Review: The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

children of the king

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Along with their mother, Cecily and Jeremy are sent from London to the English countryside during the bombings of World War II.  Seeing other children who don’t have parents or family with them, Cecily decides that her family should take in one of the young refugees.  So she picks out May, a girl who looks just the right age to be a friend but also still young enough that Cecily can be in charge.  But May won’t be contained by Cecily, and soon is out exploring the countryside on her own.  She is the one who first discovers the two boys hiding in the ruins of Snow Castle.  Cecily joins May and the two of them meet the boys who are dressed in old-fashioned clothing.  Meanwhile in the evenings, Cecily and Jeremy’s uncle Peregrine tells the story of Richard III and his nephews.  The two stories weave together, two levels of history intertwined into one gorgeous tale.

Hartnett does so much in this book without ever losing sight of the heart of the story.  Her story telling is phenomenal.  She shares details of life during the Blitz and creates a warm and rich world of safety in the country.  Within the World War II setting, she manages to have a character tell of another historical period with its own harrowing historical details.  So often in a book with a story within a story, one is better than the other.  Here they are both beautifully done and complement each other nicely.

Throughout the book, Hartnett uses imagery and beautiful prose.  Her writing is rich and dazzling, painting pictures of the countryside, the city, Heron Hall, and England for readers.  Here is how the study in Heron Hall is described for readers on page 35.  This is just part of the lush writing that sets the stage:

Underfoot were flattened rugs, and a fire karate-chopped at the throat of the chimney.  There was a good smell of cigarette smoke mixed with toast and dog; this room was a den, the lair of Heron Hall’s owner.  Here, rather than in any of the grander rooms, was there the house’s living was done.

Hartnett’s characters are done with an ear for tone.  Jeremy and Cecily have a mother who is mostly absent though she is right there all the time.  She is disengaged from their days and even when they are out in town together she is separate and withdrawn.  Cecily too is a rather unlikeable character.  And what a risk that is, to create a story primarily about a little girl who is pushy, bossy and whiny.  Yet it is Cecily who makes the book work, the character who brings the responses, the action, and keeps it from being overly sweet or convenient. 

Gorgeously written with a complex storyline and interesting characters, this is one incredible piece of historical fiction.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Candlewick Press.

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: Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff


Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff

Jayna’s older brother Rob rescued her from foster care but now he is called to duty on a destroyer during World War II.  Both brother and sister love to cook: Jayna’s specialty is soup.  The two don’t have any other family in the world, so Rob leaves Jayna with their landlady who is always lecturing Jayna about manners.  Right before he leaves, Rob tells Jayna about a recipe book he found that may have belonged to their grandmother.  It contains an address for a bakery in Brooklyn.  When Rob is listed as missing in action, Jayna decides to travel to Brooklyn to discover if her grandmother still has a bakery there.  She takes her pet turtle with her and also a ghost who has been helping lead her in the right direction.  But what will she find when she gets to Brooklyn?

Giff has created a very pleasant mix of historical fiction and ghost story in this novel.  At the center is a young girl and her wish for a family, which propels the action in the story.  I appreciated that while the ending is satisfying it is not the perfect vision that young Jayna had been searching for.  Some may say though that it’s even better.  The ghost is not frightening at all, instead she borrows nail polish and even clothing.  She offers opinions on what is happening, most of which are helpful and get Jayna to make decisions more quickly.

It is the historical piece that is very special here.  I appreciated a young girl who could not just cook but excelled at it.  The food shortage is vital to the story as is the war itself.  Later in the book, readers also get to hear about the first World War and its impact.  This is a book about the homefront, made more dynamic by one untidy little ghost.

A treat for readers, this book should be embraced by teachers looking for fiction about World War II.  The setting is strong, the characters memorable and the food enticing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

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.

Review: Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle

take what you can carry

Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle

This graphic novel explores connections between generations and across races, in an innovative way.  It is the story of two teenage boys.  One is a Japanese American who is sent to the internment camps during World War II.  His part of the story shows the displacement of his family, the loss of their rights, and the realities of the camps.  In alternating chapters, we also get the modern story of a teenage boy who moves to a new community and gets in with the wrong group of boys.  Soon he is robbing stores and eventually ends up in real trouble.  The man whose store he robs was the Japanese teen, who also resorted to stealing in the camps. 

At first, readers are not sure how the two stories will ever come together into one, or if they ever will.  They seem so remote and separate from one another.  Then when they do, there is a great satisfaction is realizing why the modern boy is given a chance to remedy what he has done.  It is a story that deals with two very personal stories, but that also has a more universal message about displacement, theft and redemption.  Both of the teen boys find ways to make things right in their lives, to accept their conditions, to rise above. 

Pyle’s two stories are shown in different color palettes as you can see from the cover.  The sepia tones work well for the historical story, also emphasizing the wasteland of the internment camps.  The blues of the modern story give it a cool feeling that suits a story where a boy is not making the right choices and where his world is devoid of warmth. 

This intriguing graphic novel is a compelling read that will show young readers not only about history but also about themselves and their own choices.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.

Review: I Will Come Back for You by Marisabina Russo

i will come back for you

I Will Come Back for You: A Family Hiding During World War II by Marisabina Russo

Based on real life stories from the author’s family, this is a story of survival during the years of the Holocaust.  A little girl tells the story of her family in Italy during World War II.  The book shows the transition from seeing soldiers around to the growing restrictions and imprisonment of Jewish families.  The story starts in Rome where the family has been living, but then their father is sent away into the mountains with the other Jewish men.  The family would travel into the mountains to see her father on the weekends.  Even this did not last long, because soon there was talk of concentration camps coming, so her father ran away to hide.  The Nazis then tried to take her mother, but through a series of skillful tricks, she was able to prevent being sent to a concentration camp.  This book takes a very challenging time in history and makes it accessible and understandable for children.

Russo successfully uses the lens of a small girl to explain the situations during World War II for Jewish people.   Focusing on the breaking apart of families rather than the atrocities of the Nazis, makes this book powerful on a different level.  The horrors of the Holocaust are evident in the story, but do not take center stage.  It is very skillfully written and conceived.

Russo’s art has a gentle simplicity to it.  The paintings have a flatness that works well and the images are clearly set in the past.  The story is compelling and fascinating, yet is definitely suitable for younger readers.

This picture book speaks to the horrors of World War II in a way that children can understand.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.

Review: The House Baba Built by Ed Young

house baba built

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young

Illustrator Ed Young grew up in Shanghai during World War II.  His father managed to get them a house that was safe because he built it himself.  He made a deal with the landowner that he would build a house and after 20 years, the landowner would get it free and clear.  But in those 20 years, Ed Young’s family lived there.  It was a huge home with a swimming pool, space to roller skate on the roof, staircases to slide down, and lots of other places to play.  This is the story of growing up in that house with the war raging around them, but also feeling very safe as a family because of the house.  It is the story of welcoming people beyond their family to stay with them, giving refuge and forming a larger family unit.  It is the story of years of playfulness and joy together despite the outside forces because his father thought brilliantly and quickly.

It will come as no surprise to those who know Young’s work that this is a beautifully designed book.  Young weaves together paper cutting, sketches, painting and photographs into a dreamlike world of his childhood where some things stand out crystal clear and others are fogged by time.  It is like looking into someone else’s memories along with them.  They are beautiful and mesmerizing.

This book may have trouble finding an audience.  While the illustrations are gorgeous, the story is told in vignettes rather than one large story.  This technique will resonate more with slightly older readers than usual picture book preschoolers.  On the other hand, teachers looking for a book to inspire telling a biography in more than words will delight in this book.  It will share aloud well and the illustrations will invite readers into Young’s world.

A book for older elementary school readers who may take some encouragement to pick it up.  Once they do, they will be transported to Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s.  Pair this with Drawing from Memory by Allen Say for two artist’s childhoods in Asia.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from ARC received from Little, Brown.

Book Review: Running with the Horses by Alison Lester


Running with the Horses by Alison Lester

Follow the harrowing rescue of the Lipizzaner horses during World War II in this picture book.  The book is nonfiction woven with fiction, seen through the eyes of a fictional character, Nina, the daughter of the stablemaster at the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  As the war came closer to Vienna, Nina’s school was closed and people were fleeing the city.  To save the last four stallions, Nina would have to ride over the Alps with her father.  But she could not leave her favorite old cab horse, Zelda, behind in the deserted city.  So Nina rode Zelda, following her father and the horses, not knowing the dangers that she and Zelda would face together as they crossed the Alps to safety.

Lester has created a picture book that successfully marries fiction with history, giving young readers a glimpse of the dangers of the War as well as the bravery that it created.  Nina is a ten-year-old whose care for her horse and courage during the adventure will inspire.  The book does have more text than many picture books, making it more appropriate for a slightly older audience, one which is more likely to understand the historical aspect of the book better as well.

The illustrations are a very attractive mix of photographs and pencil drawings.  The characters are shown in black and white throughout, contrasted with the colored backgrounds.  This creates a unique look that has the people in clear relief from their surroundings.

A look at a moment in history that has the appeal of horses and a young heroine as well.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from NorthSouth.

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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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