William is quite a talented artist, receiving some art supplies from Mr. Tom for his ninth birthday.  Things go well until school starts.

It turns out that William cannot read, that in London his teachers ignored him and the other students taunted him.  When all his friends to into their proper class, William is put in with the younger kids who are just beginning school.  Mr. Tom begins to teach him to read and by the end of the term, William has conquered not just reading but his bed-wetting problem as well.

Life for William, Mr. Tom and Sammy the dog has evolved into a comfortable,  happy companionship and Mr. Tom has even begun to participate in village activities again, something he hasn't done in forty years after the death of his wife and new baby son, also named William.  But one day a letter arrives from William's mother, asking for her son to come home for a visit.

And it is with very heavy hearts that Mr. Tom and William say good-bye at the train.  William is laden with all kinds of lovely, friendly gifts for his mother as he leave and promises to write to Mr. Tom as soon as he can.  When weeks go by and not letter arrives, Mr. Tom and Sammy take the train to London to find out if things are going well for William, arriving just at the Blitz begins.

And yes, he does find him - locked in a closet, tied up to a pipe in it and holding a baby who turns out to be his illegitimate sister.  Traumatized and blaming himself for the baby's death, William is taken to a hospital.  Mr. Tom keeps watch and makes himself useful when people injured by the bombing are brought in.  After a few days, however, he is told that William is going to be transferred to a home where he will be given psychiatric treatment.

Not agreeing that this is the best thing for William, Mr. Tom resorts to something desperate.  Will the two ever make it back to Little Weinwold or is this the end of things for Mr. Tom and William?

Good Night, Mr. Tom is Michelle Magorian's first novel.  It was written in 1981 and hasn't lost any of its appeal nor does it have a dated feeling.  It is probably her most well-known work, particularly since it has been made into a television movie (ITV in the UK, Masterpiece Theater in the US, and with John Thaw, a favorite) and a play.

I have read Good Night, Mr. Tom a few times and never get tired of it.  The writing is elegant, and Magorian has great talent in fleshing out her characters so that they are believable and well-developed. And the same can be said for her settings, actually.

Magorian also has a way of presenting difficult issues without getting too graphic or going overboard.  In this novel alone, there are issues of abuse, bullying, anti-Semitism, skewed religious beliefs, the death of children and suicide.  These are dreadful things, and yet not presented in such a way that they   will disturb young readers, but enough is said to make this book appeal to an adult reader as well.  And in the end, it is a novel of healing, hope, love and trust, and these are the issues that predominate, even without a really pat ending.

If you haven't read Good Night, Mr. Tom, be warned - it is a tearjerker, but oh, so worth it.  But there is much in the story that will make you chuckle, especially William's very outgoing friend Zack, whom I haven't mentioned much even though he is a good part of the book and who makes me smile just thinking about him.

This old favorite is worthy of a first read if you haven't already read it, or worthy of another read if you have read it before.

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

9 Comments on Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, last added: 3/17/2013
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19. Alice at the Home Front by Mardiyah A. Tarantino

It is sometimes a serendipitous world.  Now sooner did I write about plane spotting in December, than I started reading a book about an 11 year old girl who really wants to be a plane spotter.  Alice Calder has memorized all the plane silhouettes on her plane spotting cards, has a brand new log book and a pair of binoculars.  All she is missing is her mother's permission.  But when her mom figures out that Alice has been plane spotting out the window one cold night in December 1942 in Providence, Rhode Island, she takes away her plane spotting equipment.  Now how will anyone be able to recognize her as the important spotter she fancies herself as?

Alice wants to do something more for the war than just writing to her Uncle David (almost) everyday. So the next day, after school, she heads over to the Red Cross, where she can fold bandages for wounded soldiers.  On her way, she envisions herself being introduced on the radio as a real patriot for her bandage folding.  Though is it satisfying enough work, Alice still  dreams of being a plane spotting heroine.

Then, as she and her Gramps are preparing a bomb shelter at home, Alice talks him into letting her use her grandmother's opera glasses (if it's OK with mom) and hits on the idea of joining the plane spotters in the Ground Observation Corps.  But when she asks Mr. Parker, the head of the corps, about joining, he tells her she is too young.  Taking pity on her, he gives Alice an old Ground Observer's manual that is still serviceable.

Civil Air Patrol  
One day, after dancing class, Alice runs in her old friend (and crush) Jimmy Brownell, 16.  Over cokes, he tells her he has joined the Civil Air Patrol her and will be training to get a pilot's license.   In CAP, he will fly his dad's plane over the coast looking for enemy submarines.

Sure enough, Jimmy gets his license and begins flying and Alice flies with him, at least in her imagination.  Meanwhile, with hard won permission to plane spot, Alice does her patriotic duty spotting and keeping a meticulous log book.  But then, one cold winter night, a phone call comes, saying that Jimmy's plane was lost over the sea because of a nor'easter and it doesn't look good.  Upset, Alice passes out and spends a number of days in bed, seriously ill.

When she recovers, she is told that Jimmy had been found alive, but in pretty bad condition.  And to her chagrin, Alice discovers that binoculars and log book have been take away once again.  And that would seem to be the end of Alice's spotting days.  Or is it?  There is a big surprise in store for Alice and her meticulous log book.

Alice at the Home Front is a story that really demonstrates the desire of young people in WWII to do something, anything to help the war effort.  The war wasn't something far away on unimaginable battlefields to them.  They felt the effect of it wherever they lived.  Rationing, bomb shelters, air raid sirens and blackout were the kinds of things that brought it all home for them every day.  Tarantino has given the reader a picture into what it was all about for them through Alice.

Plane Spotting Cards
Plane spotting was a big very big thing for kids and there were all kinds of ways to learn plane identification, including playing cards with images on them  It was something they could do right in their own backyard and maybe feel a little more empowered than they actually were.  And naturally, kids could get pretty competitive about who could identify and/or spot the greatest number of different planes.  And I suspect that lots of kids, like Alice, had Walter Mitty-like dreams be being a hero/heroine.  And it is part of what made Alice at the Home Front such a realistic novel.

This is a heart-warming story with lots of humorous bits, lots of slang and some pretty serious stuff, too.  I loved that she wanted to be a plane spotter, and really was dedicated to it, even at the risk of falling out the window.  The most amazing part of the novel was that a 16-year-old boy was allowed to fly a plane alone the way Jimmy did, but it certainly demonstrates how different times were back then.

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

Be sure to visit the National Museum of the Civil Air Patrol where you can see an extensive online exhibit of the role CAP played in World War II.


4 Comments on Alice at the Home Front by Mardiyah A. Tarantino, last added: 3/20/2013
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20. Welcome to America, Champ! by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Doris Ettlinger

Once the United States entered WWII, the inevitable was bound to happen - American G.I.s who were stationed in England before deploying to combat areas would meet, date and fall in love with English girls.  And sometimes they got married.  Welcome to America, Champ! is the story of this very thing and what happens next, all told from the point of view of a young boy named Thomas.

Thomas begins his story in 1944, telling us about his mother marrying Jack Ricker, a US serviceman stationed in England.  It is one of the few happy occasions during Thomas's experience of war.  Before Jack, things were pretty sad for Thomas and his family, even though their village hadn't been bombed like other places in England.  His mother friends all put together their rations to make a cake for the bride and groom and there is lots of dancing at the small reception, but Thomas has lots of questions for his new dad about some day living in America, which his dad is happy to answer.  And he promises to teach Thomas how to play baseball with a stick once they are all together in the US.

But soon after Jack is sent off to war.  And eventually Thomas has a new baby brother named Ronnie.

One day, the church bells start ringing all over England to announce that the war is finally over.  But Jack is sent directly back to the states, with no time to visit his wife and sons.  The family waits until the finally get a letter from the army - be ready to sail to America in two weeks.
Sailing to America
Pretty soon, Thomas, Ronnie and their mom are on the Queen Mary, sailing across the Atlantic to a
a new life.  Excited but apprehensive, Thomas reads the answers his dad had given him to all his questions over and over again to reassure himself that things will be work out.  And he spends lots time exploring the ship with his new friend Lucy, who is going to America for the same reason as Thomas.  Thomas and Lucy are both still rather homesick and anxious, but when they finally see the Statue of Liberty early one morning, Lucy's homesickness get the better of her and she begins to cry.

But maybe Thomas has just the thing to help Lucy with her fears and to help himself at the same time.

Welcome to America, Champ! is one of those very well written, well done picture books for older readers that are being published more and more lately.  I think these are perfect classroom books and offer a way of introducing different historical events to kids in first, second and third grades without overwhelming them with facts and figures.

I personally found this book to be very interesting for two reasons: first, because my best friend's grandmother was a war bride from England and because my dad had also immigrated here from Wales.  We both used love listening to their stories about leaving Britain and coming here.  And Welcome to America, Champ! is, after all, a story about immigrating to a new country and what that means to a child - getting to know a new dad, a new school, new friends, new way of life at the same time as leaving behind your old home, old friends, old school and your family.  Thomas's apprehension about these issues makes this a perfect read aloud for any child who is about to or has just dealt with a an event that has changed their lives.

Doris Ettlinger's beautifully rendered realistic watercolor illustrations complement and support this heartwarming story throughout, giving us a real sense of not just of Thomas's life but also his feelings and emotions.

My second reason for finding Welcome to America, Champ! is that I was fortunate enough to have sailed from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary just before she was retired and I was old enough to remember it.  The Queen Mary was a lovely old ship and being on her was like stepping back in time (or at least that is what my memory tells me).

Queen Mary entering New York harbor
Be sure to read the Author's Note at the end of Welcome to America, Champ! for more information about war brides.

FYI: The Queen Mary, converted from a warship to a floating nursery, arrived in New York Harbor on February 10, 1946 with the first of the war brides and their children, all of whom were greeted by an army band playing Brahms' "Lullabye."  On board were 1,666 brides and 688 children.  What a day that must have been!

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



4 Comments on Welcome to America, Champ! by Catherine Stier, illustrated by Doris Ettlinger, last added: 3/30/2013
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21. Mister Orange by Truus Matti

Front Cover of Mister Orange
Racing along New York City streets one March 1945 day, Linus Muller stops to catch his breath when his attention is suddenly arrested by a familiar face on a poster.  Noting the address on the poster, Linus changes course and sets off for it instead.

Flashback to September 1943: Linus is 12 years old and has just inherited his older brother's shoes and his job delivering groceries for his parent's shop.  In fact, with six kids and a war on, everything is a hand me down, except for Linus's older brother Albie, who is off to war now that he is old enough to enlist.  Linus has also inherited Albie's bed and has been made caretaker of Albie's superhero comic books collection, a love they shared, as well as Albie drawing of his own superhero Mr. Superspeed, with whom Linus keeps a running conversation while he makes his deliveries.

As Linus begins his life as a delivery boy, he meets all the customers and quickly learns their quirky ways, like Mrs. DeWinter who always has another task waiting for Linus to do when he brings her groceries.  His job takes him all over the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an area Linus knows like the back of his hand.  Late in the afternoon, on his first day, his mother hands Linus a crate of oranges and tells him to deliver them to 15 East 59th Street.  Little did Linus know this would be his most interesting monthly delivery.

Living there is an elderly painter with a difficult to remember name and a studio that has stark white walls, except for the groups of brightly colored squares and rectangles here and there.  Linus started called the painter Mister Orange and it turns out that Mr. Orange had recently arrived from Nazi-occupied Holland to escape Hitler's oppressive control on the arts.

Meanwhile, brother Albie is still excited to go to war and ships out to Italy as soon as basic training is over.  At first, Albie's letters are still filled with enthusiastic descriptions about being a new recruit and the friends he has made.  From Italy, he asks Linus to play a rather harmless practical joke on a friend's mother for her birthday and leave a card from her son at the same time.  Linus carries out his mission with stealth, but then Albie's next letter is more somber and sad, as he reports his friend has fallen in battle.

Linus understands how it feels to lose a friend.  It appears that he is losing his best friend to an older boy who dislikes Linus as much as Linus dislikes him.

And so his visits to Mr. Orange become a bright spot in his life and it is there that the two talk about life.  Angry at the reality of war that Albie describes, Linus decides that comics and superheroes are imaginary escapes from all the horrors in life and rejects them completely.  Now he doesn't even have the voice of Mr. Superspeed to accompany him.   But as Mr. Orange talks to him about his painting and even teaches him how to dance the boogie woogie, he also tells Linus about the importance of imagination, especially during wartime: "If imagination were as harmless as you think...then the Nazis couldn't be so scared of it." (pg 122)  All the while, Mr. Orange works on his latest painting, a freedom he would not have had if he has remained in Europe.

Can Mister Orange help Linus through this difficult time?

Originally written in Dutch and skillfully translated by Laura Watkinson, Mister Orange is itself a wonderful historical fiction work of imagination that skillfully portrays the daily hustle and bustle of life in one New York City neighborhood during WW2 as Linus makes his deliveries.  I grew up in Brooklyn and Manhattan at a time when Mom and Pop grocery stores were still common (my brother's first job was delivering groceries), and if you had a fight with your best friend, you just went over to their house to make up - just the way Linus does - very simple, very easy.    So I know that this and more  of Mister Orange is pretty spot on.  And so is the Action Comic that Linus buys for Albie - November 1943 No. 66.  Matti has done her research well.

But the friendship between Mister Orange and Linus would be unusual, though maybe not impossible.  In a way, however, it is a nice example of how even a short lived friendship can impact our lives, in this case from September 1943 to February 1944.

Mister Orange is a nice coming-of-age story that unfolds slowly and steadily, but should still engage young readers, though probably not everyone.  Linus is a thoughtful, introspective, observant boy who really loves life, at least until reality comes knocking and he finds his world terribly shaken.

I put Mister Orange on hold at the library based only on the cover and knowing it was a WW2 story because I loved the cover of the American edition.  Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is one of my favorite abstract painters, so as soon as I saw the cover, I knew he would be in the story somewhere, someway.  Jenni Desmond, the illustrator of Mister Orange, has really captured both the motion of the city as Linus travels around and the sense of movement that Mondrian's painting reflect, so that it becomes such a wonderful mixture of Linus's life, and Mondrian's painting, which is as it should be.  I found myself going over it again and again after I finished reading the book.

In the back on the book is a section called Mister Mondrian.  This FYI section describes his life and the paintings he did while live in New York City.  The painting that he was working on during Linus's visit was his never completed Victory Boogie Woogie, see here:
Victory Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian
Mondrian's studio had an immediate, deep impact on Linus and helped him realize hope for the future.  Here, though, are photos of that studio, almost exactly as Linus describes them (right down to the orange crates):

 (click the images to enlarge them)

There are some who think this book would not appeal to young readers, but I think they will enjoy reading about Linus and his life, and the person who helped him work things out for himself.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

5 Comments on Mister Orange by Truus Matti, last added: 4/21/2013
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22. The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

The Fitzosbornes, royal family of that small fictional Channel island Montmaray, are back in this third and last book of the trilogy.  As you may recall in Book I, A Brief History of Montmaray, the FitzOsbornes - Toby, Sophie, Henry (Henrietta), cousin Veronica and half cousin Simon - were forced by the Nazis to leave their island home and head for London.

And in Book II, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, we found them hobnobbing between London and their Aunt Charlotte's Milford Park estate in Dorset.  However, there was war in the air and both Toby and Simon decided to enlist in the RAF.

All the FitzOsborne doings have been relayed to us through the journals of HRH Princess Sophia FitzOsborne and in Book III, The FitzOsbornes at War, this tradition continues.

Sophie, now 18, begins her journal appropriately enough on September 3, 1939, the day that Britain and France declare war on Germany.

With England now at war, and Toby and Simon in the RAF, Sophie and Veronica both wish to do their bit to help and even manage to convince Aunt Charlotte to let them move into a small apartment behind the larger Montmaray House in London.  Veronica, who speaks fluent Spanish, gets a job in the Foreign Office, while Sophie begins working for the Ministry of Food, a job she does not consider very important to the war effort.

And so life goes on under wartime conditions, with air raids, food shortages, and eventually, bombings.  All the while, Veronica travels to Spain for long periods of time to translate for high ranking officials and diplomats, and Sophie works and hangs out with friends Julia, who has volunteered to be an ambulance driver, and Kick (Kathleen Kennedy, daughter of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, sister to Jack and Ted), everything faithfully recorded by Sophie in her journal, as the war becomes the new normalcy.  Sophie does occasionally still see Rupert, Julia's brother, but he is working on something top secret and doesn't have much free time.  Even so, they find they are more and more attracted to each other.  But then, Toby goes missing while flying a mission over France, believed to have parachuted out of his burning plane.  And it is as if he vanished in thin air, there seems to be no information about him to be found anywhere.

Sophie's wartime journal covers 4 years this time, from September 3, 1939 to November 28, 1944, with one entry dated August 28, 1948.  There are, of course, long periods of time elapsing between journal entries, so most are really summaries of what has been happening, which I think works better than lots of more frequent entries, less confusing to the reader.

I wrote in The FitzOsbornes in Exile that it was more of a historical novel than A Brief History on Montmaray, and I can honestly say that this third novel is even more historical the both put together.  How could it not be?  However, Cooper has blended fact and fiction so well, that the divide between them seems almost seamless here, yet the historical information is still quite obvious so that the reader doesn't make the mistake of believing the fictional bits really happened.  Clever that.  And Cooper has used historical events to help move the story along without overburdening the readers with names and dates and stuff like that.

The main characters are still believable, well-developed and sympathetic.  Sophie is no longer the young innocent girl she was when we first met her in 1936, nevertheless, she still retains some of her youthful naivety, even in the face of finding true love.  Veronica is still Sophie's opposite, rather more interested in the intellectual side of life than the emotional side.  And Henry is still Henry, sweet, charming, always exuberant and optimistic.

Does The FitzOsbornes at War stand up to it predecessors?  Yes, it most certainly does.  It is a most worthy sequel to the first two books, though I am not sure it would work very well as a stand alone novel.  It doesn't have quite as much wit and fun as before, but there is still enough action, adventure, danger and even love to satisfy, in fact, sometimes there are even some real nail-biting moments.  And sadly, there is one spot where you might want to have some tissues handy.

And here's the rub - rather than taking my time and savoring this last FitzOsborne novel, I read it almost in one sitting.  I simply couldn't wait to see what was in store for these favorite characters.  Then, I got to the end and I asked myself, why did I race through this book that I had been so looking forward to reading and now I have to say good-bye to because I'd finished it and there were no more FitzOsbornes on the horizon?  So if you like the FitzOsbornes as I do, try not to rush to the end.

That said, and as much as I enjoyed The FitzOsbornes at War, I did find two things that bothered me.

1- Henry!  I can't say more.  The problem with writing about this book is that no matter what you write, it could easily end up as an unintentional spoiler.

2- I did not like the way Toby's homosexuality was handled.  It was brought to light in The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and became a non-thing in this novel.  What happened????  It just vanished...

To her credit, Cooper took a page out of JK Rowling's books and included on post-war journal entry wrapping this up for the reader.  Not all is a happy ending, but at least you won't wonder.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from Random House through Edelweiss (and it will be available on October 9, 2012 in the US)

The FitzOsbornes at War is a wonderful personal read, but it is also so full of history that teacher's may want to supplement their WW2 classes with it, and if so, you can download an extensive Teacher's Guide from Random House Australia.








This is book 14 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

6 Comments on The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper, last added: 10/12/2012
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23. Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison

When I was 9 and my sister was 16, I read her diary.  I found out all about her life, what she thought and how she felt about a variety to things.  I didn't get caught, so I didn't get punished, but I did suffer an overwhelming guilty conscience for a long time.  Consequently, I have never committed an indiscretion like that again.  Even so, I have to admit that the bare honestly that can be found in a diary still holds a certain fascination for me.  Maybe that is why I like reading published diaries so much. At least you don't have to worry about dealing with a guilty conscience.

Naturally I was very excited when I first heard about Home Front Girl: a Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America.  It is a real diary, begun by Joan Whelan in 1937 at age 14 and runs through to 1943 when she was 20 years old.  Joan was the daughter of Swedish immigrants living in Chicago who grew up to become a journalist and adjunct professor of history at the New School for Social Research, so it is not too surprising that she would have kept a diary as a teen.  After Joan passed away in 2010, her daughter found her diary among her papers and decided to share it with the rest of the world. 

And I am so glad she did because Home Front Girl did not disappoint me.  Throughout her diary, Joan chronicles her thoughts on the ordinary everyday events in her life.  Here, then, is a sampling:

School: Tuesday, April 13, 1937 "Hello!  Tests next week!  Oh, boy! Have pity on me and sympathize."

boys and boys in the R.O.T.C.: Tuesday, April 20, 1937 "...there isn't any R.O.T.C. unit in Greeley [Elementary School] (they do look so handsome in uniforms!)" (pg 3)

first dates: Thursday, January 20, 1938 "Yesterday a boy asked me if I'd go to the dance on Saturday with him.  I told him I'd see - I guess I'll go.  His name is Jack Latimer.  Imagine - my first date." (pg 29)

She also writes about first kisses, singing in the church choir, going to the movies with friends, and the opera with her mom, studying for exams in school and writing a column in the school paper.  In short, Joan lives the the busy life of an intelligent, energetic teenage girl in the 1930s.

But Joan also has a very serious side that is evident when she is writing about life and current events.  It is then that we really get to see how well rounded this vibrant, thoughtful girl is, and we get a glimpse of the woman she became.

To begin with, even as early as 1937, the idea of war scares her: Friday, December 31, 1937 "..I dreamt a war was begun...I was a boy and I knew I would have to be a soldier.  I was afraid to go to war.  I kept seeing trenches, and mud, and horror and pain and things - and killing people - and I was terribly scared inside." (pg 23)

her fears about TB: "P.S. I got tested for T.B. at school today...Saturday, June 4, 1938 "I'm susceptible! Tat is , to T.B.  If I meet anyone who has it, I might catch it..." (pg 50)

Current events: Tuesday, May 2, 1939 We are on daylight savings now.  Germany is giving Poland two weeks to give her the Polish corridor.  Otherwise war.  However, England and France on side of Poland.  So Russia too, maybe...`

But perhaps the most poignant entry of all is the one for Thursday, October 10, 1940, when Joan writes about life for her generation and the impact World War I, the prosperity of the early 1920s and then the depression had on their character development, and on their bodies: "Oh, you, my generation! - we were a lovely lot!  Sharp minds - arguing all the time and brittle bodies and even more brittle laughter - and all the time knowing that we were growing up to die." (pg 143)

Joan Whelen's diary is by turns funny, serious, playful, patriotic, optimistic, pessimistic and moving.  It is supplemented with lots of her own drawings that are part of the diary, as well as photos and newspaper clippings she saved.  It turns out that Home Front Girl is more than just a diary, it is a document of its time and a very interesting window through which to view this eventful period of era.

In truth, Home Front Girl: a Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America was so much better than my sister's diary.

"Sunday, December 18, 1938, 3:00 It's so wonderful to be the
Virgin Mary and almost 16 and so awfully happy on a cold
bright winter day." (pg 87)
Be sure to visit the homepage of Home Front Girl for more information and resources a about Joan and World War II.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was sent to my by the publisher

9 Comments on Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison, last added: 12/13/2012
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24. Molly's Surprise by Valerie Tripp

Original Version
 Back on 2010, I listed Molly's Surprise along with some other Christmas books that are set during World War II, so I thought I would give it a proper review this year.  As you probably already know, the Molly in the title is Molly McIntire, a 9 year old girl living in the Midwest in 1944.

In Molly's Surprise, the holiday's are approaching, it appears it will be a real austerity Christmas for the McIntires, along with the rest of the country.  There will be no real treats because sugar and butter are rationed, no real toys because all metals and paper are going towards the war effort and no Dad, because he is an army doctor and stationed somewhere in England taking care of wounded soldiers.

Molly doesn't mind that their gifts will be practical, she just wants surprises because that is what the McIntires are known for - lots of Christmas surprises.  And she is absolutely sure her Dad will be sending them surprise presents from England.  She just knows he wouldn't let Christmas go by without any of his wonderful surprises.  But then, the always practical Jill, Molly's older sister, reminds her: "This Christmas is different...This is wartime.  There just won't be any wonderful surprises this year.  We have to be realistic." (pg 7)

But soon, there is one surprise and it isn't good. Her grandparents, who were supposed to bring a Christmas tree from their farm, have to cancel their plans.  Their car has a flat tire and rubber has gone the way of everything else for the war effort and they have to wait to get it repaired.

No dad, no grandparents, no tree, no presents - this was not shaping up to be a very Merry Christmas for Molly.

But then more surprises start to happen and they are good.  First,  Jill announces that she is willing to use her babysitting money to buy a tree.  So, Molly and brother Rickey both contribute what they have and the girls go off to find a nice Christmas tree.

Next surprise is a beautiful blanket of snow just in time for a perfect white Christmas.  And in that snow is a third surprise.  One that Molly and Jill decide to hide until Christmas morning.

Is is possible that in the season of perpetual hope the third surprise could be presents from Dad?  Well, maybe and maybe more than just that.

New Addition
Molly's Surprise is the second book in the American Girl series of books about Molly.  It is a historically correct, historically interesting story.  It demonstrates the sacrifices, the forgoing of so many things for the sake of the war effort.  Presents and sweets are much easier to give up, but not having a parent home during the holidays is hard for Molly, like it was for most kids who had a parent in the Armed Services in World War II and just as it is for those kids who have a deployed parent today.  Molly misses her Dad all the time, but especially at Christmas.

I've always liked the books about the historical figures that are part of the American Girl brand.  They do so much towards introducing girls to what it was like to be a girl at a pivotal time in history.  The stories are accurate, detailed and interesting enough to hold girls attention and make them want to find out more.  Aside from the six books in the Molly series, my Kiddo also read Molly mysteries, and a few other nice short stories that were produced, not just about Molly, but about the other historical dolls as well.  The good news is that they are still easy and affordable to find or to simply borrow from the library.

And to insure a high quality to the books, they are all written by excellent authors that you probably already know.  In the case of the Molly books, the author is Valerie Tripp.

Oh, and the books make nice stocking stuffers.  I know Santa stuffed an American Girl book more than once in my Kiddo's stocking.

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

2 Comments on Molly's Surprise by Valerie Tripp, last added: 12/7/2012
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25. Saturday Matinee #2: Christmas in Connecticut

Year after year, television offers up a variety of Christmas movies.  There are perennial favorites like It's a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed, A Christmas StoryA Christmas Carol, and, of course, Home Alone, just to name a few. These are all fine movies, but my very favorite is an old 1945 black and while film I discovered on television when I was about 12 or 13.  

It is called Christmas in Connecticut and is a wonderful, zany romantic comedy.  It stars Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, who writes articles of a woman's magazine, Smart Housekeeping, about life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and baby and includes decorating ideas and menus with recipes for the wonderful meals she prepares for them.  In truth, Elizabeth is a single woman living in a Manhattan apartment and couldn't boil water or diaper a baby if her life depended on it.

The love interest is Dennis Morgan who plays Jefferson Jones, a Navy man whose ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and who spends 18 days in a life raft eating K-rations and dreaming about food and then six weeks in hospital eating mush.

Feeling sorry for Jefferson because he claims he never had a proper home and having finagled an engagement to him, his nurse Mary writes to Alexander Yardley, the owner of Smart Housekeeping, asking if Jefferson could spend the holidays at the Lane farms to experience a real home.  Yardley thinks it's a splendid idea, and that it would even be fun for him to join the festivities.

Luckily, Elizabeth has a friend, John Sloan, with a farm in Connecticut who just happens to want to marry her.  Elizabeth, thinking she will be fired when Yardley finds out the truth about who she is, agrees to marry Sloan in exchange for entertaining Jefferson and Yardley for the holidays.  Elizabeth, Sloan and Felix, the restaurant owner who provides her with the excellent recipes for the articles, all head to the farm.  Conveniently, Sloan's housekeeper watches a baby for a woman working in the nearby munitions factory.

But before the Justice of the Peace can marry Sloan and Elizabeth, Jefferson Jones shows up.  Now here is the sticky part - it is love at first sight, Jefferson and Elizabeth are totally smitten with each other.  Nut, he believes Elizabeth is a married woman, and Elizabeth believes he is engaged to be married.

From this point on, it is a series of close calls with the judge, changing babies (turns out the housekeeper watches two different babies - a boy and a girl), domestic close calls (the best is when  Elizabeth is asked to flip the breakfast flapjacks the way she describes in her articles and it is clear she doesn't know how), shameless flirting and lots of innuendo.

Does love win out?  Well, it's a romantic comedy, so you probably can guess the answer to that.  But, really, the best part of this movies is the journey.

Barbara Stanwyck was really a great comedic actress, but this wasn't showcased enough in her film career.  Certainly, she was as good as Katherine Hepburn, though in a different way.  This was the movie that made her one of my favorite actresses.  And Dennis Morgan wasn't too bad as the love interest, he is mighty good-looking and has a beautiful tenor voice.

As for the war - well, there is the footage of Jefferson's ship being torpedoed and of him and his friend on the life raft.  And Felix, whom Elizabeth introduces as her uncle, actually fled Hungary because of the Nazis.  Interestingly, although there are many mentions of the war, including a dance to sell war bonds,  there is no such thing as rationing, or shortages of any kind.  Ironically, though the film was made during the last year of the war, it was released in theaters three days before J-J day.  People loved it.

Elizabeth Lane is often compared to Martha Stewart, but forget that comparison.  Elizabeth is totally domestically challenged.  However, Elizabeth's magazine feature was modeled on Gladys Taber, who did live on a Connecticut farm, Stillmeadow Farm, and who did write a similar feature in Ladies Home Journal called Diary of Domesticity.  And according to Gladys's granddaughter, copies of Ladies Home Journal were often included in care packages to soldiers.  You can find more about this over at Hooked on Houses along with some wonderful movie screenshots.

And you can find more on Gladys Taber if head over to Letters from a Hill Farm.  Nan has written about Gladys a number of times.

If you are looking for a nice, relaxing holiday movie amid all the hustle and bustle of shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking, baking and the million other things need to get done, get a copy of Christmas in Connecticut, sit back and have a chuckle or two.

This is the trailer that was shown in movie theaters in 1945.  Enjoy!



P.S. There is a 1992 updated remake of Christmas in Connecticut with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson and directed by Arnold Scharzenegger.  I avoid it.

3 Comments on Saturday Matinee #2: Christmas in Connecticut, last added: 12/14/2012
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