Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac's A Boy Called Slow tells the story of how the legendary Lakota warrior, Sitting Bull came to be named.

A baby boy was born in the winter of 1831 to the family of Lakota warrior named Returns Again. This family was part of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Children were usually named according to a dominant trait or the way they behaved.

Returns Again's son was given the name Slow because everything he did took a long time. It was a name the boy did not like. A Lakota boy could change his name only by doing a brave deed. And so that is just what Slow decided to do!


Accomplished Native American author Joseph Bruchac has written a simple picture book that introduces children to the early life of Lakota Sioux warrior Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull was the son of the warrior Returns-Again. He was born in 1831. During his lifetime he would live to see the loss of his traditional lands and the destruction of  his people's way of life because of the westward expansion of white settlers.

Although he eventually became a great warrior, as a young child Sitting Bull seemed to lack the necessary attributes of one. He took forever to do anything and so earned the name Slow. However, this changed as he grew older. He killed his first buffalo at the age of ten, and led a raid on a rival tribe at the age of fourteen. This earned him the new Lakota name of Tatanka-Iyotanka or Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.

It was when American white settlers began moving into the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples that Sitting Bull began to act to protect his people and their way of life. The American and Canadian governments had enacted policies designed to strip the Indigenous peoples in both countries of their land, their food source which was the buffalo and their culture, so that the land could be re-settled by white European immigrants. Sitting Bull became the leader of the resistance to this settler expansion and cultural genocide. He led his people in several key battles including the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in 1863, and in an attack on Fort Rice in 1865. By 1868, Sitting Bull was the leader of the Lakota nation.

Tensions between the Sioux Nation and white settlers dramatically increased when gold was discovered in the early 1870's in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These lands were traditional Sioux lands, granted to them by a treaty with the American government.  Unfortunately, the government refused to honour the treaty and instead insisted the Sioux move to reservations. The Sioux nation under Sitting Bull's leadership refused these terms and decided to fight the Americans. Sitting Bull fought against the U.S. troops and in what was his most famous battle, on June 25, 1876 defeating General George Armstrong Custer. Over two hundred soldiers died along with Custer. Fearing retaliation, many Sioux began moving north into Canada, first into Saskatchewan and then into the Northwest Territories. Sitting Bull came to Canada in 1877.

However, Canada like the United States, did not act honourably in dealing with Sitting Bull. The Canadian government refused Custer sanctuary and food, while the Americans set fires along the U.S.-Canada border, preventing the buffalo from moving north. Facing starvation and with no land to live on, the Sioux began returning to the United States, as did Sitting Bull who moved to the Standing Rock Reserve in North Dakota.  Sitting Bull  continued to urge his people to not relinquish their traditional lands.

In 1889 Native Americans again began to resist the takeover of their traditional lands. When Sitting Bull became involved, the American government, considering him important to the Native Americans' continued resistance, attempted to arrest him at his home. Sitting Bull was killed during the ensuing gunfight.

While Bruchac's picture book only focuses on the Sitting Bull's very early life, it can be used as an introduction to Sitting Bull and the actions of both the United States and Canadian governments towards Indigenous peoples in North America, including the systematic attempt to destroy their culture and way of life. What is missing from this picture book is a simple biography at the back with pictures of Sitting Bull, Custer, buffalo and other relevant topics.

Nevertheless, Sitting Bull's early life is told not just through Bruchac's simple text but also with the beautiful artwork of Rocco Baviera who travelled to the land of the Sioux, the Dakotas. Baviera was able to meet Sitting Bull's great-great-grandson, Isaac Dog Eagle. His paintings have captured the majesty of the Native American culture and the pivotal events of Sitting Bull's childhood.
Highly recommended.

Sitting Bull image:

Book Details:

A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac
New York: Philomel Books     1994

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Black Fox of Lorne by Marguerite De Angeli

Black Fox of Lorne tells the story of twin boys, Jan and Brus who travel from their home in Norway to start a new life in England and their adventures after they are shipwrecked.

Jan and Brus are thirteen-year-old twins who live with their father Harald Redbeard and their mother Ragnhild who is a Dane.  Their farm is located above a fiord in Norway on the southern coast. The twins have been trained by their father in many skills including the art of poetry, carving letters on rune sticks, learning the laws of their people so they can participate in decisions, how to handle weapons and care for animals. They also know how to sail, repair boats and shoot with a long bow. 

Their father, Harald Redbeard decides he must travel to a new land to make his living. He is the foster son, having been adopted at the age of ten, after his parents were lost at sea. As a foster son, he cannot inherit land unless agreed to by the sons of his foster father. However his elder foster brothers have inherited all their father's land, leaving none for Harald.  He has already sent his two older sons, Hardi and Bran with Gudmond the Bold to search out a new place but having never returned, they are believed lost.

Now Harald decides he will journey to England because his wife's countryman, Heming the Dane has settled there and will welcome them. At dinner that night, Harald tells them they will sail to England in three ships.Harald's own ship, Raven of the Wind will carry Harald, Jan, Brus and their warriors. The Hawk will carry Ragnhild, their nurse Catriona and the women and children. The third ship, Sea Wolf will carry the horses, cows, geese, hounds as well as hay and fodder for the animals.

In exchange for giving his foster brother Agnar his cattle, land and houses, Harald was given money for the boats and an ancient brooch, booty from the Franks two hundred years earlier. This brooch is believed to protect from evil and head wounds. Harald also warns the twins that their trick of switching places, pretending to be the other can be used to their advantage. Although the two boys are identical, they are very different; Brus loves hunting, hawking and caring for animals while Jan is the poet.

When summer begins, the three ships set said. Their second day at sea is stormy and Harald decides to said for the Okneys. While they are able to find safe harbour, they have lost sight of the two other ships. The next day they sail out in the hopes of finding the lost ships however another storm blows. For three days the Raven struggles to stay afloat but the storm subsides on the fourth day. Although the Raven has some damage, they are safe and Harald believes they are near the Western Isles. Once more the sea becomes rough but this time the Raven is tossed onto the rocks and sunk. Harald Redbeard, his sons Jan and Brus and fourteen men are all who survive, swept onto the shore.

When Jan goes to get water, he is set upon and captured by a group of thirty clansmen and ordered to take them to his father's camp.Harald and the warriors hear the Scots coming, and he orders Brus to hide. A tall Scotsman, introduces himself to Harald as Began Mor, Thane of Skye, the Winged Isle. He asks Harald why he has come to Began's land and invites him to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter Nineag to Gavin Dhu, the Laird of Lorne.

In Began Mor's keep, Harald is set beside Began, while each one of Harald's men is set between two of Began's men. Brus has followed them and now watches over the hill into the courtyard. The soothsayer tells of the history of the land and how Gavin Dhu known as Gavin the Black will wed Nineag the White at the Christ Mass. The monk tells the gathering the story of Christ, his birth, death and resurrection. Afterwards they all make the sign of the cross. The story causes Brus to wonder since his father Harald had not been one to accept the Christian religion.

However the feast quickly turns into a battle after one of Harald's warriors attacks Began Mor's men. The entire party of Norse warriors is slain and thrown over the walls onto the rocks. Jan is spared and taken prisoner. However, Brus who witnesses everything discovers that his father is still alive and carries him to a cave to care for him. While out to get water, Brus returns to the cave and discovers his father has been murdered and the brooch stolen. He is determined to avenge his father's murder and recover the family's talisman.

When a column of horses led by Gavin of Lorne and his men leave the castle, Brus follows knowing that Jan is a prisoner. The two boys eventually find a way to meet and Brus tells Jan the fate of their father. Over the next few days, because they are identical twins, Brus and Jan find ways to switch places. As the boys travel through Scotland, they meet many Christians who teach them about their faith and urge them to not be so quick to avenge their father's murder. As they build allies among the simple workers who have seen their lives destroyed by Gavin, Black Fox of Lorne and the cruel Began Mor, the twins also uncover a treacherous plot that threatens the very king of Scotland!


De Angeli has crafted a story that offers young readers a fascinating picture of tenth century Scotland.This is a story with the themes of vengeance and betrayal countered by forgiveness and faith.

As the twins travel through Scotland to Gavin's keep, they meet several Scots who teach them about Christianity. The twins know about Christianity because in their country, the father Harald refused to convert as ordered by the Norse king. However, once in Scotland they begin to learn about the Christian faith through the various people they meet on their journey. It is a journey that will test their intelligence and resourcefulness, but also their very beliefs.

Jan first encounters the story of Christ from Donald a shepherd who feeds him. Jan tells Donald what has befallen his family and that he intends to avenge his father's murder. But Donald tells him, "Vengeance is the Lord's. Beware lest ye find that for which ye seek! It can be an evil thing! The Lord says, 'Forgive them as I forgive you.' "  He then tells Jan the story of Christ's birth, death and resurrection as well the miracles of St. Andrew in converting the Scots. Jan who is perhaps the gentler of the twins is open to the message. "Jan listened with all his heart. This was a wondrous tale indeed. The shepherd's tale had eased the burden of grief in him. He must tell Brus."

Brus first encounters the Christ story from Morag, a crofter's wife who gives him shelter. When he tells her of his plan to avenge his father's murder, she says, "The Lord will take care of our enemies...if we trust Him and bide His time." But Brus is not open to this advice, stating, "No son leaves his father's death unavenged. And who is this God? We have many gods." Even though Morag explains Christmas to Brus, he is not ready for it insisting, "It is for his sons to avenge him."

Jan who is renamed Ian by the Scots struggles with his anger whenever he sees Gavin wearing his father's brooch. However, Murdoch Gow, a smithy who is also a prisoner and whose wife and children were murdered by Gavin teaches Ian that "God's ways are not our ways. We must have faith, for even when all seems against us, we later find that all was for the best." Ian questions Murdoch as to why Gavin makes the sign of the cross when he is cruel and a traitor. Ian knows his father Harald would never give a sign of peace and then kill innocent people as Black Gavin has done. Murdoch explains that some "...make the sign of the cross, those who speak the name of the Christ, the Holy One, in lip service only..." Ian gradually comes to a better understanding of the Catholic faith through the people he meets in Black Gavin's castle.

A young boy his own age, Alan MacDugal, is the son of Dugal who was also murdered by Black Gavin. His mother has been imprisoned elsewhere and their lands have been stolen by Gavin who has set himself up as Thane of Lorne. This means Ian and Alan have a common enemy in Gavin. Seeing Alan praying in the castle for his imprisoned mother's safety further intrigues Ian, "Could he, Ian, make a prayer to Alan's God, for the safety of his own mother?" He wonders, "Who is this God? What is the spell made by crossing the breast and touch the forehead, whispering words?"

Brus again encounters Christianity in the cottage of the shepherd, Gregory, his wife Una and their little son Tomas. He learns more about the saints and disciples who came after Christ. It is Gregory who suggests to Brus that maybe he was sent to Scotland for a reason not yet known. Brus's aversion to the new faith is seen when he finally meets up with Ian in the castle and hears his twin brother calling on God's help. Brus questions him, "With God's help? What mean you with this talk?" said Brus angrily. "What of the gods of our fathers? Are you gone soft, or simple?"

Both boys have the chance to exact revenge on Black Gavin for their father's murder. Ian has the chance to kill Gavin when they stop to drink from a stream but he hesitates because he has been taught that to kill an enemy from the back is the way of a coward. Brus too has the chance when he is accompanying Gavin on horseback. Gavin is pitched from his horse and hits his head on a stone, falling headfirst into a stream. With Gavin's head underwater, Brus has the chance to do nothing and simply leave him to drown but he does not. Instead, like his twin brother, Brus remembers his father's teaching to " just to all men.' But was it 'just' to save the life of an enemy? ' Yes,' Murdoch Gow said. 'Love thine enemy, hate him not, but hate the thing he does.' Was he, then becoming soft like Ian? He must watch lest he forget his purpose."

But when Brus travels to the priory with Gavin he is impressed by the crucifix in the chapel. "The broken figure hanging from the rood above the altar held Brus's gaze. This, then, was that Christ of whom he heard so much, who had given His life for His friends. He had been a noble warrior."

De Angeli populates her story with both good and bad characters in Christian Scotland, making the story realistic. It is the simple folk who live out their Christian faith, who have the most impact on Brus and Ian. Their imparting of some of the basic beliefs of Christianity to the twins, add to the code of honour they have learned from their father Harald. While their desire for revenge remains strong, they remain true to their warrior code of honour, resisting revenge in a way that is dishonourable. Eventually, justice is meted out to those guilty, in circumstances that protect the boys. Impressed by the sacrificial Christian God, Christ resonates with the two boys, and it is their mother's acceptance of Christianity that finally pushes them to accept the Christian faith.

Black Fox of Lorne is an exciting tale of betrayal, murder and political intrigue, but also one of justice, faith and forgiveness. Readers will be interested in the details the author incorporates into her story about life in tenth century Scotland. De Angeli's exquisite pencil sketches portray some of the events in the story.

Book Details:

Black Fox of Lorne by Marguerite De Angeli
Garden City, New York: Doubleday    1956
91 pp.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels is a fictional story based on true events that happened in Le Chambon-sure-Lignon and nearby villages located in southern France during World War II. These villages worked together to save countless Jewish children from death at the hands of the Nazis.

The story begins in early December of 1942 with the arrival of twenty-two-year-old Inspector Perdant to the fictional village of Les Lauzes. The region where the village is situated has been "living in its own little way outside the rules of the current government". Perdant is determined to see that change. He knows that the village boardinghouses are likely hiding foreign Jews and other "undesirables".

Leon and Sylvie, brother and sister, live in a boarding house called Sunnyside.  Henni, along with Madeleine, lives in a house called the Beehive along with many children who had come from French concentrations camps. Henni had been rescued from the concentration camp at Guz by Madame Desault, who is a Jew. The house is run by Monsieur Boulet. Food and care had transformed the children from being malnourished, angry and prone to stealing to smiling and healthy.

One night Perdant, out walking the deserted streets, catches young Jean-Paul Filon, a seventeen-year-old riding a bicycle without a headlight and tickets him. Later that night, in his boarding house called Sunnyside, Jean-Paul tells Sylvie that the ticket is useful because it acts as a proof of identity signed by a local policeman. This further cements his forged identity as Jean-Paul Filon. He shows Sylvie his identity card, anxious to see if it is good enough. Leon examines it and believes it to be very good.

Jean-Paul tells them about working as an office equipment repairman. His real name is Otto and one day he went to the office of the prefect of Nice on the pretext of repairing a typewriter in the prefect's office. There he was able to type a letter authorizing the release of his mother Eva Grabowski. The letter worked and they were able to come to Les Lauzes, Otto as Jean-Paul Filon and his mother as a middle-aged Turkish-Russian spinster named Mademoiselle Varushkin.

Inspector Perdant's attempt to "pay a friendly call" on the Beehive boarding house one snowy evening is thwarted by Sylvie, Leon and Jean-Paul. They engage him on the doorstep of the boardinghouse. When Perdant mentions that he heard singing, they begin to sing the Marseillaise loudly, drowning out the sound of the Hannukah celebrations going on inside and saving the Jewish children inside from certain discovery.

The next day Jean-Paul is visited by ten-year-old Jules who offers to help him. Jean-Paul warns Jules that helping is risky, that he can't know what the documents he delivers say or who they are for. Jules is undeterred and determined so Jean-Paul takes him on.

By December, 1942, wounded German soldiers are billeted at the hotel next to the boarding house where Jewish children are living. Some of the children believe the presence of the Nazis is due to a letter some wrote protesting the roundup of thirteen thousand Jews in Paris, including four thousand children. However, some of the children believe that they must speak out against the Nazis and their French collaborators.

On Christmas Day 1942, the service at the village church prompts many to think about what is happening in their country and their little village as the pastor recounts the Christmas story. While each of the children have their own thoughts, Perdant is consumed by his thoughts about the teenagers in attendance. "Like that row of teenagers. That redheaded kid, for one. He'd seen him once pulling his sled along in the middle of the night. What had he been doing out at that hour?"

At the end of the service, Pastor Autin invites Perdant to his home for dinner but Perdant turns him down. Instead, Perdant warns Autin that he knows "...there are homes full of non-Aryans and anti-patriots." and that if he isn't careful he may be arrested too.

But Perdant continues his snooping, determined to find out how the Jews are being safely brought to the village. He is determined to do something about the pastors whom he believes are deeply involved in rescuing Jewish children. In the winter of 1942-43 the two pastors and the school director are arrested. More men join the maqisards hiding in the forests. Leon disappears from school. Henni writes her aunt in Switzerland to try to get a visa. Jean-Paul, aided by Leon and Sylvie continues forging documents, ration cards and identities. And Madame Creneau who locates safe houses for the Jewish refugees and who helps them cross into Switzerland, decides that it is no longer safe to hide people. She asks Philippe to take on the task of helping them across the border into Switzerland.

When Jules and his friend Claude Dupont are caught painting anti-German slogans on the road, they are taken to Perdant who questions them. Protecting Claude who is actually giving Perdant clues as to what is going on, Jules maintains that Claude is slow. Perdant lets Claude go but decides to use Jules, whom he suspects of knowing much more than he lets on, as an informant.

As the Gestapo sets up more and more raids, and Perdant becomes determined to sniff out those helping hide the Jewish refugees it becomes necessary to move the refugees out of the village and plateau. As Philippe, Jean-Paul, and others work to help the refugees, Jules works to convince Perdant that he has chosen the wrong side.


Village of Scoundrels tells the story of a fictional French village that works together to save thousands of Jewish refugees from certain death during the Nazi occupation of France. The story is based on the real life events that occurred in the village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon during the course of the Second World War.

From 1940 until 1944, the residents of Le Chambon, led by Pastors Andre Trecome and Edouard Theis, helped over five thousand refugees, including up to three thousand Jewish refugees. The village is situated on the Vivarais Plateau in south-central France. Its past history of persecution of the largely Huguenot by French Catholics during the 16th to 18th century may have played a significant part in the resistance activities of the villagers who did not support the Vichy government led by Marshal Petain. However the efforts to help the Jewish people in this region involved people from all faiths including Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals and nonbelievers.

Preus tailored many of the characters in her novel after real people. At the beginning of the novel Preus provides readers with a helpful alphabetical list of the cast of characters. At the back of the novel in the Epilogue, she describes the real life people who each character is based on. For example, Jean-Paul was based on Oscar Rosowsky, a Jewish teenager who wanted to study medicine and who became a master forger during the war. Oscar was able to forge a letter ordering the release of his mother from Rivesaltes internment camp. The character of Philippe who leads people to safety in Switzerland was inspired by Pierre Piton, who also was a passeur or people smuggler. Catherine Cabessedes Colburn inspired the character of Celeste, the young girl from Paris who eventually carries messages and contraband for the maquis. Madame Desault, Madame Creneau , Henni and Max are also based on real life people. The character of Jules is based somewhat on Paul Majola who did make deliveries for Oscar Rosowsky. Inspector Perdant is loosely based on policeman Leopold Praly who was shot by the maquis eight months after arriving in Le Chambon.

Village of Scoundrels is a novel whose overarching theme is that of journeys. There are the physical journeys of the refugees rescued from the concentration camps on their way to safety in Les Lauzes, of the refugees from France to Switzerland. But there are also many personal journeys, ones from fear and inaction to courage and resistance. An example of this journey can be found in the character of Celeste, a young French girl who watches as events unfold in the village. However, at some point she can no longer just watch.

When Mme. Creneau asks Celeste if she knows of anywhere they can hide the refugees safely for a short period of time, "Celeste's urge was to go home, climb into bed, and pull the covers over her head. " She believes everything is falling apart until Sylvie reminds her that "as long as there was something to do, there was hope. She tells Mme. Creneau about the abandoned chateau. Mme. Creneau now gives Celeste may responsibilities, which she steps up to take on.

As she and Philippe rush back to the chateau to help those hidden there, Celeste explains to Philippe how she became involved. "For a long time I watched you and others doing things, and I admired you...but I was too afraid. I didn't think I could do it -- I was sure I'd mess up. Then I went on a little mission. I was still afraid, but I was doing something. I had a little power. I could actually do something to resist. To fight back. And the oddest thing happened. That huge dark fear of what could happen -- it went away...I guess I had to do the thing I dreaded most in order to lose my fear of doing it."

Perhaps the most dramatic journey is that of Inspector Perdant. He is sent to a small French village to check up on the locals. It is suspected that the villagers are hiding Jewish children and other "undesirables" as Perdant refers to them. Upon his arrival, Perdant definitely senses that something is amiss in the village, although he's uncertain as to what it might be. He's determined to find the Jewish children he believes are being hidden. He comes to believe that almost everyone from the pastors, to the children to the farmers are complicit. And he is correct.

 His initial warnings and threats have little effect on the pastors or the farmers, so he decides to pressure ten-year-old Jules, a young boy who tends his goats on the hills surrounding the village. But Jules is not afraid of Perdant. In fact, quite the opposite. He becomes Perdant's conscience pushing the young policeman to face the morality of his choices as hunts down those helping save the Jewish refugees.

Perdant is pushed into action when the Gestapo conducts a raid on one of the boarding houses. Humiliated at being outdone by the Gestapo, Perdant is decides he must act despite his repulsion at the brutality of the raid. But he is deeply conflicted.  He goes to the river and throws stones into the water.
"Each stone a bad decision he had made.
The decision to join the national police.
His desire for pormotion that had led him here.
His fawning admiration for the leaders of Vichy and, worse, their German overlords."

Like the most French, Perdant doesn't like the Germans but he wonders "Why did he want to do what he did?" Perdant had started out wanting to help France. "He didn't know what to believe anymore, except that he'd seen these kids on their sleds and bikes, singing as they hiked in the woods. They were hardly dangerous. They were just kids! All they wanted was to have a life." Yet Perdant is not yet ready to give up. He wants to make that big arrest.

So he seeks out Jules who he orders to take him to the abandoned Chateau de Roque. Jules of course, knows the maquis are using this old building as a place of refugee so he tries his best to physically thwart Perdant. At the same time Jules attempts to get Perdant to see how his actions are morally wrong.  Perdant believes that "Someone has to keep law and order...." and questions Jules as to why the people of Les Lauzes do not follow the law, stating they cannot "choose the laws you like or don't like, willy-nilly." But Jules tells him that it is not a case of people not "liking" the laws, instead they believe the laws are wrong. "...Everybody knows what is wrong, but some people are too afraid to say or do anything. And some people manage to do a lot of twisty turns in their minds because they wish it to be right. But you can't make it right by wanting it to be right."

Perdant insists that people have to follow the law, but he knows that he is really trying to fill a quota demanded by Hitler in retribution for two German officers killed. Remembering his one successful arrest of two Jewish brothers brings no comfort to Perdant because it is not the capture of the brothers but the resistance of the young teenagers in an attempt to save the boys that fills his mind.

Eventually Jules, desperate to stop Perdant, confronts him with the policeman's gun, asking him what he thinks he is accomplishing by his spying, hunting and arresting of people. It is a question Perdant has asked and now has no answer. "Now he tried to rouse himself to answer with his usual patriotic fervor -- to save France for the Frenchmen, save the country from anti-patriots, communists, immigrants, the Jews who had been working to undermine the civilized nations of Europe....The problem was, he wasn't sure he believed it anymore."

It is only when Jules is seriously wounded that Perdant comes to his senses. He now sees all the resistance's activities with complete clarity,but even more importantly he sees his own actions compared to those of the teens in the resistance. He now must decide what to do with his life; he can continue to go down the path he is on or he can change direction.  Perdant acts to help them. He stalls the police and gendarmes as they arrive at the chateau. When they do raid the chateau, he has bought them the time to escape. It is the beginning of Perdant's redemption.

Village of Scoundrels is a beautifully crafted novel based on a true story of courage and resistance that occurred in France during World War II. It is a novel of courage and resistance in the face of great fear, and redemption. That Preus did extensive research prior to writing the novel is evident. She also visited the region of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

There is a wealth of supplementary material at the end of the novel including the detailed Epilogue with information on many key figures in the resistance, a Historical Timeline and a detailed Bibliography listing many resources for further research.

Well done and highly recommended.

Book Details:

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus
New York: Amulet Books        2019
302 pp.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Allies by Alan Gratz

Allies tells the story of the D-Day invasion of June 1944 over a twenty-four hour period through the eyes of four main characters and a host of minor ones.

Private Dee Carpenter is only sixteen years old. His parents were political refugees from Germany. When Dee was only five-years-old his Uncle Otto vanished in what has become known in Germany as "Night and Fog". His uncle was a labour leader involved in organizing factory workers in Nazi Germany. Dee's parents did not support the Nazi government's policies. But as the Nazis gained more and more support, Dee's parents fled to the United States. Dee's real name is Dietrich Zimmerman.

When the United States was drawn into the Second World War, Dee decided to enlist, something foreign nationals were allowed to do. Determined to return to his homeland of Germany to "beat Hitler", Dietrich decided to change his name at the suggestion of the recruiter.

Now in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, as part of Operation Overlord, Dee finds himself aboard Higgins landing craft on the English Channel, headed towards Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. With him is seventeen-year-old Private Sid Jacobstein, a hulking six-foot four-inches tall Jewish New Yorker bent on revenge.But their landing on Omaha Beach is a disaster as they face a brutal hailstorm of bullets that cuts down many of the soldiers.

Eleven-year-old Samira Zidane and her mother Kenza are racing along the road outside their village in German-occupied northern France. Being outside after curfew is dangerous. If caught it means automatic arrest and jail and even being shot as a spy. Samira's mother is a spy for the French Resistance.

Samira's parents had been students from Algeria at the University of Paris when the Nazis overran Franch. Samira's father was killed in student protests against the German occupation. Only seven-years-old at the time, Samira and her mother fled to the countryside, working as messengers for the Resistance.

Now Samira's mother must let the Resistance, hiding in the forest south of Villers-Bocage know that the Allied forces are set to invade France and begin the liberation of Europe. The message has been broadcast in a code over BBC radio.

In the countryside, Samira and her mother witness Nazi soldiers rounding up French farmers to be executed. This is in retaliation for the murder of  a German officer, Major Vogel. When her mother sees a woman lifting her children out the back window of a farmhouse, she rushes forward to help the woman but is captured along with the French family. Samira narrowly escapes capture by hiding in the family's doghouse.Terrified but determined to help her mother, Samira decides to try to find the "Maquis" as the French Resistance is known. She hopes they will help her free her mother.

After managing to outwit a Nazi patrol at a bridge, Samira is found by the Resistance. She delivers the coded message that informs them of the impending Allied invasion. But when Samira begs them to help her free her mother from the Bayeux garrison, they refuse. The Maquis tell her that the message is also an instruction to carry out Operation Tortoise and Operation Green which involve the sabotaging of roads and rail lines to hinder the German response to the invasion. At this Samira decides she will join the Resistance, although they are not keen to have her.

Nineteen-year-old Lance Corporal James McKay of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion is from Winnipeg, Manitoba. With him is Lance Corporal Samuel Tremblay, a Cree Indian from Quebec. Both are in the twin engine Albemarle troop transport aircraft, enroute to France where they will parachute in to support the Allied invasion. Their Alpha Company's mission is "to protect the 9th Battalion's left flank on the Merville Battery, then cover their advance to Le Plein." The Merville Battery is an important bunker with four 100-mm howitzer cannons that are aimed at the Normandy beaches where Allied troops will be landing.

However, after a dangerous parachute into France, dodging tracer fire in sky and "Rommel's asparagus" on the ground, James and Sam land mostly unharmed, but seven miles from their objective. Eventually they meet up with survivors from B and C Companies and then Major MacLeod from C Company. Their mission now is to destroy the radio station at Varaville as well as the enemy headquarters there.

Private Bill Richards is a nineteen-year-old Sherman tank driver in the Royal Dragoons. Bill who is from Liverpool, England has a crew that includes his tank commander, Lieutenant Walter Lewis, his co-driver Private Thomas Owens-Cook, and tank gunner Private George Davies, Private Bryan Murphy the tank's gun loader. Their tank, named Achilles is on a boat with two other Sherman tanks, the Valiant and Coventry's Revenge. Part of Operation Neptune, they are supposed to be landing at the British sector's Gold beach but have drifted west to the American's Omaha Beach. After watching two other tanks, the Indefatigable and Mama's Boy! sink in the rough seas, Lewis orders the boat to take them in closer to shore.

As they land on the beach, Coventry's Revenge is hit by a shell and destroyed. The Achilles hits a mine which disables it, destroying the tank's left tread. Because their tank is too high to fire on the German 88 mm gun that is taking out the tanks, Bill and the others get out of the tank to dig a pit underneath it. He is helped by American soldiers including Dee Carpenter who has managed to make his way up the beach. They are successful but while the Achilles does take out the one German gun, its crew is killed minutes later by a shell from a second German gun.

Corporal Henry Allen belongs to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all black unit, in the segregated US Army. Twenty-year-old Henry is from the South Side of Chicago, Ill. and was a premed student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania when the US entered the war. He decided to train as a medic when the Army wouldn't place him as an officer because white soldiers didn't trust black officers. Now, on Omaha beach among wounded and dying white soldiers, Henry finds the white soldiers have no such qualms.

Henry sets up his medical station on the beach. The invasion at Omaha Beach has been a disaster with hundreds of wounded and dead American soldiers. His own unit, scheduled to come ashore when the beach was secure is now fighting for their lives. As he works through exhaustion to save soldiers, Henry encounters Lieutenant Richard Hoyte, a white soldier from Georgia.  Hoyte who had made Henry's life in boot camp miserable, lies badly wounded on the beach, his right foot destroyed by a mine. Henry helps Hoyte, who now treats him with respect and thanks him for saving his life.

Among the soldiers Henry helps, are Sid who has shrapnel in his leg and Dee who has a bullet in his left arm. Dee and Sid along with other surviving American soldiers decide to get off the beach and try to attack the Germans manning the bunkers. As the invasion continues, each soldier struggles to complete his mission, one step at a time.


Allies is an excellent, well-written novel that portrays the reality of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. In particular the novel focuses in on the battle on Omaha Beach,  located in the American sector, weaving together five storylines over a time period of twenty-four hours.

The main characters are sixteen-year-old American-German immigrant Dee Carpenter and his Jewish buddy Sid Jacobstein, eleven-year-old French-Algerian Samira Zidane and her mother, Private Bill Richards a British Sherman tank driver and his crew, Canadian paratrooper James McKay, and American medic Henry Allen, a black man working to save lives on Omaha beach. Each of these storylines portray the various aspects of Operation Overlord; the invasion by sea with troops and tanks, by air with paratroopers as well as aerial bombardment by the Allies, and help from within France by the French Resistance.

The novel's focus at Normandy is on the battle at Omaha Beach, one of five landings sites for the invasion. Omaha Beach has the distinction of being the sector which suffered the worst casualties during Operation Overlord. The landing on the early morning of June 6 intially was a disaster. The Allies were misinformed as to the strength of the German defenses in this sector. American bombing of the German bunkers the night before was inaccurate and ineffectual. The heavy smoke from the night's Allied bombardment masked the true situation at the beach - the German bunkers remained intact and operational. Rough seas and troops landed in wrong areas also contributed to the disaster.

The first wave of soldiers were decimated by mortars, artillery and machine gun fire. Their landing was supposed to be supported by Sherman tanks, but many sank in the rough seas, were disabled on the beach or destroyed by German shells. Sappers sent to destroy the beach defenses were unsuccessful, as most were killed or wounded. The second wave of troops fared just as badly, this time jammed on the beach with no where to go, making them easy targets for the Germans. Eventually, some soldiers made their way off the beach and were able to secure some of their objectives. Over two thousand American soldiers were either wounded, missing or dead at the end of the day.

Gratz successfully portrays some of the chaos, terror and death of the assault on Omaha Beach. This is no glamorous portrayal of war, although there are moments of valour and sacrifice. There is blood, grit, agony, terror and death. When Dee lands on Omaha Beach, his experience is brutal, shocking and unforgettable:
"Lungs burning, eyes stinging, Dee kicked again, breaking the surface. This time he floated, and what he saw as the waves took him up and down was a scene from hell. Dead bodies bumped into Dee, and the sea was dark with blood. Men screamed and cried out for medics who weren't there. German pillboxes on the high cliffs laid down a deadly cross-fire. "Czech hedgehogs" - huge three-legged, three-armed anti-tank obstacles made from steel bars welded together into an X shape -- littered the beach, undamaged by the Allied battleship barrage. Soldiers lay crumpled on the wet sand around the obstacles like stones."

Dee's experience of watching the death of a tank crew he had been helping only minutes before is also heart-rending.
"Dee scanned the raging bonfire that had been the Achillies, trying to find anyone who had survived. But there was nothing. Whoever had been inside the tank, and the two soldiers who had dug out the crater with hime -- they were all dead.
What were their names? Where were they from? Who had they left behind in England who would mourn them when they didn't come home?"
All Dee knows is that the friendly soldier was Bill whom he will remember for the rest of his life.

But the soldiers on the beach are not the only ones who encounter danger and stomach churning fear. As paratrooper James McKay fights his way into France to take out German positions, he witnesses death. As they engage the Germans, James's commander and three other men are  killed instantly from a shell. The finality of it, shocks James.
"But the way Major MacLeod and the others had been there one moment and then just --- just obliterated the next, chilled James to the bone. The thought that his life might end instantly explosively, in the fraction of a second, scared a stillness into hi he knew would be with him the rest of his life."

However, as the fight continues on the beaches and inland, Gratz shows the tide turning and the Allied soldiers beginning to score victories. With this comes hope as the Allies gain a foothold in France. Gratz neatly ties up his story by having some of his characters meet at the end. Dee and Sid reunite after becoming separated when Sid learns Dee is a German. They both meet Samira and her mother, who was saved by the liberation of Bayeux by the Allies.

Gratz also includes a storyline that portrays the courageous contributions made by the French Resistance in helping the Allies. Their work, as Gratz shows, was not without risk. They were a vital component in helping slow the German response to the Allied invasion.

Allies is populated by a unique cast of characters that represent the major players in the invasion; England, Canada, and the United States. The characters are well crafted with Gratz focusing on their humanity, making them very believable. Some are noble like Henry Allen a black medic who has encountered discrimination both in society and in the army and who chooses to aid the very man who made his life so miserable in boot camp. Some like Richard Hoyte, Allen's tormentor, start out mean, but come to realize Henry's humanity in a moment of intense suffering. Many like James, Dee, Bill and Sid show unwavering courage - acting while filled with fear for their lives, not even certain why they signed up.

Gratz's extensive Author's Note at the back provides good background information on D-Day. On one note however,  Gratz is terribly incorrect. He writes, "Canada was slow to send its soldiers into a war so far from home, so many Canadians who wanted to fight joined the US military to see action right away." This is mostly inaccurate. The Battle of Dunkirk, which occurred from May 26 to June 4, 1940, was an operation to withdraw English, Canadian and Polish troops (among others) from France as they were losing the battle for Western Europe to the Germans. Canada already had troops in Europe fighting by mid-1940. On August 19, 1942, the infamous Dieppe raid was launched. Over six thousand soldiers, the vast majority of which were Canadians, were involved. It was a disaster that led to the deaths of  over three thousand Canadians. Only about fifty American soldiers were involved in the Dieppe raid.The United States did not enter World War Two until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, although they did supply material to the Allied war effort.

My own father enlisted in September of 1939, along with his three brothers. He was sent over to England immediately to train and was placed into the signal corps. After the Dieppe disaster, the Allies were reluctant to launch another invasion until they were certain there was a good possibility of success. My father was not part of the attacking forces on D-Day but arrived shortly afterwards and was not involved in the liberation of Holland but stayed on as part of the occupying army in Germany after the war. As an American, Gratz should give Canada.

Gratz provides his readers with an excellent two page map that shows where the events for each character occur. Allies is well written, engaging and tense. This novel will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction and in particular, those who want to learn more about the Normandy invasion.

Book Details:

Allies by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press 2019
322 pp.

Friday, March 13, 2020

All In A Drop by Lori Alexander

Antony van Leeuwenhoek lives in the town of Delft, Netherlands. It is a place of tree-lined canals and busy merchants. Antony lives at a time which comes to be known as the Golden Age for the Netherlands. The Dutch own the largest fleet of ships  in the world and travel to many countries bringing in many goods from Africa, North America and Asia.

Antony's family are tradesmen: his grandfather was a beer brewer and his father makes wicker baskets used to transport fragile goods on the ships.

Antony's father dies when is he is quite young. With his mother's remarriage, he is sent, at the age of only eight to a boarding school outside of Delft.

At the age of fourteen, his schooling now finished, Antony moves to Benthuizen to live with his uncle. He sends Antony to Amsterdam to train in a linen's merchant's shop. In Amsterdam, Antony meets people from different countries and cultures.

For six years, Antony works as an apprentice to a linen merchant. Finally ready to start his own business, he moves back to Delft in 1654. He is only twenty-two years old and is now a draper, a person who sells cloth.

To check the quality of the cloth he sells, Antony uses a magnifying glass that helps him to see the number of threads in a swatch of cloth.

In 1668, a trip to London, England for vacation changes the course of Antony's life. While in London, he learns about the work of Robert Hooke, an English scientist who uses a microscope to view objects very closely. Hooke has written a book called Micrographia about what he's seen through his microscope. Although Antony cannot read Hooke's book because it's written in English, the pictures intrigue him.

When Antony returns home to the Netherlands, he decides to build his own microscope. This microscope is different from Hooke's. It has a pea-size lens held between two small brass rectangles and a screw mount to hold a specimen. His first subject is a bit of moldy bread. But what Antony sees is more detailed than the picture in Robert Hooke's Micrographia.

After viewing many different specimens through his microscopes, (each specimen is mounted on its own microscope), Antony decides to show his work to a friend, Reinier de Graaf, a scientist who encourages him to share his findings with the Royal Society in London. At first scientists are skeptical because Antony is unknown to them but they find his observations interesting and they request that he write them each time makes a new observation.

This is thrilling for Antony and he begins his work in earnest, hiring a local artist to draw what he sees in each of his microscopes. But Antony's most famous discovery is yet to come. It is one that one hundred years after his death would lead scientists to make important discoveries about disease.


All In A Drop chronicles the important work of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, now considered the Father of Microbiology. Written in third person, Alexander brings to life Antony's efforts to learn about the hidden world that surrounds all of us. His work with what was a relatively new instrument called the microscope demonstrated that an  invisible and unknown world hidden from human eyes existed. This  microscopic was difficult for scientists living in Antony's era to fully comprehend.

 In the chapter, The Father of Microbiology, Alexander considers how Antony's discovery of hidden organisms was to eventually play an important role in medicine. Unfortunately, few scientists in Antony's time, including Antony himself failed to recognize just how important this hidden world of microbes was to the health of mankind. It would be one hundred years before the connection between microbes and disease would be made, allowing doctors to save millions of lives. This delay Alexander believes was likely partly the fault of Antony who worked alone, had no rigorous scientific training, and kept his methods a secret. He never passed on his knowledge through lectures or teaching, although his letters were published in the oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions. Nevertheless, as Alexander writes, "...the work Antony did with microscopes forever changed the way we see the world around us."

Alexander's third person narrative is straightforward, easy to follow and enhanced by the illustrations of Vivien Mildenberger which were rendered in pastels, watercolours and coloured pencil. Included are relevant photographs, a Timeline of Events, a Glossary, an Author's Note which explains the importance of Antony van Leeuwenhoek's work, Source Notes and a Selected Bibliography for further reading. This short chapter book is also indexed. A great introduction to microbiology for young readers.

Book Details:

All In A Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World by Lori Alexander
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company    2019
93 pp.

Image credit:

Friday, March 6, 2020

Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga

Jude lives in a small city in Syria with her mama, baba and her older brother Issa. Their town, situated below the mountains and close to the sea, is very supportive of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Jude's father runs a store near a tourist hotel. Jude's best friend, Fatima lives across the courtyard their families share. Although Fatima is only a bit older, because she has her period and now wears a headscarf, Jude feels her friend is "kilometers ahead" of her. Both girls love American movies and want to be movies stars, although Fatima also wants to be a doctor.

Jude's most favourite person in the entire world is her brother Issa who has become involved in meetings about democracy and revolution. He wants something better for Syria and he wants change. Their baba is furious that Issa attends these meetings which he considers treasonous but Issa insists that it is Assad who is treasonous. Their mama tells Issa that they should not tempt fate, that life is good however, Issa reminds her that life is not good for everyone in Syria.

On the day of a huge protest, Jude is forced to stay home. The next day her baba shows her pictures in the newspaper of bloodied protesters. After the protest, police are everywhere, at school, the butcher shop, the beach, and there are rumours of people being rounded up and put in jail. In a nearby town, men with stolen tanks and weapons have taken over and are fighting the Syrian army. In Jude's town, people are now openly showing their support for the president by bowing before his picture which is hung in shops everywhere.  Jude's mama is careful to make sure the police are aware of her support for Assad.

Despite the violence, and warnings from Baba, Issa remains committed to the protests. Eventually he moves out of the family home into his own apartment. On the day that Jude is finally allowed to visit him, his apartment is raided by armed police. Issa manages to lead Jude to safety but this leaves their parents terrified. Her father must now stay at his shop to ensure it remains safe.

Amid rising tensions, Jude learns that she and Mama, who is expecting a baby, will be visiting her uncle who lives in America. However, both Baba and Issa will remain behind as Baba must stay to care for their store.

After one final party with friends, Jude and Mama travel to Cincinnati Ohio where they are met by Uncle Mazin, his wife Aunt Michelle  who "looks like an American movie star" and her cousin Sarah. Uncle Mazin and Aunt Michelle are very welcoming but Jude's cousin Sarah seems unhappy about their visit. Jude and her mother settle into a bedroom on the third floor of her uncle's huge old home located in a neighbourhood called Clifton.Once they are settled in, they call Baba in Syria.  Their town is safe for now but Jude senses fear in her baba.

In the fall, Jude begins attending the same school as her cousin Sarah.Instead of helping Jude, Sarah shuns her and goes off to be with her friends.  Jude has seven classes including math and ESL. Although Jude knows how to speak some English, she dreads the ESL class. However, in Mrs. Ravenswood's ESL class, Jude finds a place to belong.

As she struggles to fit in at school, to cope with homesickness and missing Baba and Issa, her aunt and uncle try to help Jude adjust to life in America. Gradually Jude begins to find her way, make friends and to dream again of a future filled with hope.


Other Words For Home is a delightful gem of a novel, written in free verse. The story, which covers about nine months, focuses on a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee's experiences as she struggles to adapt to life in America. Fleeing from the violence of the Syrian Civil War, Jude and her mother travel to Cincinnati to stay with her mother's brother, Jude's Uncle Mazin and his family.

When she first arrives in America, Jude is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a country so different from Syria. Everything is bigger, brighter and faster. So much selection and the feeling that "everyone is trying to sell you something", Jude finds herself "... dizzy with want," But Jude also notices another side to America when she sees the poor on the street. She notes that Americans like to label things because "They help them know what to expect." and that her school is filled with many different types of people, with different skin color and shapes and sizes. Jude is also struck by the boldness of Americans as exemplified in restaurant ads.

Warga's portrayal of the struggles a Syrian refugee might encounter in a new country like America seems realistic. The author states that Jude's story reflects the experience of a family friend who was able to leave Syria by plane, a method most refugees did not have to means to use. (Most fled over land and by sea in rickety boats.)  Jude struggles with learning a new language, making friends, understanding a new culture and encounters the ugliness of racism. She must deal with missing her way of life in Syria and with the fear of having her brother missing in Aleppo. Jude must also begin to cope with personal changes as she starts having her period and moves to wearing a head scarf. If her skin colour and heavy accent haven't already set her aside, her head scarf opens her to more visible racism, with unsettling and unkind remarks from both strangers and even her well-meaning Aunt Michelle.

Warga employs the tried formula of a new student who finds herself through participation in a school event such as a concert, competition or school play. In Other Words For Home, Jude gradually attains a sense of belonging, when she takes the bold step of auditioning for a speaking role in the school play, Beauty and The Beast. She is warned by her new Muslim friend Layla, that such roles are not for girls like us.
"Jude, those parts aren't for girls like us...
We're the type of girls that design the sets,
that stay backstage.
We're not girls who
glow in the spotlight."

But Jude is having none of it. She wants to be one of "those girls." The required two minute monologue gives Jude the chance to speak out and speak up.

"Every time I practice,
I think about how wonderful
it feels to speak
for two whole minutes,
with no fear of being interrupted,
with no one saying, Skety.

Just me and my big mouth,
being heard."

Auditioning and winning a speaking part, offers Jude the opportunity to be a part of something big, to fit in, to make friends. It is the beginning of her rebuilding her life in America.

One of the themes explored in the novel is that of luck and the belief that those who are able to move to America are "lucky". Jude experiences guilt that she has been able to escape from Syria while so many have not. As the war intensifies and America and other countries begin to close their doors to refugees, Jude tries to find a reason why she deserves to be one of the "lucky" people:
"I search every day for a clue about why I deserve
to be here in Aunt Michelle's kitchen,
and fed.
When so many others
just like me are not.

Lucky. I am learning how to say it
over and over again in English.
I am learning how it tastes --
sweet with promise 
and bitter with responsibility."

As Thanksgiving approaches, both Omar who is from Somalia and Jude struggle with how luck has impacted them. When Omar struggles to mention what he's thankful for, Jude understands.
"Omar goes next.
It takes him a moment to speak,
and I wonder if like me,
he is searching for something to say.
If he is struggling with how you can feel so lucky
and unlucky
at the same time...

we are lucky to be here
when so many others aren't
But we don't understand the luck of
why or how
just the luck."

Other Words For Home is a book about journeys both geographical and personal. There is the obvious journey of Jude and her mother by plane from war-torn Syria to safety in America. There is Jude's own inner journey, as she begins to make her own choices like whether or not to wear a head scarf or to apply for a speaking part in the school play instead of accepting what others might expect of her. There is Jude's journey from being told "Jude, skety", meaning "Jude, be quiet" to speaking a two minute monologue in front of an audience.

Jude's cousin Sarah experiences her own inner journey as she moves from shunning her cousin and experiencing jealousy over the cultural connection Jude shares with Sarah's father,  to moving towards acceptance. Sarah apologizes to Jude for her unkind remarks, offering to help Jude's friend Layla after their restaurant is targeted in a racial attack and is drawn into a deeper relationship with her cousin after the birth of Jude's sister, Amal. There is Jude's mother's journey towards adapting to a new life by learning to speak English, and encouraging her daughter in her own journey of self-discovery.

Although Other Words For Home may not necessarily reflect the typical Syrian war refugee's experience in fleeing the country, it seems realistic in its portrayal of the struggles that newcomers to America might experience in adapting to a different culture and in dealing with discrimination and misunderstanding. Jude is a thoughtful, strong, intelligent girl, whom readers will come to identify with. Warga has put a face to refugees, those who are different and vulnerable, showing their dignity and humanity.

Book Details:

Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga
New York: Balzer + Bray       2019

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins

Life: The First Four Billion Years takes readers from the Big Bang to the beginning of the evolution of humans. Much of the detail  and the scenarios presented in this nonfiction book for young readers are speculative, as no humans were alive to witness past events in Earth's history.

Earth's story begins with the "Big Bang" which is described as, "Once upon a time along, long time ago, there was, as far as we know, nothing. And then - no one knows how or why -- something happened. A jumble of matter and energy and antimatter - the universe appeared!"

Nine billion years after the Big Bang our sun began to form from a molecular cloud. While most of the material in the molecular cloud went into the new star, some of it began revolving around that star and clumping together. The star became our sun, and the clumps of material revolving around the sun became the planets of our solar system.

From this starting point, author Margin Jenkins takes young readers through the First Ice Age (Early Proterozoic) explaining the Great Oxygenation Event. Other topics include (but are not limited to):
  • Boring Billion period in which there were few changes on Earth. The very earliest life-forms were tiny cells known as prkaryotes and eventually eukaryotes.
  • Second Ice Age (Cryogenian) which happened around 720 million years ago. This period saw the first fungi, animals, brown algae and red (or green) algae.
  • Edicaran period around 570 million years ago. Organisms that lived during this time "remain mysterious to this day."
  • Cambrian period which saw many new underwater life forms develop.
Martin discusses the development of burrowing organisms and predators as well as creatures with exoskeletons and the development of jaws and teeth.

Although by the Silurian period fish were the dominant animals underwater, life on land was expanding and evolving. Simple small plants producing spores now offered an escape from aquatic predators and facilitated the move onto land. In the Devonian, giant fungi dominated life on land, while "At some point during the Devonian, fish finally started venturing onto land."  Our only evidence is "...preserved footprints, made by creatures walking across mudflats about 395 million years ago."

Jenkins also offers pages that cover a range of interesting topics as he moves through time including
  • March of the Tetrapods
  • Continents on the Move which explains the rearrangement of Gondwana and Laurasia into the supercontinent, Pangea
  • Disaster explores the Permian extinction which coincided with massive worldwide volcanic activity
Jenkins chronicles the rise and fall of the dinosaurs with pages titled The Start of Something Big, The Age of Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs Take Flight, Life Under the Dinosaurs, and The End of The Giants which explores the demise of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, giant sea reptiles and ammonites. He writes,
"Whatever the exact causes, the extinctions seem to have taken place over a short period of time, geologically speaking - almost certainly no more than a few tens of thousands of years, perhaps much less."

In the Age of Mammals and The Continents Taking Shape, the rise of mammals and the evolution of various groups of mammals after the great extinction is presented. The Road To Us explores the beginnings of the primates, our ancestors and moves onto the beginnings of the evolution of man.


     Life The First Four Billion Years is an informative, large format picture book definitely geared to older readers interested in the history of life on Earth. Jenkins uses lots of technical terms that are explained in the text and also in a Glossary at the back of the book.

    Jenkins who is a conservation biologist in England, indicates that he "read hundreds of scientific papers in researching this book". and it certainly shows! His biology background is evident in the use of exact biological terms throughout the text. He also writes that the information  presented was the most current available but that new discoveries may change some of what he has written.

    Accompanying Jenkins' detailed text are the mixed media illustrations of Grahame Baker-Smith. There are detailed pencil drawings of the fantastical creatures that lived many eons ago as well as many full page, colour illustrations of significant events in Earth history. Some of these events include the Solar System's birth, the Permian volcanic eruptions and the approach of the asteroid that is believed to have been responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

    This picture book, rich in scientific detail, will appeal to those who with an interest in Earth history. Readers will get a good sense of how scientists today believe life evolved on Earth while at the same time understanding that there is much we don't know.

    Book Details:

    Life The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins
    Somerville, Massachusetts:  Candlewick Studio     2019
    79 pp.

    Sunday, February 23, 2020

    Words On Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen

    Words On Fire explores the work of the book smugglers of 19th century Lithuania during the Russian occupation through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl.

    It is 1893, and twelve-year-old Audra Zikaris lives on a farm with her father Henrikas and her mother Lina. Audra's father has a travelling magic show that takes him from one village to the next.

    On the night of the summer solstice, when the midsummer festivities are being held, Audra's father is getting ready to travel to another village. He suggests to her mother that Audra accompany him but her mother refuses saying that Audra might get lost and it is dangerous.

    From the argument between her parents Audra begins to understand that her fathers' travels to other villages as a magician is actually a cover for something else, which at this time she doesn't quite understand.

    Her mother relents, agreeing to allow Audra to go but warning her that she must follow their rules. Audra is warned to avoid a particular Cossack, a policeman named Rusakova who strictly enforces the Russian laws. Audra is told she must speak Russian and not Lithuanian like they do at home.

    Later that evening, dressed in her finest clothes as Audra goes outside to hang out the laundry she sees Cossack soldiers making their way towards their farmhouse. Running inside the house, Audra sees her father and mother quickly stuffing wrapped packages inside his traveling sack. Her father orders Audra to flee into the forest with her mother while he attempts to stall the soldiers. As they cross their farmland, Audra hears the soldiers break down the front door. When her mother falls, her foot tangled in wire, Audra stops to help but her mother urges her to flee into the forest. She gives Audra her father's bag and tells her she must deliver a package in the bag to a woman in Venska, named Milda Sabiene. Audra's last glance homeward is of her mother being arrested and their farmhouse being burned.

    Pursued into the forest by the Cossack soldiers, Audra hides in the underbrush. As night falls, Audra hears the Midsummer's Eve celebrations by a group of young people who have come into the forest. The group is questioned by a Russian, Officer Rusakov who offers them a reward should they find Audra.However, the group ends up helping Audra after they discover her hiding in the ferns. THey form a protective circle around her so Rusakov and the soldiers can't see her and then give her a basket of cakes and directions to get to Venska.

    After resting overnight, Audra continues her journey but soon finds herself lost. While attempting to cross a stream, she encounters a strange boy, Lukas who agrees to take her to Venska, after losing at a card trick. It turns out that not only does Lukas know Milda Sabiene but when Audra meets Milda, she discovers they both know her parents.  In Milda's house, Audra sees that Milda is a woman in disguise. She learns that the package she has been carrying is a black leather bound book that requires a key to open the lock on the spine. Milda shows Audra the secret her of her home, two rooms beneath the house, one lined with shelves of books and the other a secret schoolroom. Milda offers Audra a place to stay which she initially refuses but then accepts when she learns that most likely her parents will be sent to Siberia. But in order for her to stay with Milda, she is asked to deliver a book her father was to supposed to. Audra refuses and tells her she will stay only until her ankle heals.

    In the week that she stays with Milda, Audra begins to understand what is really happening. People come to visit Milda supposedly to buy butter or honey but in fact are coming to get books. One day after being sent downstairs to retrieve a newspaper for Milda, the Cossacks come and search Milda's home. Hidden in the basement, Audra meets a young girl name Roze who has come into the basement by a secret passage that leads out of the house to the shed in the backyard. After this, Audra decides to deliver the book Milda asked her to, in honour of her parents.

    Expecting to be sent immediately to deliver the book, Audra finds instead that Milda is training her. And she explains why delivering the books is so important. After the most recent uprising against Russia, almost thirty years ago in which Milda's father was involved, the tsar wanted to ensure there would never be another uprising. To do that he decided to wipe out the Lithuanian culture by banning Lithuanian books. Audra now understands why delivering books to other homes is so important. But as she becomes increasingly drawn into the world of the book smugglers, Audra is faced with a difficult choice: betray her new friends and the work they are doing to save her parents or lose them forever.


    Words On Fire is set in the late 19th century Lithuania, a country situated on the Baltic Sea. Its history like that of many countries in Eastern Europe,  is complicated as it involves connections with Poland, Russia, Prussia and Germany. Throughout it's history, the people of Lithuania have struggled against Russian occupation. A loose commonwealth with Poland was created in the 1500's called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, in the late 1700's this commonwealth broke apart, with three partitions happening in 1772, 1793 and 1795. In the latter partition, much of the land was taken over by Russia.

    The Lithuanian people attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the Russians in 1831 and again in 1863. Each rebellion was followed by a period of attempted Russification but the period after the 1863 uprising saw a determined effort to destroy the culture of the Lithuanian people. The Catholic church in particular was persecuted and all Lithuanian schools were closed.

    In 1863, Tsar Alexander II ordered that all instruction in schools be done in Russian instead of the native Lithuanian. In 1865, the use of the Latin alphabet was banned and replaced with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. In 1866, books printed in Lithuanian were banned, an order that was enforced up until 1904, schools and Catholic churches were closed.

    However the Russification of the Lithuanian people did not succeed in large part due to the "Kyngnesiai" or book smugglers. To preserve the Lithuanian language a network of books smugglers was developed by Jurgis Bielinis. Illegal Lithuanian-language schools were also secretly set up. The purpose of the book smugglers was to bring into the Russian occupied areas illegal Lithuanian language books which were printed in the Latin alphabet. The work of the smugglers was very dangerous because if caught they could be fined, exiled to Siberia or executed. Not surprisingly, the work of the book smugglers was not widely known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Words On Fire is set within this historical context, something that should have been presented to the target audience of young readers, in the form of a prologue so as to set the stage for the events in the novel. Also helpful would have been a map showing the region as it's unlikely readers would know much about Lithuania or even where it is situated within Europe. However, Nielsen eventually gives her readers that backstory through the characters of Lukas and Milda. Lukas explains Lithuania's history to Audra while Milda tells her of the role of the book smugglers.

    The main character in the novel is twelve-year-old Audra whose parents are book smugglers who are arrested at the very beginning of the story. Audra stumbles onto the work her parents were involved in but is reluctant at first to get involved in book smuggling. Unable to read and having not attended school, Audra doesn't understand the importance of books. She argues, "The Cossacks are here to stay. A few words of protest in a book won't change that." But Lukas explains to her why saving Lithuania's language and books are so important to the survival of their culture.  "It's not just wishing, Audra. This is a book of ideas. Someone thought the idea and put it into words on paper. That became a seed, and every time someone reads those words, the seed is planted in their mind, too, and it grows and spreads and soon that tiny seed of an idea becomes belief, and belief becomes a plan, and those plans begin to change the world. Control the books and you will control the people."

    While Audra smuggles books she also begins to learn to read and to write stories. With this knowledge comes an understanding of the importance of books in the fight for Lithuanian culture. "The Russian Empire wasn't afraid of a country that spoke a different language. They were afraid of a country whose language denied Russia's right to control it. The words wouldn't lead to our independence --words themselves, their very existence, were our independence. If we surrendered our books to them, we'd surrender our minds, leaving us hollowed-out puppets, ready to be controlled."

    Although she is bold, resourceful and intelligent, Audra seems much older and more emotionally mature than a twelve-year-old girl. She shows remarkable courage and integrity when she refuses to reveal the name of the book smuggler Office Rusakov is pursuing even though this means she will be sent to Siberia along with her parents. After she escapes, her determination to continue as a book carrier is even stronger. Audra transforms from the frightened young girl lost in the forest to a girl wanting to take on the Cossacks by the end of the story. Based on the qualities Nielsen assigns her and her actions in the novel, Audra would have been a more realistic character if she were much older.

    Nielsen captures the dangers and hardships the Lithuanian book smugglers endured, providing a testament to their determination to save their culture. Words On Fire focuses mainly on events in 1893 including the Kraziai massacre but reaches all the way to 1904 when the book ban was finally lifted. The Kraziai massacre occurred in November of 1893 in a the village of Kraziai. A Benedictine women's monastery, built in the 1600's was located in the village. The Benedictines had also built the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the late 1700's. In 1891, Tsar Alexander III ordered the monastery closed and the nuns transferred to another monastery in Kaunas. This was part of the Russification efforts to destroy the Catholic culture of Lithuania. Despite numerous petitions to save the monastery and the church, the tsar ordered both closed and demolished in June of 1893. When the Governor of Kaunas arrived in November of 1893 to enforce the tsar's orders, the Lithuanians had occupied the church and were successful in defeating the police. The next morning however, three hundred Cossack soldiers arrived and easily overran the Lithuanians. The conflict raged on for two weeks as Catholics were arrested, villages plundered, women raped and people drowned in the Krazante River.

    This real historical event portrayed in Words On Fire, forms the climax of the novel, with Audra, Lukas and Ben trapped in the church in the village of Kraziai. While Audra wants to stay and fight both Ben and Lukas tell her that is not their role in the fight for Lithuania. Nevertheless, they are caught in the fighting. Nielsen uses this event to have Lukas and his father confront one another. It is a conflict that is hinted at throughout the novel and eventually revealed later in the story.

    Overall, Words On Fire is in interesting piece of historical fiction about events little known outside of Eastern Europe. Fans of historical fiction will be motivated to learn more about Lithuania, its past and its vibrant culture which thankfully survives in an independent Lithuania today.

    Book Details:

    Words On Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
    New York: Scholastic Press    2019
    322 pp.

    Wednesday, February 19, 2020

    Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

    Langston lives in Bronzeville, a part of Chicago also called the Black Ghetto or the Black Belt. Langston and his father moved from Alabama one week after the death of his mama. They live in a kitchenette apartment at 4501 Wabash Avenue. It's a room with two beds, a table and two chairs and walls covered with newspapers to hide the holes but it does have running water and an indoor toilet. Langston attends Haines Junior High School while his father works at    .
    A neighbour, Miss Fulton who teaches high school across town, lives above them and often asks Langson to help her bring groceries up the stairs.

    Langston is usually the first one to get to school and sits in the front desk closest to his teacher, Miss Robins. His rundown shoes, overalls and the way he speaks marks him as poor and from the South, with some students calling him "country boy." Every day after school, Langston finds himself confronted by three boys, Lymon, Erroll and Clem but it is Lymon who mostly bullies him. Langston tries to ignore them allowing Lymon to push him around until he gets bored and leaves.

    At home, Langston is sad, missing his mama's home cooking and life in Alabama.

    One day after school, after helping carry out a box for Miss Robins, Langston manages to sneak unseen through the fence away from school. By the time he stops to catch his breath, he realizes he is in a strange neighbourhood with neat homes and large trees. On the corner is a large building called the George Cleveland Hall Library. Remembering that his mama once told him a "library is a place you borrow books", Langston decides to find out what it's like.

    A lady who turns out to be one of the librarians,  leads him into the library, telling him he can borrow any book he wants. Langston, scanning the shelves, pulls a book with his first name on the cover. The words in the book resonate with Langston, and he stays until the library closes. When he returns home late Langston lies to his father about the library, telling him he was out playing with some boys.

    Langston returns to the library the very next day and asks the librarian, Mrs. Kimble about the photographs of colored people on the walls. She tells him that they are authors from a lecture series held at the library and that the library is named for a prominent Negro physician. Langston returns to the section of the library containing "the book with the words from my heart."  When it comes time to leave, Langston learns from Miss Cook, the children's librarian about taking out books using a library card. Langston is overwhelmed at this prospect and signs out the book of poetry by Langston Hughes.

    As Langston struggles to adapt to life in Chicago, the library and the poetry of Langston Hughes prove to be the lifeline he needs to move forward.


    Finding Langston is a wonderful short novel, set in 1946 Chicago, chronicling a young black boy's struggle to adapt to life without his beloved mama in a strange city.

    Langston misses just about everything that characterizes life in Alabama. In Alabama Langston had friends, and life was slower, the people more polite. Often Langston finds himself comparing Chicago to life at home in Alabama. "Streetlights shine through the window in the front of the room. In Alabama only lights I saw at night were the moon and stars. Sometimes so bright a curtain couldn't block them out...."

    He finds the crowded busy city of Chicago difficult to get used to.
    "Back home, we couldn't see a neighbor for miles. I'll never get used to people living on top of each other. I'll never get used to everybody knowing what time you get up in the morning and what you're cooking for breakfast. And everyone to busy to say a decent 'Mornin' when you see them on the street. Back home I had space to breathe. Had to walk down the road a ways to get to our nearest neighbor, but if somebody got sick, or was in need of a hand, folks were there to help 'fore you knew it. I knew I had to act right, because someone was always watching, waiting to get word back to my folks....."

    Langston misses his friends and the sense of belonging. "Back home I had friends. Not a lot, but enough to make me fell like I fit. At lunch, outside, we'd play marbles together, sometimes climb the tree in the back of the school. No one laughed when I talked, or pointed at my run-over shoes and overalls."

    But what Langston misses most is his mama. "But Mama made it seem like I was all she ever wanted. Like I filled her up. Like any more would have been too much. ...She loved me hard as she could till she left this world." Langston feels the loss of his mama keenly. "I close my eyes and try to picture Mama. I can still see her smile with the space between her teeth. Smooth brown skin and eyes that laughed along with her. Before I know it, the tears start and won't stop."

    In an effort to avoid being bullied, Langston discovers a nearby public library that is open to all people regardless of the colour of their skin. And it is there that he discovers a book by a poet, Langston Hughes who has the same first name. At first, the coincidence of their same first names seems unimportant to Langston, who has no idea why his parents chose his name.

    When he reads some of his mama's letters to his father, he comes across several lines of poetry,
    Langston Hughes 1942
    "My black one,
    Thou are not beautiful
    Yet thou hast
    A loveliness
    Surpassing beauty."
    Langston is moved by these lines but is certain they were not written by his mama who had no time to read, something she did before she was married, and definitely even less time to write poetry. When he signs out a book, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, he finds a poem, "Poem 4: To The Black Beloved" that has the words he saw in his mama's letter. Langston begins to understand that his mama also loved the poetry of Langston Hughes. He knows his father doesn't know the words in her letter were from a Langston Hughes poem, a secret he decides not to reveal.
    "She never told him that Langston Hughes made her heart sing the way he does mine. That she wanted to name her baby boy after the poet she copied in her letters."

    Langston believes that his mama, in naming him after Langston Hughes whose poetry she loved, gave him a way to deal with the pain of her death and the loneliness of a strange city and ultimately to find a place to belong.

    The library and poetry books also bring together Langston and his first friend in Chicago. When the boy who has been bullying Langston rips pages out of The Weary Blues, Clem retrieves all the pages and helps Langston explain to the librarian what happened.

    Langston is an endearing character, whose struggles are portrayed in a genuine and affecting way to all readers by Cline-Ransome. In spite of his loneliness, his sadness over the death of his mama and the difficulties of fitting in, Langston stays true to his southern values of honesty, kindness and helping others. But he also begins to find those same values in people like Clem who has also suffered the loss of someone he loves and his neighbour Miss Fulton who shares his love of poetry.

    Finding Langston is a truly beautiful story about loss, hope, starting over and belonging. It is about the power of libraries, and the written word and how books help us deal with life. It is as Clem says, after Langston explains why he likes poetry, " So the poetry you read is a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside."  Poetry and stories will always be a help to understanding both the joys and troubles of life.

    Author Lesa Cline-Ransome offers some historical context in her Author's Note at the back, explaining the migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to cities in the North. The result for Chicago was the development of a rich cultural scene that included people like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others including the poet Langston Hughes. The library in Finding Langston is real. The George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was built due to the efforts of Dr. George Cleveland Hall who wanted a library for the constituents of Bronzeville. Unlike libraries in Alabama in 1946, everyone was welcome.

    Langston Hall image:

    Book Details:

    Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
    New York: Holiday House    2018
    107 pp.

    Friday, February 14, 2020

    It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear

    Even as a small child, Gyo Fujikawa loved to draw. At the young age of five, she may not have yet known what she wanted to be but she knew she loved colours, line and "the feel of the pencil in her hand."

    Gyo didn't have many friends when she was young and she didn't seem to be much noticed either. When her parents moved to a small fishing village near San Pedro, California, Gyo began to thrive. Although she still struggled socially at school, her beautiful drawings were noticed by two of her teachers, Miss Cole and Miss Blum.

    Because Gyo's family was not well off, continuing school was not an option but Miss Cole found money to pay for her schooling. So Gyo attended art school in Los Angeles. It was unusual in 1925 for a woman and an Asian American to attend college but Gyo was determined.

    She decided to continue her studies in Japan. When she returned to America, Gyo created murals and art for magazine. In 1942, with America at war with Japan, Gyo was forced to stay on the East Coast while her family were forced to leave their home on the West Coast and sent to a prison camp. All Japanese were considered enemies, even if they were born in America as Gyo was. This time was a period of great sadness for Gyo and she found it difficult to create art.

    When the war was over, Gyo began drawing in earnest again, this time with the intention of having books send a message. A book featuring babies from different races was initially rejected by the publishers but Gyo insisted that they needed to break the rules. She remembered all the times she felt unwelcome as a Japanese American. Her book was published and the stage was set for Gyo to make more art like this.


    Gyo's are on her book Fairy Tales and Fables
    Few people know about Gyo Fujikawa, a ground-breaking Asian American woman artist. Gyo  was born in 1908 to Hizoko and Yu Fujikawa. Interested in art at an early age, Gyo received a scholarship to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She became part of the Nisei artist community in that city, that is young people of Japanese ancestry who were born in America to Japanese citizens who had come to the country. After completing her studies at Chouinard, Gyo spent a year travelling in Japan studying traditional art making techniques. She returned  to America to work at Chouinard in 1933, staying until 1937.  Gyo also began working at Walt Disney Studios in 1933, eventually moving in 1941 to New York City to work in the studio there.

    With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America declared war against Japan and all Japanese living in America were considered enemy aliens. Gyo's family did not escape the consequences of war, nor the government policies regarding Americans of Japanese heritage and were sent to a prison camp. Yu, Hikozo and Fred were first sent to Santa Anita Park racetrack and then onto a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Gyo was restricted to living on the East Coast. Like most Japanese Americans, Gyo's family lost everything.

    In the postwar years, Gyo worked as a freelancer, creating art for a variety of projects. In 1957 her illustrations appeared in a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. In 1963, she wrote and illustrated Babies which portrayed babies with different skin colours. With the success of this first book and second companion titled, Animal Babies, Gyo decided to focus on creating children's books.

    Gyo's books were created with the idea that books could be so much more than just stories, that they could uplift and comfort people. Her focus on multiracial children in her books, aimed to send the message that people of different races are all part of the human family.  Although the civil rights movement was blossoming during this time, this was a very unique perspective for children's books and one which publishers were reluctant to tackle. Because of  Gyo and her family's experiences of racism during the Second World War, Gyo must have seen a need for children to be exposed to the idea that people of all skin colours should be treated equally.

    Kyo Maclear tells Gyo's story with using simple text accompanied by the artwork of Julie Morstad. Morstad's illustrations rendered in liquid watercolour, gouache and pencil crayon, are stylistically reminiscent of Gyo's drawings.As both the author and illustrator mention in a note at the back, Gyo's art had a sense of delicacy about it. It is Gyo's use of fine lines to create her characters and her use of colour that give this quality to her art.

    Maclear includes numerous photographs of Gyo courtesy of her family in the back matter of the book, but no pictures of her artwork. There is a detailed timeline of Gyo's life as well as a Selected Bibliography and a list of Sources. It Began With A Page is recommended as a read-aloud book and for anyone interested in art history.

    Book Details:

    It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear
    Tundra Books      2019