Saturday, January 19, 2019

Map of Days By Ransome Riggs

A Map of Days is the fourth novel in the Peculiars series by Ransome Riggs. The novel opens with a prologue that sees Jacob Portman who has returned home to America after a "vacation" in Wales, in the process of being escorted by his two uncles to an asylum. His parents, who are also accompanying him, believe he has lost his mind.

Fortunately for Jacob, this is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar wards, terrifying Jacob's parents and his uncles to the point that they crash the car into the garage doors. In an attempt to calm everyone, Bronwyn, used a copious amount of Mother Dust putting them into a "velvety sleep", long enough so that they likely wouldn't awaken until the following day.

This gives Jacob time to reunite with his peculiar friends whom he hasn't seen for the past six weeks.  With Miss Peregrine, are Bronwyn, Enoch, Olive,the invisible Millard, Hugh, Horace, Claire and Emma whom Jacob has a crush on,  While his parents and uncles sleep, Jacob and his friends enjoy pizza and talk. He learns they have travelled via the Panloopticon, exploring loops that were deemed safe by the ymbrynes. They travelled to many places including Mongolia and the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and they also spent time Sharon, the boatman from Devil's Acre.

While the peculiars are only interested in resting, Miss Peregrine tells them that they must learn how to navigate the world of normals and so she assigns Jacob the task of helping them. That night Jacob wonders how he will explain his situation to his parents. He has returned to his home in Englewood, a small community on Needle Key, a barrier island in Florida, hoping to finish his schooling. But Jacob's experiences in the peculiar world have changed him. Jacob wants his parents in his life but he also wants to be a part of both the normal and peculiar world.

Leaving Hugh behind to alert them when his parents and uncles wake up, Jacob takes Miss Peregrine and the peculiars to the beach. At the beach, following a discussion with Miss Peregrine, Jacob decides that he'd like to tell his parent the truth about what has happened, rather than having Miss Peregrine wipe their minds. When they get the call from Hugh, Jacob returns home and attempts to tell his parents the truth. His mother becomes hysterical and passes out while his father becomes angry. Jacob's father then tells him the story of  how his father took him on one of his trips with a mysterious man named "H" and relates how they were attacked in North Florida or Georgia. Jacob's father witnessed the attack and fled in terror, but has only partial memory of the attack as his memory was partially wiped.

Miss Peregrine attempts to help but Jacob's father is so upset that he insists that she wipe his memory completely. To help Jacob who is deeply upset at his parents' reaction, Miss Peregrine has him take some of the peculiars shopping for modern clothes. However, Jacob inadvertently drives to his late grandfather's subdivision. Determined to pay their respects to the memory of Jacob's grandfather Abe who was killed by a hollowgast, Emma and Olive insist on visiting his abandoned home. They find the home on Morningbird Lane in a state of disrepair and decide to clean the home. In the process discover a secret room beneath Abe's study that can be accessed through a metal door in the floor. Beneath is a bunker with four cots and supplies to last several weeks. Jacob also discovers a binder titled Operations which reveals that his grandfather was not only a hollowgast hunter but was rescuing peculiar children, a job normally assigned to the ymbrynes. The log book only leads to more questions. Why were the American ymbrynes not saving peculiar children? "...Was there still a group of hollow-hunters out there somewhere, fighting monsters and rescuing peculiars? If so, I wanted very much to find them. I wanted to be part of it, to use my gift to carry out my grandfather's work here in America. After all, maybe that's what he wanted!"

Jacob sets out to find the mysterious "H", leading him on a quest that not only places him and the other peculiars in grave danger but also challenges his relationship with Emma and the other peculiars.


 In A Map of Days, Ransome Riggs continues the story of Jacob Portman, hollowgast hunter extraordinaire. Now back home in Needle Key, Florida, Jacob must deal with his parents who believe he is insane, his fractured relationship with the normal world, and his future as a peculiar.

The inability of his parents to accept what he is telling them and the sudden appearance of Miss Peregrine and his peculiar friends forces Jacob to confront his parents and to have Miss Peregrine wipe their memories - a convenient plot device that Riggs employs to remove them from the story. With school set to begin in a week's time, the appearance of Miss Peregrine and his peculiar friends who are now free from their loop and able to travel anywhere they want causes Jacob to wonder how he will return to normal life. "Could I really imagine sitting through interminable classes and lunch periods and mandatory assemblies every day...."  Jacob questions what he wants for his life. "I had no interest in a normal career. In settling down with someone who didn't understand who I was, or in having kids from whom I had to keep half my life a secret, like my grandfather had." 

In addition his peculiar friends, now freed from the constraints of the loops, begin to rebel against Miss Peregrine's restrictive care. Jacob notices that "The dynamic between the kids and Miss Peregrine had shifted a bit. They seemed more like teenagers now -- real ones, beginning to chafe against her authority."  

Against this backdrop, along with the discovery that his grandfather was saving peculiar children in addition to hunting down hollowgasts, Jacob decides that he wants to carry on Abe's work. To that end he seeks out the mysterious "H" who sends him on a mission that ultimately almost gets Jacob killed and sends waves of discord through the peculiar world. However, Jacob remains undeterred in his determination to continue what he views as his mission to save peculiar children.

A Map of Days is an enjoyable fourth book in the Peculiars series with a storyline that's a bit easier to follow than the confusing third installment, The Library of Souls. Story line does become somewhat muddied near the end of the novel, when Jacob and the peculiars accompanying him are trapped by a gang of peculiars set in 1930's New York.

This novel sets the stage though, for a fifth book that will likely continue the adventures of Jacob and the "uncontacted peculiar" named Noor whom he rescues against the wishes of Miss Peregrine and with the help of "H" who dies in the attempt. There's also some unfinished business between Jacob and Emma who have grown apart in this novel. Their blossoming romance at the beginning of the novel is dampened when it becomes apparent that Emma has not come to terms with the loss of Abe and his living his life mostly without her. Emma had spent decades dreaming about life with Abe that being in his time, in his home and learning about him seemed to have placed his ghost between them.

As with the other novels in the series, the book contains old photographs representing characters Jacob meets in his adventures as well as some of the clues Jacob receives to help him  However, in A Map of Days, these photographs seem secondary to the story and almost unnecessary, although they do add an element of intrigue.

Book Details:

A Map of Days by Ransome Riggs
New York: Dutton Books     2018
480 pp.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Adrift At Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Tuan Ho

Adrift At Sea tells the story of Van Ho's older brother Tuan and his escape from communist Vietnam in 1981. Van's story was told in a later book, Too Young to Escape also authored by acclaimed Brantford author, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.

Tuan's journey begins a year after his father had escaped Vietnam with Tuan's older sister Linh. Tuan arrives home from school one day and is told by his mother that they are leaving that night but she warns him not to tell anyone.Tuan remembers his father's last words to him, "Be brave, Tuan."

Later that night Tuan along with his sisters Lan, Loan and his mother as well as his Aunt Nghia and two of her children slip out of their house and into a truck that takes them to the ocean. Their race to a waiting boat is a terrifying one, as bullets fly past them. Tuan becomes briefly separated from his mother, but they are soon all reunited, after changes to three boats. Their boat heads out to sea, with  sixty people crammed into  it. When the motor breaks down, Tuan and his mother and sisters, along with his aunt and her two daughters are adrift in a leaky boat. Unlike many others, they are the lucky ones, eventually rescued by an American aircraft carrier.


Adrift At Sea presents true story of a little boy's harrowing flight from his homeland. With the end of the Vietnam War between America and the north Vietnamese communists in 1975, the country became completely ruled by a communist government. Conditions  rapidly deteriorated both socially and economically in the years following the war. Life was so terrible that thousands of Vietnamese began fleeing their country. The only way to do this was by sea, often in small, leaky boats that made the journey even more perilous. Tuan Ho's family was in an especially precarious situation because his father had worked for the Americans as a translator.  As a result Tuan's father had fled the country a year earlier taking with him his eldest daughter.

Map of Southeast Asia showing Vietnam (pink)
To write Adrift At Sea, Skrypuch interviewed Tuan Ho, now a physiotherapist with a flourishing practice in Toronto, about his experiences as a six-year-old. To keep Tuan's story authentic, Skrypuch decided to use the picture book format and to tell the story in the voice of a young boy. The picture book format uses less text and relies more on illustrations to fill in the story details.  In this way, young children could better relate to Tuan's experiences.

Award-winning artist and illustrator Brian Deines' vibrant artwork brings to life Tuan's story. Deine's illustrations are oil paint on canvas and have an impressionistic character at times. Done in rich colours, these beautiful illustrations add depth to Skrypchuk's recounting of Tuan's escape from Vietnam. Deine's artwork captures the many emotions Tuan and his family experienced as the fled for their lives. The picture book is completed with a section at the back containing family photographs, a description of life in post-war communist Vietnam, the struggles Vietnamese refugees faced in fleeing their country and an account of Tuan's family's ordeal.

Adrift At Sea is a remarkable picture book, well crafted and a must for parents, teachers, homeschoolers and anyone interested in helping young Canadians understand the plight of refugees and their remarkable courage, determination and resilience in the struggle to be both safe and free.

Book Details:

Adrift At Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Tuan Ho
Toronto: Pajama Press Inc.                                   2016

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe

The Promise tells the true story of two sisters who keep a promise they make to their mother to always stay together.

The two sisters, Rachel and Toby lived in the town of Wyezmnik in Poland, They were Hsaidic Jews, attending a Jewish girls school in the afternoon, after going to public school
in the mornings. Their father was a Talmud scholar who earned his living by repairing cooking pots.  The two sisters were very different in personality with Toby being curious and brave, while Rachel was calm and intelligent.

The Promise tells the story of  how they managed to stay together in order to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.

Their story beings with Rachel and Toby waking up to another brutal day in Auschwitz. Toby reassures Rachel that she has the tin of shoe paste containing gold coins safely in her pocket. She remembers back to the night the Nazis came and took all the Jewish adults from their town. Their mother, hoping to help her daughters survive, gave Toby the tin containing three gold coins and made her promise that they would do whatever was necessary to stay together.

Each day they build a wall of heavy stones, only to tear it down the next day. The work is exhausting and pointless, designed to torture, weaken and kill the inmates. Anyone who cannot get out of bed to work disappears. So one day when Rachel becomes ill, Toby and the other girls in Barrack 25 do everything they can to help Rachel try to recover overnight. But Rachel is too ill to line up for work as usual. When Toby returns at the end of the day, she finds her beloved sister has been taken away. Toby cannot accept this, knowing that to abandon Rachel will mean losing her forever. She learns where her sister has been taken and realizes that now might be the time to use the gold coins safely hidden in the tin.


Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal
The Promise was written by Pnina Bat Zvi who is Rachel's daughter, and Margie Wolfe who is the daughter of Toby. The women often heard the story of their mothers' Holocaust experiences and the special promise they made, when they were growing up. The two authors, close cousins, decided to honour the memory of their mothers and the events they endured by telling their story.

To portray the events in the story, renowned illustrator Isabell Cardinal created digital collages by combining her own artwork with cutouts from Victorian era photographs. This technique lends a unique look to The Promise, with the cutouts of faces capturing the various emotions of anger, fear, sorrow, tenderness and concern. Cardinal is able to capture the pathos of the sisters' situation in a way that is real to young readers.

The Promise is a touching account of a promise kept, of loyalty, courage and perseverance during a very dark time in history. A short Epilogue at the back of the book briefly tells their story and has photographs of Toby and Rachel as well as the authors.

Book Details:

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe
Toronto: Second Story Press       2018

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

Picking up on the interest generated from the recent Wonder Woman movie that starred Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, is this novel adaptation which focuses on a younger Diana and her involvement in the world of men.

Seventeen-year-old Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons who lives on the hidden island of Themyscira, located in a "corner of the Aegean Sea, where compasses spun and instruments suddenly refused to obey." Themyscira was created by the goddesses Hera, Athena, Demeter, Hestia, Aphrodite and Artemis and gifted to Hippolyta as a place of refuge for female warriors who had fallen in battle.

Diana enters a footrace that is part of the Nemeseian Games. The goal of the race is to be the first to run across Themyscira to retrieve a red flag hung beneath the great dome in Bana-Mighdall. Diana, with the help of her best friend Maeve, has been training in-secret for this race and believes she can win it despite her being the smallest and youngest of the Amazons.

At the starting line, Diana's mother warns her "You do not enter a race to lose." Tekmessa (Tek), Hippolyta's closest advisor, drops the red silk flag to begin the race and Diana follows her plan of running through "the Cybelian Woods to the island's northern coast." Along the coast Diana spots a ship close to the island's protective boundary that hides Themyscira from the mortal world of men.  Diana tries to ignore the ship but when she hears a boom she glances to the horizon and sees the schooner on fire and sinking. Minutes later she hears a cry.

At first Diana tells herself to keep going, but her curiosity draws her to the rocky point. Impulsively she dives off the cliff and into the water, swimming past the boundary to the wreckage. Diana knows to save any human means possible exile from Themyscira. No human is allowed on Themyscira and breaking that rule even to save a human life means exile. Despite this, she pulls a young girl from the wreckage and carries her back to the island and to a cave on the cliff.  Diana gives the girl, whose name is Alia, food and tells her to wait for her return. Diana knows she must get Alia back to the mortal world as soon as possible.

Diana returns to the city , the race now over and the winner awarded the laurel. She endures some ridiculing for losing the race but her mother is supportive of her efforts. Diana attends the feast held after the race. Afterwards she meets Maeve who questions her about what happened to cause her to lose. Diana lies and tells her friend that she encountered a landslide. Suddenly Maeve collapses in pain and is burning with fever. Two other Amazons suddenly take ill and there is a major earthquake on Themyscira. Diana begins to suspect that this has come about because of Alia's presence on the island. She attempts to tell her mother what she has done but Hippolyta is to distracted by the sudden events to listen to her daughter.

Diana realizes that she must visit the Oracle to determine what to do next and she must do this before Hippolyta also consults the Oracle. She races to the Oracle's temple and there makes her offering of the arrow that killed her mother.  The Oracle accepts her gift, giving Diana three questions. She learns that to save Themyscira, she must let Alia die as her presence is poisoning the island and the island is poisoning her. Because Diana is made from mud of the island, she will not sicken. The Oracle also reveals that Alia is haptandra, or a Warbringer. She tells Diana, "Where she goes, there will be strife. With each breath, she draws us closer to Armageddon." and that Alia is descended from a line of Warbringers that includes Helen of Troy. The Oracle prophesies that "With the coming of the new moon, Alia's powers will reach their apex, and war will come." The Oracle therefore advises Diana to do nothing to help Alia, and she will die if she remains on the island.

For her final question, Diana asks the Oracle how she can save everyone, Alia, her island and her people and the world. The Oracle tells her "The Warbringer must reach the spring at Therapne before the sun sets on the first day of Hekatombaion. Where Helen rests, the Warbringer may be purified, purged of the taint of death that has stained her line from its beginning. There may her power be leashed and never passed to another." 

Diana flees the island, taking Alia with her, their destination, Therapne. It is a quest to save not only Alia but the world of mortal men from a war that will draw in her own people as well. Little does Diana realize that she will have to overcome both mortal men and the gods of war and death.


Wonder Woman: Warbringer is an exciting novel that will appeal to fans of the Avenger Movies. The opening storyline is very similar to the Wonder Woman movie. In the movie,  a U.S. pilot Steve Trevor crashes on the island and is rescued by the Amazons including Diana. She leaves the island on a quest with Trevor to stop the god Ares who is believed to be instigating World War II. In Warbringer,  a younger Diana rescues a young girl, Alia Keralis from drowning and then upon learning Alia is a Warbringer - a mortal who foments war and conflict,  goes on a quest to purify her in order to save the world of mortal men from certain war. This quest will result in Diana proving herself and becoming a true Amazon warrior, although at the end of her quest neither her mother nor other Amazons will be aware of this accomplishment.

Bardugo uses her characters to explain some of the stories which are part of Greek mythology.   For example, through the character of Diana, readers learn about Helen of Troy. One version of Helen's parentage is that Zeus and Leda were the parents of Helen but another version states that Nemesis, the goddess of retribution may also have been her mother. In the latter version, Nemesis changes herself into a goose to avoid Zeus, but he becomes a swan and mates with her, resulting in her laying an egg which results in Helen.  As the daughter of Nemesis, Helen was "born with war in her blood, first of the haptandrai..." a Warbringer, the beginning of a line of Warbringers.

Warbringer also weaves several gods and goddesses into the plot. Diana and Alia, along with Alia's brother Jason and her friends Poornima (Nim) Chaudhary and Theo Santos find themselves pursued not only by humans bent on destroying Alia (the Warbringer) but also by a several gods and goddesses. These immortals appear to take the place of Nim and Theos, threatening Diana and attempting to thwart her mission. Nim at times looks like Eris, the goddess of strife, who Diana describes as "...a battlefield god. She incites discord and thrives on the misery it creates."  She has black wings and talons, black eyes and gold smeared on her lips from the apple of discord.  At other times Diana sees  Phobos, the god of panic, instead of Theo. Phobos with his pale face, yellow pointed teeth tipped in blood and wearing a black helm, terrifies Diana but she overcomes her terror to protect her new friends. The group is also chased by Deimos, the god of terror in his chariot as he tries to run them off the mountain road in Greece.

Many readers will easily pick up on the hidden villain in the story. Initially Bardugo leads her readers to believe that the villains are those trying to kill Alia - the enemies of the corporation that Alia and Jason's parents founded. Diana, inexperienced in life and unfamiliar with the duplicity of the mortal world, does not suspect Jason. But subtle hints abound that something is not quite right about Alia's brother.

As the climax of the story approaches, Jason reveals that he has no intention of seeing his sister, Alia reach the spring at Therapne to be purified. Instead he intends to use her power as a Warbringer to wage war. Jason eventually reveals his true nature at the river when he tells Diana that "We can't stop war, ... but we can change the way wars are waged." Jason wants to unleash monsters on the world that will unite mankind in the fight against them. But Diana tells Jason that he doesn't understand what he is doing, that he will unleash "a nightmare of loss."  In an attempt to win Diana over to his world vision, Jason offers her the chance to be the warrior she has always desired, achieving glory. But she is not tempted. Alia's desire to die rather than see Jason's vision of the mortal world come to fruition, defines the courage and true strength Diana has been taught as an Amazon warrior. It is her determination to defend this noble belief  that results in her death. Almost.

Bardugo has fashioned a novel jam-packed with one exciting battle after the next, pitting Diana against both mortals and gods and culminating in a thrilling climax. The conclusion to Warbringer leaves open the possibility of a sequel. Fans of Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman will truly enjoy this well written novel that portrays Diana as a noble, selfless Amazon warrior who wishes to bring peace to the mortal world.

Book Details:

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
New York: Random House Children's Books    2017
364 pp.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Island War by Patricia Reilly Giff

Island War opens in 1941. Europe is at war with Nazi Germany while Japan is preparing to attack the United States as well as several Asian countries.

In a small town in Connecticut, Isabel (Izzy) is busy packing her suitcase to travel to an island off the coast of Alaska. However, her mother, a bird watcher, isn't keen to go despite the fact that Izzy's father had made the plans and gotten their tickets. A little over two months ago, Izzy's father was killed in a car accident. Now Izzy is keen for a change of scene, to go to the island, to watch the birds and for the snow and the wind. Her Gram convinces Izzy's mother to travel to the island that Izzy's father spent so much time on.

Fourteen-year-old Matt loves rowing out on Long Island Sound. One day Matt learns from his father that the two of them will be travelling to an island that is part of the Aleutians, an island chain off the coast of Alaska. Matt's father feels they need some time together, but Matt doesn't want to go. He's not close to his father who is always away and who always seems annoyed when he comes home.

Izzy and Matt first run into one another on the boat taking them to the island. Izzy, running around on deck, trips over Matt who is sitting against the railing. Izzy recognizes Matt as a boy from school who is a few grades ahead of her. But their interaction is not friendly.

On the island, Izzy and her mother live in a wooden cottage with three rooms. Izzy and her mother are welcomed by the women on the island. Izzy makes friends with a girl named Maria. Remembering her father's stories about a cave where he could watch kittiwakes and cormorants, Izzy asks Maria if she knows where the cave might be located. Maria tells her there are many caves on the island. Instead she's more interested in whether Izzy brought books with her. But unknown to Maria, Izzy finds reading difficult.

Izzy finds herself attending a school with only five students including Matt. Their teacher Mrs. Weio tells them about the legends associated with the island. However, outside of school the students are more interested in the threat of war coming to the islands which belong to the United States. Japan lies only a thousand miles to the southwest.

Meanwhile Matt is preoccupied with thoughts about home. An older boy, Michael shows Matt a baidarka, a single person kayak with a sea lion skin stretched across the frame. Matt's first try in the kayak is scary as he struggles to learn how to use it and overturns. However Matt soon masters the kayak, travelling along the coast and also how to right himself.

But one day Matt's father tells him he cannot go out in the kayak. Japan has bombed Hawaii and sunk half the American fleet. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Izzy and the other islanders learn that America has declared war on Japan. While Mrs. Weio believes they will all be evacuated before war comes to their island, others are not so sure.

Winter passes in to the spring of 1942. One day an unknown ship appears on the horizon. Some believe it might the American navy but after church, Izzy and others discover that Japanese soldiers have arrived on the island. The soldiers force everyone into the church while they go through the village looting and damaging the homes. Eventually Izzy and her mother along with the other residents are allowed back into their damaged homes.

The next morning Matt, his father and the other men are ordered to fish while everyone else remains in the village. Every day the men bring home fish which is divided up. The Japanese soldiers also string a wire fence around the village homes, making them prisoners.

In September, Matt figures out a way to get past the wire fence and get to his kayak hidden in a little cover. Each night he goes out to the cove and paddles his kayak. It is Maria, who is recovering from scarlet fever who clues Izzy into what Matt is doing. Watching one night, Izzy sees him and tries to follow but is caught by a guard.

Then later in the week, Matt's father reveals that he knows about Matt's nightly trips to the kayak but also that he has learned that they are to be taken to a prison camp on the Japanese mainland either that night or in the morning. Matt's father wants him to leave tonight for his kayak and that he will meet him later on with a two man kayak that he has hidden in the back of the shed. He also tells Matt that he really does love him and that he is proud of his resourcefulness.

However things do not go as planned. Matt leaves for the hidden kayak as planned but Izzy also manages to get out of the camp. On Thor Hill she sees a line of people boarding a ship, one of whom looks like Matt's father. Izzy loses her glasses but makes it back to the village only to discover that her mother and everyone else in the village have left. Her mother's note tells her she has been taken to Japan. Matt too discovers the villagers gone. Each at first believe they are alone until they discover they are the only ones left on the island and must work together if they are to survive the coming winter.


Reilly Giff uses an unnamed Aleutian island as the setting for a remarkable survival story set during World War II. Her A Note at the back of her novel, Reilly Giff indicates that her "story is loosely based on the island of Attu, the farthest west in the chain of the Aleutian Islands..." The Aleutians are an island chain stretching some 1900 km into the Pacific Ocean, partly belonging to the United States with some islands also part of Russia.  War came to the Aleuts on June 3, 1942 when two islands, Attu and Kiska were occupied by Japanese troops. They were considered strategically important by both the United States and Japan in the war as they would allow either country a route of attack on enemy territory. The Americans did offer to evacuate the residents of Attu prior to the Japanese invasion, but they refused. They were eventually deported to the a prison camp in Japan.

The occupation of an unknown Aleutian island becomes the backdrop for a story about survival and  working together even with someone you don't like. Izzy and Matt are two young people who find themselves visiting the Aleutians and then thrust into the war. The two main characters, who tell the story in alternating chapters, are a study in contrasts. Izzy had come eagerly to the island with her mother who observes birds, while Matt has come reluctantly with his father who has some unknown job. While Izzy is close to her mother, Matt feels distant from his father who appears critical of his young teenage son.

Initially both Izzy and Matt believe they are alone on the island but soon discover they share the fate of being abandoned with the one person they least like. Their mutual dislike stems from a misunderstanding on the boat coming to the island, when Izzy tripped over Matt's legs.Each believes the other deliberately did something to them.

Izzy, least prepared to survive, is willing to work with Matt but Matt wants nothing to do with her. When he discovers Izzy is also left behind, Matt's first reaction is "You!....In my house! Eating our food. I should have known."  He accuses her of being a thief and then tells her that she has to fend for herself, that he doesn't ever want to see her around his house again.  Matt continues to be mean towards Izzy even when she warns him that there are four enemy soldiers still on the island.

Despite being older than Izzy, Matt is immature. After he's injured, he wonders, "How had this happened to me? Did I feel sorry for myself? I did. And why not." He ungraciously complains about the bandages being pink, not recognizing Izzy's huge sacrifice for him. After all she has done for him, Matt appears to intend to abandon Izzy, only to lose his beloved kayak. Eventually though Matt does realize that he owes a debt to Izzy, "I thought of all she had done these long months. How could I have made it without her?"

Izzy is a resourceful, intelligent character who recognizes that in order to survive she and Matt must work together. Izzy shows herself to be patient and optimistic in the face of adversity. In this regard she is portrayed as the very opposite of Matt. She is motivated by the words of the teacher she never liked back home in Connecticut, "You could do anything, Izzy, if only you set your mind to it." 
Izzy finds Matt mean and self-absorbed. "How could one person think he was so perfect? And he'd gotten most of it wrong anyway." Despite Matt treating Izzy badly, she tells him about a cave that might be safer than staying in the abandoned village and she cares for him when he injures his knee. She is able to sacrifice something that she loves dearly, her pink velvet party dress, to use for bandages for Matt's injured knee.

Ultimately, Matt and Izzy do become friends, apologizing to one another for their mis-interpreting of the other person's actions. It is a friendship forged in adversity that appears to outlast their experiences on the island. Both characters learn about themselves; Izzy that she can achieve what she sets her mind to and that she has an inner strength, Matt that he is very much like the father he struggles to understand.

Island War  with its unique setting, believable characters and many themes, will be enjoyed by younger readers who have an interest in survival fiction.

Book Details:

Island War by Patricia Reilly Giff
New York: Holiday House    2018
203 pp.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak

During World War II, Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east, dividing the country in two. After the country was conquered, Polish soldiers were sent either to a German or Russian prison-of-war camp depending on what part of the country they were in.

Two friends, Peter Prendys and Stanislav Lubanski were in the Russian-occupied part of Poland and were sent to work in different Russian factories. They had tried to stick together and promised to try to find one another if they ever became separated.

Two years later when Germany invaded Russia, the Polish soldiers were freed in the hopes they would join the Russians in fighting the Germans. However, although the Polish soldiers  wanted to fight Germany they wanted to also free Poland from both the Germans and the Russians.So many Polish soldiers tried to escape, among them both Peter and Stanislav. They crossed the Russian border into Iran along with hundreds of other Polish prisoners.

Peter and Stanislav found one another and reported to a British army camp. In the camp they met Janusz and Lolek who served the food as well as another Polish soldier named Pavel. After completing a short military training course with the British, the Polish soldiers were put into groups of five. This was perfect for Peter, Stanislav, Janusz, Lolek and Pavel who formed a group that was to be part of a convoy taking equipment to the British camp in Palestine.

Peter and his group drove tents, cots, oil and artillery parts through the miles of sandy desert in their truck. One afternoon, fed up with the heat, Stanislav stopped to rest. Just as they were about to take a nap, Peter spotted a very young boy coming towards them, dragging a sack. Despite Lolek's fear that this might be a trap, Stanislav gave the little boy a chunk of break. It was at this point that the men noticed the sack moving. To their amazement, from the sack crawled a bear cub. The soldiers were delighted and immediately taken with the little furry cub, who did not appear to be doing well. The soldiers offer the boy money and a tin of corned beef for the small bear. After rigging an empty vodka bottle, they get the bear to drink milk and christen him Voytek which mean "smiling warrior".

Sergeant Kowalski questions the Polish soldiers about the bear and although he was initially skeptical about keeping the animal, he soon fell in love with the little cub telling  the men that the commanding officer in Palestine will have to decide.

Voytek with his Polish friends.
When they arrive in Palestine, the C.O. sends for the five Polish soldiers and their bear. Expecting the C.O. to make them give up Voytek, they add vodka to his milk to the cub quiet. Instead, Voytek bites the C.O. and repeatedly misbehaves. To their surprise, the C.O. is impressed with Voytek's spiritedness and has the bear cub added to the list  of new soldiers as Private Voytek!

It was decided that since Peter was the one who cuddled Voytek, had fed him milk and protected him, and was really Voytek's new mother, the bear cub should sleep in his tent. Peter put a blanket in a washtub for Voytek's bed but the cub insisted on sleeping in Peter's bed. Even when he outgrew the but and Peter made a wooden box, Voytek preferred curling up next to his new mother, Peter.

In the camp Voytek won over the cook. He had a harder time with Kaska, a troublsome monkey who drove everyone crazy and who enjoyed tormenting Voytek. Kaska was often seen riding on the back of a dog named Stalin. To protect Voytek, Kaska was sent to the other side of the camp but this didn't help much. Peter decided Voytek needed a playmate so they brought Dottie, a Dalmatian pup belonging to a British soldier into the mix. And so began Voytek's amazing adventures with a group of Polish soldiers as they traveled through Palestine, Egypt and onto Italy.


Bibi Dumon Tak has taken the real life adventures of a Iranian brown bear who served as a mascot and helper to Polish soldiers during World War II and written an engaging and decidedly humorous account that young readers will thoroughly enjoy.

Voytek, the "soldier bear" is portrayed as a lovable bear who manages to endear himself to the soldiers despite his many misadventures. He steals all the water for the soldiers' shower and he loves to drink beer. Voytek loves peaches so much he breaks into the cook tent before Christmas, stealing an entire can of peaches, bringing down the tent and waking the entire camp in the process. Yet despite this, soldiers and commanding officers alike find themselves taken with the furry animal.

Anything Peter does, Voytek copies. Peter smokes cigarettes but Voytek "didn't actually smoke the cigarettes. He ate them all up, the whole cigarettes but only if they were lit. And if the cigarette wasn't lit he's ask someone for a light before shoving it into his mouth."  This is all done with subtle humour that makes the story so enjoyable. For example, Voytek is such a favourite on the Batory, a boat transporting the" Polish soldiers to Italy, that Peter must watch him. "Everyone was happy to give up a cigarette for him or a bottle of beer. Peter had to keep a close eye on Voytek, because otherwise the bear might become a chain-smoker or a drunkard, or even worse: both."

Through her characters, Tak portrays the influence of Voytek on the Polish soldiers who take him in as a bear cub. Voytek helps the Polish soldiers cope with the long years away from their homeland, the threat of facing action at the front and missing their families. For example, when Peter's thoughts turned dark in the middle of the night, he is comforted by the presence of Voytek lying next to him. When the Polish soldiers are challenged about taking Voytek and their menagerie of dogs, a monkey, a pig and a parrot that says "Nazis go home." onto the boat to Italy,  Peter feels he needs to explain how the animals are necessary to the men because they " cheered them all up and even comforted them at times."  When Lolek lashes out at Stanislav for treating the death of soldiers so lightly, Voytek knows he is upset and comes to sleep in his tent that night to comfort the distraught soldier who saw two men blown up by a shell. Voytek offers a distraction to soldiers and civilians alike when he climbs a crane and begins doing acrobatics.

There's no doubt that Voytek considers himself a part of the Polish unit. This is demonstrated when the Polish Corps moves to Italy. After arriving, the men from the 22 Company of the 2nd Polish Corps line up to unload heavy ammunition- artillery shells. Voytek too lines up with Stanislav and Peter to help move the shells one at a time along the line, not even stopping when a colonel attempts to intervene.

In her Afterward, Tak fills in her readers on what happened to Voytek in the postwar years. Animals have been in mankind's wars for centuries whether it was Hannibal and his elephants in the Punic War, horses in World War I or soldier dogs in Afghanistan. Tak writes about Voytek's contribution to the Polish Corps. "During World War II, Voytek gave the 120 soldiers in his company the courage to go out every day and help to liberate Europe. Not only did he make it easier for the soldiers of the transport compay to feel brave and to keep up their courage, but everyone who saw him forgot the misery around them for a moment, whether it was a high-ranking colonel or a ten-year-old Italian boy. He was a friend and a mascot who made the war easier to bear."

Soldier Bear is a funny, endearing account of a much-loved animal who helped a small group of soldiers cope with the horrors of war. Black and white  pictures at the very back allow readers to see Voytek as well as Kaska and Kubus.

Photo credit:

Book Details:

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers  2008
145 pp.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World's Coral Reefs by Kate Messner

The Brilliant Deep details Ken Nedimyer's efforts to restore and rebuild the world's ailing coral reefs. Nedimyer was a fish enthusiast who caught and sold tropical fish to aquariums. He spent much time scuba diving on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.  In the 1970s  Nedimyer remembers extensive reefs in the Florida keys rich with elkhorn coral that grew to the surface of the water and as far as the eye could see. But when the Keys began to undergo development which meant more people, more boats and lots of raw sewage. The effect of this human encroachment was to gradually destroy the beautiful coral reefs of the Keys. Dredging, disease such as White Band Disease which destroyed the elkhorn and staghorn corals that form the structure of the reefs and a warming climate all contributed to the lost of coral reefs.

In the 1990's Nedimyer noticed that staghorn coral had begun to grow on his live rock farm. He could keep this coral which was protected by state law because it grew on his rock. Nedimyer had a remarkable plan. Instead of selling cuttings of the coral to aquariums he decided to start a nursery of staghorn coral with the idea of planting the coral on the dying reef. With the help of his then thirteen-year-old daughter, Nedimyer developed a staghorn "nursery". By 2003 Nedimyer was able to plant six corals on Molasses Reef.

To facilitate the work of helping to restore and rehabilitate coral reefs, Nedimyer formed Coral Reef Restoration Foundation in 2007. The organization's goal is restore diversity to coral reefs. Staghorn and elkhorn corals are grown on tree like structures in the ocean and then planted onto various locations to help the reef rejuvenate. You can learn more about the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation from their detailed website.

In The Brilliant Deep, Messner introduces Ken Nedimyer to her readers by explaining that his interest in the world around him was encouraged by the exciting events happening when he was growing up. He watched the beginnings of the space race that saw Alan Shepard and John Glenn become the first Americans to travel into space. Nedimyer like many young people in the 1960's watched the adventures of  the French ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, broadcast on television. Ken's love of the ocean grew and he spent many hours scuba diving in the Florida Keys. It was Ken's observations of the changes in the coral reefs and his discovery of how they might be helped that is the focus of Messner's picture book geared for children in Grades 1 to 5.

Her message is that it only takes one idea to change things and one person to make a difference; in this case that one person was Ken Nedimyer. He could have sold his growing staghorn corals to public and private aquariums but he saw a much bigger possibility for his discovery - to help rehabilitate the reefs he loved so much.

Accompanying Messner's text are the colourful illustrations of award-winning artist, Matthew Forsythe. At the back, Messner includes a section on Coral Reef Vocabulary, and information for readers who might want to explore this topic further.

Messner's picture book is sure to inform and stimulate young readers into thinking more about our oceans and how we can help heal the damage done to them by man and by changes in climate.

Book Details:

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World's Coral Reefs by Kate Messner
San Francisco: Chronicle Books     2018

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe

Claire Dearing has just finished her freshman year of college and is packing up her room to return home for the summer. Claire wants "a bigger life. One far from here. One that's never boring. One that's always a challenge. One where I fix problems and always have the answer." Her older sister Karen picks her up and on the long drive home reveals that their parents are struggling in their marriage, but trying counselling. They discuss Claire's plans for the summer. She has applied to six internships, four at law firms and one internship with a judge. But the one she really wants is with the Masrani Corporation, run by Simon Masrani who is continuing the work of Dr. Hammond on dinosaurs. Masrani has expanded Dr. Hammond's work of creating the world's first dinosaur park, Jurassic Park. The park never opened.

Masrani's internship program, Bright Minds, is looking for "the best and brightest" in the country. He is planning to open a park where people can experience the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar.

However, Claire learns from Karen that she did in fact receive an offer of an internship at Bright Minds.Although her mother has reservations, Claire is determined to do something risky and different.

On her flight to connect up with the other interns, Claire meets Justin, a business major. As it turns out they discover that they are both Bright Minds interns. Clair and Justin also meet some of the  other twelve interns including Eric and Tanya whom Claire suspects are siblings, Wyatt whose father works on the island and Ronnie a girl who plans on attending West Point in the fall. While waiting for the ferry,  that will take them to Isla Nublar, Jessica assistant to Beverly Jamison tells them a bit about the park. They learn it will open next year with eight species of dinosaurs including a herd of Triceratops and Brachiosaurs.On the ferry Claire realizes there are also many others traveling with them who are not interns but are vets, trainers, scientists and other specialists.

Claire's roommate is Tanya Skye, while Tanya's brother,  Eric's roommate is Wyatt. Their lodgings are on the fourth floor of the park's luxury hotel. In the morning Mr. Masrani welcomes the interns, tellign them they are integral to the opening of the park in  nine months. New species are continuing to arrive from their secondary location, Isla Sorna but he also warns them that some carnivorous dinosaurs such as T. Rex and Dilophosaurus are restricted. As the monorail is not yet completed, the interns are taken on a drive through the park to Gyrosphere Valley where they see the herd of Triceratops.

At lunch, Claire dines with Simon Masrani who is intrigued by Claire, her life goals and her vision of the future. After lunch, they visit the command center and then the labs in the basement. Dr. Wu who worked with Dr. Hammond on the original Jurassic Park, has continued to refine the technique that extracts dinosaur DNA. During their visit, Claire overhears a conversation between Simon Masrani and Dr. Wu in which Wu references an earlier group of interns.She later asks Justin if he caught Wu's remark but he hasn't.

Wyatt tell them that there are rumours about "phantom interns", a previous group of interns from an earlier program renamed after the incident. Wyatt explains that "They're called phantom interns because all evidence of the program disappeared..." This was done because something terrible happened and was covered up. According to Wyatt, some of the Brachiosaurses were brought over from Isla Sorna to Isla Nublar and interns were brought in to help the dinosaurs acclimatize to their new surroundings. A few months into the process, a severe storm knocked out the island's electrical grid forcing the evacuation of the park and the island. In the process, a female intern was left behind.

That night, while alone in her room writing up her journal, Clair makes a startling discovery: a notebook, its spine cracked and its pages yellowed, tucked inside the box spring of her bed. It appears to be someone's journal. Over the next two weeks, Claire and the interns spend time with the trainers and vets, learning about the dinosaurs. At first everything seems quite normal but gradually Claire begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems. With Justin's help she begins to try to solve a past mystery only to stumble onto a plan to steal the park's technology, one that will have deadly consequences for one of the interns.


Fans of the recent Jurassic World movies will enjoy reading Sharpe's novel which is set during Claire Dearing's young adult years and explores how she came to be involved in the development of  the new Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar.

Sharpe takes time to develop Claire as a character, who at the beginning of the novel seems to be the quintessential modern teenager, deeply concerned with animal rights, determined to be a trailblazer for women. Sharpe crafts her as an ambitious young woman who wants a life that's very different from her older sister Karen. While Karen has returned home after college, gotten an job, married and had a child, Claire doesn't feel that inclination. Although she sees herself as someone who follows the rules, she admits that "...there's another side of me, the reckless side, that's all about wonder and discovery, that wants something else." Claire wants " be the kind of woman who could make laws and enact the kind of sweeping change that was needed."  And indeed, Sharpe grows her character throughout the novel. Claire becomes more assertive as an intern. At first she dismisses Wyatt's story about a missing intern, even showing surprisingly little curiosity about a journal she finds just after Wyatt's allegations. But when she begins to suspect that Masrani and the park administration are covering up something she doggedly pursues the trail of evidence.

The Evolution of Claire is somewhat formulaic, true to the story lines in the previous Jurassic Park movies: visitors, in this case young student interns arrive at the park, are awestruck by the beautiful, majestic dinosaurs, meanwhile there is an undercurrent of something suspicious happening at the park, a deadly carnivorous dinosaur is inadvertently let loose, and mayhem and death follow. The book's heroine survives, only to become employed by the park. The events that lead up to the novel's terrifying climax are common to the movies; these prehistoric creatures are deadly and just can't be contained.

Sharpe foreshadows Claire's deadly encounter with the raptor in the novel's climax. For example, Claire's sister Karen insists that she purchase bear spray, something Claire is reluctant to do. "You and Mom both have a totally wrong idea of what's going to be going on during my internship." she tells her sister.  But it is Claire who is unprepared for what she will face on the island.

The science isn't always spot on but after all, this is science fiction. For example, when Claire and her fellow interns visit Dr. Wu's lab, the scientists are in the middle of extracting dinosaur DNA from a mosquito's body - by hand. Mosquito's are tiny fragile insects and the level of accuracy required to extract, by hand using a needle is so great, it's unlikely this would be done manually. Instead, it would be done with highly specialized, computerized equipment.

This novel will appeal to those readers who enjoy the Jurassic Park movies and want to read more about Claire Dearing in the most recent novel. It might be interesting to read the backstory to Owen Grady, the velociraptor trainer and the other principal character in the movie.

Book Details:

The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe
New York:  Random House Children's Books     2018
390 pp.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Ebb and Flow by Canadian writer Heather Smith is about the struggles two young boys encounter when unexpected events happen in their lives.

Eleven-year-old Jett Campbell has been sent to spend the summer with his Grandma Jo (Joanna) on the island after his year on the mainland doesn't go so well. Grandma Jo or cotton-candy granny as Jett refers to her, is somewhat eccentric with cotton-candy blue hair and a lime green car. His grandma loves to collect sea glass, bits of glass from broken bottles that have been rounded due to the ocean.

The previous year, Jett's father, Douglas Campbell was jailed for killing a father and his three children while driving drunk on New Year's Eve. The fallout from this results in Jett being sent to the mainland, to a new school for the year. But what was supposed to be a new beginning for Jett, turns out to be anything but.

While staying with Grandma Jo it soon becomes apparent that Jett is angry about events that have happened over the past year. He acts out in a destructive way at his grandmother's house. While playing Monopoly, a game he hates, he throws the board on the floor in anger. When his grandma takes him to visit a very poor neighbour, Nelly who has no teeth and smells bad, he steals her glass paperweight. When they are going to paint his room purple, Jett deliberately drops Grandma Jo's treasured glass fish full of sea glass.

In an effort to help Jett move on from what happened over the past year Grandma Jo begins by having Jett make some superficial changes like dyeing his hair blue and painting his room purple. Their time by the ocean, Grandma Jo's care of Nelly who is poor, and the stories they tell one another allow Jett to think back on what happened.

In flashbacks, Jett reveals the events of the year that was supposed to be a fresh start for him and his mother. Jett falls in with a tough bad boy named Michael (Junior) Dawson. He becomes friends with Junior who is mean and a bully, because Jett knows that having a father in jail will seem cool to a boy like Junior.  As Jett hangs around Junior he becomes involved in doing more things that are wrong such as swearing, skipping school, ordering pizzas in a teachers name, and stealing money at a classmate's birthday party.

Then Jett learns Junior's terrible secret: his mother abandoned him due to Jett's violent father whom he now lives with in a shed at the back of his Aunt Cora's home. Aunt Cora's brother and Junior's Uncle Alf lives with her. Alf has a developmental disability and is a child in a forty-year-old man's body. While Jett is kind to Alf, Junior makes fun of him, calling him Uncle Retard. Unlike Junior, Jett grows to like Alf, as they go to the library to read books. Jett find "learning with Alf was fun." But when Junior learns something about Alf that could possibly give him the means to runaway from his abusive father, he draws Jett into a plan that leads to serious repercussions for both himself and Jett.


Ebb and Flow is a story about a young boy coming to terms with his actions and transitioning from destructive anger to forgiveness and healing with the help of his beloved grandmother.

When Jett arrives at his Grandma Jo's home, his feelings are all bundled up inside of him. He truly believes he is a bad, unredeemable person. With plenty of time on his hands, his thoughts go back to the events of the past year, that spiralled out of control. He remembers at first being kind to Alf, Junior's older cousin who has a disability. Jett describes himself as a person who cared about others when he first arrived on the mainland:
"That was a long time ago,
when I was a good person,
when people with no teeth
made me sad."

He remembers when he first changed, hanging around Junior, and becoming like him. Jett believes these changes are permanent.
"...once you kill your old self
and bury it deep underground
it'll never come back,
no matter how hard you dig."

Jett's destructive behaviour continues at his grandma's home until he breaks down and cries after destroying her glass fish with the sea glass. Here, Smith uses grandma to tell young readers how adversity builds character, and can mold a person into something stronger and beautiful. Grandma Jo explains to Jett what sea glass is, pieces of broken bottles that have been scoured and rounded.
"It got quite a bashing,
that little piece of glass
It spent years
caught in the ocean waves.
It was tossed around
and beaten down,
until finally
it washed up on shore.
Now look at it --
what was once a piece
of broken glass
is now something better --
it's a gem."
The lesson here is that Jett, after all his troubles, can become something better, rising above what happened in the past year.

While Jett believes he's bad and doesn't deserve to be liked, his grandmother tells him about some of the mistakes she has made and how she regrets those mistakes. Her lesson is that Jett needs to forgive himself.

Jett's perception of himself and what happened during the past year changes over the course of the summer. He begins to accept responsibility for his actions, and begins the process of forgiving himself and making amends. Jett and his grandma tell one another a series of "stories" which are really anecdotes about their lives. In his first story, Jett tells his grandma,
"Junior made Jett
do lots of bad things."

But in his second story, Jett's perspective is much changed:
"Once upon a time,
there was a kid named Jett
who blamed a lot of bad stuff
on another kid name Junior.
But everything that happened
wasn't just Junior's fault.
Jett kind of liked being bad."
Jett explains that when he was mean to other kids, it made him feel good, "like he was winning at something." Except when he was mean to Alf.

His third story sees Jett finally tell his Grandma Jo how he came to help Junior try to steal Alf's money. He tells what happened exactly as it went down, how he felt caught between two friends, the gentle Alf whom he didn't want to steal from and the manipulative Junior who had to deal with his physically abusive father.

Grandma Jo's stories emphasize each have their own moral. She tells Jett about making a choice when she was twelve to buy something for herself instead of helping out her own grandmother who then died suddenly leaving her with bitter regret. Jett is sympathetic, telling her that "Everyone makes mistakes, grandma." It is precisely this lesson that Grandma Jo want's Jett to learn. Once he accepts this, Jett can begin to forgive himself.

In forgiving himself, Jett is able to forgive his father and visit him in the penitentiary. He is also able to contact Aunt Cora and admit his mistake, tell Alf he is sorry in his own way, and to remind Cora that Junior is not all bad. Jett's message to Aunt Cora is that Junior might have acted differently if she had been kinder. "All she had to do was pick him up, but she stepped on him instead." Jett also returns Nelly's paperweight. Making things right, allows Jett a fresh start for junior high.

Ebb and Flow is a deeply touching story that explores the themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and friendship. Smith's characters are realistic, with both good and bad qualities.Grandma Jo is Jett's safe refuge where he is allowed to face the realities of his actions over the past year. She gently helps him come to terms with what happened, to grieve and then to accept and move on. Jett is realistically crafted, with the good qualities of kindness and the ability to accept others as they are, but sometimes lacking the courage to do the right thing - not uncommon at all for an eleven-year-old boy. Junior perhaps elicits the most compassion, abandoned by his mother, abused by his father, and neglected by the one adult who could have offered him refuge. Smith offers her young readers hope when we learn that he is now living with an aunt.

Heather Smith is a Canadian author, originally from Newfoundland but now currently residing in Waterloo, Ontario. Although Heather admits she and words did not get along well in the beginning there is absolutely no evidence of that strained relationship in Ebb and Flow.

Book Details:

Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith
Toronto: Kids Can Press      2018
227 pp.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Grenade by Alan Gratz

Thirteen-year-old Hideki Kaneshiro lives on the island of Okinawa with his mother, his father Oto, his older sister Kimiko and his younger brother Isamu. The war between Japan and America has now arrived on their doorstep with an American invasion imminent. To prepare, Oto and Kimiko were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA): Oto to fight and Kimiko as a nurse in a hospital. Hideki, along with his mother and brother were ordered to evacuate to Japan. Hideki was with them as they were leaving Okinawa on a ship headed to Japan, but was grabbed by an IJA soldier who felt he was old enough to fight. Kimiko tried to protect him by stating that he was a coward.

Three hundred and fifty years ago their family's ancestor, Shigetomo "surrendered without a fight when Japanese samurai had invaded Okinawa". Although the family was spared, Shigetomo was beheaded. Now his shame has been passed on down through the generations making every third generation male a coward. Hideki's family believes they are haunted by the ghost of their ancestor. The Japanese soldier however doesn't believe this and Hideki soon finds himself in training and a member of the Blood and Iron Student Corps.

Then on April 1, 1945, Hideki along with a hundred other boys is lined up outside his school as American artillery bombards the island. Hideki and his fellow students are graduating at 2 am in the morning, as the American invasion of Okinawa begins. Lieutenant Colonel Sana warns them about the Americans, who "...will hunt your grandparents down and burn them alive...torture your mothers. Butcher your brothers and sisters...Try to trick you too. Offer you food and kindness..." They are told they must be prepared to die a glorious death for the Emperor and each boy is given two grenades. Hideki ends up with two ceramic grenades, when Yoshio, the boy who has been bullying him, takes his metal ones. They are then sent into the countryside to attack the American troops when they land.

The boys first hide in a cave and then when they smell the American's cooking a pig, they decide to attack the camp. However this proves disastrous: one boy blows himself up with his grenade, another has his grenade explode in his face,  while most of the boys are shot or blown apart. Terrified, Hideki runs through the forest until he comes to his haka, family tomb. There he finds his father, Oto, dying from a stomach wound. Oto tells Hideki that his mother and brother are dead and that he must find his sister Kimiko. He reveals that the Japanese hid the sinking of the ship by an American submarine and that the Yamato - the largest Japanese battleship was sunk weeks earlier by the Americans.

Hideki and his father are joined in the tomb by a Japanese soldier named Private Shinohara who crazed with fear,  forces them from the safety of the tomb. Before he dies, Oto tells Hideki that he now understands that their ancestor, Shigetomo was in fact very brave. After the death of his father, Hideki sets out to find his sister Kimiko who he believes has been sent to the army hospital in Ichinichibashi. It is a journey that will cost Hideki much as he discovers there is no glory in killing. At the same time he grows to understand the reality of war and the true meaning of courage.

Meanwhile on what is code named "Love Day", Private Ray Majors along with 183,000 American soldiers and Marines of the Tenth Army lands on the beaches of Okinawa. Ray had gone against the wishes of his father, a World War I veteran, and enlisted in the Marines a few months earlier. Ray had hoped to go to Europe but found himself assigned instead to E Company, nicknamed "Easy Company" and sent to Japan. Their squad leader is Sergeant Walter Meredith and Ray's fox hole buddy is Corporal John Barboza, known as Big John, an "enormous guy from the Bronx, New York." He carries one of the squad's BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle. They land on the beach and encounter no resistance from the Japanese.

Sergeant Meredith tells them they have to march east for half a kilometer to secure the area around the landing beach. At first everything seems eerily peaceful, with "Thatch-roofed farmhouses ...nestled among forests of pine and bamboo." But things change quickly when they stop at a farm to consider butchering a piglet and come under sniper fire, killing one of their soldiers. Ray's squad flush the sniper out, a boy who looks like he is twelve-years-old. To Ray's horror, Big John shoots the young boy as they cannot take prisoners.

After butchering and eating the pig, Ray's squad check out a cave that might hold Japanese soldiers. After Big John tosses a grenade into the cave, many Okinawan civilians flee, but terrified of the Americans, they choose to walk off the cliff to their deaths.

That night their camp is attacked by a lone Japanese soldier who Ray shoots dead. Sickened by having killed a man, Ray is deeply distraught. As they move from cave to cave, Ray is determined for his squad to stop tossing grenades into the caves since they may hold innocent civilians. Sergeant Meredith decides that they will start with smoke grenades. After Sergeant Meredith is badly injured, Big John becomes the new sergeant. They are then ordered to the front to replace the Army's 96th Division just as the war in Europe ends. But at the Battle of Kakazu Ridge, Ray makes a decision that forever changes things for both himself and Hideki.


Grenade tells the story of a young boy who discovers the reality of war and the meaning of courage during the American invasion of the island of Okinawa, The story is told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old Okinawan boy, Hideki Kaneshiro as well as that of an American soldier, Ray Majors. Gratz gradually weaves together the two storylines, having Ray and Hideki unwittingly encountering one another several times, until the two intersect in a brief but deadly encounter. But it is Hideki's journey that is the focus of the story.

Hideki's journey begins when he is sent into the forests of Okinawa with the instructions  to kill as many Americans as he can and then to kill himself. Hideki and his family believe that he has been born afraid and that he is unable to show courage until the spirit or mabui of his ancestor, Shigetomo who had shamed the family with his cowardly act of surrender hundreds of years earlier, found peace. For Hideki the way to cleanse this shame is to bravely kill  the American devils who have invaded Okinawa. When Hideki finds the flyers asking the Okinawans to surrender, he resolves not to surrender and not "to let the Americans or Shigetomo's mabui tell him what to do." However his first encounter with the Americans sees him fleeing in terror. He resolves not to listen to Shigetomo's mabui which he believes he carries inside of him.

However, when Hideki kills Ray, his perspective changes. "But now that Hideki had done it, now that he had actually taken another human being's life, he felt a great yawning emptiness inside. A shaking sadness came over him, and he wept. He didn't care about being brave anymore. Or defending the Emperor. Or fighting the Americans. He just wanted to undo what he'd done. To take it back." Killing Ray Majors is so devastating to Hideki that he wonders "How would he ever be the boy he was before? How could he go on?" Looking at the soldier, Hideki realizes he isn't much older than he is and that he looks more like a boy than a man. When he looks at the picture of the boy and his father recovered from the soldier's pack Hideki notes, "They didn't look evil. But what did evil really look like, after all? Evil was what you did, not how you appeared on the outside."

Hideki's view of the Americans whom he has been told are monsters and the Japanese soldiers all of whom he meets, are violent and cruel, begins to change. In the American medical tent, Hideki is treated kindly, given medication and had his wounds tended to; he sees their kind side. Hideki begins to understand that the Americans are like the Japanese, both are monsters when fighting doing terrible things when they are afraid. But when they are not fighting, they are kind, they are like Hideki. When he and Kimiko are finally safe behind American lines, Kimiko questions him as to why he is carrying photographs of American and Japanese soldiers who have destroyed their island. Hideki points out to his sister, that in the photographs there are no soldiers, only ordinary people "Look. There aren't any soldiers here. There are brothers and fathers and sons, surrounded by the people they love and the people who love them back. I'm honoring the men they were before they came to Okinawa. Before they became monsters."

Kimiko recognizes that the war has changed Hideki, that he is more confident and brave. Although Hideki denies it, his actions prove otherwise: he helped the Miyagi family surrender to the Americans, and at great risk he helped Kimiko rescue a group of Okinawa children whom the Japanese were going to use as human shields in an attack. When Hideki tells her he was scared, Kimiko explains, "....being brave doesn't mean not scared? It means overcoming your fear to do what you have to do. A real coward would have run away and never looked back. Fear isn't a weakness. Anybody who's never been afraid is a fool."

His experiences help Hideki reconsider his view of his ancestor Shigetomo and his label as a coward. "His ancestor Shigetomo, wasn't a soldier. He was a farmer. So why had Hideki and his other descendants expected him to fight back against trained samurai warriors? There was never any chance he could have fought the Japanese and won. It would have been suicide." Hideki's comprehension of what his ancestor experienced frees him from the shame. But he still must work though killing the American soldier - a heavy burden for any thirteen-year-old boy.

The events in the novel take place at the beginning of the invasion code- named Operation Iceberg, which commenced on April 1, 1945.While the war in the European theatre was winding down, the Pacific War would still have several more months of fighting. The Americans, drawn into war with Japan when they bombed Pearl Harbor on December have worked their way across the Pacific, capturing islands. By 1945, they were ready to invade Japan and needed the airfields of Okinawa to accomplish that goal. Expecting fierce resistance at the beach head from the Japanese on Okinawa, instead American troops encountered abandoned beaches. The Japanese plan was to draw them well into the island, and then fight to the death, knowing that if Okinawa fell, Japan would lose the war. The Americans faced heavy fighting along the Shuri Line, near the Shuri Palace, at Kakazu Ridge and along a series of ridges. Eventually the Japanese retreated to the southern end of Okinawa where they made a last stand. In the end, the Americans defeated the Japanese on Okinawa but at a great cost to both sides: the Americans suffered 49,000 casualties, the Japanese lost 110,000 men. It is estimated as many as 150,000 Okinawans lost their lives.

Gratz doesn't shy away from portraying the brutality of war, the fear ordinary men turned soldiers experienced, the terror of battle and in particular the cruelty of the Japanese army. Throughout the novel, the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as willing to do almost anything to kill Americans, mostly because they did not view Okinawa as their own land. The civilian population on Okinawa was forced to fight, women and children had explosives strapped to their bodies, and were used as shields by the Japanese soldiers. This ruthlessness left the American soldiers with almost no choice but to kill civilians along with soldiers or risk being killed themselves.In turn they threw grenades into caves and used fire as a weapon. Through the eyes of Hideki the reader sees the devastation the war has wrought on his beautiful homeland and his people who have no quarrel with either the Americans nor the Japanese.

Grenade is set during a battle that likely many young readers have never heard of, nor studied in history classes. But the Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest of the Pacific War and the Japanese resistance combined with heavy losses on both sides likely contributed to the American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan later in the summer of 1945.

Gratz provides readers with a map and a detailed Author's Note at the back both of which help readers understand the events in the novel better. Grenade is a thought-provoking story that begs to be read.

Book Details:

Grenade by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press    2018
270 pp.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine

Driving By Starlight is Anat Deracine's debut novel about two Muslim teenage girls who live in Saudi Arabia and their struggle to balance their dreams and hopes with the restrictive society they live in while maintaining their friendships.

Leena Hadi lives with her mother Norah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her father  is in jail for having protested against the government. Leena longs to make her own choices, to go to school and have a career. She has a reputation for breaking the rules and therefore has the nickname, "Leena Adhaleena which meant Leena who goes astray." Her best friend is Mishail, Quraysh whose father is minister of the interior in the Saudi government. Before her father was arrested, Leena and Mishail's fathers were good friends.

The two girls who are seniors at Nizamiyyah Secondary  are planning an act of defiance of Saudi Arabia's strict dress code for women when their class travels to a park. They don't want a class picture of three rows of girls in black abayas, with only their eyes showing. Instead they plan to take a picture of themselves wearing beautiful colourful dresses in the park. Since all women's cellphone cameras are smashed at the time of purchase, Mishail brings a pocket camera belonging to her brother.The seniors include Aisha, Bilquis, Mishail, Sofia and Leena. They wait for their supervising teacher to fall asleep and then race to the bathrooms to change into Western-style clothes. However, Bilquis decides to tell the headmistress what they are doing.

When they return to the school, Maryam Madam speaks to Aisha, Mishail, Sofia and Leena attempting to find out who is responsible. Getting nothing out of them, she talks to Leena alone who confesses to what happened. Before Leena's father's arrest, Maryam Madam had promised to take care of her.Now she allows her to make prints of the photos before destroying the digital files. Leena tells her that she is considering Princess Nora  University for law, but Maryam Madam tells her that this may be difficult due to her father's situation.

Because her father is absent, Leena must dress as a man to accompany her mother shopping - a practice known as boyat. They walk to the home of her father's law partner, Hossein so her mother can get some papers signed. While there they learn from the television that riots have closed the only co-ed university in the country. After a period of protests by Islamic fanatics, the government makes some concessions including the exclusion of women from KASP scholarships. Schools reopen and when Leena returns to her school she finds that there are new students from Najd National, a school that has been destroyed. Now in addition to new students, Leena's school will also have the headmistress from Najd, Naseema Madam.

Leena's relationship with Mishail begins to unravel with the presence of a new girl, Daria Abulkhair. Daria is half American and lives in one of the American ARAMCO campuses. She knows how to drive a car and unlike her classmates has experience: she's French-kissed a boy. Daria also knows how to meet boys at Faisaliyah, a mall in Riyadh, something Mishail is determined to experience. Leena is horrified as this is a serious crime under Saudi law. Mishail reveals that her father wants to marry her off by the end of the year, even though she's only fifteen. She wants to find her own boy, to have another option. Leena reluctantly agrees to go to Faisaliyah.

Leena is further upset by the presence of Daria when the new girl is chosen over Leena for the debate team. Daria was chosen over Leena because of the situation with Leena's father.This will have a huge impact on Leena's future because it now means she will have no chance of qualifying for a scholarship. To apply to another university requires the signed permission of her father, something Leena will not be able to obtain.

As Daria and Mishail's friendship grows, Leena finds herself on the outside, growing jealous. At a party at Daria's home, Leena meets Ahmed who is Daria's cousin. Only a few years older than Leena her reveals that he attended her father's shillahs. Mishail becomes jealous after seeing Leena speaking with Ahmed, telling her friend that she has been seeing Ahmed and believes he loves her. The two girls argue and Leena afraid for her friend and at the urging of Daria, informs the headmistresses about what Mishail has been doing. This fractures the two girls friendship and Leena realizes that they have been played against one another by Daria. Mishail is replaced on the debate team by Aisha and suspended for two weeks.

Meanwhile Leena begins seeing Ahmed and his rebel friends almost every night in the desert, dressed as a boy, learning to drive. She comes to realize that she is doing the very thing she reported Mishail for. Despite this she doesn't care. At this time, knowing that she must look out for herself, she begins reading law cases with her father's partner, working for him whenever she can. At school, Daria's cruelty towards Aisha who doesn't understand the law she must debate very well, leads Leena to realize that they must stop fighting against one another and start helping each other.

Leena decides to form her own shillah with Aisha to stop the fighting. They write a contract for the secret society that will included the outcasts and "required that girls who joined had to share a secret that they had told no one else and had to give evidence of it..." They also had to help others in the shillah, promising to never knowingly harm them. As a start, Leena begins helping Aisha for the debate.Soon many of their classmates are interested in joining.

When Leena gets into trouble with the muttaween for walking alone at night, the truth about her father's political activism is revealed. With the help of her mother and Maryam Madam, and Leena's own knowledge of the law, a way is found to not only help her gain her independence and a say in her life but also to save her best friend's life and help the other young women in her shillah who also face the same challenges.


Driving By Starlight is a novel set in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  that explores the themes of friendship, family and freedom. The story is centered around the friendship between two girls, Leena and Mishail and their lives in a country with strict Islamic laws. Almost immediately readers get a sense of what life is like for girls and women in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country whose laws and culture are centered on Sharia law. Every aspect of their lives is affected. Deracine peppers Leena's narrative with many descriptions of how restrictive her life is, demonstrating just how broken the country is.

Leena, is a brilliant student who wants to study law. However, her father's arrest has made this all but impossible because as a girl she requires the written permission of her father. The fact that she cannot make her own decisions without the permission of a man infuriates Leena. Throughout her narrative she notes the many restrictions and rules of Saudi life, as a result of Sharia law. For example, most people live attempting to not attract the attention of "the muttaween, the religious police from Al-Hai'a, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice." who lurk everywhere, even on the roads. "Surveillance cameras were on every street corner, and muttaween in their vans pulled up alongside us to inspect the car's inhabitants..."

Women especially experience many restrictions that men do not. Leena notes that in order for her and her friends to take pictures they need to borrow a camera because their cell phones have no working cameras. This is because "all women's cell phone cameras were smashed at the time of purchase." Posting anything online is a dangerous affair due to Al-Hai'a who spy "on all phone and internet communications in the country. Not only did all our phones have apps that regularly pinged our guardians with our location, our fathers could always request the records to determine if there had been any inappropriate communications."

Contact between unrelated girls and boys is forbidden and the sexes are strictly segregated. "By law, the boys' school had to be at least five kilometers from ours to prevent the ever troublesome potential indecency." This segregation also exists in many homes. When Leena visits her friend and stays for dinner, the women eat separate from the men;  Mishail, her mother and Leena in the kitchen while Mishail's brothers and her father in the livingroom, "passing dishes through the barely open doorway." But Leena notes it wasn't always this way in the Quraysh family, only when Mishail's father become a minister.

Laws governing marriage strongly favour men, although Muslims are likely to view them as protecting women. Leena notes that while women must remain faithful men do not experience the same expectations. "When the law stated that a man could marry four women and have a few concubines besides through misyar marriages, a boy was not just well within his rights to love two girls, he was practically a saint for choosing only two."

Just how different a girl's life is from a boy is highlighted many times throughout the novel. Faraz, the son of Leena's father's law partner wonders why Leena, who is very smart, doesn't apply for university outside the country. But for a girl it's not so simple.  "So easy for men to just set out on their adventures, leave everyone else behind. Even if I could leave, even if every cell in my body ached for scholarships that I wouldn't get, what was I supposed to do, abandon Mishail and my mother? Give up on my father?" Leena cannot move about in public without a male guardian unless she practices boyat, dressing in a white thobe, pretending to be a boy. She is driven to her school every day by a man in a car. She cannot drive, not even to the hospital (although that was changed this summer). She needs the signature of her male guardian to apply for university. And as Leena bitterly notes, Quaraouine, a university founded by a woman, is now closed to her, allowing only men to study there.

Leena and her best friend Mishail find their friendship almost destroyed when they fall for the same boy and as they clash over rebelling against the strict rules of their culture. Leena attempts to warn her best friend but Mishail tells her, "I know it's dangerous...Everything we want is forbidden or dangerous. I just don't care." Soon Leena finds herself committing the same crimes but like Mishail, she doesn't care because she has no father to protect her and no future to save. She continues to meet Ahmed and his friends, partly because she loves driving in the dark as it gives her a sense of freedom that she longs for, "...nobody watching to tell us about the laws we were breaking." 

Deracine's heroine, is a strong, intelligent young woman who is not content to live her life dictated by men. Leena begins to take control of her life by studying with her father's law partner in the hopes that she can one day attend university. After seeing Daria being especially cruel to Aisha, Leena decides women must work together to help one another. "We were all fighting one another for a window out of hell. Me against my sisters. It had to stop." She cites the example of Manal Al-Sharif who organized a Facebook protest, asking women to drive in protest of the law forbidding women this right. Although half a million people watched the video, only a few dozen came out to support her. "Even other women called her a pot-stirrer, a troublemaker, someone who was setting back the reformers' negotiations with her impatience."  To that end, Leena forms a shillah or secret society.

The author foreshadows the future choice of temporary marriage that Leena, Aisha, Sofia and Mishail make in order to obtain some control over their lives. As Daria explains early on in the novel, "It's a way for single women to find a convenient guardian, or to, you know, do things, without waiting. Understand?" Although Leena is somewhat disgusted she realizes the temptation in signing a piece of paper in order to live in peace, to live one's life the way one chooses. Mishail believes people must do whatever they need to in order to survive, quoting her best friend, "Water will find a way."  And that is exactly what Leena, Misahil and Sofia discover as they are helped by Maryam Madam, Dr. Haider (Aisha's father), Mishail's father and Leena's mother to obtain a legal guardian, marry and leave the country. All of this demonstrates just how little freedom exists for women in Saudi Arabia outside of the conventional Muslim society and how much work remains to be done in the area of women's rights and the full participation of women in public life. But it also shows how people do work together to help women circumnavigate the strict rules of life in Saudi Arabia.

Anat Deracine is a pen name chosen by the author because it means "to uproot from one's native land"  reflecting  her experience as an immigrant, from Saudia Arabia to Canada and then to the United States. Deracine used her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia to craft many of the scenes in her novel.

Driving By Starlight offers teen readers a window into a culture that is very different from their own in the West but its themes of the meaning of friendship and family are common to all cultures and to the challenging teen years. Although Deracine does include a Glossary at the back, there are many terms and concepts unique to a Muslim society that readers will not be familiar with and which perhaps should have been included in the Glossary and elaborated on in an Author's Note at the back. But overall, Deracine  portrays life in Saudi Arabia in a way that is real to her readers. Her characters are realistic, having both virtue and weaknesses. The beautiful cover will help to draw readers to read this well-written novel by this promising young author.

Book Details:

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine
New York: Henry Holt and Company      2018
277 pp.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Too Young to Escape by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

On May 19, 1981, four-year-old Van Ho awakens to find her mother, sisters gone, not unusual because they often left for work early. However, Van's six-year-old brother Tuan is also not at home and that is unusual. Only Van and her grandmother, Ba Ngoai still remain sleeping on the third floor of Van's aunt's house in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Most of Van's relatives lost their businesses and homes in the communist takeover. Di and Bac took Van's family in after the Vietnam war ended and the communists took over. Van's father and her oldest sister Linh left a year earlier. Her father who was a translator for the Americans in Vietnam, was considered an enemy of the state and in great danger. So he fled taking Linh with him.

Di and Bac made their living by bartering on the street, making and selling rice sacks from their home. It was Van's responsibility to spin enough yarn every morning so that the weaver could make the fabric for the sacks. After finishing the spinning, Van's other chores before school included wiping down the dust from the spinning that coated the furniture.

At school Van notices that her sisters and brother are not in their respective lines for their classes. All through the day she wonders where her family has gone. When Van returns home that afternoon, Ba Ngoai reveals that her mother, sisters and brother have gone to be with Ba and Linh in Canada. Van is so shocked she refuses to believe Ba Ngoai at first and then wonders why she's been left behind.
"Why would Ma disappear without even saying good-bye? And why did she leave me? Maybe I had been a bad girl, and this was my punishment. But what had I done? I hadn't meant to be bad."

Van's aunt and grandmother attempt to assure her she is loved and a good daughter. They explain to her that the journey to escape Vietnam meant taking a boat and was extremely dangerous, especially for a child as young as Van. So she was left behind, with the hope that she and Ba Ngoai will someday also leave for Canada.

When the new school year begins in September, Van becomes friends with a new girl at her school named Trang. From her clothing it is obvious that Trang is very poor. But Van too is poor and unable to afford new clothing that she desperately needs. She is also bullied by Chie'n, who is the son of the local policeman. It is not long before Van and Ba Ngoai begin receiving boxes from Canada. Van's parents send them chocolates, new clothing and money. However, they must be careful not to draw the attention of the military police.

Although she dearly misses her family, Van learns to appreciate what she has; the love of her grandmother and aunt and uncle and her best friend Trang. And then one day, the time she has been waiting for arrives: Van and Ba Ngoai receive air line tickets to Toronto and special papers to enter Canada. For Van it is a time of both happiness at soon seeing her family she can hardly remember and sadness at leaving her best friend Trang and all that she has ever known.


Many parents and grandparents of children reading this book will remember the large number of refugees from the communist regime of Vietnam in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Too Young To Escape is based on the true story of a Vietnamese family who came to Canada  during the 1980's. This children's novel grew out of an earlier book authored by Skrypuch, Adrift At Sea which told about Van's brother Tuan and his escape from Vietnam. As Skrypuch mentions in her Author's Note at the back, she would often get questions at school presentation of Adrift At Sea about what happened to Van. Did she ever make it to Canada? So Skrypuch approached Van Ho and asked her to consider telling her story. Together they worked on telling Van's story, as she attempted to recall as much as possible of this period of her life. Skrypuch mentions that many of Van's extended family lived with her aunt and uncle during this trying time. To avoid cluttering Van's story with too many secondary characters, these people were left out of the narrative, making it simpler for young readers. But the essence of the story remained, with a few details filled in.

Readers will be impressed by Van Ho's respectful kindness towards her Ba Ngoai and her obedience to her aunt and uncle who, at great risk, have taken in many family members. Van's fortitude in dealing with being left behind, and making the best of her situation are evident in her story.  But the authors also show that it was difficult for Van to come to terms with being left behind. This was especially evident when photographs began arrived from Canada of her family, happy and well settled.
"A photograph fell out of the envelope...It was a picture of my whole family -- except for me. Ma had a huge grin on her face, and she stood beside a man who had to be Ba. Lined up in front of them were Tuan, Lan, and Loan. An older girl was with them too. She had to be my oldest sister Linh. They were all smiling.
The photograph made me happy and angry all at once. I was relieved that my whole family was safe. But why did they look so pleased? Didn't they miss me? Did they even thing about me at all?.."
Van's narrative shows how difficult it became for her to eventually leave her homeland, but that this was overshadowed by her happiness at being reunited with her family.

Refugees boarding a small boat to escape Vietnam.
Within weeks of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Canada began accepting refugees. During the years of 1975 and 1976, Canada accepted 6,500 refugees. Meanwhile in Vietnam, the communists punished the South Vietnamese who had fought with the Americans against them. As Van's grandmother relates in Too Young To Escape, the communists stripped the South Vietnamese of their homes, businesses and property. They lost their jobs and were unable to attend university. Many former military and government officials were sent to "re-education camps" which were really prisons. As a result of this and the strained relationships between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China, many Vietnamese decided to flee the country. But there were refugees from other countries in southeast Asia as well.

According to the online Canadian Encyclopedia entry,"Over 1 million people departed Vietnam aboard unseaworthy makeshift vessels, hoping to reach international waters and be rescued there. But first they had to face huge risks — drowning, hunger, dehydration, attacks by pirates, sexual assaults and even murder. Some of the refugees who survived all these perils were then stuck for months in crowded refugee camps in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, while others remained confined to their vessels because no country would allow them to land." This led to the refugees being called "boat people", a term generally not used today.

At this time Canadian immigration had no category for refugees. However the new Immigration Act passed in 1976 established a new category of immigrants for refugees, allowing people to enter the country based on criteria that identified them as refugees and also allowed private Canadian citizens to sponsor refugees. By April 1980 Canada accepted 60,000 Indochina refugees and throughout the 1980's Canada would accept over 200,000 refugees from Southeast Asia.The vast majority of these refugees went on to become hard-working Canadians contributing to many sectors of Canadian society.

Those wishing to understand the backstory behind the events described in Too Young To Escape are encouraged to read the Canadian Encyclopedia entry "Canadian Response to the 'Boat People" Refugee Crisis"

The Canadian Museum of History also has some excellent resources on Vietnam, the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese Refugees.

Too Young To Escape is another excellent, well-written book by Canadian Ukrainian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch that brings to light recent history in a meaningful way for young Canadians. Readers will enjoy the short interviews with Van's mother and father and the colour family photo album at the back. A must-have book for schools, homeschoolers and anyone interested in portraying Canadian history in an engaging personal manner.

Book Details:
Too Young To Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Pajama Press   2018
142 pp.