Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review: Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, by Chris Bradford (Hyperion Books, 2009)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

In this swashbuckling adventure story by first-time British author Chris Bradford, we meet young Jack Fletcher, 12, who finds himself alone in Japan in 1609 when all his shipmates, including his father, are killed by ninja pirates. At this time the Portuguese were the only Westerners who had found the route to Japan, and Jack manages to salvage from the ship his father’s rutter, which contains all the ocean charts, an incredibly valuable resource for whoever has the rutter in his possession. Miraculously, Jack is adopted by a samurai lord who has lost his own son to the same pirates, and he rapidly learns Japanese. He is then sent to samurai school, where despite his talents, he is mocked as a barbarian foreigner.

This is a very exciting adventure story, perfect for boys who are reluctant readers and who may be anime or manga fans. Girls may enjoy it as well, as there is a very strong Japanese female character who is also training to be a samurai. Similar to the James Clavell novel Shogun in many ways, only for kids, I can't help thinking of this book as Shogun Light. The author, himself trained in numerous martial arts including samurai swordsmanship, provides lots of interesting historical details and details on fighting techniques that make the book sure to appeal to many boys.

You can read the first chapter here:
You can also listen to the prologue here:

Hyperion has provided a very attractive and informative website for the Young Samurai series, which includes Samurai School, with short videos narrated by the author containing information on samurai vs. ninja, etiquette in Japan, weapons, and Zen.

The second book in the series, Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword, was recently published in the U.S. and will shortly be reviewed on my blog.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Boys of Summer #2: Book Review: All Star!: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever, by Jane Yolen and Jim Burke (Philomel, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.

In this beautiful new picture book biography, award-winning author Jane Yolen tells the story of one of baseball's all-time legends, shortstop Honus Wagner. Yolen opens her book explaining that a Honus Wagner baseball card sold for almost $3 million at auction in 2007. But in the book, we learn why his cards are especially rare. When Wagner realized his cards were being used to sell cigarettes, he had the card pulled off the market, concerned that it gave young people the wrong idea about smoking, a particularly refreshing story in this day of multi-million dollar endorsements of all kinds for athletes.

Born to a poor German immigrant family in Pennsylvania, Honus attends school only until sixth grade before joining his brothers and father in the coal mines. But Sundays were reserved for baseball, when Honus and his brothers played the game they loved. When Honus gets to the big leagues, there were only 12 teams and fewer players on the roster, but during his years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Honus wins 8 National League batting championships and sets many other records. Yolen writes:
Clearly he was a great baseball player...some say the greatest baseball player ever. And he did it all without drugs or fancy training programs or million-dollar incentives--just for the pure love of the game.

In his fourth collaboration with Jane Yolen, illustrator Jim Burke's oil paintings greatly enhance her story. He uses an understated palette full of browns and other earth tones that gives an old-fashioned tinge to the pictures, fitting for the turn-of-the century time period. Yolen's text is written in a straight-forward style, and she punctuates her stories about Honus Wagner with the exclamation, "How about that!" a phrase that Honus often said. This book would be greatly enjoyed by young baseball fans and would be excellent to read aloud in class for elementary school aged children.

And here's a picture of the world-famous baseball card that sold for $2.8 million:
Readers might also be interested in exploring the official Honus Wagner website, which includes photos, facts, statistics, and biographical information on the legendary player.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Blogger Hop #3

Crazy for Books hosts a weekly Book Blogger Hop! Please feel free to hop around my site to read reviews of current historical fiction for children and teens as well as my recent author interview with Katherine Sturtevant. Let me know if you visited through the hop and I'll come visit your blog as well.

Author Interview: Katherine Sturtevant

Q: Katherine, thanks so much for participating in an author interview on my new blog, The Fourth Musketeer. I noticed all three of your stories are set in 17th century London. Why are you particularly drawn to that time and place?

A: I read a lot of historical novels growing up and have always enjoyed them, so when I was in college it seemed natural to me to take an interest in women’s history. Somewhere along the way I learned about Aphra Behn, who was a successful Restoration playwright—I mentioned in her At the Sign of the Star. I think I first heard of her when reading an essay by Virginia Woolf. The more I learned about her the more interested I became, not only in her life, but in that particular historical era, which has a kind of “Roaring Twenties” feel to it. Puritan rule came to an end in 1660 when the monarchy was restored. Charles II, who had spent many years in exile on the Continent, loved women and loved the theater, so actresses appeared on stage for the first time, plays grew bawdy, and there was a general air of pleasure and even excess. At the same time, class status was becoming less rigid, and middling families like those of Meg Moore or Joshua Fowler were seeking to advance themselves by reading advice manuals and making careful decisions about their clothes and possessions. I find it all fascinating!

Q: What do you enjoy most about writing for young people?

A: Young people read with an abandon that we rarely experience as adults. I can still remember waking on a Saturday morning and remembering with a thrill that I was in the middle of a wonderful book, and reaching for that book instead of getting up! The ability to lose yourself in a book, to become a part of another world, is especially keen in those early years of reading. And I don’t think there’s a more pleasurable experience to be had with the printed word. It’s exciting to think that there are kids out there who are losing themselves in the 17th-century worlds I’ve created.

I find it interesting that the general trend in adult fiction, which has to an extent been taken up in children’s literature, is away from this wonderful immersion experience. Novels are structured so as to interrupt continuity and draw attention to the fact that the story is in fact invented. Of course some wonderful literature has been created this way, but its pleasures tend to be more cerebral.

Q: What do you think about the current wave of paranormal fiction for teens? Has that made it harder for publishers to get your books and other historical fiction titles into bookstores?

A: I think it’s increasingly difficult for any literature that’s aimed at a minority, rather than a majority, of readers to find room for itself. I suppose any trend that sweeps over the majority contributes to that in a way. But it seems as though profound changes are coming to the world of books, and it may eventually become true that it’s easier to reach minority readerships than it has been in some time.

Q: The Brothers Story features a lot of frank sexual language and situations involving teenagers. Did you have any concerns that this might lead to your book being challenged or not purchased for school and/or public libraries?

Yes, I worried about that, especially because At the Sign of the Star and A True and Faithful Narrative were both popular with parents who don’t want their kids exposed to sex and profanity. I felt great about that—there should be high-quality fiction available to that audience. But at the same time I felt compelled to write Kit’s story honestly, and to show that 17th –century people struggled with the issue of sexual morality just as we do today.

Q: What new projects are you currently working on?

A: I’ve been project hopping a bit lately, developing ideas for young readers but also spending time on a couple of novels aimed at the adult audience. Right now I’m mainly working on an adult novel set in the late 1980s. It takes place partly in San Francisco and partly in London.

Q: What books do you have on your nightstand? (that is, that you are reading or plan to read)

A: On the YA side: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. It’s my third time through When You Reach Me, I love that book! On the adult side two historical novels: The Lost Mother, by Mary McGarry Morris, a deeply moving story set in the Great Depression, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. (Also my third time. It truly is a great book.)

Q: One element of The Brothers Story that I particularly liked was how the title could refer not only to the relationship between Kit and Christy, but also Nate and Joshua, Kit’s employer and his brother. Did you set out to create this contrast or did this evolve as you were writing the novel?

A: The way I usually work is that I get a germ of an idea and then nurse it along for awhile, writing in a “development” file about possible ways the story could go. I usually start writing actual pages before I’m done developing the idea, however, because I find my characters emerge more clearly when they’ve actually done duty in some scenes.

The Brothers Story grew very slowly. At first I just had the idea to write something about someone poor set against the background of the Frost Fair. A bit later I got excited about making my character a twin. It was while I was writing the early chapters about Kit and Christy that Christy began to love the Bible story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. It was one of those unplanned things that just happened as I wrote. I think the idea of adding a second set of brothers came along after I’d written twenty or thirty manuscript pages. I was very excited when it occurred to me, very happy about how all the brothers threads fit together. I think those are the pinnacle moments in writing—when you suddenly see how things can fit together.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

How can anyone not be a fan of Gary Paulsen? He's written 175 incredibly diverse books, not to mention articles and short stories; probably his most famous book is the adventure story Hatchet, but he also excels at laugh-out-loud contemporary stories (have you read Lawn Boy?) and historical fiction, including the moving slavery story Nightjohn and the Tucket adventures. And of course he's won three Newbery honors and countless other awards for his books.

His newest book, Woods Runner, is set during on the Western frontier (in Pennsylvania) in 1776, seemingly far away from all the trouble brewing between the colonists and the British. Samuel, thirteen, lives with his parents and is a gifted outdoorsman, or "woods runner," spending his time hunting and trapping game in the wild forest that borders his home, providing fresh meat for nearly the whole settlement. It takes many days for news of far-away Lexington and Concord to reach them, and Samuel's father assumes the trouble their is just some local riot. After all, how could a "gaggle of farmers" be insane enough to fight the mighty British army?

When Samuel is off hunting, he spots smoke that appears to be from the direction of his home, eight miles away. Expert at reading the signs of nature, he realizes that it's not a forest fire he sees, but the smoke from a deliberate attack. Running all the way home, he finds a scene of unspeakable carnage. His neighbors," Paulsen writes, "shot down and hacked where they'd fallen. They did not look like they had been people. What he found seemed more like trash, paper, and cloth born across the ground." Miraculously, to him, he does not find the bodies of his parents. An experienced tracker, Samuel studies the tracks he finds, and soon begins following the trail of the killers in the hope that his parents have been taken prisoner and that he can somehow free them. Along the way he is joined by a small girl, Annie, who has been orphaned by the war, and the two of them head to New York, where the British are keeping most of the prisoners.

Paulsen does not shirk from describing the horrors of war and its effect on the civilian population as well as the soldiers. We see the British, the Native Americans, and the Hessian soldiers all commit acts of atrocity. Samuel himself feels like killing to avenge the atrocities he sees. Yet we also see kindness in the midst of wars, as strangers reach out to help Samuel, even nursing him back to health when he is savagely attacked.

In a departure from his other historical novels, Paulsen intersperses historical segments with the novel's narrative. These one to two page essays cover subjects ranging from communication to daily life on the frontier, firearms, details of warfare at the time of the Revolution, covert communication, and more. This method does interrupt the flow of the story, but readers can easily choose to ignore these sections, which are clearly marked, and treat them as if they were a sidebar. This type of information is more often included in an afterword or author's note but Paulsen explains in the beginning of the book that he chose this particular method to set Samuel's story against the larger context of the war, and also to provide details of what it was really like to live on the frontier at that time in history.

This is a fast-paced historical/adventure novel that is likely to appeal to young readers from about 5th grade on up. Because of its setting on the frontier, it provides an interesting perspective on the war that would make it a good companion book to a classic such as Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain.

For additional books about the American Revolution for young people, you may want to refer to a recent post on Rebecca's Book Blog, in which she provides an excellent booklist of middle grade and young adult historical fiction set in this critical period of our history.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: The Brothers Story by Katherine Sturtevant (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

An interview with the author of this book will be featured in Friday's post!

Katherine Sturtevant's third novel for young people returns to 17th century England, this time to the winter of 1683-84, known as "The Great Frost," considered the worst frost for which we have historical records. The Thames froze solid, two feet thick, as well as the surrounding seas, rendering commerce very difficult.

In this historical context, Sturtevant spins the captivating story of two twin teenage boys, Kit and Christy. Identical in appearance, Christy has been simple since birth, and Kit, who narrates the story, is forced to look after his brother in every way. They are so poor that their mother puts them into service with a local wealthy family, where Kit cannot tolerate the way his brother is beaten and mistreated because of his disability. In desperation, he decides, despite the frigid cold, to run away to London, where he hopes to make his fortune or at least make a better life for himself without the burden of caring for his brother. He gets a stroke of luck when at an inn on the road, he meets two brothers, one an artist and the other a tailor to the London nobility. Joining their party, he goes into service with the artist, Nate.

Born and raised in a small Essex village, Kit is amazed at the sights and sounds of London. He is particularly attracted to the saucy serving maid Priscilla, who works for his master's brother. But he is especially mesmerized by the Frost Fair, a little village built on the frozen Thames, filled with booths offering refreshments, games, merchandise, and varied entertainment, including jugglers, puppet shows, acrobats, and rides on the ice. A whole ox was even roasted on a gigantic spit during the fair.

But of course Kit has not forgotten his brother, and he aches to know what has become of him and who, if anyone, is watching over him. When his fortunes change, and he has the opportunity to have a real apprenticeship, Kit must make a difficult choice between listening to his heart--where his brother still lays claim--and pursuing the possibility of a prosperous life for himself in London.

The story of Kit, his brother Christy, and the characters Kit encounters in London emerges through the frost that covered London with burning intensity. These are characters that you will take into your heart. The relationship between the twins, and the heartbreaking choices Kit has to make, ring very true and draw the reader into the story.

Moreover, the author provides many evocative and authentic tidbits of historical fact woven throughout the story. For example, it was so cold that birds fell out of the sky, frozen to death. "The piss had froze in the chamber pot and the ale in the bucket." She also incorporates very frank descriptions of teenage sexuality during this period, incorporating bawdy vocabulary that was definitely new to me. This language is not at all gratuitous, however, since the author has gone to great lengths to reconstruct the dialect of the time, particularly the way a young man of Kit's social class would have spoken. At first I found this dialect a bit jarring, but it truly brings Kit's voice to life in an authentic way.

The author writes on her website:
The most wonderful thing about historical novels is that they help us to imagine the lives of the people who came before us, people who lived very differently than we do today.
With The Brothers Story, Sturtevant certainly provides a novel that does just that.

Sturtevant's vivid descriptions allow us to imagine the Frost Fair in "our minds eye." However, I thought it would be fun to find a contemporary engraving of the Frost Fair. Other images of the Frost Fair can easily be found on-line. Or you can read more about the Frost Fair at Two Nerdy History Girls.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: Moonshadow: Rise of the Ninja by Simon Higgins (Little, Brown, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Set in Japan at the end of the medieval period and dawn of the Tokugawa era, this exciting, action-packed novel tells the story of young Moonshadow, an orphan who has been raised to be a member of the Grey Light Order, a secret brotherhood of ninja spy warriors. The members of the order are the closest thing he has ever had to a family, and he feels a strong loyalty to them. Moonshadow is not only highly trained in all sorts of weapons and disguises, he has a unique ability known in the book as The Eye of the Beast, which allows him to link his mind to that of an animal, using its senses to see.

His first mission pits him against Silver Wolf, a powerful samurai who is plotting to disturb the new peace in Japan, with the help of European allies. Silver Wolf has plans that could change the face of Japan forever--designs for guns that can file multiple times, with improved accuracy. Moonshadow's mission: to break into Silver Wolf's well-guarded castle and steal the plans. He must overcome not only a special crack team assembled by Silver Wolf to guard his castle, but also another ninja--a girl--sent to steal the plans as well.

Simon Higgins has unique qualifications to write about this period of Japanese history. A former detective, he is not only an award-winning children's author in Australia, he is also an expert in Iaido, the Japanese art of sword-drawing and duelling. His intimate knowledge of weaponry, armor, and other fighting implements definitely shines through in the book, with its very detailed and realistic action sequences. Higgins also provides plenty of local color through Japanese vocabulary scattered through the text; many of these words will be familiar to manga/anime fans but Higgins provides a useful glossary, complete with definitions and how to pronounce the foreign words.

Teachers notes on Higgins' website provide excellent historical and cultural context for the novel. Higgins explains that "the world of Moonshadow is romanticized or fantasy-enhanced history, rather than traditional epic fantasy in the Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia mode." Many of the elements of the story, including the city of Edo, the Tokaido (Japan’s great highway), and the shinobi-ninja secret weapons and practices are based on historical fact, as are many of the religious traditions depicted.

A sequel, Moonshadow: The Wrath of Silver Wolf, was published in Australia in 2009 and I expect it will be available in the U.S. as well in the near future.

This novel is likely to be very popular with young people who like action-adventure novels, particularly boys. It's a great book to recommend to young people who are fans of Japanese manga and anime. Highly recommended for school and public libraries, as well as for summer reading.

Young people who enjoy this story might also like to read:

Blood Ninja, by Nick Lake (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and
Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, by Chris Bradford (Hyperion, 2009).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In My Mailbox #2

In My Mailbox, started by The Story Siren, is a way to share all the great books we've received this past week.

I was very excited to get a wonderful delivery of three historical fiction novels:
Anastasia's Secret, by Susanne Dunlap which I have already read and reviewed since it arrived (you can tell I was anxious to read this one!)The Musician's Daughter, also by Susanne Dunlap; and The Twin's Daughter, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Pub date: 9/2010).

I also received this week from Amazon Vine an upcoming release for middle-grade readers from Michael Grant, The Magnificent 12: The Call (first in a series). . Watch for my review of this one on Amazon and Goodreads. Gordon Korman calls this book "Welcome to Monty Python meets Lord of the Rings." I haven't finished it, but it's definitely not like Grant's dystopian series for teens (Gone, etc.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: Anastasia's Secret, by Susanne Dunlap (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Susanne Dunlap has written a wonderfully romantic and tragic novel about the final days of Anastasia Romanova, more formally known as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna Romanova, the youngest daughter of the last czar of Russia. Told in the first person by Anastasia herself, the self-appointed fun-loving practical joker of the Romanov children, the novel starts at the time of the outbreak of World War I, when Anastasia's idyllic childhood begins to change forever. Dunlap intersects into Anastasia's story a fictional member of the family's guard, a soldier named Sasha, whom Anastasia befriends and sees secretly until he is sent to the front. Although at first Sasha sees Anastasia as no more than a silly child, when he returns from the war their friendship blossoms into young romance, even leading to secret meetings in pantries where the lovers exchange more than just kisses.

As the situation for the royal family deteriorates, their life of parties and balls evaporates and Anastasia and her sisters spend their time instead nursing and visiting casualties from the front and knitting stockings for soldiers. Soon the czar is forced to abdicate and the royal family is imprisoned in their own palace. The faithful young Sasha manages to get himself stationed nearby, always keeping an eye on his beautiful duchess. Anastasia trusts that Sasha will help keep her safe, but can he help the duchess and her family escape their doom?

Initially I was a bit bothered by the insertion of Sasha, an entirely fictional romantic interest for Anastasia, into this novel which is otherwise populated by actual historical figures. In an afterword, the author explains that Sasha and one or two servants are the only characters that came "entirely from my imagination. Everyone else--including the pets--had documented roles in the family's life."

But as the novel develops, the character of Sasha provides a method for the author to expose Anastasia (and thus the reader) to situations and conversations that help to move the story along and also provide useful background for the reader. For example, in one scene, Anastasia sneaks out of the palace at night to accompany Sasha to a filthy campground which houses thousands of poor people, living in unimaginable squalor not far from the ultra-privileged life of the young duchess. This provides background for the reader on the dire economic circumstances in Russia at this time, which would undoubtedly be hidden from the duchess. Also, there is no doubt that Sasha provides a dashing, brave romantic interest which adds tremendously to the already dramatic story.

An epilogue explains to readers how the royal family was eventually executed in Yekaterinburg, Siberia, but that since the secret graves where the bodies were dumped were not found until the 1990's, for many years speculation ran rampant that Anastasia and possibly her brother, the heir, may have escaped alive. Recent DNA testing from 2009 on the remains has finally put these long-standing rumors to rest.

Teen readers who would like to read more historical fiction about this period might also enjoy The Curse of the Romanovs by Staton Rabin (Simon & Schuster, 2007), a time travel story centered on Anastasia's brother, Alexei.

For more on Anastasia on-line, the author recommends the Alexander Palace Time Machine. Readers might also enjoy seeing actual photographs of Anastasia and her family in an on-line photo album.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Boys of Summer: Baseball Books #1. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and Andre Carrilho, (Schwartz & Wade, 2009)

Recommended for ages 4-8, and baseball fans of all ages.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and am old enough to remember Sandy Koufax, but clearly there are many young people, including baseball fans, who have never heard of him. This picture book biography seeks to bring Koufax front and center for young fans. The book opens as follows:
You gotta be kidding! You never heard of Sandy Koufax?! He was only the greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball.

The narrator is an unidentified Dodgers teammate who talks in an informal, folksy, style. We learn about Koufax growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, where "he was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer." But Sandy was a fantastic athlete, great at basketball as well as baseball. Soon the baseball scouts come "sniffin' around," and the 19-year old Koufax is signed to the Dodgers. But Koufax wasn't a great pitcher right away. Some of the guys didn't like him, both because he kept to himself and because he was Jewish, and his pitching was erratic, setting records for wild pitches. In fact, Koufax even quits the team, but soon enough is back at spring training. But finally Koufax hits his stride, striking out player after player, throwing so hard his hat falls off. But fame and success come with a price; his elbow swells so badly after each game that he has to ice it and constantly take painkillers.

Author Jonah Winter tells, of course, the famous story of how Koufax sat out the 1st game of the 1965 World Series--his turn to pitch--because it fell on the Jewish High Holy Days, when "if you're Jewish, you ain't supposed to work...Sandy sits out the game to show he's proud to be Jewish, and to set a good example...and becomes an even bigger hero to American Jews."

And when he's at the top of his game, he startles the baseball community by retiring. It was that, or lose the use of his arm.

Winter doesn't try to make Koufax into a warm and fuzzy guy--instead, he concentrates on his journey and special talents as a pitcher. The illustrations in the book by Portuguese illustrator Andre Carrilho are extraordinary; done in graphite on paper, with color and texture added on the computer, they capture the speed, power, and grace of Koufax on the mound.

The book includes sidebars filled with statistics as well as factoids such as a list of famous Jewish baseball players.
This book has received a number of well-earned awards, including Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers, "Top of the List" award from Booklist as the best children's non-fiction book of 2009, Booklist "Editor's Choice," and ALA Notable Book, and honors from Kirkus and Parents Magazine.

Useful links: interview with author Jonah Winter about this book .

Book Blogger Hop #2!

Crazy for Books hosts a weekly Book Blogger Hop! Please feel free to hop around my site to read reviews of current historical fiction for children and teens as well as my recent report on my sighting of Lemony Snicket. Let me know if you visited through the hop and I'll come visit your blog as well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: The Wager, by Donna Jo Napoli (Henry Holt & Co., 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Donna Jo Napoli's most recent book is a worthwhile addition to the ever-growing number of fairy/folk tale retellings for teens that have been published over the last decade or so. Napoli herself has written a number of novels in this genre, including YA versions of Rapunzel (Zel), Cinderella (Bound), and Beauty and the Beast (The Beast), among others.

The story of The Wager is likely to be less familiar to most readers than those named above. Don Giovanni, a young Sicilian nobleman, seems to have it all. He's the most handsome young man in the town (and well-known for his skill as a lover), he's well-educated, having been groomed to one day be an advisor to the king, and he's rich. But when an earthquake and tsunami caused by the eruption of Mount Etna destroy not only the city of Messina but all Don Giovanni's wealth, he is reduced to stealing and begging on the streets. When a stranger offers him a magic purse that will produce an infinite number of gold coins, Don Giovanni realizes it must be the devil in disguise. But the devil doesn't want his soul; instead he demands the youth's beauty. For three years, three months, and three days, Don Giovanni must not wash, change clothes, shave, or comb his hair. If he does, he will forfeit his soul. Of course, Don Giovanni accepts the wager.

We 21st century Americans are so obsessed with being clean and free of body odors that I never gave much thought to what would happen if a person didn't wash for an extremely long time. Of course we all know the person would be dirty and smell bad. But I never thought about the other problems that Napoli describes in gruesome detail, such as sores which fill with pus, boils, and insects which work their way inside and on top of his body.

As time passes, no human will come near him as he wanders around different regions of Sicily; only his faithful dog, a stray who attaches himself to Don Giovanni on the road, remains loyal. Giovanni is unable to tell anyone why he refuses to change clothes or bathe, and people think he is mad. But in Palermo, he uses his magic purse to buy a palazzo, where he is able to pay to hire servants to tend to his needs (although they don't come too close). Soon he opens his house to all the needy of the area, and even the king hears of his largesse.

King William seeks Giovanni's help to build a new cathedral--Monreale (an actual cathedral and one of the great monuments of Sicily, whose construction began around this time). In gratitude, the king offers Giovanni the hand of his sister. Can Giovanni beat the devil at his own game--and win the wager, allowing him to wed when his sentence is up...and live happily ever after with his beautiful bride?

The Wager is a re-telling of a traditional Sicilian folk tale, Don Giovanni della Fortuna. While the story is not historical fiction in the strict sense, I would call it "historical fantasy,"; although there are supernatural elements in the story, the author has also set it in a very specific time and place (Sicily in 1169), and filled the tale with the kind of attention to historical detail that we would expect to find in well-written historical fiction.

This book delves into many themes we find in folklore, such as the true meaning and importance of beauty, and whether money really leads to happiness. In many ways this folktale echoes some of the themes of Beauty and the Beast in the transformation of the main character; here, as Giovanni becomes more and more sub-human, through his filth and stench, he becomes more and more human in his compassion, charity, and love for others. In the beginning of the novel, Giovanni is not a very sympathetic character; but as he becomes more and more physically repulsive, to himself and others, the reader is drawn into his story and can't help but empathize with Giovanni's loneliness and hunger for human contact.

One aspect of this novel that I found particularly enjoyable was the manner in which Napoli captures in words the many flavors of Sicily, in all its multicultural splendor, including mouth-watering descriptions of the international Sicilian cuisine, the cacophony of languages, the different religions--Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, and even the landscapes.

While we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I'd like to draw attention to the dramatic red and black design of the cover; it's a great fit for the dark nature of this story.

For those interested in exploring the original story, a short version of the original folk tale can be found at the Sur La Lune website. A similar story by the Brothers Grimm is known as The Bearskin. An interview with Napoli about this book was published on Fantasy Magazine's blog.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lemony Snicket and his wife Lisa Brown at the Skirball Museum

I was fortunate to be able to attend a delightful program on Sunday at Los Angeles' Skirball Museum in which Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, and his wife, author/illustrator Lisa Brown, were interviewed by a local journalist in conjunction with the museum's exhibit Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books. This was my third time seeing Mr. Handler in person, but my first time seeing Lisa Brown. I was not surprised to discover that Ms. Brown shares her husband's wicked sense of humor; but I also learned they share an interest in cocktails.

I am eager to read and review Brown's newest book, which was just published in May, Picture the Dead, written by Brown and Adele Griffin. Picture the Dead is a graphic novel/ghost story for young adults set during the Civil War.

Brown also spoke about some of her earlier work, both with and without her husband, which includes How to Dress for Every Occasion, by The Pope, Baby Be of Use, a series of witty instructional board books designed to "teach your precious little angels to be useful at long last. And why shouldn't they help a little around the house?", and How To Be, a picture book. Brown and Handler also shared some very funny bits from their first collaboration together, the American Chickens, a "general purpose magazine," some issues of which are available on-line. These include gems such as a theme issue on how to have a fairy-tale wedding, which offers advice such as "For a Snow White wedding,all bridesmaids and users must be less than 4'1" tall."

Both Handler and Brown discussed some of their earliest influences. Handler mentioned his love for Edward Gorey, and said that his book Blue Aspic was the first he bought with his own money, when he was nine years old. Handler was drawn to Gorey because he "tells dastardly stories where bad things happen."

Handler's own family history explains his fascination with this particular theme. Handler said, "My father fled Germany in 1938 (guess why?) so the stories I grew up with were stories of random calamity. Hiding Place A worked but Hiding Place B was a disaster. Cataclysm finds you randomly..." He also learned the "futility of adults trying to protect children." "I was annoyed at children's books," he added. [The happy endings in these books]"were the opposite of the stories I'd heard growing up."

Brown said that she was a huge fan of Maurice Sendak, and reminisced about writing him a fan letter when she was in high school (to which she got no response). Sarah's Room, written by Doris Orgel and illustrated by Sendak, was her favorite of his books.

They also discussed their joint release from several years ago, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Some of the art from that book is featured in the Skirball exhibit. The art is a combination of hand-drawn (the latke itself) and computer generated. In this story, the poor latke (potato pancake traditionally eaten at Hanukkah) is misunderstood over and over again by different Christmas symbols he encounters in the story...leading to the screams of frustration. However, there is a happy ending, especially for the latke.

Both Handler and Brown have new releases out this fall; under the Lemony Snicket name will be 13 Words, illustrated by Maira Kalman, and Brown will be releasing a Halloween title, Vampire Boy's Good Night.

It wouldn't be a Lemony Snicket event without a Q&A from the audience. Part of the great fun of seeing Handler in person is seeing him interact with his young fans--when he signs books he talks to each child individually, making the experience truly special and memorable for all concerned. And he's always hilarious in his unique deadpan way when he takes questions from kids as well.

If you ever have a chance to see these two in person, don't miss it!

Book Review: Golden Web by Barbara Quick (Harper Teen, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up
Barbara Quick's first novel for teens tells the story of Alessandra Giliani, a young girl in 14th century Bologna who is reputed to have been the first female anatomist. Alessandra feels trapped in the body of a young girl--she dreams of studying medicine at a time when women were burned at the stake for such heresy. Yet why would God have given her such a keen mind if he did not want her to do something with it, she wonders? She's a much quicker student than her brother, who'd much rather go hunting than study Aristotle. Her stepmother is eager to get rid of her least-favorite-stepchild, and sends Alessandra off to spend a year in a convent before her inevitable marriage. But Alessandra refuses to accept the fate society has laid out for her, and concocts an elaborate plot to disguise herself as a boy so that she can study in Bologna.

In a plot twist that reminded me of Yentl, the movie/Isaac Bashevis Singer story in which a young Jewish girl also lusts after learning, Alessandra falls in love with another student, Otto, who shares her boarding house. As they study together, they become attracted to one another--will Alessandra reveal her true identity to Otto so that they can share more than learning?

This was an entertaining book, with many romantic twists that will appeal to young girls. The story emphasizes how few choices there were for young women of the time period even those from well-to-do families. Basically Alessandra could choose to marry or enter a convent. Toward the end of the book, there are some very graphic scenes of Alessandra dissecting animals and a human corpse that I frankly found too much for me (I''ll admit I'm squeamish about these things) and that I had to skip over.

Quick explains in an afterword that "whether Alessandra Giliani really did live is somewhat of a point of academic controversy," since she was unable to find a written record of her in documents before the 18th century. There is little real information on Alessandra, so most of the details of the story are made up. However, the author does provide many interesting period details about the lives in 14th century Italy, in particular the lives of students.

This book is likely to especially appeal to readers who like very independent-minded female heroines, as well as those who are interested in women's history.

Book Review: Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise (Dial Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.

The versatile Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise have penned and illustrated a variety of titles for young people, ranging from picture books to novels to non-fiction. Their newest book, a large format picture book, is based on the true story of a real woman giant, Ella Ewing, who lived from 1872 to 1913. "Most tall tales are made up," the book opens. "But my tall tale is true. I was a giant--a real, live giant." Narrated by Ella herself, the book features delightful illustrations, which evoke a primitive style well suited to the setting, rural Missouri toward the end of the 19th century. When Ella was 7 years old, she started growing at an "alarming rate." Soon she couldn't fit into the school desks, and her father had to make her a custom one. "Stand straight, Ella Kate," say her parents in a rhyming refrain.

By the time she was thirteen, she was almost six feet tall, and life wasn't easy. The story describes how she was selected to give a speech on the 4th of July, but when she stood on the stage to recite, people in the audience yelled out that she was a freak. But Ella keeps growing--and soon a visitor from Chicago wants to put Ella on exhibit at a museum in Chicago, and offers to pay her $1,000 a month--a huge sum in those days. In fact, over the next few years, she travelled the country, appearing in circuses, museums, and a world's fair. She claimed to be 8 feet, 4 inches tall when she finished growing.

Klise and Klise enrich the story with fascinating anecdotes about Ella, including how she appeared on exhibit holding a $1,000 bill in her hand. "Anyone who could reach the money unassisted was welcome to take it. No one ever did." With the money she bought, Ella paid off her parents' farm, and built herself an especially big house, with custom furniture designed for her large size. Her neighbors loved to come and hear stories about all the places she had visited, since this was a period where few people ever ventured more than a few miles from their homes. In the folk-art inspired illustrations, we see Ella with an elephant, a tiger, and the skyscrapers of New York. According to this book, Ella soon missed her traveling, and returned to work as a circus star.

An author's note at the end of the book offers biographical information about Ella, including an explanation of the disease she had, gigantism, which was not understood by the doctors of the day. We learn that Ella died at the early age of 40, and was all but forgotten except for the area in Missouri where she had lived, a community which knew her as the Gentle Giantess.

This book would make a great read-aloud for kindergarten to third grade classes. The story emphasizes how we should be sensitive and respect the differences of others in a way which is not heavy-handed, and children will be fascinated by this tale of a woman who would have towered over the basketball players of the NBA.

For those who would like to know more about Ella, an extensive website is available on "The Missouri Giantess."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

In My Mailbox #1

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted at The Story Siren to share books that have arrived in the mail.

I was delighted to get two ARCS in my mailbox this week that I am very eager to read and review for my blog. They are:
The Haunting of Charles Dickens, by Lewis Buzbee (release in November);
Selling Hope, by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb, (release in November).
Thanks so much to Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan for both of these.

And my librarian friend who was lucky enough to go from California to BEA brought me two ARCS that were also on my radar:
Annexed, by Sharon Dogar (release in October) and Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (release in September).

Here are the covers:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Blogger Hop!

Crazy for Books hosts a weekly Book Blogger Hop! Please feel free to hop around my site to read reviews of current historical fiction for children and teens. Let me know if you visited through the hop and I'll come visit your blog as well!

Book Review: Alligator Bayou, by Donna Jo Napoli (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is that it offers the opportunity to learn about little known episodes in our country's history, wrapped in the context of a compelling story. In writing Alligator Bayou, Donna Jo Napoli was inspired by a newspaper account about five Sicilian grocers in a small town in Louisiana who served a black customer who had entered the store first before a white one--and ended up lynched by a town mob. Many of the characters in the novel are based on the actual historical figures, but Napoli added a sixth grocer, a teenaged boy, Calogero. He and his relatives from Sicily don't understand the Jim Crow laws of the South, and when they shake hands with black boys their age, the other boys are speechless with surprise. Calogero takes a liking to Patricia, a very attractive black girl in the community, and she's attracted to him as well--but they have to keep their relationship secret. The Sicilians are not accepted by the white people in the town, who call them names and think they are all violent criminals and Mafia members. The black residents are kinder, even inviting Calogero and his cousins to a graduation party, where they are the only white guests, and inviting them to share a Fourth of July get-together.

Trouble is brewing in the small town, though, and it's not only because Calogero gets in trouble for going on a night-time alligator hunt in the swamps or because he wants to go to the neighborhood black school. The grocers' goats, who are left free to wander around at night, keep congregating on the porch of the town's doctor, Dr. Hodge. When they hear shots in the night, they discover that Hodge has made good on his threat to shoot the goats if they keep coming onto his property. Soon there is altercation between the doctor and the Sicilian grocers, and Calogero must run for safety. Will he escape the wrath of the local mob?

This novel delves into many prejudices prevalent in post-Civil War Louisiana; we see not only the expected racial divisions between blacks and whites, but also the hatred for the Italian immigrants, who poured into Louisiana through the port of New Orleans during the latter part of the 19th century, largely to work on sugar plantations. The terrible conclusion of this story is a lesson in the importance of tolerance, the evil of bigotry, and the need to get along with our neighbors from all countries, a lesson that is, unfortunately, still necessary in our multicultural society.

Alligator Bayou has received numerous awards, including the American Library Association Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, Parents' Choice Gold Award for Historical Fiction, and International Reading Association's (IRA) Notable Books for a Global Society.

For those interested in learning more about this tragic story, a detailed account of the event in an article entitled Guns, Goats, and Italians: The Tallulah Lynching of 1899, is available on-line.

Character Connection: Jacky Faber (Bloody Jack Adventures by L. A. Meyer)

I decided to take advantage of The Introverted Reader's weekly character connection to blog about one of my favorite characters from recent historical fiction for young readers: Jacky Faber, the heroine of L. A. Meyer's Bloody Jack Adventures. Book 8 of this series, The Wake of the Lorelei Lee, will be released this fall. While these books are designed for young adults, they are equally entertaining for adult fans of historical fiction, as well as those who love a good adventure story with lots of bawdy humor! (but not too bawdy, this is YA after all)

It's so hard to sum up Jacky's incredibly colorful personality. In the course of the series, she transforms from a street urchin into a ship's boy in His Majesty's Navy, becomes an infamous pirate, a student at a prim New England girl's school, a tavern entertainer, a naval officer, a riverboat captain, master of disguise, a spy in Napoleon's army, a deep sea diver, and more. All the while she tries so hard to be "a good girl," saving herself for her true love, Jamie, while being tempted by many other handsome fellows along the way. Jacky just doesn't fit into the neat mold of what well-behaved girls were supposed to act like in the early 19th century--she's just got too much spunk and spirit! Her adventures are funny, suspenseful, romantic, and even will teach readers a lot about life in that era.

On his website, Meyer writes that Jacky's stories were inspired by old sea shanty's about young girls who dressed up as boys to follow their boyfriends to sea. But, he thought, what if "the girl, instead of seeking to be with her lover, connives to get on board a British warship in order to just eat regularly and have a place to stay, her being a starving orphan on the streets of early 1800's London. What would she have to do to pull off this deception for a long period of time? What if she goes through the changes of adolescence while on board in the company of 408 rather rough men and boys, and her not having much of a clue as to what is happening to her? What if this ship goes into combat and she has to do her dangerous duty? And, finally, what if she falls in love with one off the boys and can never tell him of her female nature?"

I first discovered this series on audiobook, and they are a treasure! Narrated by Katherine Kellgreen, the audiobooks of these novels have received numerous awards, and Kellgreen's ability to do a wide variety of convincing accents and voices rivals Jim Dale (narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks). In these books, she has to sound like everything from prim schoolgirls to British officers to drunken sailors, and she brings Jacky Faber--our intrepid heroine--to life in an unforgettable manner. If you have access to the audiobooks--and they should be available at your local public library--that's the way to start out with this series. Kellgreen's fabulous narration brings the characters alive and makes the audiobooks even more fun than reading the novels!

Paperback editions of Jacky's stories were re-issued a few years back with sexy-looking new covers, which are likely to appeal much more to today's teen readers than the older, more traditional-looking cover art.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: Nonna's Book of Mysteries by Mary Osborne (Lake Street Press, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Author Mary Osborne's trip to Florence inspired this engaging novel of Emilia, a young girl in 15th century Florence who dreams of becoming an artist. Very few women became artists at this time, and while her mother is supportive, her father is eager to have her understand "the way things are in the world." However, he indulges her and allows her to apprentice with a local artist, while disguised as a young boy. When her deception is revealed, she is dismissed, much to her dismay.

Emilia finds solace in a treasured book which has been in her family for generations, A Manual to the Science of Alchemy. This text, which Emilia considers to be little more than a family heirloom, contains passages from ancient texts that her mother assures her will help her get through difficult times. Throughout the novel, Emilia's story is interspersed with often mysterious quotations from this alchemy book.

When a grey-bearded man, a foreigner from Constantinople, finds her sketching in a Florence church, he offers her a position working with him at his workshop. While Makarios paints commissions for the Florentine gentry, he also creates ethereal icons from his own Orthodox tradition, and Emilia learns how to paint in this exotic tradition as well as in the Florentine style.

Emilia's head is soon turned by one of Makarios' patrons, a handsome and wealthy businessman from Genoa, Franco Villani. His flirtatious behavior makes Emilia believe that perhaps she could become his wife and the lady of his exquisite home. When they become engaged, it seems that all her dreams will come true. But when Emilia's friend Giacomo returns to Florence, she realizes she has romantic feelings for him as well when they exchange a passionate kiss. Giacomo warns her that we all have to make choices in life--will she choose Franco or Giacamo?

At the same time, Emilia's suspicions are aroused when her fiance Franco seems to take an inordinate interest in her ancient book of alchemy; when it disappears and other disasters begin to occur in her life, Emilia wonders if Franco could be to blame and how she can extricate herself from this marriage she once dreamed of. When she is asked to do a painting for the powerful Cosimo de' Medici, can he help her realize her dreams of being a successful artist and recover her family's treasured heritage as well?

This novel is the first of four in a series; the second, Alchemy's Daughter, is a prequel set about 100 years earlier.

As a former student of art history, I especially enjoyed the way Mary Osborne incorporated many well-researched details of painting and an artist's life during the Renaissance in her novel. She describes in detail everything from preparing walls for frescoes to grinding and mixing paints and preparing canvases. Teens who are used to picking up art supplies at the local Michaels or art store might be surprised at how time consuming painting was during this period.

While it may seem far-fetched to have a woman artist as the heroine in a novel set during the 15th century, there were a few women who succeeded in having artistic careers during the Renaissance (usually daughters of artists or members of the nobility), and certainly Osborne portrays how difficult it was for a young girl to pursue a path generally reserved for men.

Teen readers interested in more stories about girls craving to be artists during this period might also enjoy The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes. This novel is based on the adolescence of Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana, who lived in Bologna in the 16th century.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Book Review: Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up

In 1975, Tiphanie (pronounced Tiffany!) has more to worry about than what to wear on the first day of school. Tiphanie's family has just moved from a largely minority neighborhood in Denver to an expensive suburb, where she is the only black girl at her new high school. Tiphanie narrates the story, and her chapters are interspersed with lectures from her upper-middle class parents, such as "The Talented Tenth Lecture," where they remind her that she has to work twice as hard as her white classmates, or "The company you keep lecture," where they remind her that her friends are a reflection on her. When no one wants to talk to Tiphanie at school except another social outcast, Jackie Sue, who grandly refers to herself as "walking talking trailer trash," the two of them decide to form the Oreo squad, a new group among the high school cliques.

But when Jackie Sue won't defend Tiphanie against racial slurs by another classmate, Tiphanie's not sure what kind of friend Jackie Sue really is. Jackie Sue seems to have a lot of secrets, ones that she can't or won't share with Tiphanie. Moreover, Tiphanie's not sure how she fits in anymore-- her friends from the old neighborhood warn her not to start turning her back on her people by hanging around too many white kids. Her parents, on the other hand, are anxious for her to make friends with "young ladies from better circumstances," such as the black kids from Booker and Breeze, a social and civic organization for well-to-do black families.

In this novel, Traci Jones examines serious issues of prejudice with a terrific sense of humor--I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel. She explores overt prejudice against blacks--such as the biased math teacher who doesn't believe that black children belong in her honors math class, or Tiphanie's classmate Clay, who makes blatantly racist remarks, but also more subtle types of prejudice, such as Jackie Sue thinking that Tiphanie will want to date the only black boy at their high school, just because they're the same race. She also incorporates prejudice of an economic type; for example, Tiphanie's parents don't want her to socialize with Jackie Sue because she comes from "trailer trash."

I found Finding My Place to be a very enjoyable story. While it is likely to appeal more to girls than boys, it's a story that can appeal to kids of any ethnic background, since its exploration of friendship, adapting to a new environment, and overcoming various forms of prejudice should be of interest to any teen or tween. This would be an excellent novel to purchase for school and public libraries, as well as for summer reading.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

48 hour book challenge--finish line!

Here's my final stats for the book challenge:

Time: Friday 8:30 a.m. until Sunday 8:30 a.m.

Read: 8 books: Good Night Maman, Is It Night or Day, Warriors in the Crossfire, Once, Little Blog on the Prairie, The Year of Goodbyes, Smells Like Dog, and Revolver.

Reviewed on blog: 7 books (all except Smells Like Dog)

Hours spent reading/blogging: Day 1: 9.5 hours; Day 2: 12 hours: Day 3 (early morning): 1 hour

Total hours: 22.5

I know I won't be among the highest in total hours but I'm pretty happy with my total considering I had to take a long break last night to take my kids to the local high school production of West Side Story (a musical that never seems to get old!), and yes, for sleeping too!

Thanks, Mother Reader, for sponsoring a fun event for the blogging community! It's also a great opportunity to check out new blogs, since I have been trying to take a look at the blogs of all those who have signed up for the challenge.

Book Review: Good Night, Maman by Norma Fox Mazer (Sandpiper, 1999)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

This moving novel by award-winning children's novelist Norma Fox Mazer (who sadly passed away in 2009) tells the story of Karin Levi, a 12-year old girl whose comfortable life is overturned when the Nazis occupy Paris in 1940. Karin, together with her mother and older brother, flee Nazi-occupied Paris and start a new life of constant fear, as they are first hidden in the countryside, and later escape into American-occupied Southern Italy (without their mother, who by this point in the narrative is too ill to travel).

The two children manage to secure passage on the Henry Gibbons, an actual ship filled with European refugees which came to the U.S. in 1944. Although the United States, like other countries around the world, largely turned its back on the desperate Jews of Europe, in 1944 FDR decided to permit transport of 1,000 refugees from Italy to the United States. Many but not all of those who sailed were Jews, as Roosevelt did not want the venture to be perceived as a "Jewish project."

The ship's occupants were sent to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, where they were put in a refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire. Mazer explains in an afterword that the 982 people on this ship, who came from 15 countries and ranged in age from an infant to an 80-year-old man, were the only group of refugees brought to America by the U.S. government during World War II. When the war ended, those "guests" were allowed by President Truman to stay in the United States.

As one might expect, Karin's adjustment to life in the refugee camp is not easy. Karin, who believes her mother may still be in hiding in France, pours out her heart in letters to her dear maman that she is unable to mail, not knowing where her mother might be. Her older brother Marc "became Maman," trying to provide routine and structure for his younger sister. But he doesn't want to talk about the past. He asks her "Why are you always thinking about things that are done with, Karin? It only makes you feel weak and unhappy." Gradually Karin begins to make friends with other girls at the camp, as well as an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stein, who remind her of her grandparents. Soon a girl named Peggy from the other side of the fence befriends her as well, helping her to learn to sound American, and when Karin finally is allowed to start school, Peggy is in her class. Karin is even able to spend her first American Thanksgiving at Peggy's home. But will Karin ever be reunited with her beloved mother?

This novel, published in 1999, would be an excellent book to read in conjunction with Is It Night or Day?, since both deal with young girls about the same age who leave Europe without their parents to begin life as refugees in America--one at the refugee camp in Oswego, the other with relatives in Chicago.

A reading and activity guide for this novel is available on-line.

Although Karin and Marc Levi are fictional characters, for those interested in learning more about this unique refugee camp in Oswego, check out some of the following resources:

1) Study guide and comprehensive bibliography on the refugee camp;

2) the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center, dedicated to keeping alive the stories of the 982 refugees. Among the resources on their website are recorded testimonies of some of the camp's residents.

3) the story of two of Oswego's residents, Frieda Löwy and her husband, Max Sipser, written by their American niece, Carole Garbuny Vogel.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

48 hour book challenge update!

Well, I completed 9.5 hours of reading and blogging yesterday, less than I had hoped, but I'm afraid I like my sleep too much to pull an all-nighter! (never was a fan of those in my college days either). However, I'm up to six books and six blog posts...and I'm in the middle of another book which I shall report on shortly. My challenge ends tomorrow morning.

Good luck to everyone!

Book Review: Is It Night or Day? by Fern Schumer Chapman (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that 12-year old German Jew Edith Westerfeld, whose parents put her on a ship to America in 1938, was one of the lucky ones. But as she watched her beloved family get smaller and smaller on shore as the ship pulled away, she didn't feel lucky at all.

Like so many families in Germany, the Westerfelds of Stockstadt thought of themselves much more as German than Jewish. After all, they had lived in their community for over 200 years and Edith's father, a war veteran, was a respected civic leader. Not until Edith's 12th birthday party in 1937, when none of the invited guests dared to show up at a Jew's house, did Edith realize how everything had changed. Her older sister, Betty, had already been sent to America the year before; however, her grandmother refused to leave her home in Germany and Edith's father wouldn't leave Oma Sarah behind. But as the situation in Germany deteriorates for the Jews, her family sends her off to live with an aunt and uncle in Chicago, telling her that she must do what she can to raise money for their passage, arrange for work for them, and find someone to sponsor them--a daunting task for a young girl who couldn't even speak English.

When Edith arrives in Chicago, her uncle tries to be kind to her, but it is clear that her aunt and teenaged cousin see her as a burden, and (almost in Cinderella-mode), as someone to wax the floor and carry the groceries from the store. School's not easy either; Edith is put in first grade, where she can't even fit into the tiny desks. The kids at school mockingly call her "Goldilocks."

As she improves her English by reading the newspaper, Edith becomes a fan of the comics and the sports section, and soon shares her uncle's love of baseball, particularly admiring Jewish baseball superstar Hank Greenberg. She and her uncle begin a German Immigration Fund jar, adding her small earnings from delivering water. But when she and her uncle see the newsreels of Kristallnacht, her uncle sponsors a raffle to raise money to get her family out of Germany. Finally, a letter arrives from her mother, addressed to her uncle--her father has been sent to a labor camp. Her mother has desperately written to relatives all over the world--"but so far, nothing." When the U.S. enters the war, Edith has to register as an enemy alien, but what will happen to her beloved Mutti and Vati (mother and father) and to the servicemen stationed overseas, whose families mark their absence with flags with blue and gold stars?

This novel is based on the true story of Chapman's own mother, Edith Westerfeld. Although the book will resonate particularly with Jewish readers, the story of immigration and what it is like to be a refugee in a strange land is a universal one for Americans, and one that will appeal to readers in middle school on up.

Click here to read a short excerpt from the book.

Is It Night Or Day? has been recognized by the American Library Association on its Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA) list and was also named on Booklist's Top 10 Historical Fiction list.

Edith was one of 1,200 children sponsored by an American rescue organization composed of Lutherans, Quakers, and Jews that took place from 1934 to 1945. Approximately a dozen children from one to sixteen years were brought in monthly through this program, a pitiful figure compared with what the United States could have done during that period.

Although young Edith was admitted through this program, the United States' record on admitting Jewish refugees during this period is shameful. While 1,200 children may sound like a lot to some of the novel's readers, this represents a tiny number compared to the number of refugees desperately seeking asylum in the United States and elsewhere. Although not mentioned in the author's Afterword, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied diligently for the Child Refugee Bill, which would have allowed 10,000 Jewish children a year for two years to enter the United States above the usual German quota, but Congress refused to pass the bill, despite the fact that families had already been found to take in the children. I would have liked to see the author mention in her afterword how little was actually done by the U.S. regarding the refugees, including perhaps a brief discussion of the Evian Conference in 1938 (the year Edith leaves Germany). During that nine-day meeting, convened by the United States to discuss the Jewish refugee question, delegates offered sympathy for the Jews, but only one country, the Dominican Republic, offered to grant large numbers of Jews sanctuary. In fact, the conference was ultimately a victory for Nazi propaganda; "Nobody wants them," claimed the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter after the Evian Conference.

Book Review: The Year of Goodbyes by Debbie Levy (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up

While there are many novels and non-fiction books about the Holocaust aimed at young readers, with more appearing every year, Debbie Levy's unique little volume deserves a place on school and public library shelves. Levy's mother, Jutta Salzberg, and her immediate family were among the fortunate few--they left Germany in 1938 for America, barely escaping arrest and probable death at the hands of the Nazis.

One of the few cherished items Jutta was able to bring with her was her posiealbum, or poetry album, a kind of scrapbook popular with young girls in Germany in the 1930's. As Levy explains in the introduction, posiealbums were blank books in which young people "collected poems, drawings, and expressions of good wishes from friends and family." Levy intersperses reproductions of actual pages from the posiealbum, along with English translations, with free verse poetry written in her mother's voice. These poems link the entries together and narrate the tale of the family's experiences in 1938, their last year in their homeland, poignantly described in the title as the year of goodbyes.

Through Jutta's reflections and those of her friends and family in the posiealbum, we see life go from bad to worse for this typical 12-year-old girl and her family. As persecution of the Jews worsened, Jutta's father obtains permission from the Nazis to leave Germany, but will he be able to get visas for them to emigrate to the United States? He becomes increasingly desperate, even threatening to jump out the window of the American Consultate in Hamburg. When the visas are finally obtained, we see the family's preparations to leave Germany, as they are forced to leave nearly all their possessions and money behind. None of their friends and family could imagine what was in store, however, for those who remained behind. Levy has carefully researched the fate of all those friends and relatives who inscribed their best wishes in Jutta's album; in an afterword, she reveals what happened to each. As the reader can easily imagine, many of them later perished in the camps. The afterword also provides a context for the year described in this book, so that young people without much knowledge of the period can understand the developments which surrounded Jutta's family and friends. In addition, Levy provides a helpful note on how she did her research on those who had written in Jutta's album and a selected bibliography for further exploration of issues surrounding the Holocaust.

While the reader would imagine that Jutta, having safely escaped Nazi Germany, never saw any of her classmates again, there is an astonishing footnote to this story. When Levy wrote an article published in the Washington Postin 1998 about her mother's escape from Nazi Germany, the article was seen by several of Jutta's former classmates that were now living in the U.S. In 2000, seven of the "girls" from Jutta's Hamburg school held at reunion in Washington, D.C., bringing their posiealbums with them. One can only imagine their joy and also their sorrow for those classmates who did not survive the Holocaust.

Through a blog, Levy has begun a posiealbum project through which readers can continue the posiealbum tradition by posting their thoughts and feelings on an on-line album. Viewers can also see some of the original pages from Jutta Salzberg's poesiealbum, reproduced in full color rather than black and white as in the book--plus an image of the poesiealbum itself.