Monday, August 25, 2014

Dash by Kirby Larson

Last year, Kirby Larson introduced us to Hobie Hanson and his dog Duke.  Hobie somewhat reluctantly volunteered Duke to be part of the country's Dogs for Defense program.  This year, Larson introduces us to Mitsi Kashino and her dog Dash.

It's January 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  So far, things haven't been very different for Mitsi, 11, and her family, Japanese Americans living in Seattle, Washington.  But on the first day back to school, after the Christmas holidays, all that suddenly changes.  First, Mitsi's two best friends aren't at their usual meeting place, and at school they give her a cold shoulder.  Other classmates also ignore her in class and at recess.  On the way home from school in the rain, she is surrounded by a group of high school boys, who trip her causing her to fall and who tear up and kick everything in her school bag into puddles.  Luckily, a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker comes along and breaks it up.

Change becomes even more apparent.  Cameras and radios had to be turned into the government, some of the Japanese men are being taken away by the FBI and even Mitsi's grandmother, Obaachan, must register as an alien because she was born in Japan.  Getting to know Mrs. Bowker seems to be one part of Mitsi's life that is pleasant, that and the comfort of her beloved little dog Dash.

But then April comes and with it the news that the Kashino family, along with all the other Japanese American families living in Seattle are to be sent to an internment camp for the duration of the war.  Each family member can being just one suitcase.  Naturally, Mitsi assumes she can bring Dash with her, but when she finds out that no pets are allowed in the camp, she is devastated.  What can she do with Dash to keep him safe?  Knowing that Mrs. Bowker lives alone, and might want some company, Mitsi asks her if she would be willing to take care of Dash temporarily.  Luckily, kind-hearted Mrs. Bowker agrees.

Losing everything, including her dog and her two best friends was a hard blow for Mitsi.  Now, Mitsi and her family must adjust to their new life behind a barbed-wire fence, surrounded by soldiers with rifles watching their every move.  One bright spot for Mitsi are the wonderful letters she receives from Dash, telling her about life with Mrs. Bowker.  But even that isn't quite enough to pull Mitsi out of the depression she falls into.  But a new best friend just might do the trick.

I have always believed that every persons experience of World War II is similar but different from everyone else.  And each novel I read reflects that.  Dash is based on a true story and much of what Mitsi does is taken from that story, giving the novel its sense of reality.

Dash spends a lot of time what life was like between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and life in an internment camp.  It would seem that it took a while after the initial shock of the bombing on December 7, 1941 for people began to be aware of such anti-Japanese feelings that they could turn on old friends and neighbors so vehemently, as it did with Mitsi and the kids she went to school with.  In that respect, Larson gives the reader a good picture of what it was like.

Larson also gives a good depiction of the internment camps, which were really fit only for the horses many of them were meant to house, and life was always dirty and unpleasant.  She really conveys the sense of betrayal, loneliness and the fear of the family coming apart that Mitsi experiences on top of losing everything she has known her whole life.

I like the way Larson shows the reader that even in times of great distress and hardship, good things can happen and in the end this is a story about the strength of family, the value of true friendship and learning to appreciate what is really important.

Dash will be of special interest to anyone who is a dog lover, or has an interest in WWII history on the home front.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was obtained from the publisher

Monday, August 18, 2014

Where I am and why I can't go to the (sniff-choke-sob) KidLitCon 2014

When I first started this blog way back in 2010, I wrote a post about my Kiddo graduating from college and going off to China to teach English.  Well, Kiddo had a great time in China, learned all kinds of new and interesting things and after two years, she came home in July 2012 - very changed.

Seems while Kiddo was in China, she met her soul mate, and it just happened that he was coming to America to study for a Master's Degree in August 2010 in San Francisco.  Naturally, August came and Kiddo was off to California.

In September 2012, Kiddo called and said "Guess what?  We are getting married - the day after Christmas.  Can we do it at home?"

I have never seen Kiddo so in love, so what could I say?  I called my cousin in NJ, an ordained minister, a few other relatives and friends, and the day after Christmas, Kiddo became Mrs. Kiddo and here is the happy couple:


What does all this have to do with KidLitCon 2014?  Well, I am in San Francisco visiting the Kiddos and we have been have lots of fun, but I finally had to take a morning to catch up with life.  Unfortunately, my travel budget only allowed for one trans-continental trip and I already had this reservation before the KidLitCon 2014 announcement.  So, sadly, I will not be going to Sacramento.  Had I known earlier, I would have come here in October, but I hope everyone has fun and that those who are going will share their experience with the rest of us.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Christmas Truce by Aaron Shepard, illustrated by Wendy Edelson

There have been lots of stories and books written about the Christmas truce of 1914 that spontaneously occurred between the Allied troops and German troops.  Now, Aaron Shepard has written another version of this astounding event.

In a fictional letter to his sister Janet back home in London, Tom, a soldier at the Western Front, tells her the extraordinary story of how the truce came about.  Soldiers on both sides of No Man's Land, a space of only 50 yards, were relatively quiet on Christmas Eve day, waiting for replacements after heavy fighting and many deaths.  It was cold and had snowed, so everything, including the soldiers, was frozen.

Suddenly as night fell and even the sporadic gunfire stopped, the British heard the Germans singing "Stille nacht, heilige nacht…" and saw that they had placed Christmas trees, complete with burning candles, all along their trenches.

Soon, the soldiers on both sides began to trade favorite Christmas carols back and forth across No Man's Land.  Finally, the Germans invited the Allied soldiers to come out of their trenches and meet in the middle: "You no shoot, we no shoot" they said.

As Christmas Eve wore on, soldiers on both sides discovered they had lots in common.  After exchanging gifts - badges and uniform buttons, cigars and cigarettes, coffee and tea, and even newspapers - the soldiers parted and went back to their trenches.

As Tom ends his letter to his sister, he writes: "All nations say they want peace.  Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough."

The Christmas truce of 1914 was quite remarkable in the annals of military history and some people even believed it never happened.  But as Shepard points out in his afterward, the truce was reported in the British newspapers, photos included (and I found reports about it in the New York Times dated December 31, 1914).  In this fictional letter from Tom, Shepard tries to clear up some false beliefs and misconceptions, all explained in the afterward.

Christmas Truce is beautifully and realistically illustrated in watercolor by Wendy Edelson, who has really captured the idea of the Christmas truce.  The cold browns of the trenches gives way to color, first in the line of brightly lit Christmas trees across No Man's Land, with warmer and brighter colors added as the men get closer and closer to each other.  Christmas Truce may be a picture book, but it is definitely meant for older readers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI and this Christmas will be the 100th anniversary of that history-making truce.  It is nice to know that for at least a short time, it really was all quiet on the Western Front.

My two favorite illustrations from Christmas Truce
Christmas Truce would certainly be a welcomed addition to any library - home, school, classroom.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC from NetGalley

GOOD NEWS:  If Christmas Truce is a book you think you might like to read, and you have an ereader, you can download this book for free at
iTunes (this is not a direct link)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The LIght in the Cellar (A Molly Mystery) by Sarah Masters Buckey

Everyone at school needs to sign up to do volunteer work for the war effort of some kind and Molly McIntire really wants to join the Junior Red Cross with her friends Susan and Linda.  But Emily Bennett, an evacuee from the London Blitz who has been staying with the McIntire's since she arrived in the U.S., wants to volunteer to be a magazine delivery girl at the Oak Knoll Convalescent Hospital.  That way, she can visit her Aunt Prim, recovering from pneumonia.  Emily was supposed to live with Aunt Prim for the duration of the war, but is living with the McIntire's instead until she recovers.

But before any magazines can be delivered, Emily needs to learn how to ride a bike, since that is their only means of transportation to Oak Knoll.  One evening, Molly, Susan and Linda take Emily to a deserted road by the old (haunted?) Greystone Manor.  While there, they notice a light in the cellar is on.

Shortly after this, Molly's mother discovers seven 10 pound bags of sugar are missing from the Red Cross office, where they are kept.  The supplies are used to bake cookies for the soldiers on the troop trains passing through.  Sugar is rationed and can't be replaced.  Oddly, Molly overhears a conversation at Oak Knoll that supplies there are missing as well.  Could someone be stealing these valuable supplies to sell on the black market?

Surprised, Molly finds she enjoys being a magazine delivery girl and meeting the different patients at Oak Knoll, especially Mrs. Currier, who lives in Greystone Manor.  When Mrs. Currier asks Molly to go get her reading glasses from the house, Molly agrees despite being more than a little creeped out.  While there with Emily the next day, a black truck pulls up to the house and two men start carrying in packages and putting them in the basement.  Trouble is, they forget to put the spare key to the Manor back where it belongs and must return again.

Bringing Linda and Susan with them, Molly and Emily return to the Manor with the key.  While there, they decide to look in the basement window and, sure enough, there are the missing bags of sugar from the Red Cross and Oak Knoll.

But who could be doing something like this?  Mr. Laurence, who delivers Oak Knoll's laundry, tells Molly to be careful are Marta, a Polish refuge with a young daughter, hinting that the missing items are because of her, but Molly refuses to believe that, especially not after what Auntie Prim says about her.

What to do?  Can Molly and her friends actually set a trap to catch the thief before all those supplies disappear on the black market?

The Light in the Cellar is a middle grade novel that is full of adventure and excitement, but of a kinder, gentler nature than many of the WWII books I've reviewed for young readers.  For today's readers, though, the amount of freedom 9 year old Molly enjoys to ride her bike and just hang out with her friends may surprise them.  I know it did my Kiddo when she read them.

However, there are a few plot holes.  How long has Mrs. Currier been at Oak Knoll if Molly and her friends have always thought of Greystone Manor as haunted and falling into disrepair and why didn't Mrs. Currier have her reading glasses already if it has been so long?

Still, the historical facts in the novel are well-researched story by an author who is very familiar with American Girl values and has written a number of books about the historical figures that were the original purpose of the Pleasant Company before it was sold to Mattel.

And my Kiddo learned a lot because American Girl books involving historical figures like Molly McIntire are always written so that they give young readers a good idea of what life might have been like for girls their age, and the mysteries are not different.  The Light in the Cellar introduces kids to rationing and ration books, and the black market, to the work of Red Cross volunteers, to plane spotting by kids like Molly's older brother Ricky, and, of course, to scrap collecting - all so much a part of life during WWII.

However, I did like that Molly and Emily got a little testy with each other, showing that sometimes friendships can be strained no matter what the circumstances and letting readers know that Molly, like themselves, isn't perfect.  Then again, sometimes the McIntires forgot that Emily wasn't one of them and treated her like another sister, which proved to please her very much.

All of the American Girl historical figures have a series of mystery stories like Molly's, so if your young reader is showing an interest in mysteries and/or history, these are great starter book (and a nice prelude to novels like Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy among others).

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my Kiddo's personal library


Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

In the Summer of 1941, the manager of the large animal reserve in the Ukraine, Askaniya-Nova, told his senior caretaker Maxim Borisovich Melnik to kill all the animals before the Germans arrived and did it themselves to replenish their dwindling food supplies.

But Max can't bring himself to do it, and when the Nazis arrive and take over the reserve, he is sure that the Well-educated, well-bred, well-spoken Captain Grenzman will spare the animals, especially his beloved untamable Przewalski's horses.  But soon it is winter and the soldiers have to eat and little by little, the animals on the reserve are killed until only the small herd of Przewalski's horses are left.

Until the day Grenzman tells Max that he has received his orders from Berlin to "remove from the animal population of the Greater German Reich what is, after all, a biologically unfit species, in order to protect the line of decent domesticated horses…from possible contamination by your wandering pit ponies." (pg 25) Besides, the Nazis have run out of food again.

Meanwhile, Kalinka, 15, the only Jewish survivor of a Nazi mass shooting that included her entire family, has found her way to Askaniya-Nova, where she befriends and is befriended by the lead stallion and mare of the Przewalski's herd there, a most unusual thing for these horses to do.

Like Max, Kalinka witnesses and is horrified by the killing of the herd of Przewalski's horses and when it was over, she goes looking for the mare and stallion who had helped save her life to see if there is anything she can do for them.  Not finding them, Kalinka returns to her hiding place, only to discover that the two horses have made their way back there, too.  But the mare has a bullet lodged in her shoulder and Kalinka knows she needs to seek help from Max.

Max is overjoyed to see the two Przewalski's and welcomes Kalinka with open arms.  He removes the bullet and puts the two horses and Kalinka in the abandoned waterworks buildings not far from his cottage.  But soon, that becomes a dangerous place for them, as well, and the two hatch a plan to get both the horses and Kalinka to where they can find safety with the Red Army.

It's a dangerous plan, but if it doesn't work, it will be the end of the Przewalski's horses.

The Winter Horses is based somewhat on the real shooting of Przewalski's horses by the Nazis during WWII, but the rest of the story should not be seen as a history but as a legend, which contains only an element of historic fact, but also has a rather mythical quality.  Or at least, that is how Philip Kerr introduces this story of an unlikely hero, heroine and the two horses they want to save, and which accounts for the very understated element of fantasy in the novel.

I though that because of this legend quality Kerr gave his story, that writing the novel with an omniscient third person point of view really worked well.  It provided just the kind of distancing that a novel like this needs.  In fact, it reminded me of the original Kinder- und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm, which all had that same dichotomy of cruelty and kindness to them (unlike their prettified, disneyfied fairy tales counterparts of today) found  in The Winter Horses.

Even so, I suspect that this is may be as difficult a story to read for others as it was for me.  The calm cruelty of Captain Grenzman and his obsessive need to eradicate the all horses was almost unbearable, mainly because it was so analogous to what was being done to the entire Jewish population.

Still, I highly recommend The Winter Horses to anyone with an interest in WWII, and given what is going on in the Ukraine at the moment, readers may find this even more of an interesting read, asking themselves, as I did, will history be repeating itself here?  After all, the Askaniya-Nova reserve still exists in the southern Ukraine.

Philip Kerr is a favorite author of mine, having written a wonderful mystery series about a detective named Bernie Gunther set in pre-war Berlin for adult readers.  The Winter Horses is his first historical fiction for young readers (but not his first work for kids - as Ms. Yingling points out in her review, Philip Kerr also wrote a fantasy series, Children of the Lamp,  under the name P.B.Kerr).

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Random House has an educator's guide to The Winter Horses complete with CCSS tie-ins that can be downloaded HERE

If you would like to know more about Przewalski's horses, you might this article in Scientific American  interesting, or this entry on Wikipedia giving the history of Przewalski's horses or the history of Askaniya-Nova

This is book 10 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry
This is book 6 of my 2014 European Reading Challenge hosted by Bay City Reader