Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers & Rebels by Linda Skeers

Women Who Dared features stories of remarkable women who were fearless in their quest to follow their dreams. Linda Skeers has put together a fascinating collection of stories that will captivate young and not-so-young readers.

The book is divided into three sections: Daredevils, Adventurers and Rebels. In Daredevils, readers will meet Annie Edson Taylor who decided to take the plunge over Niagara Falls, Florence Chadwick who swam the English Channel-both ways, Lillian Boyer who was an aerial acrobat and Valentina Tereshkova, a cosmonaut who orbited Earth forty-eight times.

The Adventurers section introduces readers to Barbara Hillary, explorer of both the North and South Poles, Beatrice Ayettey who grew up in Ghana and became that country's first maritime captain, Dr. Eugenie Clark whose passion for the sea led her study sharks, and Canadian Mina Hubbard who explored the uncharted wilds of Labrador.

The final section, Rebels describes the heroic efforts of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra, Iraq to save the rare books from destruction during the Iraq War. Readers will also meet Irene Sendler who save 2,500 Jewish children from death during World War II, Keiko Fukudo who was one of the first women to master judo, Margaret "Molly" Tobin Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic and Minnie Spotted Wolf a member of the Blackfeet Nation who became the first Native American woman to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Some of the women profiled are well known, such as (unsinkable) Molly Brown, Irene Sendler and Mary Anning. Others such as Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly are missing.  Each one page biography is accompanied by a colourful rendering of the person profiled by illustrator Livi Gosling. While most of the women featured are American, Skeers does include women from other countries including Canada, Ghana, France, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Jamaica, England, France and Nicaragua.  There is an extensive Bibliography at the back of the book for further research. This is a great companion volume to Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky.

Book Details:

Women Who Dared by Linda Skeers
Naperville, Illinois:  Sourcebooks, Inc.       2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Life in the Ocean by Claire A. Nivola

Dr. Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer whose work to save our planet's oceans is legendary. Life in the Ocean tells young readers about how Sylvia's love of the natural world around her led to a career dedicated to learning about and preserving the world's oceans.

Sylvia was born in 1935 in Gibbstown, New Jersey. She spent her early childhood on a farm where she enjoyed exploring the nearby woods. When she was twelve, Sylvia's family moved to Dunedin, Florida, close to the ocean. Her backyard was now the Gulf of Mexico. This home offered Sylvia the opportunity to observe the oceans and the nearby salt marshes. Sylvia decided that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

She attended Florida State University and graduated in 1955 with a degree in botany. Sylvia obtained her Masters in botany from Duke University a year later and went on to earn her doctorate in 1966.

She became renowned for her groundbreaking exploration of the ocean. In 1964 Sylvia had the opportunity to be a part of the International Indian Ocean Expedition. At that time it was unheard of for women to be part of an oceanographic research team. Sylvia was the only woman with seventy men on board a research vessel for six weeks at sea. Although the headlines focused on this, Sylvia had no problems and enjoyed this experience immensely.

In 1970, Sylvia Earle led an all-female team of researchers who were part of the Tektite II experiment. This experiment saw the women aquanauts live for up to twenty days underwater in a special habitat to undertake research and observe the effects of living in a confined environment. During the 1970's she began an association with National Geographic to write books and produce films on ocean life. She led many undersea explorations and in 1979 set a world record for the deepest untethered dive, descending 1250 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Sylvia Earle was the first woman to serve as chief scientist of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) from 1990 to 1992 and in 1998 she became the first female explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society.

Dr. Sylvia Earle
In 2009 Sylvia launched Mission Blue, an alliance of scientists, philanthropists and others to establish "hope spots" around the globe. These hope spots are marine protected areas. 

In interviews, Sylvia has stated that it "was considered a little unusual for girls to want to be scientists when I began." She stated that her parents were extremely supportive of her decision to become a scientist. "..I think because they had that attitude I didn't know that it was unusual."

Sylvia's message is to "encourage people to connect to nature, to understand that our lives are totally linked to the natural world..."

Life in the Ocean describes Sylvia's early life and her oceanographic work in detail accompanied by the delicate and colourful watercolour illustrations by the author. Nivola's paintings capture the beauty and mystery of the world's oceans and help portray its vastness to younger readers.

 The author includes a detailed Author's Note and also a Selected Bibilography at the back. Life in the Oceans is a beacon to all young girls who desire a career as a scientist and a reminder to their parents that the best way to encourage more women in science is the nurturing and support of these interests by parents.

Book Details: 

Life in the Ocean by Clair A. Nivola
New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux            2012

Friday, October 13, 2017

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten-year-old Ada lives with her Mam and her younger brother, Jamie in London, England. Ada's mother works nights in the pub below their third floor flat. It was Ada's job to get Jamie breakfast in the morning and tea at night. Ada isn't able to walk because her right foot is small and twisted, so she gets around their flat by crawling. Because of her foot, Ada's mother will not allow her to ever leave their flat. She believes her daughter's crippled foot is shameful and that people judge her as a parent. She also frequently tells Ada that her foot is her own fault. Ada hasn't been to school and instead is forced to care for Jamie. She is often hungry.

As Jamie gets older he no longer wants to stay in their flat and one day to prevent him from leaving, Ada ties him up. Seeing how upset he becomes, Ada releases him, realizing that she is becoming cruel like her Mam. That day she decides to teach herself to walk, hoping that if she can walk, Mam will be proud. Learning to walk is a painful process but Ada persists, deciding to keep it a secret. When Mam discovers that Jamie has been stealing food, she punishes Ada by forcing her into the cabinet beneath their sink. This is a terrifying experience for Ada because it is damp, smelly, dark and infested with roaches. And now that she's older and bigger, being in the cabinet all night is painful.

In late August, 1939, Jamie tells Mam that his best friend Billy White says that all the children in London are leaving, being sent to the country. London is going to be bombed by the Germans. Mam decides to send Jamie but not Ada, telling her that "Nice people don't want to look at that foot." Later on Ada tells Jamie to make sure he knows the time and place they are to be, because she intends to leave with him.

On a Friday morning, Ada, wearing her Mam's shoes leaves with Jamie. The walk is painful for Ada, but they make it inside the school. At the school Ada meets Stephen White who is surprised to see Ada. He reveals to her that everyone believes she is "simple" and cannot talk and that people feel sorry for her Mam. Stephen gives Ada a piggy-back ride to the train station and by noon Ada is on the train with the rest of the children headed out of London.

The train ride proves to be a learning experience for Ada who has never seen grass or trees and is astonished to see a girl riding a pony racing the train. For Ada, the girl on the pony leaves a lasting impression. Finally Ada and Jamie along with the other children arrive at a train station and are lined up so they can be paired with adults who will take them into their homes. Ada and Jamie are so scruffy that no one chooses them.The woman in charge of placing the children and whom Ada nicknames the "iron woman" consoles them and then drives them to a house set amongst trees.

They overhear the "iron woman" and the lady who lives at the house, Miss Smith arguing about taking the children. Initially Ada doesn't care whether Miss Smith takes them or not, until she sees the bright yellow pony poking its head through the bushes. This makes Ada take matters into her own hands and she has Jamie help her back to the house. In the end, the iron lady whose name is Lady Thorton, leaves Ada and Jamie with Miss Smith who is not at all very happy.

They are forced to have baths and it is at this time that Miss Smith discovers Ada's foot was not injured by a brewers cart but instead that she has a club foot. She tells Ada that they will go to see the doctor in the morning. Miss Smith learns that Jamie is ready to go to school but that Ada doesn't attend because of her "ugly foot" and that the children do not know their last name. Ada's only concern is the pony whom she learns is named Butter. The doctor tells Miss Smith that the children have impetigo (a skin infection), that they are very malnourished to the point that Ada is developing rickets (a Vitamin D deficiency) The doctor is also disturbed by Ada's untreated club foot, which Ada learns could have been treated when she was a baby. Miss Smith decides she will write Ada's mother immediately in order to get permission for her to have surgery to correct her foot.

Life with Miss Smith is very different from life with Mam. There is lots of food, baths, and special clothes for sleeping in, called pajamas. Ada is allowed to be outside and play. They learn about soup served in bowls and eaten with spoons, little green things called peas and thin white blankets on the beds called sheets. Then with England at war with Germany, comes the risk of being bombed. While Jamie misses Mam and wants to go home, Ada knows "Home was more frightening than bombs." Ada knows if she goes back home she will run away again. But when Jamie has a tantrum at the train station after his friend Billy White is taken home by his mother, Ada wonders if her mother will be happy with her now that she can walk with crutches. Maybe Mam will see that she's not simple. As Ada's health improves and she comes to trust Miss Smith, Ada begins to realize there might not be any going back.


The War that Saved My Life traces the journey of Ada Smith who discovers herself and saves her life and that of her brother Jamie after they are sent out of London to the countryside during the early days of World War II. Born with a club foot, abused by her Mam and malnourished, ten-year-old Ada  has no idea of the outside world.

Ada struggles to understand the world she's been dropped into. It seems that people use words but don't really mean what they say.  For example,  Miss Smith claims she's not a nice person, "but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot in a white piece of cloth, and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear."  Miss Smith tells them eggs are "all the food I have", but "All the food she had, she said, except there was butter on the slightly stale bread, and sugar in the tea." Ada notes that "Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones."

Because she can't trust the words people use, Ada doesn't know how to respond to questions, so she often shrugs. When Miss Smith asks if she's hungry Ada's not sure whether to say yes and she wonders, "Did Miss Smith want me to be hungry, or not?" She is in fact very hungry but telling her Mam would not have changed anything. What would telling Miss Smith mean? Ada has been told by Mam that her clubfoot is her fault but Ada has always wondered whether this was true. The doctor's shock at seeing her untreated clubfoot makes Ada feel like she's done something wrong. When the doctor asks her if she's in very much pain, again Ada has no idea how to answer this question; "How much was very much? What did he want me to say?" And when Ada makes tea for Miss Smith who tells her this was thoughtful, but is thoughtful good or bad?

At first Ada's experiences in the village seem to confirm what she thinks about herself and what her Mam has labelled her. When they arrive in Kent, Ada and her brother are passed over by all the adults. One woman wants Jamie but not Ada. Lady Thorton then takes them to the home of Miss Smith, who initially rejects the two children but is forced to take them into her home.

Ada discovers that her mother has not told anyone about her club foot but instead has told people that Ada is "simple". Ada is not sure if she is "simple".  Mrs. White who arrives to take her younger son home to London, expresses shock and disgust that Ada is living in the village and not in an asylum. Even the evacuee teacher believes that Ada is "not educable", because she cannot read. However Miss Smith does not believe what she hears about Ada and tells her, "You mustn't listen to people who don't know you. Listen to what you know, yourself."

As time passes Ada struggles mightily with how she views herself compared to how Miss Smith and Maggie and Fred Grimes see her because her entire life she's been told she's filthy and trash. For example, despite Miss Smith's kindness and generosity, Ada rejects her because she doesn't believe she's worthy of such treatment. She refuses Miss Smith's offer to make her a beautiful green velvet dress. "I had more than I needed. More than I felt comfortable with, really. I was still the girl I'd seen in the train station mirror, still the feeble-minded girl stuck behind a window. The simple one. I was okay with wearing Maggie's castoffs, but I knew my limits."

This feeling reaches a crisis point on Christmas Eve when Miss Smith (Ada now calls her Susan) gives Ada a beautiful green velvet dress she has made. She tells Ada she looks beautiful when she tries it on, but Ada believes she's lying and that she is not worthy of such a beautiful gift. "She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn't bear it. I heard Mam's voice shrieking in my head. 'You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!" My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash I could wear Maggie's discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn't bear to hear her call me beautiful."

On Christmas Day Ada manages to wear the dress because she knows it will make Susan happy but she states, "I felt like an imposter. It was worse than when I tried to talk like Maggie. Here I was, looking like Maggie. Looking like a shiny bright girl with hair ribbons. Looking like a girl with a family that loved her." But when Jamie tells her she looks beautiful, Ada realizes that she does have family that love her - her brother loves her.

As her view about herself changes, Ada's perspective on her life also changes. She begins to desire more for herself and for her life. Her struggles with teaching Butter to trot lead Ada to reach out to Mr. Grimes. "A month ago I'd been thrilled with Butter, and now I wanted something more." Ada tells Grimes about having a clubfoot and asks him if he can fix her. It's the first time there's a hint that Ada might want more than just to walk around on crutches. She also initially refuses Miss Smith's offer to teach her to read. But once she's tricked into learning, Ada works hard to learn to read and write.She works hard for Grimes and eventually masters riding Butter and even identifies the arrival of a spy on the English coast.

The realization that if her mother had her foot fixed she could have been like Jamie able to run and attend school leads Ada to desire much more for herself. Her disability is not her fault. She could be more. When Ada accepts the truth of her situation, she realizes that she wants to be a normal person. "...And I wanted my foot fixed badly. I was tired of it hurting. I wanted to be like a normal person. I wanted to walk without crutches, and I wanted to go to school, and I wanted to wear shoes on both feet. I never wanted to be locked up again."

The knowledge that her disability is not her fault, that her mother inexplicably did not seek treatment for her and the realization that Mam doesn't love her or Jamie makes Ada want to fight for the right to live a life where she is wanted, loved and cared for. To Ada this is her personal war and she now intends to win it.  

Brubaker Bradley has crafted an endearing character in Ada Smith. Readers will identify with Ada as she struggles to find a place to belong, to make sense of the world around her and to confront her intense emotions about her mother and her disability. Ada works her way through anger and sadness over the fact that her Mam doesn't love or want her. Miss Smith's unconditional love of Ada and her brother Jamie, help her to confront her mother and to escape. At the same time Ada begins to know joy and love, learned from the actions of Miss Smith.

Miss Smith is also a complex, well crafted character who has her own issues. She too has believed what others have said about her and constantly tells Ada that she is not a nice person, despite her actions proving otherwise. Miss Smith sees herself in Ada, different, judged for a characteristic she feels cannot be changed and therefore socially isolated.

The War That Saved My Life has a subtle message about tolerance towards anyone who is different. Although never directly stated, it is hinted that Miss Smith is a lesbian who lived with her friend Becky. She was rejected by her parents who considered her unredeemable. She tells Ada and Jamie, "In my case being redeemed means changing my evil ways and regaining my heavenly crown. It means my parents don't like me..." Miss Smith's situation is compared to that of Ada with her clubfoot and Jamie with his left handedness, all conditions the author considers people to be born with. Unfortunately, there is no concrete scientific proof that same-sex attraction is something your born with. Nevertheless, the author's message that all people be treated with dignity and are worthy of love,  is an important one. Becky's treatment by her parents was not charitable nor Christian. No wonder she no longer attends church service. The novel ends on a more positive note with Miss Smith no longer isolated from her village community as demonstrated by the villagers desperately searching through the ruins of Miss Smith's house after it was bombed.

A sequel, The War I Finally Won has just been recently published and details Ada's life after returning from London with Jamie and Miss Smith to Kent. 

Book Details:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers        2015
316 pp.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ada's Ideas by Fiona Robinson

Ada's Ideas tells the remarkable story of Ada Lovelace whose father was the famous poet, Lord Byron. Byron was a flamboyant man who had many lovers including his half-sister, Augusta. In 1814, Lord Byron proposed to Anne Isabella Milbanke, an intelligent, proper young woman. Anne was well educated and interested in mathematics and astronomy. They were married in January 1815 and their daughter Augusta Ada was born in December. Fed up with Lord Byron's wild ways, Anne left her husband, taking baby Ada with her. Byron left England for the continent. He never returned and Anne and Ada never saw him again.

Lady Byron raised Ada strictly, teaching her music, mathematics and French. According to Robinson, Ada's mother was concerned she would be unstable like her wild father. However, Ada seems to have inherited her father's creative imagination. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, many wealthy families toured the new factories. These factories inspired Ada and her imagination was fired up.

After being seriously ill for several years, Ada recovered and re-enter society. When she was seventeen-years-old she met Mr. Babbage, an inventor interested in developing a machine that always solve mathematical questions correctly.  Eventually Ada married and had a family, but she was still interested in working with Mr. Babbage. He had a problem that needed solving and Ada was just the person who could help him!


Fiona Robinson is an award-winning author-illustrator. Her story about Ada Lovelace who was a mother to three children AND who continued to follow her dream of creating the algorithm for Mr. Babbage's Analytical Engine is inspiring. The illustrations for Ada's Ideas were created "with Japanese watercolors on Arches paper.  The paintings were then cut out using more than five hundred X-ACTO blades, assembled, and glued to different depths to achieve a 3-D final artwork. The images were then photographed." The result is a picture book with a very unique look for a very unique woman, considered to be the world's first computer programmer.

Ada's Ideas is one of many new picture books about remarkable women whose intellectual feats have been largely ignored and ultimately forgotten. Often the contributions by women scientists have been dismissed and never fully recognized. Sometimes their work was stolen and built upon by male scientists who then received world-wide recognition. These picture books aim to inspire young girls to continue to discover, explore and create and to remember those who went before.

Book Details:

Ada's Ideas by Fiona Robinson
New York: Abrahms Books for Young Readers 2016

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shadow Warrior by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Shadow Warrior, a book about a female ninja, is the latest offering by Canadian storyteller, Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Shadow Warrior began as a piece of nonfiction in a larger collection of stories about "behind-enemy-lines stories of spies and saboteurs". A chapter from that book was developed into this short work of historical fiction about Mochizuki Chiyome, most likely a fictional female ninja.

Lloyd Kyi mixes traditional Japanese ink drawings with the modern drawings of Canadian illustrator, Celia Krampien to tell Chiyome's story.

Chiyome lived in a small village in the rugged Koga region of Japan. In the 16th century, Japan was comprised of small states ruled over by  war lords called daimyos. The daimyos lived in castles and fought against one another with their armies of samurai warriors. The effect of this constant warfare on the villages and families was devastating. But the Koga region had a special kind of warrior - the ninja and Chiyome was determined to become one.

Chiyome begins studying under the direction of Sensei at a ninja school. Chiyome's family has a history in the ninja tradition; her great-grandfather helped establish Koga's ninja traditions. Her teacher Sensei teaches her in learning how to climb castle walls, disguising herself in the daylight, and how to make waterproof torches. After years of training and a final test of spending three days alone in the forest, Chiyome becomes a ninja. However, Chiyome's life is about to take a drastic turn.

When she arrives home she learns from her father that she will be traveling to Kofu, to be married to Mochizuki Moritoki, the nephew of daimyo Takeda Shingen. Shingen is one of the most powerful daimyos in all of Japan and his nephew is a samurai warrior. Although stunned by this sudden development, Chiyome knows she must accept this decision and do her duty. She wonders if perhaps she was not meant to be a ninja? Little does Chiyome know that fate will once again intervene!


Shadow Warrior is an intriguing read set in feudal Japan about a young girl's desire to be a ninja. Ninja's were specially trained covert warriors. The cult of the ninja arose from two clans, in the regions of Iga and Koga. Families in these regions trained members to be come ninjas, the training often beginning in childhood. Ninja's specialized in espionage, often travelling in disguise to their enemy, to discover weaknesses. They were trained in sabotage, assassination, survival techniques and how to move and observe in a stealthy manner.

Lloyd Kyi not only tells the story of how Chiyome came to set up a ninja school for young women but also includes locations and dates of the story and a map of Japan. The story is augmented by the many illustrations of Celia Krampien and the numerous reproductions of traditional Japanese paintings. There is no concrete evidence that Mochizuki Chiyome actually existed as her name does not appear before 1971. It is difficult to trace the actual history of a single ninja. In Shadow Warrior, Lloyd Kyi includes a Fact and Fiction section where she identifies those figures in her story who were historical figures, such as Takeda Shingen, Mochizuki Moritoki and Tokugawa Ieyasu. She does point out that Japanese literature contains many stories of a woman ninja trainer who may be Chiyome.

Shadow Warrior is an appealing short story for younger readers who may be looking for something a bit different.

Book Details:

Shadow Warrior by Tanya Lloyd Kyi
Annick Press                           2017
62 pp.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Planting The Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola

This exquisite picture book is about Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, located in the foothills of Mount Kenya. She graduated in 1964 from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, was awarded a Master of Science in 1966  from the University of Pittsburgh and obtained her Ph.D in anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971. She was the first woman in central and east African to earn a doctorate.

Wangari Maathai become convinced that environmental conservation could help better the lives of Kenyans. When she returned home Maathai discovered that her beloved Kenya was being destroyed through deforestation. The region she grew up in had been devastated by war, its farms and villages abandoned. The trees were crucial to the Kenyan people whose lives were based in agriculture. Maathai felt there was a direct link between poverty and the destruction of the environment. So in 1976, to counter the problems of deforestation, Maathai organized Kenyan women to plant trees in their villages. She believed that little things that the ordinary person does are what are important. For her that was planting trees. Eventually this developed into a grassroots organization that led to the Green Belt Movement. The planting of trees helped stop erosion and provided firewood for homes and jobs for the women.

In recognition of her environmental conservancy, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was considered a "force of nature", strong, resilient and unafraid to speak up. So much so that her husband divorced her!  Maathai became an internationally known speaker on environmental conservation but her major concern was always for her beloved Kenya. She eventually became a member of parliament in 2002. Wangari Maathai passed away on September 25, 2011. She is survived by three daughters.

Claire A. Nivola is an author-illustrator whose book Planting The Trees of Kenya tells the remarkable story of  Wangari Maathai in an almost folktale manner. This is done through the beautiful watercolour paintings and the short text that accompanies each. These colourful illustrations show a delicate brush stroke that is reminiscent of the pointillism style. At the back, Nivola has included a detailed Author's Note about Maathai.This is a lovely picture book biography that is captivating and informative.

To learn more about the Green Belt Movement and its founder, Wangari Maathai check out their website

Book Details:

Planting The Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola
New York: Farrar, Straus and Firoux     2008

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes

Four-Four-Two is a novel about the American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in World War II. The 442nd, the most decorated unit in American military history, was made up exclusively of young Japanese Americans, many of whom set out to prove their loyalty for a country that imprisoned their relatives, closed their businesses and sent them to desert internment camps. Racial prejudice against Asian Americans, Chinese and Japanese was especially prevalent in American society in the early 20th century. But Japanese Americans were singled out after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as potential traitors and collaborators and labelled as "enemy aliens". President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered the removal of ALL Americans of Japanese ancestry (AJA) from the west coast. Second generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, were American citizens.

There were already  over a thousand Nisei who were members of the National Guard in Hawaii. The government, fearful that these soldiers would desert and fight with the Japanese if Hawaii was ever invaded, sent them to the mainland and segregated them into a separate military unit call the 100th Infantry Battalion. After significant training they were sent to the European theater to fight and distinguished themselves as valiant soldiers. By this time the 442nd Regimental Battalion Combat Team was formed from volunteers from Hawaii and the internment camps.

Hughes focuses on battles F Company (Fox Company) fought. In his preface he states that "the locations, names of military units, weather conditions, and dates are all accurate... Yukus 'Yuki' Nakahara and his friend Shigeo 'Shig' Omura are members of a four-man fire team, which is part of an eight-man squad, and their squad is part of a platoon of thirty-plus men."

The story opens December 1941 with two men paying a surprise visit to the Nakahara family farm. Mr and Mrs. Nakahara are Issei - first generation Japanese immigrants who lease their land to farm vegetables and fruit. Yuki is the oldest and has three younger siblings, a brother Mickeo and two sisters, Amaya and Kayo. The men, FBI agents, take Yuki's father into custody, despite his mothers protests. They are told that he is an "enemy alien" living in a war zone. Yuki's best friend, Shigeo Omura had warned him that those considered to be a "community leader" were being arrested. Since the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese a week earlier, the attitude of their classmates has changed from disinterest to cold stares.

By April 1943, Yuki and Shig along with their families are now living in the Central Utah Relocation Center, a camp called Topaz. Yuki and Shig are now both eighteen years old and Yuki is determined to enlist. He believes this is the only way they, as Japanese Americans will be respected. Shigeo is not so eager because he's not sure he wants to die for people who don't like him. Yuki tells him they won't die but will come home as war heroes. Shig points out that because the white soldiers won't fight alongside the Japanese Americans, the Nisei soldiers are being segregated into separate units. Yuki counters this by telling Shig that Hitler is a problem that will not go away. Shig decides that he needs to speak one more time with his parents.

A Japanese American family at dinner in an internment camp.
Yuki tells his mother after church on Sunday about his intention to enlist and she insists that he obey his father's directive not to. But Yuki tells her that enlisting is something he must do because in this way he can bring back honor to their family. If they are really American, he cannot stay out of the war when other white families have sons who are enlisting. Yuki encourages his mother to give sixteen-year-old Mikeo more responsibility while he's gone.

Both Yuki and Shig enlist and are bused to Salt Lake City to be entered into the United States Army after passing their physicals. They are then sent to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Mississippi for basic training. Basic training proves to be a challenge. The uniforms are too big, the training gruelling and they have to get used to the Hawaiian Japanese who don't much like them. Yuki and Shig are assigned to "Second Platoon of Company F of Second Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team." Yuki's fire team includes Shig, Billy Yamada, an outstanding athlete and Makota Okida who is a Hawaiian soldier.

Yuki and Shig along with the other members of the 442nd train into the spring of 1944. By this time the 100th Infantry Battalion (made up of exclusively Nisei soldiers from Hawaii) is a significant fighting force in Italy. In March, Yuki and Shig's Second Battalion, along with the Third Battalion of the 442nd is shipped across the ocean to Naples, Italy. There they are attached to the Thirty-Fourth Infantry Division which they will support and fight with, though not as an integrated force. As Yuki and Shig get set to fight their first of many battles, they must find the courage and strength to cope with the unimaginable horrors of war. War is not what they expected and for Yuki it becomes a life-altering experience.


Dean Hughes has written a heartbreaking story that realistically portrays war as it was experienced by Japanese American soldiers during the Second World War.  In an effort to prove they were patriotic Americans and in the hopes that their fellow Americans would accept them, many Japanese Americans enlisted. The went to fight for a country whose citizens treated them and their families shamefully, imprisoning them and placing most AJA's in what were essentially prison camps set in the desert surrounded by barbed wire.

Yuki Nakahara enters the war with the belief that serving in the army will be a way to restore honor to his family and that the American people will have to respect him when he returns a war hero. However, war is anything but what Yuki imagined. During his first attack, he is paralyzed with fear. After he kills a man during an attack on German machine-gun emplacement, Yuki is confronted with the reality that he has killed a boy, who looks to be only fourteen or fifteen. "But the soldier didn't look like a Nazi, like the brutal Krauts he had always imagined. He was a kid. He should have been home playing soccer with his friends, or sitting in a schoolroom. And he was not just young; he was...a person."

Later on as Yuki is trying to come to terms with the men killed in his Platoon by the Germans and his sergeant's desire to get revenge, his thoughts return to the boy he killed. "A picture was back in his head: the German boy at the gun emplacement, one arm bent at the elbow, his hand almost touching his cheek -- as though his last act had been to reach for the place where the bullet struck. His cheek had been smooth, like a baby's, the boy still too young to shave." 

In their next battle, Yuki saves the life of Sergeant Mat Matsumoto by running through a barrage of shelling. Billy Yamada loses his life and Yuki can't help but think what he lost, "a chance to go to college, to be a star football player." Later on when he and Shig talk about what happened, Yuki realizes that they have fought over a hill "just a bump on the planet -- and hundreds of men had died or been mutilated fighting over it. He hadn't known about any of this before entering the army, hadn't understood what it would be like." 

Letters from his family at Topaz make Yuki realize "that war was only  an idea to all of them. It was just 'the war'; there was no perception that wars were made of battles and bullets and one day following another." As he sees men he knows and whom he worked with in Utah die, others like Oki seriously wounded, and takes Germans who just want to eat and survive prisoner, Yuki's perception of war changes. He feels fighting a war is not something to be proud of.

His perception of himself also changes; Yuki also believes because of what he's done in the war, he's not worthy of Shig's sister Keiko whom he loves and hopes to marry some day. Yuki believes what he and Shig do every day, killing is brutal and disgusting. "Yuki knew he would have to spend his life trying to remove all this ugliness from his head and hands." 

The actions of the Japanese American soldiers also begin to change the way the white soldiers view them. When Mat Matsumoto is killed in action, Yuki and Shig go against army policy to find his body at the aid station. Confronted by the white staff sergeant, Yuki tells him that the only reason Mat enlisted was because no one in the U.S. would hire him as an engineer, "...he was a Jap in America, so no one wanted to work with him." The sergeant tells Yuki that working with the AJA soldiers has changed his view of Japanese Americans. He didn't care about the AJA's being placed in camps and he felt they had "no business coming over here to fight." But now he recognizes that they are a superior fighting force and he tells Yuki and Shig  they are "respected by those who know what really goes on over here...And you're not just good soldiers; you're good men."

As Yuki becomes battle hardened he discovers several things about himself and about war. First he finds that the killing makes him want to kill for revenge when friends like Mat and Sergeant Koba die. He notes that although "nations" go to war it is actually men and boys who kill men and boys from other nations "...boys he actually had nothing against." Yuki's perception of the German Nazi soldiers has also changed. "Back in training, he had imagined the Germans he would fight -- and they were all brutal Nazis. He had assumed they all hated Jews, hated people of every race but their own...But the German soldiers he had seen looked about like the boys he had gone to high school with: young, not angry, guys who probably missed their families and wanted to get home just like he did. "

Yuki also begins to realize that the war has not brought about a change in attitude towards the Japanese Americans. Instead they remain segregated from the white American troops and the army behaves as if they are expendable, throwing the 422nd into the most difficult battles, including being sent to rescue the First Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, trapped in the Vosges Forest. Through the character of Sergeant Oshira who visits Yuki in the hospital, Hughes doesn't mince words about the battle in the Vosges Forest. The 442nd lost eight hundred to save two hundred men, so many that the 422nd could no longer function as a regiment. Sergeant Oshira tells Yuki that the Stars and Stripes tells the story of the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" but no credit is given to the 442nd and a picture of a white soldier is used in the story.

Although awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star, Yuki returns home, forever changed by his experience in the war. He experiences overwhelming guilt and regret at pressuring Shigeo to enlist and then not being able to protect him, and in surviving the war. But it is Shig's parents who show him compassion, love and concern. When Yuki expresses the wish that he had died instead of Shig, Mrs. Omura states, "You must never say this again, never think it. These are things we do not understand. God decides, and in our family, we trust God. Shigeo was a noble boy, and he will be precious in our hearts forever, but we have no regrets about his service. He sacrificed his life for the good of our world." This heart-rending encounter serves to demonstrate that the Japanese Americans were no different than other Americans; their sons died just as horribly, their families grieved just as deeply.
Four-Four-Two is by far the best of Hughes' novels. The development of the main and secondary characters is excellent while the intense descriptions of the battles make the reader feel they are part of the action and capture the true terror and gore of battle. Many parts of the book are truly heartbreaking; the death of Shig, the confrontation in the barbershop in Denver, Yuki's tender reunion with his mother, and the meeting with Shig's family.

Hughes has included both a Preface which explains some of the background information on the formation of the 442nd and an Author's Note which details the accomplishments of the regiment and asks readers to be more tolerant of others who are different. A wonderfully written and moving account of a difficult episode in American history.

Book Details:

Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes
New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers   2016
268 pp.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

David Drucker lives with his mom and dad and has an older sister Lauren whom he affectionately calls Miney because "she's always felt like the only thing in a confusing world that belongs to me." Lauren, "smart and cool and beautiful" was the most popular girl in high school, president of her class and homecoming queen.  David, who is a strapping six foot two, has an I.Q. of 168 and knows he's different. His doctor has suggested that he has a "borderline case of Asperger's" but David, who's read the DSM-4 (the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) doesn't believe he meets the criteria for such a label. He admittedly has trouble in social situations, preferring routine and order, but he feels he can be empathetic and he can make eye contact. He's been relentlessly bullied and so he's given up trying to fit in, preferring to be alone.

During lunch hour, David always sits by himself in the school cafeteria.  He's done so for the past 622 days until one day Kit Lowell sits down at his table. David, who's not good at names is tempted to her up in his notebook which he uses to keep track of people, the notebook was his sister Miney's idea, suggested after David was bullied in middle school. Miney felt he was too trusting, and so they made a list of people, dividing them into those trustworthy and those to avoid.

David immediately acknowledges to Kit about her father's death, something that none of her friends will do.  Kit finds David's directness refreshing. She's decided not to sit with her usual table that includes her best friends Annie and Violet and has chosen David's table because she knows she will be left alone. Kit tells David she doesn't want to talk which he respects. Although it's been a month since her dad was killed in a car accident, Kit didn't want to go to school. After arriving late to Mr. Schmidt's physic's class, Kit abruptly leaves without permission. David decides to follow her out, but he does ask to leave. He finds Kit in the concession hut by the bleachers and tells her that he's not following her but wanted to make sure she was okay.

Kit is puzzled by David's concern for her. She doesn't know much about him except that he's awkward, bumps into people alot and wears headphones when he walks around at school. But Kit also remembers that her father suggested she get to know David Drucker, telling her he is an interesting person. And she also notices that beneath his long hair, David is rather cute.

Kit continues to sit with David Drucker at lunch hour. When Kit asks him why he always sits alone, David tells her that he shares nothing in common with the other students other than they are the same age and born in the same town and that many of the students have not been nice to him.Kit tells David that she chose his table because she knew if she asked him to leave her alone he would respect her request.

Kit's friends however are not satisfied to leave her alone and they begin confronting her. But Kit continues to sit with David during lunch. To help her, David takes notes in physics class for Kit which really impresses her. He also reveals he can make a very good chicken tikka. Kit begins to feel David is a sort of "good weird." After school Kit offers David a ride home which he accepts even though he drove his own car to school. After dropping David off at home, Kit goes to the Pizza Palace where her friends, Gabriel, Justine, Annie and Violet hang out. Several other girls from their school also join them and begin questioning Kit about her new friendship with David Drucker. Kit defends spending time with David, telling her friends that he is "pretty interesting".

Meanwhile David's sister Miney returns unexpectedly from school, with purple hair, bloodshot eyes and a new piercing. David tells his sister about his developing friendship with Kit who has sat with David for four days now and who admits that she enjoys talking with him. This leads Miney to advise David that he needs to ask Kit out to study together or work on a school project. And she decides that David needs a makeover, a new haircut and some new clothes besides the khaki pants he always wears.

Kit's life becomes even more complicated when she uncovers a devastating secret her parents have been keeping from her. She is so angry at her mother that she is no longer speaking with her. At the same time she's also asked David to help her figure out how her father was killed in the car accident. As her friends continue to question her ongoing friendship with David, Kit and David's friendship continues to blossom. But will their new friendship survive as they both face having their inner most secrets unexpectedly revealed?

What To Say Next is a sweet, touching story about two teens struggling to find their place in the world. David Drucker, a teen with autism, has given up fitting into the social scene in his high school and is a loner. Kit, very different from David, is part of the in-crowd. But since the death of her dad a month earlier, she's struggling with her own guilt leading her to withdraw socially.

Both David and Kit undergo a personal journey of growth and self-revelation throughout the novel.  For Kit this journey involves confronting the secrets both she and her mother are keeping. At the beginning of the novel, Kit wants her friends to acknowledge the death of her father instead of just skirting around the topic. When her friends remark that she is struggling to cope with "everything" Kit thinks, "I shake off my irrational annoyance at her euphemism. Everything is obviously my dad being dead. Why can't she just say that instead?"

Ironically, despite Kit's desire for her friends to talk about her father's death, Kit herself refuses to publicly talk about it because, as it turns out, she's keeping a big secret regarding her father's death. It is a secret orchestrated by her mother, but which terribly burdens Kit. She withdraws from her friends and seeks shelter at David Drucker's table, a loner whom Kit expects will leave her alone.

However David surprises Kit when he immediately acknowledges what has happened to Kit by stating that her father has died. He "... just said the words right out loud. The unvarnished, ugly truth." Nevertheless the weight of the secret she's carrying around is unbearable and at one point she considers telling her friends the truth about what really happened. "I consider explaining everything to my friends. Finally coming clean. Telling the whole story of this nightmare from beginning to end. But I can't. There are some words we are not allowed to say out loud." 

As Kit's friendship with David blossoms she decides to ask him to help her figure out the physics of her father's car accident and to learn  "...if it could have been stopped. What was the very last second someone should have put their foot on the brake?..."  David agrees to help his new friend , dubbing the effort, The Accident Project. But when he accompanies Kit to the scene of the accident, she flees. Nevertheless, David is persistent as he wants to help Kit come to terms with her father's death. However, his mathematical calculations indicate that Kit's father should not be dead. When he and Kit meet, Kit resolves to tell the truth. "On the way over to McCormacks, I resolved to be brave and  honest. I realize I can't keep going, not like this. My mom wanted us to build and then live in a glass house of lies. But it's time to start throwing rocks..." Kit believes that David will keep her secret. She doesn't stop to think how David might feel when he learns the truth. David with his Asperger's doesnt think about Kit, instead he feels betrayed because Kit asked him to find the truth of her father's accident when she knew it all along.

When the truth about the accident is revealed, Kit is finally able to talk to her friends, opening the door to healing and forgiveness. She is relieved to have the truth come out although she believes David is "the enemy".  One noticeable flaw in Kit is that she never apologizes to David for lying to him and setting him up to solve her father's accident when she knew the truth all along. Instead, she first focuses on David's actions rather than her own.

Besides dealing with her role in her father's car accident Kit must also come to terms with the secret she's learned about her mother. When Kit searches through her father's files she finds a file filled with special memories of his only child. For Kit this is proof that, "Our lives were good. Maybe even perfect." However, Kit makes a shocking discovery about her family and yet another secret her mother has been keeping. This leaves her feeling confused and hurt. However, after a night of partying, drinking and kissing David, Kit wakes up the next morning hungover and filled with regret. She begins to understand how her mother could have made the mistake she did. This realization leads to the beginning of her healing the rift with her mother.

For David his journey is more about confronting the real world and learning to live in it. When Kit comes into his world David discovers the value of friendship. "Here's the thing about making a friend that I didn't understand before I started talking to Kit: They grow your world. Allow for previously inconceivable possibilities." He acknowledges that "Before Kit, I never used the word lonely, though that's exactly what I was."

David has relied heavily on his sister Miney's help. It was her idea for him to keep a notebook to help him keep track of the people in his life. Whenever David experienced difficulties, Miney was always there to help him. She helped David grow his friendship with Kit and was the impetus behind his makeover, his asking Kit out. After his notebook is published on Tumblr, David gradually recovers from his horror and humiliation. When David learns his sister will be leaving soon he realizes he will be fine when she's gone. "The old me would have cried or screamed or begged her to stay. But I'm not the old me anymore. Despite the events of the past seventy hours, I am growing up, getting stronger. I'm miles away from Normal -- I will never live in the same state as Normal, nor do I necessarily want to -- but I'm getting a little closer..."

 But when David reveals Kit's secret and accuses her in front of everyone at the restaurant, this is a problem Miney cannot fix. To David's great distress he learns Miney is on her way back to school. However Miney tells him, "You don't need my help the way you used to." Instead Miney tells him "But look how quickly you figured out what you did wrong. The old you might have not even noticed that Kit was upset. Or might have insisted that she was being overly sensitive. You're getting better at this empathy thing..."

David recognizes that he needs to apologize to Kit and despite being scared he devises an creative and very touching way of apologizing. In a series of sweet but practical notes, he explains to Kit that he has Asperger's, and asks for forgiveness to become friends again. In the end though, David gives Kit "one last gift" that of explaining to her that there was nothing she could have done to save her father. "This wasn't your fault. Mathematically or legally. There is nothing you could have done. So instead of trying to watch it happen differently, why don't you try not to watch it at all?" Kit thinks David is simply being kind but he tells her "the math never lies".  This opens the door for Kit to forgive herself, a big step towards healing.

Buxbaum has crafted a beautiful story about the meaning of friendship, forgiveness and redemption. The real gem of this novel is the main character, David Drucker who is endearing and realistic, with a big heart that makes up for all the difficulties his Asperger's creates.He practices krav maga, copies Newtons third law in Latin "to keep it interesting" and tells Kit that if "you were a radio wave, you'd have your very own frequency." He might not have all the social cues worked out, but his intentions are good. What To Say Next encourages us all to be more empathetic, to believe in second chances and to help one another in our own journeys.

Book Details:

What To Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
New York: Delacourt Press      2017
292 pp.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Pause by John Larkin

Seventeen-year-old Declan O'Malley decides to kill himself. The novel splits the story into two narratives, one before and one after. The story begins five hours before his attempt to commit suicide. It's a Saturday morning and Declan is focused on checking his phone for a message from his girlfriend, Lisa. But no message is forthcoming from Lisa who is being sent by her mother to Hong Kong.What Declan doesn't know at this time is that Lisa's vindictive mother has confiscated her phone.

Two hours before Declan is at home with his mother at breakfast but cannot eat because he's in so much pain."There's nothing I can do. There's nothing I want to do. I just want the pain to stop." His sister Kate tells him to forget about Lisa and his father tells him there are "Plenty of other fish in the sea." But his mother encourages him telling him that "The sun will smile on you again soon. I promise." and she offers to listen if he needs her to.

The story then jumps to seven months prior and tells how Declan arrived at the situation he's in, in the present. Declan who attends Redcliffe Boys is waiting at the train station on a Monday morning waiting for this girl to show up. His friends Chris and Maaaate show up and encourage him to approach the girl he likes. A month later Declan finally works up the courage to approach Lisa on the train, talking to her about To Kill A Mockingbird. They exchange home phone numbers before Lisa exits the train. When Declan finally visits Lisa's home the first person he meets is her mother whom he immediately nicknames "The Kraken".  Lisa's mom is cold and grills Declan about his family and his plans for school. Lisa and her mother argue and finally she is allowed to study with Declan in the kitchen. The Kraken regularly checks in on them, but Declan and Lisa managed a few kisses.

Meanwhile an hour before his suicide, Declan packs his backpack and tells his mom he's going to meet up with Chris. He reflects on the state of his mind and remembers back to his budding friendship with Lisa.  They managed to find time together by sneaking away from Lisa's Christian Crusaders group, only to have her mother, The Kraken, find out and punish Lisa by sending her to live in Hong Kong. Minutes before, Declan buys a train ticket to the airport where he hopes to meet Lisa before she leaves for Hong Kong. Instead he makes that fatal choice to jump. Or does he?


John Larkin has written an insightful and unique novel about teens and suicide. Larkin began work on The Pause after suffering a mental breakdown himself in 2012. Initially his book began as a work of nonfiction but evolved into a story about a teenage boy who decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. He chose a teenage boy as the main character because suicide predominantly affects young people who do not have the life experience to cope when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. In The Pause, Larkin explores both versions of Declan O'Malley's life; the one where he commits suicide and the one where he "pauses" and does not follow through.

In The Pause, Larkin provides readers with a graphic description of what happens to Declan when he is hit by a train. He details not only the physical destruction of Declan's body but also the emotional and pyschological effects. Prior to jumping, Declan's thinking isn't logical. All he's thinking about is stopping the unbearable pain.
"I watch the train emerge from the tunnel. The train can take me away from all this. It can stop the pain. It can heal my ruptured nerves, silence my screaming mind. And it will be quick. Will be efficient. It will be final. Everyone will be better off without me."

However, when he is hit by the train, it is anything but quick and Declan quickly realizes how his horrific death will affect his family, his friends and bystanders. "I thought this would be instantaneous. Boy was I wrong. Very wrong..." Declan feels the destruction of his body and it is described in detail. He also becomes aware of how his death affects the train driver,  "The look of horror on the driver's face will stay with me forever as no doubt will the memory of my shattered face on his windscreen. He will wake up in a cold sweat every night for the rest of his life"  and the children on the platform, "Little kids off for a day shopping or a day at the movies will also wake up screaming at night." As he's dying Declan begins to count the cost of his suicide. "It's now that I start to contemplate the damage I've left behind. My parents will have to identify my body. My body. How could I do this to them? Who's going to tell Kate? ...Who's going to break it to Lisa? Who's going to tell her that the future we'd planned on our train ride to see Bombay bicycle Club is over?"

From this point on Declan is forced to see the life he gave up. Or did he? Larkin leaves his readers with that question to contemplate throughout the novel when he pauses Declan's story and states that he now gets "to see, in vivid detail, the life that I gave up." Declan's story continues but this time with him making the choice to pause and in that instant to save his life.Declan is taken to hospital and eventually sent to a mental health hospital where he receives medication and group therapy. From this point Declan begins to heal and is able to carry on with his life.

Larkin uses Declan's narrative covering the nine years after the train incident to offer strategies and advice to those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. For example in therapy, psychotherapist Ed Chui tells Declan and others in the group, "Life is about enjoying the little moments...And isn't that life? Little moments stitched together. We're all going to fall on bad times and go through sadness, through breakups, through death, bereavement and depression. It happens. It's a part of life. But those moments will pass and you'll have good moments again. You'll have great moments. You'll have beautiful moments." Ed tells of his own struggle with suicide and how he didn't act on his thoughts because "I knew I had to stay alive. Not for the life that I was having at the time, because frankly it sucked, but for the life that was just beyond the horizon."

Later in the novel, Declan states, "But in order to have those moments you have to work through the pain, find a way out of the darkness. You have to pause. You have to live."  And that's Larkin's central message in The Pause. Declan's life is not perfect after his suicide attempt; his parents divorce, he and Lisa eventually part ways for many years, and he ends up breaking up with his fiance on his wedding day. But, Declan has many good moments. He reconciles with his father, is successful in his job and comes to terms with what happened to him when he was cared for by his Aunt Mary. His life proves that Ed Chui was correct.

Overall, The Pause is a remarkable novel, honest in its treatment of suicide and offering a message of hope to those struggling with life, that things will get better. Larkin has created a realistic character in Declan O'Malley. The heavy subject matter is lightened by Declan's humour and forthright honesty.

Book Details:

The Pause by John Larkin
North Sydney, Australia: Penguin Random House   2015
329 pp.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Latham's dual narrative, Dreamland Burning is set in current day Tulsa and 1921 Tulsa. The first narrative is set in current day Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase is on her way to an appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse. She's decided to walk because she wants think about what happened almost one hundred years ago, in 1921 when Will, Joseph and Rose ran north into the woods and fields to try to survive.

Rowan reflects back on what began the first Monday of summer vacation, the day workers arrived at her house. The house has been in Rowan's father's family since her great-great-grandfather, who founded the Chase oil company. Rowan's father Tim who is white, did not want to do anything to the back house, but her mother Isis who is black wants it renovated as a guest house.

The workers abruptly stop their work and quickly leave, talking about "old bones", "police" and "murder". Rowan decides to investigate and discovers a hole cut in the floor of the old house has exposed a skeleton dumped facedown in a roll of stiff fabric. She decides to call her best friend, James Galvez because the skeleton, despite looking like it's been there for many years, suggests foul play.

James arrives in his 1969 El Camino. He's part-black, part-Kiowa. The two of them check out the skeleton and find what looks like blood splatter on the shirt and pants and a gun. The gun has eight notches in it. Rowan also notices thin cracks in the skull as though it's been shattered. Just past the skull James pulls out a brick with dark stains and hair along it's edge. The edge fits perfectly along the fracture line in the skeleton's skull.

Before they can observe anything else, Rowan's mother returns home,finds them with the skeleton and calls the police and her husband. Rowan manages to take an item from the grave without her mother knowing. Officer Cooper quickly arrives and upon seeing the old skeleton, calls the detectives and the medical examiner. After questioning Rowan and James in the presence of her mother and father, the detectives decide to call in Genny Roop, a forensic anthropologist.

Later, in her room Rowan discovers the item she secreted from the skeleton is an old wallet containing coins from 1916 to 1921. This means the skeleton is of a person who was alive in 1921, the year the race riot occurred in Tulsa. Rowan doesn't know much the race riot except that "something had happened between a black teenage boy and  white teenage girl in a department store elevator, then things melted down outside the courthouse the next night. Most of Greenwood ended up burning and everyone pretty much tried to forget about it..." Rowan is puzzled as to how the skeleton could having anything to do with the riots because her family's house is in Maple Ridge, which in the 1920's was an area for rich white people.

When Rowan's job at a virology lab falls through, she finds work at the Jackson Clinic in North Tulsa, the poor section of town. There she meets Truman Atwell, a tall, tattooed man with a "black-toothed meth-addict smile." who works there as well as an interesting patient named Arvin. Rowan meets Dr. Wood who agrees to allow her to job shadow. Back at home, Rowan meets Genny Roop, the forensic anthropologist. Genny doesn't know if the skeleton is male or female but she tells Rowan that she will be able to tell once she unwraps it and removes the remains of the clothing. She knows Rowan took a wallet from the skeleton. When Rowan retrieves the wallet she discovers a brittle, yellowed slip of paper that is a receipt from the Victory Victrola Shop for payments made by a J. Goodhope. She returns the wallet but keeps the receipt as a starting point for her investigation into the mystery of the skeleton.

Rowan and James reconcile and begin to work on solving the mystery of the skeleton. They begin to research the history of Rowan's home and Rowan learns more about the skeleton under the back house. But as they delve deeper into the history of the 1921 race riot and the history of how Rowan's family came to own their house, they uncover the ugly reality of bigotry and hate. And they discover how the past can touch the future.

Alternating  with Rowan's story is William Tillman's narrative. Seventeen-year-old William lives with his father who has a Victrola store and his mother who is a full-blood Osage Indian. His mother is a woman of substantial means, receiving profit from oil pumped out of tribal lands. As a result William's father is having a three storey home constructed in Maple Ridge, a new part of Tulsa. William and his friend Cletus Hayes are at the Two-Knock Inn one March night drinking Choctaw ( a type of beer).William becomes intoxicated and when Adeline Dobbs, whom he's infatuated with arrives, he decides to approach her. Just then, a tall handsome man "browner than bootleather" sits down at Addie's table. William, furious and egged on by Clete, confronts the black man who introduces himself as Clarence Banks. He invites William to join them but instead William tries to punch Clarence who pushes him away, causing William to fall and fracture his wrist. Clarence leaves and Clete who believes the black man should be punished, goes to find a policeman. The policeman who has been forcing the speakeasy's proprietor to pay protection money tries to bully people into providing him with information. Clete who gives the policeman Clarence's name, insists that more be done.

Victrola Model 110
William doesn't reveal all the details of how he broke his arm and his father, angry at his son drinking, has him begin working in the family's Victory Victrola Shop. At school the next day, Addie confronts William in the cafeteria, slapping him on the face and informing him that Clarence might die. Further, she reveals that Clarence was whipped, beaten and left in the street. If he does die, Addie considers William to be just as responsible as the men who beat him.

 At the shop William meets Vernon Fish, a nasty white man who belongs to the Klan and who is attempting to recruit William's father. Vernon hates the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street where well-to-do blacks live and he feels William's father Stanley needs to prove himself.

William begins to feel badly about what happened to Clarence Banks and he decides to apologize to Addie but the apology flops. Instead he reveals his racist views which disgust her.

One day at the shop, a young black delivery boy named Joseph Goodhope tells William he wants to purchase a Model 110 Victrola.William takes Joseph and his sister Ruby into the back of the shop to try to complete the sale but they are discovered by William's father.Eventually the two make a deal  for Joseph to buy a Model 14, but William's father tells Joseph he won't deliver the machine until it's paid in full and if he misses even one payment he will be in default.

A week later William saves Ruby from being hit by a car. Ruby asks him to write a receipt for Joseph's payments on the Victrola which he agrees to do. Vernon shows William his Klu Klux Klan robes and his gun Maybelle, which he notches for every Negro he kills. William begins to suspect that Vernon and his friends beat Clarence and a trip to Addie's home confirms that Clarence has indeed died. As William gets to know Joseph and Ruby, he begins to view his Negro neighbours differently.

When a young woman accuses a Negro man of raping her in an elevator, racial tensions ignite and William finds he is forced to make a choice; follow his new ideals or run with the crowd and be part of a murderous riot.


Dreamland Burning is a historical mystery set in both the present and in 1921. Rowan Chase's narrative tells about her and her friend Jame's efforts to learn the circumstances behind the skeleton beneath the floor boards of their old home's servant's house. William Tillman's narrative tells the story of life in 1921 Tulsa leading up to the race riot of 1921. The finale of the novel sees the two narratives connect in the present linking William, Ruby and Joseph and Rowan.  Latham includes plenty of twists which keep her readers engaged and guessing as to which of the characters in the 1921 narrative ends up buried beneath the floor.

Dual narratives can be challenging because the writer has to establish both voice and setting for each; in this case a female character living in the present day and a white male character living almost one hundred years ago.  Latham succeeds in this regard creating authentic settings and realistic characters. She also manages to chronicle the journeys of both characters as they mature and change.

William Tillman begins his story as a young man filled with hatred towards a black man for attracting the notice of a white girl he's infatuated with. William's confrontation with Clarence and his failure to tell the truth ultimately leads to the death of an innocent black man. At first William attempts to rationalize what happened. He apologizes to Addie for upsetting her but not for what he did to Clarence."...I blathered on, saying it was a shame he'd touched her hand like that, and how I wished he'd known better and hoped there wouldn't be any permanent damage from the beating he took." This only disgust's Addie and puzzles William. "For shouldn't my apology have sufficed? And shouldn't any Negro man with half a brain know that no good could come of messing with a white woman in public?" 

However William begins to see things differently when he saves Ruby Goodhope from being hit by a car. He angrily tells Ruby she could have been beaten by the milkman and that she belongs back in Little Africa. But Ruby's fear at what could have happened causes William to see Ruby for what she is. "And suddenly it wasn't a colored girl I saw before me, but a girl, plain and simple." William doesn't like the way Ruby has been treated. "And I hadn't liked seeing Ruby cut down, never mind nearly killed. I hated it so much that I reached out and wiped away the teardrop slipping down her was the third time I'd touched a brown-skinned person."

At learning of Clarence's death, William feels remorse especially after he learns that Clarence was the son of the Dobbs's maid, Marie. It is at this point that William accepts responsibility for stirring up trouble that resulted in Clarence's death. Seeing Clarence's mother makes William realize he was someone's loved son. Later on William notes how differently his father treats Negro customers. If they are short a single dollar he takes back the machine whereas he's never refused to deliver to a white customer. As William spends time with Ruby and listens to her stories about Joseph, he comes to see them not as Negroes but as people like himself. He grows to respect Joseph whose hard work and honesty are shown each week as he makes a payment for the Victrola. As a result when the whites begin rioting, William is determined to help; he drives to Greenwood to rescue their maid, Angelina's family, to confront the hateful Vernon Fish who tries to force him to go killing Negroes and to save Joseph and Ruby and the Tylers.

Rowan's narrative also portrays her growth and serves to tie up all the loose ends, revealing what happened to William Tillman, to Ruby and Joseph and the connections to the past. Rowan's work at the clinic serves to make her realize that although some things have improved for African Americans, in some ways the same problems exist. James tells her that "The crime's different but the problem's the same. It's about power and prejudice and shit rooted so deep that people don't see it anymore. You know we're six times as likely to go to jail as white people right?" Later on Rowan's mother, on learning that she's working at the Jackson Clinic tells her they have tried to protect her from the reality of life for blacks. But she now tells her daughter that the lives of black people matter and that riots like the one in 1921 should not be forgotten. "The lives that ended that night mattered. It was a mistake for this city to try to forget, and it's an even bigger one to pretend everything's fine now. Black men and women are dying today for the same reasons they did in 1921. And we have to call that out, Rowan. Every single time." This has a profound effect on Rowan, resulting in two significant decisions. First when she learns from Genny that the skeleton in their back house was likely black, Rowan becomes determined to solve the mystery of how it  came to be there. Secondly,  Rowan is involved in a car accident that results in Jerry Randall, a white man accosting her and then pushing her friend Arvin Brightwater into traffic resulting in his death. Randall used a racial slur before pushing Arvin and Rowan realizes that if Arvin had been white, he likely would not have been assaulted and died. Rowan decides that she must act, she must testify because otherwise Arvin simply becomes another black man whose death will be forgotten and no one held accountable.

Buildings burning in Greenwood
Latham's Dreamland Burning brings to life the terror of the worst race riot in American history, one that, until recently has been mostly forgotten.The city of Tulsa was booming in the years following the first World War.  It was known as the "Magic City" because of its new office buildings, beautiful homes, airport and railroads, and many modern conveniences. This boom was fed by nearby oil discoveries resulting in Tulsa being known as the Oil Capital of the World. The African American citizens of Tulsa shared in this boom, with many settling in the northern part of the city that became known as Greenwood or Little Africa. Greenwood became the most affluent black community in America at the time, a fact that did not sit well with the white people of Tulsa. The novel's title, Dreamland Burning, is a reference to the Dreamland Theatre in Greenwood that served the African Americans of the community. It was destroyed during the Tulsa race riot.

The ruins of the Dreamland Theatre following the Tulsa race riot.
On May 30, 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. Despite Sarah Page not pressing charges, Rowland was arrested the next day. Newspaper reports stirred up the white population who showed up outside the courthouse demanding the sheriff release Rowland to be lynched. One of the two white-owned newspapers, the Tulsa Tribune published an editorial titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight" which suggested that men were assembling to take Rowland and lynch him. The sheriff and his men barricaded themselves in the top floor of the courthouse to protect Rowland from the mob outside. Blacks from Greenwood arrived at the courthouse, shots were fired and they retreated to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, white rioters looted and burned Greenwood to the ground, killing three hundred people in the process, and leaving many homeless and/or injured. No white person was ever held responsible for the riot, although the chief of police at the time, John Gustafson was removed from his position. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was never spoken about and not taught in schools. This dark chapter in the history of the city was ignored until very recently.

In William Tillman's narrative, Latham presents some of the realities of that night to her readers; William and Joseph encounter dead Negros who have been burned, tortured and dragged behind cars on the road, they meet men out to kill any Negro they can find. Latham captures the fear the black citizens of Tulsa must have felt in the characters of the Tylers, Joseph and Angelina.

Overall, Dreamland Burning is a well written, authentic retelling of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Latham takes this difficult event and weaves a murder mystery that is solved almost a century later, revealing long kept secrets. It's a reminder that the past is sometimes the key to the future.

Book Details:

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017
365 pp.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Twelve-year-old Omar Hamid lived with his family in Bosra, Syria. By his own admission, it was a beautiful town with Roman ruins in the center that regularly drew tourists from all over the world. His father worked at the tourism office while his mother, Leila cared for their family. At this time, Omar family consisted of his older brother Musa who has cerebral palsy, his fifteen-year-old sister Eman, his five-year-old brother Fuad and his baby sister Nadia. Omar worked in his Uncle Ali's hardware store before school and when school ended at 1pm, he worked with Rasoul trying to get the tourists to buy from his souvenir shop.

At his uncle's shop one morning, a man Omar calls Mr. Nosy warns his uncle about his son studying at university telling him to stay away from politics. He tells him there are terrorists everywhere. Uncle Ali is shaken by this, closes his shop and tells Omar he's leaving town. On the way home from school that day, Musa reveals to Omar that they are moving to Daraa because their father has been transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Omar's family move to Daraa the same time trouble began. Their last day at school Omar overhears Musa's friends talking about two fifteen-year-old boys who sprayed slogans on walls calling for the downfall of the Syrian government. They were caught and tortured. As the family is packing, Omar's parents quarrel over sixteen-year-old Eman continuing school. His mother wants her to continue but the father feels she should be married.

They move to his granny's flat in Daraa. Also living in Daraa is his Auntie Majda and her little girls. At school Omar is shocked to see Musa become part of a group led by a boy named Bassem. Musa tells Omar that Bassem's cousin was his friend in Bosra and that he and his friends have been involved in plotting a revolution. Along with his nerdy friends back in Bosra, Musa has discovered the terrible things the Syrian government has been involved in; arrests, disappearances and torture of citizens. They want to live in a democratic state and have been organizing the marches and demonstrations. Musa challenges Omar, asking him if he cares that he lives in a dictatorship.

One day after mosque, Omar discovers Musa has a phone given to him by Bassem. When he arrives home, Omar finds his mother frantic because there are demonstrations in Daraa. She sends him out to get Granny and Nadia who have gone to Auntie Majda's home. Omar witnesses the demonstration and the Syrian government troops opening fire on the students. One of those students is his brother Musa whom Omar helps to flee. They hide his cell phone just before they are confronted by a soldier but manage to convince him they are not involved in the demonstration. With Bassem's help they rescue Granny and Nadia who have been trapped outside Auntie Majda's flat. Eventually Omar retrieves the phone which has film of the demonstration and Musa gives it to Bassem and Latif.

But the student actions ignite a civil war that begins to engulf them all. Every day there are marches followed by funerals. Latif is shot in the head and dies in hospital. The internet is cut off, the schools closed and then tanks roll into Daraa, besieging the city. A tense moment occurs when the soldiers begin searching every house. Musa has to hide both his phone and a little notebook. He and Omar manage this and the soldiers leave without discovering either.

Soon a full scale civil war is happening. The electricity is cut which means no lights, no mobile phones, and no fridge. There are bombings and shootings. Omar is constantly afraid, his younger brother Faud begins wetting the bed, Eman gets a rash and Musa has nightmares. Then one day Baba returns home because the Ministry of Agriculture is closed. When he learns that Musa is out, Baba is furious and Omar is sent out to bring him home. On their way back, Omar is shot by a soldier, he bullet grazing his arm. Even worse a shell lands on the house next to theirs, destroying both homes. After spending the night huddled in a shed Omar and his family work to clean up their apartment. However, Uncle Feisal shows up offering them a way out of Daraa. He takes them to Leila's brother-in-law's farm outside Bosra.

Uncle Mahmud and Auntie Fawzia take Omar and his family in, giving them the storeroom to stay in. Baba returns to Daraa to stay with a friend in a quiet part of town, away from the fighting. Meanwhile Omar begins helping out on the farm, working with his cousin Jaber. Life on the farm seems tranquil and safe with the fighting confined mostly to the cities. But soon the violence spreads into every area of Syria and Omar and his family must flee, leaving everything behind. It is a journey that will take them far from home, to a distant land and a new life.


Laird has written a solid novel that offers young readers the chance to learn about the Syrian war and the plight of refugees. The experiences of young Omar and his family opens a window on the culture of Muslim Syrians.  In some ways the Hamid family is not that much different from families in the West. Omar like many children, doesn't like school. Instead, he's interested in making money and someday owning his own business. His older sister Eman has dreams of continuing school. Musa, whose intelligence is hidden by his cerebral palsy, is politically engaged and wants to work for a democratic Syria. Omar's mother and father love and care for their children and simply want to raise their children in a safe, clean city. They are part of a large extended family who care for one another.

However, some things are very different in Syria. This is especially true of how women and the disabled are treated. Omar's older sister Eman is a good student. Because education is strictly segregated, Eman attends an all girls school. Eman wants to be a teacher, a goal Baba does not support. Her mother does because she wanted to be a teacher before she was forced into marriage to Baba at age fifteen. When the family is forced to move to Daraa, Baba decides that Eman will no longer attend school. "Education's a waste of time for girls. Eman's sixteen already. It's high time she was married. I've had a good offer..." Omar's mother is shocked at this revelation and refuses to move to Daraa unless Eman is able to continue school.  Eman tells Omar, "...I want to do something Omar! I want to be a teacher! Have my own life!"  Later on when war comes to the farm outside of Bosra where Omar's family has fled, Eman learns that her father, mother and auntie have all worked to arrange her marriage to Abu Bilal, a man who is later discovered to have raped and nearly killed another girl. Eman's feelings don't matter and she is never consulted. She resists the marriage, but is slapped and abused by her family. In desperation she attempts to starve herself and threatens to kill herself. Omar watches and is powerless to help his older sister. It is only in the refugee camp, without the presence of Baba, that Musa stands up to Bilal and refuses to allow the marriage to happen.

The attitude towards Omar's disabled brother Musa is also very different. Omar relates that "The teachers had written him off for years and said he was stupid." Musa has been laughed at, beaten and even had his arm broken at school. He's been bruised, insulted and had his notebooks destroyed.  But in spite of this Musa has persisted in attending school. It was his seventh grade teacher, Mr. Ibrahim who recognized Musa's intelligence and this forced Omar to recognize that his brother is a "brainbox". Even some of his own family struggle to accept Musa. Omar states that "Granny couldn't bear the sight of Musa. 'There have never been any deformed children on our side of the family,'   I heard her say to Baba, looking accusingly at Ma."  Musa becomes politically active and is involved in the planning of the initial actions against the Syrian government. He shows great courage and takes terrible risks to fight for what he believes in. Always an outsider because of his disability, this offers Musa a chance to belong to something important.

Laird who visited and volunteered at two refugee camps, Za'atari and Azraq in Jordan, provides her young readers with a real sense of what life is like in these camps. Through the characters of Eman and Omar, Laird describes the hopelessness for the future. "Eman shrugged. 'So what? Anything's better than living in limbo here! What have we got to look forward to? Nothing. There's no school for Musa and me, no work...Eman sighed. 'I just feel hopeless, that's all.We're in a sort of prison. We're nowhere. And we might be here forever." Yet when the opportunity to leave the refugee camp and travel to Britain arises, Omar and Musa feel fear and Musa resists. "...But in England we'd be just a bunch of refugees, living on charity. You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims? They think we're all crazy terrorists..."

Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan
In Omar, Laird has crafted a strong, appealing main character whose actions and feelings are authentic. Omar is loyal, brave and compassionate. He helps his brother Musa when he repeatedly gets himself in a tight spot, despite feeling frustrated and angry at him. When Baba abandons the family after learning of Musa's involvement with the Syrian rebels, Omar becomes responsible for many of his family's needs. As expected, Omar feels overwhelmed by this responsibility. He sympathizes with Eman over her being forced to marry a much older man whom Omar knows has a poor character. He courageously but unsuccessfully attempts to convince his Ma that Bilal is an evil man. Eventually Omar does convince Musa to defend their older sister. Instead of attacking Riad, a poor boy who is running wild in the camp, Omar takes him under his wing, turning him from the path of a thief into a boy focused on trying to do the right thing.

Welcome To Nowhere is highly recommended for readers aged 9 to 13 but will also appeal to older readers. Laird has included a map showing the location of Syria in the Middle East but there is no map showing Omar's journey to Jordan nor the location of the refugee camp.  There is an informative "Letter From The Author" at the back of the book which provides more details about the Syrian situation. Welcome To Nowhere is a good book to acquaint younger readers with the Syrian refugee situation and to help them better understand the plight of refugees.

Book Details:

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird
London: Macmillan Children's Books     2017
329 pp.