Monday, July 30, 2018

The Man Who Loved Libraries by Andrew Larsen

The Man Who Loved Libraries is about an American philanthropist who built 2,500 libraries all over the world, but mostly in the United States and Canada. Andrew Carnegie, a self-made millionaire was a staunch believer in free libraries and the value of free education. Carnegie built over 2,500 libraries throughout the world; the first one in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland. He spent $2,556,600 building one hundred eleven libraries in Ontario Canada and an additional fourteen libraries throughout Canada. The first Carnegie library in the province of Ontario was opened in Chatham on September 14, 1903. Many of these libraries in Ontario are still functioning today and a list with accompanying pictures can be found on the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport website. Ontario received the greater number of Carnegie libraries due to its larger population and the recognition of the importance of libraries in the province. The architectural style of the Carnegie libraries varied from Beaux-Arts to Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Classical Revival and Spanish Colonial.

Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 in Dunfermlime, Scotland, the son of a weaver. However, increasing industrialization meant he could no longer support his family with his trade so they emigrated to the United States in 1848. In the United States, Andrew had to work to help support his family. He was a very enterprising young man. Because his formal education had ended, Andrew turned to the personal library of  his employer, Colonel James Anderson to learn. Eventually Andrew worked his way up in the business world and soon became wealthy. In 1901, Carnegie sold his Carnegie Steel Company for the astounding sum of $500,000,000! From this point on, he devoted himself to philanthropy which included not only the building of free libraries but also the support of academic endeavours too. Carnegie was a firm believer of self-improvement through learning.

Larsen's picture book tells Andrew Carnegie's story from when he was growing up in Dunfermline, Scotland to his life in the United States. Readers will learn how libraries played a significant role in Carnegie's life and how he was determined to help others in the way he had been helped.  Carnegie's story is told in a simple, forthright manner. The back of the book contains a two page spread on Andrew Carnegie's Legacy. The Man Who Loved Libraries is illustrated with the colourful artwork of Katty Maurey.

Book Details:

The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie by Andrew Larson
Toronto: Owlkid Books Inc.       2017

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Among The Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz

Among The Red Stars relates the experiences of two young, fictional Soviets, one in the Red Army, the other as a member of the famous female bomber regiment that earned the nickname "the night witches",  as they fight to free their country from the Nazis. The story covers the time period from 1938 to the end of the war.

The novel opens September 1938 with the disappearance of the new experimental bomber, Rodina on a flight from Moscow to Komsolmos crewed by Pilot Valentina Grizodoubova, copilot Polina Osipenko and navigator Marina Raskova. Valentina (Valka) Sergeevne Koroleva, her best friend Pavel (Pasha) Kirillovich Danilin and her cousin, Iskra Ivanovna Koroleva are following the flight which aims to set a record for the longest straight line flight by a woman.

The story jumps ahead to three years later. Valka is now eighteen and a pilot. One day she takes her close friend, Pasha on a flight out of the aerodrome in their town of Stakhanovo. On their flight over the town they are waved down by Pasha's sister. On the ground, they learn that Nazi Germany has broken the non-aggression pact and is at war with the Soviet Union. While the radio announcer insists they will prevail, as they did over Napoleon, Valka's father states that Hitler wants to exterminate them, not just conquer the country.

Despite the war, Valka is turned down by the VVS as a pilot and is encouraged to help in another way, even to consider becoming a mother. Pasha though, has received his draft orders. When Valka comes to see him off, Pasha, whom she has known since they were toddlers, asks to write her.

At this point in the novel, their story is told mostly through their correspondence with one another, as well as through Valka's narration. Through his basic training, Pasha, who has synesthesia - he hears colours, is mentored by a big, older soldier named Vakhromov. Pasha who is in training to be a radio operator is terrified of Pashkevich, his NCO that he reports to. Another soldier, Rudenko is in charge of carrying the battery pack. On October 1, he is mobilized, part of  the 336th Rifle Regiment.

In mid-October, Valka and Iskra learn from their flight instructor, Iosif Grigorevich that the Komsomol Central Office is looking for female pilots, navigators and aircraft mechanics to serve in all female fighter and bomber regiments. He has forwarded their documents to the Komsomol Central Office to Major Marina Mikhailovna Raskova, Valka's idol. They must be at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in Moscow by Monday October 13. In order to make the deadline, Grigorevich flies the two girls to Moscow. At the Zhukosvsky Air Force Academy there are over a thousand girls waiting to be interviewed. They meet Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, who is an airline pilot and who has been sworn in as a lieutenant. Valka passes her interview with Raskova who is impressed with her ability to fly a plane without a fully operational engine.  She is assigned to Aviation Group 122. Valka knows that if she's lucky she will "be assigned to the fighter regiment and become one of Stalin's falcons. But if she's unlucky she will be assigned to the day bomber regiment or if "woefully unlucky" she will end up as a night bomber.

The pilot recruits endure a nine day journey in a boxcar south to Engels, "an industrial city in the barren steppe." During the trip, Valka and Iskra meet Zhenya Zhigulenko whom Valka decides to call Zhigli, a girl named Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak who goes by Lilya. In the presence of Zhigli, Valka inadvertently makes reference to Iskra's family's crime - her parents were "wreckers" in the 1937 Soviet census, which they were working on. The census showed that the Soviet Union and especially the Ukraine were not flourishing as Stalin claimed and that the population was actually declining. Valka's own experience of seeing starving peasants fleeing their farms seemed to confirm this. However, Stalin placed the blame on those working in the census bureau and it wasn't long before Iskra's mother and then her father were incarcerated for ten years. Valka knows her cousin, although innocent, is tainted by association. But she does not trust Zhigli to not report her cousin.

In Engels, the three hundred trainees are billeted in a gymnasium. Captain Militsa Kazarinovna orders their hair cut and they begin training on the Polikarpov U-2s.  Tamara Kazarinovna, sister of the captain, is made commander of the fighter regiment. Then unexpectedly, Iskra doesn't show up for class or dinner. The following day Valka reports her cousin missing to the chief of staff, Kazarinovna. She is told that "an irregularity in her autobiography" has led to her being investigated. Valka is convinced that Zhigli is responsible for her cousin's arrest. In the hopes of helping her, Valka appeals to Raskova but is told to focus on her training. In an attempt to comfort the devastated Valka, Lilya reveals to her that her father too was taken in 1937.

Meanwhile Pasha discovers that Rudenko is a believer, an Orthodox Christian. On December 5, 1941, Pasha's unit is part of the offensive to drive the Nazis from Moscow. During the fighting, he sees his first soldier die. The offensive is successful as the Germans begin retreating from Moscow, except for one salient, the territory around the town of Rzhev. When Pasha hears of Iskra's disappearance he tells Valka that the Red Army too is undergoing a purge. In his letter, Pasha mentions article he has read in Pravda. It is about a young Russian partisan, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who was assigned to burn the village of Petrishchevo where a German cavalry regiment was stationed. Zoya was tortured and hanged, supposedly by the Germans.  Little does Pasha know that this event will have grave significance for him in a few months time.

On February 8, 1942, Valka finally learns her assignment - she along with Vera, Zhigli and Tanya are assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with Bershanskaya as her commander and Ilyushina as the regimental engineer. However, Valka has no assigned navigator. That is until Iskra unexpectedly shows up, and simply states that she was investigated and cleared.

Pasha's unit, without Rudenko who was killed by shrapnel from a shell, capture a German barracks. As he and Vakhromov work to patch the walls, Vakhromov catches a young boy attempting to steal food. The boy, Petya is only eight years old and at the pleading of Vakhromov is allowed to stay with the soldiers. In August Pasha and his unit are assigned to the Rzhev salient. There, heavy rockets nicknamed Katyushas cause Petya to scream in terror. The battle triggers Petya to reveal to Pasha and Vakhromov and the commissar about a soldier girl killed by the Hitlerites in his village of Petrishchevo. She was tortured and hanged by the Nazis who recorded her death in photographs. The commissar is certain that Petya witnessed the murder of Zoya Kosmodenmyanska and he believes the photographs will allow them to identify the culprits and glorify Zoya. Pahsa is filled with dread as to what this might mean for his unit and for Petya.

In October, 1942 Pasha's fears are proven correct when Comrade Stepanova arrives to hear Petya's story. The German cavalry unit that was in Petrishchevo has been located within the Rzhev salient and Stepanova is determined to take Pasha's unit into the battle to locate the photographs of Zoya whom she was good friends with. It is a mission Pasha doubts he will survive.

By May 24, 1942, Valka is now Junior Lieutenant Valentina Koroleva. The 588th is at the front, at their new base in the village of Trud Gornyaka, under the command of Major Bershanskaya. Although their initial practices in front of the division commander, Colonel Dmitry Dmitrievich Popov go badly, with more training the squadron improves and by June they are flying three missions a night. Valka's goal is now to do as much damage as possible to the fascists and survive the war.As the night bombers reputation grows, Valka finds herself falling in love with Pasha, and worrying over his increasing danger on the battlefield. It is Valka's love and determination that save Pasha when a risky mission during Operation Mars goes terribly wrong.


Among The Red Stars is the second YA novel to tackle the story of the "night witches", the German nickname for the women night bombers of the Soviet Union's 588th Regiment. The first novel,  Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky offers the basic story of the these intrepid pilots but in no way compares to Katz's novel.

Polikarpov U-2 biplane used by the night bombers.
The Night Bomber regiment was formed in October, 1941 by Major Marina Raskova and led by Major Yvedokiya Bershanskaya on orders from Stalin. They came to be feared by the Nazi German army for their persistence and precision. These young women pilots flew Polikarpov U-2 biplanes made of wood and canvas on over 23,000 missions and were a significant factor in the Soviet war effort.

Katz has created a believable story that meshes together the fictional characters of Valka, Iskra, Pasha and his fellow soldiers with real people such as Marina Raskova, Yvedokiya Bershanskaya, Lidiya Litvyakwho, Yvegeniya Rudneva, Galina Dukutovich (Galya) and others who were part of the war effort. For example, in her Author's note at the back, Katz writes, "Zoya Kosmodenmyanska was a real person, and her execution took place as desccribed. The photos of her execution were later found on the body of a German officer near Smolensk. She was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the first woman to receive that award during the war. In one of the photos, a young boy is visible, watching her being marched to the scaffold."

Among The Red Stars takes these fictional characters and seamlessly sets them within their proper historical context. Although Katz changed dates and combined events, what emerges is a detailed picture of what it was like to be a woman pilot in the 588th in Stalin's Soviet Union during World War II.

Katz manages to present the accomplishments of these amazing women pilots who were so feared by the Nazis, without glorifying the brutal Communist regime of Stalin. At the same time she gives young readers a snapshot of the fear that existed living under the Stalin regime. Both Valka and Pasha know of people who have simply disappeared as a result of Stalin's ongoing purges. 

Several times, Stalin's infamous Order 270 "There are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors." is mentioned by characters in the novel. The character Lilya explains to Valka that she is more afraid of going missing in action, surviving a crash or being taken prisoner. "Unless they have proof that you were killed in action, they'll treat you as a deserter." Next of kin get no survivor benefits. In real life, Lilya Litvyak went missing on August 1, 1943. Her body was never found and she was declared a deserter under Order 270. When squadron commander Olkhovskaya and her navigator do not return from one of the first missions, Valka tells Pasha in a letter, "Gone without a trace. Do you know what that means, Pasha? It means that two airwomen who were eager to fight are now listed as deserters. It means that their families get nothing, not even the right to say that their daughters were killed in the Great Patriotic War."

Set against the backdrop of war, is the blossoming relationship between Pasha Danilin and Valka Koroleva. To Katz's credit this romance never overshadows the story of the female bombers. When Pasha leaves for war, he is no more than a friend to Valka, but they grow closer through their correspondence, as they share their war experiences. Pasha admits his growing admiration for Valka and certain that he will not see her again he opens his heart to her. "to say things I would never tell you to your face. Like how beautiful you are. You're going to say I'm remembering wrong, but I can still picture your face perfectly. The brightness in your eyes and the color in your cheeks when you've finished flying." As their relationship develops they are able to confide in each other about the terrible things they've witnessed, what they consider shameful instances of cowardice or weakness. Their letters soon use terms of endearment; Pasha calls Valka, "Valyushka" and she begins calling him Pashenka.

Both characters are deeply affected by their war experiences. At the death of Rudenko, Pasha reveals a compassion and tender side, writing to Valka, "He was my closest friend in the whole squad and he'd died cold and scared and hurting. I don't know where he is now or what he's feeling, but I hope that he went to be with his God."  When Pashkevich shoots two young German soldiers, Pasha wonders if he would have had the courage to do differently. "I could make excuses. I could say this wasn't my place to say anything or that it wouldn't have made any difference. But the truth is that he was hurting them and I was afraid that if I tried to stop him, he would hurt me. Or worse, give me the pistol." Pasha believes that if he was ordered to shoot the Germans he would have done it out of fear.

Likewise, Valka wonders at how war had changed her too. She notices that she has become desensitized to killing. "...I've killed people. I know I have. Some as evil as Hitler. Others, maybe, an innocent as you. It bothers me less than it should. The details are hidden from me. I don't know how many casualties I've caused, whether they died quickly or whether their deaths were long and lingering. Without knowing, without having to see my handiwork up close, it's easy to put it from my mind, easy to laugh and sing with my friends as we head back to the village at the end of a good night. I haven't  told the others how effortless I've found it to become a killer. I'm afraid of what it says about me." 

Later on Valka writes to Pasha on how they had no idea what they were getting into. She writes, "War is not natural for women -- that's what the other girls say.  We are made to create and nurture life, and to destroy it goes against our fundamental nature. They're right that war is unnatural, but I think of you singing or quietly reading and it seems to me that nobody could be less suited for combat than you....No one should find war easy. "

As Valka recovers from her serious burn injuries and is left with burn scars, she notes, "This war had put its mark on me. I'd never be able to put it behind me when it was over, not now that the reminder was physically stamped on my body." 

In the Rzhev salient, the screaming rockets whose sound Pasha describes as "blindingly bright, yet black, pure jet black" terrify Pasha. "I retreated to the far end of our dugout and huddled there, trembling, my eyes squeezed shut and my arms covering my head." Before battle, Pasha, faced with possible death, finally sends Valka a letter in which he confesses his love for her. "I love, Valyushka. I have since I was a child. You're everything I'm not: daring when I'm afraid, bright and hopeful when I'm despondent, willing to fly across a country to pursue your dreams while I helplessly wait for the inevitable."  His feelings of love mirror Valka's own which she demonstrates when she risks her life and her career to rescue Pasha from the Rzhev salient.

Katz has stated that she learned Russian in order to access primary sources for her research before writing Among The Red Stars. Her detailed research is evident as Among The Red Stars is a well-written, engaging novel that provides a realistic portrayal both of war and of the Soviet female pilots. Many of the characters in the novel have depth and Katz takes the effort to develop the relationship between various characters.

Among The Red Stars offers many themes to explore including courage, the role of women in war, the effect of war on soldiers and pilots and the Stalin regime which seems all but forgotten today. This novel is one of the best historical fiction novels written for teens in the past two years. Well worth the read.

Book Details:

Among The Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz
New York: HarperTeen       2017
376 pp.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

"Once upon a time, there was a tree, living on the shores of a green-glass lake, breathing in hot desert air. Its black branches grew green leaves and snowy flowers, and bees lived in the blossoms. The tree was a gift, protecting the people in the village from injury, aging, disease. Death."

Hour of the Bees is an enchanting tale about several generations of a Mexican-American family with a connection to a magical past, and their struggle to hold fast to their roots.

The novel opens with twelve-year-old Carolina and her family enroute to her grandfather's ranch. Carolina dreads spending the next two months - her entire summer vacation - on her Grandpa Serge's two hundred acre sheep ranch in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Carolina's grandfather has dementia so her father (Raul) and her mother (Patricia) plan on moving him into The Seville, an assisted-living facility in Albuquerque and selling the ranch. Their number one goal this summer is "not to upset Grandpa".

The ranch contains an old barn, a farmhouse that is run down and a dozen boney sheep wandering in a browned pasture. Carolina notes that "there's a black scabby tree stump on the edge of the pasture". Carolina's grandfather, Serge has a thin green oxygen tubes running into his nose, watery blue eyes and pale skin. After Carolina and her one-year-old brother Luis (Lu) are introduced, she stays on the porch to watch Lu and her grandfather. Serge tells her that there has been no rain at the ranch for a hundred years, "and no rain for a hundred years means no bees." He explains that no rain means no flowers and therefore no bees. But Carolina is certain she has seen at least two bees when they arrived.

Carolina's father attempts to convince Serge that they need to move him into a home and sell the ranch to pay for his care at The Seville. This doesn't go over very well with Serge whose relationship with Raul is strained. Raul left home twelve years ago and never returned. Now with the impending sale of the ranch, Serge feels that his son Raul is turning his back on his heritage. Over the next few weeks, Carolina and her family begin cleaning Serge's home and packing up his belongings.

Curious about her grandparents including her deceased grandmother, Carolina questions her father about his parents and his relationship with them. He tells her that Grandma Rosa was stubborn, fiery and adventurous, loving to travel. She died of cancer twelve years ago on Raul's birthday. But he refuses to talk about why he doesn't get along with Serge.

Unlike her father and mother and her older sister Alta, Carolina seems drawn to her grandfather. When she can't sleep one night, after spending time helping her father in the sheep pasture, she sits on the porch with Serge. He tells her there used to be a lake just beyond the ridge near the house. While Carolina believes this is Serge simply exhibiting more "word salad" - random words due to his dementia, Serge insists on telling her a story.

The story is about a boy named Serge and a girl named Rosa who lived in a village. The village was founded in 1480 by a group of Spaniards, in search of gold. Instead of gold they found an oasis, a "green-glass lake" and a huge tree.  The tree was unlike anything ever seen before, having black bark and emerald green leaves. It bloomed all year long, with beautiful, fragrant white blossoms that gave off a "honey-vanilla fragrance". The tree, Father Alejandro told everyone, was a gift. "Bees made colonies in the branches, and like good tenants, they kept the blossoms tidy...The bees kept the whole tree alive." 

Father Alejandro, who accompanied the exploration party, founded the village and built the mission.  They built homes of stone and red desert clay and married the local women, keeping sheep and goats. "Their children and grandchildren built huts of their own on the lakeshore. No one ever left. No one ever died. Those sailors grew old, yes, enough to be called elders of the village., but their aging was slow. They were cheating time."

People were born and aged slowly. Infancy took decades, people grew up and stayed. Whenever someone was hurt, the injury simply healed. In the story Serge tells Carolina, the boy named Serge watched one day as a cut to the bone on his friend Rosa's leg heals instantly. Father Alejandro explained that in the outside world people suffered pain and even death from wounds. But within the village, the gift of the tree made pain and aging impossible. For the young Serge this was a puzzling notion. Nevertheless Serge loved the village and the beautiful tree and he fell in love with Rosa who always seemed so full of life and who always had a cloud of bees trailing behind her.

However, Rosa was restless. Whenever Father Alejandro spoke about his travels, Rosa glowed with excitement. While Serge was content to stay in the village, Rosa was determined to leave it. She seemed to have an insatiable wunderlust."I've had enough of this lake, these stars, this tree,...We've seen everything there is to see here." Serge understood Father's stories, "that the world was the empty clam shell and the tree, the pearl. Nothing outside the village would ever compare with what they had."

Eventually Serge and Rosa married and as a wedding gift, Serge promised to travel with Rosa. But when the time came for them to leave Serge kept postponing their departure until eventually Rosa packed a bag and decided to leave. To keep her safe, Serge made Rosa a bracelet containing the bark of the black tree. Rosa left and did not return for years. But when she did she revealed to Serge the bark from the tree protected her from harm. And this leads Rosa to a decision that changes the course of the village forever.

As the weeks of the summer pass with Carolina spending time with her grandfather and listening to his  story, she finds herself drawn to him. "If it was anyone else, I'd be bored to tears, but when Serge talks, it feels like the only sound. My ears are magnets for his words."  She also begins to understand his connection to the ranch and the land.  Perhaps Serge's story is not just a story after all but the key to Carolina and her family's past and their future. Will they be like Rosa and throw it away or like Serge and remain faithful?


In Hour of the Bees, Eagar makes use of the literary device known as a story within a story. In the novel the outer or framing story is about Carolina and her family packing up her grandfather's ranch and helping him make the transition to an assisted living facility in Albuquerque. He has dementia so his random statements about the drought and the lack of bees seem like a symptom of his illness mixed in with his confusion about where he is. There also appears to be a strained relationship between Grandpa Serge and Carolina's father who left the ranch twelve years ago. Grandpa Serge feels that his son has "spit on his roots" and he advises Carolina not to do the same.

Within this story is the second story, a remarkable story about a village where no one ever dies. This gift is tied to a huge black tree with emerald leaves, its roots touching a "green-glass lake". As a result, no one ever leaves the village nor has the desire to leave. That is until Rosa,  who is determined to some day find a way to leave. Her leaving brings about a catastrophe of immense proportions upon the village and its inhabitants who, filled with a desire to see the world, also leave.Their abandoning of their heritage and their gift leads to their demise. The reader is never sure until the very end whether the story is based in reality or part of an old man's imagination and dementia.

Carolina is eager to hear more of the story throughout the summer months, as her bond with her Grandpa Serge grows. Serge is determined to share with her the meaning of the story. He tells her to imagine the beautiful black tree and states, "No matter how far away you are when you bloom, you are always tied to your roots...Your roots are part of you, Caro-leen-a. You must never spit on them."  Serge's story causes Carolina to begin to question her parents decision to sell the family ranch.  Serge tells her, "Some people are afraid of the future. Your father is terrified of the past."

As Carolina hears more of the story she becomes convinced that the story Serge is telling her  is a story about what really happened to the village, the ranch and how the hundred-year drought came about. It is a story about her family's heritage and she's desperate to hear the end of it. From the very beginning of the novel there are hints that the story might actually be based in reality. The reader follows Carolina as she makes discoveries on the ranch that are part of Serge's story. She notes that "there's a scabby black tree stump on the edge of the pasture" and in a foreshadowing of an event in the story, wonders "Whose bright idea was it to chop it down and get rid of the only shade for miles and miles?"  While cleaning out Serge's closet, Carolina and Alta discover all the treasures that Rosa accumulated from her travels. When she questions her father about the items he tells her that only Rosa travelled, just as in Serge's story.  In amongst the treasures, Carolina finds the bark bracelet Serge made for Rosa before she left the village, "Black bard strung onto a leather bracelet... The bark swirls, grains trickling into formation, a cellular wooden waterfall frozen in time. It feels like staring at eternity, looking at this bracelet." It is the one item Carolina chooses from the closet as a keepsake. Carolina also finds an unusual black seed which she decides to plant. Later on she wonders about Serge's story because "So much of his story is stolen from real life." She wonders if Serge was always such a masterful storyteller and if he believes the stories he's telling her.  As Carolina eventually discovers, Serge's story is all too real.

Her time at the ranch changes Carolina's perspective on many things including how she values her Mexican heritage, how her family lives and even how she views the elderly.As a result of her grandfather's story, Carolina is challenged to reconsider how she has rejected in a simple but significant way her Mexican heritage. For example she and her friends have changed their names to hide their Spanish origin but Grandpa Serge urges her to use her full name. " a beautiful, strong, Spanish name."  Carolina who goes by Carol considers, "My friends Gabby and Sofie are really Gabriela and Sofia, but we don't call them that, not since Manuela Rodriguez...started going by Manny."  Later on when Mr. Gonzalez the real estate agent comes to the ranch, Carolina finds herself telling her mother that her father should care about his history, his family, and his roots. "I'm surprised, too - this sounds nothing like me. Caring about my roots? Worrying about what will happen to this ranch, this land?" By the end of the summer when they do leave the ranch Carolina is distraught that her family is giving up the ranch. The city, once comfortingly familiar now feels strange. "It's loud. Not just the traffic, but the city itself. A million people talking at the same time, no one listening. A million televisions on full blast, no one watching. The humming and buzzing of the bees has been replaced with the sound of electricity...It's deafening." Carolina feels "There's no air in the city." The air is "not real air, not like out in the desert." Her "street is a row of birdhouse, all of us boxed into our own yards by identical picket fences."  Carolina begins to wish she lived in the desert.

Her perspective on her grandfather changes too. At the beginning of the novel she sees her grandfather as "a rusty old man parked on the porch like a leaky, broken-down car." When her sister Alta states that Serge is "like the Crypt Keeper" with "Old-man eyes", Carolina notices "But there's something alive behind them. Like he has X-ray vision to your thoughts." As she goes to help her grandfather with the sheep, Carolina admits that she feels differently about him. "When my parents told me we'd be spending the summer here, I expected to have stiff, forced conversations with this grandfather I'd never met. I expected he'd ask me about school, about my friends, about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn't think  he's have anything interesting to say. I didn't think he'd spin a magical story about a tree and a lake and a girl..." Carolina's inward change is mirrored by and outward change too. When she sees herself in the mirror while trying on her new clothing for the upcoming school year, she asks "Who is this girl?"  Her hair "notoriously frizzy but usually tamed by a straightening iron, is a ball of tangled black yarn" and her skin "is leathery with tan", her eyes "sunken into my face with exhaustion, are dull and black". She describes her look as "feral, wild."

By the time Carolina leaves the family ranch she finds herself worrying about "Things like a lonely grandfather who still has a story to finish." When she goes to the Seville with her family, Carolina is shocked at the changes in her grandfather. She recognizes only his blue eyes, and instead sees a person "bloated like a fish with infected gills, chalk-faced, drooling." He is sedated to calm him and unable to talk at all. She is shocked that Serge is locked into the Seville unable to leave for a walk and she fights to see him, for her family to make time in their busy lives for him.

Eagar ties up all the loose ends to craft a touching conclusion to this novel, where Raul is reconciled with both his father and his heritage, where Carolina begins to take pride in her roots and where Alta, black sheep of the family who doesn't share Carolina's roots with Serge, is invited to be a part of their family.  Ironically it is when Carolina begins to accept her family's past and plants the strange black seed that the rejuvenating rains return.

The only drawback to this novel, is the unimaginative, bland cover discouraging young readers from ever cracking the cover. Eagar has crafted a lovely story that deserves a beautiful cover and there certainly was enough material in the story to design something that would draw readers in. What a shame. I encourage librarians, teachers and parents to entice young readers to ignore the cover and read the book! This is a lovely, unique novel for young readers looking for something very different to read.

Book Details:

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press     2016
360 pp.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kiska by John Smelcer

In early June, 1942, thirteen-year-old Kiska, only a few days from her fourteenth birthday, watches as the hunters in their baidarkas (kayaks) return home from seal hunting. Kiska has been collecting sea gull eggs on the high cliffs above her village and when she sees the boats,  races down to the beach to meet her father and uncle. They both return with seals tethered to their boats. Kiska and her older sister Donia watch as their father and uncle skin the seals and cut the meat into pieces. Donia is nineteen-years-old and both a mother and a widow. Her husband never returned from a seal hunt, leaving her to care for their three-month-old daughter Mary. Donia became so depressed, she stopped eating but Kiska encouraged her to go on living for Mary's sake.

When they hear rumbling coming from the direction of Dutch Harbor, Kiska's father and uncle believe a storm is coming. But the storm that comes is unlike any they or their people have ever endured.


Kiska attempts to tackle the difficult subject of the forced internment of the indigenous people, the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. The Aleutian Islands which were part of the Alaska Territory in 1942 were considered an important strategic location, offering whoever controlled them, domination over the Pacific. If they were captured by the Japanese, the Aleutians would provide a base for attacking the West Coast of North America.

On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, where the Americans had a military installation. returning on June 4 to continue more successful bombing of the town. The Japanese then invaded the islands of Kiska on June 6 and Attu on June 7. There was little resistance from the indigenous Aleuts. In light of the invasion of Kiska the U.S. government offered to evacuate the Aleuts from Attu but they declined. When the Japanese invaded the Aleuts were imprisoned and eventually transported to an internment camp in Japan for the duration of the war.

Fearing that the rest of the Aleutian Islands would be invaded the United States ordered the evacuation of the remaining Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. A total of 885 Aleuts were removed. They had little time to gather personal possessions nor clean and lock up their homes. Although the U.S. Government had begun discussions to plan for the evacuation, it happened suddenly, leaving the government struggling to find locations to house the Aleut. The Aleut were eventually placed in abandoned canneries and warehouses at five locations including Funter Bay as mentioned in the novel.

Conditions in the U.S. internment camps were horrible. Like their indigenous brothers and sisters throughout the North American continent, the Aleuts had little resistance to European diseases such a measles and small pox. Unsanitary living conditions, subpar housing and poor food contributed to the deaths of many young and elderly Aleutians.

Unfortunately, what could have been a very informative novel, in fact contains some serious historical errors. The main character, now a grandmother is relating what happened long ago, to her granddaughter. She tells her after boarding the ship, the U.S.Army Transport Delarof,  "Over the next week or longer, we stopped at seven more Aleut villages, including St. George and St. Paul on the Pribilof Islands...In all there were 881 of us from nine different villages crowded into the ship's dingy hold. " In fact, the Delarof did not transport all of the Aleut evacuees in one trip; the Delarof evacuated on residents of St. George and St. Paul before sailing to Dutch Harbor where villagers from Atka also boarded.And one hundred and ninety Aleuts from St. George were sent to Funter Bay.

World War II Aleutian Islands Resettlement Routes from Charles M. Mobley
According to a blog post by Melissa Green there are many further historical inaccuracies in this novel including the false proclamation read at each of the stops, villagers being held at gunpoint, the burning of three villages,  the main cause of deaths at Funter Bay being due to measles, the naming of the character Agafon as a shaman,  the presence of soldiers at Funter Bay and the relative passivity of the Aleuts during their internment to name a few. Readers are directed to the post in American Indians In Children's Literature for a more in-depth treatment of the inaccuracies that are strewn throughout this novel and which make its use as a teaching tool highly questionable.Such blatant inaccuracies in Smelcer's account call into question any of the other historical details he provides in the novel. If an author is going to write about an important historical event such as the internment of indigenous peoples during World War II, his/her research ought to be accurate and rigorous, especially if the goal is to educate young readers. There is no excuse for this in the digital age.

Readers may find the following resources useful:

World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska by Charles M. Mobley 
Chapter 2 Funter Bay Cannery from Mobley's publication also has a detailed article on what happened to the Aleut people during World War II.

Book Details:

Kiska by John Smelcer
Fredonia, New York: Leapfrog Press    2017
180 pp.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.

Aven Green is a thirteen-year-old girl who was born without arms. She loves to make up crazy stories about what happened to her arms. "I got so tired of telling them the same boring story about being born without arms that I started making stuff up. It was stinking hilarious. I knew from the first moment I told a girl my arms had burned off in a fire, I had found a great hobby: making up stories. I loved the way her eyes grew wide with shock and the way her voice went all high-pitched with excitement as he asked me a bunch more questions about my charred arms." Her parents however stopped Aven's wild storytelling. Gradually Aven's classmates came to accept her disability and she never felt out of place in her school.

Aven's life changes drastically when her parents move from Kansas to Arizona to take over running a western-themed amusement park called Stagecoach Pass. Aven's father was unemployed when he was contacted by a guy named Joe Cavanaugh. They move into the small apartment over the Stagecoach Pass Saloon and Steakhouse, mainly because her parents must be available all the time.

At Stagecoach Pass Aven discovers the park has a gift shop, a gold mine offering gold spray-painted rocks, a soda shop that sells old-fashioned candy and ice cream and run by Henri who suffers from dementia and seems to already know Aven. There is a shooting gallery, a theatre that shows old black and white western movies, a jail were you can pay to have someone arrested for something silly and a petting zoo that contains an old llama named Spaghetti who has a large tumor on his head. There is also a steakhouse restaurant. But it is the museum that Aven finds most interesting because it contains a collection of stone arrowheads and framed photographs on the walls. Aven's curiosity is stirred by a blank spot on the museum wall and a nameplate that reads "The Cavanaughs, Stagecoach Pass, 2004"

Aven starts school at Desert Ridge Middle School a few days after arriving in Arizona. With a student population of a thousand kids, it's much larger than her school back in Kansas. In her old school, lunchtime was natural and easy with kids she'd grown up with. Aven would have sat with her friends, Emily, Kayla and Brittney laughing about teachers, complaining about parents and even catching the pretzels in her mouth that Kayla would toss at her. But at Desert Ridge she immediately feels awkward because  Aven has to use her feet to do everything including eating lunch. So she decides to forgo lunch the first day and tells her mother she just wasn't hungry. After school Aven scouts out more of the park and finds an old shack with numerous "DO NOT ENTER" signs slapped on it. An old rusted padlock hangs from one of the doors. But without arms, Aven is unable to open it.

Although Aven's teachers are nice, she doesn't want them giving her special treatment, something that never happened at her old school in Kansas. Aven returns to eat in the large bathroom stall the next day and then tries to eat in the cafeteria the following day. That doesn't go well when she is questioned by a group of girls who are more concerned about whether they can catch her disability than actually meeting her and making friends. Her next strategy is to try eating in the library. While reading Journey to the Center of the Earth Aven hears a dog barking. She discovers that the barking is coming from a boy sitting near her. Believing he is making fun of her, Aven confronts him. Instead he apologizes and tells her that he has Tourette's Syndrome - " a neurological disorder that causes involuntary motor or oral tics." When he asks Aven about her missing arms, his honesty encourages her to tell him one of her crazy stories which he finds hilarious. The boy, Connor tells Aven he comes to the library every day for some peace. Like Aven, Connor is also new to the area and hasn't made any friends. He tells her about Tourettes and how his classmates mimic his barking and laugh at him.

Aven invites Connor to the Stagecoach Pass, showing her new friend the different attractions and showing him the mystery shed. Connor is able to wedge the door open and they discover it contains stacks of books, "the shelves stuffed with old books and papers and props" and seems to hold the possibility of providing some information about the mysterious Joe Cavanaugh who owns the park and hired her father and who no one ever sees. Also puzzling are the many books on tarantulas.

Aven and Connor's begin spending much of their free time together at the park.  Aven adds another friend when she discovers Zion who is overweight eating in a quiet area outside the school. He tells Aven that he eats there so people can't watch him, "Everyone likes to watch a fat guy eat." Aven, Connor and Zion begin hanging out together, playing video games and searching the old shed for clues to the mystery of the Cavanaughs.As Aven and Connor's friendship blossoms they find the strength to support each other and the courage to let their light shine.


The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a juvenile fiction novel about belonging and how each person has something significant to offer the world. It is also a story about the importance of friendship in our lives.

Early in the novel when Aven is new to Stagecoach Pass and Arizona, she decides to take a walk into the desert behind the main park and discovers a large saguaro cactus that her father believes is over two hundred years old. Contemplating the span of two hundred years, and all the important events that have happened during that length of time including the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, Aven believes her life and the events in it are insignificant. "I am an entirely insignificant event in the life of this cactus. I try to remember that as the sky darkens and the lights of Scottsdale and Phoenix brighten the earth -- millions of lights for millions of people. And then there's just me, sitting in the dirt on a mighty hill..."  Aven wonders then if it really matters that the kids at school ignored her or that they were afraid of her. As it turns out Aven's actions prove that she is anything but insignificant.

One way Aven proves to be significant is her effect on the life of her new friend Connor. When Aven meets Connor he is living a very limited life; he won't go to the movies, he won't eat out for fear of spitting his food and he believes he cannot ever go out in public. But Aven doesn't see the limitations in Connor's life, instead she sees his possibilities. She has him over for dinner, and she and her mother take him to see a movie. Aven encourages Connor to attend a Tourettes therapy group, even accompanying him. She stands up for Connor when he is mocked by other students in the hall. When Connor doesn't want to involve  his mother in the therapy group, Aven comes to understand that Connor blames "himself for all his mom's problems - his dad leaving, this tiny apartment, her hectic work schedule." Aven realizes that "It wasn't at all that Connor's mom couldn't stand him, as he had said. It was that Connor couldn't stand himself." By wanting to spend time with Connor, Aven shows him that it is possible for others to like him and enjoy being around him. Aven even manages to get Connor to attend the Stagecoach Pass art festival even though there will be huge crowds attending.

Aven also has a significant effect on another student in the school, the overweight Zion. When Aven meets Zion eating alone outside the school office on the hot sidewalk she befriends him. "How could I just walk past him again, as though he were invisible? As though he were some speed bump in my way?" Aven's way to include Zion is to join him for lunch each day bringing along Connor. Through Aven, Zion becomes friends with Connor.

Aven has a significant impact on the park when she comes up with a plan for Stagecoach Pass to have its own art festival. The event is a resounding success, bringing together Aven and her new friends, offering her a chance to shine her own light and help people see past her disability. For the park it means the beginning of a revitalization as new vendors are found for some of the empty stores in the park.

The theme of belonging is woven all through the events in the novel.  Aven has left her home and school in Kansas where she definitely felt like she belonged. She had three good friends who behaved normally around her and accepted her disability. But in Arizona life is more challenging. At first Aven's response is to hide - in the bathroom, the library and then eating lunch mostly outside with Connor and Zion.By the fall Aven still has no other friends besides Connor and Zion. "Most of the kids at school were now ignoring me completely. I guess they were used to seeing me around...It was more like I just didn't exist." At this point Aven doesn't belong but she's also been hiding. Her initial experiences with the kids at the new school have not been positive.

When Connor insists that Aven is not being realistic about her life and what she can achieve, that she is in fact - disabled, Aven becomes angry. She tells her mother, "I don't ever want to be seen just as a disabled person...I don't want to just be Aven Green, that girl with no arms. I don't want to be labeled like that." However her mother reminds Aven that she has to be realistic about her life, that some things are difficult for her. Then Aven's mother offers her a chance to show people that she is more than just someone with a disability by performing on stage with the band hired for the art festival. Aven adamantly refuses, "I'm not going to go up on stage so people can gawk at the girl with no arms playing guitar. I'm not some circus show."

Connor articulating how their disability makes them different causes a crisis in Aven. She too wants to be "like everyone else" so she can be invisible. But her father tells her, "No one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket. They put it on a table so it can shine for all to see." He tells Aven, "Don't be like everyone else, Aven. Be you." Aven makes the choice to go to the soccer tryouts. "It was hard to think about putting myself out there again, trying to be part of a new team, at a new school, with a new coach. Everyone watching me. But there are a lot of hard things in life. Who would I be if I gave up when things got hard?" With the support of her parents Aven makes the choice to do these hard things, trying out for the soccer team and performing at the art festival. Both of these choices open new possibilities for Aven, allowing her classmates to see beyond her disability and giving her the courage to try more new things like wearing a "strappy pink dress", forgiving her grandmother Josephine Cavanaugh for giving her up for adoption and even eating lunch in the cafeteria with Connor and Zion.

There is also the mystery of Aven's identity which is a minor subplot but which ties in with the theme of belonging. Bowling uses the character of Henry, an elderly man with dementia who runs the ice cream shop, to give hints to the reader that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven's appearance at the park is confusing to Henry. When Aven questions Henry about all the tarantula pictures on the wall of ice cream shop, Henry tells her that she loves tarantulas. Henry experiences confusion over Aven's lack of arms, asking her what happened to them and telling her she used to have arms. Later on he calls her Aven Cavanaugh, which angers Josephine Cavanaugh - because in fact Henry has just spilled the beans on Aven's real identity.  Halfway through the novel it is revealed that Aven was adopted when she was two years old. Although younger readers might not suspect anything, it's not difficult to figure out that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven eventually discovers her connection to the park, she must forgive her grandmother and mourn a mother she never knew.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a sweet, funny read. Aven Green is a strong, determined heroine, whose disability make her intent on living life on her own terms. She is capable, positive and independent. Because of her own disability, Aven has considerable empathy for both Connor and Zion. She is able to see beyond Connor's Tourette's and Zion's weight to who they really are. In Aven, Bowling has crafted a realistic character, a young girl who wants desperately to belong and be like everyone else but whose circumstances mean a different path. The novel's positive message, delivered with some moments of great humour make what might be a heavy subject, accessible to young readers.  Bowling's novel invites young readers to be empathetic and to consider the physical and emotional challenges those with disabilities must navigate every day.

The inspiration for the novel came initially from a cousin who was severely wounded and lost an arm after serving in Iraq. Bowling was further inspired by viewing a video of Barbie Thomas, a stay-at-home mother and bodybuilder who lost both her arms at age two from an severe electrical shock. Bowling invited another woman with limb differences, Tisha Shelton (who was born without arms) to review her manuscript.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is highly recommended.

Book Details:

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
New York: Sterling Children's Books      2017
262 pp.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke

Daughter of Nomads is the first of two novels set in the Mughal Empire in 1662 about a young girl struggling to find her destiny. The novel opens in Sherwan, a village in the Kingdom of Hazara. Jahani lives with her mother, Hafeezah in a mud home in the village. Hafeezah is different from the other women in their village. She wears an embroidered cap with a white dupatta and her mother tongue is Burushaski, the language spoken in Hahayul, the most northern kingdom of the Qurragoram Mountains on the Silk Route. However, Hafeezah has insisted that they only speak Burushaski at home and Hindustani in public. Hafeeza is always concerned for Jahani's safety, often whispering blessings over her and even making Jahani wear a silver taveez, a sort of good luck token.

 Jahani awakens after a recurring nightmare, excited because this day, she and her best friend Sameela will be travelling to the bazaar to buy henna for Sameela's mehendi party. Sameela will be married next week after seven days of festivities. Jahani is taken to the bazaar with Sameela in a horse-drawn carriage, a tonga. When their tonga gets caught in a throng of donkey wagons and people, Jahani and Sameela jump out. As they leave a shop after Sameela buys henna and bangles, the two girls are pushed and fall to the ground. Jahani is unhurt, but Sameela has been knifed.  A stranger takes them back to Jahani's house where Sameela's father comes to claim his dead daughter. Jahani is devastated by the death of her best friend.

That night after Sameela's funeral and wake, Hafeezah reveals that she is not Jahani's birth mother and that her real parents are Aunty Zarah and Uncle Baqir who live in the Kingdom of Kaghan near the Kingdom of Hahayul in the Qurraqoram Mountains. When Jahani was four years old, someone tried to harm her but she was saved by the young son of Baqir's master of horse and by a snow leopard. The next day Zarah arranged for Hafeezah to take Jahani away to Sherwan. Now Hafeezah believes Jahani is once again in danger.

The next morning Jahani tells Hafeezah she intends to journey north to find Zarah and Baqir despite Hafeezah forbidding it. Hafeezah arranges for Jahani to have an armed escort - the young man who brought Jahani and Sameela home from the bazaar. The young man, Azhar Sekandar has been guarding Jahani for some time. He advises they leave immediately to avoid the rainy season, bringing war horses for them to ride. That night Azhar flies southwest to to Persia on his Persian carpet. Azhar first learned that Jahani was alive when he was seventeen years old. His foster father, Kifayat Ullah indicated Jahani was alive but hidden in a village she had been taken to nine years earlier. Kifayat had made Azhar wait a year before searching for her, until he mastered flying the Persian carpet. This would allow him to return to Kifayat in Jask regularly. Azhar became Jahani's protector with the knowledge of Hafeezah.

Azhar wants to take Jahani to north to the mountains, but Kifayat advises Azhar to make the journey in stages so that Jahani can learn about her identity gradually. He returns to Sherwan, and early the next morning, with Jahani on a white horse named Chandi and Hafeezah riding Sitarah, they quietly leave. From the beginning their journey north is fraught with difficulties. Two days in they discover a Hindu village that has been completely wiped out with the exception of a little girl named Anjuli.

The following day they take Anjuli to her mother's family in a nearby village but they refuse too take her. So Anjuli stays with Jahani's party. That night after making camp, Azhar kills a scout tracking them. They leave immediately and spend the next weeks riding at night and resting during the day. Just inside the Kingdom of Kaghan, Azhar fights off another attack, this time with the help of Jahani. Eventually they arrive at Lake Saiful Maluk where Azhar is greeted reverently by his friend,Rasheed. In the safety of the hut, Azhar reveals that they are being followed by "the men of Dagar Khan from the northern Kingdom of Hahayul". He tells Jahani that he is a new King Zahhak - a new "Demon King" like that in the legends.

Meanwhile at Baltit Fort in the Kingdom of Hahayul, Dagar Khan, the self-appointed tham receives a report from a commander who insists that despite burning villages, they can find no evidence of the girl he seeks. However, Dagar Khan is insistent because his seer, Pir Zal continues to claim she is alive. His vision warns Dagar Khan that she will come to claim his throne and that she must be killed if he is to rule over all the northern kingdoms. He orders the commander to continue looking and also to take a message to the warlord Mazahid Baig.

Azhar flies to Jask to consult with his father. When he explains how Jahani helped him during a fight, Kifayat gives him a special scimitar called Shamsher, the Lion's Tail. This fabled curved sword has a hilt made of jade and embedded garnets. He orders Azhar to teach Jahani "all you know as if she were a boy."  When Azhar returns, he is almost seen by Jahani on his flying carpet. She notices his beautiful Persian carpet which she believes is his prayer carpet. Azhar gives her the scimitar, telling her to "keep it hidden until the time comes to wear it openly."

They leave the lake for Naran where Jahani will finally meet her parents. Jahani dresses as a boy to avoid recognition by those hunting for a girl with red hair. Although it will be only a five mile journey, Rasheed's son, Mikal has gone ahead to warn Baqir and Zarah of Jahani's arrival. Their journey turns deadly when they are attacked by armed men wearing red turbans. In her head Jahani hears repeated warnings and advice during the attack. She is able to fight off an armed attacker using Shamsher although the circumstances of the fight are bizarre to Jahani. She is met by Saman Abdul, commander of Baqir's troops. While Jahani is escorted safely into Naran, Saman and his troops go to Azhar's aid.

In Naran, yet another revelation awaits Jahani. Jahani feels distressed that she has no feelings for Zarah, her mother. But in Naran, Jahani learns much more about her life before she came to Sherwan. When her father arranges for her marriage to Mazahid Baig, who protects Naran, Jahani begins to suspect all is not as it seems. An overheard conversation between Zarah and Baqir as well as more revelations from Azhar convince Jahani to flee Naran, determined to uncover her true identity and her real destiny.


Daughter of Nomads is probably Hawke's best novel to date. The novel combines the elements of a historical novel with mystery, adventure and a dash of fantasy to create a wonderfully engaging story. Its setting within the Mughal Empire during the seventeenth century is unusual and offers young readers a chance to learn about a culture and era they likely would not study in school. To help readers understand the context of events in the novel, Hawke includes a large map showing Jahani's journey north through the Mughal Empire. A note about the Mughal Empire would have been very useful.

The Mughal Empire was essentially a Muslim empire with strong Persian and Indian influences. It ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the early sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. The Mughal dynasty was characterized by its successful integration of both Indian and Muslims into a coherent, functioning state and by its ability to govern over such a large area. The empire was founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Chagatai Turkic Prince Babur was descended from Timur and Chagatai, the second son of Genghis Khan. Through a series of military conquest, Babur was able to conquer all of northern India. At the time of this novel, the Emperor  Aurangzeb ruled. This story is set is the most northern region of the empire.

The story is told in the third person narratives of Jahani, her protector, Azhar Sekandar and Dagar Khan, "the self-appointed tham of the Kingdom of Hahayul". who is determined to capture Jahani and kill her.  Jahani begins the story believing she is a simple girl with a limited future, living in an small village. She knows that without a father and a dowry, she will never marry. Jahani's real future is foreshadowed in her daydreams of being "a warrior girl wielding a scimitar like Gordafarid daughter of an old Persian hero..." She also hopes to be "loved passionately like the Emperor Shah Jahan loved his wife, Mumtaz." 

However, Jahani's life changes forever when her best friend is killed and Jahani learns that she was the intended target. From this point on, she discovers that there is more to her past than she knew. When she learns that Hafeezah is not her birth mother, Jahani embarks on a what becomes a journey or momentous self-discovery.  With each attempt on her life, Jahani grows more puzzled. She doesn't understand why Dagar Khan is pursuing her. Jahani also finds herself seemingly able to communicate with Chandi her horse and is able to save the nomad sheep by stopping the wolves from attacking. Her strange ability to use Shamsher, a fabled scimitar is also puzzling to her. Her recurring dreams of a boy, a peacock and a snow leopard are based in reality as Jahani becomes convinced the boy is Azhar and the snow leopard is Zadi. Jahani feels a strong attachment to the mountains of the north, although she doesn't know why this is so.

In Naran, Jahani meets Zarah and Baqir but learns they took her from the nomads. With the nomads she meets Yazmeen whom she is led to believe is her mother, and sister of Tafeeq Baseer who rules the nomads along with his son, Rahul. However Jahani has much more to learn about her past. By the end of the novel, readers will know more about Jahani's identity than the character does. This remains for Jahani to discover in the second novel.

Although the reader is given many hints as to Jahani's true identity, for example the verse quoted by the seer Pir Zal, it isn't until later in the novel, in Azhar's narrative that the full story comes out. Kifayat tells his friend Bilal about how Dagar Khan simultaneously attacked the Kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir. Azhar was six years old and living with Kifayat when Nagir was attacked first. He and Kifayat set out to warn the Kingdom of Hahayul about the attack but were too late.It was believed that the two-year-old shehzadi (princess) had escaped and Dagar Khan's men began kidnapping young girls with red hair. Kifayat continued to look for the little shehzadi and eventually found such a girl with the nomads. She knew her name was Jahani , spoke Burushaski and wore a silver taveez. Jahani lived with the nomads for two summers until she was adopted by Zarah and Baqir, wealthy landowners in the Kingdom of Kaghan. During this time Kifayat and Azhar followed Jahani, offering his services as a master of horses. When another attempt was made on Jahani's life at age four, she was hidden in a village in the south.  Azhar also reveals to Bilal that he is Shehzada of Nagir, thought to have been killed in the attack. No one knows that he survived.

Hawke incorporates Persian fables and historical facts into Daughter of Nomads. The purpose of using the Persian stories is to foreshadow Jahani's destiny and true identity. For example, when Azhar is leading Jahani and Hafeezah northward, he tells them a story about the famous King Merdas and his evil son Zahhak who came to be known as the Demon King. This is a story from the famous Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings. When Hafeezah questions Azhar as to what happened to him he tells her about how the Demon King dreamed that he would be killed by a man named Feraydun. "The Demon King searched for him and killed his father, but Feraydun's mother saved the baby and secretly gave him to a cow herder to bring up safely. When he was in danger again, his mother took him to the mountains where he played in fields of wildflowers." In fact, Jahani has dreams in which she remembers playing with a boy and a snow leopard in a field filled with flowers. The story is a hint that Jahani will play a similar role in the demise of Dagar Khan who has been told that "the woman with the leopard's heat" will come to take his throne.

After Jahani tells Azhar about her strange experience with Chandi, he tells her a story about the northern kingdoms. "The first mir of the kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir - for they were one kingdom at that time - was born of the union of the great Sekandar and a pari (fairy). It is said that the pari's powers appear sometimes in descendants - they are given gifts." When Jahani inquires as to what those gifts might be Azhar states, "They are able to understand certain animals, have unusual strength, or can wield weapons with minds of their own. Usually descendants have only one gift, but in rare instances more than one is inherited." This story of course is a hint of Jahani's true identity and the origin of her special abilities which are beginning to be manifest.

Hawke also infuses the story with some historical information as well. For example when they are  entering the ancient village of Mansehra, Azhar tells Jahani how the large rocks at the entrance to the village were inscribed by Ashoka the Great, with the promise that he would only conquer by righteousness after conquering  by massacring the entire village.This is in fact a real historical event that happened. Ashoka assumed the throne after killing all of his brothers, save on, in 272 B.C. He was known as a cruel and ruthless leader. In 265 B.C., he conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga, destroying cities, burning villages and murdering thousands. When he surveyed the carnage, Ashoka was overwhelmed by what he'd done and had a complete conversion. The story serves to provide some cultural background to the young reader.

Hawke has crafted a wonderful historical fiction novel for young readers with a strong, capable heroine in Jahani. In the character of Azhar, readers have a young man who exhibits self-control, courage, and respect towards women. Daughter of Nomads is based on a story Hawke told her children, years ago, when they were on vacation in the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan. It is, as she describes it, an "alternate history what could have happened if the little kingdoms of the area now called Pakistan banded together and fought for their freedom." The map and lovely pencil illustrations were done by D.M. Cornish.

Daughter of Nomads is well worth reading; Jahani's story concludes in the second book The Leopard Princess. Suitable for ages nine and up.

Book Details:

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke
St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press     2016
290 pp.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness,and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge explores the life of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Written in free verse accompanied by the author's impressive black and white illustrations, Judge tells the story of Mary Shelley's life and how she came to create one of the most famous novels of all time. There are nine parts to the book which spans the time period from 1801 to 1823. Judge employs two narrators; the Creature and Mary Shelley.

The book's opening Prologue is written in the voice of The Creature who tells the world that Mary Shelley created him as a way to expose the cruelty of the world.

In Part I Exile, fourteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft is on the deck of the Osnaburgh, heading for Scotland. Mary is feeling sad and isolated, remembering that her father did not see her off; only her sisters Fanny and Claire were there. She reminisces about her childhood.

Mary was born the night Herschel's comet blazed across the London sky. Mary's father  told her the story of the comet and its discovery by a woman, Caroline Herschel leading Mary to believe she could do anything in life. She was encouraged to read, to be independent and to use her imagination. But that changed in 1802 when her father married the Widow Clairmont, bringing into their family her daughter Claire Clairmont and a son named Charles.

In 1805 the family moved from their home in Somers Town to an abandoned shop in Holborn, a block from the gallows at Newgate Prison. Mary's stepmother hoped that her father would write and sell books from the shop and get them out of their financial troubles. But her father was more interested in political and social issues. At this time Mrs. Godwin convinced Mary's father to send her away. She lives with a widower name Baxter and his daughters.

Part II My Second Birth, covers the period from June 1812 to March 1814. Mary is living at Mr. Baxters home at Broughty Ferry with his daughters. She soon develops a close friendship with Isabella Baxter who has a passion for the French Revolution. The Baxter's library contains many books including those written by both Mary's father and mother. Reading her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft's novel, Maria, encourages Mary to take up her mother's ideals. Scotland becomes Mary's "Eyrie of Freedom".

Part III Return to Darkness March to April 1814. Mary returns to London to live with her family in the overwhelming stench and squalor of Holborn. Her stepsister Claire is now fifteen, her sister Fanny is thin and withdrawn. Fanny is Mary's half-sister: she has a different father, a married man who abandoned their mother.  A young poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley has been corresponding with Mary's father.

Part IV The Poet May-July 1814. Twenty-one-year-old Percy Shelley begins visiting the Godwins almost every day. Well-born and in line to inherit a fortune, Percy has been abandoned by his wife Harriet who is pregnant. Mary finds herself attracted to Percy from their first encounter. Soon Mary and Percy, along with Claire go for long walks, talking about galvanism, alchemy, gravity and astronomy. Fanny reminds Mary however, that Shelley is still married, that his wife is due to give birth to their second child soon, and that Shelley cannot be trusted - just as the man that got their mother pregnant abandoned her. However, Mary believes that people in love should be together. In late June, Mary and Percy make love beside her mother's grave after Percy reveals his tormented soul. Mary believes he simply needs to be loved.

Her decision to live with Shelley angers her father and stepmother. Shelley has promised Mary they will live in Switzerland like other free thinkers. Claire who passes letters between Mary and Shelley begs Mary to take her with them. Mary's father refuses to allow her to leave but on July 28, 1814, Mary and Shelley along with Claire race to Dover and then cross over to Calais, France. For Mary it is the beginning of life on her own terms, one that will result in much pain and loneliness but which will result in the creation of a new literary genre and one of the most famous works of literature of all time.


Lita Judge, an awarding winning children's author and illustrator was inspired to write Mary's Monster after contracting a virus that led to her developing an serious autoimmune illness. During the next two years as she convalesced, Judge found herself rereading a favourite novel, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus". Judge was fascinated by the fact that Shelley had written her novel when she was only eighteen years old. As she delved deeper in Shelley's life by reading her journals, Judge found herself and this led Judge to want to tell Mary's story and how she came to write Frankenstein.

The widely accepted account of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein is that the germ of the story resulted from a dream Mary had after nights of reading ghost stories at the villa of Lord Byron. However, Judge's belief is that Mary Shelley's troubled life, her experiences of being mistreated by her father's second wife, of being sent away to Scotland, of being abandoned by her father when she became pregnant by her married lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and her many other hardships, were in fact the genesis of Frankenstein. In her Author's Note at the back, Judge writes,
"The popular myth is that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare  to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary's life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel's creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It's a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her."

In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explores the themes of pain, isolation and abandonment as  Dr. Frankenstein rejects the creature he created. Her novel was also a commentary on the use of science in the early 1800's. During this time, many new discoveries were being made in science about the natural world. Mankind was on the cusp of the scientific age and hoped to tame the world through the use of science, especially the disciplines of alchemy and galvanism. Mary saw man's ambition to create life and to dominate nature as potentially destructive to the world and to man himself.

Like her father William Godwin, and mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, Mary also rebelled against the social norms of her day. Mary Wollstonecraft was a firm believer in the rights of women, believing that they were equal to men. She sets out her beliefs in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, probably her best known work. She had an affair with a married man, Gilbert Imlay, an American who ultimately abandoned her. Mary gave birth to a daughter, Fanny while in France where she was writing and studying the ongoing French Revolution. She attempted to restart her relationship with Imlay but he refused, resulting in two suicide attempts by Mary. Back in England Mary met William Godwin, an advocate for the abolition of marriage. Yet they married when Mary Wollstonecraft became pregnant. Mary died after giving birth to their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. William Godwin was a radical who had anarchist tendencies. His publication of his wife's biography after her death which acknowledged her affair with Imlay, her illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts brought him much criticism because all of these behaviours were seen as scandalous and immoral. Having read her father's biography of her mother and been exposed to his ideas, Mary attempted to live her life in accordance with those ideas but found the reality was much different. Her father did not approve of her relationship with Percy Shelley and when she became pregnant outside of marriage, she was shunned.

Judge accomplishes her goal with a brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley's life in nine parts, the number nine being significant because it is the number of months of pregnancy and Mary's Frankenstein was written over a period of nine months, while she was pregnant with her second daughter Clara. She considered her novel her creative progeny. Through Mary's story, readers learn of the events in her life that ultimately influenced her writing Frankenstein. By writing her story in free verse, Judge pares Mary's life down to the important essentials while still retaining the pain, loneliness and sense of betrayal that Mary must have felt. Judge's ink, watercolour and pencil illustrations capture the dark moods of Percy Shelley, the emotional and physical struggles Mary endured, and the pain of the creature. The author story-boarded much of the book before beginning the writing process. Her timeline of creating the novel can be found on her website page, Mary's Monster Timeline.

Mary's Monster also includes an "Introduction" which introduces readers to both Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein. In her "Author's Note" at the back, Judge explains how she drew on a wealth of primary sources including Mary Shelley's journals, which events she excluded and provides an interesting exposition on parts of Mary's life. Her "What Became of Them" details the lives of family and several contemporaries of Mary Shelley. There is also a "What Were They Reading" section that lists what Mary and Percy were reading during their lives and a "Notes" that provides references for events in Mary's Monster.

Overall Mary's Monster is really quite an outstanding work and is a must read for fans of Frankenstein. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed.

Book Details:

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge
New York: Roaring Brook Press  2018
312 pp.