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I vacation in a small town on a lovely bay in the northwestern corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. This summer my stay coincided with the run-up to the state’s primary elections. One evening, just down the street from where I was staying, the local historical society hosted a candidates’ forum. Most of the incumbents and challengers spoke pragmatically of specific matters of local concern, of personal traits that would make them good officeholders, or of family traditions of public service they hoped to continue. Some promised to be allies in disputes with the state government in Lansing. One incumbent claimed to have persuaded the state department of environmental quality to drop its longstanding objections to a wing dam that would spare a marina costly dredging. But just when I was ready to conclude that the Tea Party movement had run its course, another candidate, who identified himself as a lawyer and an expert in constitutional history, used his time to develop the claim that bureaucracy was unAmerican and that as it grew so did liberty diminish. I may have seen fewer approving nods than followed the other candidate’s tale of the wing dam, but most in the audience appeared to agree with him.
Several historians have already engaged the popular antistatism I encountered that evening. Some have argued, as Progressives did in the early twentieth century, that, after the rise of vast and powerful corporations, public bureaucracies were needed to make freedom something other than the right to be subjected to the dominion of the economically powerful. Others have taken aim at the claim that bureaucracy was incompatible with America’s founding principles. The University of Michigan’s William Novak blasted this as “the myth of ‘weak’ American state.” Yale University’s Jerry Mashaw has recovered a lost century of American administrative law before the creation of the first independent federal regulatory commission in 1887.
What such accounts miss is a long tradition of antistatism and its shaping effect on American statebuilding. Alexis de Tocqueville was an early and influential expositor. Although Americans had centralized government, Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that it lacked centralized administration. And that, he argued, was a very good thing: if citizens of a democratic republic like the United States ever became habituated to centralized administration, “a more insufferable despotism would prevail than any which now exists in the monarchical states of Europe.” The builders of the administrative state were not heedless of Tocqueville’s nightmare, but they were convinced that their political system was broken and had to be fixed. They believed they lived not in some Eden of individual liberty but in a fallen polity in which businessmen and political bosses bargained together while great social ills went unredressed.
The most important of the statebuilders was no wild-eyed reformer but an austere, moralistic corporation lawyer, Charles Evans Hughes, who, as Chief Justice of the United States, would later out-duel President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Neither Hughes nor anyone else thought that government would control itself. Instead, he and other judges reworked the ancient ideal of the rule of law to keep a necessary but potentially abusive government in check.
Tales of thoughtful people working out intelligent solutions to difficult problems are not, I know, everyone’s idea of a good read. I bet that candidate who imagined himself battling for liberty and against bureaucracy prefers more dramatic fare. Still, I think the story of how Americans reconciled bureaucracy and the rule of law might appeal to residents of that small Michigan town, once they remember that the same department of environmental quality that sometimes balks at wing dams also preserves the water, land, and air on which their economy and way of life depend.
Featured image credit: ‘Alexis de Tocqueville’ by Théodore Chassériau, painted in 1850. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Candace Fleming is a master at writing narrative nonfiction that is entertaining as well as informative, and her newest book on the tragic and doomed Romanovs is a worthy successor to her last foray into nonfiction, the highly acclaimed Amelia Lost.
Fleming expertly weaves together the intimate life of Russia's last czar and his family with the saga of the revolution brewing underneath their royal noses, beginning with workers' strikes in 1905 and leading up to Lenin's seizing power in 1917. Interspersed with her compelling narrative are original documents from the time that tell the stories of ordinary men and women swept up in the dramatic events in Russia.
Unlike many books for young people, which seem to romanticize the Romanovs, Fleming doesn't try to make the family into martyrs. Indeed, it is hard to have a lot of sympathy for the Russian royal family after reading Fleming's account. Fleming describes Nicholas as a young boy as "shy and gentle," unable to stand up to his "Russian bear of a father." His wife, the Empress Alexandra, a German princess raised to be a proper Englishwoman under the wing of Queen Victoria, never felt comfortable with the excesses of the bejeweled, partying Russian aristocracy, and encouraged her husband to retreat to Tsarskoe Selo, a park 15 miles and a world apart from St. Petersburg. Fleming brings us inside of their privileged--but also strangely spartan--life (for example the children were bathed with cold water in the mornings and slept on army cots in their palace!), one in which they had almost no contact with outsiders.
Fleming manages to integrate her narrative history of the Romanov family with the larger history of the turbulent times in Russia, as the czar is forced to resign and he and his family are exiled to Siberia, fleeing in a train disguised as a "Japanese Red Cross Mission" so that the royal family would not be captured by angry peasants. She skips back and forth from the family's saga to what is happening in the capital, with plenty of original documents such as an excerpt from journalist John Reed's first-hand account of the swarming of the Winter Palace as well as excerpts from many other diaries.
In my favorite quote in the book, Fleming discusses how Lenin nationalized the mansions and private homes throughout the country, while the owners were forced to live in the servants' quarters. She quotes one ex-servant as saying:
"I've spent all my life in the stables while they live in their beautiful flats and lie on soft couches playing with their poodles...no more of that, I say! It's my turn to play with poodles now."
Whatever one's feelings about the Romanovs, one cannot help but be moved by the account of their cruel assassination in the basement of their quarters in Siberia. Particularly ironic is the fate of the royal children, who did not die immediately because they were hiding the family jewels in their camisoles and other undergarments. This layer of jewels unwittingly created a bullet proof vest that protected them initially, until they were finally murdered with bayonets and then with gunshots. The bodies were immediately hidden in the woods, where the remains were not found until 1979 and then kept secret until the fall of communism in Russia. Ironically, the Romanovs have since been canonized by the Orthodox Church in Russia.
The book is abundantly illustrated with archival photographs. An extensive bibliography is included, as well as a discussion of primary and secondary sources. Fleming also includes suggestions of websites on the Romanovs, as well as source notes for each chapter and an index.
Highly recommended for middle school and high school students.
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, like slimy bullfrogs.
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.
With the seemingly infinite number of books about the Titanic being released this year, it was refreshing to read an account of another famous disaster of technology, the crash of the mighty luxury airship the Hindenburg in 1937. Told from the point of view of Werner Franz, a 14-year old cabin boy serving on the vessel, this handsomely illustrated picture book shows Werner's life on board the luxurious vessel as the ship prepares to land in the United States on its three day journey. But while Werner puts dishes away in the kitchen and the Hindenburg crew prepared for the landing, something goes terribly wrong, and suddenly Werner finds himself alone in the bow of the ship, with a giant fireball behind him. Can Werner escape the inferno?
This exciting tale is well captured in this picture book for older readers. The author includes both a preface and an afterword, which gives information on other survivors, more on what happened to young Werner, and Hindenburg memorials.
This book is written by Larry Verstraete, a former teacher whose enthusiasm for his subject is evident. The larger-than life painted illustrations are by historical illustrator David Geister. The oversized format of the book effectively captures the immense scale of the airship and the horror of the disaster.
This book would be particularly appealing to fans of steampunk, who might enjoy learning more about an actual airship.
Recommended for ages 9 and up. Author Gwenyth Swain brings stories of Ellis Island vividly to life through text and photographs in the beautifully rendered Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices. She uses poetry, monologues, and dialogues combined with a selection of archival photographs to help us imagine Ellis Island at various stages of its existence, beginning in the late 1500's with a poem by a native Lenni Lenape boy.
Prose introductions provide background on each period of Ellis Island's history, from the processing of its first immigrant in 1892 to its busiest period in the early 20th century and beyond. In moving free verse, Swain chronicles all aspects of Ellis Island's life, from the arrivals, complete with their hopes and dreams, to the dreaded inspections, in which families could be separated and detained in hospital's on the island or even sent back if they were deemed "likely to become public charges." She doesn't forget the various workers on the island, from the nurses and aid workers to the clerks, cooks, and Salvation Army volunteers, who are pictured handing out doughnuts to hungry immigrants.
In the 1920's, when Congress put limits on immigration, Ellis Island became a place mostly used for deportation rather than immigration, and eventually was abandoned after 1954. But in the preparation for the nation's bicentennial, interest in Ellis Island as an important historical landmark surged, and in 1990, after many years of renovation and fundraising, the island reopened as an immigration museum. Additional poems mark this more recent period of Ellis Island's history as well, ending with a poem from a National Park Service employee, who remarks about the many visitors:
...maybe they feel what I feel./The sense that,/after all these years,/spirits live here,/along with all their hopes and tears.
This book would be perfect for a class performance as part of a unit on family history and immigration. There are many parts for boys and girls and only simple costumes--or no costumes at all--would be required.
Back matter includes source notes, a bibliography which includes websites, films, books, articles, and interviews, an index, and suggestions for going further in exploring the themes of this book. Swain's website will also offer an extensive teacher's guide (available soon).
Candlewick Press has recently reissued in paperback Kathryn Lasky's biography of Sarah Breedlove Walker, originally published in 2000. In a brief 48 pages, Lasky chronicles the life of this remarkable woman, born into poverty to former slaves, who became a highly successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. Orphaned at the age of seven, Sarah had a difficult childhood, and married at the age of 14 to escape living with her sister and her cruel husband. She eventually moved to St. Louis where she worked as a laundress and diligently saved to be able to give her daughter the education she never had.
Because of poor nutrition, Sarah's hair began to fall out, and she began to work on a formula that would produce healthy hair for African-American women. After testing her products on herself, she began selling door-to-door, and eventually expanded her products into the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a business empire which made her the wealthiest black woman in America.
In a brief, easy to read narrative, Lasky hits on the highlights of Walker's life, emphasizing how remarkable her success was in an era when she had two strikes against her--being female and being black. My favorite scene in the book involves Waker attending a conference of African-American business leaders, all of whom (of course!) were men. Lasky describes how Walker tried unsuccessfully to get the attention of Booker T. Washington, so that she could speak. She finally sprang to her feet, relating how she came from the cotton fields of the South, promoting herself into the business of manufacturing hair goods. "'My object in life is not simply to make money for myself, but to use part of what I make in trying to help others,' continued Madam Walker...With these words, Madam Walker proved herself more than equal to any man in that room."
Sarah Breedlove Walker
An epilogue describes Walker's commitment to philanthropy and to civil rights; her dying words were "I want to live to help my race." Back matter also includes an illustrator's note an index, and selected sources.
Abundantly illustrated with beautiful full color watercolor paintings by Nneka Bennett, Lasky's book is an inspirational tale that could be read aloud or read independently by children in elementary school.
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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
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.
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.
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
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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.<
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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.
Illustrator Eugene Yelchin's first novel, Breaking Stalin's Nose, is a brilliantly conceived expose of the horrors of life in Stalin's Russia, seen through the eyes of a very naive young boy. And since the book was recently recognized with a Newbery Honor, it is likely to make it onto the shelves of school and public libraries around the country.
Ten-year old Sasha has been dreaming of being a Soviet Young Pioneer ever since he can remember, and he can recite all the Young Pioneer laws by heart. He loves Comrade Stalin like a revered grandfather, but when the long-anticipated ceremony to be inducted into the Young Pioneers is finally to take place, everything seems to go wrong. When his father is taken away by the police, arrested as an enemy of the people, Sasha slowly begins to wonder if everything he has learned about Stalin and the Soviet state is a lie.
With its naive, optimistic narrator, this book reminded me very much of Morris Gleitzman's Once, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed. Like the heroes in those novels, Sasha's naivete manages to be somehow funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Through his eyes, we see the incongruity of the Soviet propaganda and the realities of life in a society where even children were encouraged to inform on their parents.
Although there are many novels for children about World War II, there are few about Stalin's Russia, and this book definitely fills a gap in the literature. Despite the sophisticated subject matter, the simplicity of the language in the book is suitable for children in elementary school, and would work well as discussion for a book club as well. Yelchin provided the dramatic graphite black and white illustrations for the book as well as the text.
An author's note provides some background on Stalin's reign of terror, and, paradoxically, how few people of Yelchin's generation (he grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's) were aware of the scale of Stalin's crimes, which were carried out in secrecy. There is also an excellent website for the book, which allows users to click on various images to learn more about Stalin, Sasha's dad, the Young Pioneers, Sasha's school, Lubyanka Prison, and other topics dealt with in this slim but powerful book.
I am delighted to welcome today to the Fourth Musketeer writer Shirley Vernick, whose first novel, The Blood Lie, published by Cinco Puntos Press, was selected as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for teens. Shirley has kindly agreed to participate in an interview today about her novel as part of the Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour.
Q: The Blood Lie is based on a little known real-life event from the history of your home town, Massena, New York. An innocent Jewish boy was accused of ritual murder when a Christian girl disappeared, bringing to America the infamous "blood lie," in which Jews are accused of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood to make ritual bread. Could you tell us a little bit about how you discovered this story and why you decided to use it as a basis for your first novel for young people?
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.
I knew I wanted to write something more than a term paper the minute I learned about the Massena blood libel. I always wanted to be a writer, and this was something that not only spoke to me, but grabbed me by the throat and screamed at me. I felt compelled to illuminate this episode of Jewish-American history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate the consequences of, and possible responses to, intolerance.
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
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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: