Friday, February 25, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Little Brown, 2011)

Release date:  April 12, 2011

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

Set in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Bird in the Box is described by the author as "mostly a book about the power of the human spirit, and of how one man's triumph brought glory to so many people."  This moving novel weaves together the story of three different children in Elmira, New York: the sassy Hibernia, the daughter of a reverend, whose mama ran away to New York City right after she was born with dreams of being a jazz singer; Willie, who lives with his abusive, drunk father and his suffering mama while he dreams of being a boxer like his idol Joe Louis; and Otis, an orphan whose parents were killed in a tragic accident, and who keeps their memories alive by remembering his father's riddle-jokes.  All three children idolize Joe Lewis, the Brown Bomber.  As Otis' ma tells him,
"When Joe Louis fights, it's more than just throwing punches, Otis.  That boy's fighting for the pride of Negroes.  When he loses, every colored man loses a little piece of his own pride."
Andrea Pinkney captures the unique voice of each of the three narrators, whose lives converge at the Mercy home for Negro Orphans, where Willie's mother sends him to escape the abuse of his violent fathers.  At Mercy, he becomes friends with Otis, as the two bond over Otis' Philco radio.  Hibernia meets the boys while singing with the church choir at a special holiday performance for the orphans.  A stray cat the boys name Bird joins their ersatz family, and before you know it, they're all gathered by the radio listening to Joe Louis' championship fight. By using actual transcripts from radio broadcasts of Joe Louis' boxing matches, Pinkney provides an immediacy to her descriptions, as we can feel the excitement of the children listening to the matches on the radio.

This book is filled with appealing characters, from the three children to the supporting cast, from the strict Reverend to the kind Lila, who works at the orphanage.  Pinkney skillfully weaves in historical information about Joe Louis, a key figure in African-American history, and as Pinkney describes him in her author's note, "a strong and beautiful symbol of hope."  The author's note includes biographical information on Joe Louis, as well as information on her great-grandfather, an amateur boxer in Elmira, New York, who was the model for the character of Willie in this novel.

For more on Joe Louis for young people, see the following:

Matt de la Pena and Kadir Nelson.  A Nation's Hope:  The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (Dial, 2011)
George Sullivan.  Knockout:  A Photobiography of Boxer Joe Louis (National Geographic, 2008)
William Miller and Rodney Pate.  Joe Louis:  My Champion (Lee & Low, 2009)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: Grease Town, by Ann Towell (Tundra Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Curious about what happened to the slaves who ran away to seek freedom in Canada?  Unfortunately, not everything went smoothly for all the runaways who made it to Canada.  In this historical fiction novel for young people, author Ann Towell spins a tale based on a real race riot that took place in 1863.

The story is narrated by Titus, a 12-year old boy who stows away in his older brother's wagon to the Canadian oil fields in Oil Springs, Ontario, around the time of the Civil War.  Titus has been living with his Aunt Sadie and her husband, and he's had just about enough of his aunt's nagging.  When his brother Lemuel plans to leave to go to his Uncle Amos' house at the oil fields, Titus figures it's time for him to have some adventures rather than go to school.  On the road to the oil fields, they meet up with a stranger, John, whom Titus figures is bad news.  "There didn't seem much about him that was honest and true," Titus tells the reader.

With the cover image of a young black boy, I was convinced at first that the narrator, Titus, was black himself.  It took me quite a few pages to figure out that the character we see on the cover is in fact not the narrator, Titus, but rather Moses, a young black boy that Titus befriends when he arrives at Oil Springs.  Moses is the first Negro Titus has ever seen, and he describes his face as a "dark color like the beautiful walnut sideboard Aunt Sadie had in the dining room."  Moses and Titus even start a business together, giving tours of the oil fields to curious folk from the cities.

But the former slaves didn't leave all their troubles behind--some of the oilmen are trying to wreak havoc about the black people working on the oil wells, stirring up trouble by telling people that the blacks are taking jobs away from them by working for less pay.  When their tactics don't work, they stoop even lower to rile up the crowds and drive the blacks out of town.  Titus winds up an eyewitness to the violence.  Can Titus save his friend Moses and his family and help bring the troublemakers to justice?

We learn so little in school about our neighbors to the north that I am always glad to discover a historical novel that explores Canadian history, particularly as it intersects with our own past.  Clearly racism didn't end at the Canadian border, despite the lack of a history of slavery in Canada.  This novel offers an interesting perspective on the Civil War period from the other side of the border, and it's also a moving coming-of-age story about a young man who's forced to confront his fears in order to pursue what's right. 

Other blog reviews include:  Ms. Yingling Reads,
Quill and Quire, Good Books and Good Wine, Bookish Blather, The Magic Lasso, Journey of a Bookseller. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

African American History Month Book Review: Play, Louis, Play: The True Story of a Boy and His Horn, by Muriel Harris Weinstein (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 7-10

This new biography of jazz great Louis Armstrong tells the story of his childhood from the perspective of his first trumpet, bought from a run-down pawn shop in New Orleans.  This unusual narrator provides a distinctly different point of view in this engaging biography for young children.

Author Weinstein describes Armstrong's very poor childhood in the toughest neighborhood in New Orleans (known as The Battlefield), but notes that Louis never complained; "he said [complaints] hurt his ears as much as a horn's sour notes."  Despite his poverty, Louis had the ability to look on the bright side of life.  From an early age, Louis was known for his huge smile, which everyone said was as wide as an open satchel.  So they called him "Satchelmouth," eventually shortened to Satchmo.

We see Louis introduced to jazz, so fascinated by the pulsing rhythms that he would sneak into clubs and hide under tables to listen to the music.  Although it was clear from an early age that Armstrong had a great gift for music, with his family's poverty, there was no money for an instrument or music lessons.  But when he was about seven, he went to work in the junk business of the Karnofskys, a Russian Jewish family who lived on the edge of the black neighborhood.  The Karnofskys fed Louis, gave him work, and in honor of their kindness, he wore a Star of David necklace his entire life.   According to this book, the Karnofskys loaned Louis money to buy his first cornet, our narrator, the five dollar horn in the pawn shop.

With the need to make money, there was little time for Louis to go to school, and he dropped out in the 5th grade to take up singing with a quartet of boys on a street corner. But when he was 12 years old, Louis was arrested for firing a gun in the air on New Year's Eve, and sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys, out in the countryside, a combination orphanage and reform school.  There he had the opportunity to study music and even play in a band, and had clean clothes and three meals a day.  He spent a year and a half there, and when he left, he worked shoveling coal during the day and singing in a quartet and playing cornet after that.  Before long he was discovered and earning a dollar a night to play in a band with King Oliver, who took Armstrong with him later to Chicago.

This book ends as Armstrong is becoming successful and famous, and doesn't deal at all with the later part of his life.  However, an Afterword describes how he was considered the greatest cornet player in the world, and later the greatest trumpet player.  The author describes what made Armstrong special, including his skill at improvisation and his scat singing.  She also points out that despite his lack of formal schooling, Armstrong enjoyed writing and kept journals as well as writing two autobiographies.  The book also includes a glossary of jazz terms and jazz slang, as well as a brief bibliography.

This is an entertaining and interesting book for young readers, although it doesn't strive to give a complete picture of his life, concentrating instead on his colorful childhood in New Orleans.  It also doesn't delve into the more controversial parts of Armstrong's biography, such as his reputation among some in the black community as an "Uncle Tom," or his initial lack of public support for the civil rights movement.

For more on Armstrong, check out the website for his home in New York, now a museum, which offers a complete discography and bibliography on the artist.

An interview with the author about this book can be found at the blog Author Amok.

For other books on the topic, explore some of the following titles:

Weinstein, Muriel.  When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat (Chronicle, 2008).  A picture book about Armstrong's unique skat style.

McDonough, Yona Z.  Who was Louis Armstrong?  (Grosset & Dunlap, 2004).  Part of a series of biographies well-suited to middle grades.

Jenkins, Leonard.  If Only I Had a Horn (Sandpiper, 2002).  Another book concentrating on Satchmo's childhood.

Friday, February 18, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: The Beautitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ludwig (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8 through adult.

This inspiring picture book for all ages uses the Beatitudes--the famous lines that begin Jesus' Sermon on the Mount--as the background for a trip through African-American history, particularly as faith has influenced the quest for freedom and equal rights through different eras.  Award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford uses free verse text to describe God's omnipresent role throughout the long struggle, beginning with the voyage on slave ships to America and ending with Barack Obama taking the presidential oath.

Here's an example of her moving verse:

I was with the U.S. Colored Troops
who fought to end slavery during the Civil War.
I beat the drum for freedom.

I was with Booker T. Washington
and Mary McLeod Bethune, who built colleges
and lit the way for young minds.
I was the lamp.

Carole Boston Weatherford's text is enhanced by stirring watercolor and pastel illustrations by Tim Ladwig, who is both an artist and minister and has illustrated other picture books with biblical texts.  In The Beatitudes, he depicts both famous individuals and ordinary African-Americans with the same dignity, and many of the illustrations are infused with a beautiful golden light.   At the conclusion of the book are brief biographical profiles of the famous African-Americans mentioned in the text, including Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Emmett Till, Marian Anderson, Harriet Tubman, and Barack Obama.

This is a beautiful volume for any home or public library, and can be enjoyed by readers of any race or religious faith.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation, by Pat Sherman, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

This stunning picture book for older readers is a great choice to read aloud in class for African-American history month.  Based on the true story of a young slave, Benjamin Holmes, who, despite the odds and the fact that it was against the law, had learned to read.  Ben had learned the alphabet from his father, and when Ben was apprenticed by his master to a tailor in Charleston, he discovers plenty of secret ways to figure out words, whether in the ledger, on boxes in the shop, or in store windows in Charleston.  He even picks up copies of discarded newspapers to teach himself, learning to read about abolition and freedom.  And, encouraged by his mother on a rare trip home to the plantation, Ben teaches himself to write as well.

Although he hid his reading and writing from the whites, it was harder to keep his skills secret from the other slaves.  When war breaks out, Ben is sent to a slave prison, to stay there until sold, where he decides he'd just forget about reading..."it could only lead to trouble."

But one night, the slaves bribe a guard for a copy of the Charleston newspaper, and beg Ben to read it to them.  As Ben begins to read, we read along with him the famous words of Lincoln's Emancipation Declaration:  "All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free..."  The author ends the story with Ben peering at the golden light of daybreak through the slats of the shed...wondering what this new freedom would look like.

This book would not be nearly as effective without the handsome illustrations of illustrator Floyd Cooper, using his signature oil on board technique.  His illustrations have an old-fashioned quality that makes use of warm earth tones, reminding the viewer of sepia-toned photographs of the time period.  The two-page spread of Ben reading the Emancipation Declaration is particularly striking in its dramatic simplicity, as Ben is presented in a head and shoulders perspective, reading the newspaper, while the other slaves are seen only in shadow.

An Author's Note with brief biographical information about Benjamin Holmes follows, in which we learn that after the war he attended Fisk University, where he became a member of their Jubilee Singers, touring throughout America and Europe, as well as becoming a teacher.  Additional resources, both books and websites, are also listed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Author Interview: Andrea Alban, author of Anya's War

Andrea Alban
The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to welcome debut novelist Andrea Alban, author of the just released middle grade novel Anya's War.  Andrea, who started her career in marketing and design, is the co-creator of picture books, inspirational books, guided journals, and greeting cards.  She lives in San Francisco with her family. 

Q:  Anya's War, your first published novel, is a real departure for you; the other books you've published, under the name Andrea Alban Gosline (which readers can explore at Andrea's author website) have been delightful picture books done with illustrator Lisa Bossi as well as a line of adorable journals, greeting cards, and other merchandise. Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to write a novel for young people with a more serious topic and setting?

A:  It’s actually the other way around; the novel began in my head twenty five years ago, having grown up hearing the stories of my father’s childhood in Jewish Shanghai. I left college in my senior year to begin the actual writing, but work, marriage and motherhood sidetracked me. Twenty five years later, I went back to school to finish my creative writing degree, along with this novel. The other publishing ventures – children’s books, inspirational parenting, and merchandising happened somewhat serendipitously. Lisa Bossi and I were asked to write a book on motherhood after meeting with a publisher who saw one of our picture book manuscripts. That book, Celebrating Motherhood, led to numerous inspirational parenting books, and eventually circled back to children’s fiction. Writing a novel, this novel, was always my goal; I was fortunate that the children’s and parenting books had tremendous momentum, and success.

Q:  Anya's War is based on the history of your own father growing up as a Russian Jew in Shanghai; while I knew that Jews escaped the Nazis in Shanghai, I didn't realize that there was a significant Jewish presence there even earlier.  Will you be continuing Anya's story with a sequel describing what happens to her and her family during the war years?

A:  Yes, this book is the first in a planned trilogy that will span the years 1937 – 1949.

Q:  What made you decide to change the main character into a girl instead of using a boy (based on your father) as the protagonist?

A:  In my original draft, the protagonist was Georgi, Anya's little brother, based on my father Yan. As I continued to shape the story, the character of Anya ( based on my father’s older sister, Lily), had such a strong voice. I found Anya's world began to flow more vividly for me. So I decided to focus on Anya's escapades in this book. In the second book of the series, Georgi moves to the forefront, although Anya and the rest of the family remain pivotal to the plot.

Q:  I would love to know more about the historical research you did on Jews in Shanghai during this period?   Were there family members still alive that you were able to interview?   Did you travel there as part of your research?

A:  My research began with the oral histories I jotted down of my father, Aunt Lily, Babushka, and many of their friends who had remained a close-knit group of "Shanghai Jews."  Aunt Lily's best friend, Luba Tuck, shared stories and photos as well. (Luba is Giselle in the novel.) In 1993, I gained access as a scholar to the oral history archives at the Judah Magnes Museum. I also read every memoir published by Jewish authors who had lived in Shanghai during the  WWII years. Although I didn't journey to Shanghai during the writing of the book, I felt as if I had visited. I was fortunate to inherit the entire archive of family photos, correspondence and legal documents, including passports, quarantine statements, and grade school report cards! (My father received above average grades but one of his teachers noted that his comportment must improve! It's ironic but not surprising that I didn't hear that part of the education story when I was still attending school.) After both my Aunt Lily and Uncle Bernie passed away, a truckload of antique furniture, lamps, clothing, Babushka's oil paintings, and Lily's beloved piano traveled from NY to my home in San Francisco. I am surrounded by the memories and aesthetics of 1920s-40s Shanghai. I plan to visit the former French Quarter of Shanghai within the next few years. My hope is to locate my grandfather Isai's tombstone and place a pebble on its top. This Jewish ritual will signify that I have honored his memory with a visit to his grave. His ideals live on and  impress me - just as the pebble made an impression on my hands.

Q:  How did your father's unusual background, with its Chinese and Russian influences, impact your own childhood?

A:  My father's background impacted my childhood on many levels: aesthetically, linguistically, and in a culinary sense. I grew up with Chinese and Russian imagery in the family home including artwork, textiles, and furniture. We have a samovar for serving tea. We regularly ate Chinese food, and every year my Russian grandmother visited for six years, filling our home with the tastes of my ancestral land including borscht, pirogue and piroshki, My father was fluent in four languages which informed my development as a poet along with my love of classical music and opera. The Chinese and Russian cultures have a shared emphasis on family and education. So both these cultures – Chinese and old European – wove together in my home and resulted in a highly ethical child rearing system.

Q:  Andrea, you also blog about motherhood at Calm and Confident Moms.  Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of topics you cover on your blog?

A:  The purpose of my blog is to share my insights into peaceful parenting. It was born out of a wish: to find reassurance and ease when I am struggling, to learn how to accept my mistakes and move forward. This is what I most need as I strive to give my children, and myself, the gift of peace and a happy day. My blog entries explore how we as mothers can create little moments of peace and a welcoming world for our children, how to tackle a big project as we would dressing in the morning: one button at a time, how to manage the moment just as it is because that is our life purpose, and having the humility and grace to drop the need to be right. As our culture becomes increasingly dependent on electronic gadgets and busy with myriad activities, it is my intention to encourage parents to slow down, and encourage a play-centered curriculum which of course includes reading and storytelling.

Q:  Could you share with us a few of the books that are currently on your nightstand (i.e. ones you are in the process of reading?)  Do you read mostly children's, YA or adult titles?

A:  I usually have three books going at once: a novel, an inspirational book, and a nonfiction book, usually historical about whatever era I am currently fascinated by. I just finished Room by Emma Donahue, a brilliantly crafted book told by a believable five year old narrator. I'm on page 65 of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I missed this rich and quirky novel when it first published ten years ago. I am re-reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, finding new inspiration to let go of ego and its illusions on every page. Instead of a history book, I am reading Yoga Journal, specifically an article about mastering the fine art of balance. I enjoy reading most genres but gravitate towards literary adult fiction.

Q:  What authors, particularly of children's books, have been a real inspiration to you?

A:  I learned while studying for my Creative Writing degree to read like a writer. When I read, I love to deconstruct the prose and learn from the masters how to craft snappy dialog, compelling settings, believable and lovable characters. My favorite writers to read and be entertained by are Isabel Allende, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Karen Hesse. I get happily lost in the story worlds and dramatic action that these authors create.

Andrea, thanks so much for visiting me here on The Fourth Musketeer.  We'll look forward to reading the next volume of Anya's story!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway: Anya's War, by Andrea Alban (Feiwel and Friends, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  

In her debut novel for young adults, San Francisco writer Andrea Alban mines her own family history to weave a compelling coming-of-age story of a fourteen-year old Russian-Jewish girl and her family in 1937 Shanghai.  Anya and her family had left their comfortable life in Odessa, where Mama was an opera singer and Papa was a journalist, because Papa wouldn't join the Communist Party, and sought safety from the Russian Secret Police in far-off Shanghai, then a safe-haven for many Jews.

The story opens with Anya writing a list of wishes in her diary. Their servant, Li Mei, has told her that planting wishes under a full moon gives them the best chance of coming true.  What does a 14-year old girl in 1937 Shanghai wish for?

She wishes Amelia Earhart, her idol, will be found safe somewhere in the Pacific.  She also struggles with telling her mother the truth about her hopes for the future--going to university in the United States, not becoming an opera singer like her mother.  "I am absolutely, one hundred percent certain that I don't want to sing opera.  I think."  And she's trying to think of something witty to say to a boy she likes at the bowling club, hoping her right bosom will grow extra fast to catch up without her left side, and last but not least, wishing "the Japanese would stop killing Chinese children by accident."

But Anya's life changes when she discovers, on her way home from purchasing the family's food for Sabbath dinner, an abandoned basket with an unwanted newborn girl baby inside.  What should she do?  The baby was thrown away by her family, but Jews don't throw out baby girls, Anya tells herself.  "All girls are precious.  We're all the same." She impulsively decides to take the baby home with her, where she is helped by her best friend, Giselle, and Li Mei.  Will her mother allow her to keep the baby safe?  But Anya soon learns that no place is safe, especially for her new friend Gabriel and his father, who fled anti-semitism in Italy, or even in Shanghai, where unexpected danger lurks.

Alban paints a detailed picture of the exotic Jewish life in Shanghai, from the trip to the kosher butcher to the synagogue to celebrating the Sabbath rituals in their home, with a meal cooked by their Chinese servant.  She writes with great affection for her characters and their hopes and fears, and young readers will readily identify with Anya and her companions.  The author incorporates some romance as well, as Anya dreams about boys and even gets her first (very innocent) kiss.

An author's note explains how Alban grew up hearing stories of her father's Jewish childhood in the French Quarter of Shanghai, China, and how the small community of 4,000 Jews swelled to 20,000 with the influx of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.  The Jews that arrived after 1937 were herded by the Japanese invaders into the Hongkew Ghetto, a little-known chapter of Holocaust history.

This book is the first in a trilogy that will go through the end of World War II, and subsequent volumes will tell more about Anya's family and this fascinating chapter in history.

To learn more about Andrea and Anya's War, please make sure to read an interview with the author that will be featured on my blog tomorrow, February 15.

Giveaway:  Macmillan has kindly donated a copy of the book to a lucky reader!  If you'd like to enter, please leave a comment below with your e-mail address.  The winner will be chosen by random number generator on February 20.  

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour: Interview with Morris Gleitzman, author of Once

Morris Gleitzman
I am delighted to welcome celebrated Australian children's author Morris Gleitzman to The Fourth Musketeer today as part of the Sydney Taylor Award blog tour.  Morris received a Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Teen Readers category for his novel Once (the first in a trilogy), an incredibly moving story about friendship set in Poland during the Holocaust (see my review from June 2010).  He is currently on tour in Taiwan, and kindly sent his interview responses via I-Phone (a 21st century writer at work....)

Once (American edition)
Q:  Here in the States, you're best known for your wickedly funny novels for kids--particularly your books about cane toads, and perhaps less well-known than in Australia for your many books in which characters confront serious issues.  What made you decide to tackle the ultimate in serious topics--the Holocaust?  Could you also comment on why you prefer to call Once and its sequels novels about friendship, rather than novels about the Holocaust?

A:  My starting point for these books, even before I decided to set them against the Holocaust, was friendship.  I've long been interested in how young people today feel growing up in a world that increasingly seems to be the product of the worst of our human tendencies.  I like to write stories that don't shy away from that worst, but which also never lose sight of the best we're capable of.  And I think loving friendships are where most of us get to show our best.

I decided to set my story of friendship against a world seemingly full of the most unfriendly behavior and I didn't have to look far for examples.  I chose the Holocaust for several reasons, all of them outlined in my author's note in Once. [These include: Gleitzman's grandfather was a Jew from Krakow, and although his grandfather survived the Holocaust, most of his extended family did not; and Gleitzman's admiration for Polish pediatrician/author Janusz Korczak, who refused freedom to stay with the children from his orphanage when they were sent to the camps.]

Q:  I've read many books set during the Holocaust, particularly those written for children, and I must say that Once is the first that made me laugh out loud.  While on the one hand I felt somewhat uncomfortable from my laughter, I also was struck at how you managed to balance the horrible things that occur in the story with the childlike, naive voice of Felix.  What has been the reaction from readers or Holocaust survivors about your unusual use of humor in the story?

A:  I think the humor comes not only from Felix's naivety, but most importantly from his optimism.  While these two things overlap, they aren't synonymous.  Readers have responded very positively to Felix's optimism.  Younger readers find it inspirational, I think, in a grim world.  Older readers also feel its poignancy.

Once (Australian edition)
The Holocaust survivors I've spoken to who've read the book have been hugely kind.  Their responses have been among the highlights of my working life.  I know some survivors believe the Holocaust isn't a subject for fiction and others feel if you weren't there you shouldn't write about it, so I'm sure there have been other survivors who feel less positively.  But none have confronted me.  I just hope Once hasn't caused any of them pain.

Q:  For our American readers, there are two published sequels that follow Once:  Then, which picks up exactly where Once ends, and Now, which takes place in contemporary Australia and features Felix as an 80-year old grandfather.  The sequels have not yet been published in the U.S. but for readers like me who can't wait to find out what happens to Felix, the Australian and British editions are available for sale on-line (Then comes out in the States in May 2011).  I am curious as to whether Once was originally conceived as a trilogy, or did the story grow as you started writing?

A: I set out writing Once assuming it would be a single book.  A few chapters from the end I realized I didn't want to leave Felix and Zelda there.  That's when I started thinking about the other two stories.  Originally there was going to be just one more book, but the more I developed it, the more I realized there needed to be two more.   

Once (UK edition)
Q:  Here in the U.S., Once is being marketed as a novel for teens, although the protagonist is only ten.  What would you consider the appropriate age for children to read this novel?

A:  I wrote Once primarily for my usual readership, eight years of age to about twelve.  As I was writing I started to wonder if the story would appeal to older readers as well.  But I never lost sight of my core constituency.  I'm delighted the book and its sequels are being read by many older readers, including adults.  But the emails I've had from teachers telling me about the responses of eight and nine year olds to Once are some of the most precious I've ever received.

Q:  Your website  provides an excellent bibliography of some of the titles you recommend for further reading.  Can you tell us a little about the research you carried out in order to write Once?  Did you use survivor interviews as well as memoirs?

A:  My research was 95% reading over several years.  Plus movies and documentaries and visits to Holocaust museums and Krakow and Auschwitz.  I didn't speak to any survivors until after the first draft was finished because I knew at that early stage I would feel the need to try to write their stories, and I'm not equipped to do that sort of writing.

Q:  Do you plan to write more novels for young people with Jewish themes?

A:  I never set out to write stories about specific racial, ethnic, or religious groups.  I say that knowing I may have to hand my Sydney Taylor citation back.

Q:  What books are currently on your nightstand?

A:  Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens.  To the End of the Land by David Grossman.  Life by Keith Richards. [note:  links leading to Goodreads added by Fourth Musketeer]  They're still on my nightstand because this is the Age of Blogs, and since they were invented authors have had little sleep and even less time to read.  Oops, am I writing this out loud?  Sorry.  Time to grab a few hours sleep before the next interview....

Thanks so much, Morris!

Note:  If you haven't read Once yet, listen to the first chapter (narrated by the author) at the following link to get a taste of this unique book.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Review: Me, Frida by Amy Novesky and David Diaz (Abrams Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10

Caldecott-winning artist/illustrator David Diaz' stunning illustrations are front and center in this picture book that explores a particular period of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's life, the period when she lived in San Francisco with her then much more famous husband, artist Diego Rivera.

The illustrations, obviously inspired by Frida Kahlo's own work, are done in acrylic paint, charcoal, and varnish on primed linen, and the brilliant warm colors seem to glow from the book's oversized pages.  In one particularly noteworthy painting, Frida and Diego fly north to San Francisco--not on an airplane, but flying holding hands in the sky, with their suitcase, eyes closed, following a lovely pink bird.

But Frida was lonely in San Francisco, following her husband around as they explored the city, and ignored when they attended parties thrown by the city's elite.  Soon she started painting her own portraits at home, works the press called "passable."  While in the city, she painted a colorful wedding portrait of herself and her husband, which was later exhibited at the San Francisco Society of Women Artists.  Diaz depicts Frida at the show, looking as beautiful and proud as a queen.

A brief author's note gives some additional biographical details about Frida's stay in San Francisco, and reproduces the wedding portrait she painted of herself and Diego.

This book was recently honored by the American Library Association with the Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor Book, and it is certainly a stunning book to add to any library collection and one that will appeal to adult picture book lovers.  However, I would add that for classroom use, it's a book that would need to be supplemented with others about Frida Kahlo or women artists, since the book does not provide an overview of her life, but rather focuses on a short period at the beginning of her career.

There are a number of books for young people about Frida, including the following recommended titles:

Frida, by Jonah Winter (Arthur A. Levine, 2002)

Frida Kahlo:  The Artist Who Painted Herself, by Margaret Firth (Grosset & Dunlap, 2003)

Frida Kahlo:  Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists, by Mike Venezia (Children's Press, 1999)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review: The Blood Lie: A Novel, by Shirley Reva Vernick (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

African American History Month Book Review: Eliza's Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary , by Jerdine Nolen (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In her first novel for middle grade readers, author Jerdine Nolen presents a fictional diary of a 12-year old slave in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1854, as she escapes to freedom in Canada through the help of the Underground Railroad.  Much like Scholastic's Dear America series, the story is told in diary entries that take place over the course of a year.

Eliza is not an ordinary slave; at a time when it was against the law for slaves to learn to read and write, she was taught by her mistress to do so.  But it is not her mistress but fellow house slave Abbey who gives Eliza the unused diary Mistress had thrown away, along with two lead pencils.  But she knows she must write in it in secret, far from the eyes of Sir, the plantation's cruel owner.  Eliza's mother has been sold away, leaving her with only her memories and a beloved story quilt to remember her by.  This quilt has twelve panels, each symbolizing a different story her mother loved to tell, including two blank squares, for Eliza to quilt her own stories on.  Eliza's own narrative is peppered with her mother's stories, some of which have African roots, others coming from the Bible.

Because she reads the newspaper to her nearly-blind Mistress, Eliza is more aware than most slaves of the unrest in the country over slavery, and learns through the paper about the underground railroad.  She wonders what that could be.  "Do they mean departure by an underground railroad train?  Is there a way they escaped on a train that runs under the ground?  I want to know how to find that train station.  I want to know how to get three tickets:  one for Abbey, one for Mama, one for me."

When Eliza is sent with her mistress to "Mary's Land," she meets Harriet Tubman, who one of the other slaves tells Eliza is the Moses of their people, coming back to show others the way to freedom.  Be ready in the spring, they tell her, when Miss Harriet will be back.  But when she finds out Sir is coming to take them back home, she knows she can't delay any longer; she must go north to freedom.

The diary chronicles Eliza's journey on the Underground Railroad, and how she used markers and the North Star to find her way from safe house to safe house.  Although the happy ending that awaits Eliza in Canada seems a bit forced, the book is likely to be popular with young readers looking for historical titles.  There is plenty of suspense as Eliza makes her way north, and the author does an excellent job capturing Eliza's voice and her everyday life as a slave before she runs away.

An author's note explains that the book started as a collection of her favorite stories and folktales, and she was subsequently inspired to add the voice of young Eliza, the storyteller.  She also mentions Canterbury Tales as a source of inspiration as well.

The book includes a bibliography of related books and websites.

Check out other blog reviews at Fuse #8, Tutu's Two Cents, Kirkus, and Journey of a Bookseller,

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: Ruth and the Green Book, by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Carolrhoda Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10.  

This outstanding historical fiction picture book highlights the harsh realities of travel for African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  It's well-known that many hotels would not accept African-American travelers, but did you know that many gas stations refused to sell gas to African-Americans as well?

In this story, beautifully illustrated by Floyd Cooper's nostalgic, almost sepia-toned paintings, young Ruth is so excited when Daddy comes home with their very own automobile--a shiny green Buick, that Daddy will use for work but also for them to take a trip from their home in Chicago to her grandma's home in Alabama.  When they eventually stop for gas on the way, Ruth and her Mama have to relieve themselves in the bushes, because the restrooms were for whites only.  And when they stop in a hotel with plenty of vacancies, they are refused a room, and are forced to drive through the night instead.

Ruth overhears her daddy talking about someone named Jim Crow, but then finds out that Jim Crow "wasn't a who.  It was a bunch of ugly laws forbidding blacks and whites from mixing in any way."  Ruth finds this hard to understand, and her feelings are hurt to be so unwelcome.  Isn't our money just as good, she wonders.

But at an Esso station they learn about The Negro Motorist Green Book, started by a postman named Victor Green to help black people out who were traveling by car.  Like today's AAA guides, it listed places around the country to eat, stay, shop, and visit--but in this case places that would welcome African-American travelers.  With the guide, Ruth's family finds inns that welcomed them, and other African-Americans, including traveling salesmen, who depended on the Green Book to do their jobs.

This picture book highlights just one aspect of the Jim Crow laws, but in a compelling way, from a child's point of view, in a manner that makes the racism of the time more accessible to a young person's level of understanding.  This is an excellent title for starting or enhancing a discussion of civil rights either at home or in the classroom.  The book was recognized by ALA as a Notable Children's Book from 2010.

For more information related to this title, see the book's website:, where you can download discussion questions and other curricular materials, including the an original Green Book from the 1950's.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sydney Taylor Award: The Newbery of the Jewish Children's Book World

The Sydney Taylor Award, given out annually since 1968 by the Association of Jewish Libraries, is the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz Award rolled into one for books for young people and teens that portray the Jewish experience.  Awards are given out in three categories:  young readers, older readers, and teens, and like the ALA awards, honor books and notable books are also named.  A list of all books recognized in 2011 can be found at the following link.

This year the Association of Jewish Libraries is organizing a blog tour for all the winners and honor books.  I am proud to be hosting here on The Fourth Musketeer Morris Gleitzman, beloved Australian children's author whose Holocaust novel, Once, was selected as an honor book in the teen category.  I reviewed Once in June, 2010, just after its American release, and look forward to posting my interview with Morris Gleitzman on February 11.

The blog tour goes from February 6 through February 11, and the schedule is reproduced below.


Carla Jablonski, author of Resistance
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Jewish Comics
Leland Purvis, illustrator of Resistance
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Shelf-Employed
Sarah Gershman, author of Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Biblio File

Linda Glaser, author of Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at ASHarmony
Claire Nivola, illustrator of Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Lori Calabrese
Evelyn Krieger, author of One Is Not a Lonely Number
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at Ima On and Off the Bima

Barbara Diamond Goldin, author of Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Great Kid Books
Jaime Zollars, illustrator of Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at The Book of Life
Susan Lynn Meyer, author of Black Radishes
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at The 3 Rs – Reading, ‘Riting & Research

Howard Schwartz, author of Gathering Sparks
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Boston Bibliophile
Barry Deutsch, author and illustrator of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category
at BewilderBlog
Dana Reinhardt, author of The Things a Brother Knows
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy

Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Gathering Sparks
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
And illustrator of Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
at Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog
Sarah Darer Littman, author of Life, After
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at Into the Wardrobe
Eishes Chayil, author of Hush
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at Frume Sarah’s World

Morris Gleitzman, author of Once
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
at The Fourth Musketeer
Sydney Taylor Award Winners – Wrap-Up
All winners, all categories
at The Whole Megillah

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

African-American History Month Book Review: Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Philomel, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10

In honor of African-American History Month, I will be reviewing mostly titles focusing on African-American history during the month of February, with a few others in the mix.

What is more iconic to the Civil Rights movement than the story of Rosa Parks?  In 2010, author Aaron Reynolds, better known for his humorous picture books and graphic novels, takes a more serious turn as he retells the story of Rosa Park's famous bus ride from the perspective of a young boy who happens to be riding the same bus that December day in Montgomery along with his mama.  As the story opens, the boy tells us, "We're sittin' right where we're supposed to--way in back."  He's playing with his tiger's eye marble, letting it roll down the bus straight to Mrs. Parks from the tailor shop, who good-naturedly sends it right on back to him.

But when people pile on the bus, "all crammed in like lima beans," the driver, Mr. Blake, tells the African-American riders to move to the back of the bus.  The boy can't understand why the bus is sitting there stopped, but Mama's got her "crinkled-up somethin's wrong voice," and he wants to know if they've done something wrong.  He finally realizes it's Mrs. Parks who's still sitting up front in the bus, like she belongs there.  Soon the policeman comes, taking Mrs. Parks away in handcuffs, as Mama watches with "the long tired eyes." While his mama says tomorrow "all this'll be forgot," the young boy somehow knows it won't be, and feels "a little strong, Like Mama's chin."

This is a sensitively done take on a familiar incident from history, told from a child's point of view, in a way that makes the subject matter accessible for children to learn from and discuss.  It would be an excellent title for people of all races to check out of the library or purchase to share with their children in order to commemorate not only Mrs. Parks, but the other brave men and women who fought beside her in the Civil Rights movement.  It's also a natural for classroom use, with handsome illustrations by award-winning artist Floyd Cooper that enhance the dramatic elements of the story.  Cooper uses a subdued palette dominated by earth tones, against which stands out the bright yellow of the public bus.  Cooper uses a realistic style with a painterly look, created by a technique called oil wash on board.  According to his on-line biography, he creates a unique look by painting an illustration board with oil paint, then erasing part of the paint with a stretchy eraser.

For more on Rosa Parks, see her official website.

Other recommended books for young people on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery boycott include:

Freedom Walkers:  the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, by Russell Freedman (Holiday House, 2006);
Boycott Blues:  How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation, by Andrea Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (Greenwillow Books, 2008);
Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier (Square Fish, 2007)
I am Rosa Parks, by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins (Puffin Easy-to-Read, 1999)
Rosa Parks:  My Story, by Rosa Parks (Puffin, 1999)