A: I was already in college when I first learned about it. I came home for fall break my sophomore year with an assignment for a sociology class. Students had to identify a local community conflict – past or present – and write a paper about it. I remember thinking, What am I going to do? No juicy controversies ever happen in my dinky little town of Massena, New York. So I asked my dad, who also grew up in Massena, if he had any ideas. That’s when he told me, for the first time, about the blood libel that happened in Massena when he was a high school senior. It was just before Yom Kippur, and a little Christian girl disappeared while playing in the woods near her house. The next thing you know, the local Jews – including my dad’s family – were being accused of kidnapping and murdering that little girl and baking her blood in their “holiday foods.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In America? In the 20th century? It sounded more like a page out of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
Q: Jack, your hero, wants nothing more than to leave Massena to study music, even before the blood lie incident. From your own research, what do you think some of the pros and cons of Jewish life in a small town were like in that era (the 1920's)?
A: Personally, I think the biggest pro was the kind of community solidarity you get when you're a small newcomers group sharing a deeply fel
Recommended for ages 8-12.
In her newest book, award-winning author Margarita Engle
turns to her own family history for inspiration. Set in 1912, this novel in verse brings to life the story of Engle's grandmother, Fefa, who grew up in Cuba afflicted by "word-blindness," the term used at that time for dyslexia. She struggles every time she is handed a book to read:
I know that the words
want to trick me.
The letters will jumble
and spill off the page,
leaping and hopping,
jumping far away,
Her mother refuses to accept "the hissing doctor's verdict," and gives her daughter a book--a blank diary, or is it "an ordinary/schoolbook/filled with frog-slippery/tricky letters/that know how to leap/and escape?"
She tries to patiently write in her blank book each night, her "wild diary," and wonders how reading can look so easy, yet be so impossible? Will her wild book "ever seem tame?" She struggles on with her reading, reading slowly to sound out the words. What good can come of this word blindness? In a surprising twist, Fefa's careful powers of observation with the written word will end up helping to save her family from danger.
Engle's spare verse captures so eloquently 11 year old Fefa's frustration and yet fascination with words, reading, and writing, as well as the Cuba of yesteryear, a time when bandits roam the land, kidnapping children and holding them for ransom. The pages of the book are nearly as blank as the pages in Fefa's wild book, with the narrative told with few words but memorable poetic images. Fefa lives in the countryside on a farm, where her many sisters and brothers tease her and on her Sunday outings to town she strolls around the plaza with her cousin, while "girls just daydream/and smile." With a mama who loves poetry, words are a part of their every day family life, with her mother reading poetry out loud, and fairy tales filling Fefa's head. The poems are full of tiny details of the family's life in Cuba, such as making jewelry out of reeds from the river, and roasting a whole pig in a pit for a feast.
While this story deals with a serious learning disability, there is hope in the end for Fefa. This would be an excellent choice to read out loud with a child, which would allow the reader to hear the beauty of the verses and to discuss the story as well.
Release date: April 12, 2011
Recommended for ages 8-12.
Set in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Bird in the Box
is described by the author as "mostly a book about the power of the human spirit, and of how one man's triumph brought glory to so many people." This moving novel weaves together the story of three different children in Elmira, New York: the sassy Hibernia, the daughter of a reverend, whose mama ran away to New York City right after she was born with dreams of being a jazz singer; Willie, who lives with his abusive, drunk father and his suffering mama while he dreams of being a boxer like his idol Joe Louis; and Otis, an orphan whose parents were killed in a tragic accident, and who keeps their memories alive by remembering his father's riddle-jokes. All three children idolize Joe Lewis
, the Brown Bomber. As Otis' ma tells him,
"When Joe Louis fights, it's more than just throwing punches, Otis. That boy's fighting for the pride of Negroes. When he loses, every colored man loses a little piece of his own pride."Andrea Pinkney
captures the unique voice of each of the three narrators, whose lives converge at the Mercy home for Negro Orphans, where Willie's mother sends him to escape the abuse of his violent fathers. At Mercy, he becomes friends with Otis, as the two bond over Otis' Philco radio. Hibernia meets the boys while singing with the church choir at a special holiday performance for the orphans. A stray cat the boys name Bird joins their ersatz family, and before you know it, they're all gathered by the radio listening to Joe Louis' championship fight. By using actual transcripts from radio broadcasts of Joe Louis' boxing matches, Pinkney provides an immediacy to her descriptions, as we can feel the excitement of the children listening to the matches on the radio.
This book is filled with appealing characters, from the three children to the supporting cast, from the strict Reverend to the kind Lila, who works at the orphanage. Pinkney skillfully weaves in historical information about Joe Louis, a key figure in African-American history, and as Pinkney describes him in her author's note, "a strong and beautiful symbol of hope." The author's note includes biographical information on Joe Louis, as well as information on her great-grandfather, an amateur boxer in Elmira, New York, who was the model for the character of Willie in this novel.
For more on Joe Louis for young people, see the following:
Matt de la Pena and Kadir Nelson. A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis
George Sullivan. Knockout: A Photobiography of Boxer Joe Louis
(National Geographic, 2008)
William Miller and Rodney Pate. Joe Louis: My Champion
(Lee & Low, 2009)
Recommended for ages 8-12. Release date: May 10, 2011
Award-winning author Kirby Larson
's newest historical fiction novel for children tells the story of four girls whose lives are intertwined with a remarkable nearly life-size Japanese doll. Larson was inspired by a photograph she found while researching her earlier book, Hattie Big Sky
. This photo showed a 1920's Montana farm girl dressed in overalls standing next to an exquisitely detailed Japanese doll, dressed in traditional kimono. Larson's research unearthed the true story of 58 dolls sent to the United States from Japan in 1927 as Ambassadors of Friendship, a gift from Japanese schoolchildren. The dolls were three feet tall, with real human hair and handpainted faces, dressed in a silk kimono and accompanied by sets of miniature accessories, including chests, tea sets, parasols, and even tiny passports. Sadly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, most of the dolls were removed from public display, and while some have been recovered, others were lost forever.
Larson's tale follows the adventures of Miss Kanagawa, "a doll like none other," from the 1920's to the present day. Miss Kanagawa narrates parts of her own story, and her proud and courageous personality, imbued with true samurai spirit, shines through the narrative. She is honored to be an ambassador, with an important role to play; "I simply happen to be a doll," she writes.
Miss Kanagawa's musings are interspersed with the stories of four girls whose lives she influences, girls from very different backgrounds: Bunny, a rich upper-class girl from New York City, who is part of the contingent to welcome Miss Kanagawa to New York City; Lois, whose grandmother takes her to the Chicago World Fair in the height of the Depression, where Miss Kanagawa is on display; Willie Mae, a small-town Kentucky girl, who finds herself with a job reading to an elderly woman who now owns Miss Kanagawa; and Lucy, an Okie who with her out-of-work father travels to the West Coast in search of work. There Lucy, an aspiring writer, visits a small museum where she, too, encounters Miss Kanagawa.
Each of these stories could easily have become overly sentimental, but I found them charming and moving, as each girl learns what friendship is all about, and Miss Kanagawa herself learns to feel love bit by bit. The stories include rich historical settings, including the Chicago World's Fair, a packhorse librarian who delivers books to Willie Mae, and the plight of the Okies. It's a perfect book for doll-lovers, young and old, although you don't have to be a doll person to appreciate the book's message. For me, it made me remember some of the doll stories I loved as a little girl, particularly Dare Wright's Lonely Doll
stories about Edith the doll, and Raggedy Ann and Andy's many adventures. This novel would be terrific fun for mother-daughter book groups to enjoy together.
While the book does not include any pictures of the real dolls, there is an author's note with additional information about the history of these unique ambassadors, as well as historical notes about each girl's story. The author also provides some information on contemporary Americans who are working to keep the spirit of the Friendship Dolls alive (see in particular Bill Gordon's website
3 Comments on Book Review: The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson (Delacorte, 2011), last added: 5/6/2011
Recommended for ages 8-12.
2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and a slew of new books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction, are due to be released in the coming months. The senseless tragedy that was the Titanic is a source of endless fascination across generations, and the anniversary is likely to spur a flood of new interest among young people.
The well-loved and versatile author Gordon Korman
, who has published many popular action-adventure trilogies for young readers (i.e. Everest, Island, Dive, and Kidnapped) is a natural to capture this story for a new generation of readers. According to his blog, Korman has always been a Titanic buff, and in this series, he follows the adventures of four young passengers on the magnificent and supposedly unsinkable luxury ship's maiden (and only!) voyage.
Paddy is a petty thief and a stowaway, running away from gangsters who would like nothing more than to murder him for stealing money from them. Sophie is the daughter of an American suffraggist, and is embarrassed when her mother is arrested and delivered to the Titanic by police for her illegal activities. She meets a new friend on the ship, also traveling first class--Juliana, whose wealthy father seems to spend all his time gambling. The fourth character of this quartet is young Alfie, who gets himself hired on as a steward, although he's underage, because his father is working as a stoker on the ship. There's non-stop action in the story, as well as mystery, as the boys find a scrapbook filled with clippings about Jack the Ripper. Could the real "Jack the Ripper" be hiding on the ships among the passengers?
Korman's trilogies are perfect for reluctant readers; volume 1 is a manageable 170 pages, and volume two, Collison Course
, was just released August 1. The finale, S.O.S
., releases September 1, so fans don't have to wait long for the conclusion of the series. There's lots of foreshadowing of the coming tragic events in this first book (i.e. Paddy hides out in a lifeboat, wondering why there aren't more of them). Even if they know what happens to the ship itself, readers will be on pins and needles to see how our appealing young heroes and heroines fare when the iceberg strikes. Are they among the lucky few that make it onto the lifeboats or will they go down with the ship? We won't know until September.
In coming months I will be reviewing other Titanic novels, including Allan Wolf's upcoming YA novel, The Watch that Ends the Night
, which will be released in October.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.
This fascinating new narrative nonfiction book delves into the story of Prohibition, a unique and colorful decade in our country's history. Author Karen Blumenthal
, a long-time journalist with the Wall Street Journal, puts her considerable writing skills to good use in explaining how the great social revolution known as Prohibition, which was supposed to forever end drunkenness, reduce crime, and improve the lives of America's families, led instead to a culture of lawlessness, bribery, gangsters, and even murder.
Blumenthal goes back to the earliest days of the Pilgrims to trace the history of liquor in America, noting that rum was almost a form of currency in the earliest days of the country. In the 19th century, taverns multiplied, as did concerns about excessive drinking, leading to the formation of the temperance movement, who at first worked toward drinking in moderation. Soon, however, the movement changed its platform to total abstinence. The author profiles some of the most important personalities from the temperance movement, such as Morris Sheppard, the "boy orator of Texas" who was the first to introduce a constitutional amendment against "an evil that will prove to be the source of the nation's death," and Carrie Nation, the infamous "bar smasher" who believed she was on a mission from God to destroy saloons. The temperance movement was the first to put women in leadership positions, and forever changed women's influence in politics.
The political machinations of the "dries" to get the 18th amendment passed could spur many interesting discussions about parallel political movements today, and the whole saga of the rise and fall of the temperance movement is made all-too-contemporary in Blumenthal's lively narrative, which is full of personal anecdotes as well as sweeping analysis of the failures and limited successes of the prohibition movement.
The book includes a glossary of some of the colorful prohibition and temperance vocabulary (i.e. "real McCoy, hooch, moonshine, flapper, etc.) as well as a detailed bibliography (both books and websites) source notes, and an index. The book is handsomely illustrated with many period photographs as well as cartoons and newspaper clippings.
To read an excerpt of the first few chapters from this book, click here
Several new YA series have come out about this era recently: Bright Young Things
, by Anna Godbersen, and the Flappers
series by Jillian Larkin. Bootleg
would be a perfect read-along for both these series.
Release date: October 11, 2011Recommended for ages 10 and up.What else could be left to say about the Titanic, we could wonder. A quick WorldCat search for juvenile historical fiction about the Titanic turned up dozens of titles, including quite a few coming out in 2011. I must be one of the few people around, at least over the age of 30, who never saw the wildly popular 1997 movie, but I was curious to read this new teen novel by poet Allan Wolf about the 1912 disaster at sea. I am a huge fan of his 2004 novel, New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, which tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition in free verse from the point of view of fourteen participants, including Lewis’ dog, Seaman. Wolf’s new novel is in much the same format, alternating between the points of view of various crew and passengers of di
Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Set in Berlin in 1918, in the final days of World War I, this new novel tells the story of sixteen-year old Moritz, whose family's existence, like that of everyone else in Germany, has been ravaged by the effects of the seemingly endless war. His father was killed on the battlefield, his older brother, Hans, is serving in the trenches on the Western front, his little sister has died of illness, and his mother spends all her time either working at an ammunition factory or attending socialist party meetings. There's little to eat, with food rationed, and everything tasting of turnips, and people butchering horses who fall dead in the streets. Moritz, who works as an apprentice printer, tries his best to make sense of it all, wondering who is right--his brother, who says it's an honor to serve the Kaiser, or his mother, who bemoans the fact that her husband "died for our foolish Kaiser, who loves his uniforms and his yachts." Soon Moritz is given a chance to work as a journalist for one of Berlin's daily papers, covering the very socialist rallies where his mother and others are speaking out against the Kaiser and capitalist injustice.
When Moritz's brother Hans returns from the front with horrible injuries, missing half his arm and blind in one eye, Hans is plagued by nightmares about the war, and sees the Jews as scapegoats for all of Germany's problems. Morris, on the other hand, is having his first romance--with a Jewish girl. The book's ominous conclusion foreshadows the increasing persecution of the Jews that what happen in Germany during the 1930's.
Author Monika Schroeder
, who grew up in Berlin,provides an author's note discussing how the fall of 1918 was a pivotal time in German history, with the end of the "Great War," the Kaiser's abdication, and the establishment of a democratic government in the beginning of 1919. With the Germans' humiliating defeat, conservatives and military leaders began blaming the Jews, the socialists, and the communists for all of Germany's woes, laying the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power.My Brother's Shadow
is a very thought-provoking and well-written book about a period ignored in most young adult fiction, which more typically focuses either on World War I or World War II and the few years immediately preceding that conflict. We can easily identify with Moritz, whose story is told in the first person, and his divided family loyalties. While the book covers some weighty issues, Moritz is also a typical teenage boy, interested in his first kiss with a girl. We can sympathize with Moritz's mother as well, a strong character who is very involved in politics, and even his brother Hans, whose bitter experiences and injuries at the front have transformed his personality. This novel would be a good choice to read along with Russell Freedman's outstanding nonfiction book on World War I published last year, The War to End All Wars: World War I.
Below is the book trailer for My Brother's Shadow
On Friday, November 11, The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to have a guest post from author Monika Schroeder and a special giveaway of this excellent novel (U.S. and Canadian addresses only). Please see Friday's post to enter.<
Recommended for ages 5-12Release date: February 1, 2012
Author P.I. Malthie returns to the theme of famous individuals and their pets--a subject she visited in her 2008 book Picasso and Minou
--in her newest picture book. In this story, we meet Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, a sad old man who has lost his beloved wife, Livy, and is living like a recluse in his house on 5th Avenue in New York City. His daughter's cat, Bambino, keeps him company as he spends more and more time in bed, refusing to accept invitations from people he's convinced will be expecting to meet the witty author Mark Twain, rather than a grumpy old man.
But when Bambino jumps out the window into the busy city, in pursuit of a squirrel, the celebrated author offers a reward for his return. Soon people from all over the city appear with cats and kittens of every description for Mr. Twain, even offering to lend him their own pets. Reporters came too, to write about Twain's missing pet. Will the "prodigal cat" return?
This is a delightful picture book for elementary school students. Since children generally love animals, they will easily identify with how the cat Bambino enriches Twain's life, and how when he goes missing it mobilizes the author's fans. An author's note at the end of the book provides further details on Twain and his household, including Bambino. The author also provides a brief bibliography of books about Mark Twain. Suggestions of further reading for young people would have been valuable as well (the titles offered seem to all be for adults).
Illustrator Daniel Miyares
, in his second illustrated book for young people, uses mixed media and digital techniques to create striking illustrations for this tale. The images are stylized in a manner which makes them appear like collage or papercutting, and the muted colors with the glowing lighting provide a nostalgic quality to the pictures.
This book would be nicely paired with another picture book on Mark Twain published last year, The Extraordinary Mark Twain, According to Suzy
, by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic, 2010).
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.