Thursday, May 21, 2009

World War II: Four Novels, Four Perspectives

I read these books one after the other, by chance. I am always picking out the award winners, and all of these novels are Caudill Award Nominees, or Newbery Honor books. Two happen to be about girls, and two about boys. Each takes place in a different city. Only two of the four are about Jews. One even takes place in the Asian theater. Each of these novels is exceptionally written historical fiction. Together, I think these novels offer a prismatic view of the war that impacted the whole world.

First, Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf is set in Czechoslovakia. Eleven year old Milada's entire town is evacuated by Nazis in the middle of the night. The men are separated from the women, and Milada, along with several other blond, blue-eyed children are separated from everyone else. Milada and the other Aryan children are sent to a German repatriation school where they are forced to learn German, join Nazi youth groups, change their names, and become German citizens. These children are eventually adopted into German military families. Someone Named Eva is chiefly about Milada's struggle to remember her identity while wearing a mask to survive. Highly Recommended. (Violence and some physical child abuse do take place. Not for younger readers.)

The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss is a fictionalized re-telling of the author's own childhood. Annie is eight years old when she and her teen-age sister begin their two years of hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland. This book illustrates how many life and death decisions were made by parents and families during this time. Annie's father wants to move to America, but her mother refuses. They spend some time in a hidden house in the woods. Shortly before they are discovered, they seek sanctuary in the homes of their Christian friends and neighbors, separated from their parents and other sister. When the one villager starts revealing the whereabouts of hidden Jews to the Nazi authorities, Christian families are murdered. It's up to Annie's host to stop the mole. Highly Recommended. (Oh yes, there's violence here too.)


Elephant Run by Roland Smith is a completely different view of the war. Nick Freestone is the son of an American mother and a British father, who runs a teak plantation in Burma. Their marriage ended when Nick was five years old and his mother left Burma for London. Now fourteen years old, Nick returns to Burma, alone, to escape the Blitzkrieg. (Teak is harvested by elephant. The elephants and their mahouts or trainers are major characters throughout the book.) The day after he arrives at the plantation, the Japanese take over. His father and his father's surviving friends are sent to a work camp, while Nick is made a servant of the Japanese officers who now reside in his father's home. The only one who can help Nick now is Hilltop, a Buddhist monk, who is respected by both the Japanese and the Burmese. Highly Recommended. (Violence, Nick is beaten with a cane several times, murders, a lovely, little romance-innocent and harmless, discussion of Buddhist vows, fine for middle school and up.)

The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Forman is the story of an interview with world-famous violinist, Paolo Levi, and a cub reporter in Venice. The reporter/narrator is given the interview assignment at the last minute, and is instructed not to ask the "Mozart Question." She is never told what that question is however, and so she fumblingly reveals her instructions before asking, "What made you pick up a violin and play that first time?" Paolo tells her his story. Paolo's father was a great barber, but before Paolo was born, his father had been a great violinist. No one will tell Paolo why his father never plays music anymore. At the age of nine, he meets a street musician and with his father's old violin, he secretly begins violin lessons. When the street musician realizes that he knew Paolo's parents, all secrets are revealed. Paolo's parents met while playing in an orchestra in a concentration camp. They played at the entrance to soothe the new arrivals on their way to the "shower rooms." Enough spoilers, this book is highly recommended, and surprisingly non-violent, at least not explicitly. With beautiful watercolor illustrations, this little book is a gem for young readers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

World War II: Four Novels, Four Perspectives

I read these books one after the other, by chance. I am always picking out the award winners, and all of these novels are Caudill Award Nominees, or Newbery Honor books. Two happen to be about girls, and two about boys. Each takes place in a different city. Only two of the four are about Jews. One even takes place in the Asian theater. Each of these novels is exceptionally written historical fiction. Together, I think these novels offer a prismatic view of the war that impacted the whole world.

First, Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf is set in Czechoslovakia. Eleven year old Milada's entire town is evacuated by Nazis in the middle of the night. The men are separated from the women, and Milada, along with several other blond, blue-eyed children are separated from everyone else. Milada and the other Aryan children are sent to a German repatriation school where they are forced to learn German, join Nazi youth groups, change their names, and become German citizens. These children are eventually adopted into German military families. Someone Named Eva is chiefly about Milada's struggle to remember her identity while wearing a mask to survive. Highly Recommended. (Violence and some physical child abuse do take place. Not for younger readers.)

The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss is a fictionalized re-telling of the author's own childhood. Annie is eight years old when she and her teen-age sister begin their two years of hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland. This book illustrates how many life and death decisions were made by parents and families during this time. Annie's father wants to move to America, but her mother refuses. They spend some time in a hidden house in the woods. Shortly before they are discovered, they seek sanctuary in the homes of their Christian friends and neighbors, separated from their parents and other sister. When the one villager starts revealing the whereabouts of hidden Jews to the Nazi authorities, Christian families are murdered. It's up to Annie's host to stop the mole. Highly Recommended. (Oh yes, there's violence here too.)


Elephant Run by Roland Smith is a completely different view of the war. Nick Freestone is the son of an American mother and a British father, who runs a teak plantation in Burma. Their marriage ended when Nick was five years old and his mother left Burma for London. Now fourteen years old, Nick returns to Burma, alone, to escape the Blitzkrieg. (Teak is harvested by elephant. The elephants and their mahouts or trainers are major characters throughout the book.) The day after he arrives at the plantation, the Japanese take over. His father and his father's surviving friends are sent to a work camp, while Nick is made a servant of the Japanese officers who now reside in his father's home. The only one who can help Nick now is Hilltop, a Buddhist monk, who is respected by both the Japanese and the Burmese. Highly Recommended. (Violence, Nick is beaten with a cane several times, murders, a lovely, little romance-innocent and harmless, discussion of Buddhist vows, fine for middle school and up.)

The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Forman is the story of an interview with world-famous violinist, Paolo Levi, and a cub reporter in Venice. The reporter/narrator is given the interview assignment at the last minute, and is instructed not to ask the "Mozart Question." She is never told what that question is however, and so she fumblingly reveals her instructions before asking, "What made you pick up a violin and play that first time?" Paolo tells her his story. Paolo's father was a great barber, but before Paolo was born, his father had been a great violinist. No one will tell Paolo why his father never plays music anymore. At the age of nine, he meets a street musician and with his father's old violin, he secretly begins violin lessons. When the street musician realizes that he knew Paolo's parents, all secrets are revealed. Paolo's parents met while playing in an orchestra in a concentration camp. They played at the entrance to soothe the new arrivals on their way to the "shower rooms." Enough spoilers, this book is highly recommended, and surprisingly non-violent, at least not explicitly. With beautiful watercolor illustrations, this little book is a gem for young readers.