Review: Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus (9781419708978)

Based on the true story of a remote village in France that resisted the Nazi invasion in their own way, this novel is a testament to bravery in the face of seemingly unrelenting evil. The story focuses on several teens who live in Les Lauzes, France in 1943. They go to school, sleep in the local dormitories, and also help in the resistance. Some of them are Jewish, hidden in plain sight with the other teens and children. Others are from the village and know the terrain and area so well that they can be messengers. Still others spend their nights getting people safely across the border to Switzerland. Meanwhile, there is a rather inept policeman who tries to figure out what is going on. He is almost as young as the others, but focused on proving himself and defending his country. As the teens take more and more risks, they learn that resistance is a way through paralyzing fear and towards freedom.

Preus has written such an engaging tale here, with so many of the elements based on real events. In fact, the more unlikely the scenario, the more likely it is to be true. This makes reading the epilogue at the end of the book great fun as one discovers the real people behind the characters. The simple bravery of all of the villagers by taking in Jews and others, hiding them in their homes and barns, and helping them escape is profound. There is a delight in seeing where items were hidden, in realizing the power of forgery, of accompanying these characters on their travels to help people survive. 

A large part of the success here is Preus’ writing which contains a strong sense of justice and resistance in the face of the Gestapo. Even as some children are being taken away, the others gather to sing to them, standing in the face of the Nazi force directly. There is no lack of sorrow and pain though, with parents lost to concentration camps, children never having known safety, and arrests being made. Still, there is a joy here, of being able to fight back in some way against overwhelming odds.

A great historical novel with strong ties to the true story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Amulet.

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: The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro

In Nazi-occupied Denmark, Anett and her family are hiding a Jewish woman and her son in their cellar.  They must wait for a night with enough moonlight to see the boat in the harbor that will take them to safety in Sweden.  Anett works with their neighbors to get extra food to feed them and extra books from the library for them to read.  On her errands, Anett notices solders questioning her neighbors and she heads home quickly to warn her parents who in turn knock on the cellar door to alert the people they are sheltering.  Eventually, the soldiers come to Anett’s house but no one is home except Anett who manages to keep calm and turn them away.  But how will the woman and her son escape with no moon that night?  It will take an entire town to save them.

Elvgren tells a powerful story based on actual history in this picture book.  Presenting that history from the perspective of a participating child makes this book work particularly well.  The support of the town is cleverly displayed as Anett moves through town, informing people that they have “new friends” and the others offer extra food and support.  That is what makes the resolution so very satisfying, knowing that these are all people standing up to the Nazis in their own special way, including Anett herself.

Santomauro’s illustrations have a wonderful quirky quality to them.  Done with deep shadows that play against the fine lines, the book clearly shows the worry of the Danish people and also their strength as a community. 

This is a story many may not have heard before and it is definitely one worth sharing.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Kar-Ben Publishing.

Review: Hidden by Loic Dauvillier

hidden

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.

Review: Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald

odettes secrets

Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald

This true story of a young Jewish girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris is told in verse.  Odette’s father is sent to a Nazi work camp and her mother works hard to protect Odette.  As the Jews in Paris are steadily more badly treated, Odette has to wear a yellow star on her clothing and is unwelcome in many places in the city.  Even at school, Odette is bullied for being Jewish.  When their apartment is raided in the middle of the night, Odette and her mother hide in their landlady’s cupboard.  After that, Odette is sent to the country to live.  There she learns to pretend to be Christian so that she isn’t discovered.  When her mother is forced to flee Paris, the two of them move together to live in the French countryside as peasants, but Nazis and bigotry are never far behind.  Odette learns that sometimes secrets are vital to survival and just as hard to stop keeping as they are to keep.

Macdonald writes in her author’s note about the inspiration for creating a children’s book that tells the story of the real Odette.  It is interesting to learn about the transition from straight nonfiction to a verse novel.  I’m so pleased that the end result was this novel in free verse, because Macdonald writes verse with a wonderful eye to both the story she is telling and the poetry itself.  She truly creates the scenes of Paris and the French countryside in her poems, making each place special and amazing. 

Perhaps most amazing is Odette herself, a protagonist living in a brutal and complicated time, forced to lie to stay alive.  Odette has to learn to deal with the fear she lives in every day, something that no one should have to get used to.  There was the fear of slipping and telling the secrets she held but also the fear that someone could figure out they were Jewish without any slip from Odette.  Macdonald creates quite a dramatic series of events that point out that Odette was terrified for very good reason.

Beautiful verse combined with a true story of a young girl World War II France makes this a very successful book that cuts right to the heart and lays all its secrets bare.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Bloomsbury.

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

code name verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Verity has been captured by the Gestapo, who have tortured her and kept her without sleep for weeks.  Now she has agreed to tell them the truth, but as a British spy during World War II, that means putting many others in danger.  Still, it gets the torture to stop, and there are many ways to be truthful.  As Verity puts pen to paper, she tells the story of the friendship between two girls, Maddie and Queenie, who would never have met during peacetime, much less become best friends.  Maddie’s story is that of becoming a female pilot when there are very few.  It is a story of strong skills, good luck, and great mentors.  Along the way, she met Queenie, another strong girl, who spoke German, bluffed naturally, and loved fiercely.  This friendship is the heart of Verity’s story of truth, one written with details that are lingered over as if they transport her somewhere safe.  It is also the story that will keep her alive one more day, but eventually the story must end.

Wein is purely masterful here.  While I caught certain things in the story that pointed me to the right conclusions, much of it is so cat and mouse that it is a real pleasure to puzzle through.  That said, it is also a great story all on its own without the puzzle, something that is incredibly difficult to do.  Wein populates her story with so many strong women.  There are Maddie and Queenie, either of whom would have been heroine enough to carry their own book.  Yet there is the magic of having their stories told intertwined.  There are the other women who risked their lives against Hitler, women who defied by seeming to capitulate, women who fought with all their had.  It is the story of all of those women too.

Throughout the book there is an ache that will not go away.  That is the ache of Verity and her story of torture.  Every detail is rimmed with sorrow, with never seeing it again, with the knowledge that her days are so few.  This creates a fragility, a solid sadness, that is present throughout.  It is the world of war, the desperation and the death, and it lifts this book to another level that is beyond the pain.

Tremendously beautiful, achingly sad, and beyond brave, this book and these heroines are simply and utterly amazing.  This is a must-read book, one that I hope garners awards, one that will be a delight to share with others.  Oh, and I must mention that it’s a great crossover for adult readers too.  Trust me, get your hands on this one!

Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from library copy.