Saturday, January 13, 2018

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes

Whistling In The Dark is set in a suburb of Liverpool, England during the period from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941. It follows a small community of neighbours as they struggle to cope with the nighttime bombing of the docks of Liverpool, the rationing of food and goods and the appearance of a mysterious stranger.

Liverpool was a major port located on the northwest coast of England, where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea. With its strategic location, docks which were used by the Royal Navy and the many industries, Liverpool was recognized as a key port by Hitler. As a result the city became the second most bombed after London, during the Blitz, suffering many casualities. The first bombing raid occurred in August of 1940, and continued throughout the autumn of 1940.

Joan Armitage lives in a suburb of Liverpool with her mom, her seventeen-year-old sister Audrey, her brother Brian and a younger sister Judy. Joan's father, who was a wireless operator on an oil tanker in the Merchant Navy was lost at sea.  Audrey's beau, Dai Davies is also serving in the Merchant Navy helping bring food and supplies to England. Audrey worries about Dai and each short leave he's granted is time for them to quickly see one another. Many families have lost a father or a brother so they understand the fear.

As Joan is working on her french homework one evening in the sitting room she hears a faint low whistle and then sees "the dark shape of a man looking in at her." Terrified, Joan opens the door to see Brian arriving home on his bike from grammar school. They immediately lock the back door and when Mum arrives home, she and Brian search the garden and surrounding bushes without luck.

At school the next day, Miss Sanderson introduces a new girl, Ania who is Polish. To prevent Angela and her friends from bullying Ania,  Joan's best friend Doreen makes a point of talking to Ania during the mid-morning break. Doreen tells Joan that Ania is an orphan who came to England on the Kindertransport and now lives with the elderly Mrs. Mellor.

Besides school, Joan goes to the teenage hops at the youth club and to the cinema, usually the Queensway Cinema to see American movies. These movies offer her "a glimpse of heaven compared with the chilly reality of the blackout and endless queues for the meager family  meat ration..." She also does youth-service work with Ross Jenks and Derek Williams, collecting salvage for the war effort. One afternoon on their way to look for salvage they decide to stop at the old Royal Hotel which is now used to house evacuee children from the risky areas of Liverpool.  The hotel is run by volunteers from the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). A few of the children tell Joan and the boys that they believe the hotel is haunted because they hear footsteps at night and strange noises coming from the attic.

When Joan returns hope she finds Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, who is stationed with the Army Catering Corps paying her mother a visit. Although Joan doesn't like Ronnie who she thinks is "on the oily side", she does like the parcels of food he brings for them. Joan's mother insists that she attend the charity dinner dance in aid of the Red Cross at the golf club; Ronnie is taking her mother, which does not make Joan happy. Both Audrey and Brian also don't like Ronnie. Before Ronnie leaves, two army men arrive to question Mrs. Armitage about whether they've seen anyone suspicious lurking around. They inform the family that a Polish refugee with the Pioneer Corps has deserted. Although she remembers the earlier siting of the man around their home, Mrs. Armitage lies to the army men, later telling Joan that she doesn't know the circumstances and if the stranger is the Polish man she wants him to have a chance to get away as incarceration in the Military Prison is terrible.

As the Blitz in Liverpool intensifies, Joan finds the frightening bombing raids to be one of many situations to be overcome. The annoying visits of Captain Harper Jones lead to an upsetting decision by Joan's mother. The discovery by Derek and Ross of a hidden cache of blackmarket foodstuffs result in a serious accident and the uncovering of a local blackmarket ring that brings down a highly respected resident. Added to this is the reappearance of the mysterious stranger whose presence complicates life for Joan and her family.


Whistling in the Dark paints a realistic picture of life in Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-1941. Author Shirley Hughes draws on her own personal experience of having lived through the Liverpool Blitz when she was a teenager.

Narrated by Joan Armitage, the first part of the novel develops the setting, providing young readers with a sense of life during wartime. In many ways life went on during the war; Joan and her friends go to movies at the theatre, attend dances and she continues to take art lessons. Her sister Audrey has a boyfriend in the Merchant Navy and her mother is being courted by a much disliked Captain Harper Jones. But Joan's narrative mentions the many ways life in Liverpool changed during the war: the blackout curtains, the shortage of nylons leading women to paint their legs with gravy browning, children scavenging for metal and other scraps for the war effort, the rationing of coal and food especially meat and sugar. Hughes particularly focuses on the children being hungry; "...they were aching with hunger." and how when visiting each others homes, they refused food because "in this era of food rationing, it wasn't polite to accept food." And of course the bombing raids which overshadow all aspects of life.

One especially memorable scene in the novel in which the terror of the bombing raids is captured occurs when Joan and Doreen go to the cinema to see a Betty Grable movie. In the theatre, they hear "the heart-sinking wail of the air-raid siren outside". Instead of enjoying the film, Joan finds she can't concentrate, "Her ears, like everyone else's were straining to catch the sound of those engines getting nearer: German Focke-Wulf bombers on their way to drop their nightly barrage of high explosives to pound the Liverpool docks." They must remain in the theatre, the power goes out frequently leaving them in total darkness, flakes of plaster occasionally falling from the ceiling as they heard "the distant sickening crunch and thud of explosions over Liverpool..." And afterwards when the all clear has sounded and Joan and Doreen along with others leave the theatre, "...the sky over Liverpool was blazing orange and fiery red."

Using the character of Ania, Hughes also explores the plight of Jewish children sent to England via the Kindertransport. Ania arrives in Liverpool completely alone and is eventually befriended by Joan and her family. Readers also see the attitude that existed towards deserters like Ania's uncle, Likasz Topolski, who has deserted only because he wants to meet his neice.

Within the novel however is a more courageous story - that of the role of the Merchant Navy in bringing in food and supplies to Great Britain at tremendous risk. This risk meant that everyone was careful not to waste and that many necessities were done without. It was a risk Joan and her family knew well as her father had been lost at sea and it was a risk Audrey lived with daily regarding her boyfriend Dai.

Hughes packs a ton of action into the latter half of the novel; Ania's story is developed, the identity of the mysterious stranger revealed, the discovery of a black mark cache and numerous plot twists that make for an exciting and satisfying ending.  Whistling In The Dark covers many aspects of wartime England in an informative and engaging way for younger readers.
For further information on Liverpool during the Blitz:

The Imperial War Museums website has substantial information on the Liverpool Blitz.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum website.

Book Details:

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press   2015
227 pp.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

DVD: Victoria and Abdul

The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the unusual friendship which developed between Queen Victoria of England and an Indian Muslim servant, Abdul Karim. This relationship was to cause scandal and intense jealousy among the Victorian British aristocrats and royalty of the time. It was largely forgotten mainly because after Queen Victoria's death, all of the correspondence between Abdul and Victoria over a thirteen year period was destroyed by members of the Royal family.

Almost immediately after the elderly monarch's funeral, Queen Victoria's daughter Beatrice and her daughter-in-law - King Albert's wife - Queen Alexandra walked to Frogmore Cottage - the home of Abdul Karim and his family-  on the grounds of Windsor Castle. They burst into the home and forced Abdul's wife to hand over the letters Queen Victoria had sent him. The house was searched by accompanying guards and any letters, correspondence, notes, and postcards were removed, and thrown into a bonfire on the lawn. Abdul and his wife were summarily deported the next day to India. Albert had finally erased all evidence of Abdul Karim from his family's history. Or so he thought.

The story of their unique friendship might never have come to light if it were not for Indian author and journalist, Shrabani Basu. On a visit to Osborne House on Isle of Wight to see the newly restored Durbar Room, Basu couldn't help noticing the several portraits of Abdul Karim, especially one by Rudolf Swoboda. Although she initially thought he was an Indian servant of the late Queen, Basu noticed that Abdul was portrayed as a nobleman. Her interest piqued, Basu began her research, a task that would take her to three countries over a period of five years. First she discovered the late monarch's thirteen Hindustani journals, written in Urdu, a language the queen had learned to read and write from Abdul. The journals which were kept in the Royal Archives, had never been translated. Basu also located a few surviving pieces of correspondence written by Queen Victoria to Abdul and read the personal diaries of her physician, Sir James Reid as well as the correspondence of the Royal household, the Viceroys of India and many other letters written by the monarch.

Rudolf Swoboda's portrait of Abdul Karim
 To learn more Basu travelled to Agra, India where she located Abdul's abandoned and derelict tombstone and she also discovered the house that Abdul had built on land given to him by Queen Victoria. However the family was no longer living there and the house was occupied by a Hindu family who informed her that Abdul Karim's family had moved to Pakistan after the 1947 Partition of India.

Basu returned to England and in 2010 published her book about Abdul and the Queen, Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant.  Eventually she was contacted by the great nephew of Abdul who told her that the family in Karachi, Pakistan had possession of Abdul's journal. From this journal, Basu was able to piece together the long-forgotten story of Abdul Karim and his thirteen-year friendship with Queen Victoria. It was a story King Edward VII and the royal court attempted to wipe away when his wife Queen Alexandra and Princess Beatrice arrived at the home of Abdul after Queen Victoria's death.

Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is based on Basu's book. The  movie  begins Abdul's story in Agra in 1887 with Britain having formally ruled India for twenty-nine years at this point. Abdul Karim, who is seen recording the names of criminals, is called to the Government office to see Mr. Tyler. Tyler thanks Abdul for the carpets he chose to be sent to the British Exhibition and states that the Governor General has decided to present the Queen with a "Mohur" as part of the Jubilee. To present this coin, Abdul and another Indian have been chosen to travel to England. While Abdul is excited at this prospect, Mohammed intimates that he was forced to make the journey.

In England Abdul and Mohammed have authentic uniforms tailored for them and after being instructed on how the evening at Windsor Castle will proceed, they are warned not to look directly at the Queen. This is an instruction Abdul disobeys as he is backing away from the queen. The next day as Abdul and Mohammed are readying to leave England and return to India, Mr. Bigge arrives to inform them that they will be remaining in England. Eventually the two are made the Queen's personal footmen.

As Queen Victoria spends time with Abdul she learns about his family, about the beauty of India including the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne, but also about the pillaging of these national treasures by the British. Abdul tells her about spices and Indian food including garam masala, Dal rogan josh and chutney made of mango. And Abdul begins to teach the Queen how to speak and write Urdu, the language of the poets.When Queen Victoria reveals her loneliness and sadness and that she no longer sees a purpose for her life, Abdul tells her  life is about service. He quotes a verse from the Koran, telling the Queen, "We are here for the good of others."and reveals himself to be a Muslim.  Abdul tells Queen Victoria that he is a Muslim and that his father was his munshi - his teacher. Inspired by his words, Queen Victoria requests that Abdul become her munshi, to teach her the Koran, Urdu and anything else he can think of.

But Queen Victoria's growing friendship with Abdul, her learning to read and write Urdu, and her bestowing honors and titles on him, lead to resistance, jealousy and plotting within the royal household to get rid of Abdul.


Victoria and Abdul is a fascinating film about a little known friendship during the reign of Queen Victoria. The movie stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, Ali Fazil who portrays Abdul Karim, Adeel Akhar who is Mohammed Buksh, Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Tim Pigott-Smith as the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby. Eddie Izzard looks remarkably like his character, Bertie, The Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII. And for Dench, it's not the first time she's portrayed Queen Victoria; she starred in Mrs. Brown, a film about her deep friendship with John Brown, a Scottish servant.

The film is "based on real events - mostly" as a disclaimer states in the opening scenes. Most of what is portrayed in the film, Abdul's unusually intimate friendship with Victoria, her learning Urdu, and the racist and jealous attitudes towards Abdul are accurate.  However, Director Frears does take some liberties. For example, Abdul did not travel to England to present the Queen with a newly minted medal but came to England because Queen Victoria requested two Indian attendants for her Golden Jubilee celebrations. While Queen Victoria is portrayed as a racially tolerant woman, she was British and the British ruled over India with policies that created serious racial and religious tensions on the Indian subcontinent. The Victorian court and Victorian society viewed dark-skinned people as unequals and social policies reflected this belief. The British attitude is subtly portrayed throughout the film; for example when Arthur Bigge sets foot back in England, he remarks, "Civilization!" even though like India there is a class system and beggars on the docks.

Abdul (left) and Mohammed (right)
In the film, Victoria is portrayed as quite ignorant of the culture and beauty of India, despite that fact that one of her titles is Empress of India. This may have been because, as she explains in the film to Abdul, she has never visited India due to fears that she would be assassinated. Abdul tells her about the spices and foods of India, garam masala and chutney made of mango - fruit Victoria is determined to sample.

Abdul tells her the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal in Agra, but he also tells her that the jewels of this historic and important site were stolen by the British. He enthralls the Queen with his descriptions of the Peacock Throne which he claims was smashed by the British as a punishment for the Indian rebellion. In the film Queen Victoria is portrayed as being quite dismayed at the destruction of the Peacock Throne and the vandalism of the Taj Mahal, however, these actions were likely seen as justified by the British and occurred while Victoria was Queen.

Nevertheless, Abdul was able to influence the Queen to learn something of Indian culture, so much so that she even created her own Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She commissioned John Lockwood Kipling and Sikh artisan Bhai Ram Singh to decorate the room which was filled mostly with gifts from Indian princes.

The Indian view of Queen Victoria and the British is presented in the film through the character of Mohammed Buksh. While Abdul is thrilled to be traveling to England to meet Queen Victoria, Mohammed is not impressed because she is someone who has "oppressed the entire Indian subcontinent". Mohammed often makes humorous but accurate statements about the British throughout, and he is shown as refusing to help Bertie and other members of the royal household when they ask for help in forcing Abdul to return to India. His derision towards Bertie is marked and representative of the growing resentment of the Indian people towards the British.

Overall though Victoria and Abdul is an entertaining film that opens a window into the very end of the Victorian era. Frears was able to film on location in many of the original settings including Osborne House, Balmoral Castel and Glen Affric and the cinematography captures the beauty of these places admirably.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Turtles All The Way Down is John Green's most recent novel, published six years after his very popular The Fault In Our Stars. In this new novel, sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes attempts to solve the mystery of the missing father of a friend while dealing with her own mental health issues. Although the novel begins with a mystery, Aza's attempts to solve it are gradually hijacked by her increasingly oppressive thought spirals.

The novel opens with Aza eating lunch with her best friend Daisy Ramirez at school when Daisy and classmate Mychal Turner tell her that Davis Pickett's father has disappeared. They are certain Aza knows Davis from attending camp with him a few years ago. In fact, Aza did attend Camp Sphero with Davis after both fifth and sixth grade. It turns out Davis's father  disappeared the day before being arrested on bribery charges. Police arrived at his home early in the morning with a warrant but he wasn't home and hasn't been seen since. As a result there is now a hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to his arrest.

Daisy struggles to attract Aza's interest in solving Pickett's disappearance so they can claim the hundred-thousand-dollar reward. This is because Aza is struggling to cope with her obsessive compulsive thoughts about contracting a Clostridium difficle bacterial infection. Aza is reading the Wikipedia article on human microbiota and worrying about whether her stomach noises are a sign of impending illness.

From Daisy's research they learn that Russell Pickett CEO and founder of Pickett Engineering, wasn't home when Indianapolis Police arrived with a search warrant. Detective Dwight Allen stated that he was last seen by his sons Davis and Noah the previous night and that there are no surveillance cameras on the property. However Aza  who spent some time on the Davis estate when she was younger, remembers that there was a motion capture camera in the woods by the river. Because there is a camera at the front Gate, Daisy believes that Pickett walked through the woods and left via the river so he would not be seen.

Daisy and Aza sneak onto the Davis property from the river using an old canoe that Aza's family has. After wandering through the trees on the grounds, Daisy locates the night-vision camera and Aza connects her phone to the camera. She is able to download a photo from September 9th of "the back of a stocky man wearing a striped night-shirt. Time stamp 1:01:03 a.m." Quickly, Aza and Daisy are picked up by Lyle, a security officer for the estate and they tell him Aza knows Davis but that their canoe took on water and they had to beach it.

Lyle takes the girls to the house and there they meet Davis who is puzzled to see them but realizes that like many others they are after the reward money. He tells them he doesn't know the whereabouts of his father and after treating them to Dr. Pepper's Davis drives them home in his Cadillac Escalade. Daisy and Aza continue to dig up information about the Pickett family, learning that entire Pickett fortune will go to the pet tuatara in the hopes that the fountain of youth can be discovered. They also uncover the reason for Pickett being under investigation: he allegedly bribed "state officials in exchange for contracts to build a better sewer overflow system in Indianapolis." A police report that Daisy manages to obtain tells her and Aza that they know more than the police do at this point.

Davis texts Aza telling her he is reluctant to become friends with anyone because he won't know if they are simply after his money. Aza reveals that they know something about his father and asks if it will make things worse for him if they go to the police. Davis asks her not to go to the police. Daisy who has agreed to go out with Mychal has Aza set up a double date with Davis Pickett. After dinner at Applebee's they go to Davis's mansion. While Mychal and Daisy check out the artwork, Davis shows Aza the movie theatre and then takes her outside to the golf course where they lay in a sand trap and talk. Aza tries to explain her struggles with obsessive compulsive thoughts to Davis but when they begin kissing her compulsive thoughts about germs take over. After pulling herself together they talk about the night vision picture of his father. Davis needs to know whether Aza is there because she genuinely likes him or because she's after the reward. To solve this problem Davis decides to give Aza the one hundred thousand dollar reward in cash.

The next morning Aza tells Daisy about the money which they split equally, depositing it in bank accounts with the help of Davis's lawyer. This leads Daisy to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese and to buy herself a new laptop and a car. Although Noah sends Aza more information about his father, Daisy and Aza give up their investigation. Daisy has the money and isn't interested while Aza's OCD begins to increasingly take over her life.

As Aza's friendship with Davis begins to develop, her relationship with Daisy begins to fall apart. It isn't until she has a serious accident that Aza is finally forced Aza to confront her illness and work on trying to get better.


Green latest novel, Turtles All The Way Down, is a revealing portrayal of mental illness and its debilitating effects, one which the author is intimately familiar with. The story is told by Aza Holmes who is now an adult, reflecting back on this portion of her life. Aza has obsessive compulsive disorder , experiencing compulsive thoughts focused on her contracting serious bacterial infections such as C. difficile. These thoughts force her to stay mostly in her head, meaning she struggles to develop relationships with the people around her. Her thoughts also lead her to have a distorted view of herself: she doubts the reality of her existence, she questions whether she is able to control her own life and she believes that she is merely the sum of her thoughts.

The image of Pettibon's spiral that Green felt
represented a "thought spiral".
Aza describes her thoughts as invasive, so distracting she often gets caught in what she calls a "thought spiral" in which she is mostly inside her head. For example, when Mychal is telling Daisy about his new art project, Aza wants to listen but her thoughts about a possible bacterial infection are overwhelming. As a result, she doesn't notice that her friend has dyed her hair,  she's unable to tell Daisy that she does remember Davis Pickett, that she remembers summer camp and that she likes her idea for Mychal's art project because "the thoughts kept coming, unbidden and unwanted."

Green uses the imagery of spirals, gyres, whirlpools, galaxies and circles to portray Aza's unwanted, intrusive and obsessive thoughts. These images all describe the never-ending, infinity of OCD thoughts and actions. This is perhaps best exemplified when Aza visits Davis's home she notices the colorful spiral by American artist, Raymond Pettibon and experiences the urge to grab it off the wall and run away with it. "It didn't feel like something I was looking at so much as something I was part of." Green states that he used the Pettibon painting in the story because it "felt for the first time like I had seen a direct expression of my experience with obsessive thoughts. I didn't feel like I was looking at a metaphor for my thought spirals; I felt that I was looking at the thing itself." Turtles All The Way Down is not a reflection of Green's own experiences of OCD, but it is his familiarity with illness that allows him to capture it so effectively.

In trying to explain what she experiences to Davis, Aza struggles to convey the idea that "When my thoughts spiraled, I was in the spiral, and of it." Aza explains to Davis that her spiral is different from the "widening gyre" William Butler Yeats mentions in his poem 'The Second Coming.'"But the really scary thing is not turning and turning in the widening gyre' it's turning and turning in the tightening gyre. It's getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you're just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you're not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell."

Aza's belief that the "real" her, the "way-down-deep" her is trapped in this prison, leading her to wonder if she is real. This struggle to determine if she is real begins to take center stage in her existence and has many facets. She tells her therapist, Dr. Singh that thinks she might be "fiction".  Aza wonders if there is a "way-down-deep me who is an actual, real person" or is she "only a set of circumstances"? She tells Singh, "...I don't control my thoughts, so they're not really mine. I don't decide if I'm sweating or get cancer or C. diff or whatever, so my body isn't really mine. I don't decide any of that -- outside forces do. I'm a story they're telling. I am circumstances." Singh responds by telling Aza that she is giving her thoughts too much power; "Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don't." 

In trying to explain how she sees herself to Daisy Aza states, "...It's like when I look into myself, there's no actual me -- just a bunch of thoughts and behaviours and circumstances. And a lot of them just don't feel like they're mine. They're not things I want to think or do or whatever. and when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It's like those nesting dolls,  you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there's a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it's solid all the way through. But with me, I don't think there is one that's solid. They just keep getting smaller." Aza believes she's not able to find the "real" her but doesn't recognize that this is a product of her obsessive thought spirals.

Aza's image of the nesting dolls reminds Daisy of two stories told about the Earth; a scientist who explained how the Earth formed over millions of years but then was told by an elderly lady that the Earth is actually a flat plane resting upon the back of a turtle which sits on another turtle. When questioned what was underneath the turtle she states that it is "Turtles all the way down." This story is a paraphrasing of a story often told to express the problem of "infinite regress" ( a sequence of reasoning that goes on infinitely, that is forever) in cosmology. For Aza the quest to find the real Aza is like "Turtles all the way down" - a form of obsessive thought spirals that as Daisy points out to her friend is not accurate.

Because Aza believes her thoughts control her, she wonders if she's real and in control. "And it's kind of terrifying to me that what I think of as, like, my quote unquote self isn't really under my control?...And if you can't pick what you do or think about, then maybe you aren't really real, you know?..." To convince herself that she's real, Aza continually digs her fingernail into her fingertip, reopening the wound so that it bleeds and must be constantly bandaged. But even this seems in adequate to Aza because she feels doing this "didn't even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything."

Green's characters are delightful yet tragic, eccentric yet normal, multi-dimensional and downright fascinating. Aza has OCD, is intelligent and has a sixteen-year-old Toyota Corolla, with a paint color called Mystic Teal Mica and named Harold by her father. To help the reader understand what Aza experiences, there are page-long descriptions of the thoughts and internal dialogue that Aza has with herself as her thoughts loop infinitely around whether or not her finger wound has become infected or she has C. difficile. She is resilient and courageous, although she doesn't recognize herself as being so.

Daisy is Aza's best friend and is somewhat eccentric herself: she writes fan fiction about Chewbacca's love life with Rey. Daisy wonders how to help her friend, "Like, does it help to be reassuring or is it better to worry with you? Is the anything that makes it better?" But she also finds being Aza's friend draining. "You're so stuck in your head, ...It's like you genuinely can't think about anyone else....It's just frustrating sometimes...But you're slightly tortured, and the way you're tortured is sometimes also painful for, like, everyone around you."  To express what she feels, Daisy has created a character Ayala who is representative of Aza in her fan fiction.

Davis Pickett is the caring boy Aza falls for, a poet, but whose circumstances are tragic; abandoned by his father, the fortune he was due to inherit given to a pet lizard. Davis who seems so sweet is desperate for Aza to get well, something she just can't promise him. The cast is further rounded out by Dr. Karen Singh whose genuine concern towards Aza and her positive attitude portray the benefits of having a good therapist.

Green avoids a saccharine ending, where Aza seizes control of her condition, changes how she views herself and gets well. Through Aza, Green explains that happy endings are not really happy or not really endings. Instead the ending of the novel is realistic and authentic. When Aza has a pessimistic view of how her life will be, Daisy tells her,  she can be the author of her life; "You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don't choose what's in the picture, but you decide on the frame." 

Aza breaks off with Davis because she tells him she can't be what he expects and hopes she will be. "I know you're waiting for me to get's incredibly sweet, but, like, this is probably what better looks like for me." Aza knows everyone wants to hear that she's getting better but the reality is something less happy. "Everyone wanted me to feed them that story --darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it, too."

Aza comes to the realization that she will go on, just as Davis will go on after he learns of the death of his father. "I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life." But Green does end the novel on a hopeful note; Aza does go on to have a mostly good life, a family, and perhaps most importantly a deep and true friendship with Daisy.

Turtles All The Way Down is authentic, somewhat intense in that it is a realistic piece of fiction that challenges readers to try to understand mental illness and the challenges involved. There are so many themes to explore in this novel, for example the meaning of friendship, and the literary references Green sprinkles throughout the novel (Sherlock Holmes and The Great Gatsby). Let's hope we don't have to wait another six years for Green's next novel.

Book Details:

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
New York: Dutton Books    2017
286 pp.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan

The new school year has just started for eleven-year-old Amina Khokar and her best friend Soojin Park. They are in sixth grade at Greendale Middle School. Amina's father is from Pakistan, but she and her older brother Mustafa were born in America. Amina loves to sing and plays piano but because of what happened in grade three she refuses to sing in front of people. Amina and her brother attend Sunday school at the Islamic Center of Milwaukee where  they learn Arabic and study verses of the Quran.

Soojin's family moved from South Korea to America when she was four years old. Soojin has been Amina's best friend since third grade when her family moved to Greendale just outside Milwaukee. Her family owns a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee called Park Avenue Deli. Soojin is excited at the prospect of becoming an American citizen. Her family will be sworn in as new citizens in October and Soojin is considering choosing an American name.

With the new school year starting, Amina watches as their classmate Emily, who has always put her and Soojin down, is friendly towards Soojin. Amina is distrustful of Emily's intentions because of her actions in the past. She has commented on Amina and Soojin teaching each other Urdu and Korean, and she's started rumours about Soojin's family serving dog at their restaurant. Amina can't understand why Soojin doesn't remember how mean Emily has been to them. When she asks Soojin after school, she tells Amina that she needs to give Emily a chance.

Amina is unhappy when Soojin agrees to let Emily join them to work on a project about the Oregon trail. At Soojin's house Amina questions her friend as to whether or not she really wants to be friends with Emily and is worried she will lose her best friend to Emily.  Emily begins sitting with them at lunch, appears to enjoy Soojin's Korean food and then confides in them about a boy she likes.

Meanwhile at home, Baba announces that Thaya Jaan - his older brother will be visiting from Pakistan. Baba is worried Bhai Jaan won't like they way they live in America. Baba's older brother's visit is worrisome because "Bhai Jaan is set in his ways". Baba's worries prove founded as Bhai Jaan is critical of the way Amina and Mustafa are being raised. His views begin to cause confusion and worry for Amina.

Besides struggling with her friendship with Soojin and her confusion over what her Muslim faith teaches, Amina also struggles with stage fright. She has a beautiful voice and can play piano but Amina doesn't want to participate in the Quran competition at her mosque, nor does she want to perform in the Winter Choral Concert. Amina dislikes performing in front of people because she's afraid of making a mistake and being ridiculed.

Amina and Soojin's friendship is tested when Amina reveals a secret Emily entrusted to them, Mustafa's ability to make responsible choices is questioned, and Baba and Mama must confront Bhai Jaan about their right to raise their children as they wish. All of this is set against the backdrop of a terrible act of vandalism against the Islamic center that ultimately draws the community together.


Amina's Voice tells the story of a young girl's struggles to deal with everyday life while growing up,against the backdrop of religious prejudice in America. Khan has included a diverse cast of characters that include the Pakistani-American Khohar family, the Korean Park family and  Emily whose grandmother is Polish. Young readers will learn a little about Pakistani and Korean culture, with some emphasis on food! Khan includes many descriptions of the food that Amina's family eats. For example Amina's family serves their guest Bhai Jaan curried chicken, spicy spinach lamb stew, naan and lentils. Later on dessert consists of gulab jamun, described by Amina as "sticky, sweet, doughnutlike treats" in a "thick honey-colored syrup." When Amina visits Soojin's home she's careful to avoid the extra fridge reserved for making kimchi, fermented cabbage or other vegetables.

The Khohar family however is the main focus of the story and they are realistically drawn with Khan showing them to be a typical American family in many ways. Their children experience the same problems and struggles as other American children while their parents have the same worries as parents everywhere do.

Amina's Voice explores the theme of friendship, encouraging readers to consider what constitutes being a good friend and the role forgiveness and acceptance play in friendship. Amina finds her friendship with her best friend Soojin changing. While Amina struggles to forgive the unkindness of a classmate, Soojin is more willing to forget the past. When Amina reminds Soojin of all the terrible things Emily has said and done, Soojin replies, "I don't know. She used to be really immature. But I thinks she's changed. She's make an effort, and she's not so bad."  As Amina and Soojin spend more time with Emily, Amina realizes Emily's life might not be what she thought it was. "Emily's life always seemed perfect to me, but now I wonder if maybe it isn't."

Despite this revelation, Amina feels both panic and jealousy as Soojin and Emily begin to connect and spend more time together. Soojin and Emily discover they have alot in common; they both live with grandparents and annoying little sisters, and they both have similar religious beliefs. This leads Amina to worry these connections will lead to the loss of her friendship with Soojin. She repeatedly attempts to push Emily away, but Soojin remains firm in her friendship with both Emily and Amina. What Amina doesn't realize is that Emily's confiding in them about her crush on a classmate indicates that Emily considers them both friends and trustworthy. She reveals this is why she is no longer friends with Julie. When Amina reveals Emily's secret, this breaks the trust of both Emily and Soojin.

However both Soojin and Emily demonstrate that their friendship with Amina is true by forgiving her. Soojin comes to the meeting at the school cafeteria to comfort Amina after the attack on the mosque and when Amina apologizes again, Soojin explains to Amina that they formed an opinion about Emily without really knowing her. It is at this point that Amina realizes Emily was also trying to be friends with her. From this experience Amina decides she will never "betray a friend's trust again."

At the same time Amina begins to experience confusion about her Muslim faith when her Thaya Jaan comes to visit. Her uncle has some strict interpretations of their Muslim faith and this leads him to question Baba as to why the children don't speak Urdu. Later on Amina overhears Bhai Jaan criticizing her father for allowing her to sing and play piano. " is forbidden in Islam. It's a waste of time and has no benefit. Instead of filling her head with music, she should focus on memorizing Quran." Amina wonders if she is doing something wrong. "I can't shake the uneasy feeling that has settled on me like dust for days -- have I been doing something wrong, or un-Islamic, by spending so much of my time singing and playing piano." When she questions her father about why God hates music, Amina's mother explains that "God does not hate music. I don't believe that, or that it's wrong for you to play or to sing. Why would he give you so much talent then?" Eventually Amina's parents intervene and explain to her uncle that they have the right to teach their children their own values. These scenes serve to demonstrate that the Muslim faith includes many variations of belief and practice - Amina's family are less strict about following certain practices than Bhai Jaan. This is no different from those who practice Christianity or Judaism.

Amina's Voice tackles the sensitive issue of religious persecution of Muslims in America in a way that is suitable for younger readers. The vandalism and arson is described but not in a graphic manner.  Instead the focus is on how the Muslim community reacts to the destruction of their beloved mosque and cultural center and how the community pulls together to help their Muslim brothers and sisters. The lesson here is that hate can be overcome by acts of goodwill and love.

CNN has indicated that there have been an average of nine mosques targeted every month from January to July 2017 (this includes threats, arson and vandalism) in America. However,  there have been no reported attacks on mosques in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The attack on the mosque in Amina's Voice will seem quite real to younger readers but it is fictional.  It would have been helpful if Khan had included a note at the back of her novel to explain that the attack described in the story was fictional but that religious prejudice in America is a growing problem and that freedom of religion is guaranteed under the United States constitution.

The cover of Amina's Voice while colourful and attractive is somewhat reminiscent of a Disney princess perhaps helpful in drawing in young readers.

Amina's Voice is a worthwhile read that offers young readers the opportunity to explore diverse characters and their culture, to think about the meaning of friendship and to consider the growing problem of religious discrimination, particularly towards, but not limited to Muslims. It is a well written novel that handles a difficult topic in a sensitive and positive manner.

Book Details:

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
New York: Salaam Reads   2017
197 pp.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Some Writer! : The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

Some Writer! traces the life of Elwyn Brooks White, the author of the much loved children's storybooks, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

White's own story began in 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. White knew at an early age that he loved to write. He was the youngest child in a family of six children and spent many idyllic summers in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. His father rented several cottages at Snug Harbor and the family would travel to Maine every summer. During the summer White learned to canoe, and he spent time swimming in the lake and studying the things many young boys find fascinating: turtles, toads and tadpoles.

White began sending his writing in for publication at the age of nine! His poem, "A Story of a Little Mouse" won him his first literary prize. In high school White wrote for the school newspaper, the Oracle. Throughout White's teen years, World War I raged and he lamented about not being able to enlist (he did not meet the weight requirements).

White attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There he was nicknamed Andy after the first president of Cornell by his classmates. He wrote for the Cornell Sun, eventually becoming editor. White worked as a counselor at Camp Otter located on Otter Lake near Dorset, Ontario during the summers of 1920 and 1921. Camp Otter was a summer camp for boys, owned by the director of physical education at Cornell. In the summer of 1921, he was accompanied by a friend Howard "Cush" Cushman.

In 1922, White along with Cushman traveled westward, across America, arriving in Seattle, Washington six months later. After a brief stint as a reporter for the Seattle Times, White headed to Alaska and Siberia and then returned home to New York. He lived with his parents for a time while working in advertising in Manhattan. Then in 1925, White began writing for a new magazine, The New Yorker. This was the real beginning of White's literary career.

White was a well-known writer and essayist when Anne Carroll Moore, a children's librarian at the New York Public Library wrote him suggesting he write a children's book. He decided to create a story out of his notes he had made years earlier of a dream about a mouse. While working as a writer at the New Yorker, White once experienced a dream when travelling on a train. The dream was about a dapper little mouse who wore a hat and carried a cane. He wrote down the details of the dream and over time added more chapters. It was this story E.B. White reworked and ultimately submitted to his new editor, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper and Brothers. While Ursula loved the story of Stuart Little, librarian Ann Carroll Moore did not. Although it was published in 1945, Stuart Little was not approved by some librarians and the book was even banned in some libraries. Children, however, loved the book.

But White's best was yet to come - inspired in part by life on his farm in Maine.


Melissa Sweet has written a biography of E.B. White that is chockful of fascinating facts and insights about the author of one of the best books ever written for children. Some Writer! is a visually appealing book, filled with maps, photographs, artwork and collages created by Melissa Sweet. Also  included are much archival information: photographs of E.B.White, copies of his journal pages, poetry, correspondence and drafts of his work for Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, as well as photographs of his wife and son and his farm.

Although most of White's writing was for adults, he is probably best remembered for what it considered his finest work - Charlotte's Web, a story about the meaning of friendship in which a spider saves the life of a pig. It is also an unusual in that as a children's book, Charlotte's Web asks children to think about death and how one goes on after the loss of a special person in life. The death of White's pig Fred on his farm, was the driving force behind this story, one in which White wanted a miraculous way to save a pig!

In Some Writer! we learn the origins of two of the most beloved storybooks for children, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. Sweet discusses the controversy that erupted over Stuart Little's "birth" and how unbelievably this led to librarians banning the book. It was White who wrote "...children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. A fence that can throw a librarian is nothing to a child." It's revealing to read how White struggled to write the opening for Charlotte's Web and how illustrator Garth Williams worked to create the face of Charlotte, a grey spider identified as Aranea cavatica.

Although Some Writer! is a biography written for young readers, adults will find Sweet's book a fascinating read with all of the artwork and bits of information about Elwyn Brooks White. Melissa Sweet has included an Author's Note, a Timeline, a Notes section, a Selected Bibliography and an Afterword written by Martha White, the grand daughter of E.B. White who fully endorses this bibilography.  Sweet's Some Writer! truly captures both his personal life and the impetus of his creative work, providing readers with a window into this most amazing and versatile writer.

Book Details:

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt      2016
162 pp.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi

Tool of War is the final installment in Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker trilogy. The last installment, The Drowned Cities was written over five years ago, making remembering the story line challenging. The series is set in post-apocalyptic America which has been destroyed by civil war and global climate change that resulted in many coastal cities destroyed by rising seas. Many parts of the continent have descended into brutal conflict with the use of child soldiers. This third installment focuses on Tool, known as Karta-Kul, a half man, half beast, an augment, genetically designed for war and for blind obedience.

The novel opens with Tool, the genetically designed man-beast having just defeated the Army of God and now  ruling over the Drowned Cities, "a coastline swamped by rising sea levels and political hatreds, a place of shattered rubble and eternal gunfire." Tool managed to organize Tool  watches the final moments of battle from the rotunda in a shattered marble palace, the waters of ocean lapping against the front steps. When quiet falls on the ruined city, Tool is questioned by the young humans who follow him as to what happens next for the Drowned Cities. Tool never moves on to rule the cities because his life and that of those around him vanishes in an instant of fire and hell.

High above the Pacific Ocean in the dirigible Annapurna, General Caroa hunts a specific augment. His analyst, Arial Jones, a brilliant, young but new recruit is eager to please her senior officer. Jones works in the Mercier Corporation's Global Strategic Intelligence Center and she has tracked the augment Caroa is seeking to the Drowned Cities. Caroa orders Jones to fire six Havoc 5's at Tool in order to kill him. While the missiles with their incredible firepower and chemicals completely destroy everything and everyone, Tool at the last minute senses the missiles and attempts to escape.

Meanwhile on board the Raker, a clipper sitting in the harbour, Mahalia is thrown onto the deck from the blast. Mahalia had been supervising the loading of artwork onto the clipper when the blast occurred. The palace is leveled, blackened and on fire, the marble steps liquefying due to the heat. Mahalia realizes her old friend Tool has been killed in the attack and grieves deeply because he helped save her and restart her life. She also knows they have to get the Raker out of the harbour because Tool's surviving soldiers will try to take the ship for their own. Captain Almadi reluctantly agrees to sail the damaged ship up the coast, even though a category three hurricane is bearing down on them. Tool having sensed the attack, dove into the waters by the palace. Although on fire and terribly injured by shrapnel he manages to cling to the clipper ship as it sails out of the harbour.

On the Annapurna, General Caroa celebrates what he hopes is the end of a nightmare - the death of the augment known as Blood and the hope of a promotion to Mercier's Executive Committee. But Caroa's celebration is short-lived as Junior Analyst Jones calls him to the Strategic Intelligence Center on the command deck. There Jones shows Caroa evidence that the augment has unbelievably survived the Havoc missile attack. By tracking the augment's heat signature, they see him beneath a clipper ship. Caroa orders Jones to hit the ship but she tells him they have no remaining missiles. When the video feed breaks up due to the storm, Caroa orders Jones to find the ship so they can destroy it.

Tool has lost his pack, the soldier boys he commanded in securing the Drowned Cities. As the storm deepens and the ship begins to founder, Tool hauls himself aboard. There he sees his old pack, Mahalia, Ocho and others attempting to save their ship, struggling with the mast, unable to raise the sail. Tool with his brute strength saves the ship. Eventually the Raker anchors in a small cove, and Mahalia attempts to treat Tool's horrific wounds. She uses all the StimGrowth packs and liters of cell knitters on Tool. Ocho believes Tool will die but Mahalia tells him this is the kind of war Tool was designed for. On the deck of the Raker, Tool tells Mahalia and Ocho that Mercier who owns him is trying to kill him and that they are in danger. He agrees to stay with them until they arrive at Seascape Boston where he will seek out medical help.

On the Annapurna, Jones' conscience is troubled over the innocent lives destroyed in the Havoc attack. Determined to limit the casualties while still doing her job she discovers the identity of the ship and its probable destination. When Caroa orders the Strike Raptors, Jones finds a way to prevent them from being used and instead convinces Caroa to use the Stitch and Ditch kill squads for a cleaner kill.

At Seascape Boston, Mahalia, Ocho, Stick and Stork and Tool  hide out in an ancient brownstone while Van gets the meds Tool needs to heal. After a Stitch and Ditch squad take out the wrong augment, Mahalia and Ocho realize Tool is still being tracked. Tool is beginning to heal from the meds but he is still not himself. He tells Mahalia that she and her crew need to leave before Mercier attacks again. However, it is too late as their building is quickly surrounded. Although Mahalia is determined to fight alongside Tool, he knows this is a fight they cannot survive.

Can Tool overcome his conditioning to fight for the freedom he believes his kind deserve, to protect the humans who are his pack and end the conflict between himself and his creator, General Caroa forever?


Tool of War completes the Ship Breaker trilogy by continuing the sage of Tool, the half man-half beast or augment created by General Caroa. The Ship Breaker series has offered readers the opportunity to consider several contemporary issues such as the use of child soldiers in war, the global influence of large corporations and the potentially destabilizing effects of catastrophic global climate change. In Tool of War the  issue of genetic manipulation of embryos in which human embryos are grossly modified using various animal DNA is considered. In the novel, such creatures are called "augments" of which there are many types (for example gorilla-dominant augments) and are used as combat soldiers and slaves, although society doesn't regard them as such. They do the grunt work in the post-apocalyptic society of the series. "They were everywhere: helping ships off-load freight, hauling strong boxes of cash for merchant transfers, muscling clear paths for corporate princesses. The augments stood sentry outside the embassies of the trading companies, and knelt in temples alongside humans..." In Tool of War both humans and augments have been conditioned to treat one another a certain way with humans believing they are completely under control and the augments genetically altered and conditioned to be loyal unto death. That is until General Caroa was tasked to create a "better" augment.

Caroa designed, bred and trained Tool because battles with military augments were often ending in stalemates. So under the direction of Mercier, new, magnificent warriors, "Stronger, better, smarter, faster." were developed. "We needed creatures that were hypercompetent. Natural engines of strategy, tactics, learning, violence, stamina, fearlessness. Tolerant of poisons and chemical attacks. Resistant to fire and cold and fear and pain..." One of the best was an augment Caroa named Blood but who also goes by other names, Karta-Kul and Tool. Unlike previous iterations of augments, Tool has the ability to break from his conditioning to be loyal and he also has the ability to influence other augments to renege on their conditioning. Caroa recognizes the danger; the augments could then begin to turn on humanity.

General Caroa reveals to Analyst Jones that Tool has already turned on him once. Jones doesn't believe this because "Augments are obedient! They can't break free of that! They pine and die without their masters. Everyone knows---" But Caroa states, "What if everything we know is wrong?...Think, Jones, of all the augments on the Annapurna right now. Our incorruptible, fearless Fast Attack Claws and Fists. Imagine all that loyalty. Gone." As Caroa tells Jones about Tool,  "If our friend recovers sufficiently, I fear that we will bear witness to humanity's extinction."  However, at this point, Caroa notes that Tool " not operating as he should...He has capacities that he is not using, and I don't know why. Is it a ruse? Some trick? Or maybe he's lost the skill?"

Unfortunately for General Caroa and the Annapurna, Tool is able to tap into his abilities. As he begins to recover from his injuries, Tool suspects "Something his creators had done to him, to ensure control." is preventing him from accessing his strength. "Tool felt new blood surging through the fibers of his muscles, filling him with strength. But still it was walled off from him, as if thick sea ice covered the ocean of his capabilities, and he was left peering through to it, knowing the power that lurked beneath the surface, but unable to chip through to its depths. Something held him back from using his true strength." 

However, Tool begins to rebel against his conditioning but he finds it difficult to overcome his genes and conditioning. His inner conflict becomes the main theme of this novel. When he is attacked in Seascape, Tool fights his intense desire to surrender. " Tool was seized with a powerful urge to surrender...He could actually feel his muscles fighting to make him surrender...As if he were possessed by the will of his masters." He succeeds but his struggle costs his human friends their lives. He rescues Mahalia and tells her, "There will be no ore running, or hiding. I have run from Mercier for years...Now I will hunt, as I was always meant to. Now I will war, as I was designed to."  Mahalia questions if Tool will be able to overcome the conditioning bred into him, despite Tool's assertions that he will not succumb again.

In Seascape, Tool begins to see the augments as they really are, as slaves."They lived among humans as slaves, and thought of themselves as anything but. Disgusting that they did not see themselves for what they were." Jayant Patel, Nita's father insists that Tool is property and that since he is owned by Mercier he needs to be returned. Tool however refuses to comply and demonstrates why Mercier fears him - he is able to resist his training and is capable of influencing other augments to do the same. "My creators do not fear my individual rebellion. They fear the uprising that I will inevitably lead." This suggests that Tool is determined to lead the augments in an uprising.

How augments are seen by humans in this post-apocalyptic world is revealed in a conversation between Nailer and Nita. Nailer tells Nita that Tool is unlike other augments, because he views humans as people, "Not masters. Not owners. Just people." However Nita realizes that humans do not view augments the same way. "...You treat your augments well, but they aren't people. And they don't ask to be treated just like people. They don't demand things the way people demand things..." This is what makes Tool different.

After the situation between Global Patel and Mercier is resolved, Nita's views regarding the augments change. Designed and trained to do tasks that normal humans could not, Nita and her fellow humans never gave the augments a second thought. "Now she couldn't help feeling there was something wrong with the very language used to describe augments. Words like ownership came easily when a creature was grown from handpicked cells, developed  in a creche, and purchase from a selection of other augments." She notes that despite their animal characteristics, they feel loss and success and she acknowledges they are people. This leads her to agree to help Tool.

Tool knows he will never be at peace unless he destroys Caroa. Tool's final confrontation with Caroa is filled with uncertainty as Tool struggles between his conditioning, his love for Caroa and his desire to be free. It is graphic and brutal. But when that is accomplished, Tool feels the weight of Caroa's death and he admits to himself, "The killing of Caroa had not been easy on his mind." In many ways Tool, half man-half beast is more human than Caroa and those who created him. He spares Jones, realizing that like him, she is struggling to survive, that she is a flawed creature too, and to free Mahalia, Ocho and the others from the Raker. He is by far the most interesting character in this series, and evolved into the focus of the novels.

Tool of War is a brutal telling of the cat and mouse game between General Caroa and Tool. It's an unrelenting dark story with no comic relief. Yet the novel ends on a hopeful note. Does Tool lead his rebellion against humanity? We don't know and aren't told in the Epilogue.

Bacigalupi, brings back several characters from the first book, Shipbreaker. Nailer Lopez now an engineer on a tanker is shocked to once again encounter Tool. Tool who helped Nailer is satisfied to see that Nailer has grown into a strong, assured young human as has his friend Nita Patel, the rich girl he saved in Ship Breaker. Although they have change much, Tool places his hope in them.

Tool of War offers a great conclusion to the Ship Breaker series. Bacigalupi is a master storyteller who just does not disappoint!

Book Details:

Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
New York: Little, Brown and Company  2017
373 pp.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won concludes the story of Ada Smith and her own private war between herself and the world. The novel picks up the story where it left off in The War That Saved My Life. It is told by fourteen-year-old Ada looking back on events beginning on Monday September 15, 1940.

At the end of the first book, Ada and Jamie had just left their mother but were caught above ground during a bombing in London. They were found by Susan Smith, the older woman who had taken them in during the evacuation of London. Susan took them back to her village in Kent where they discovered that her home has been destroyed by a bomb. Now they are back in London where eleven-year-old Ada is undergoing surgery to repair her club foot. Susan, Jamie and his cat Bovril are "staying in a rented room in a boardinghouse near the hospital."

The War I Finally Won begins with Ada awakening from her surgery the next day to learn that her Mam has been killed in the bombing of the munitions factory where she worked. While six-year-old Jamie is devastated, Ada feels nothing because she knows her mother hated her and didn't want her.

Susan's concern about the funeral arrangements set Ada to worrying about whether or not they will be able to continue to live with her as they are now orphans. Still confined to bed, Ada learns from Susan that her mother's body was cremated and buried in a mass grave. Ada finally confesses her worry over the "arrangements" which she believes mean that Susan will abandon them.Susan comforts Ada by explaining that the "arrangements" she needed to make were regarding her mother's funeral. She explains that she will likely become Ada and Jamie's legal guardian. Ada also learns that Lady Thorton has offered them an abandoned cottage on the Thorton estate in which to live.

Even on an outing in a wheelchair, Ada finds herself worrying about money and taking care of herself and Jamie. Ada is told that Lord and Lady Thorton paid for her surgery but she doesn't like having to be grateful to Lady Thorton. Three days later, Ada gets her final cast cut off her foot and Susan presents her with a pair of shoes. The surgery is a resounding success with Ada is not only able to stand on her foot but also to walk and run, although the doctor tells her she will never have full mobility of her ankle.

Susan, Ada and Jamie travel back to Kent and set up house in the cottage on Thorton, with Ada and Jamie having their own rooms. Life begins to return to some sort of normalcy with Ada now able to ride her horse Butter astride like her friend Maggie Thorton. Fred Grimes, the Thorton's groom is thrilled for Ada. But the war continues to take its toll; Ada meets her friend Stephen White and learns that his entire family has been killed in the bombing of London and that he and his father will be joining the merchant marines.

Christmas sees Ada once again struggle emotionally. Her best friend Maggie Thorton returns from boarding school to invite Ada and her family over for Christmas dinner. Just before Christmas, Jamie breaks his arm in an attempt to climb a tree. Ada is determined to care for him despite Susan's assurances that it is her responsibility. But Christmas is a difficult time for Ada. She is upset at receiving a doll from Susan which she considers a child's gift, and is tense at having to attend a Christmas dinner at Thorton House. However, this is made bearable by Maggie's older brother, Jonathan who is a lieutenant in the RAF. During Christmas dinner at the Thorton's Susan asks Lord Thorton to help her find work. He is surprised to learn that Susan obtained a first from Oxford in maths and he offers her work immediately but it will mean placing Ada and Jamie in school. Susan refuses his offer, Lord Thorton promises to find her something.

On Boxing Day, Ada rides in a "paper chase" which Maggie explains is "like a fox hunt...only without foxes, or hunting."Ada enjoys the paper chase immensely but her best surprise is Susan's gift of Butter. Gradually Ada begins to settle into life on the Thorton estate; she volunteers to fire watch even though it means climbing the church steeple.

Then Lady Thorton moves in with Susan, Ada and Jamie after Thorton house is requisitioned by the British government. This is the beginning of some big changes in Ada's life, ones that will bring about a new friendship, a terrible loss and the beginning of healing for Ada.


The War I Finally Won is about one girl's war to overcome the physical and emotional trauma she experienced as a result of poverty and abuse to reclaim her life. In this sequel Ada must learn to how be a child, to leave the caring to the adults in her life. Perhaps even more importantly she must learn to trust.

After returning home from her surgery, eleven-year-old Ada Smith struggles with allowing herself to be cared for and to be a child. Ada was not wanted by her mother and not cared for; her club foot, a defect caused by the baby's position in the womb, could have been repaired at birth but was not. Ada was frequently punished by her mother by being placed in a small, roach-filled cupboard beneath the kitchen sink, she was not fed enough nor kept clean and she was kept a prisoner in her flat, never allowed to attend school. As a result she always feels unsafe and she considers herself the caretaker of herself and her brother.

Used to fending for herself and caring for her younger brother Jamie, Ada doesn't know how to be a child. When Jamie breaks his arm, Ada insists on caring for him, partly because this what she has always done and also because she doesn't trust Susan to do so.Adults are not to be trusted in Ada's world. Susan tells Ada to return to bed but Ada tells her, "It's my job to take care of him. Not yours." Susan tells her this is not her responsibility anymore. Susan attempts to prove to Ada that she, as an adult, is better suited to care for both Ada and her brother but questioning her as to what she would do if Jamie's condition worsened. Susan tries to explain to Ada that she doesn't necessarily have to feel safe to be safe, a point she makes when she takes Ada up in the church bell tower to fire watch.

Ada's worry about money and the cost of her care manifests itself in her questions about Susan's request to Lord Thorton to help her find work and that she too would like to help out. However, Susan points out to Ada, " 'You're eleven years old,' Susan said. 'You get to be the child now, Ada, for once in your life. I will be the adult.'..." Ada also struggles to understand the concept of guardianship and the meaning of the word "ward" which she takes to mean her care of Susan. Eventually Susan tells Ada her understanding of "ward" is archaic and that she is responsible for Ada's care.

The church steeple and fire watching are symbolic of Ada's belief that she must be ever-watchful for the possibility of bad things that might happen.Ada never feels safe; "I never did. Never once. Anything could happen anytime --Mam's death proved it..." She admits to Maggie that she is afraid of fire watching because she's afraid of being trapped, being pinned under rubble or like being "stuffed under the sink" and being unable to escape. "Only I still have to keep watch. I have to be careful, to keep bad things from happening again."

Ada's relationship with Susan gradually evolves into one of trust and love. Her younger brother Jamie has no problem considering Susan his mother and he even calls her mommy, telling Ruth "Our first mother is in heaven...Susan's our second." Ada admits it's difficult to accept this identity for Susan. "I flinched. All these months of Jamie calling Susan Mum, and I still couldn't get used to it. " Ada cannot yet accept Susan as her mother nor can she even admit that she might love Susan. "I wouldn't have told Susan I loved her even if I thought it was true. Words could be dangerous, as destructive as bombs." While Ada can't tell Susan how she feels Susan does tell Ada and Jamie that she loves them.

Lady Thorton and Susan's care of Ada and her brother eventually teach Ada how to love and to trust. Ada doesn't realize how much she loves her until Susan becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. After almost losing her, Ada confesses that she loves her dearly.It isn't until the end of the novel that Ada finally refers to Susan as "Mum".

The War I Finally Won also explores the theme of preconceived views of people. In the first novel, Ada was considered simple and unteachable by others because of what her mother had told others and because of her disability. This humiliated and angered her. In The War I Finally Won, considers the dangers of labelling all people from a certain group on the basis of generalization. In this novel, a young German girl, Ruth comes to stay at Thorton cottage. Lady Thorton refuses to allow Ruth to stay with them, stating "A German is a German is a German." Ada notes "...We saw Germans on the newsreels. They reminded me of Hitler with their cold dark eyes...You could tell by looking at them that they were evil." However she feels that Ruth "...looked normal enough to me." Fortunately, Lady Thorton is overruled by her more open-minded husband. Still Ada is not interested in being friends with Ruth reasoning that "Ruth could absolutely still have a wireless set. Or a bomb."

However, as they live together their views of Ruth change. Ada and Jamie learn that the creators of their favourite fairy tales were the German Brothers Grimm and that Ruth's home of Dresden "is a beautiful city, very cultured..." and that she is very much worried about her grandmother who lives there. Ada realizes that Lady Thorton is judging Ruth by what she knows of Hitler, that the longer she knows Ruth, the more ordinary she seems. Jonathan treats Ruth kindly and through his questions, Ada and the others learn about how Hitler has been treating the German Jews and that it is not a religious problem but one of race.

Ada and Ruth become friends by connecting through their mutual love of horses and riding. Ruth is not allowed to ride the Thorton's horses because she's German but Ada finds a way. This is because she recognizes the pain that Ruth is carrying and she believes "Ruth needed horses." She tells Susan, "Ruth needs horse the way I needed horses...The way Maggie needs them."

Ada comes to understand that she and Ruth are very much alike, both searching for their place in the world. Ruth tells Jamie, "I used to think I was German. I don't belong anywhere anymore..." just as Ada feels she doesn't belong anywhere either. It is during a ride that Ada is finally able to admit to Ruth about her club foot and how it made her mother not love her. When Ada gets into trouble over allowing Ruth to ride, she explains that when she is gifted with Lady Thorton's horse, Oban, Ada gives this horse to Ruth, whom she recognizes as the superior rider and because she knows the riding has helped Ruth in the same way it has healed Ada.

In the end, Susan and Lady Thorton's actions positively influence Ada, leading her to help them. Susan has taken care of Ada and Jamie, showing concern for them in many ways; Ada reciprocates this love by taking Susan to Becky's hometown where she can begin to heal the wounds of the past. Lady Thorton also cared for Ada during Susan's illness by taking Ada to visit her in the hospital and by taking her to the zoo; Ada reciprocates this love by using her saved money to travel to Maggie's school and bring her home when Lady Thorton sinks into a deep depression. "I'd know the right thing to do and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thorton the way she'd helped take care of me."

By the end of the novel Ada is beginning to heal and is able to understand some of what has happened to her. For example Ada repeatedly states at the beginning of the novel "You can know things all you like, but that doesn't mean you believe them" Ada has been told and knows that her club foot is not her fault and that she is not to blame for her mother's unhappiness. But it isn't until Jamie points out to Ada that their mother was angry all the time at everything and not just at Ada that she comes to believe this. "It had never been about me. I couldn't breathe.I went to the window and looked out, seeing nothing, gripping the windowsill hard. It hadn't been my fault."

Eventually Ada becomes the girl she longed to be and much more; joyful, able to trust and to love but at the same time recognizing that she will always carry the scars of her previous life. She is on her way to winning her own personal war. "My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either, but they were healed enough."

Brubaker Bradley has crafted a cast of realistic, memorable characters in The War I Finally Won. The story is driven by many remarkable characters; Ada Smith who is intelligent and resilient, Susan whose own painful past has helped her to understand Ada, Maggie and Ruth who are strong and supportive in spite of their own terrible losses, Lady Thorton whose upper class propriety masks a warm heart and Jonathan whose generous nature leads him to make the ultimate sacrifice. All of the major characters experience their own personal journey, offering lessons in forgiveness, acceptance and trust while the secondary characters help to fill out the story line.

The War I Finally Won will appeal to young teen readers, as well as adults. It also has the possibility to be a great aloud read for teachers. A fitting conclusion to a well-written pair of novels for young readers.

Book Details:

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers    2017
85 pp.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully

Caroline's Comets is a children's picture book about Caroline Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to be paid for her scientific contributions and the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal!

Caroline was born in 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth child of Isaac and Anna Ilse Herschel and the only surviving girl of the Herschel family.

Caroline's childhood was a challenging one. She caught typhus at age ten. This serious illness stunted Caroline's growth; she grew to be only four feet three inches tall. After recovering from typhus, Caroline caught small pox which left her with facial scars. Because of her physical scars, Caroline's parents believed she would never marry.

While her mother felt Caroline should receive only limited schooling and should be trained domestically, Caroline's father who was a musician, gave her a musical education along with her five brothers. When she was twenty-two, Caroline relocated to Bath, England where her older brother William worked as an organist and conductor. In Bath, Caroline began serious training as a singer. William provided Caroline with the opportunity to perform as a soprano in his concerts.

Eventually William's interest in astronomy led to him leaving his musical career. He had became determined to develop a better, more powerful telescope and his reputation as a telescope maker became well known. Caroline often helped her brother with his observations and she began to learn the mathematics that modern day astronomy is based upon.  She also helped him make his reflective telescopes, in particular  helping with the grinding and polishing of the mirrors. William's work paid off when in 1781, he discovered a new planet, Uranus. It was a discovery that happened mostly by chance but it led to him being offered the new position of royal astronomer by King George III. Eventually Caroline too, quit her musical career to become an assistant to her brother and was paid for this work - the first time a woman received remuneration for work in a field of science.

It was shortly after this that Caroline began to make some serious contributions to the science of astronomy. In 1783 she discovered three new nebulae (clouds of gas and dust that gives birth to stars) and between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets. Caroline Herschel produced a large body of work in the field of astonomy; she began cataloguing star clusters and nebulae, she discovered fourteen comets, she added more than 550 new stars to John Flamsteed's star catalogue, and she was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Two catalogues Caroline Herschel created are still used today by astronomers. Caroline passed away at the age of 98 in 1848.

McCully's Caroline's Comets covers all the details of Caroline Herschel's life and then some. To tell Caroline's story, McCully uses carefully chosen portions of text from the Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel edited by Mrs. John Herschel. As a result, McCully  includes some of the finer details of Caroline's life, making it a more personal and therefore a more interesting account. For example, young readers will learn that it was Caroline's father who introduced the stars, constellations and comets to her at a young age. Caroline's success is yet another example of the importance of fathers in encouraging their daughter's interest in the world around them. McCully's account indicates that Caroline might have ended up as a maid were it not for her father and her brother. William paid for a maid for the family so that Caroline could come to England. Caroline Herschel's life demonstrates that when girls are provided with a good education and the support of their families - that is when they are treated the same as boys-  they are capable of achieving great things!

McCully also includes some interesting facts about William and Caroline's efforts in building better and more powerful telescopes. William and Caroline worked as a team and there was no shortage of accidents as William's telescopes grew in size and power.

Emily Arnold McCully also created the illustrations for her picture book. Her illustrations, rendered with pen, ink and watercolour were reviewed by Dr. Matthew Kadane for accuracy and serve to enhance this fascinating biography. The Note at the back of the book provides a few further interesting facts about Caroline Herschel and a Bibliography, Timeline and Glossary has also been included.

Caroline's Comets is a must-read for any school library, homeschooling family or those interested in sparking the imagination of what's possible and instilling an interest in science in young girls.

Book Details:

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully
New York: Holiday House

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal

Fancy Party Gowns is a story about African American fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe who is probably most remembered for the gorgeous wedding dress she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding to John F. Kennedy.

Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. She developed an interest sewing and designing because both her mother and grandmother were seamstresses. She received little schooling in the segregated schools in Alabama but her skill making gowns and fancy dresses was developed under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother.

In 1916 she moved to Florida where she gained a reputation for her gowns among the debutantes in the Tampa area. Springboarding off of this, Ann and her mother moved to New York City where she married. There her mother opened a small dress making shop. When her mother died, Ann finished all the dresses her mother was working on and kept the shop open.

Ann's clientele were high society, including the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts but she was fashion's best kept secret at this time. Jacqueline Bouvier was one of her clients and when she became engaged to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953, her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier employed Ann Lowe to create and sew her wedding dress as well as all the dresses for the entire wedding party! Lowe had designed Bouvier's wedding dress when she married her second husband, Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr.

Jaqueline's dress was made of ivory silk tafetta, had a large skirt and what is called a portrait neckline. The dress was partially destroyed along with nine of the bridesmaid's dressses when a pipe burst in her Lextington Avenue shop a little more than a week before the wedding. Ann had to remake these dresses but lost money on the order. She never received credit for the design which won world-wide praise.

Despite income tax issues and some health problems, Ann persisted and opened a boutique in the Saks Fifth Avenue store in 1961. She was awarded the Couturier of the Year in 1961. Ann soon was designing and sewing dresses for numerous high society ladies. She was never interested in dressing the average woman. "I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register."

Several of Ann Lowe's gowns are now part of the holdings of the Museum of African American History. Ann Lowe passed away in 1981 at the age of eighty-three.

Fancy Party Gowns captures the essence of the Ann Lowe story. It is a remarkable story because Lowe was African-American and succeeded at a time when racism was still very much in evidence in American society. Blumenthal takes young readers from Ann's childhood in Alabama where she caught the love of sewing from her grandmother and mother to her taking over her mother's shop upon her death to Ann designing and sewing Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding dress. Eventually Ann's achievements were recognized. She received the Official Couturiere

Blumenthal lightly mentions some of the struggles Ann overcame. Although slavery had been abolished in the previous century, racial prejudice against African Americans still dominated much of American life in the early to mid-twentieth century. Ann often encountered this; she experienced the humiliations of segregation, she often did not receive the credit due to her. In spite of this, Ann persisted. She continued to design and sew fancy dresses, elaborate gowns and women loved and wore them.

Accompanying Blumenthal's biography are the bright illustrations of Laura Freeman. Freeman had her sister stand in as a model for some of her illustrations because she noticed that her sister shared the same sort of facial features as Lowe. The colourful illustrations in this picture book were done using photoshop.

Ultimately Fancy Party Gowns is about a young woman persevering to achieve her dream of doing what she loves - designing and sewing beautiful gowns and dresses.

The author has included a note at the back with more information about Ann Lowe and a For Further Reading list that includes books and blog posts about Lowe.

You can see some of Ann Lowe's designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where five of her dresses are in their collection.

Book Details:

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal
New York: Little Bee Books        2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly McGhee

Ten-year-old Susquenhanna Indiana (Sussy) Reed's special friendship with Guy Hose began in kindergarten. Like Sussy, Guy chose the Potato Heads during free play time, instead of the costume closet. It was Guy's idea to connect the Potato Heads together using the ear pieces. Each day thereafter Sussy and Guy built a never-ending potato.

By the end of first grade, Sussy and Guy "were good friends, but not together-all-the-time friends." Sussy's dad called them spaghetti and meatballs because they were always together. One day in the spring of fourth grade, Sussy and Guy invite Sussy's father to play a game of Monopoly with them. During that game, Sussy tells her father that Guy's mother believes that "Everything you need to know about life can be learned from Monopoly." But Sussy believes it doesn't fully teach people about life because "There's no love in this game."  Sussy points out that neither she nor Guy have siblings and that what they need is a pet. Guy suggests they get a leopard gecko, a pet Sussy's mom just might approve of. Guy tells them they are "good beginner reptiles" that can be kept in a tank and Sussy offers to keep the tank in her room.

Convinced, Sussy's father takes them to Total Pets where Guy chooses the largest gecko whose been in the pet store for some time. Guy suggests they name her Matylda, "with a 'y' so it's all her own." They also purchase a fifteen gallon tank and many accessories for the gecko and set it up in Sussy's bedroom. Matylda immediately takes to Guy, walking onto his hand, then up his arm and curling behind his neck. But she won't climb onto Sussy's hand.

With the help of Sussy's father who devises a way to catch live crickets in their backyard, Sussy and Guy are able to feed Matylda. Sussy doesn't like feeding Matylda live crickets and she finds watching her stalk and eat the crickets unsettling. Guy realizes this and tries to make his friend feel better about it.

Sussy and Guy visit Mike at Total Pets to ask where Matylda came from but he doesn't know. Instead he suggests they make up their own story for Matylda. So Guy creates a fantastic narrative about Matylda being a great lizard warrior whose master, the heir to a kingdom, forces her to fight other lizards.Each fight she wins sees her get another black spot on her back. The king promises Matylda if she defeats her fiftieth opponent he will set her free and grant her a wish. Matylda wins the fight, is set free and wishes to be loved. This lands her in the tank at Total Pets and into Sussy's home.

Guy and Sussy go to school together almost every day and have been doing so since third grade. Near the end of fourth grade their class has a project called Make Yourself Known, in which they have to "find a way to show the class something unique about ourselves". Their teacher, Mrs. Bueler agrees to let them bring Matylda, as long as no one touches the gecko. Sussy's father comes to class to help out with Matylda who turns out to be a big hit. Guy feeds Matylda a large cricket, but Sussy still feels upset at seeing the cricket being eaten alive.

One Saturday, Sussy and Guy decide to make a trip to Total Pets for some D3, a trace element that will help Matylda absorb calcium. Sussy suggests that they go by the reservation to see the flowers, so with their helmets on they ride their bikes. However on the corner of Witchett and Elm, an Airedale races out of a house and attacks Sussy on her bike. Guy, as usual, comes to Sussy's rescue, charging the dog. Suddenly a car coming over the hill on Witchett hits Guy who is in the middle of the road, killing him. Ten-year-old Sussy is taken to hospital and learns that her best friend, the boy she loves, it dead.Somehow Sussy must find a way to go on. Believing that caring for Matylda is the only way she can hold on to Guy, Sussy struggles with her pain until finally some poor choices catch up with her but help her to realize losing Guy will always be a part of her. 


Matylda, Bright and Tender is a heartbreaking novel about a young girl trying to find her way through the loss of her best friend. Holly McGhee has written several children's books under a pen name, but Matylda Bright and Tender is her debut novel under her own name. McGhee drew on her own experience of being in a horrific car accident when she was a teenager to write Sussy and Guy's story. She wrote this children's novel as a way to express some of the pain she has carried with her for decades and to turn that pain into something positive.

The novel is primarily a journey about struggling to cope with a terrible loss and to move on. The story is told in first person by ten-year-old Sussy Reed. McGhee immediately establishes that a special friendship exists between Sussy and Guy by having Sussy remember how she came to love Guy in grade one when she was six years old. Guy, concerned that Sussy had left her jacket at home on a cool fall day, races to her house to retrieve it before the bus arrives. From that point on Sussy loved Guy. This act foreshadows both their blossoming friendship and the accident. It is Guy's care of Sussy that will create the bond of friendship but his concern for Sussy that marks their friendship will also be deadly.

When Guy dies in a car accident Sussy is emotionally shattered. She struggles to accept what has happened, that a car "...killed the one person in the world who meant more to me than anybody else." From the beginning there are signs that Sussy is not coping well with her friend's death. Once home from the hospital, Sussy demands to have the clothes she was wearing at the time of the accident; a sunflower shirt which Sussy calls "The Dying Day" shirt and a fire-engine-red pair of capris which have been repaired by her mother. Sussy wears this outfit for weeks, refusing to let her wash them. Eventually her mother, concerned about Sussy, buys her new clothing. Sussy only changes because some of the new clothing remind her of Guy.

Sussy understandably remains focused on Guy in the days following his death. "...and I lay in my bed and I wanted to go to the boy I loved. I wanted to go to Guy, to follow the path of my friend." At his funeral service though, Sussy believes she hears and sees Guy speak to her from his coffin. She believes she sees Guy, in his orange polo shirt and familiar jeans asking her  to promise to love Matylda enough for both of them. Sussy promises because "I had to love Matylda like he did. Enough for us both. She was all I had left of him. I had to do everything right. If I did everything right, I could hold on to Guy."

Sadly this puts so much pressure on Sussy that she begins to make choices that are not good. She struggles to figure out how she can love Matylda the way Guy did. When Matylda appears to stop eating, Sussy creates a project to find the most delicious crickets for her. They decide to try different fruits in the cricket traps. While her father gets the other items on their list, Sussy shops for the cricket bait in the produce section. However, she quickly  begins acting out, screaming the names of the fruits and kicking the cart around. Shoppers stare at her while inside Sussy feels tremendous anger towards Guy; "I was furious at Guy then, furious that he'd asked me to love the lizard like he did when I didn't know how...Furious that Matylda didn't love me, that she wouldn't even come to my hand, wouldn't eat my crickets...Furious I loved him so much."

Determined to make Matylda love her, Sussy decides to go to Total Pets to get some D3 powder. Mike suggests Sussy try feeding her lizard worms, but when he gets busy with a customer, Sussy's decides to steal tubs of worms. "And I heard, Sure you can --it's okay. Show her your love: bring her worms. Guy would want you to. He'd want her to have the worms." Sussy knows stealing is wrong because she hides the tubs in her closet and she tells Matylda it will be their secret. However, Sussy doesn't stop there and a week later steals a tree for Matylda's vivarium. "And as I watched her , looking glorious there under the tree I stole for her, I felt I was keeping my promise to Guy, loving her as much as he did. Doing just that. Sussy the Promise Keeper." 

When the time comes to return to school, it is one of many firsts that Sussy will do without Guy. Over the summer there has the first summer without Guy, and the first trip to Long Beach without him too. Sussy finally admits to her mother, "I don't know how to go without him...I miss him so much." But Sussy gets through her first walk to school without Guy, her first lunch and her first day without him. However, in her excitement over the first day of school, Sussy forgets about Matylda. Horrified and believing that this demonstrates she doesn't love Matylda enough, Sussy steals again from Total Pets but this time Mike tells her he knows what she's doing. Sussy flees the store and in a rage of anger against Guy for demanding she love Matylda the way he did, Sussy almost kills Matylda.

In this crisis she realizes two things; first that what happened to Guy will always be a part of her. "I got it--I was always going to be on Witchett somehow, was always gonna hear that crash--loud or quiet I'd hear it. I was supposed to hear it; it was part of me. Okay, dying day, you can stay." Secondly, she realizes that she does love Matylda in her own way. Matylda, who lost her tail when Sussy became enraged, has lost a part of herself just as Sussy lost a part of herself when Guy died. Sussy believes that Matlyda "...understood that I had to almost lose her to know how much I loved her" in the same way that Sussy realized how much she loved Guy only after he was killed in the accident.

Matylda, Bright and Tender is a poignant story about loss, forgiveness and acceptance, about healing from the deepest of hurts. Guy's death is heartbreaking, more so because McGhee really establishes the deep friendship that exists between Guy and Sussy at the beginning of the novel and because Guy is so full of concern for Sussy. Mature readers will wonder at the "what could have been..." for these two young people. Thankfully the novel's ending is both hopeful and satisfying. My only criticism is that it would be very likely today that a young girl like Sussy would be encouraged to receive some sort of counselling to help her process the death of her dearest friend, yet there is no mention of this ever being considered by Sussy's parents.

McGhee's family owns several leopard geckos and the traps she writes about in Matylda, Bright and Tender were actually designed by her husband.

Matylda, Bright and Tender is a short, but excellent novel, well written, with a simple but engaging cover that will appeal to young readers, teachers and book clubs. I look forward to reading more of McGhee's work.

Book Details:

Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly McGhee
Berryville, VA: Candlewick Press              2017
210 pp.