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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.