A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781481446648)
Award-winning author Kadohata tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to return to Japan after World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. After spending years in an internment camp in the United States, twelve-year-old Hanako and her family move to Japan to live with her paternal grandparents. They travel by ship first and then train until they reach the decimated city of Hiroshima, where her grandparents’ farm lies outside. All of Japan is poor and hungry, with black markets and children begging on the streets. Hanako meets her grandparents for the first time, discovering that her grandfather is very like her little brother who is five years old. Her grandmother is stooped over from the hard work in the fields. Hanako must face learning a new language, attending a new school in a different country, and trying to find a way forward for her entire family. It’s a lot of pressure, but Hanako learns steadily to adjust and change.
Kadohata’s novel for children tells the untold story of Japanese Americans forced to repatriate to their country of origin and renounce their American citizenship. It also gives an unflinching look at the aftermath of World War II in Japan, particularly with its setting near Hiroshima. That dark setting is juxtaposed against the warmth and beauty of discovering loving grandparents and building a new relationship. Yet there is a constant sense of loss in the book and a teetering feeling that things may suddenly change at any moment.
As always, Kadohata’s prose is beautiful. She vividly depicts Japanese life during the 1940’s and the unending work of being a tenant farmer. In the midst of all of the sorrow, loss and confusion, she places a loving family who are willing to sacrifice for one another and for brighter futures for the next generation. Through this family, there is intense hope broadcast on the page.
An important and vital book about the horrors of war and its aftermath on individual families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (9781536201734)
Released September 4, 2018.
A little girl explains what happened to her when war came to her city. She started the day with breakfast, kisses, and flowers on the windowsill. Then war came while she was at school. Her town was turned to rubble and she fled with others. She lost her entire family and her home in one moment of war. She made the dangerous journey to another country alone, arriving on a sandy shore. Even in the new country though, she was not accepted. War was there too in the way the people looked at her and made her unwelcome. When she tried to go to school, she was told there wasn’t a chair available for her. It is not until the children of the community come together with chairs in hand to make her welcome that war finally begins to recede.
There are very few picture books that can make me truly weep. This was one of those. The poem by Davies is powerful and starkly honest. She has taken inspiration from several true events and turned it into a tale of the loss and continued rejection that refugees feel even after making it to safer countries. The power of children to make the world welcoming to those who have fled their countries is empowering and refreshing to see on the page.
The illustrations from Cobb take readers on a journey from the brightness of the little girl’s family life before war came to the devastation and darkness of being a refugee. The brightness does not return until the girl sees a classroom again, only to be pushed away and back to the darkness she lives in. This is a tangible look at the impact of war and the transformative power of community.
Have some tissues ready when you read this one for the first time. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9780525429203)
This is a marvelous sequel to the award-winning The War That Saved My Life. Ada has just gotten her club foot surgically repaired in the beginning of this new novel. Due to their home being destroyed, Ada and her brother along with Susan, their guardian, must move into a small cottage on the land owned by Lady and Lord Thornton. As World War II continues, they face food shortages, hard work, and then are asked to house a German refugee while Susan teaches her math. Though her foot is fixed, Ada continues to wrestle with her disability and how it factored in to her mother’s abuse. Once again horses are on the scene to help with healing, both physical and mental, as unlikely friendships and bonds are formed in a small cottage.
Bradley writes books that don’t just draw you in, they captivate you. It was so wonderful to return to Ada’s story and find out what happens to beloved characters. In this sequel, more is shown of the stern Lady Thornton and Bradley demonstrates that with more knowledge comes more understanding. Ada continues to be a dynamic character, never easy with life or her own role in it. And yet as Ada is prickly and abrupt, she is also warm and inquisitive, looking for answers and asking questions.
Bradley wrestles with dark themes in both of the novels in this series. There is the physical and mental abuse that Ada suffered at the hands of her mother. There is the ongoing war that threatens everyone’s safety. There is the loss of beloved characters due to that war. Still, she also shines hope. Hope for progress forward, for learning more, for accepting differences and for building friendships. The tension between all of this is remarkably well-handled and creates a book that is riveting to read.
A sequel that is just as good as the first, get this into the hands of fans. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (9781561459438, Amazon)
Drasko sells flowers with his father in the marketplace in Sarajevo. They sell the best roses in the entire city. But when war came, Drasko’s father leaves to fight and Drasko is alone selling flowers. He is pushed out of their usual spot to one at the edge of the market. The only good thing is that he can now hear the symphony playing. Suddenly, the market is hit by a mortar and 22 people are killed. Drasko returns to the market the next day, but all is silent and empty. Then a man with a cello enters the square and sits down to play. For 22 days, he plays, once for each person who died. Around him, the market returns and Drasko works to find a way that he too can be courageous each day.
Based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who played, this picture book focuses on the impact of the bombing and the bravery of the cellist on one boy. Readers will realize that Drasko is brave from his approach to his father leaving and his returning day after day to sell flowers. The power of the music and the musician though brings that bravery into the light and shows how it’s important to be visibly brave for others too.
The illustrations by Caldwell are layered and misleadingly simple. They show Drasko’s loneliness but also his discovery of a community around him that will support him. The illustrations have inset pieces with frames that shatter with the mortar shell and then return to being whole as the story progresses.
A look at war and acts of bravery and art. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (9780892393756, Amazon)
This picture book in both Spanish and English verse tells the story of José Martí. Martí spent his entire life working to end slavery in Cuba after witnessing the brutality first hand. At the time, Spain ruled Cuba and a war of independence started in 1868. Martí wrote against the Spanish government and was jailed and put to hard labor. At 17-years-old he was sent away from Cuba. He continued to fight for Cuba’s independence and settled in New York. He would travel into the Catskill Mountains to see the nature that he missed from Cuba. Martí eventually returned to Cuba and helped fight in the battles against the Spanish, dying on the battlefield before freedom was realized. His words live on: it was his words and songs that helped drive the Cubans to fight for freedom and to continue fighting.
The verse contains excerpts from Martí’s works, allowing readers to read his words directly. The verse from the author and from Martí work beautifully together, flowing into one river of words that tell the story of Cuban freedom. The afterword and author’s notes add information to the verse, giving more dates and information on the war for freedom in Cuba and on Martí’s life. This picture book biography takes a complex subject and makes it accessible for young readers, demonstrating how a young-person’s passion can ignite a nation.
The illustrations move from Cuba to New York to the Catskills, capturing scenes of daily life, lush greenery, and battles. There is a sense of energy to all of the illustrations, that matches that of the verse as it speaks to the drive that Martí had to speak out for Cuba’s independence.
A great picture book biography that adroitly pairs English and Spanish on the page. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin
In a gritty city filled with dust and yellow wind, a girl survives by stealing from other poor people. Her life was just as dust filled and ugly as the city around her. Then one night, she saw an old frail woman with a fat bag walking along. She would be an easy mark, so the girl tried to get the bag away from her. The old woman held on tightly, but eventually asked the girl to promise to plant them and she could have the bag. The girl promised. In the bag were only acorns, nothing to eat, no money to spend, but a wealth of trees. So the girl started planting them one by one, and nothing changed for a long time. Then green sprouts started to appear, then trees grew and green returned to the broken city. But the girl had already left, going to other cities that needed a forest too. Until one night she had her fat bag of acorns with her, and a young person tried to steal it from her. All it took was another promise and she let them have the bag.
This allegory is lovely. The setting is hauntingly familiar, a war zone where all that is left behind is the dust and rubble of war and people who cannot escape the city or see a future beyond it. The transformation of the theft of property into a promise is stunning. Simple and profound, it is courage, passion and change all wrapped into a single act. I also love the moments before the trees appear, the anticipation, the question of whether it will work, the effort before the payoff. And then the fact that the girl leaves to go to other cities, makes this entire story less about her than about her deeds. It’s one intelligently written book that works so well.
Carlin’s illustrations are done in muted grays and sands, they are images that suck the color out of the day, cover you in their dust. And yet, they are also filled with hope. When that first green hits the page, it’s like you can smell it in the air. Then the transformation that is so colorful, so fresh.
This radiant allegory would be appropriate for classrooms learning about allegories or about peace. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost
In 1812 in Indian Territory, two boys forge a friendship over hunting, fishing and survival of their families. James’ family runs the trading post at Fort Wayne, living right outside the walls of the fort. Anikwa’s family, members of the Miami tribe, has lived on this land for generations. Now two armies are heading right to Fort Wayne to battle, the Americans and British will meet for a critical battle. The question becomes whose side the Miami will be on when the battle occurs. But even more deep is the question of whether the friendship between the two boys and their two families can survive this battle and the losses that it brings.
Frost has mastered the verse novel, creating a work that functions as beautiful poetry with profound depths and also as a complete novel. Frost puts a human face on history in this novel that tells the story of a major battle in the war of 1812. By the time the soldiers arrive, readers care deeply for both boys and their families. So when the destruction starts, the wounds are real and the losses far beyond numbers. The poems show readers the beauty of the landscape, the bounty of the land, and all that is possibly lost afterwards.
Frost writes from both boys’ points of view in alternating poems. So the lifestyle and losses of both families is shown from their own points of view. Anikwa’s poems are done in a poetic form that creates a pattern on the page. Frost explains in her notes at the end that this is to mimic Miami ribbon work. Without knowing this while reading, I could still see the square form of James’ poem representing the fort and the home he lived in next to the motion-filled form of Anikwa’s poems that exuded nature.
An exquisite verse novel that fills history with real people and war with real loss. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos
Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, takes on a completely different writing challenge in this autobiographical picture book. Suzy’s father is sent to fight in Vietnam when she is a little girl. He will be gone for a year, but Suzy isn’t sure exactly how long a year is. At first, her father sends lots of friendly postcards, but over time they change. He even mixes up her birthday with her sister’s something he would never have done if he was home. The the postcards stop altogether and Suzy catches a glimpse of the war on TV. She starts to forget what her father looks like and is scared of many things. Then suddenly, her father is home. But he doesn’t look the same and doesn’t act quite the same either.
This book is so timely for children dealing with deployments in their own family. Collins writes directly from her childhood persona, delving right into the fears that haunt children, the loss of control and the lack of contact. It is her writing that makes this book work, her honesty about her emotions and the frankness with which she grapples with the challenges of having a parent fighting overseas.
Proimos’ illustrations are cartoony and rough. The most successful are double-spreads that take on Suzy’s fears directly, placing them on a black landscape that is filled with tanks, animals, helicopters, and more. They emanate danger and contrast directly with the more colorful other pages.
Though the book is about Vietnam, it has a universal message for children left behind worried about a deployed parent. Timely and honest, this is a book that belongs in every public library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.