Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís

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Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís (9781324015741)

As Czechoslovakia is taken over by the Nazis in 1938, one quiet man stepped forward and saved almost 700 children. At age 29, Nicky was invited to visit Prague while on a ski trip. At the same time, Vera was growing up outside of Prague, happily adopting stray cats. They were one of the only Jewish families in the town, but that didn’t matter in their lives. The in October the German army marched into Czechoslovakia and Vera’s parents learned of a British man who was saving children. That man was Nicky. Understanding that he could do something, he worked in Prague making lists of children and finding train connections. When he returned to London, he found foster families for the children and acquire visas and tickets with his own money, sometimes needing to create his own stamps. Vera left home with 76 other children on a train. In total, 669 children reached London safely. No one heard of Nicky’s quiet work until his wife found the records. Then Nicky’s work was revealed to everyone on a popular TV show, and his life is still celebrated.

Sís has created a haunting yet also celebratory nonfiction picture book that describes the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia through a child’s eyes and also offers the lens of a man who realizes the potential human disaster about to occur and does something to rescue the children. The tension between the two is beautifully done, creating a deep understanding of what was at stake and the speed at which something needed to happen. The book is one that will make you actually cry, particularly towards the end when the survivors are there to thank Nicky for what he did for them. Crushingly moving.

As always Sís’s art is entirely its own style. He offers overhead maps of Vera’s small town and her life. He also shares maps of Europe and whimsical images that are almost folkloric in their storytelling. It’s a lovely mix of story, truth and heroism.

Truly remarkable, this is a picture book to read with tissues nearby. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Norton Young Readers.

Review: Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon

Oskar and the Eight Blesssings by Richard Simon

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel (InfoSoup)

Oskar survived Kristallnacht in Nazi Europe and has been sent by his family to live with his aunt in New York City. When he arrives, he has to walk over 100 blocks down Broadway to reach her, hopefully before she lights the menorah at sunset. Along the way, Oskar is reminded again and again about looking for blessings in life. He is given bread by a woman feeding the birds, a comic book by the man who runs the newsstand, mittens by a boy in the park. But most of all in his long walk in the cold, he is given hope once again that he is somewhere safe.

The authors have created a picture book that speaks to the horrors of the Holocaust only in passing. Instead it is much more focused upon feeling embraced by a city even as a newly-arrived immigrant. It is about the small things that we do in kindness each day and the way that those small things build to something larger and more important for someone. This book celebrates New York City and the shelter and home that can be found there.

The illustrations are interesting for a book set in the past. They incorporate comic-like panels on the page that really work well. The illustrations have a sense of wonder about them. They capture small pieces of New York, allowing the snow and city to swirl around the reader just as they do around Oskar himself.

A lovely holiday book that is about more than either Christmas or Hanukkah but about home and hope. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

Review: The Wren and the Sparrow by J Patrick Lewis

Wren and the Sparrow by J Patrick Lewis

The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (InfoSoup)

This Holocaust story tells of an old man who weaved carpets on a loom and spent his evening singing to a hurdy-gurdy. His student, the Sparrow, learned at his side. The town in Poland was dark and dismal, all of its trees harvested for kindling. Food and clothes were rationed and even the music was starting to disappear. One day music was removed from the village as soldiers arrived to gather all of the musical instruments and take them away. Everyone had to give up their instruments, but the old man sang one final song before he put his hurdy-gurdy on the pile. And he would not stop singing, even as he was dragged away. That night, the Sparrow returned and took the hurdy-gurdy from the pile and hid it away. Then she too disappeared. It was found years later with a note that spoke of the bravery of both the Wren and the Sparrow and the importance of music in keeping spirits alive in dark times.

Based on the musicians who played in the Lodz Ghetto, a place that housed 230,000 Jewish people in 1940. Only 1000 survived the Holocaust that followed. Music was a part of their life and that celebration of music as a way of expressing feelings that could not be voiced is very clear in this picture book. Lewis writes with intense beauty in this book, the strong feelings showing in his sentences such as “The town shriveled up like a rose without rain.” And the image of “the gift of music soon dwindled to a sigh.” The entire book sings with prose like this, adding its own music to the story.

The illustrations by Nayberg, a native of Ukraine, show the darkness of the times. The illustrations swim with the colors of war, khaki ground and the gray of despair. When the instrument and music are present though, there is a glow and a warmth that shines in the illustration visually capturing the impact of the music on people around.

This allegorical tale captures the impact of the Nazi regime in Poland and elsewhere, offering a lesson about the power of music to carry hope in the darkest of times. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Kar-Ben.

Review: Hidden by Loic Dauvillier


Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo

Translated from French, this graphic novel delicately but powerfully explains the impact of the Nazis on a child.  Told by a grandmother to her granddaughter, this is the story of Dounia, a young Jewish girl whose life changes when the Nazis come to Paris.  First she has to wear a yellow star, then she stops attending school, and finally her parents are taken away and she is sheltered by neighbors.  She has to call the neighbor woman “mother” even though she doesn’t want to.  The two flee Paris and head to the countryside where Dounia is able to live comfortably with enough food, but worries all the time about whether she will ever see her parents again.  This is a book about families but also about those people thrown together by horrors who become family to one another to survive.

Dauvallier first offers a glimpse of what Dounia’s life was like just before the Nazis arrived.  Quickly though, the book changes and becomes about persecution and the speed of the changes that Jews in France and other countries had to endure.  Isolation from society was one of the first steps taken, the loss of friends and mentors, then the fear of being taken away or shot entered.  But so did bravery and sacrifice and heroism.  It is there that this book stays, keeping the horrors at bay just enough for the light to shine in.

The art work is powerful but also child friendly.  The characters have large round heads that show emotions clearly.  There are wonderful plays of light and dark throughout the book that also speak to the power of the Nazis and the vital power of fighting back in big ways and small. 

A powerful graphic novel, this book personalizes the Holocaust and offers the story of one girl who survived with love and heroism.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from First Second.

Is It Night or Day?


Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942 by Fern Schumer Chapman

As anti-Semitism and the Nazis overtake Germany, 12-year-old Edith is put on a boat by her parents and sent to the U.S.  She travels alone on a boat with many other children separated from their parents too.  She moves in with her uncle and aunt in a small apartment in Chicago.  There she works for them more as a servant than a niece.  Though her older sister is also in Chicago, they rarely see one another and her sister seems to have had an easier time adapting to her new life.  Edith must learn a new language, understand the many differences between the two cultures, navigate the new family she finds herself in, all by finding an inner strength to go on without her parents.  Inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother, this book offers a poignant and often painful look at loss and survival.

Chapman’s writing is beautiful.  It captures the feeling of loss, the desperation of loneliness, and the small moments that help one survive.   The author is so skilled that readers feel deep connection to Edith and her plight without ever feeling manipulated.  Instead the emotions depicted are so raw and real that they are impossible not to feel at a gut level.

Edith is a wonderfully human heroine, filled with both good and bad emotions.  She is at times naive and at others very wise.  She is a complete portrait of a young girl caught in a situation that she cannot fix, trapped in a time without answers.  An additional appeal of the book is this glimpse into a history that few know about in the United States, when children were rescued from Nazi Germany. 

A gut-wrenchingly personal view of historical events, readers will feel connected to Edith and her plight very deeply.  Appropriate for ages 9-12, this book would do well as a class read aloud for learning about World War II from a unique perspective.  Get this into the hands of children who enjoy historical fiction with a lot of truth woven in.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Check out the author’s website for more information on the true story that inspired this book.

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Once by Morris Gleitzman

This book looks at the Holocaust through the lens of one boy.  Felix is an extraordinary boy whose head is filled with stories that help explain the horrors he sees around himself.  His parents had left him in a Catholic orphanage to keep him safe as Poland was invaded.  But when he saw the books from the orphanage library being burned, he feared his parents were in danger since they were book sellers.  He isn’t sure why the Nazis hate books so much, but he certainly doesn’t want his parents to be hurt.  So Felix runs away from the orphanage and towards the big city, which means he is heading directly toward the Nazis.  As Felix travels, he tries to make sense of what he is seeing.  At first he naively explains much of it away, but as the book progresses he begins to understand what is happening to him and the people he loves.  Powerfully written, this book allows children to understand the horrors of the Holocaust without being overwhelmed.  It also shows children that they too can be heroes even when their world is falling apart.

In this book, Gleitzman has hit the balance perfectly between honestly depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust and yet making it accessible and appropriate for young readers.  He does this entirely through Felix who is an incredible protagonist, protectively telling himself untruths and stories about what he is witnessing.  It is a powerful device to use, as we see Felix almost killed time and again.  Because of Felix’s misunderstanding of the situation he is in, the book can be chilling and frightening.  Modern readers will understand more clearly than Felix what being a young Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland means. 

Gleitzman’s writing is wry and warm.  Told in Felix’s voice, the story is gripping, filled with action, and moves along at a brisk pace.  This brisk pace can be alarming as Felix is almost always moving closer and closer to more perilous areas and situations.  Gleitzman plays with our own understanding of history, creating our own lens to contrast with Felix’s. 

This is the sort of book that invites you in for carrot stew, shares stories whispered in the dark, and brings you to tears.  It is a story to savor, to linger with, to be amazed by.  I don’t hug every book I read, but this is one that I had to sit with my arms wrapped around for a bit.  I was holding Felix tightly to me because he had become so vivid and real to me as I read.

Beautifully done, this book should be shared with classes learning about the Holocaust.  It is a story of hope, a celebration of childhood, and a way to tell young people the truth of history.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.

Tropical Secrets

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle

Daniel left his family behind in Nazi Germany and sailed for New York for a new life.  But his boat is rejected by the Americans and ends up in tropical Cuba.  He still hopes to reunite with his parents one day, but doesn’t know how they will ever find him in this unexpected port.   He is befriended by a young Cuban girl, Paloma, who is the daughter of the man who decides the fate of the refugees that arrive in their port.  And there is also David, a Russian refugee who fled long ago to Cuba.  These three are captured and celebrated in Engle’s poetry where their fears, joys and friendship are the foundation.

Engle writes with such power and clarity that her poems are startling.  They enthrall with their words and then end sometimes with a shove, as reality comes hurtling back.  Readers as with her characters are not allowed to daydream for long.  She has the ability through poems to create a cohesive novel yet each of her poems could be read separately and be complete.  This is an incredible achievement.  Her characters are distinct and interesting, each grappling with their own demons but living in the same place.  She writes of our commonalities and differences with a fearlessness that makes it all discussable and accessible. 

Highly recommended as are all of Engle’s novels in verse, this book sings with history, truth and wonder.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.