Gift Guide 2018: The WW2 Story You Haven’t Heard

December 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Where are my World War II buffs at? If my son’s reaction is any indication, they will want to read this incredible, largely unknown story. When Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s WW2 Story (Ages 7-10), written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Melissa Iwai, first showed up on our doorstop, my son took one look at the Japanese prop plane on the cover and whisked it away. He returned twenty minutes later. “Mommy, this book is AMAZING. You will definitely want to write about this.”

What sucked my son in was the promise of warfare, which the story initially delivers on, giving a fascinating account of the only two times the United States’ mainland was bombed during WW2, both times by Japanese bomber pilot Nobuo Fujita, during a covert mission off a submarine in 1942. Say what?! Why have I never heard about this? That’s because the bombs did very little damage. Dropped over a large forested area outside the town of Brookings, Oregon, the bombs were intended to start a large fire which would then spread to nearby towns—only the ground was too wet for the flames and smoke to catch. The greater danger befell Nobuo himself, who almost couldn’t locate the sub on his way back from the second bombing and nearly ran out of fuel in the air.

The bombings, however, are just a part of the book’s story. More extraordinary is what happened twenty years later, in a rare and beautiful example of reconciliation between two former foes. In an effort to drum up tourism, Brookings mailed an invitation to Nobuo in Japan, inviting him to attend their Memorial Day festival as a guest of honor. Nobuo, who lived outside Tokyo and owned a hardware store, had long suffered depression and guilt following the war. He had “never [not even with his family] discussed his Oregon raids, though they were rarely out of his mind.” He knew the intention of the raids had been to harm and kill. When word got out about the invitation, many people in America were as shocked as Nobuo’s family to learn what he had done. And many on both sides of the ocean felt Nobuo should decline the invitation. In America, there were protests and petitions.

Still, the governor of Oregon, backed by President John F. Kennedy, spoke out in support of the invitation, echoing the sentiments of a local veteran, who said of Nobuo, “he was doing a job and we were doing a job.” Nobuo and his wife flew to Oregon on a jetliner. (“A little larger than the plane in which I made my first trip,” Nobuo joked.)

Nobuo’s visit to Brookings—and the reciprocal visits that followed, including one 23 years later, when Nobuo paid to host three Brookings high school students in Tokyo—showcases the very best of our two countries. Indeed, it showcases the very best of humanity. I can scarcely read these pages without tearing up. There is such dignity in the way in which the town of Brookings sets aside the past and honors Nobuo with an American parade. (There’s good fun, too, when Nobuo is served “a large submarine sandwich topped with a plane made of pickles and a half-olive helmet.”) Similarly, there is such grace in the way Nobuo gifts to the people of Brookings his 400-year-old samurai sword, the same family heirloom he kept with him for luck during the wartime raids. Or in the way he shows Americans around his homeland. “The war is finally over for me,” Nobuo said.

Children may come to this book for promises of planes and bombs, but they will leave with an appreciation for the wounds of war—and a hope that some of these wounds can be soothed through forgiveness. Nobuo and the people of Brookings kept up their friendship until the very end of Nobuo’s life, when a Brookings town representative sat with Nobuo on his deathbed and explained that the town had made him an honorary citizen. To this day, the Brookings library houses thousands of dollars’ worth of children’s books about other cultures, all donated by Nobuo. “[Nobuo] wondered if World War II would have been different had his generation grown up reading books like those.”

I can’t help but hope that reading books like Thirty Minutes Over Oregon might also help our children’s generation think about what can be gained from letting our heart, not our politics, fly the plane.

 

Review copy from Clarion Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

Gift Guide 2018: Getting Something Out of Nothing

December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you.

Sami and his grandfather are new to America, having arrived in Boston after years spent in refugee camps in Iran, Greece and Turkey, where they landed after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s attack on their family. All they have left of their family and their life in Afghanistan—a place with “beautiful mountains and blue skies and more stars than you can see anywhere on this side of the world”—is a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab. The instrument, part of the guitar family, is the only household item the two were able to salvage in the aftermath of the bombing, an instrument which the grandfather had used to make a famed and prosperous living in Afghanistan. Once in Boston, Sami begins middle school, while his grandfather plays the rebab in the subway station, scraping together the coins and dollars people throw his way to start a new life for his grandson.

And then, in the early pages of the book, the rebab is stolen. Swiped by a teenager who pawns it. Sami’s grandfather is defeated—his only choice now is to take a job in the kitchen of a restaurant—but it’s Sami who feels his grandfather’s pain most acutely. “We lost so much when we fled Afghanistan. Sometimes I think the only thing that kept us from breaking was the rebab. It was our heart and our past, but it was also a promise. It was our hope.” Watching his grandfather “waste his hands on dirty dishes,” especially knowing it was his own carelessness that led to the stealing, propels Sami into action. He needs to get the rebab back.

With help from a classmate, who in return convinces Sami to join his soccer team, Sami traces the rebab to a local music store, where it’s on sale for a staggering $700. Sami doesn’t have a penny to his name: he and his grandfather sleep on mattresses on the floor in a single-room apartment, and it’s rare that they can afford a soda. The only possession Sami can call his own is a Manchester United key chain, which his grandfather once gifted him. When another kid at school remarks on the key chain, Sami gets an idea.

What if he can trade his beloved key chain for something else? And what if he can trade that something for something else? Could he get to $700 on trading alone? So begins a wild goose chase, one which pushes Sami outside his comfort zone, challenging his English and forcing him into contact with people he might otherwise never have the gumption to approach. Along the way, Sami inadvertently begins to build a support network in America. He begins to put words to the horrors of his past, releasing himself for this first time from his memories’ strangulation. He begins to play soccer with wild abandon and reap the effects of true friendship. All the time, he never takes his eyes off his goal of returning the rebab to its rightful owner. All the time, he keeps his actions a secret from his grandfather, hoping the ends justify the means.

If The Eleventh Trade is about giving, about turning nothing into something, it’s also about what the act of giving does to ourselves. How it changes us; how it makes us see power within ourselves. How it connects us to our loved ones and to our community in vital ways. How, in many ways, the act itself becomes more meaningful than the gift.

 

Published by Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 3): For the Underdog…well, Horse

December 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

These days, it’s rare that my son and daughter will gravitate towards the same picture book. Not because they don’t still enjoy picture books. Even though they read chapter books on their own—even though we’re always reading a chapter book (or two or three) together—both of my kids still adore picture books. I hope to nurture this love by leaving ever-changing baskets of picture books around the house. Long after children are reading chapter books, there is still so much to be gained from picture books, not the least of which is an introduction to a range of subjects alongside gorgeously vibrant, innovative art.

But as much as they love a good picture book, my kids are not often enamored with the same book. Which might be why the exceptions especially thrill me. This is partly why I’ve saved Patrick McCormick and Iacopo Bruno’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Ages 6-12) for my Gift Guide. If you’re looking for a book that hits both ends of the spectrum, this is it. Might you know a girl, like mine, with a budding but fervent interest in horses? (“Remember, Mommy, you promised I would be old enough for horseback riding camp when I was seven,” says my seven-year-old Emily every day.) Might you know a boy, like mine, with a slightly unsettling, hopefully-age-appropriate obsession with war? (Overheard just yesterday, as JP was playing with his army figures: “Let’s stage the bloodiest battle in history!”) Got a kid who loves history? Loves an unlikely hero? You see where I’m going here.

Sergeant Reckless introduces us to the only animal to officially hold military rank in the United States: a lanky, reddish-brown, always-ravenous mare, who defied all odds to serve with the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, heroically changing the course of the Korean War in its final months.

The story begins when Lt. Eric Pedersen sets eyes on the horse near an abandoned racetrack. Tasked with motivating men long exhausted from “hauling heavy ammunition uphill to a powerful new canon nicknamed the ‘reckless rifle,’ the lieutenant has long speculated on the value of a mule. The “scrawny sorrel mare” is no mule, “but she reminded him of a horse he’d had as a boy, so he took a chance on her.”

Pedersen’s fellow Marines aren’t sure what to make of the horse—referred to as Pvt. Reckless—who immediately begins sleeping, eating, and training in the tented base alongside the men. For starters, the horse has an unending appetite, one that quickly, without supervision, extends into non-edibles, including helmet liners and poker chips. But her love of the same things the Marines eat—oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate, scrambled eggs, and even “ice-cold Coca-Cola”—means she is surprisingly fast to train. She quickly learns to kneel, retreat, follow, and, finally, to carry the bulky, loaded “packsaddle” which is instrumental to the Marines’ mission. Still, the men continue to question whether a skittish ex-racehorse is up to the task of working amidst unpredictable explosions, “white-hot flares,” and the chaos of battle.

What becomes increasingly evident, both to the Marines and to us readers, is that Reckless’ larger-than-life appetite is matched by a playful humor and an unfaltering earnestness. We learn in the (excellent) Author’s Note that former journalist Patricia McCormick first learned about the equine hero from the cook of the Fifth Marine Regiment Anti-Tank Company, who told her stories about how the always-hungry Reckless would sneak into the cook’s tent in the early morning and lick him until he agreed to follow her to the mess hall. She was also a frequenter at the poker table.

The horse’s obvious affection, not only for food but for her fellow soldiers, extends onto the battle field. The first time Reckless witnesses the powerful cannon’s blast, she jumps straight into the air (“even with six shells on her back”); and yet, she quickly yields to calming strokes from the Marine’s hand. It isn’t long until she seems almost unfazed by the noise. Skirmish after skirmish, steadily and without fail, Reckless does her job, albeit with the help of chocolate bars tossed affectionately her way.

Reckless’ story culminates in the Battle of Outpost Vegas, an event spanning ten dramatic pages in the book and earning the mare two Purple Hearts. In a single day, over the course of fifty-one trips, the horse carries a total of nine thousand pounds of ammunition across thirty-five miles of steep terrain. When the cease fire comes at last, Reckless is promoted to sergeant and retired with full military honors.

Italian illustrator Iacopo Bruno, whose art makes this already-fascinating story positively irresistibly, has long been attracted to unusual, less-known slices of history, often where an “underdog” surprises and surpasses. (His previous books have been hits in our house: my son was fascinated by Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France; and my daughter adores Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic.) Bruno’s extraordinarily detailed illustrations—rendered in pencil and digitally colored—have a realistic, hand-chiseled look, which seems perfectly suited to historical narratives. What’s perhaps most remarkable here is that in a war story for young children (something we don’t often see in picture books), he doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of violence—and yet, he counters it with the warmth of camaraderie, with the sweet, unwavering, two-way devotion of one animal to her Unit.

It’s this perfect union of drama and devotion which gives Sergeant Reckless its broad appeal. But it’s the story’s presentation of heroism, found in the most unlikely of subjects, which will endure long after the reader, boy or girl, closes the book.

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Review copy provided by HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

You never know what’s going to get through to a child.

Earlier this year, when I was leading a book club with my son’s class on Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, the subject of refugee camps came up. Salva, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the main character in the book, flees from South Sudan during the war and spends several years in refugee camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. Because his perilous journey on foot through violence and wild animals before reaching the camps is so graphic, the camps at first seem like a welcome respite—at least they did to my readers—despite the narrator’s insistence on their overcrowding and the loneliness Salva felt as an orphan there.

“I mean, at least they were safe there,” one of my students remarked. “Plus, a lot of them are wearing clothes without holes, so that’s good,” said another, when I brought in photos of refugee camps to help them visualize what they were reading. “Yeah, and they teach the kids stuff and let them play sports,” said another. They looked at me and shrugged. As if to say, This doesn’t seem too bad.

I was taken aback by their cavalier attitudes. Have even our youngest become desensitized to the horrors of this world?

But then we came upon a brief and somewhat vague mention in Park’s novel about the rampant sickness in the camps. “Wait, what kinds of sickness?” one of the children asked. “WAIT!” another interjected, reaching for a book about Kenya which he had been reading earlier. He opened to a picture of hundreds of sleeping bodies huddled together on the floor. “Remember when Salva couldn’t stretch out his legs because there were so many people sleeping next to him? What do you think would happen if someone threw up? Would the puke just fall onto another sleeping person? That would be SO GROSS! That would be the worst thing ever!”

I would never have predicted that vomit would be the key to unlocking these children’s empathy about the refugee experience. But, judging by the lengthy and animated conversation which followed, it did. And I’ll take it. Because, after that, these kids dove into asking questions and researching and brainstorming ways to help like it was their job.

It reminded me that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to throw as much (age-appropriate) content at our children as we can—because you never know what will stick.

Gene Luen Yang, this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (and author of the Secret Coders series, a favorite of my nine year old), has issued a summer reading challenge titled Reading Without Walls. Enthusiastically adopted by schools, libraries, and bookstores (local Alexandria folks, check out Hooray for Books’ “Reading Without Walls” Bingo Cards), the challenge asks children to choose books this summer which fall outside their comfort zone. Specifically, books featuring characters “who don’t look or live like you” or “topics you don’t know much about.”

I challenge us parents to do the same when reading to our children this summer. And I have just the book (actually, series) to start you off. The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World (Ages 6-12), by Katie Smith Milway, stunningly illustrated by Shane W. Evans, is the latest in the CitizenKid series. Intended to “inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens,” the CitizenKid books are meaty, non-fiction picture books for the older elementary child—many of them with supplemental and actionable Afterwards—with stories about ordinary people making a difference, often in neglected corners of the world. For our children, these books are the closest thing to traveling around the world and experiencing firsthand that what they see here in America is not necessarily the reality elsewhere. (One favorite, The Red Bicycle­, which traces a bicycle from America, where a young boy has grown out of it, to West Africa, where a young woman re-purposes it to carry sick people to hospitals, inspired my children last year to donate their old bikes to a local bike shop which participates in a similar program sending discarded bicycles overseas.)

Maybe it’s the timely theme of refugee camps, maybe it’s the fact that both my kids are giddy about soccer right now, or maybe it’s the dramatic, pulsating illustrations by the great Shane W. Evans (you’ll remember how much we loved Lilian’s Right to Vote), but The Banana-Leaf Ball is a particularly special addition to the CitizenKid lineup. Based on a 1993 true story similar to Salva’s, the book tells of ten-year-old Deo, who is forced to flee his East African home in the middle of the night when war breaks out. Deo becomes separated from his family, nearly starves to death, and eventually ends up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. And that’s all in the first two pages.

The rest of the book takes place in the camp, where shy, reserved Deo initially keeps to himself, anxious to avoid the explosive squabbles which frequently break out when resources are scarce. “He especially avoids Remy, a gang leader who picks fights and bullies other students into giving him whatever they have—food, pencils, paper, spoons.”

One of the hardest things, I think, for children (even adults) to appreciate is that many refugees have led full lives before they were forced from their homes with only what they could carry on their backs. They had gardens with food and chests with family heirlooms. They lived among family and friends and laughed and felt jealous of their older siblings and jumped up and down when their parent came home from the market with treats. They played sports.

We get a glimpse into what Deo’s life once looked like through his determination to salvage one particular piece of it: his love of soccer. Forced to leave behind his cherished soccer ball—handmade from carefully wrapped banana leaves and twine—Deo sets his sights on weaving a new one. When Remy steals the banana leaves out from underneath him, Deo only becomes more determined, working in secret and later hiding the finished product.

But Deo soon realizes it’s what the ball represents that is truly worth saving. At the camp’s school, a coach organizes a soccer game, choosing Deo as captain of the Shirts Team after the coach throws him the ball and Deo instinctively “catches it on one knee and bounces it knee to knee, foot to foot and down to the ground.” To Deo’s dismay, the bully Remy is also assigned to Deo’s team and immediately begins threatening Deo under his breath.

And yet, when the game begins, all differences are set aside under the common objective of scoring. The boys not only quickly discover each other’s strengths (Deo is skilled, but Remy is fast), but they capitalize on them to win. Deo kicks high to Remy, who heads the ball into the goal.

The boys’ teamwork on the field begins to extend into daily life. Remy asks Deo to teach him his soccer “tricks” outside school hours. When Deo’s ball breaks, Remy pulls the elastic band out of his own pants so Deo can repair it. Deo in turn offers comfort when Remy confides about his grief at losing his parents in the war.

Eventually, the two begin to teach other children in the camp how to make banana-leaf soccer balls.

Ball by ball, practice by practice, children who were once afraid of one another laugh together. There are still problems in the camp, but no one feels alone anymore. They are like a team, and their hope for ejo, tomorrow, is becoming hope for ubu, now.

As the story ends, we learn that Deo eventually reunites with his family and returns home when peace comes. But the camps have altered the course of his life in one critical way. Having experienced firsthand the power of play to unite and heal, a now grown-up Deo decides to coach sports in his village. In the powerful Afterward, we not only learn more about the real Deo’s story, but we see a photo of him coaching next to a close-up shot of  banana-leaf balls, which still today he teaches local children how to make.

On a personal note, while I had planned to write this post several weeks ago, it now seems all the more poignant in the aftermath of the recent shooting at the Congressional baseball practice, which took place in my own community, adjoining the very fields where my daughter played soccer this past spring. At a time when our politics feel painfully divisive, the Congressional baseball game is a shining example of the transcendent possibilities of play. May we teach our children never to run from their instinct to play, simply for the love of it, simply for the love of sharing that love with others. At our core, we are more alike than we are different.

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Book published by Kids Can Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can! I myself purchased this book–and had it signed–at a fantastic diversity panel hosted by Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC.

Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.

Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.

Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:

Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”

I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.

A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.

Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.

In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.

I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)

But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.

How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.

I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.

Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.

“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.

“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.

“But was he always brave?” I asked.

“No, not really.”

“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.

There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”

If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.

As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)

The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.

Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).

A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.

Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.

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Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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