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.
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.
One of the things we can do while being in quarantine mode is to read. Of course, lots of us read anyway, but now we can not worry that we’re not getting other things done. We’ve cleaned our rooms and washed our clothes and made special dinners or decided what restaurant we’re going to get carry out from. We’ve also taken our solitary walks and pulled all the weeds from the garden, if that’s ever possible.
So now we can read and not feel a smidge of guilt. Here are three books that might keep the real kids in our lives occupied. That is after the grownups have read the books under the guise of deciding that’s the books are appropriate to read.
The first one I’m sharing is my least favorite of the bunch, but still has merit to it. Especially for those who dream of visiting Paris.
A variation on the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day,” this is the story of a very shy girl who is on a class trip to Paris, France. The reader might not want to finish the book after the first go-round, because main character Eve is so self-absorbed, she’s not sympathetic. She is very shy, and feels so sorry for herself that she is whiny. If the reader sticks with the story, fortunately Eve does gain confidence and does begin to notice how other people are feeling and does become less whiny. But she really isn’t an appealing character. Though the descriptions of Paris are interesting, one would hope that most readers will find it odd that the class is able to tour the Cathedral of Notre Dame since that was severally damaged in 2019 and is no longer open to tourists. The author does have a note about this at the end of the book, but some readers would probably stop reading before they got to the end. There is a bit of fun magic in the story which is what causes Eve to keep repeating the day until she gets it right and learns her lesson. Still teachers might be able to use this book to discuss French history and architecture and art.
BIBLIO: 2020, Jolly Fish Press/North Star Editions, Inc, Ages 8 to 14, $11.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle Reader/Beginning Teenager
The second one is a sequel and, in my view, is quite charming. The main character is quite spunky and the story is appealing. I’d show a picture of the cover, but just because I dd it once doesn’t mean I can do it again. Sorry.
The Oddmire Book Two: The Unready Queen
For the fantasy/folk tale/magic fans out there this is an enchanting book. Fable is the daughter and heir-apparent to the Queen of the Deep Dark. The book is an analogy for encouraging people to get over their differences and work to find their common interests. But it also about taking care of our environment and our planet. Told in third person omniscient tense, the story moves from the points of view of the queen, her daughter, some of the towns people and the Chief of the Goblins. A man has come to town to make his fortune and he doesn’t care who or what he destroys along the way. Inadvertently, he discovers a special substance that makes whoever ingests it super strong, so he, of course, wants to keep it for himself and sell it bit by bit for a fortune to those who want to feel stronger or recover from an illness or injury. In the meantime, Fable wants to get the know about town life and a village girl wants to learn about the forest. The queen is not at all thrilled with her daughter going into town and would rather Fable learn more about protecting the forest. The book is ripe for classroom discussions about the relevant issues plaguing modern society, but is also just plain fun to read.
BIBLIO: 2020, Algonquin Press/Workman Publishing, Ages 8 to 12, $16.95?
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle Reader Fantasy
Though the cover graphic might make you think of Sci-Fi, you will soon realize that you’re looking a face hidden by a WWI gas mask. This is historical fiction at its best.
Katya Pavlova is working in a munitions factory in 1917 doing her part to support her beloved Russia while her beloved father Colonel Pavlov is off fighting against the Germans during World War I and her brother is supposedly recovering from war wounds at home. The brother, Maxim, is gambling and losing all the money he has plus any he can get off of Katya. As the story progresses, Katya has to come to grips with her brother’s gambling addiction and she has to come to grips with the possibility of Russia not winning the war against Germany. Along the way, she learns about an all-woman battalion of women being taught to be soldiers. The hope is the female battalion will such courage that the many male Russian soldiers planning on deserting will be shamed into to staying in the army. In the mix of this are the beginning of the communist revolution. The story is well told and seems to be quite accurate in its depiction of life in 1917 Russia. It ought to be considered a must read for high school students studying world history. One nice touch is the front piece of each chapter telling the story of a hero that Father Pavlov is telling to Katya Pavlova when she was young. This book is a winner and will spark many class room discussions.
BIBLIO: 2020, Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Books, Ages 11 to 18, $18.99.
Please leave a comment either on her blog or mine. For today, I’m giving away an e-book copy of the book. Something to do while you’re stuck in your house “self-isolating.” As an aside, I must say it’s nice to have house chores like laundry more easily handled when your bored spouse wants to do something more active than vegetating. Thanks, Sarah