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.

Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.

My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”

“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”

“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”

Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”

“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.

Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”

“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.

“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”

“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”

But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.

I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.

Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.

The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.

How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?

And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.

While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.

“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.

She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”

There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”

Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”

And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:

As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.

Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.

Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.

As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.

If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.

Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):

There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.

I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.

Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.

 

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Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s 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!

2017 Gift Guide (No. 4): Middle-Grade Magnificence

December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments

As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels,  targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery.

 

For the Girl Trying to Make Sense of Middle School

If Victoria Jamieson’s new graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School (Ages 10-13), and Shannon Hale’s equally fabulous, Real Friends (Ages 10-13), don’t take you straight back to your own days in middle school, then your middle school experience must have looked a lot different than mine (I think I experienced PTSD reading these books). And yet, perhaps things would have been different if I had gotten my hands on stories like these, if I had been introduced to female protagonists who had shown me I was not alone. Jamieson and Hale navigate the awkwardness, pettiness, and—yes—cruelty of middle school girls, at the same time delving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, craving acceptance, even at great expense.

Real Friends, which is actually Hale’s memoir of her own middle school years, addresses the mean-girls culture head on; the questions which arise, about why girls treat one another the way they do, continue through the story’s powerful Afterward. All’s Faire in Middle School (Jamieson’s previous was the Newberry Honor Book, Roller Girl) puts forth an especially clever construct to explore similar themes. Formerly home schooled, eleven-year-old Imogene is fumbling to gain acceptance into the social scene of her new public middle school, while at the same time balancing a close-knit family life revolving around her parents’ unconventional work at the local Renaissance Faire. Trying to be cool, while simultaneously “coming out” as a kid who dresses up in period costumes and holds Knight-in-Training classes on the weekends, comes with monumental challenges. Imogene makes realistic, even devastating, mistakes on the path to ultimately finding a way to stay true to herself. She also reminds us that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll never survive middle school.

 

For the Geocacher

In The Exact Location of Home (Ages 9-12), Kate Messner does something sneaky. She has readers think they’re merely reading about a boy’s adventures with geocaching, while at the same time gently lifting the stigma of child homelessness. Messner tells us in the book’s front matter that more than two million children in America each year are homeless for a period of time. Most of these kids have to keep on with their life: doing homework, making friends, eating and sleeping in communal shelters, and—oftentimes—going to great lengths to keep their situation secreted.

Twelve-year-old Zig becomes, overnight, one of these kids. His parents are divorced; his dad has gone MIA and stopped paying child support (Zig is convinced he can use geocaching to find him); and his mother’s job waiting tables to support nursing school can’t cover the rent. After exhausting their options, Zig and his mother move into a shelter and share living space with the very likes of people Zig has always looked down upon. Zig is a whip-smart, incredibly earnest boy, whose complicated reactions to his predicament—spanning rage, resentment, and reconciliation—make us feel for him at every turn. His two best friends, both girls, are excellent additions to the story (there’s even a spot of romance), making this an engaging choice for boys and girls alike.

 

For the Chocolate Enthusiast

When it feels like middle-grade literature is increasingly pulling subject matter from the young-adult world, it’s refreshing to recommend a read that is light, fun, and promises pure escapism. Even better when that story conjures up mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate. I just finished reading Stephanie Burgis’ The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Ages 8-12) to my daughter, and we both agreed that an ornery, impatient, fire-breathing dragon trapped inside a human’s body is an apt metaphor for what it sometimes feels like to be female.

When the story begins, a young dragon named Aventurine runs away from her family’s cave, not content to bide her time indoors for thirty-plus more years until she reaches maturity. Almost immediately, she is lured by the smell of hot, bubbling chocolate, and a mischievous mage magicks her into a human. Without wings, claws, or fire—and unable to convince her family who she is—Aventurine must adapt to civilized life in the nearby town, including landing a job as an apprentice to one of the most talented, if hot-headed, chocolatiers in the area. Proving that feel-good stories need not be (marshmellowy) fluff, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart beautifully illustrates what it means to follow your passion. It also reassures us that, even in our budding independence, we never completely leave our family behind.

 

For Anyone Who Has Ever Wanted a Fresh Start

If the dazzling cover doesn’t immediately entice readers, or the fact that Tumble and Blue (Ages 10-14) is by the same author as the esteemed Circus Mirandus, consider this: a deep-South story stoked in legends, curses, and a vengeful alligator. There’s no shortage of bizarre happenings and delicious humor in Cassie Beasley’s coming-of-age story, starring both a boy and girl protagonist; but what may resonate above all with readers is the theme of what it means to live under the weight of a label—and the lengths we’ll go to get out from underneath the weight of how others perceive us.

Soon after Blue Montgomery gets dropped on his grandmother’s doorstop in the aptly-named town of Murky Branch, Georgia (population 339) by his neglectful father, he sets out to challenge what he has always been told: that he is incapable of winning at anything, be it sports or school. His encouragement comes in the unlikely form of Tumble Wilson, a meddlesome girl his same age, who moves in next door. That Tumble suffers from a hero complex—an indefatigable belief that she can save people—is over time revealed as an attempt to over-correct for a painful secret in her past. The spit-fire dialogue between Tumble and Blue is as fun as it is dear; and whether or not we buy into the swamp’s ancient legend, we’re as taken by surprise as our hero and heroine are when they confront their destinies head on.

 

For the Thespian

In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightful Short (Ages 9-12), middle-schooler Julia’s witty, astute, and occasionally self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness narration grabs us right out of the gate; we couldn’t find a better companion with whom to spend the next 296 pages. Julia has long been conflicted about her size, which borders on dwarfism. But it also means she is a natural choice for munchkin and flying monkey parts in her community’s summer theater production of The Wizard of Oz, for which her mother signs her up before she can protest.

What begins as a giant exercise in mortification transforms into something else, as Julia is indoctrinated into the self-expressive world of theater, where life is more nuanced than appearances suggest. An especially rich cast of supportive characters—including a charming, if arrogant, director; three professional adult actors, who are themselves dwarfs and fiercely protective of Julia; and an eccentric elderly woman who lives next door to Julia and becomes the unlikeliest of costume designers—makes this a robust read, whose pages remind children that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.

 

For the Reflective Reader

Thinking back to when I loved nothing more than losing my tween self in a book, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea (Ages 10-14) would have had me swooning: an orphaned girl named Crow, a remote New England island, and dark intrigue surrounding the girl’s unknown origins. Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was my favorite middle-grade novel of 2016, though admittedly a difficult story to stomach (with the cruelest of bullies). Beyond the Bright Sea is softer and quieter, but no less powerful—and wow, does Wolk know her way around a sentence.

Twelve-year-old Crow was once discovered abandoned on a floating skiff, just hours after her birth. While she adores the reclusive painter who took her in and raised her like his own—and while she appreciates her island life of fresh air, fishing, and combing through wreckage from washed-up ships—she longs to understand the story of her birth. What begin as nagging questions in the back of her mind transform into a burning desire—much like the mysterious fire she spies on “the [nearby] island where no one ever went”—to risk everything she knows, everything safe, for the chance to fit the pieces of herself together. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, Wolk’s writing reveals and strips away, leaving us as breathlessly wanting answers as Crow herself.

 

For the Courage Seeker

Hands down, the best thing I did last month was to read The War That Saved My Life to my ten year old. (I grew impatient waiting for him to pick it up on his own—it has been laying around since I tagged it for my 2015 Gift Guide—so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Lo and behold: the skeptic loved every minute of it—and not just the air raids and rescue missions.) Now, we are halfway through Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s just-published sequel, The War I Finally Won (Ages 10-14), which opens just days after the previous book ends—and is so far every bit as magnificent.

Eleven-year-old Ada has long allowed her deformed foot and her abusive mother to inform the way she sees herself. Now that she has undergone corrective surgery and been officially adopted by the nurturing, if nontraditional, Susan, Ada dares to begin asking what she might want from and do for the world. Of course, life in England is exceedingly fraught, as Hitler’s army presses closer, as air raids become more devastating, and as the list of dead whom Ada knows grows longer. That Ada learns, not just to survive, but to thrive under such stress and sorrow is an inspiring message for our own children, who crave assurance that even in the most trying to times, there is always hope and kindness and community to be found.

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Review copies provided by Dial (All is Faire in Middle School, Tumble and Blue, Short, and The War I Finally Won) and Dutton (Beyond the Bright Sea). Other books published by First Second (Real Friends) and Bloomsbury (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart). 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!

A Love Letter to Florence

July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.

I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.

(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)

In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)

In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.

If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.

A bit of the magic had followed us home.

In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.

The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.

One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).

“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.

In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.

Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.

“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.

It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.

What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.

The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.

DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.

Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.

Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.

Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice

It was also a big plus that JP read Rick Riordan’s fiction series about the Greek and Roman gods prior to the trip. A little Old Testament review would also have been nice!


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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. 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!

Winning Against All Odds

September 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James BrownWe are still feeling the effects of Olympics Fever in our house. Before his weekly swim lesson, JP flaps his arms back and forth across his chest, a.k.a. Michael Phelps. Emily vaults off the arm of our leather chair and lands with her hands above her head, chest lifted. I’m still smiling at the charisma of Usain Bolt, who runs so fast it’s scarcely comprehensible. While we were watching the Olympics one Saturday afternoon, with footage of fencing and archery and discus throwing, JP exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were this many sports!” (We aren’t typically a sports-watching family, as I’ve mentioned before.)

For all the glory that my children witnessed unfolding on the television screen this past summer, I don’t think they really grasped the guts that were involved. The sacrifices made. The arduous, sometimes circuitous journeys of these athletes to Rio. What actually went on behind the scenes.

I started to feel like I was doing these athletes a disservice by not talking to my kids about how painfully difficult—how physically and mentally trying—these journeys to victory often are.

I announced to my nine year old one night in late August that I had the perfect book to keep the spirit of the Olympics alive in our house. The choice was partly selfish: I have long wanted to read the adult version of this story.

Daniel James Brown recently adapted his bestselling adult non-fiction book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for a young audience. The Young Readers Adaptation, similarly titled The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, is intended for ages 10-18.

Here’s the gist: Against a backdrop of the American Depression and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Brown’s two books tell the story of nine rowers from the University of Washington—an unlikely bunch of loggers, fishermen, and farmers—whose incredible work ethic and fresh approach to the sport of crew took the entire world by surprise when they snatched gold in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

At the center of The Boys in the Boat is one rower in particular—Joe Rantz—whose childhood would be considered heartbreaking by even the harshest skeptic. Painfully abandoned by his family as a young teenager, Joe was left to make his own way in the world, often resorting to grueling physical labor in the Pacific Northwest in an effort, not only to feed his almost always starving body, but to scrape together enough money to attend college and secure a place on a sports team that held the promise of belonging and acceptance. This guy, with the skills of a lumberjack, without two nickels to rub together, this guy is in the boat that wins an Olympic gold.

It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is a head-scratching, white-knuckling, jumping-on-the-bed story of unadulterated inspiration. It will rival the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever seen on TV.

Last night—after the climactic final chapter, where my son alternated between clutching my arm and burying his head under his pillow, even though we already knew the outcome of the race—JP told me this was the BEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE. (He may have inherited my fondness for hyperbole, but this is still saying something.)

I’ll admit, I was surprised by how quickly the story grabbed the two of us. JP had never heard of crew prior to this book. I myself knew almost nothing about the mechanics of the sport—nor did I have any appreciation for the physical stamina and technical prowess involved. (Despite attending a high school and university with prestigious rowing programs, I never attended a single race, a fact I now find rather devastating. At last, I am ready to stand in the cold spring rain and watch a regatta!)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And there is a lot of crew in this book. Nearly every race in the two years leading up to the Olympics is detailed across multiple pages. It may seem hard to believe, but JP and I were on the edge of our seat (well, pillow) every single time. Even the art of boat-making—the proper terminology is shell-making—is described with such romance that we could almost smell the freshly-sanded cedar from JP’s bedroom.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

Still, for as much rowing as fills the pages of this book, The Boys in the Boat is ultimately about something transcendent. It’s a familiar theme that runs through most great sports stories: triumph in the face of devastating odds. And it’s delivered by Brown in a way that spears our hearts and elevates our souls.

I asked JP at breakfast this morning what most struck him about the story. He didn’t even hesitate: “Joe’s life. Everything was so hard for him. Things were always going wrong. I didn’t know that someone like that could be an Olympic champion.”

I would argue that everything was often going wrong, not just for Joe, but for all the boys in Joe’s shell.

It has been said about real life: you can’t make this stuff up. But seriously: you could not make this stuff up. Because the odds are stacked against these young men nearly every step of the way.

Let’s start with Joe’s childhood. When Joe’s stepmother (his biological mother dies of cancer when he is four) convinces his father to pack up the car with Joe’s younger siblings and leave Joe behind at fifteen years of age, my son could not get over it. She is so mean! When Joe finds work in a mine, on a dam, as a janitor—when he chops wood all day instead of tossing a ball in the backyard with this dad—our hearts broke again. Is it any wonder Joe initially struggles to trust his fellow oarsmen, to embrace the spirit of teamwork?

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

The socioeconomic backdrop of the book is equally at odds. There’s the wasteland of the West during the Dust Bowl. There’s the juxtaposition between the working-class boys of the Washington crew team and the wealthy sons of bankers and doctors that make up the elite teams of the East Coast. When the Washington boys visit Poughkeepsie, New York each year for the national regatta, they squat in shell houses without warm showers or sealed windows, while teams like Princeton and Cornell get cushy digs complete with personal chefs. Indeed, when the Washington team discovers that they have to pay their way to Berlin—or risk forfeiting their spot—they rely on the charity of thousands of individuals and corporations during a radiothon back in Seattle.

Then there’s the relentless weather (and, as you know, ours is a house obsessed with weather). Rowing in Seattle means rowing in frost, in sleet, in snow. In hard-driving rain. It means rowing when you can’t feel your hands.

There are the Nazis. There is Hitler’s attempt to dress Berlin as a kind of pristine movie set for the Olympics, in an effort to disguise to the world the ethnic cleansing that has already begun. There’s the muddied intentions of the German Olympic Committee, who re-write the rules in real time to ensure that the Germans are in the fastest lanes and the Americans in the slowest. (The 1936 Olympics were also privy to the rise of African-American Jesse Owens on the track field, yet another slap in the face to Hitler’s assertion of the natural supremacy of the Aryan people.)

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

And then there’s what happens to one of Joe’s crewmates in the days and hours leading up the race of his life. I don’t dare spoil it for you—but suffice it to say that this obstacle would stop any mere mortal. The determination and loyalty that surface instead left me with goosebumps.

The answer to beating all these odds comes from something imparted to the author by Joe on their first very interview. Good rowing—winning rowing—is never about the individual; it’s “about the boat.” Joe is not talking about the physical shell (although the Husky Clipper has assumed iconic status in rowing history). He is talking about teamwork. Only when you give yourself over to your teammates does the boat become greater than the sum of its parts. Only then can you begin to touch greatness. Or, put more technically later in the book:

What they needed was to find something rowers call their “swing,” and they were not going to get there acting like individuals. Many crews never really find their swing. It only happens when all eight oarsmen row in such perfect unison that no single action by any one of them is out of sync with those of all the others. All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.

Teamwork conquers all.

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

JP’s and my success with this book is undoubtedly a tribute to Brown’s engaging and heartfelt writing. But it is also a tribute to the power of reading aloud. There is absolutely zilch chance that I could have convinced JP to read this book on his own, with its 220 oversized pages of minuscule print. There is also little chance that, without the astonishment and wonder of the very engaged nine year old beside me, I would have been quite so enthralled myself. In sharing this story with one another—our intimate team of two—we gave ourselves a gift.

But the greatest gift comes from the human spirit, which so soften surprises and surpasses expectation and understanding. These boys have become my son’s heroes. Names like Joe Rantz, Bobby Moch, Roger Morris, and Don Hume. Neither one of us will forget them quickly.

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Review copy provided by Penguin. 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!

2015 Gift Guide (No. 3): Chapter Books for the Courage Seeker

December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2015As a child who loved reading all sorts of books, the characters that stayed with me long after I finished the final page were not the knights in shining armor or the warrior princesses. They were everyday children—characters who looked or felt or went to school like me—whose strength and courage were greatly tested by circumstances beyond their control. These children got dealt a bad hand; and yet, they managed to come through with grace and humor, with an increased sensitivity to others, and with a wealth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it is through reading stories about loss, disability, bullying, or poverty that we can create our own personal roadmap to peace, compassion, and joy.

Without further ado, I present my three favorite middle-grade chapter books of the year for the 9-14 year-old set. (Mind you, these are in addition to Echo and Circus Mirandus, which I wrote about over the summer here and which are every bit as awesome as the ones below). These three novels are vastly different from one another, both in subject and in narrative voice—and yet all of them sing with the beauty of the human spirit.

"The War That Saved My Life" by Kimberly Brubaker BradleyTen-year-old Ava, the protagonist of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s deeply-felt The War That Saved My Life, may have an untreated clubfoot and a cruel, negligent mother, but her spirit is as feisty, resilient, and loving as any Great Heroine. Historical fiction at its best, the beautifully-written novel is set during the London Blitz, when children were ushered into temporary foster homes in the English countryside to escape the threat of bombs from World War Two. Ada is initially passed over by her mother as a child “worth saving”—largely because her mother wishes to keep her in servitude—but Ada is determined that her younger brother shouldn’t make the trip alone. In secret, she teaches herself to walk on her mangled and incredibly painful foot and escapes with her brother in the wee hours of the morning.

In the riveting pages that follow, Ava and her brother, Jamie, attempt to make a new life for themselves on the outskirts of an air force base, in the care of the polite but curmudgeonly Miss Smith, who has a sad past of her own and is initially ambivalent about taking in the children. Through Christmas celebrations, transitions to new schools, and the shifting landscape of war around them, the three ultimately come together as a family—and Ada, in particular, begins to heal from her abusive past.

But I haven’t even told you the best part: HORSES! It is Miss Smith’s horse that initially softens the stoic Ada and teaches her that vulnerability is not something to fear. Riding not only gives Ada an ease and freedom in her body that she has never known before, but it proves to be a valuable link to the greater community, in which she will ultimately play a nail-biting and life-saving role when the war catches up to her.

"Lost in the Sun" by Lisa GraffThe sixth-grader protagonist of Lisa Graff’s Lost in the Sun doesn’t need a war to test him; he is waging his own internal war every time he sets foot outside his front door. In the year leading up to the novel’s opening, Trent accidentally hit a hockey puck into the chest of a teammate, who turned out to have an undiagnosed heart defect and died from the injury. While his family and friends don’t outwardly blame Trent for what happened, Trent nonetheless walks around under the suffocating weight of guilt, shame, and self-hate. He not only gives up sports and the other activities he used to enjoy, he lashes out at his teachers and his family (especially his stepmother), and he looks for ways to eschew responsibility for anything in his life, good or bad.

If that sounds like an especially disturbing premise, it can be—and yet, Graff is a master at infusing her narratives with appropriate levity and a contemporary context that feels immensely accessible to readers (last year’s Absolutely Almost was another favorite). Lost in the Sun is told entirely through the voice of Trent, who turns out to be as funny and sweet as he is volatile and sullen. He loves playing pranks with his brothers and watching Dodgers games with his mom. He is also deeply in need of a friend—and this comes, unexpectedly, in the form of Fallon Little, a spirited girl with a secret of her own (how did she get her jarring facial scar?) and a non-conformist attitude towards life. Ultimately, it is their friendship which allows Trent to forgive himself and to find his way back towards having meaningful relationships again.

Reading Graff’s book, I was continually reminded of recent studies linking fiction reading to empathy development. In Lost in the Sun, we readers are privy to the stark difference between what Trent is feeling on the inside (fear, sadness, loneliness, confusion) and what his behavior on the outside suggests (anger, apathy, egocentricity, stubbornness). Many people in the book see Trent’s explosive, even cruel, behavior and draw inaccurate (albeit understandable) conclusions about him. Some might even classify him as a bully—or, at the very least, someone not worthy of their friendship. Yet, we readers recognize the pain and vulnerability that lies underneath Trent’s harsh exterior; he endears himself to us with his honesty, and we can’t help but route for him on every page. In the end, it is characters like Fallon Little and Trent’s PE teacher, the ones who choose to look past the surface, that perhaps carry the most powerful and hopeful message for our children to do the same with their own classmates or siblings or teammates.

"Crenshaw" by Katherine ApplegateKatherine Applegate’s Crenshaw is possibly the lightest of the three novels, although it too has a protagonist struggling to make sense of the unjust hand he has been dealt. At first glance, Jackson is your typical fifth grader and oldest child: he loves hanging out with his best friend; he loves science experiments and facts about animals; and he loves (most of the time) the little sister who worships him. When Jackson was much younger—again, typical stuff—he had an imaginary friend: a giant talking surfer-dude cat named Crenshaw. And yet, when the novel opens, in a distinctly NOT-typical turn of events, Crenshaw re-enters Jackson’s life, literally floating down from the sky beneath an umbrella a-la Mary Poppins. This time, not only does Jackson not want Crenshaw around, he can’t get rid of him. If Crenshaw is just a figment of Jackson’s imagination, then why won’t he go away?

The answer lies in the other distinctly atypical thing about Jackson’s life (at least, relative to his peers). His family is poor. They have been homeless once before—forced to live out of their minivan—and Jackson is beginning to glean from overheard conversations, from the consistent lack of food in the house, and from his parents’ request that he and his sister sell off their toys in a yard sale, that it is going to happen again. It is Crenshaw—his dry wit, his physical comedy, and his downright absurd conversations—who proves to be the perfect companion for Jackson at the perfect time. Crenshaw can’t make Jackson’s pain go away, but he does help endow Jackson with the courage (and humor) to begin processing his dread, his anger, and his humiliation.

One of Applegate’s skills as a writer is her use of short, staccato, easy-to-digest sentences, despite the emotional richness of her material. We saw it in The One and Only Ivan, that magnificent tearjerker of a novel (I met Applegate last spring at a conference, and I asked her if Crenshaw was going to have me sobbing like Ivan did…she assured me with a smile that it would not make me cry quite as much). For a novel with such an important message—that the line is blurred between the haves and the have-nots, that not all modern families are afforded the same material benefits, and that the choices parents make are often as heartbreaking for them as they are for their children—I find it especially meaningful that Applegate has constructed a narrative that even a reluctant or under-developed middle-grade reader could devour.

To read any of the three novels above is a gift. All three do what literature does at its best: they transport us into the head of a stranger and make us feel, when all is said and done, like we know both the stranger and ourselves a whole lot better. And perhaps that will give us courage to face what our own lives have in store for us.

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Review copies provided by Penguin (the first two) and Macmillan respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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