The Length of a String

by Elissa Brent Weissman
First sentence: “Dear Belle, All my life I’ve shared with you.”
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Content: There is talk of death and the Holocaust, and some crushing on boys. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Imani is stuck on what to do for her bat mitzvah project until her great-grandma Anna passes on, and Imani finds an old diary of Anna’s. Anna came to America, by herself, in 1941, sent by her parents to live with “cousins” in New York City right before the Jews in Luxenburg were deported to ghettos and then to concentration camps. Imani is fascinated by Anna’s story not just because of their religious connection, but because Imani is adopted, and has been wondering about her birth family. Anna’s story is told through a series of letters she wrote in a journal. As Imani dives deeper into Anna’s story she has more and more questions about what makes a family.

This was pretty good. I liked the Jewish aspects of it; the preparing for a bat mitzvah, Hebrew school, and the connections made there. I didn’t mind the historical aspect, because it made the Holocaust relevant to today, as opposed to being stuck in the past. I didn’t mind the adoption story, but I did wonder why a white woman author felt this story needed to have a Black main character. I suppose it was good to let readers know that all Jewish people aren’t white presenting, but I don’t know if it was Weissman’s story to tell. That said, it wasn’t a bad book.

Enchanted Air

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “When my parents met, it was love at first sight.”
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Content: It talks indirectly about drugs, sex, and teen pregnancy, as well as the violence of war, but it doesn’t dwell on that. It’ll be in the children’s biography section of the bookstore

I noticed that Abby had read this one and liked it, so I pulled it off my pile to give it a try. I mostly wanted something I could finish in one sitting, and this one — being a memoir in verse — fit the bill.

I didn’t expect to be thoroughly delighted by it.

Margarita is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and the son of Ukranian holocaust survivors. Needless to say, she had an interesting story to start. Add to that the conflict in the 1950s with the Cuban revolution and the subsequent cold war, she definitely had  a story to tell. But: she chose to tell it through travel, through depictions of the island itself (which she described so lushly) as well as her family’s vacations to Mexico and Europe. She portrayed herself as an awkward child, caught between two countries and then unexpectedly cut off from half of her family. I can only imagine what her mother felt.

Elegantly told, beautifully imagined, it’s a love story to the power of words and images and home. (And I’m glad that her hope in her afterward for more normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba may slowly be coming to fruition. I would love to visit there someday.)

Graphic Novel Round-Up, November 2014

I spent a Saturday recently just reading graphic novels to help me out of the slump. I think it might have worked; I feel much more interested in reading a full-length book now. Also, both A and K picked some of these up and found themselves completely engrossed. So, it’s a good batch.

Odd Duck
by Ceci Castellucci and Sara Varon
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Content: There’s nothing. And the words/ideas are pretty simple. It’s good for reluctant readers as wel as those who just want a good, short story. It’d be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Theodora is an ordinary duck. She does her ordinary duck exercises in the morning, goes for her ordinary duck walk (because she doesn’t like to fly), and reads ordinary duck books in the afternoon. She lives a nice, quiet life and is very happy.

That is, until Chad moves in next door. Chad is not an ordinary bird. He does not do his exercises in an ordinary way (if at all), He dyes his feathers weird colors. He does art (gasp)! Theodora is not happy. But then, come winter, she and Chad bond (because they don’t fly south). They discover that they have things in common, and that they really enjoy each other’s company. And that maybe being different isn’t so bad.

It’s a charming little graphic novel, full of adorable art and sweet little lessons, but it’s never heavy-handed or didactic. Perfect for younger and reluctant readers.

Monster on the Hill
by Rob Harrell
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Content: Linguistically, it’s more challenging. But it’s probably on par with the Amulet books, which means it’s probably good for 3rd grade and up. Content-wise, there’s some monster violence, but that’s it. It’d be in the middle grade graphic noel section of the bookstore.

In this version of 1860s England, there are monsters that terrorize every town. But never fear: that’s what the townspeople want. (Seriously.) But, in Stoker-on-Avon, they have a problem: their monster, Raymond, doesn’t do anything but moan and complain. It’s bringing the town down. So, the town leaders send the eccentric Dr. Charles Wilkie (and a street urchin, Timothy, hitches along for the ride) to convince Raymond to buck up and do his job.

This leads to a road trip, a lot of bonding, some lessons learned, and a giant battle against an unstoppable foe before everything is set to rights again.

This one had me eating out of the palm of its hand. I loved Raymond — he was delightfully pathetic — and his schoolmate, Noodles (aka Tentaculor) and their relationship. There was so much that had me just laughing out loud. True, there could have been a female character (just one? Please?)  or perhaps some diversity (though it was England in 1860-something), but for the most part, I found this simply charming.

by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo
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Content: It’s about the Holocaust, so there will definitely be things to discuss. It glosses over the worst of the horrors; there’s a passing image of a concentration camp survivor, as well as illusions to other horrors. Even so, it’s very kid-appropriate. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This one is your standard Holocaust fare. Mostly. Framed as a story a grandmother is telling her granddaughter about the time when she was a child, Dauvillier focuses mostly on the Resistance and the people in France who helped those who were Jews get away.

It’s a very tender story of a young girl, Dounia (the grandma) whose parents were taken to the concentration camps in 1942, near the end of the war. Even though Dounia hides during the inital raid, the neighbors (some of whom are part of the reistance), know they’ll be back, looking for her. So, they arrange for her to live with a woman in the country. In the act of escaping, the neighbor’s husband is caught, though he’s only arrested and released. He manages to find his way back to his wife and Dounia. Her main concern, though, is finding her parents again and so they keep looking, especially once France is liberated. Eventually, they do find her mother, and the story ends.

I liked this one well enough, but (possibly because it’s tamed down a bit) it lacks the emotional punch that other Holocaust books have. Still, it’s a good introduction to the topic.

Rose Under Fire

by Elizabeth Wein
First sentence: “I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral.”
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Content: there were a lot of f-bombs (I didn’t count them) that came up once at the concentration camp (understandable) and other mild swearing throughout. Also a number of disturbing images and content (Nazi concentration camps don’t make for Light Reading). It is most definitely one I wouldn’t hand to a kid under the age of 13 or 14 (depending on their maturity handling Difficult Situation), whether or not they were on the reading level, so it’s shelved in my Teen section (grades 9-12) at the bookstore.

I don’t quite know where to start with this one. Once I discovered it was a Holocaust novel (as opposed to just a WWII novel), I put off reading it. I don’t like Holocaust novels, mostly because I don’t like being confronted with the evil things the Nazis did. But, because it was Elizabeth Wein, and because it’s a companion to Code Name Verity, I bravely gave it a shot.

And I found myself sucked into the world of women pilots, of strong, resilient women who know how to survive. It’s odd to say this about a Holocaust book, but I loved it.

Rose Justice is an American who has pulled strings to get enlisted as a transport pilot for the RAF. She’s doing her duty, blissfully unaware of the evils of the Nazis. Sure, they’re the Enemy, but the can’t be as horrible as they all say, right? Then, on a mission, she chases after a flying bomb (German pilotless planes loaded with bombs), gets lost over enemy territory, and ends up in Ravensbrück.

Even I, who actively avoids anything Holocaust, know about the horrors of Ravensbrück.

And yet, even though Wein captures the horrors, and the crimes, and the terribleness (I can’t seem to find a word strong enough) of Ravensbrück, it isn’t a hopeless, dark book. Even though Rose is changed permanently by her six months (only six measly months! How did people survive years there?), she retains her will to survive. And Wein has created a cohort of strong, amazing, wonderful (again, there is no word strong enough) women who do just that: survive. It’s amazing — and inspiring — to read.

I’m so glad I did.

Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys
ages: 13+
First sentence: “They took me in my nightgown.”
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It’s 1941. Police come in the night, taking a family by force, without explanation. They are taken to a train station, shoved into cattle cars with hundreds of other people, and taken — beaten, abused, shot, starved — to a camp where they are forced to work.

If you didn’t see the year, you would probably think this was a Holocaust book. It is, but not Hitler and Jews. It’s Stalin and the Lithuanians.

Our narrator is 15-year-old Lina, the oldest child of a university professor, an artist. She and her family are taken, separated — her mother bribes the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) to keep her and her two children, Lina and Jonas together — and sent to work in the camps. They are branded traitors, criminals, prostitutes, anti-Soviet, and are sent to work initially at a beet farm. They are not treated well, to say the least, but there are moments — like Christmas, or the way the Lithuanians help each other — that are more humane. Then, inexplicably, Lina and her family are sent off to the Arctic Circle, to work in a camp there. In one of the more harrowing moments, an American ship ports and brings tons of supplies, all of which the NKVD officers get, and none of which go to the inmates (which the Americans don’t even know are there). So many people freeze to death; so many people lose hope.

It’s a harrowing book, disturbing, and as Maggie Stiefvater said, completely wrecked me. I could only read it in short chunks, interspersing it with something lighter, because that’s all I could handle. I couldn’t tell you about the writing, or the characters, or whether or not I liked it, because (like many Holocaust books), I couldn’t get past the fact that this was based on true events.

Which means, this now takes its place among those books that are Important and Should Be Read. If only so Lina’s — and Lithuania’s — story can be heard.

Maus I and Maus II

by Art Spiegelman
age: adult
First sentence, Maus I: “I went to see my father in Rego Park.”
First sentence, Maus II: “Summer vacation.”

These are two books, but like Persepolis, they’re essentially one story, so they get lumped into one review.

One review in which I’m not sure what the heck to say about the book. I’m always at a loss for words when it comes to the Holocaust; it’s so depressing — humanity at its worst — that I almost would rather not go there. However, these graphic novels — stark and depressing, yet somehow ultimately hopeful — are worth reading.

I’m not sure if this is a story that couldn’t have been told in a different form, but for what it’s worth, it works as a graphic novel. It’s spare, but then, I’m not sure the story of a survivor of Auschwitz could (or should) be anything but spare. Even though Spiegleman didn’t go into detail about the situation, or the harshness, it was all there in its stark, depressing reality.

I was fascinated by the relationship between Spiegelman and his father — how did the Holocaust fit into it? Did the Holocaust make his dad into the grumpy, miserly, bitter, racist person? He fits squarely into the Jewish stereotype, and yet I could sense that Spiegelman was trying to understand his father, understand why their relationship was so strained. I’m not sure any of us got any answers — Spiegelman or the rreader — but I appreciated not having it spelled out or sugarcoated in any way. Something like this shouldn’t be.

I’m sorry I don’t have more coherent thoughts about this one. I think it’s an experience — kind of like the Holocaust Museum is an experience — that’s beyond words. There are horrors out there, and sometimes it’s good to face them. Even if its in a book.

Yellow Star

by Jennifer Roy
ages 9-12

This is not a happy book. Then again, what book about the Holocaust is a happy book? Granted, this one has a happy ending — it’s a story based on the life of the author’s aunt, and she survived — but getting there is harsh, depressing, and painful. Which means that Roy did an incredible job depicting the life and circumstances of her aunt Syvia’s childhood.

I’m trying to figure out a way to sum up the book without giving a mini-history lesson. For those who don’t know their World War II history, this story of one of the 800 survivors — only 12 of which were children — of the Lodz, Poland ghetto is not a fun one to read. Written in verse, I think to mimic the spare conditions of Syvia’s life, Roy captures the faith and family togetherness in the face of pure hopelessness quite well. There were parts that made me cringe — the Nazis deported all the children at one point, tearing them from their family; it was only through the courage and resorcefulness of Syvia’s father (and herself) that she managed to survive that time — and others that made me cry. I am amazed at Syvia, and at the luck — miracles? providence? chance? — that she had during her life. There were so many (more than 270,000 people lived in the ghetto at one time) that didn’t get her chance.

I’m not sure I can separate a critique of the book (can I say that in this instance I felt the verse was good, but unnecessary?) from the life. It’s a good book — not a great one — with a worthy story. And a story worth reading. Which makes the book worth reading, too.

Small Steps

The perfect antidote to Holocaust books: simple, little, light Louis Sachar ones. Several posts back, Inkling asked if I’d read his new one. Well, I have now. (What did you think about it, Inkling??)

Armpit (from Holes, remember him? I didn’t) is now home from Camp Green Lake, and trying to make his way in the world. He’s got a job (digging for a landscaping company), is making up school, and is good friends with his next door neighbor, Ginny, who has cerebral palsy. Life is good. He’s taking small steps. Then X-Ray shows up (remember him? I didn’t. Been a while since I read Holes.), offering a quick money making scheme: scalp concert tickets to a Kaira DeLeon concert. From there life not only changes, but falls apart. At least, temporarily.

It’s not as good as Holes. That’s not to say it isn’t good. It is. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But, Holes is better. More surreal, more magical, more… well… better. This one has it’s charms: I liked the relationship between Armpit and Ginny. I liked the whole portrayal of the teen celebrity, though I admit that it was a bit cliche at times. And I liked Armpit. He was a good, honest, likeable character. I suppose there could have been more teen angst, but I think it would have been out of place (in fact the couple of times when Armpit clashed with his parents felt awkward). It was a good story about starting over, and trying to make something of yourself. A good little book.

The Devil’s Arithmetic

The plot of the book by Jane Yolen first, this time: Hannah hates Passover. Hates going to her grandparent’s house. Hates that her Grandpa Will has fits of anger every time he sees pictures or hears about World War II and the “death camps”. But this year, when she opens the door to check for Elijah, she’s transported back. To 1942. Poland. And, yes, she ends up in one of the Nazi concentration camps.

I won’t tell you what happens after that.

Is this a good book? Well, yes. And no. It’s a book everyone should read. Like Schindler’s List is a movie everyone should see. And the Holocaust Museum is a place everyone should visit. It’s a powerfully written story. Simple and not graphic, yet you feel the weight of it. But, is it enjoyable? No. It’s disturbing. It’s haunting. It left me lying awake last night facing all the things I fear, which I usually push back into some far recess of my mind: driving, sending my girls to school, Russell being away, flying, running at 6:30 a.m. by myself, being attacked at night, having burglars break into the house while we’re home… I hate being confronted with the evil in the world. If I didn’t push my fears away — and that takes a lot of effort and prayer sometimes — then I would never leave the house! And I don’t like being confronted with them.

There are people who are inspired by stories of heroism like this one. I’m not one. I’m one of those who, while they acknowledge atrocities like this (and Rawanda and Darfur and Bosnia and…) happen, would much rather believe that the world is a happy place and that people are basically decent and kind. I want to stay in my happy place. And yet, I send my children out into the world, which, whether I like it nor not, is not a happy place. Yes, I’m conflicted by that. And I do try to prepare my children, though talking about strangers and kidnapping and abuse is hard for me (again, problems with confronting the evil in people).

Anyway… enough rambling. You should read this book. Everyone should, if only to acknowledge that these atrocities happened. But, I’m not sure this is one of those books to be read over and over. I know I won’t read it again.