Friday, May 24, 2019

Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith

Black Panther: The Young Prince introduces younger readers to the backstory of T'Challa,  prince,future ruler of Wakanda, and the future Black Panther.

The novel opens with T'Challa racing against his best friend M'Baku in the forest surrounding the city. Their friendly competition is interrupted when they come across a man in a military uniform slumped against a tree. Four women with tribal markings, the Dora Mijae who are the king's private bodyguards suddenly appear. One of the guards  indicates that both T'Challa and M'Baku have been summoned to appear before the king, T'Chaka, king of Wakanda and the Black Panther. They meet the king in the Royal Palace, where T'Chaka is seated on the Panther Throne. Accompanying the king is M'Baku's father, N'Gamo who is a member of the king's war council.

The king and N'Gamo tell the two boys that there are unknown invaders on Wakanda's borders. Suspecting there might be war, T'Chaka has decided to send T'Challa away to keep him safe. The king has decided to send T'Challa to Chicago, accompanied by M'Baku. Both boys will attend South Side Middle School, posing as exchange students from Kenya. They will live at the African Embassy of Nations. M'Baku is excited at the prospect of living in America, believing they will have the freedom to do whatever they want. T'Challa however is concerned, believing he should stay in Wakanda to help his father. His conflicted feelings about leaving are deepended when his older stepbrother, Hunter berates T'Challa for leaving. Hunter accuses T'Challa of "running off to hide in America." Their strained relationship results in the two brothers fighting during the celebration prior to T'Challa leaving.

Just before he leaves for America, the king tells T'Challa that he believes the threat is from a scientist, Ulysses Klaw who has wanted to steal Wakanda's Vibranium. The next day T'Challa and M'Baku are flown by the king's private jet to Chicago. J'Aka, one of the king's top advisers accompanies the two boys to America, leaving them at the African Embassy of Nations.

Left to fend for themselves, T'Challa and M'Baku find their way to their school, register and settle in to take classes.They soon make two new friends, Zeke and Sheila who will turn out to be especially good and faithful friends. T'Challa and M'Baku are harassed by Gemini Jones and his friends DeShawn and Bicep. Zeke tells the two boys that Gemini is a warlock or a witch and that most people are afraid of him. .However, M'Baku is restless but when he proves to be a natural at basketball he joins the team and becomes friends with Gemini and his friends. Soon T'Challa finds his best friend has traded his friendship, responsibilities and duties for his desire for respect. Little does M'Baku realize, he's leading T'Challa into his first test as the future Black Panther.

Discussion 

Black Panther: The Young Prince is loosely based on the Marvel Comic's superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Black Panther is an African superhero from the mythical African nation of Wakanda.

Long ago a meteorite comprised of the fictional vibration/energy-absorbing mineral crashed into Wakanda. When it was discovered and its unique properties realized, the Wakandans named it Vibranium. In the novel T'Challa indicates that the Wakanda warriors made weapons from the strange mineral. However, radiation from the meteor site turned several Wakandans into demon spirits. To overcome them, the warrior Bashenga entreated the Panther God, Bast to help and became the first Black Panther.

As previous Wakandan kings had done, T'Challa's father, the current Black Panther and king of Wakanda - T'Chaka has continued to conceal Wakanda from the outside world. The mineral has transformed the country into a technologically advanced civilization and the Black Panther kings believed its discovery would result in misuse of the mineral as well as exploitation of their kingdom.

T'Challa, heir to the Black Panther throne has been raised by his father as his mother, N'Yami had died in childbirth. This Black Panther story, written for younger readers takes up T'Challa's story as a boy coming of age.

At first it seems that T'Challa and M'Baku will have an uneventful experience as students at a middle school in Chicago until they find themselves drawn into a group with sinister designs through the use of black magic. While T'Challa stays true to himself,  it is M'Baku whose rebellion puts the future Black Panther at risk. M'Baku's jealousy over his friend's status as prince of Wakanda, and his desire to be respected like T'Challa,  leads him to disobey the king's command not to bring attention to themselves. He turns against his training and his responsibilities, falling in with the school bully Gemini who happens to be a good basketball player. M'Baku makes the basketball team and is eventually drawn further into Gemini's circle of friends and then into his family. He abandons T'Challa, moving in with Gemini's family. The ultimate betrayal comes when he steals the Vibranium ring that T'Chaka gave T'Challa.

However, T'Challa shows himself to be obedient, resourceful, intelligent, and a good judge of character. In contrast to M'Baku who is swayed by Gemini's words, T'Challa lives out his father's wisdom, "Many men will try to battle you with words, T'Challa, but words cannot sway a man from his duty" . Although he disobeys his father's command to keep his identity a secret, T'Challa does so reluctantly and only because he believes both Zeke and Sheila can be trusted. He also only uses the Vibranium suit in what he considers to be a dire emergency.

There are plenty of holes in this novelization of the Black Panther; for example it is unlikely that two young boys so vital to their country's leadership would be sent to America by themselves without a guardian. In another example, T'Challa and M'Baku arrive at their school where the school administration has no idea of their names and simply accept them without any identification. Yet another plot hole revolves around T'Challa's father giving his son a ring made of Vibranium, a metal with such amazing properties that Wakanda has hidden itself from the outside world so as to protect it's discovery. And yet a young boy is given this valuable metal as jewelry which might be easily lost or stolen.  However, overall, the story of the young boy whose future is that of a superhero is well written and exciting, with a satisfying ending that sees T'Challa and M'Baku return safely to Wakanda, more experienced in the ways of the outside world.

Parents should be aware that there is some black magic in the novel and a frightening description of T'Challa's encounter with a demon.

Book Details:

Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith
Los Angeles: Marvel Press     2018
264 pp

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley

The Golden Bull is a middle-school historical fiction novel set in Mesopotamia in 2600 B.C. Fourteen-year-old Jomar and his younger sister, twelve-year-old Zefa live with their parents on a farm outside the city of Ur. The recent drought has made their once fruitful land barren and dry. The farms "once produced abundant grain, melons and grapes, plums and pears, cabbage and carrots. Gazelle and other wild animals had once been plentiful, attracted to the crops and to the water in the irrigation canals that cut through the countryside."

When Jomar hears Zefa playing a song on the lyre he made for her, he questions her as to why the song is sad. Zefa reveals to him that their parents plan to send him away to the nearby city of Ur. Because of the drought there is not enough food for all of them. This news scares Jomar because he wonders how he will live in Ur. From his home he can see the large mud-brick temple dedicated to the moon god Nanna rising above Ur.

Jomar confronts his father Durabi who tells him that the farm no longer grows enough food to feed them. When he was last in Ur, Durabi arranged  for Jomar to be taken on as an apprentice with Sidah, a goldsmith who works for the temple.Sidah's son had recently died. Jomar's father also reveals that Zefa will accompany him to Ur because she too is starving. Durabi tells Jomar that he must care for Zefa too but that she will have to find her own work. Jomar is not happy about having to travel to Ur nor that Zefa must come with him.  But Durabi insists, stating that he will walk Jomar and Zefa to the road that leads into Ur.

The next morning Jomar and Zefa leave with their father for Ur. Their mother Lilan packs them each a basket containing what food they have. Zefa insists on bringing her lyre. Their father is unable to walk far enough to take them to the road that leads to Ur so Jomar and Zefa continue on their own. However Jomar and Zefa encounter a man named Malak who has been sent by the temple to oversee the irrigation system. Impressed by Zefa's singing, Malak decides she will remain with him and his men, but that Jomar is free to leave for his apprenticeship in Ur. Jomar protests Zefa's enslavement by Malak but decides to stay with her. They spend the day working in the ditches but at night when the men become drunk, with the help of another worker named Qat-nu, Jomar and Zefa escape.

Eventually they arrive at the gate leading into Ur. The gatekeeper is willing to allow Jomar into the city, but it is only when Zefa sings and plays her lyre, that she too is allowed in. While searching for Sidah's home, Jomar and Zefa witness a crowd watching a man undergoing a trial to prove his innocence after being accused of murder. Zefa is horrified and Jomar steers her away. They arrive at Sidah's home only to discover that Zefa is not welcome, especially by his wife Nari. Sidah tells Nari that Zefa will leave in the morning. That night Zefa is allowed to sleep in the workshop, but she angers Nari when she plays the temple lyre that Sidah has been commissioned to embellish. Sidah's son Abbah was to have worked with him on the lyre. Sidah believes Zefa's unexpected appearance at his house is a sign for him to work on the lyre. He decides she will stay and play on the lyre to inspire his work, but Nari, unhappy at this decision states that she will also work for her.

Jomar's first task is to work on a necklace for the high priestess Bittatti. However, as he's making the necklace, Jomar discovers that one of the lapis beads is missing. This leads both Jomar and Sidah to believe that Zefa who slept in the workshop, has stolen the bead. Jomar is then ordered to take the gold drinking straw to the high priestess at the temple. On his way there, Jomar finds himself accosted by Malak who guards the back entrance to the temple.Malak threatens Jomar, telling him he will come for his sister, who he believes is his slave. The penalty for a slave escaping is severe. Jomar must find a way to protect his sister from Malak while at the same time protecting his apprenticeship with Sidah.

Discussion

The Golden Bull is set in the city of Ur, located in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia in 2600 B.C. Ur was a major trade center as it was situated where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. It was a city of great wealth. The Great Ziggurat of Ur or temple of Ur mentioned in the novel was dedicated to the moon god Nanna.

Cowley works many historical details into the story, through the character of Sidah who answers Jomar's questions about the city of Ur and who provides detailed descriptions of  the goldsmith craft as he creates the golden bull for the temple lyre.

Although the storyline in The Golden Bull is driven by Jomar and Zefa's need to survive in Ur where they are sent because their parents can no longer support them, it is the relationship between Jomar and his sister that forms the central theme. At the beginning of the novel, Jomar views his sister as a burden when he learns she will accompany him to Ur. Zefa also struggles as she finds Jomar has gone from ignoring her to ordering her around. However as they set out on their journey, Jomar listens for the first time to the songs Zefa sings and begins to understand that she has a special gift.  "For years he'd heard the songs that Zefa made up, heard them without really listening. They had been about such childish things as a lost doll, the death of a pig, and the sun's magic that shriveled a grape into a sweet raisin. But now Jomar was struck by the words of this song. How could a girl of twelve make up such a solemn prayer?" When Zefa is made a slave by Malak, Jomar refuses to abandon her to her fate, remembering his duty to protect her. Instead he stays with her  and together they escape and continue on their journey to Ur. Jomar begins to realize that Zefa's ability to play the lyre and compose songs may be very helpful to them. Her playing earns them some food from a family with a baby who won't sleep and helps her get into Ur.

When a lapis bead goes missing from Sidah's workshop and Zefa is suspected, Jomar confronts her. Zefa is outraged by Jomar's lack of trust in her.  Jomar feels guilt over his doubts about his sister. "Instead of protecting Zefa, he had become her enemy, her accuser." He is also troubled because he doesn't know how to protect his sister both from the accusations that she is a thief and from Malak who has promised to find Zefa and take her back.

Zefa flees from Sidah's house and ends up living with children in the bazaar who play for food. She leaves because she realizes she is not trusted at Sidah's house and that she is in danger from Malak. When Jomar finds her, he sees that she has changed from the vulnerable young girl to someone with quiet assurance and confidence. Although Jomar expects Zefa to refuse, she demonstrates compassion and forgiveness when she agrees to play on the temple lyre and perform a praise song for Abban at his funeral in order to comfort Nari despite Nari having betrayed Zefa. And Zefa also comes to realize why Nari has found it so difficult to accept Jomar and herself into their home; her grief for her son Abban is too recent. Zefa is a compassionate, honest young girl, who cares for both those who are poor like herself and those who are unkind to her like Nari.

To protect his sister, Jomar decides to take the river test, claiming he took the lapis bead. He knows Zefa is innocent and that his sister cannot be thrown into the river as she cannot swim and will drown. To spare her from this fate, Jomar takes her place even though he too cannot swim. In doing so Jomar also demonstrates his courage and his sacrificial love. Fortunately, the river judges Jomar as innocent.

Both Jomar and Zefa's honesty, willingness to work hard and their kindness do much to heal Sidah and Nari as they grieve the loss of their only son. This is especially true for Nari whose bitterness has caused her to do so much harm to both children.

The Golden Bull is suitable for younger readers interested in historical fiction. Cowley provides a detailed Author's Note at the back of the novel which provides many interesting facts about life in Ur and this region of Mesopotamia at the time of the novel. A map of the region and illustrations would add considerably to the novel's overall appeal.


Book Details:

The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley
Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge    2008
200 pp.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky

Natalie Page, paleontology nerd and vintage, plus-size fashion blogger is on her way to spend the summer at the Central Texas Mammoth Site as one of two interns. Natalie lives in Orlando, Florida with her parents and her brothers, Ryan and Dylan.She's spent the past three summers working at her Aunt Judy's indie clothing company, Savage Swallow. Natalie who is a heavy-set girl, learned to sew and tailor clothing and create her own fashion style. Out of this came her blog Fossilista, which posts "plus-size fashion inspiration and vintage thrifting tips..." Because Natalie was bullied in middle school for her weight she always tries to look her best, with makeup and her own vintage style.

Natalie's idol is Dr. Thomas F. Carver whom she nicknames, "Thomas Fucking Carver". Carver is a renowned paleontologist who has made dinosaur discoveries including a Centesaurus which he discovered in Utah. Natalie hoped Carver would talk about the legal trouble the Central Texas Mammoth Site has encountered in his latest podcast on Carved in Bone. However no mention is made of the dispute between the  "family of the property's former owner" and the site over  the first fossils  recovered on the land that is now the Central Texas Mammoth site. Instead the podcast is about Carver and his team working to protect a newly discovered Apatosaurus skeleton from a flash flood and waiting out the storm in nearby trees.

At the airport in Austin, Texas, Natalie is met by Eli Washington, a senior intern. She also meets two other student interns, a blond girl named Quinn who later reveals that she is Dr. Carver's daughter, and a handsome, tall boy named Chase. Natalie and Quinn are rooming with another senior intern, Mellie McCormick who happens to share Natalie's interests in crafting and thrifting. At the welcome meeting, Natalie and the other interns meet Dr. Helen Lauren, assistant director at the Central Texas Mammoth Site, who oversees the intern program. She takes them on a campus tour and dinner at the cafeteria. The next day they meet the site's director, Dr. Vincent Gallagher, an expert in paleontological taphonomy. During their introduction to the site, Natalie realizes that Quinn has an advantage over her because as Dr. Carver's daughter, she is already known to the site staff. So she competes with Quinn, attempting to impress Dr. Gallagher and be acknowledged.

On a tour led by Cody, a high school senior, Natalie and the other interns see the in situ bone bed, the remains of a single nursery herd that likely died around forty-thousand years ago as a result of a sudden flood. Natalie interrupts the tour to correct a father and son's misconceptions about the site. This makes Cody angry and he tells her never to do that again. When they reconnect with Dr. Lauren, Natalie realizes that her choice of clothing and footwear is not reasonable for walking on the forest trails. But she does have an eye for finding things, spotting a bone in the river bed, that turns out to be from a pork chop.

Natalie's crush on Chase continues to blossom when they spend time together that night talking about their lives and their mutual interest in fossils. The next day Natalie and the interns visit the Dr. Warren Roland lab, a warehouse-sized building that houses labs and fossils. Dr. Roland was in charge of the original dig at the Mammoth Site and he founded the paleo program at Austin State. Dr. Ted Glass is in charge of the bone prep lab, explaining that although there still are bones to dig up, the warehouse is full of fossils, many of which they don't know about and many needing preparation. Dr. Glass and Amy Seeker, a grad student train the interns on screen picking. Watching Quinn flirt with Chase, during the training session, makes Natalie jealous.

The interns begin to settle in learning various jobs; Natalie and Brendan work with Cody to learn the tour while Chase and Quinn train in the sandbox. Natalie quickly becomes adept at leading the tour, adding in her own paleo facts and is soon allowed to lead tours with Cody observing. One afternoon during break Cody overhears a conversation in Dr. Lauren's office. When the first bones were discovered, Dr. Roland and the landowner supposedly signed a contract which allowed the university to lease the land and keep any fossils found. However, now the family is claiming the contract never existed, that the fossils belong to them and they want financial compensation as well.

Natalie is thrilled to learn that her idol, Dr. Carver will be visiting the site to film segments, including the interns for his new show. During Carver's visit, Natalie is filmed while working in the sandbox and is even coached by Dr. Carver. A photograph of Natalie and Dr. Carver appears on his website but while it is wonderful for Natalie, his daughter Quinn is less than impressed. Quinn shows Natalie a text from her father critical of her work at the site, and shares that she has a strained relationship with her famous father.

After a week at the site, Natalie is recognized for her exemplary work leading tours and she, Brendan and Chase are cleared to work in the bone bed. That night, the interns are given time off and all including Natalie decide to meet at the amphitheater and drink beer Brendan has stolen from a fridge in the lab. While Cody limits himself to one beer, the rest drink until they are very drunk. Cody refuses to go along with Quinn's plan to walk to the site to dig. Eventually only Chase and Natalie attempt to walk to the site even though both are very intoxicated. They begin kissing passionately but Natalie becomes annoyed when Chase tries to take things further. At this point the two are discovered on the road by the senior interns, Eli and Mellie who drive them back to the residences. The next day Dr Lauren places both Chase and Natalie on probation. Natalie worries about the repercussions for Cody but fortunately he just gets a reprimand. At this time, Cody notices that Natalie looks different, because she hasn't done her makeup due to her hangover. He tells her she looks nice.

However Natalie is totally absorbed with Chase, holding hands with him and telling her best friend Charli back home that she thinks they might be a thing. But Natalie soon discovers that Chase is anything but sincere about their relationship. When she discovers Chase and Quinn making out in Natalie is devastated and runs to the bone storage room. Quinn finds her and tries to apologize, explaining that she acted the way she did because of her fractured relationship with her father and her inability to please him. While Natalie is listening, she suddenly notices that there is a labelled specimen from the Mammoth site on the storage shelf. Since all the specimens from the site are supposed to have been processed this is a shocking find. Natalie's discovery has huge implications for the site and its legal issues.

As Natalie deals with Chase's betrayal, and with the realization that her hero Dr. Carver is not the great guy she thought he was, she begins to shed some of the armour she's built up to protect herself. In an attempt to redeem herself, Natalie takes a risk that put her internship at risk and almost cost the life of the boy who turns out to be a true friend.

Discussion

Mammoth tackles the tricky subjects of body image and body shaming as well as self-esteem.Natalie Page is a plus-size teenager who has experienced bullying over her weight. In middle school she was known as "Fat Nat", a nickname given to her by a classmate. However, in high school, Natalie's Aunt Judy helped her forge her physical and emotional armor against body shaming. She taught Natalie to "be awesome", to be Awesome Natalie instead of Fat Nat. "It's the persona I put on each day, the tight shapers that bind me, the cute dresses, the flawless makeup. It's everything." Every minute of Natalie's day is focused on being awesome. She chooses her outfits for the day, spends time putting on makeup and restraining her naturally curly hair. But sometimes all of this isn't enough. As when she sits in her seat on the plane and notices her upper arm is partially in the middle seat. "All the armor in the world can't protect me from moments like this. Be awesome, I tell myself. I can't slip not. Not now."

Not only is Natalie focused on her own body but also on the bodies of those around her. Whenever she sees another woman, she automatically guesses that woman's weight, without even realizing she's doing this. "The number flashes in my head, illuminated like a digital display. Like the numbers on a scale. it's a game I play with myself; I can't meet a woman without guessing her weight. It always makes me feel a little guilty, but working for Aunt Judy and writing about fashion have made me almost too good at estimating things like weight and clothing size. The reaction is so automatic and objective that I can't seem to stop. Beside, when you're as aware of size as I've learned to be, when you're reminded of it everytime those great jeans don't fit or some anonymous idiot leaves a rude comment on your blog, you notice aspects of it everywhere."

To cope with her stress, Natalie snaps the hair elastic on her wrist. She constantly compares parts of her body, especially her thighs with those of others despite her Aunt Judy telling her she has "sturdy thighs" that will carry her far. Baguchinsky realistically portrays Natalie's constant war with food. "In the cafeteria, I settle on a soy cheeseburger on a whole wheat bun and a bag of crackers. At the end of the line, near the cashier, a pile of prepackaged desserts sings like a siren on treacherous rocks. I try not to look, but I'm hungry. And they have snickerdoodles -- my favorite. I take two and stare at them on my tray, anxiety blooming in my throat like bile."

Baguchinsky has crafted a very realistic heroine in Natalie Page. Natalie, a paleontology geek shows her passion for the fossil site, makes the typical poor decisions one expects of teenagers, such as getting drunk, working with a fossil when she's not trained on bone prep, and going out to prospect without permission. She's ambitious to the point of recklessness, endangering Cody's life. But she's also forgiving, salvaging her friendship with Quinn who betrayed her and recognizing the pain Quinn is suffering from the strained relationship with her famous father.

The main theme of the novel is that of a young woman who has created this persona to fit in with societal expectations of beauty and health. In the process, she's lost who she is. As a young girl, Natalie experienced body shaming from classmates such as Fred Parkmore. Baguchinsky shows her readers how this has affected Natalie; she has low self esteem and in order to protect herself has devised her "armor" literally with a shaper that she puts on each day to mold her body into the approved shape, even though she can't take a full breath while wearing it and figuratively through the mantra of "be awesome". However, as her internship progresses, Natalie begins to slowly shed that armor. First it's her dresses styled to her plus-sized figure, then it's her shoes which are inappropriate for working in the bone bed and walking on the trails. Then after the night drinking, a hung-over Natalie dispenses with the makeup, the foundation and eyeliner and lipstick and even her shaper. Cody notices immediately that she looks different, telling Natalie, "You look nice. Softer. That's all." But Natalie's not ready yet to drop her armor and she changes "softer into vulnerable. Unprotected. Fat." Natalie can't accept Cody's compliment and does her makeup.

But it is only after Cody almost loses his life while they are attempting to protect a newly discovered fossil during a severe storm that Natalie finally decides to shed her armor. She recognizes that her armor makes her look invulnerable, which is not really true. When she goes to meet the people who will decide her fate after so many mistakes and poor choices, she doesn't wear her shaper, does her makeup only lightly and pulls her frizzy hair back in a ponytail. Natalie decides to stands up for herself, telling the panel about her love for paleontology and expressing regret over her poor decisions. She also stands up to her Dr. Carver, whom she no longer idolizes.

After she is expelled from the internship program, in the bathroom Natalie remembers why she began using makeup. "...I liked what I saw in the mirror - but I felt like I was looking at someone else. It was a mask to help me hide from people like Fred. It was part of what would become my armor. I don't think I want to hide anymore." She decides that she will wear makeup, the dresses, the shapewear and even the shoes if she wants to, if she feels like it. "If not...well, the world can deal. I'm doing this for me, not for anyone else. There's no more Fat Nat, no more Awesome Natalie, no more fake-it-till-you-make-it. There's just me." Natalie is helped further by Cody's acceptance of who she is. He gives her the confidence to be herself and we see this at the end of the novel when she chooses a casual outfit - one that isn't her armor.

After her expulsion, Natalie meets with Dr. Glass who tells her she is very much like Thomas Carver. She has the same reckless ambition as Carver, whose ambition cost Dr. Glass his right calf and foot many years ago. But Natalie is also like Carver in another aspect in that she too has created a public persona that is very different from the real person. Dr. Gallagher explained to Natalie earlier that Carver has "...cultivated a persona for himself - that of the dashing adventurer - and he does whatever it takes to keep that up. That includes taking advantage of situations like this to keep his name out there..." Dr. Glass recognizes Natalie's potential and hopes to mentor her, guiding her ambition and channeling it in a productive way.

The interior of the building covering the Waco Mammoth site.
Baguchinsky spent time at the Waco Mammoth National Monument Site where the fossils of twenty-four Columbian mammoths, from the Pleistocene Epoch died. The first fossil was discovered in 1978 by two teenagers looking for arrowheads along the Bosque River. The fossil of a mammoth tusk was taken to Baylor University where it was identified as belong to a mammoth. Excavations by staff from Baylor's Strecker Museum eventually uncovered the fossil remains of sixteen Columbian mammoths who were believed to have perished together in a natural disaster. Subsequent fossil finds and continuing research suggests that there were at least two separate natural events resulting in the deaths of an original ammoth nursery herd (females and juveniles) and later on a mammoth bull, female and juvenile mammoths.

Mammoth is well-written novel that combines the themes of body shaming, self-acceptance, forgiveness and redemption against the unique setting of a Pleistocene paleo-dig in Texas. It's a strange but interesting combination that really works. Readers should be forewarned there are plenty of f-bombs and a few sexual innuendos in the novel.

Book Details:

Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky
Nashville, Tennessee: Turner Publishing Company      2018
333 pp.

image credit:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/waco-mammoth-national-monument-180957432/

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck

The Big Wave is a novella written by the late American  Pulitzer Prize winning author, Pearl S. Buck about a young Japanese boy who survives a tsunami and learns much about life.

The story is set in a small fishing village in Japan, located on a beach by the ocean. Kino lives on his family's farm, set high up on the mountain overlooking the fishing village. His ancestors have farmed the mountain for generations, terracing the land. Kino's best friend is Jiya the son of a fisherman. Jiya lives in the village on the beach with his parents and his brother. Like all the other homes in the village, Jiya's home has no window facing the sea.

While Jiya fears the ocean , telling his friend "The sea is our enemy.",  Kino believes it is beautiful. On hot summer days after work, Kino swims in the clear water of the sea.He and Jiya often swim out to an island owned by an old man, whom everyone calls the Old Gentleman.

Whenever they are on the island, Jiya always watches the sea carefully. This puzzles Kino who questions him about why the sea gets angry. Jiya doesn't have an answer for this. However, Kino gets a sense of the sea's danger when he dives deep and feels its "cold grasp." When Kino asks his father why Jiya and his father fear the ocean his father explains that there is much they do not understand about the sea. His father also reminds him that there is the volcano to be concerned about too on land.

Then one day the volcano which is far from Kino's home, begins to spew out smoke and steam. Kino's father stays awake all night just as do the other fathers in the fishing village on the beach. At noon the next day a red flag is seen at the Old Gentleman's castle on a knoll halfway down the mountain. Kino's father tells him this is a sign for the people to be ready. Soon a bell begins to toll, encouraging the people to shelter within the castle. But few come. Only the children begin to stream out of the fishing village and up the path towards the castle. At Kino's suggestion, he and his father wave a white handkerchief to draw the attention of his friend Jiya. Shortly after Jiya arrives at Kino's home, they look out towards the sea and watch a huge wave race towards the shore. Terrified, Jiya wants to rush down to the village to tell his father but Kino's father holds him fast. The wave, crashes ashore, destroying everything in its path. Jiya and Kino's lives are forever changed.

Discussion

The Big Wave is a story for children about a tsunami that devastates a village and changes forever the life of two boys. Although the story is one of tragedy and loss, of a horrific natural disaster, it is told in a gentle, direct manner. Written in a simple style, the novella's overarching theme is about overcoming tragedy in life.

At the beginning of the story, Kino attempts to understand the world around him. His friend Jiya fears the sea as he is aware of its great power. Kino who is the son of a farmer is puzzled by his friend's fear because the sea looks so beautiful. But he comes to understand his friend's fear during a deep dive in the ocean. When he tells his father that he feels safe on land, his father reminds him that even the land holds danger that they must be watchful for - in this case the distant volcano. Kino questions his father, "Must we always be afraid of something?" and he is told the he must "learn to live with danger." Kino's father tells him he must accept that danger exists and learn to live with it, knowing that death comes to everyone. However, this is something  that Kino as a young boy, does not want to consider.

A tsunami wipes out the fishing village, orphaning many of the children who were saved by seeking refuge in the Old Gentleman's castle. Jiya who joins Kino's family on their farm, witnesses the destruction of the village and collapses in utter distress. Yet Kino's father is both patient and kind, telling Kino that they must wait for Jiya to grieve. Jiya's body heals first from the shock and gradually his mind and soul do too, as a result of the careful kindness of Kino's family. He chooses to stay with Kino's family rather than live in the wealthy Old Gentleman's home.

The tragedy of the wave changes Jiya forever. Although his life is divided into two separate periods by the tsunami, he "learns to live with his parents and his brother dead..."and to find happiness in life in spite of tragedy. He learns to love everything this is good and to avoid cruelty Ultimately, Jiya learns the lesson that Kino's father was trying to explain to his own son Kino,  years before, that one must accept the dangers in life and learn how to live with them. This is exemplified by his conversation with the Old Gentleman who scolds the grown survivors of the tsunami for rebuilding homes on the beach. Jiya tells the old man that life is filled with dangers, which they must learn to live with especially since their island of Japan has volcanoes and the sea. Even the Old Gentleman's castle is not safe if the earth shakes hard enough.  Jiya builds himself a home on the same beach where his parents died, this time with a window that faces the sea. He tells Kino's father, "If ever the big wave comes back, I shall be ready. I face it. I am not afraid."

The Big Wave is a thoughtful, beautifully written short story that should appeal to many young readers. Pearl S. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel, The Good Earth and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938

Book Details:

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck
New York:  HarperTrophy 
57 pp.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Look Up With Me: Neil deGrasse Tyson by Jennifer Berne

Look Up With Me tells young readers about the life of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist. Tyson was born in New York City in He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1976.

Tyson whose love of science and the stars began at an early age, earned a BA in Physics from Harvard in 1980 and then went on to study astronomy at the University of Texas where he earned his M.A. in 1983. He then attended Columbia where he obtained a M.Phil in Astrophysics studying stellar evolution and his Ph.D. in Astrophysics in 1991 with research into the Galactic bulge.

He was hired on as a staff scientist at the prestigious Hayden Planetarium which is located at the American Museum of Natural History. He had come full circle. As a nine-year-old, Tyson had taken a trip to the planetarium, which served to deepen his interest in the stars and the universe.

In June of 1995 Neil deGrasse Tyson became the fifth director of the planetarium, and eventually was awarded  the Frederick P. Rose Directorship. Dr. Tyson has written books on astrophysics, hosted television shows on astronomy, appeared in television shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Simpson, The Big Bang Theory and Family Guy and in movies such as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. He currently hosts a weekly show called StarTalk.

Discussion

In Look Up With Me, author Jennifer Berne tells the story of astronomer and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson from his birth in October of 1958 to his work today as a scientist, author, television personality and science advocate.

The author stresses Tyson's resourcefulness in earning money to purchase a better telescope, his passion for sharing his knowledge about the stars, the planets and the universe and how "The wonders of the universe are always with Neil. Day and Night."

The colourful illustrations by Lorraine Nam were created using paper, glue, coloured pencils, a camera and Adobe Photoshop. The beautiful art of Nam definitely enhances the story about this famous American scientist.

Dr. Tyson has written an introduction in which he mentions that scientists such as himself "...are kids who never lost their natural childhood curiosity about the world." He encourages young readers to "...never stop being a kid." so as to preserve that curiosity about the world around them.

In the Author's Note at the back, Jennifer Berne reflects on her initial correspondence with Dr. Tyson twelve years prior, when she shared some of her ideas for books about topics in science. Besides a detailed Glossary, Berne has included a list of print, online and in-person resources about Neil deGrasse Tyson and about the universe!

Excellent for homeschoolers, teachers beginning a unit on astronomy and anyone interested in learning more about Dr. Tyson.

Book Details:

Look Up With Me: Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Life Among The Stars by Jennifer Berne
New York: Katherine Tegen Books       2019

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Whole New World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

A Whole New World is a re-telling of the tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, one of the tales in the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. This re-telling closely follows the Disney animated classic story in the presentation of the characters, but the story diverges.

Aladdin lives with his mother in the Quarter of the Street Rats in Agrabah, "where thieves, beggars, murderers and poorest of the poor lived." Desperately poor, Aladdin survives by stealing from the market, something his mother does not approve. Even when he is brought home by Akram for stealing dried figs and dates, his mother urges him, "Don't let life's unfairness, don't let now poor you are decide who you are. You choose who you will be, Aladdin....You can choose to be something more."

Soon with the death of his mother Aladdin finds himself alone, except for the monkey, Abu, that his mother gave him. Once again he finds himself pursued by Rasoul, the market guard for stealing bread.After a chase through the winding streets, Aladdin settles down for the evening, sharing a melon Abu has stolen. Suddenly the mood in the marketplace shifts as a girl in a tan robe and headscarf wanders through. Aladdin recognizes she is likely "a rich girl, out for a day of shopping without her servants."

When confronted by a Street Rat, the girl takes an apple from a stall and gives it to the boy, walking away without paying. When the fruit merchant demands payment but the girl refuses, the merchant pushes her against the stall and tries to cut off her hand as punishment. However, Aladdin, quickly intervenes, saving her from this fate. He explains to the merchant that the girl is his sister who is not quite right. Having calmed the fruit merchant, Aladdin and the girl are leaving, when Abu is caught stealing numerous apples. The enraged fruit merchant
 
Meanwhile at the palace, in a secret workshop, the sultana's grand vizier, Jafar, is using his black magic. Rasoul arrives and is ordered by Jafar to locate the boy whose image hovers in the air. Rasoul is surprised, telling Jafar that the boy is mere Street Rat. But Jafar insists, telling him the boy is important. Jafar doesn't tell Rasoul that Aladdin is "the only one the ancient powers say can enter the cave and live."

In the city Aladdin takes the mysterious girl to his home high above the city. However they are soon discovered by Rasoul and his men and captured. At this point, Aladdin learns the girl, Jasmine, is the daughter of the sultan. Jasmine is returned to the palace while Aladdin is thrown into the deepest dungeon beneath the palace. Aladdin now knows he can never marry Jasmine, the girl of his dreams because she must marry a prince, which he is most definitely not. He discovers he is imprisoned with a bizarre old man, who tells him about a cave of wonders, "filled with treasures beyond your wildest dreams!"The old man wants to retrieve the treasure but needs someone strong and agile to go there for him. Suddenly the dungeon walls open and Aladdin finds himself and the old man crawling through a long tunnel that bypasses pools of lava. Once outside of the palace, the two along with Abu travel through the desert, to the mysterious cave of wonders. Inside, Aladdin finds a cave filled with gold, jewels and priceless objects. With the help of a magic carpet, Aladdin is able to locate the lamp the old man desires, but Abu greedily grabs at a gemstone, causing the cave to collapse and the lava from below to fill it. Aladdin and Abu on the magic carpet race to the cave entrance and at the insistence of the old man toss him the lamp. But to their shock, the man doesn't help them but tries to push them into the pit. The cave seals, leaving Aladdin and Abu trapped.

Meanwhile in the palace, Jafar, who was disguised as the old man, now has the lamp and the genie who tells him he has three wishes. His first wish is to be sultan and when Jasmine's father, the sultan refuses to bow to him, Jafar wishes to be the most powerful sorcerer in the world. This wish is also granted. With the genie's power, Jafar commands him to bind Jasmine and her father and then on the Public Balcony, announces that he is the sultan. He rains gold coins down on the people of Agrabah and then pushes Jasmine's father over the balcony to his death.

After digging for three days, Aladdin manages to escape the cave and with the help of the magic carpet returns to Agrabah. He learns that the city has a new sultan, and the parade he witnesses reveals the truth of what has happened. The old man in the palace dungeon was a disguised Jafar who is now in possession of the lamp and its djinn. Aladdin travels to the lair of the Street Rats where he meets his friends Morgiana and Duban who are leaders of a the den of thieves. When Aladdin learns that Jasmine is being forced to marry Jafar the next evening, he knows he must rescue her. So Aladdin along with Abu and the magic carpet sneak back into the palace through the tunnel leading to the dungeon, and work their way up into the palace. Aladdin encounters Jasmine attempting to escape but before they can leave, they are discovered by Rasoul who along with the palace guards, sets out in pursuit. Aladdin, Jasmine and Abu manage to escape but in the process, Rasoul is killed and the magic carpet is left behind.

In the Street Rats den, Aladdin, Jasmine, Morgiana and Duban discuss how to bring down Jafar. Jasmine explains that now that Jafar is sultan and the world's most powerful sorcerer, he is attempting to find out how to break the laws of magic. To that end, he is searching the world "to find ancient, evil sources of knowledge that may help him." He wants to raise an army of the undead. In a race against time, Aladdin and Jasmine must find an ancient text and bring the fight to Jafar before he grows so powerful that all of Agrabah is forever enslaved and Jasmine is forced into marriage.

Discussion

A Whole New World is a mash-up of Disney's version of Aladdin and the Walking Dead.  In this retelling, Aladdin has possession of the lamp only briefly - in the cave of wonders. Instead Jafar uses the lamp to take possession of Agrabah and murder the sultan. In A Whole New World, Aladdin helps the princess reclaim her kingdom, overthrowing Jafar who has enslaved all of Agrabah with black magic.

Unfortunately, this rendition of Aladdin has plenty of plot holes. For example, Jafar has an army of zombies, or undead at his command that he can use to easily and quickly defeat Aladdin and recapture Jasmine. Instead he inexplicably gives Aladdin and Jasmine an ultimatum and time to mount an attack.

The story is driven by the  novel's many action scenes which revolve around the love interest between Aladdin, the poor boy who dreams of becoming something more and Princess Jasmine who wants to marry a boy for love. There are chases and battles between Aladdin and Rasoul, battles between the Street Rats and the guards and a climactic battle in the throne room between Aladdin and Jafar.

Some interesting themes in the novel remained underdeveloped, such as whether or not something evil can be used for good. For example, in a note sent to Jasmine from the imprisoned genie, they learn that Jafar is searching for a book, Al Azif by Abdul Alhazred. Possessing this book, according to Jasmine, "let's you kill with you mind and raise armies of the undead." When Aladdin suggests that the book must be burned should they find it, Jasmine is horrified. She believes she can use the book for good and that it will give her the power "to defeat Jafar and take back the throne." However, Aladdin believes that weapons of evil can never be used for good. He argues that "...just because the book's in our hands doesn't mean that it couldn't wind up in someone else's hands. We need to burn it. That keeps it from ever being used for ill purposes." This conflict between the two main characters, is only briefly mentioned one other time. In the climactic scene however, what Aladdin foresaw comes to pass.

Fans of the Disney version of Aladdin may enjoy A Whole New World, as will those who like fairytale retellings. With a new Aladdin movie due out this year, it's possible many readers will have their interest piqued with a reworked version of the story and a savvy book cover.


Book Details:

A Whole New World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell
Los Angeles: Disney Press   2015
376 pp.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

A Year of Borrowed Men is based on the experiences of the author's mother during World War II in Germany. At the time, Michelle Barker's mother Gerda, was a young girl. Her father was forced to fight for the Germany army, leaving her mother to care for five children and no one to run the farm. At age thirteen, Gerda's only brother was too young to run the farm. Because many German farms were in this same situation, prisoners of war were sent to the farms to help run them. They were expected to be treated as prisoners of war. However, Gerda's mother believed in treating the prisoners of war kindly. They were well-fed and befriended by her family. The prisoners were housed in the family's which was cold and

At the end of the war, Gerda and her mother and sisters were forced to leave their family farm which was located in the German village of Beelkow. The area was taken over by Poland and native Germans were expelled from the land.Gerda's family settled in the village of Ermsleben, in what had become East Germany. Eventually Gerda escaped from East Germany in 1953 and travelled to Canada.Gerda's father and brother did not survive the war.

Discussion

Although A Year of Borrowed Men has received many nominations for awards, some reviewers have taken issue with how Barker has presented the events that her mother Gerda experienced during the war. The main objections regarding the subject matter of the picture book are that it portrays the French prisoners of war as well-fed and happy,  Germans as "suffering" and that the story is without much context, that while the events in the story were occurring, Jews, Catholics and those who opposed the Nazis were being exterminated across Europe.

The author's family farm in Germany
It is true that the story is without much context, but this is a picture book for very young children told from the perspective of a young girl. It's theme is primarily that of friendship and how friendship is possible in the worst of circumstances - even during a war as horrific as World War II. During World War II, not all Germans were Nazis - a fact many people are unwilling to recognize -  not all Germans wished for war nor wanted to fight for Germany and many saw fathers, brothers and uncles conscripted into fighting. Ultimately, the author's mother lost her father and brother in a war the family did not support. Not being Jewish does not invalidate their suffering nor their loss. At the end of the story, the family loses their animals, but Barker makes no note of the family having to leave their farm.It isn't even explicitly mentioned in a short note at the back.

 A Year of Borrowed Men is done in the style of the picture books created from the Little House on the Prairie novels with pencil crayon and watercolour illustrations in a soft tone, that convey a somewhat soothing and idyllic setting. The style of illustrations are entirely appropriate for a children's picture book. I do not believe the illustrator was deliberately attempting to portray the French prisoners as well -fed. Instead this was merely her style of illustration.

It's possible a more detailed Author's Note, setting the context for the story may have been helpful,  but unless this book is read by older children, it's not likely to help very young readers whose parents may not want to share such information at this point. Perhaps Gerda's story would have been better told as a piece of historical fiction written for older children where the context of events transpiring outside the world of the family farm could have been treated. Otherwise, treat this as a short story about the possibilities of friendship in the most unlikeliest of circumstances.

The author's website has more information and pictures related to the story in A Year of Borrowed Men.

Book Details:

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker
Toronto: Pajama Press      2015



Friday, April 19, 2019

Boy From Berlin by Nancy McDonald

Boy From Berlin is Canadian author, Nancy McDonald's debut novel about a Jewish boy and his family who flee the Nazis. The novel beings in 1938. Eight-year-old Heinz (Kafer) Avigdor lives in Berlin with his papa, Rifa, his mother Else and his older sister Ellen whom they call Bibi, and older brother Peter.

One night Heinz suspects something unusual is going on: most of the servants including Nanny are given the evening off and their beloved Aunt Charlotte pays a surprise visit. Peter and Ellen are doing their homework in the nursery, giving Heinz the opportunity to eavesdrop on his mother and aunt. From their conversation he learns that his parents are planning to leave Berlin that very night. They believe the situation will only grow worse. Heinz's mother begs Charlotte to come with them but she refuses, saying that her work is too important.

At dinner that night, Father announces that they are leaving for the Hague, where he has been offered a new job. Both Peter and Ellen protest, unhappy that they will be missing their science and art shows. Heinz startles everyone by asking if they are Jewish - a question that is not answered. They pack their suitcases, Heinz taking his Peter Rabbit toy he has named Funny Bunny Blue.

As they drive through Berlin, Heinz recalls that things have changed subtly in the past weeks and months: his parents no longer go out to restaurants and cabarets, his mother's prized artwork has been disappearing of their walls and he has seen her sewing an emerald necklace into the lining of a dress. Their leaving in the dark, without saying good-bye to Aunt Charlotte, Nanny or any of their friends seems equally strange.

They travel all night stopping at a Gasthouse to freshen up and get something to eat. Father warns both Peter and Heinz to tell anyone who questions them that they are travelling to the Hague for their mother's aunt's funeral. At the Gasthouse, first Heinz and then his father encounter Captain Rolf Konig who questions them about where they are going and why. Captain Konig's interest is unsettling and their suspicions are confirmed when leaving, Frau Klein warns Rifat and Else that the captain has taken down their vehicle registration and called the Gestapo.

The Avigdor's continue driving towards the border with Holland but soon are stopped by two German soldiers in a black car. The soldiers are suspicious of Rifat leaving the country as he is in charge of one of the largest aeroplane parts companies. When is father is order to open the boot (trunk) of the car, Heinz, sensing his father might need some help, runs out and asks for his stuffed toy, corroborating his father's story about going to the Hague for a funeral.

The soldier, touched by Heinz's sweet disposition and youth, discreetly tells Rifat that he is being watched for at the border and that should he try to cross he will likely be arrested. The soldier then lets them go. Back in the car, Rifat reveals that they will have to cross the border through the fields. After eating the food from Frau Kein's basket, Heinz and his family begin their journey to cross the farmers' fields and into Holland. Burdened with heavy suitcases, the trek is tiring. And Heinz stumbles and sprains his ankle.Once again they encounter what appears to an obstacle to their crossing the border into Holland, when they are discovered by the farmer. However, the man is sympathetic to their plight and not supportive of Hitler, and willing to help them. After spending the night resting, the farmer offers to drive them across the border hidden amongst  bales of hay. But this also goes awry when Rifat is discovered. Heinz, once again hoping to help his father, bravely jumps out of the hay. They are fortunate in that Rifat is able to bribe the border guards with his valuable stamp collection.

Safe in Holland, the Avigdor's rebuild their life. But soon war will overtake them once again, meaning difficult decisions will have to be made if they are to save themselves.

Discussion

Boy From Berlin is an exciting, well-written middle school novel that will appeal to young readers, especially boys. The story is based on the real-life events experienced by Heinz Avigdor, the late husband of the novel's author, Nancy McDonald.

McDonald,who has worked as a journalist reporting on various television programs and as a freelance journalist, first met Heinz Avigdor when he was working as a producer on CTV's W5 and she was a journalism student at Western University in London, Ontario. The two fell in love and married and the rest, as they say, is history. After Heinz's death in 2015, a bereft McDonald discovered copies of letters written by his father Rifat. McDonald knew little about Heinz's early life as he rarely spoke of his childhood. McDonald knew little about why her husband's family left Germany or how they escaped from Holland to England. Her research led her to Rome to meet surviving cousins, to Berlin to visit the family home that had survived the war, to the Hague and the harbour at Scheveningen where they made their escape to England and back to Toronto to meet Heinz's brother-in-law and sister-in-law. As she gathered information about her husband's family, McDonald thought she might write a family history but instead the story of a boy from Berlin began to take shape.

The novel, although only 129 pages in length is filled with many suspenseful moments such as when the Avigdors are attempting to escape Germany and they encounter German soldiers. The war catches up with them in Holland, and they barely escape, again under tense circumstances, as the country falls to the Germans. These moments of tension engage the reader and lead up to a suspenseful climax.

A subplot explores the relationship between Heinz, his older brother Peter, and their father Rifat. Heinz feels that his father favours his older brother Peter, who like their father has a mind for math and science.  Peter captures their father's praise for his ability to work with his hands, constructing model airplanes and putting together a crystal radio. In contrast, Heinz's father feels he is being babied. However, Heinz proves to be intelligent, quick thinking and resourceful in ways that are different from Peter. Eventually Heinz's father comes to recognize this asking him to care for his mother and Bibi on the voyage to Canada and telling  him, "...I'm very impressed by how brave and resourceful you can be."

Boy From Berlin is an engaging short novel that will appeal to younger readers. McDonald is working on a sequel to Boy From Berlin which will be published in September 2019.

Book Details:

Boy From Berlin by Nancy McDonald
Toronto: Iguana Books    2018
129 pp.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Titanosaur: Discovering The World's Largest Dinosaur by Dr. Jose Luis Carballido and Dr. Diego Pol

In Titanosaur, Argentinian paleontologists, Dr. Jose Luis Carballido and Dr. Diego Pol tell the remarkable story of uncovering the world's largest dinosaur, aptly named Titanosaur. Dr. Carballido specializes in studying the evolution and anatomy of sauropod dinosaurs while Dr. Po, a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Division of Paleontology, focuses on understanding the evolutionary relationships between dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles.

In 2011, a ranch worker, Aurelio Hernandez, came across what appeared to be a large fossil in the desert of Patagonia, near La Flecha, approximately 250 kilometers west of Trelew, Patagonia in southern Argentina. The worker eventually came to tell two paleontologists, Dr. Carballido and Dr. Pol about the amazing bone he had seen on his land and how it was much larger than the dinosaur on display at the museum. Initially Pablo Puerta from the museum traveled out to the ranch to investigate the find. Then Dr. Carballido and Dr. Pol traveled to the ranch of the Mayo family and agreed the fossil bone was indeed that of a dinosaur and looked to be very large.

The excavations by a team from the Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio led by Dr. Carballido and Dr. Pol recovered a total of 180 bones revealed the skeletons of six dinosaurs. The dig located bones in several different layers of  rock, indicating that there were six dinosaurs who died in three separate instances, over a period of years, perhaps even centuries.

Dr. Diego Pol beside a large fossil.
At the museum, the team began the arduous task of cleaning the bones and assembling a skeleton of the titanosaur. After fourteen months of work, the newly assembled titanosaur skeleton measured one hundred twenty-two feet long and approximately twenty-six and half feet tall - the largest dinosaur ever uncovered. Carballido and Pol believe this titanosaur is a new species which they named Patagotitan mayorum.

This new discovery promises to add much to our knowledge of these amazing creatures.

Discussion

Titanosaur is a fascinating account of the discovery of the largest dinosaur to be recovered. Paleontologists, Carballido and Pol have written an engaging picture book that features not only their incredible story but also packs interesting facts on each page. Each page features the watercolour illustrations of Florencia Gigena portraying the events Carballido and Pol describe in their text. Many pages also incorporate a section that explains geologic terms, provides extra details on certain aspects of the dig such as preparing the bones and transporting them, and on how the scientists calculated the weight of the titanosaur  At the back of the book is a two page spread of the completed skeleton, its incredible size demonstrated by the presence of workers near the skeleton.

Readers of all ages who are fascinated by dinosaurs will love this exceptional picture book.



Image credits: https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/david-attenborough-giant-dinosaur-naturalist-unveil-37-metre-long-titanosaur-1537666

Book Details:

Titanosaur: Discovering The World's Largest Dinosaur by Dr. Jose Luis Carballido and Dr. Diego Pol
New York: Orchard Books, An Imprint of Scholastic Inc. 2019

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

May 17, 1940 was the last time fifteen-year-old Lillia Kazka saw her parents perform at the Stanislav Circus in Warsaw. Their gravity-defying performance came to a crashing end when the secret circus performance was raided by German soldiers. In the confusion, Lillia's father grabbed her and her baby sister Naomi and raced back to their apartment on Zgoda Street. Lillia heard her mother's scream but she was not with them when they fled. Now Lillia, her father and her younger sister wait, certain that she will return.

When morning comes and Lillia's mother doesn't return, her father decides to return to the circus offices to see if he can learn what has happened. Lillia and her father are "wild with fear". In two days they are planning to drive to Lithuania where they will take a ship to Shanghai. Lillia is left to mind her one-and-a half-year-old sister, her parents' "surprise baby" who is not like other babies and who cannot crawl or walk yet.

Her father returns, without any word of what has happened to his wife, Alenka. He tells Lillia that they must leave the next day but that they will leave word with friends in the hopes that she will follow them.This deeply upsets Lillia who wants to stay and find her mother. The next day, Lillia, her father and Naomi drive to Lithuania where they catch the train to Trieste, Italy. On May 23, their ship the Conte Rosso departs Trieste for Shanghai. During their thirty-six day journey, they will pass Venice, Brindisi, Port Said, the Suez Canal, Massowah, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, and Hong Kong before arriving in Shanghai.

One day on the ship Lillia is approached by a woman who offers to buy her hair. Reluctant at first, Lillia later agrees after she learns her father has sold his wedding ring so that they will have more money when they arrive in Shanghai. The final two weeks of their voyage, Lillia is sick and feverish.  After her father carries her and Naomi off the ship, they board a truck from the Jewish service that takes them to a Heime, a shelter. In the Heime, there are Jews from all over Europe. They meet Joshua Michener, a banker who know is a barber and his wife, Taube who used to be a science teacher.

Out on the streets of Shanghai, Lillia notices soldiers carrying bayonets. Her papa explains that for the past three years, China has been occupied by Japan. Lillia recognizes that Germany and Japan are working together. With the arrival of summer, Shanghai experiences overwhelming heat and severe flooding. Lillia continues practicing headstands and doing the exercises her mother did to keep herself strong.

Lillia and her family move to a room in a three-storey house at 54 Ward Road. Mr. Michener and Taube also move in with them. Also living in the house is Gabriel Eber, a man they met at Wayside Park. In the fall, Lillia begins school, attending the Kadoorie School. There she meets another girl from Poland, Biata and two American girls, Sally Miller and Rebecca Rosen. Rebecca, who is very well off and who lives in the International Settlement, attempts to befriend Lillia. However, Lillia is reluctant because she is so poor and lives in HongKou with the very poor Polish Jews and the Chinese from the rural areas outside of Shanghai.

Eventually it seems that life for Lillia and her family is settling down. Naomi begins to speak and learns to walk and Lillia gradually becomes friends with Rebecca, attending a Girl Guides meeting at her home and going camping with the group. But when her father and Naomi become desperately ill, Lillia must make some difficult choices, ones that could put her in danger. And when war comes to Shanghai after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, life becomes  a desperate struggle for survival amidst grinding poverty and fear. But an unexpected event gives Lillia and her father hope to continue on, in spite of all this.

Discussion

Someday We Will Fly is set during World War II in Shanghai, China. Most readers will know at least a little background about the years prior to World War II but most will not know about events going on in other parts of the world during the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany.

Prior to World War II, the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan were engaged in a series of conflicts. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and then attacked Shanghai in 1932. However, in July of 1937, the Japanese invaded China. The two nations waged a brutal battle for the city of Shanghai from July to November of 1937.Although the Chinese were poorly equipped, they fought valiantly, but lost to the superior Japanese. The city was now occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army.  After the Battle of Shanghai, it was possible to enter the city without a visa or a passport. This made Shanghai an idea destination for the Jews in Europe, who were facing escalating  persecution and who were being refused visas by almost every country in the world.

Ashkenazi Jews ( Jews from Eastern Europe) began arriving in 1933, their numbers drastically increasing as the Nazis tightened their grip on Austria, Poland and Germany. As Lillia and her family did in the novel, many traveled via luxury ships from ports in Italy to Shanghai. However, the city of Shanghai was not prepared to receive a sudden influx of refugees in such a short period of time. As a result food was scarce and illnesses in the impoverished Hongkuo District, where many of the European Jews settled were rampant.

DeWoskin effectively captures the extreme poverty and hardship Lillia and her family faced during the war years. Lillia is often ravenously hungry and DeWoskin incorporates many descriptions of Lillia's struggles to find food and to not show those around her just how hungry she really is. When she returns home one day after school and smells meat, her response is both visceral and intense. "I smelled meat. My mind turned red and ravenous. I imagined stalking an animal, digging my teeth into its raw flesh." At Rebecca's home, tea time is overwhelming, filling her with unrealistic ideas. "I took a single sandwich, but my mind buzzed, swarming with plans to fill my pockets, to pour tea into my clothes and squeeze it back out for Naomi at 54 Ward." Despite these intense feelings, Lillia retains her social graces and her decorum.

DeWoskin's evocative prose, rich with imagery, allows the reader to fully experience the many emotions Lillia feels as she struggles to keep her family alive in the ruins of Shanghai. Early on Lillia attempts to comfort herself by focusing on words and colours. "I kept track of colors: Shanghai was tan, gold, green, and sometimes red, especially at night. Water was every shade but blue. Japanese planes turned the air metallic, chopped clouds into patches intersected by lines."  DeWoskin captures the essence of all that Lillia and her family and the other Jews in Shanghai experience, impressing upon the reader just how difficult life was for the Jewish refugees during the war.

Despite the realistic portrayal of hardship, poverty, suffering and death, Someday We Will Fly is also a story of resiliency, self-sacrifice, courage and hope. At great cost to herself, Lillia becomes a dancer and a dinner escort at the night club Magnifique in order to save her father and her younger sister Naomi from starvation. She uses her circus skills to keep her from a more ruinous fate in the night club. And in spite of all the trials, the novel manages a hopeful ending. Lillia's mother finds her way to their family in Shanghai after her own horrible experience and Lillia is able to stage her own puppet show that chronicles her family's journey. She is able to imagine her life going forward.

DeWoskin was inspired to write this novel after two photographs at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum caught her attention. The photographs of Jewish refugee children in Shanghai "seemed iconic of how human beings save each other and our children" Through her main character, Lillia Kaczka-Varsh, DeWoskin was able to explore many questions, such as "...how human beings survive the chaos of war,  ...how can children come of age in circumstances as unnurturing as those of occupied cities?" and "How do we manage to hold on to the possibility of hope, even when we feel the constant pulse of its twin force, dread?" To try to answer these questions in the form of a historical fiction novel, Rachel DeWoskin, who had spent six summers living in Shanghai, did considerable research both in the city itself and in talking with several surviving Shanghai Jewish refugees. She walked through areas of the city that Lillia would have lived in during the war, she lived in an apartment in the Embankment Building which served as the processing center and shelter for the Jewish refugees, imagining what Shanghai was like in the 1940s and what life was like there. The relationship between Lillia and Wei, between European and Chinese would have been unlikely but possible, although it would have been frowned upon.

Someday We Will Fly will appeal to those readers who enjoy historical fiction and wish to read a novel with an unusual setting and and interesting and unique main character. In addition to the Author's Note at the back of the book, DeWoskin offers an extensive Sources Consulted list as well.

Book Details:

Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin
New York: Viking            2019
353 pp.
                       

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Escaping Titanic: A Young Girl's True Story of Survival by Marybeth Lorbiecki

Escaping Titanic is a fictional account of Ruth Becker's experience aboard the Titanic in 1912. Becker was twelve-years-old when she boarded the luxury ocean liner with her mother and her younger brothers Luther and Richard and her younger sister Marion.

Ruth's parents were Americans who had moved to India, shortly after their marriage in 1898 to work as missionaries.  Ruth was born a year later in Guntur, Andhra Pradhesh. Her younger brother Richard became ill and their parents were advised to take him to America for further treatment. So while Ruth's father remained in India, her mother, Ruth and her siblings made the journey to the United States. To cross the Atlantic,they booked second class tickets on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. They boarded the oceanliner at Southampton, despite Ruth's mother's misgivings about the ship.

At first the voyage went well, with Ruth spending time exploring the new ship with all its beautiful furnishings and trappings.However, on the night of sinking, Ruth, her siblings and her mother found their way to the deck of the Titanic. Initially, Richard, Luther and Marion were placed in lifeboat 11 without Mrs. Becker, who insisted she join them. Because it was so cold, her mother sent Ruth back down below to retrieve blankets. When Ruth returned to the deck her mother's lifeboat was now full. Ruth managed to get placed into lifeboat 13. Both lifeboats were safely lowered into the ocean where they watched the breakup and sinking of the unsinkable Titanic. Eventually Ruth and her family were rescued by the RMS Carpathia and reunited. It was an experience that would remain locked within Ruth for decades before she would find the courage to relate what had happened to her.

Discussion

Escaping Titanic tells Ruth's dramatic story in picture book format for younger readers. Lorbiecki provides some interesting details about Ruth's experience on the Titanic, including that her mother was concerned about the safety of the ship. In an Afterword, the author provides some history of Ruth's life after the Titanic disaster. It was amazing that Ruth's three children were unaware that she was a survivor of the sinking until the early 1980's. It was an experience she never spoke about until the 70th anniversary of the sinking in 1982.

The illustrations in the book were created digitally by well-known illustrator Kory S. Heinzen who is a Visual Development Artist at PDI/Dreamworks. Some of the artwork, especially those illustrations  featuring the Titanic on the water and the sinking, capture the vast expansiveness and beauty of the ocean, but also the terror and horror of the sinking.  However, the artwork portraying Ruth and her family is unappealing. Faces look garish with exaggerated facial expressions - a quality common to animated film. Of course, this may appeal to younger readers who aren't familiar with the more traditional artwork that is often found in picture books and who are used to modern animation.

Nevertheless, Escaping Titanic is a well written account of the Ruth Becker's experience on the Titanic. Ruth and her family were fortunate to survive one of the most famous and deadly maritime disasters. The author includes a timeline and also a suggestion for internet resources to further explore the Titanic sinking.

 


Book Details:

Escaping Titanic: A Young Girl's True Story of Survival by Marybeth Lorbiecki
North Mankato, MN: Picture Window Books     2012
32 pp.


 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

In Another Time by Caroline Leech

Seventeen-year-old Margaret (Maisie) McCall wanted to take control of her life.She was too young to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force or the Auxiliary Territorial Service but she was able to volunteer for the Women's Timber Corps. The WTC was formed to obtain wood from Scotland's forests. The German blockade in the Atlantic and the enlisting of the foresters has meant both a shortage of wood and lumberjacks.

Maisie is now two weeks into her six weeks of WTC training as a lumberjill at Sandford Lodge under the direction of Miss Cradditch. The training isn't easy; Maisie has blistered and bloody palms from wielding four-and-a-half-pound axes, six pound axes, crosscut saws, hauling chains and cant hooks. Her feet are blistered and her shoulders ache. Maisie's friend Dorothy (Dot) Thompson, shorter and slighter, is struggling to master the forestry skills Mr. McRobbie is teaching them.

That evening, Maisie, Dot and the other WTC recruits attend a dance at the Brechin Town Hall. The evening becomes more interesting with the arrival of a group of men, whom the women believe are American service men. Maisie receives an awkward invitation to dance from a handsome, dark-haired man named John Lindsay. John notices Maisie's wounded hands and tells her to use pig fat to heal the blisters, showing her his own scars.  John is reluctant to dance but relents. Their attempt to dance is disastrous, with John stumbling and stepping on Maisie and eventually rushing out the door, leaving Maisie embarrassed and the center of jokes by the lumberjills.

During their final chopping lesson with Mr. McRobbie, Maisie finally finds her rhythim, but her friend Dot struggles on. Even learning to drive seems beyond Dot, who scares their instruction, Mr. Taylor. To finish out their training, Maisie and Dot and the other recruits visit Mitchell's Sawmill in Tannadice to learn how to feed large tree trunks in the table and routing saws. Their day is marred however when one of the women, Lillian is badly cut by a saw. Dot discovers her calling when she calmly administers first aid to Lillian who is taken to hospital.

When their training is complete, the new lumberjills receive their assignments. Helen and Phyllis are posted in Perthshire, Mary, Mairi and Cynthia are sent to Ad camp near Grantown-on-Spey, while Dot and Maisie are sent to the WTC camp at Auchterblair, Carrbridge, Inverness-Shire. Before she leaves for the camp, Maisie decides to send a postcard to her family, letting them know about her posting. Maisie's parents had not been happy that she'd signed up for the WTC. Her mother was upset that she'd chosen not to finish her schooling and her father was very angry, viewing Maisie as abandoning them. Only Maisie's younger sister Beth, almost sixteen, had been supportive, wanting to walk her to the bus stop.

 At Auchterblair while out on a walk to calm herself after a mean-spirited letter from her father, Maisie has a surprise encounter with John Lindsay. Maisie discovers John sitting by an abandoned croft, smoking a cigarette. He reveals to her that he is not American but a Canadian with the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit at Cambridge. It turns out that John McCrae, author of the poem In Flanders Field is John's uncle and who he was named after. Like his famous uncle, John writes poetry, some of which he shares with Maisie, lending her his uncle's book of poems.

Maisie and the other lumberjills along with the NOFU's travel to Inverness for a dance, stopping at the La Scala Cinema to view a newsreel of the Women's Timber Corps that was filmed by Pathe News. The dance at the Caledonian Hotel Ballroom turns into a disaster when Violet gets drunk. She confronts John Lindsay mocking him for not dancing. Horrified at what has happened, Maisie confronts John outside the dance hall. He reveals to her that he is missing part of his right leg and that he was reluctant to tell her earlier because he felt she would view him differently and treat him as though he care for himself.

Maisie tells John that this does not change how she feels about him, but when she intervenes in a fight between John and a drunken sailor, he becomes enraged, telling her he doesn't need a woman to protect him. As the days pass, Maisie struggles to work through her own conflicted feelings over John. Does she really think differently about John, does she treat him as though he can't do anything for himself?

When John and his friend Elliott are injured in a terrible forestry accident, Maisie and John are forced to confront these issues and either resolve them or forever lose each other.

Discussion

In Another Time is a historical fiction novel set in the Inverness area of northern Scotland during World War II. The main character in the novel is Maisie McCall, a young Scottish woman who joins the Women's Timber Corps against her family's wishes. Maisie falls in love with John Lindsay,  a young Canadian man who is a member of the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit working in Scotland.Although the two are definitely attracted to one another and there are tender moments, their relationship often fraught with misunderstanding and difficulties. Maisie comes to learn this is because John is recovering from devastating physical and psychological wounds acquired during the evacuation of Dunkirk and because he blames himself for the death of his two best friends, Walter Clarkson and Lofty McGinnis who saved his life. The tension between the two of them and how they manage to come to an understanding, forms the main story line.

A subplot involves Maisie's strained relationship with her mother and father, leading her to leave home prematurely to join the lumberjills.  The climax of the story, which sees John and another lumberjack seriously injured in a forestry accident, sets Maisie on the path to resolving this conflict when her mother travels to the hospital, demonstrating that she really does care for Maisie. At this point her mother explains how events in the past led to the current problems in their family and the two women come to an understanding.

With John however, the process takes longer. He gradually opens up to Maisie after the accident, explaining how he lost his leg, but also revealing the guilt he has over what he believes is the certain fate of his two friends.  It is only when he seeks help in dealing with his war trauma that he is able to move forward, forgive himself and be able to open his heart to Maisie.

The setting of the novel, within the Women's Timber Corps offers readers a chance to learn about a little known and only recently recognized contribution to the British/Canadian war effort. The Women's Timber Corps was formed to replace the foresters who had enlisted in the British army. Almost five thousand women joined the WTC doing tasks such as felling trees, snedding, driving tractors and trucks, working sawmills and living in very basic accommodations. Their war contribution was not fully recognized until recently; they never marched in Armistice parades nor were there separate wreaths acknowledging their effort. But in 2007 that changed with the installation of the Women's Timber Corps Memorial at the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre near Aberfoyle in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.

Leech's Author's Note at the back of the novel is detailed, offering some supplementary information on several historical aspects of her story including the Women's Timber Corps, the NOFU, Pathe News, some information about the Halifax 100 - a group of Canadian soldiers who were at Dunkirk, and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Leech notes that "As a historical novelist, I place my fictional characters in a world of historical fact. My stories are not so much what did happen but what could have happened in a particular time and place." This does seem to be the author's intent in including a lesbian relationship in the novel. While it's obvious that same sex relationships have existed throughout history, they were not openly tolerated and for centuries were outlawed. In 1940's Scotland, such relationships were illegal and attitudes like Maisie's were likely not the norm. In this regard, In Another Time presents a perspective that is revisionist and influenced by our post-modern world.

Maisie is a solid lead character, showing determination, grit, and courage. She stands up to her parents who want her to remain at home, to Violet Dunlavy who bullies the other lumberjills and to John Lindsay whose self-pity and inner struggles to overcome his guilt threaten to overwhelm Maisie. John Lindsay is a character filled with conflict; he has guilt over surviving Dunkirk, struggles to live up to his uncle, John McCrae - the legendary poet and physician-surgeon's reputation. He must deal with both being an amputee and suffering from post-traumatic stress, all the while working as a lumberjack - a feat that would seem very difficult indeed given the state of prosthetics in the 1940's. In true romantic novel fashion, John, who finds he can't live without Maisie,  ends up getting himself well enough to propose to Maisie and they return to Canada to live happily ever after. Given all of John's deep-rooted problems, it's not very realistic, but the Harlequin romance - like formula works.

In Another Time is a story about friendship, loss, redemption and first love.  Author Caroline Leech is the author of another historical fiction novel, Wait For Me.

Book Details:

In Another Time by Caroline Leech
New York: HarperTeen    2018
361 pp.