Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In This Grave Hour (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #13) by Jacqueline Winspear

It’s September 3, 1939 and just as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces over the radio that England has declared war on Germany, Maisie has a strange visitor. Dr. Francesca Thomas, a former member of the WWI Belgian resistance group La Dame Blanche and who, through her association with the British Secret Service, is the person who trained Maisie in all things spy in book #13 - Journey to Munich, wants her to investigate the assassination-like death of Frederick Addens. Addens seems to be just an ordinary engineer working at St. Pancras station, but he is also a Belgian refugee who escaped to England during WWI and never returned to his homeland.

Soon after Maisie begins her investigation of Frederick Addens, more Belgian expats who arrived in England with him are also killed, executed in the exact same way as he was. But the victims just don’t seem to have anything in common with each other besides being Belgian expats.

Given that, Maisie decides to take a clandestine trip to Belgian to see if she can find any  information or answers as to why these particular people were killed. Maisie enlists the help of her old friend from the Secret Service Robbie MacFarlane, who manages to get her on a transport plane. And despite having a very small window of opportunity to investigate in Belgian, Maisie does indeed discover the information she needs to solve her case.

There is, of course, another story thread that is much more personal. Maisie’s country home, inherited from the deceased husband, has received two rather boisterous brothers evacuated from London, and one 5 year-old girl named Anna. Maisie enlists the help of her dad and stepmother for the boys, but no one seems to know where Anna came from. They only know that she was evacuated from London with the rest of the kids heading to Kent, and now she refuses to speak or let go of the small suitcase she arrived with. Finding herself getting too attached to the little girl, Maisie decides to give her assistant Billy Beale the job of finding out who Anna is and where she came from. 

In the end, both mysteries are solved. Though I found the motive for the murder of the Belgian refugees a bit thin, the rest of the novel is a really solid mystery and worth reading, especially if you are a Maisie Dobbs fan already. In mysteries, it is always the excitement of the investigation that I enjoy most, so that a rather lame motive didn’t bother me, and only occupies a small portion of the book. The thread concerning Anna was interesting, emotional and somewhat predictable, yet oddly satisfying. 

What I did like was seeing how Winspear has really done some spot on research regarding what the English home front was like during those early days of the war and her depictions are as interesting as they are authentic. The book takes place during what was called the “Phony War.” This was the first nine months after war was declared, and people were at the ready, but nothing was happening. The Blitzkrieg came later, in April 1940. That characters keep forgetting their gas masks when they go out is probably more true to life than not. Blackout curtains, cheap tea biscuits, mothers retrieving their evacuated children, and lack of petrol are just some of the things Winspear captures during this quiet period of the war, but sadly, the actual fact that people killed dachshunds and german shepherds because they are German dog breeds is also included.

I highly recommend In This Grave Hour for lovers of mysteries that are borderline cozy. I call it borderline because there are some mildly graphic depictions that may upset some sensitive readers. It took me a while to really get into the Maisie Dobbs’ mysteries, but once I started, I was hooked. Needless to say, now I am looking forward to Maisie Dobbs #14, To Die But Once, but, alas, I will have to wait until next year to read it.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Funnies #25: PSAs from Superman and Batman

I think these PSAs speak for themselves - as relevant today as when they were originally published.

PSA for World Refugee Year 1959-1960

PSA from Action Comics #141 February 1950

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story by Sandra Moore, illustrated by Kazumi Wilds

This is the story of a bonsai tree that was lovingly dug up on the island of Miyajima almost 400 years ago by a man name Itaro Yamaki, as a souvenir of the trees that had touched his heart on that beautiful, lush island.

Itaro cared for the bonsai for over fifty years, passing it on to his son Wajiro when he could not longer care for it. And so generation after generation of the Yamaki fathers and sons passed on the care and careful sculpting of Miyajima, as Itaro has originally named it.

Miyajima thrived year after year, even after the Yamakis moved to Hiroshima. But on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped that decimated the city and killed many of its citizens. The Yamakis and Miyajima both survived, and eventually Hiroshima was rebuilt as the population again began to grow.

When the United States was celebrating it bicentennial in 1976, it was decided that Miyajima would be sent as a gift from the Japanese people to the American people in the hope that they would always live together in peace. And so the resilient Miyajima became known as the tree of peace, and given a place of honor in the National Arboretum in Washington DC. 

This is an interesting fictional autobiography of a single bonsai tree. It is written in the first person from the tree’s perspective, which often doesn’t work but does here. Miyajima tells its story in simple, straightforward narrative. But it is Kazumi Wilds illustrations that really bring Miyajima’s story home. Her soft, gentle illustrations of almost 400 years of careful tending of the bonsai tree are done in a palette of bright greens, bright blues and beige against an essentially white background contrast sharply with the pages of grays and browns depicting the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and destruction it caused. I personally found these illustrations to be as effective than the accompanying text, and may generate a strong emotional response from readers, just as they did from me. It so simply yet clearly demonstrates what happened that terrible day.

The Peace Tree from Hiroshima is an excellent picture book for older readers introducing kids to this particular aspect of World War II and its aftermath. This is Moore’s debut children’s book and she has written a very poignant story with age appropriate themes of friendship, resilience, war, and peace. Moore has also included a glossary, and facts about the different kinds of bonsai, much of which I did not know before I read it.

Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back to this book. Some facts were altered for the sake of the story, and the Note explains what really happened and why. 

2017 is the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). What better time to read The Peace Tree from Hiroshima, especially now, when talk of using nuclear bombs is being threatened by some of the world’s leaders.  

If you are ever in Washington, DC, you can visit Miyajima at the National Arboretum:

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Mr. Benjamin's Suitcase of Secrets written and illustrated by Pei-Yu Chang

When I was in grad school, getting ready to write my dissertation, I read a lot of Walter Benjamin’s literary criticism, particularly what he wrote about children’s literature and toys. Benjamin was a prolific writer, cultural critic and philosopher. He was also a German Jew who had left Germany because of Hitler and Nazism, and, like so many other German intellectuals at the time, he moved to Paris. But after France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Paris’s German population knew they were at risk and it was time to leave Europe. And that’s where the story of Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets begins.

But getting out of Europe wasn’t all that easy, so Mr. Benjamin sought out the help of Mrs. Fittko. Pack light so as not to draw attention to yourself, she told the few people she was willing to lead to safety. But on the night of their escape, Mr. Bennie, as Mrs. Fittko calls him, doesn’t pack lightly, in fact, he packs a big heavy suitcase, one he could barely carry. The problem is that the suitcase would have to be carried over rough terrain and then across the mountains and it was heavy and awkward.

Couldn’t Mr. Benjamin just leave the suitcase behind? Mrs. Fittko asks again. No, he can’t, as he tells her “The contents of this case can change everything.” But just as the group arrive at the border and the possibility of safety is just ahead of them, the guards refuse the allow Mr. Benjamin over the border crossing. He returns to the hotel where he had spent the previous night, and then, Mr. Benjamin and his mysterious suitcase simply disappeared. And to this day no one knows what he had been carrying that was so important to him.

This historical fiction picture book for older readers is as unusual as it is interesting. It is based not only on what actually happened to Walter Benjamin and why he was forced to flee, but also on the mystery surrounding the fate of the suitcase and its contents, which he tells Mrs. Fittko are “more important than my life.”

I have to admit, I never thought I would see a children’s book written about Walter Benjamin yet I really like the way some things were presented. I thought the way it shows that intellectual ideas were such a threat to the Nazis that they felt it necessary to arrest those people “who had extraordinary ideas" was very effective throughout the book, as represented by the importance of the suitcase and Benjamin's need to hold on tightly to it. I also liked that the soldiers who were arresting people didn’t have swastikas on their armband, but a kind of generic mark making it relevant to any act of this type. I did enjoy the variety of people speculating about what they thought was actually in Benjamin’s mysterious suitcase, which also defects the reader from wondering what Benjamin's fate was (in fact, he committed suicide after being turned back).

The textured mixed-media illustrations are wonderful. They are both quirky and serious. Look closely at the different bits that go into making the collages on each page, they almost tell their own story. I thought the one below was really effective at conveying the fear that people must have lived with during that time

This is a book I would definitely recommend for units on WWII, or even on units about refugees. Benjamin was a refugee twice over - once fleeing Germany, once trying to flee Nazi occupied France. Pei-Yu Chang has successfully depicted a world where ideas and opposition are seen as dangerous by those in power, making this a potent and relevant story for today's readers.

You can find a detailed essay on Walter Benjamin, his suitcase, and his attempt to flee the Nazis HERE

Who exactly was Mrs. Fittko? She was a courageous Holocaust activist who helped many people escape the Nazis over the Pyrenees working with her husband and with Varian Fry. Find out more about Mrs. Fittko HERE  

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Diana's White House Garden by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by Jen Hill

When the United States entered World War II, people of all ages on the home front were urged to do whatever they could to help the war effort. Naturally, Diana Hopkins, the ten-year-old  daughter of President Roosevelt's chief adviser Harry Hopkins and White House resident, wanted to help, too. But everything she tried, just didn't work out well in the White House. 

So, when the President said that he wanted everyone to grow their own food as part of the war effort to keep both soldiers and citizens strong and healthy, that included the White House lawn. Diana jumps at the chance to help out with the President's proposed Victory Garden and before she knows it, she is sporting a pair of overalls, turning the soil, fertilizing it, and planting beans, carrots, cabbages, and tomato plants. Even Mrs. Roosevelt helps out on occasion.

With the help and guidance of Mrs. Roosevelt, George, the groundskeeper, and Fala, the President's little scotty dog whose job it was to keep the rabbits away, Diana's garden thrives. By harvest time, flouishing has a flourishing garden ready for picking and eating. 

Diana’s garden was made famous when newspapers and magazines published pictures of her working in her garden, wearing her overalls, an inspiration to kids all over the country to follow her lead: 

Diana Hopkins works in the White House Garden while her
parents look on (AP Photo and NY Times May 11, 1943)
Diana’s White House Garden is a lovely picture book work of historical fiction for young readers that shows how kids can sometimes do things that can make a big difference. Without going into the specifics of World War II, the need and desire for a Victory Garden comes across in a very age appropriate way and the real emphasis is on helping out, perseverance (especially after rabbits eat her first sprouts) and the rewards to be reaped as a result, including the feeling of accomplishment.

The simple line pencil, gouache, and digital drawings done in a palette of earth tones on a cream background reflect not just the time period, but also the idea of working in the soil. Of course, Diana’s big, red tomatoes, lovely orange carrots, and deep green cabbages might inspire any to create their own Victory Garden, even today.  

I loved the inclusion of an illustration of Diana reading Wonder Woman comics while listening to the radio. If you look closely, you will see she has been reading Wonder Woman’s first appearance in Sensation Comics and the very first comic devoted to Wonder Woman - a nice pop culture touch.

One bit of reality: President Roosevelt wasn't really very keen on a Victory Garden, it was Mrs. Roosevelt’s idea. It was only after he had seen and tasted the fruits of their labor that the President became enthusiastic. You can read all about it at City Farmer News. However, this by no means should diminish your enjoyment of Diana’s White House Garden. 

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL