A lot of you may not remember the fall of the Soviet Union. I expect that Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev is turning in his grave with what Vladimir Putin has done to his country. So much for freedom and openness. But before that, the Soviet Union was not a nice place to live and part of Germany was under the Soviet Union’s control. Talk about repression, they wrote the book on it. This first book addresses how desperate people were to leave for a more just world. The second is also talking about repression but in a more oblique way.
Beyond the Blue Border
Translated by Elizabeth Lauffer
A fascinating tale of two teens escaping East Germany during the waning days of the Soviet Union. But they don’t just escape by sneaking through a break in the wall that still exists between the two parts of Berlin. No, they decide to swim across part of the Baltic Sea. Even in late August the water temperature is very cold, especially the closer the swimmer gets to more northern countries such as Denmark. The story is told by Hanna Klein who is very athletic and has trained as a swimmer most of her young life. Her swimming partner, Andreas, is not trained but is driven to escape his dismal life with an abusive father and no career options than factory work. Part of the reason the two are fated to bad career choices is due to Hanna’s anti-Communism grandfather who posts a petition for people to sign protesting the East German communist leaders. He signs Hanna and Andreas’ names to the poster as the supposed authors. No more school for them, but Hanna is able to continue with her swimming coach though not on the elite swim team. Ulrich, the coach, figures out why the girl is practicing so much and helps her meet her goal. The story switches between the two main characters’ time in the sea and their time when they were in school and met a new student, Jens, who ends up getting out legitimately with his parents. The end of this book is a bit confusing, but the story is so compelling and horrifying the reader will want to finish and remember the book. There is much for teachers to use for classroom discussion in the book, but a larger map at the front would have helped immensely.
An intriguing fantasy story with lots of thinly veiled messages on religion and loyalty, this story could use a big edit to weed out all the extra verbiage. The book is just shy of five hundred pages long and has a group of main characters who are trying to free an abrasive god who wants to world to behave his way or die. He has been captured and imprisoned in the soul of Beru who fits a losing battle to contain him. Her sister is the “Pale Hand” and has the thankless job of murdering people who go against the leaders’ wishes. And then there’s the deposed prince who should be ordained king of one part of the world, plus a host of other main characters with varying roles to gain control of the world. The story is a good yarn and interesting with lots of philosophical issues to discuss with students. Just remember to allot a number of hours to the project. The fly sheets have a map of the characters world to some extent, but could have been a bit more detailed. This appears to be the final story of a series called the “Age of Darkness,” but also works well as a stand-alone novel.
BIBLIO: 2021, Henry Holt and Company/MacMillan Publishing Company, Ages 14+, $19.99.
I’m not very good at posting reviews of the books I’ve read, but I’ve enjoyed this series. It’s imaginative and painlessly introduces English history to young, and not-so-young, readers. Plus, there is always a bit of a mystery involved and sibling rivalry. The secret lake is reached by going through a time tunnel that only reveals itself when the moles dance. In this book, the 1920s protagonists must reach the children from the 21 first century to find antibiotics to save a life. Plus, they must keep a friend and his dad from going on the Titanic traveling steerage. The author’s description of the clothes from the two eras and other changes to the culture also make the tale interesting. The children are believable and have the same kinds of problems that all people face. The author’s descriptive writing pulls the reader completely into the story. I’m looking forward to reading the 3rd book in the series due out in the near future. You won’t even need to go through the time tunnel to get it.
For Mother’s Day our daughter Michelle gave me three books she thought I might like. Oddly enough, I’d read the first one already for the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. It addresses the issue of bullying amongst children. My impression is that children, even those who are popular and successful, are plagued with self-doubt as much as the less popular children, so, some of them are bullies just to not be caught out as being less than they seem to be.
The second book is about an old woman talking about her experiences during WWII as she, her brother. and their mother escape the town of Dresden, Germany. In addition to their journey to safer territory, it also about their journey with an elephant their mother rescued from the Dresden Zoo. The bullies in this story are the Nazis who wrote the book on how to be evil.
The last book is an autobiography of the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of education for all people. Again, why do men seem to feel so threatened by females that anybody who isn’t male should be kept down. It isn’t just Muslims who make their women second class creatures. It wasn’t so very long ago that even females in the United States weren’t treated as equals.
But amongst all the cruelty we find hope, courage, and love. May it prevail
Holding Up the Universe
This is a well-written story of two damaged teenagers. Libby Strout ate so much after her mother died, she had to be lifted out of her house through the roof by a crane, which, of course, destroys the house. After several years of therapy and homeschooling, she tells her father she’s ready to go back to school at the start of her junior year. She girds herself for the torment she knows will come. Of course, the “in crowd” boys start a game of who can ride the fat girl longest with Libby and Iris Engelbrecht, a girl even fatter than Libby, as the targets. Iris ends up as the first target, but when she tells Libby what happened, Libby chases the culprit, who is only saved by a truck going by. Jack Masselin, the perpetrator’s friend watches the whole performance, cheering for the girls the whole time. Jack has a secret he doesn’t share with anyone. A glitch in his brain denies him the ability to recognize faces. He can’t even pick out his parents or siblings in a crowd or at home without recognizing one of their “tells.” At school, he plays it cool and waits for someone to come to him. Then he uses that person to let him know who others are. But after he and Libby get into a fight and have to serve detention together, their relationship changes. Jack learns that it’s what on inside of another person that really counts. Soon, they begin to see past their surfaces and become friends. Jack and Libby begin to hang out together, sharing secrets. After he tells her his secret about not recognizing anyone else, she encourages Jack to seek help. She even goes with him to give him moral support and he encourages her to take the test that will see if she carries her mother’s cancer gene. Because he hasn’t ever told anyone about his problem, his parents put him in embarrassing situations, like having to pick up his youngest brother from a birthday party. His brother doesn’t want to leave the party, so he doesn’t respond when Jack calls for him to leave. Jack pulls the wrong kid out of the party, which scares the boy, horrifies the birthday boy’s mother, and leaves Jack in a heap of trouble. You’ll end up rooting for both Jack and Libby, but wishing they would solve the problems whose answers are right in front of their noses. There’s a lot going on in this book that will engage the reader and teachers will have a field day orchestrating discussions around the issues.
BIBLIO: 2016, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books/Penguin Random House, LLC, Ages 14 +, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult
There have been a plethora of books about the horrors of WWII and especially the Nazi’s part in the conflict, but this one will definitely grab your heart and soul, especially if you are an animal lover.
An Elephant in the Garden
The book is based on a true story and is very compelling. It is told by the nurse who is taking care of an aged woman, Lizzie, in Canada, but it also told mostly in dialog by Lizzie about her journey from her home in the beautiful town of Dresden, Germany. For most of Hitler’s war Dresden remained unscathed and the German residents went about their lives. When the Allied forces were advancing on Germany, Dresden came under attack and was pretty much destroyed by bombs. The storyteller’s mother was a caregiver at the zoo and witnessed the birth of an elephant. Unfortunately, the elephant’s mother dies leaving her child to grieve. When it becomes apparent that Dresden is due to be destroyed by bombs, the storyteller’s mother get permission to save the young elephant by taking her away from the zoo and keeping her in the family’s garden, hence the title. When the bombing starts, the family is taking the elephant they’ve named Marlene after Marlene Dietrich for a walk in the neighboring park. Marlene panics when the bombs start to drop and runs away with Lizzie’s family hot in pursuit. They end up caught up in the massive exodus from the city and head toward Lizzie’s aunt’s farm. The rest of the story is about their journey to safety in Switzerland. Lizzie meets her future husband along the way who is Canadian. Again, although there is much hope in the story, it is set against the hideous cruelty and bigotry that was Hitler’s way of cowing his fellow Germans, though he was actually Austrian. This book will most decidedly keep you reading and even move you to tears in parts.
I have never understood why men are so frequently terrified of letting women have equal rights. I remember a very bright female high school classmate who wanted to go to college back in 1959, but her father refused because it would be a waste of money given that she would end up getting married and raising a family. The rest of us were appalled and I believe in the end her father relented. Whether or not she finished college or had a career I don’t know, but the same point was not made for the guys. I also had a friend who left school when she graduated from Junior High School so she could get married and have a family. I don’t know what happened to her either. She was very happy to leave school and become a housewife. But many of the Muslim men in our world are so frightened of their females’ potential they refuse to let them even learn to read and write. I remember trying to teach a Yemeni woman with five children how to speak and read English. Because she’d observed men in Yemen reading from right to left, she started out trying to read English that way. Her husband was encouraging for the most part but was adamantly against her going to a gym because she’d not be able to exercise in her full proper burqa. Why are men so frightened that all other men are out to rape their wives? Why do they feel it’s the women’s fault if these men can’t control their urges? It wasn’t that long ago that American women were the inciters when they’d got raped. The teller of this story made headlines with her bold advocacy for female rights not only in her native Pakistan but then all around the world. I’m not a big fan of non-fiction, but this book will keep your interest throughout.
Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
This young woman, with the help of her father and the support of her country, is trying to change the world for females and, at her tender age, has already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She has also been almost killed by Pakistani Taliban members because they think she’s defying Allah’s will by standing up for her right to an education. The book is told in her voice and because she is, indeed, the author is autobiographical. But since English is not her native language another person’s name appears alongside Ms. Yousafzai’s as the supporting author. The story is horrifying for what is happening around the world, particularly to Muslim females under Taliban or other Sharia religious groups who have found what they think is “God’s Rule.” But I guess no one has asked them why any god would make females capable of rational, intelligent thought and then declare they can’t use such abilities. Malala grew up in a small poor area of Pakistan where all children at least were allowed a primary school education, after which a lot of girls were married off at the tender age of eleven. Malala’s father runs a school where girls are encouraged to finish high school. That is until the Taliban take over. But even before then, girls are expected to wear figure-hiding clothing and cover their hair as is common in many Muslim countries. But even after the Taliban take over, Malala’s father keeps his girls’ school open though fewer older girls come anymore. And, at the age of 12 or 13, when Malala and her friends are riding home on the school bus, a Taliban fighter jumps on the back bumper and shoots Malala in the head, also wounding two other girls. Luck was with Malala on that day and she ends up being saved by doctors from Birmingham, England. Her recovery was paid for by the Pakistani government which didn’t support the Taliban’s efforts. Brave girl that she is, Malala still is fighting for females’ equal rights around the world and still going to school. And her mother is now learning English. May we all live by their bravery.
BIBLIO: 2014, Salazari Unlimited/Little, Brown and Company, Ages 12 +, $16.99.
I remember when my family was living in Los Angeles during World War Two, we had a black maid. Well, all our maids were black, and we always had a maid because my mother worked full time. But this particular woman was an especially good woman. She had a son who was about the same age as my oldest sibling—my brother Richard—and she would bring him to work with her sometimes. We all were horrified when she beat him with the flat side of the butcher knife because he and Richard had gotten into a fight. But she was just doing what she thought would keep him safe from being harmed by having an altercation with a white boy. My mother explained to her that it was just two boys having a childhood fight. That Richard was probably as much to blame as the maid’s son. But this was when white and black families didn’t live in the same parts of the city and certainly didn’t go to the same schools and black people were supposed to “obey” the white folk not matter what.
My mother did try to make us understand that black people were just as important as white people, but she also was a woman of her generation and had always had maids, so we all called our maids by their first names. Naomi, Geneva, Virginia, are the names I remember. Still, we were taught to respect the people who were different from us and not just black people. We were taught to respect Asians even though the Japanese Army was responsible for the deaths of my father and maternal grandfather during the war.
Anyway, what I want to do with my blog today is note the talented authors of color who are children’s books writers, a number of whom live in North Carolina.
I’m not listing them in any particular order, just when their names come into my head.
I’m starting with Kelly Starling Lyons who writes charming stories about Jada Jones, a fourth-grader who’s finding her way in the world. but Kelly also writes picture books. The illustrations are delightful and what I like about the books is that, though Jada happens to be African-American, she’s basically just like any other fourth grader. If you ever meet Kelly, you’ll have a friend for life. Check out Kelly’s stories at her website: https://kellystarlinglyons.com.
Next one who comes to mind is Carole Boston Weatherford, who writes historical fiction such as her book on the Tuskegee Airmen and biographies of people like Harriet Tubman. She currently lives in North Carolina. Her books are well written and her son’s illustrations are excellent. Carole is very engaging person and will help along other authors. Her website is: https://cbweatherford.com/books/
Then there is author/illustrator Kadir Nelsonwho writes and illustrates books such as the one of the life of Nelson Mandela. He has also illustrated books written by Spike Lee and other celebrities. I do remember being impressed with his writing in the Mandela book, but I don’t personally know much about this author. I’ve also read and enjoyed his book on Michael Jordan entitled Salt in his Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream. The more I’ve researched him, the more of his books it turns out I’ve read.https://www.kadirnelson.com
And, of course we can’t forget the beloved Nikki Grimes who writes wonderful books when she’s not tending her roses or taking walks in her southern California neighborhood. Her poetry is lyrical and lovely, and will suck you into her stories. Her website is: https://www.nikkigrimes.com
But then there are books out there by Native American writers and Asian American writers. These parts of our culture are under recognized and we should work to change that. Read their books and learn of their contributions to our so-called civilization. Though, at the moment, I’m not sure we can be called civilized.
Here are a few names I’ve run across from these authors.
A Dog Named Haku: A Holiday Story from Nepal, by Margarita Engle, Amish Karanjit, Nicole Karanjit is in part written by authors with Nepalese connections.
Nicola Yoon has a number of books out aimed at teen-aged readers. The Sun is also a Star deals with the possibility of being deported.
I’ll do more research on other writers who don’t fit the “Lily-White” category and post them next time. But do let me know if you’ve come across someone you’d like mentioned.
I’m ending with a nod to my friend Kathleen Burkinshaw who wrote The Last Cherry Blossom which tells the story of her mother surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Kathleen bears the legacy of what atomic poisoning can do to one body. Kathleen just got back from speaking at the United Nations about her book. She’s another North Carolina writer. kathleenburkinshaw.com
I know most writers are sympathetic souls who believe in all of us, but let’s all try to be at least a little bit kinder. Let’s try to walk in the shoes of those of us less fortunate. I, for instance, have lived a shelter life, never having had to go hungry or have people hold me in distain because of the color of my skin. Though as a woman growing up and now old from the 1940s on, I’ve had my share of gender discrimination, at least I wasn’t denied advancement because of the color of my skin or the slant of my eyes.
Stay well and happy and pray for better times. I’d love to know what books written by authors of color you’ve read.
My usual way of writing a book is to think out the blot in my head and then write it down, editing as I go. That way I have the skeleton of the story already to roll. Then as I write down what I’m thinking I go back and catch as many errors as I can.
That’s how I wrote my first two novels, Terror’s Identity and Emily’s Ride to Courage. The process took several years each, but I had pretty clean copy to send to the publisher. Keep in mind that nobody’s perfect and errors do slip in.
As I was writing those books, I had my critique partners look at each chapter and give me ways to improve the story. Since my husband and I moved half way through the writing time, I not only had my Maryland critique group help me, but then my North Carolina group weighed in. Thanks to them all.
Also, while I was writing the stories, I did the research to make sure the stories rang true. What? You didn’t realize that fiction authors have to do research? With my first published novel, Terror’s Identity, I had the main character move from very-high-scale Lake Forest, Illinois, to not-even-close-to-high-scale Dundalk, Maryland, because I follow the old adage of get your main character into trouble and then make the trouble worse. I also had to research whether the U.S. Secret Service had anything to do with investigating terrorists groups in our country. Fortunately, one of my neighbors worked in the Secret Service and was very helpful.
For Emily’s Ride to Courage I had to research more than I already knew about horses; easier, in a way, because we were living on our horse farm and I have studied about horse almost my whole life. Still, I had to make sure I had the medical parts correct. (Thank goodness for a friendly vet.) I also had to research American medical services being provided by Army personnel in Afghanistan where Emily’s mother goes missing.
Now on to how I wrote my third novel, Earthquakes. In November of 2018 I decided to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November as part of that year’s NaNoWriMo contest. Not something a manic person should ever do. Especially someone like me who likes to edit as she goes. But I put my editing aside and plowed ahead, writing 50,235 words by November 26th. (Good thing my handsome devil knows how to cook and is very supportive of my writing endeavors.)
Then I took a couple of days to bask in the glow of having accomplished my goal and to get my heart rate down to normal. Plus getting some much-needed sleep.
The next challenge was to see how much of the story made sense, where I needed to do research. Since the story takes place in 1942 Hollywood, CA, and though I was indeed alive and living there, I was only a bit older than one year. The people in my birth family couldn’t be of much help, being either dead or extremely forgetful, I had to go to history books and the internet. I also unearthed the family photo albums.
Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think. Sarah
Then my critique groups and said Handsome Devil, told me what was working and what wasn’t. When it was done and people had given feedback, I sent the manuscript off to my favorite editor, Teresa Crumpton of AuthorSpark. She’s never steered me wrong and is a font of advice and information.
Fast forward to October 2019 and I sent the manuscript to a small indie publishing house that promptly turned me down. In part, they turned me down because I hadn’t edited the book as carefully as I should have. Though they kindly said it was too intense for their house.
Then I sent it to Jera Publishing and they expertly formatted the story for publication and designed a dynamite cover. But the editor there has the patience of Job, since she has cheerfully made the changes I found each time I looked at the manuscript and hasn’t charged me a dime more. Even when the manuscript was sent to IngramSpark for printing, I found more errors. Now I think I’ve caught them all and the book will be a physical presence in hard copy and eBook formats on January 30th. But I will never write a book that way again. It’s best for me to plod along correcting as I go, so I’ll go back to plodding and keep the manic part at rest.
Writing the perfect opening is
hard work. I’m reading a spy novel at moment because that’s the only way to
learn a genre. I’m not a big fan of the author’s style of writing, but this is
not the first book I’ve read that uses this format.
The book is Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich (2009,
Doubleday/Random House, ISBN 978-0-385-52407-0) and is the second in a series
about a doctor named Jonathon Ransom, who actually isn’t spy, but his wife is.
Anyway, the opening scene is a news announcement on Reuters news service
of a car bomb explosion, then the action centers on Jonathon Ransom for a
couple of pages.
And then the reader goes to Chapter 1, which describes in great detail
an exclusive apartment building in a ritzy part of London, where the reader follows
the intrigue of an intruder into one of the apartments. The owner of the
apartment is murdered by intruder and then the detective who investigates what
is considered a routine suicide determines is actually a murder.
Then we jump back to Jonathon and along the way get a detailed
description of the workings of a ultra-secret spy organization in the U.S. In
my view, there are a great many details that could have been left out, making
this a much tighter and compelling read.
But I’ll continue to read so that I can understand what sells in this genre
and how not to fall victim to this style of writing.
In the meantime, I have to figure out what’s going to work for my young adult
spy/murder/romance historical fiction book set in 1942. At the moment, the
title is EARTHQUAKES because it’s set in Los Angeles and my Jonathon has nightmares
about the devastation an earthquake can cause. But also because of the
metaphorical earthquakes Jonathon is experiencing in his young life.
The family has just learned their maternal grandfather died on Corregidor, Philippines and their father is now missing. Both men are Marine Corps officers and Naval Academy graduates. There’s one earthquake.
Earthquake number 2 is finding their next-door neighbor stabbed to death
in his house. Plus, people keep breaking into Jonathon’s house to find some secret
I’ve tried several openings, such
as having Jonathon wake up one morning from yet another earthquake nightmare
and have to rush to get ready for school. First, though, he’s feel pressure to
calm down the daily fight between his older brother and their mother about why
he should or should not quit college to enlist in the military to save America
from the invaders.
My editor says that publishers reject stories that start with dreams or
with the protagonist waking up.
Also, I shouldn’t start with the first word being a sound. In this case “whump,”
because his brother is pounding on the kitchen table below Jonathon’s bedroom.
One of my critique group women wants me to have a real earthquake
described in the first page or two, but that’s not what I want. I want to focus
on the metaphorical aspect.
At the moment I’m stuck, but I’ll keep mulling it over in my head and it
will come to me. In the meantime, I’ll working on making the rest of the novel
perfect. Or as close as possible.
I think the first paragraphs in my other two novels are good and
compelling set ups. Terror’s Identity starts out with:
sixteen, guys are supposed to tough, right? But when Mom
pounds of the
stairs to our bedrooms shouting, “Aidan! Maya! This is it! We’re leaving…now,”
tough is not what I feel.
My second novel, a middle-grade horse book, Emily’s Ride to Courage, starts out with:
Usually, the sweet scent of just-mowed grass and the
of a tractor cutting a hay field perks me right
Not this time. This time I only feel dread.
I hope those make you want to read
further. Thanks for reading. And, as usual, I’d love to hear from you. Sarah