Sunday, June 30, 2019

Our Castle By The Sea by Lucy Strange

Our Castle By The Sea is a juvenile historical fiction novel set in southeastern England during the beginning of World War II.

Twelve-year-old Petra (Pet) Zimmermann Smith lives with her father Frederick, her mother  Angela Helene whom they call Mutti as she is from Germany and her fifteen-year-old sister Magda (Mags). Pet's father operates the lighthouse located near the village of Stonegate so their family lives in the adjacent cottage attached to the lighthouse.

Their lighthouse has always been known as the Castle because it is surrounded by four granite megaliths known as the Daughters of Stone which look like buttresses or guard towers. The megaliths are believed to have been used by the druids. Pet's father once told them the legend of the stones. A fishing vessel named the Aurora failed to return to the harbour one foggy night. The daughters of the four men on board went each night to the clifftop to light a signal fire to guide the Aurora home. People believed the ship was lost to the Wyrm, a sandbank just offshore known to shift and sink ships. The last night of their vigil, the daughters sang a song to the sea, offering up their souls in exchange for the return of the Aurora. They sang all night and at dawn a ghostly boat returned with the men. In return for bringing home the Aurora, the Wyrm and they misty tentacles of fog turned the four daughters to stone. This story both entrances and terrifies Pet.

In the Autumn of 1939 Mag's comes home one day with a swollen eye and cut fists. She has been in a fight at school because people have been taunting  her about Mutti. With the start of the war with Germany people in England are suspicious of anyone who is German.

Pet's father receives an order from the government to paint the lighthouse green, camouflaging it from the air. Not long after this, Pet and her family are frightened to see so many planes flying over the lighthouse. They seek shelter in the coal cellar of the lighthouse cottage and while there, Pet discovers a photograph of her parents wedding which she decides to keep. The picture interests Pet because no one looks happy and there are only two guests at the ceremony.

Gas masks arrive in the village and everyone is called to the village hall where Mrs. Baron the headmistress and magistrate at the court in Dover, demonstrates how to use them. Mrs. Baron announces that she will also be the Air Raid Precaution warden for the village.

Pet begins to notice that her sister Mags seems to be acting strangely. She also notices strange goings on in the village. Her father seems distracted when aiding a ship with the lighthouse foghorn and the optic light. Then Pet discovers Mutti leaving the cottage early one morning, and discovers she is following someone else.

In the Spring of 1940, Hitler invades France by way of the Netherlands and Belgium. The real war has now begun. One morning Pet and her family wake up to a fire in the village; someone has set fire to the village hall which was being used as a base for the Local Defense Volunteers and the Scout hut where equipment was being stored.

But then one day Mutti is summoned to a tribunal. Because she was born in Germany, Mutti was considered to be an "enemy alien". Every enemy alien had to be categorized according to the risk they were considered to pose; Category A aliens were a serious threat and locked up in internment camps, Category B were not locked up but were restricted on where they could live and work, Category C aliens were minimal risk and faced no sanctions.At the tribunal, Mutti is declared at Category A alien when a set of maps and charts are presented as being drawn by her.  Despite Mutti's denials and little proof they are actually hers, she is sentenced to an internment camp.

In shock, Pet and Mags decide they must prove Mutti's innocence. But their investigations lead no where and Pet finds herself doubting everyone around her. But a shocking confession from Mutti in a letter and a stunning revelation overheard by Pet throws her world into chaos. What is the truth and will Pet's family ever be the same?


Our Castle By The Sea
is the story of a young girl, afraid and struggling to understand the world around her who overcomes her own fears to try to save her family from events beyond her control. Strange's novel is unrelenting in the tragedies the Smith family experience making it unusual for juvenile fiction. There is no happy ending here, but there is hope.

The coming difficulties for Pet's family are foreshadowed by her discovery of her parent's wedding photograph, hidden in the Castle's coal cellar. The photograph reveals a wedding that was not filled with joy and attended by only two other people. It suggests a troubled past that Pet doesn't know about and an uncertain future.

Strange weaves many historical details into her story which spans the time period of a year from Autumn 1939 to Autumn 1940. The war in Europe is just beginning. It's been only twenty years since the last world war which was supposed to end all wars. The Germans are in France and the threat of invasion is very real. The coast of France is a mere twenty miles away. The people are afraid and suspicious of anyone German. With little due process, anyone of German ancestry deemed "dangerous" is incarcerated in a camp. Pet notes how the war begins to change people so they turn on neighbours and friends,  when her mother is one of those sent to an internment camp.
"...They were our friends. People from church, the village shopkeepers and fishermen, the parents of the children we had grown up with. But something had changed them. The war. The enemy plane. The things they had heard on the wireless and read in the newspapers. The rumors, the whispers. They were angry. And they were very, very frightened."

Another event mentioned is the evacuation of children from areas considered dangerous such as the coast to villages further inland. The evacuation of Dunkirk is also incorporated into the storyline. When Pet's family learns that boats of all kinds are needed to rescue the trapped troops on the coast of France, Mags is determined to go. But their father insists that she not, although in the end Mags disobeys him. Instead he goes and is lost in the evacuation. Strange touches on all of these real events in her Historical Note at the back of the novel.

Strange incorporates the the legend of the Daughters of the Stone and the Wyrm throughout her story. The legend is presented early in the story and we see that it has a profound effect on Pet. She often dreams the Wyrm is pursuing her right up to the lantern room but never quite makes it. This motif of a shifting sea monster that is after her and her family represents Pet's fears associated with the war. She equates the war with the sea monster that haunts her dreams. "This war is a sea monster, I thought. Sometimes it destroys things violently and openly, and sometimes its tentacles squeeze in through the cracks of normal life, and it strangles us silently."

When Pa and Mags leave to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk, Pet keeps watch on the clifftop. But when it seems like they are not going to return, Pet believes like the Daughters of Stone, she must sing to bring them home."This was the moment that I had always known about in my bones, ever since Pa first told me the legend of the stones. This was the moment in which I would finally become part of this ancient story. The sky wrapped around me, gray as fate, enveloping me together with the stones and the cold-smoking sea." As she sings, a boat arrives in the harbor but it is Kipper and Mags and not her Pa. Later on Pet thinks, "I thought about the lullaby that I had sung to the sea as I prayed for Mags and Pa. I had felt so sure that some kind of magic was working...Just enough to bring Mags safely home, I thought. But not enough for my Pa." Pet continues to wonder, "Was there a price to be paid or not? Would I end up being turned to stone?"

After her accident on the clifftop which leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, Pet considers herself to be a Daughter of Stone. Now she sits in her wheelchair in the lantern room. "I was a Daughter of Stone now -- so, from up in the lantern room, from first light to twilight, I did what the Daughters of Stone do: I kept watch over our sky and sea."  During her watch one night Pet someone enters the lighthouse, knocking out Mags and entering into the lantern room. At first Pet believes it is the Wyrm coming finally to  claim her. In reality it is Mrs. Baron who turns out to be a traitor and a Nazi. Drawing on the legend, Pet thinks, "In that moment, I was aware of the Daughters of Stone outside on the clifftop, sparkling darkly, calling to me as one of their own - warning me, giving me strength." Mrs. Baron reveals much to Pet, including that she is in the lantern room to aid in the beginning of the Nazi invasion. With all the strength, courage and self-sacrifice of the Daughters of Stone, Pet helps to thwart Mrs. Baron's plans. Pet has been transformed from a girl, "...small and unnoticeable and frightened. A girl whose mother was locked away and whose father was lost at sea, who battled with monsters braving the raging skies and the darkness of the night..." Pet is now "Defender of the White Cliffs, Dragon Slayer, Daughter of Stone"

Our Castle By the Sea a mixture of  historical fiction and adventure, a coming of age story with a thrilling climax. And despite Pet having suffered many losses, she demonstrates her resiliency, courage and maturity in her hope for the future, despite the ongoing war. She grows into a strong heroine through adversity.

This novel would definitely have benefited from lovely pencil illustrations. Sadly, illustration in juvenile fiction is mostly lacking today, but a good artist helps tell the story and fuel the imagination of the reader. Nevertheless, Our Castle By the Sea is a well-written novel that historical fiction fans will very much appreciate.

Book Details:

Our Castle By The Sea by Lucy Strange
New York: Chicken House      2019
319 pp.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

Jamie Drake's family consists of his father and mother and his younger sister Charlie. Jamie's father, Commander Dan Drake is an astronaut who is currently on a mission on the International Space Station. His mission is to launch special probes into space looking for intelligent life. On Friday Commander Drake will travel from the International Space Station to the newly constructed Lux Aeterna launch platform.From there he will launch the nano-spacecraft called the Light Swarm probes by firing the Lux Aeterna's laser array. The sails of the probes will be caught in the laser beam and travel out as seventy-five percent of the speed of light. Their destination is a star called Tau Ceti, which is one hundred trillion kilometers from Earth. It will take approximately fifteen years for the probes to reach Tau Ceti. They will search for alien life in the system and relay the information back to Earth - which will take another fifteen years.

Jamie's 6th grade class is currently "learning about alien worlds, interstellar travel, and nanotechnology." His teacher, Mrs. Solomon assigns the class a project to "invent an alien".

After school Jamie is picked up by his grandfather, an aging has-been rocker with a  pony tail. Jamie's granddad Neil used to be the lead singer of a rock group called Death Panda.

Jamie and his family live at Grandad Neil's home in Bramsfield. His family has moved around over the years due to his father's career as a Royal Air Force pilot. While waiting for dinner, Jamie decides to hike up to Beacon Hill where it is quiet and he can't hear his granddad's guitar. During a phone call from his dad, Jamie learns that there used to be an observatory on Beacon Hill. Afterwards, Jamie cliimbs to the top of Beacon Hill where he finds "half hidden behind a bank of trees, a squat redbrick building topped with a white dome-shaped roof."  Near the derelict observatory Jamie sees a strange robotic mechanism.

At this point he is confronted by a older woman who forces him into the observatory.  The woman is suspicious of Jamie but when he reveals that his father is Commander Dan Drake the woman recognizes him. She reveals that she is Professor Forster, an astronomer who happens to be searching for alien life in the universe. Unofficially, she is searching for a signal from the entire universe. Professor Forster explains Drake's Equation which is used to estimate how many intelligent alien civilizations might exist in the Milky Way, to Jamie. She also tells Jamie that we have been using radio telescopes to scan for alien transmissions since the 1960s.  Now she is using the observatory as a secret location for the "mobile Laser Optical Ground Station that is hooked up to the Hubble Space Telescope." which she hacked into when it was in line to be retired.

While Professor Forster goes outside to do a quick check on the ground station, Jamie decides to recharge his phone by connecting it to a USB cable coming from her laptop. Suddenly Jamie realizes that his phone is receiving the incoming transmission from Hubble. Frantic he rushes to disconnect the phone, spilling tea over the laptop,  just as Professor Forster returns.

Later that night, Jamie hears a strange buzzing sound from his phone and when he turns it on he sees a new icon in the shape of a golden spiral. The icon spins in time with the phone's buzzing sound. When he taps the icon, his finger suddenly glows. The  next day during a math test, Jamie's phone begins buzzing again, and he taps the spinning icon which is now taking up half the phone's screen. The familiar tingle in his finger returns. But when he tries to use the phone's calculate, it begins spitting out numbers that don't seem to make sense. Things become even more bizarre when Jamie finds he suddenly knows the answer to the math problem. Even stranger is that his answer to a question to create his own equation results in a strange equation that he doesn't understand as well as pages and pages filled with unknown symbols and letters.

The unusual behaviour continues in art class when Jamie creates a stunning picture of a landscape "twin suns shine in a bright purple sky above a vast forest of giant plants and ferns. Black flowers bloom in every direction, and rising above these, huge golden spirals shimmer like trapped sunlight. The shape of these unearthly skyscrapers is the same as the spiral icon on my phone,...each golden spiral is actually a sprawling alien city winding into the sky."

But when Jamie's phone begins sending messages that seem to come from an alien needing help, he knows this is bigger than he realized. While his dad doesn't believe him, Dr. Forster does agree that it seems like some sort of extraterrestrial signal has been downloaded into his phone. However, it soon becomes apparent to Jamie that he is able to communicate with an alien whom he names Buzz. When Jamie's father is in danger of losing his life, both Jamie and the alien work together to help each other.


The Jamie Drake Equation is a delightful story that mixes science with fiction. It's a sweet mashup that is reminiscent of the movie E.T. in which a boy befriends an alien in trouble and helps him out, all the while dealing with his own struggles in growing up. Although the novel incorporates plenty of science, ultimately this is a story about a young boy discovering what really matters and realizing that his parents are not perfect.

Jamie's father is a world famous astronaut who is on a mission on the International Space Station. The day his father is to launch important probes to seek out intelligent life in a distant system, happens also to be Jamie's birthday. Jamie not only has to share his father with the world, but he also has to share his birthday with an important event as well. His father's busy and demanding career means that Jamie doesn't get much time with him. When he tries to talk to his father about what's happening on his phone, his father doesn't believe him and thinks he's making it up to get his attention. When Jamie needs his father the most to help him solve a problem in HIS life his father isn't there for him. "Dad has always said I can tell him anything - any problem I've got, any worry I have, and he'll help me to sort it out....All I need is for Dad to believe me and then he'll be able to tell me what to do."

Adding to Jamie's worries about the strange messages and his father up in space is the shocking revelation that his parents are divorcing. While divorce is a reality for many children today, this was such a lovely, fresh story up to this point, that bringing the issue of divorce into the story was disappointing. It would be nice for children to be able to read some stories where parents succeed in their marriages - as many do. The divorce subplot is used to drive the story. Jamie's anger and frustration at his dad for leaving the family, his fear for his dad in space all reach a climax during an assembly at Austen Park Primary school. 

During the assembly Jamie finds himself becoming increasingly angry, especially since his father and mother are divorcing. "Is this what life is going to be like now? Sharing my dad with a roomful of strangers and getting my birthday presents secondhand? Having everyone think that Dad's some kind of superhero, when really he's tearing our family apart?" His angry outburst at the assembly is an expression of the sadness and sense of loss he is experiencing over his parents' divorce.

Although Edge moves well into science fiction to resolve the disaster facing Jamie's dad in space, the conclusion is both heartwarming and satisfying. Jamie's relationship with an alien being he names Buzz is reminsicent of E.T. It turns out Buzz is an alien life form that calls itself the Hi'ive. They had to choose between their bodies and their minds, moving beyond the physical world, becoming energy. In this form Buzz can both help Jamie and be helped by Jamie.

Overall, the Jamie Drake Equation is a well written short novel, ideal for younger readers who might be interested in science, aliens and space travel. Edge includes lots of science tidbits for young readers to chew on and includes short chapter called The Science of The Jamie Drake Equation where he examines some of the science in the novel.

Book Details:

The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge
New York: Delacourte Press    2017
185 pp.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Tree In The Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window by Jeff Gottesfeld

In the picture book, The Tree In The Courtyard, the story of Anne Frank is told from the point of view of the horse chestnut tree that stood in the courtyard opposite the house in which Anne and her family took refuge.

The tree with its "flowers foaming cones of white and pink" in spring and its "spiky seedpods" each fall lived in the courtyard growing and stretching towards the sky. Then war came and with it the explosions, rockets and soldiers.

The tree which looked out over homes and factories saw a new family come to one of the factories. Every day the tree would see the two girls, one of whom was spirited and who wrote often. But one day the tree no longer saw the girls, except at the window in the factory annex. Soon others came to join her in that annex. The tree, now tall and strong, could see into the attic window of the annex. It saw that the girl often wrote in a red and white diary. The war dragged on for four years until one summer the girl and her family were taken away by "men in gray uniforms".

Another set of seasons passed by before the war ended. The tree never saw the girl again; only the father returned to the rooms in the annex, filled with sadness. As the years passed, many people came to the rooms in the annex where the girl had lived. By the close of the century the tree was dying. When a lightning strike finally damaged the tree that it had to be cut down, its saplings were planted throughout the world - a reminder of the tragedy that happened long ago in the annex.


The Tree in the Courtyard by Gottesfeld is a poignant and subtle retelling of the story of Anne Frank through the perspective of a beautiful stately horse chestnut tree that really did exist outside the Annex where Anne and her family were hiding. In peacetime, the tree grows into a towering shade tree with a view of the houses around it. When war comes, the tree cannot help but notice the terrible changes. It sees what others cannot see and it notices the girl never returns after the war.

Although the girl is gone, life goes on for the tree until it begins to die. When the tree itself is in danger of dying, and every effort is being made to save it, the tree notes, " few had tried to save the girl." But both the tree and Anne Frank are destined to live on. Just as Anne's diary has been published worldwide in various forms and editions for all to read, the tree also has spread throughout the world, its seeds and saplings now growing in many countries as a reminder of what happened to Anne and her family.

The Tree in the Courtyard offers a fresh and unique perspective on the story of Anne Frank and is a wonderful way to introduce younger students to the events surround Anne and the Holocaust as well as World War II.

Peter McCarty has created illustrations that are captivating in their simplicity, using brown ink on watercolor paper and which capture the gravity of the events of Anne's life.

Gottesfeld includes an Afterword that explains who the girl is and what became of the tree outside the Annex. A beautiful picture book and a must add to any collection.

Book Details:

The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window by Jeff Gottesfeld
New York: Alfred A. Knopf    2016

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardoe

While many young girls today struggle at mathematics, history has recorded some women who made great contributions to the discipline. One such person was Sophie Germain, a French mathematician and physicist. She was born into a wealthy family in 1776 in Rue Denis, in Paris, France, to Ambroise-Francois Germain and Marie-Madelaine Gruguelin. It is believed her father was a silk merchant. He eventually became the director of the Bank of France.

Sophie lived during a tumultuous time of revolution. She was born the year of the American Revolution and was thirteen-years-old when the French Revolution began in her own country of France. Living in such an era likely had a strong influence on her to challenge the social norms of the times.

Forced to remain at home during the early revolution, Sophie began to read from her father's extensive library. Reading L'Histoire des Mathematiques by Montucla led Sophie to read a story describing the death of Archimedes at the hands of a Roman soldier during the capture of Syracuse.  This motivated her to study mathematics and she also taught herself Latin and Greek which offered her the opportunity to study the works of mathematicians like Euler and scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton.

At this time it was not acceptable for a young girl to be interested in mathematics and her parents did everything to discourage her from continuing her studies. Sophie was kept in her room, and was denied warm clothing and firewood to keep herself warm. But Sophie persisted and her parents relented.

It was also not possible for a young woman to attend school so when the Ecole Polytechnique opened in 1794, Sophie was not able to attend lectures. She was eighteen by this time and very determined. Since notes from classes at the Ecole were made available to those who were interested, Sophie managed to obtain them. She was particularly interested in the lectures of J.L. Lagrange to whom she sent her observations about his lectures under the pseudonym of Monsieur Antoine-August LeBlanc. He in turn, was intrigued by the unknown writer's paper and managed to track down the identity to Sophie. Fortunately, Monsieur Lagrange was impressed and became Sophie's mentor.

Sophie became interested in number theory, corresponding with Adrien-Marie Legendre and later on Carl Frederich Gauss. When the latter mathematician eventually learned he had been corresponding with a young woman he remarked, "How can I describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M leBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person. . . when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarising herself with [number theory's] knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius."

Sophie also became interested in elasticity and entered the Paris Academy of Science's contest to find a solution to a problem regarding Ernst Chladni's experiments with vibrating plates. Her initial entries did not win but after further work, Sophie did claim the prize, in 1815, becoming the first woman to do so. She was unable to claim her prize publicly because women were forbidden to enter the Academy of Science unless they were the wife of a member.

Sophie later on became interested in a mathematical problem called Fermat's Last Theorem. She wrote  a potential solution to the problem, which although weak did advance mathematicians towards their goal of solving this problem.

Sophie died in 1831, after suffering from breast cancer. While ill she continued her work in mathematics and philosophy, a mathematician to the very end.


The story of mathematician Sophie German is a remarkable one. She lived during a time when it was not acceptable for women to be interested in the sciences and when expectations for women were limited only to family and the home.

Bardoe captures all of the important events in Sophie Germain's life in her exquisite picture book. Her account focuses on Sophie's determination to pursue her love of mathematics despite all of the obstacles placed in front of her. She was not allowed an education in mathematics, she had few mentors and those that she often wrote to did not respond back, especially if they learned their correspondent was a young woman. Even when she was successful, that success was only grudgingly acknowledged by her peers. The lesson here for young, budding women scientists and mathematicians, is to be persistent and to find those who will support you in developing your interest. Hopefully, your parents will be more supportive than Sophie's parents were!

Nothing Stopped Sophie is illustrated by awarding -winning author and illustrator Barbara McClintock. In her note at the back McClintock reveals how she developed the illustrations for the story. McClintock used "colorful markers, gouache, and collage" to capture the story in what she describes as a nonliteral visual way. For example, McClintock illustration of Sophie receiving the academy's prize shows "Sophie's winning formula flows out of her pen around the all-male members of the academy, the top hats and coattails flying in the gale of numbers." McClintock's colourful illustrations capture Sophie's struggles but also the joy she found in mathematics.

Book Details:

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2018

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Thousand Sisters by Elizabeth Wein

A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of The Soviet Union in World War II tells the thrilling story of three Soviet regiments, the 586, 587 and 588th each made up of over three hundred young women aviators - a thousand young women who became the first female pilots to fight in a war.

The book is divided into five parts, describing a specific part of the the World War II effort as it pertains to the women aviators.

Part I The Future War sets the stage by providing some of the backstory to how the Soviet Union came to incorporate women aviators in its air force.  The beginning of the 20th century saw women agitating for greater rights and participation in society.In Imperial Russia, women wanted to fight in WWI; one example was Maria Bochkareva who joined a men's battalion and was a fearless soldier. Young women and men after the revolution grew up believing that some day they would have to fight a future war. Therefore, their education and training was geared towards that end and a patriotism for their motherland was instilled in them.

Part II The Great Patriotic War: The First Year: 1941-1942 explains how the womens aviation regiment came about.

Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941 along an Eastern front that stretched from the Black Sea in the south all the way to the Baltic Sea in the north. Three million German soldiers raced across Eastern Europe with the people of the Soviet states of Belorussia and Ukraine fleeing before them. In the Soviet Union, young people who had grown up with the belief that there would be a war in their lifetime, rushed to enlist.  While women were pilots and instructors, there was no way for them to enlist in the war effort.

Marina Raskova approached Josef Stalin offering to form a womens air regiment as part of the Soviet air force. Stalin agreed and the Soviet Union became the only nation during World War II that allowed women into air combat roles.Order 0099, issued on October 8, 1941 by the People's Commissariat of Defense called for the creation of "a combat group of female aviators, including commanders, pilots, navigators, mechanics, armorers and ground staff, to be created and led by Marina Raskov."  Women civil pilots as well as pilots from Osoaviakhim were to report to a specific location in Moscow. Hundreds of young women answered the call and were thrown into military drills and ill-fitting men's uniforms almost immediately.

Marina Raskova
But sorting through the recruits was not to happen in Moscow as the Germans were close to capturing the city. Some four hundred young women fled Moscow along with 150,000 civilians when the Germans overran the city. Eventually almost one thousand women answered Raskova's call to form a womens aviation regiment. They were sent to Engels, a town on the Volga River which also was the location of a military flight school. The formal name for Raskova's aviation unit would be the 122nd Composite Air Group.

The one thousand recruits were divided into pilots, navigators, and technicians, disappointing many of the women who wanted to be pilots. There were three regiments, the 586th Bomber Aviation Regiment commanded by Tamara Kazarinova, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment commanded by Raskova herself and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya.These women would have to learn to fly various aircraft. The 586th flew new single-seat Yak-1s, while the 587 trained in new dive bomber and fighter planes called Petlyakov Pe-2. The 588th Night bombers were to fly noisy Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. In March of 1942, two of the womens' regiments were ready for action; the 586th was assigned to protect Saratov, an important city on the banks of the Volga River. However, the 588th Night Bombers were sent back for more training in night flying after the deaths of four aviators in crashes during night flights.

In Part III The Great Patriotic War The Second Year: 1942-1943 Wein focuses the various exploits and disasters each of the women's regiments experienced. All three regiments are now flying: the 588th is sent into combat in May of 1942, while the 587th receives the new Pe-2 dive-bombers Marina ordered.

Enthusiasm for war was waning in the Soviet Union in part due to the repressive laws of Stalin. In 1941, Stalin had enacted Order 270 which stated that soldiers who were captured or surrendered were considered traitors. Now in the summer of 1942, Stalin's newest order, 227 "Not One Step Back" made even retreating from battle a crime. This meant POW's could be executed the minute they were freed and those missing in action or for whom there was no certainty they had died in battle would receive no official recognition, nor any compensation.

It was in this climate that the battle for Stalingrad began. Wein follows all three regiments in their assignments especially their contributions to the battle for Stalingrad. She also relates how war was especially difficult for women combatants and how they developed ways to cope with the tremendous stress and the loss of fellow aviators and friends.In January of 1943, the women aviators had to deal with the loss of their founder and mentor, Marina Raskova.

The success of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment in bombing the German troops at night was recognized in their being awarded the special title "Guards" become the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Part IV The Great Patriotic War The Third and Fourth Years: 1943 to 1945. The year 1943 saw war throughout the world. The Battle of the Atlantic between German submarines and British battleships was ongoing. The United States was fighting Japan in the Pacific theatre and the Allies were pushing the Germans out of north Africa and up the Italian peninsula. While the Allies were bombing German cities and industries, the Russians were fighting on the Eastern Front.

Wein describes the continuing efforts of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation in harassing the German troops. However, their great success often came at great cost. On the night of July 31, 1943, the regiment lost four pilots and four navigators. After this tragedy, they devised a plan to help cut their losses during night bombing runs through the use of diversionary tactics. Eventually the 46th Guards came to be called the "night witches" by the German soldiers for their relentless bombings and the sounds their aircraft made flying low over the troops.

Lydia Litvyak who never returned from her Aug 1, 1943 mission.
The stress of battle was not dismissed so easily by the women aviators most of whom experienced extreme physical stress and terror during their missions. They were so successful that they were renamed the 46th Taman Guards for helping to liberate Crimea from the Germans. Meanwhile the 587th was renamed the 125th M.M. Raskova Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment after their significant contributions to the Battle of Kursk.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Normandy resulting in the opening of the second front so long desired by Stalin and the Soviet Union. The three women's aviation regiments continued their battles. The 125th was renamed again as the 125th M. M. Raskova Borisov Guards after a town in Belorussian they had liberated from the Germans.

Part IV focuses on the remaining missions and the horrors of war the women aviators encountered as the Soviets raced to capture Berlin ahead of the Allies and end the war.

Part V After The War presents the personal toll the women pilots experienced after having been engaged in combat for one thousand nights along with the statistics for each of the three women's regiments. In the post-War period, although the Soviet Union helped the surviving women soldiers, they weren't allowed to talk about their experiences, nor to continue their military service in the air force. It wasn't until after Stalin's death in 1953 that the memoirs of the female aviators began to be published, beginning in 1957.

Today in modern Russia, women pilots have returned to the military, and the survivors of the World War II womens' regiments still meet regularly, although many are very elderly. These women flew on the winds of change, helping their country win a war that cost their country more lives than any other. The bravery and sacrifice of these thousand sisters lives on eternally.


A Thousand Sisters is a comprehensive account of the Soviet women's regiments that fought from 1943 until the end of WWII to save their country from Nazi Germany. It's evident from the detail and the enormous Source Notes at the back of the book, that Wein undertook considerable research about a topic that is dear to her. While this book has been marketed for teens, it's more likely to interest older World War II history enthusiasts especially those interested in Russian and aviation history.

From the very beginning Wein uses the analogy of how a pilot must be attentive to the wind when flying to explain how several factors came together resulting in the Soviet Union utilizing women pilots in World War II both in support and combat roles.
"Navigating your way through life is like flying a small plane in a windy sky. To say that the wind is blowing with you or against you is too simple. Sometimes you need the wind behind you to speed things up; sometimes you need to head directly into the wind to help you take off."

Wein observes that people are often shaped by the politics and events and the world around them and Marina Raskova was no exception. "Your future will depend on how you decide to adjust to the winds of change around you." The impetus behind the use of women pilots by the Soviets was a young pilot herself, Marina Raskova who had survived the upheavals brought about by the Russian revolution and who utilized the events happening around her to her advantage.

Later on Wein notes that the huge death toll that included people like Lilya Litvyak and Marina Raskova was the result of being "caught in a wind too strong for them."

At the end of her book, Wein encourages her readers to be the wind of change. "If there is one thing to be learned from the thousand sisters of Raskova's regiments, it is that change is possible. It can begin with one person. Go out and change the wind."

The telling of the story of the thousand sisters - the three women's regiments - also makes reference to the issues of gender and sexuality. In the chapter "Life is life" Wein discusses some of the difficulties being a woman presented in the Soviet air force. The young women aviators had to cope with uniforms and boots that didn't fit. They had to wear mens underwear which didn't fit and was uncomfortable. In the latter situation, the women would attempt to obtain German parachute silk to make their own panties, but if they were caught, the consequences were serious.

Wein makes the point that "War is gendered, and it is not feminine. No matter how valiantly a woman proves herself in battle, her experience of war will always differ from a man's experience, because she is a woman. Dressing in men's clothes and using the same equipment as men does not turn a woman into a man." The latter point seems to be but lost today.

To cope Wein states that "the women made strong statements about their womanhood."  They made themselves slippers and devised curling irons to do their hair. they put flowers in their planes, did needlework and made pillows out of their footcloths. They wrote poetry, produced newsletters and literary magazines and had talent shows. These feminine creative outlets were important to them. And in Marina Raskova they had the "model of perfection as a soldier, a woman, and a mother." The women aviators hoped someday when the war was over and they were victorious, they would marry and have children and a peaceful family life.

Unfortunately, Wein strays into the area of sexual orientation when she wonders if there were lesbian relationships between the women aviators, if the closes friendships that formed were more than just that. Viewing history through the filters of today's pervasive current climate of gender identity and sexual orientation is a disservice to those who lived through these difficult times. In life and death situations, it is likely that forming close emotional bonds was an important and healthy way to counter the fact that these women pilots faced the stress of a gruesome death at any time. The entire discussion seems moot since Wein concludes, "Regardless of their sexuality, most of them liked to remind themselves that, yes, they still identified as women."

Wein points out the significant loss the Soviet Union suffered because of the war. It is possible that the casualties were as high as forty-five million. But as Wein states, "Whatever the final numbers may be, they are just numbers. Who can measure the loss to the world of a person as complex and energetic as Zhenya Rudneva at the age of twenty-two? Or as driven and charismatic as twenty-one-year-old Lilya Litvyak?" As in any war, the loss of the young, with all their promise is the greatest tragedy.

Overall, A Thousands Sisters is a remarkable book about a remarkable group of young women who were determined to save their country. Wein captures their incredible determination, courage, resiliency and patriotism.Included is a map of Eastern Europe so readers can place the locations of various events as well as many black and white photographs of these amazing women.

Image Credits:

Book Details:  

 A Thousand Sisters. The Heroic Airwomen Of The Soviet Union In World War II by Elizabeth (Wein) Gatland
New York: Balzer & Bray     2019

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Dorothea's Eyes by Barb Rosenstock

Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer, famous for her Depression-era photographs of migrant and displaced farmers.Dorothea was born in May 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey to Heinrich Nutzhorn and Johanna Lange. She had a brother, Martin. When she was seven years old, Dorothea contracted poliomyelitis which damaged her right leg, leaving it weakened and shorter. This disability was to affect her profoundly for the rest of her life. It also made Dorothea more empathetic to the suffering of others.

Dorothea's father abandoned the family when she was twelve. Later on Dorothea dropped her father's surname of Nutzhorn and adopted her mother's surname of Lange.

She graduated from Wadleigh High School For Girls. In 1913, Dorothea began attending the New York Training School For Teachers but she was more interested in becoming a photographer. So she studied photography at Columbia University and undertook apprenticeships at several New York Studios. In 1917, Dorothea was able to take a class with Charles White at Columbia.

In January 1918, Dorothea and a friend, Florence Ahlstrom decided to undertake a trip around the world. Their journey which began by train, ended quickly in San Francisco when their money was stolen. Dorothea settled in San Francisco, working in a photography studio, meeting other members of the art community in the city and eventually opening up her own portrait studio. In 1920, she married Maynard Dixon, the renowned western painter.

With the onset of the Great Depression and the soup kitchens, employments lines and migrant workers, Dorothea changed her focus from portraiture to the people suffering from the economic crisis. Her photograph of a man looking away from a crowd in a soup kitchen captured the attention of the Federal Government and she was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the situation of migrant workers, destitute farm families and sharecroppers. It was her picture titled Migrant Mother as well as many others of this era that launched her career as a photographer.

Dorothea's Eyes captures Dorothea's story from her point of view focusing on her remarkable ability to see what others miss. Rosenstock suggests this ability was the result of Dorothea's illness as a child which left her with a damaged leg and made her want to hide. She preferred to be invisible, offering her the opportunity to view life in a way not possible for most people. She felt she really "saw" the world as it is.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
Rosenstock describes Dorothea as watchful, curious describing this ability as seeing with her eyes and her heart. As a person who was ignored in her childhood because of her disability, Dorothea felt a strong empathy for the poor of the Depression Era, people whose struggles were being ignored by society. Her photographs opened the eyes of Americans to the suffering of the poor, the misplaced farmers and the unemployed. Dorothea's photographs humanized these people. In some cases, her photographs helped bring relief in the form of food to people who were starving. Although Rosenstock doesn't mention this in her picture book story, Dorothea went on to capture the internment of Japanese Americans in special camps, a practice that was undertaken during World War II simply because of their Asian heritage. Her photographs were confiscated by the American Army and were not seen for decades, even by Dorothea herself.

Accompanying Rosenstock's text are the illustrations by award-winning illustrator, Gerard Dubois, who created them using acrylic on paper and as well as digitally. The author includes a time line of Dorothea Lange's life, some of her remarkable photographs, a short note about her, a Selected Bibliography, Sources for Quotations and suggestions For Further Reading.

You can read more about the story of the Migrant Mother here.

Book Details:

Dorothea's Eyes by Barb Rosenstock
Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Calkins Creek         2016

image credit:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of Jacqueline Woodson's life growing up as an African American in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Woodson is an award-winning American author who has written many children's books.

In Part I "I am born", Woodson writes about her family history, on her father and mother's side. To aid her readers, Woodson provides family trees of her father Jack Woodson's family and her mother, Mary Ann Irby's family.

Woodson was born February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio, into a nation in which the black civil rights movement was blossoming. The 1960s were a time of great change and agitation in the United States. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were just beginning to gain traction in 1963.

Her great-great-grandparents were slaves working the land. Although her parents, Jack and Mary were born free, in many ways they still did not have the freedoms that most American's take for granted. And so, throughout America, African-Americans from all walks of life, such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are standing up for their civil rights, each in their own way.

Woodson writes that her father's family can be traced back to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe, who was the first son of Thomas Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings.Her paternal great-great-grandfather, William J. Woodson, born free in Ohio, fought in the Civil War for the Union. His son, William Woodson was sent to Nelsonville, Ohio to be educated in an all-white school. In a family of doctors and lawyers, Woodson's father Jack earned a football scholarship to Ohio State University and settled in Columbus Ohio.

After her parents married, three children followed: a boy named Hope, a girl named Odella and then Jacqueline. Every year in the fall, Woodson's mother along with her children would take the bus south to her parents in South Carolina, leaving behind her father in Ohio Her father was determined to never return to the south because of the way African Americans were treated there. But in May of 1964, her father traveled to South Carolina to reconcile with her mother and together the family returned to Ohio. However, when Woodson is a year old, her mother returns to South Carolina for good, taking the children with her and leaving Woodson's father behind.

Part II "The stories of south carolina run like rivers" focuses on Woodson's life in South Carolina at the home of her maternal grandparents, Gunnar and Georgiana Irby. Her grandfather Gunnar becomes "Daddy" to the three Woodson children,. He works as a foreman at a printing press while her grandmother teaches part-time and does what is called daywork which is cleaning the homes of white folk. In South Carolina, life is full of stories. Woodson with her sister Dell and her brother Hope sit on the porch stairs in the evening, listening to the women tell stories about relatives, the people in the daywork houses and neighbours. There is also her grandfather's garden, the smell of wood burning in the pot-bellied stove in autumn and fire flies in mason jars.

Woodson's mother leaves for New York City but returns before the summer with a plan to eventually move her family there. Woodson and her siblings are pulled into their grandmother's faith as a Jehovah Witness, attending meetings at the local Kingdom Hall and going out to neighbours to share their faith. Woodson's mother returns to New York City but returns the following year to Greenville, bringing a new baby brother, Roman. They will be moving to New York City to start a new life.

Part III "Followed the sky's mirrored constellation to Freedom" describes Woodson's move to New York city. Woodson along with her mother, brother Hope and sister Odella and the new baby Roman, moves to Herzl Street where her Aunt Kay and Bernie live. They then move to a house on Madison Avenue. For Woodson, New York is much different and she missed
"the collards growing
down south, the melons, fresh picked
and dripping with a sweetness New York
can never know."
But Woodson loves her school with its warm wood trim. New York will take some getting used to.
Tragedy strikes when her half-brother Roman begins eating paint off the walls and becomes sick due to lead poisoning. When the family returns for the summer to Greenville, Roman must stay behind in the hospital to recover.

Part IV "Deep in my heart, I do believe" is a collection of poems about Woodson's life in New York City. By this time, Woodson is beginning to adjust to life in the big city. She has a good friend, Maria with whom she shares her lunches. She is considered family by Maria who invites her to her brother Carlos' baptism. Her beloved Uncle Robert is sent to jail on Rikers Island. It is during this time that Woodson begins to write, small poems which she finds easier to express herself with. 

Part V "Ready to change the world" touches on the tumultuous times of the late 1960s and Woodson's experiences in school during this era. She finds her calling gradually, her voice, and her place as a writer.


Brown Girl Dreaming is about a young African American girl's journey to finding her place in a  changing America. Woodson takes young readers through her own journey by first setting the stage of the America her family came from; black Americans, one side freeborn, the other side only two generations from slavery. The Civil War victory for the Union was supposed to given African Americans their freedom but in the south things have been slow to change. It is this situation that seems to divide Woodson's parents. Her mother's love of Nicholtown in Greenville, South Carolina draws her back to the south. Her father on the other hand, is determined to leave the south,

 "You can keep your South,...
The way they treated us down there,
I got your mama out as quick as I could.
Brought her right up here to Ohio."

Woodson describes growing up in a loving family, her early years wrapped in the love of her beloved grandfather Gunnar and her grandmother.  As her mother moves her family from Greenville to various locations in New York City, Woodson is shaped by the events happening throughout the nation; the marchers in the south, Angela Davis and the Black Panther movement in California and the Vietnam War.

Jacqueline Woodson gradually discovers that words hold a special meaning for her and that she wants to be a writer. Her storytelling begins with her own stories that she tells, which her Uncle Robert enjoys and encourages, but which her mother accuses her of lying, warning her that she will one day steal.
"I won't steal.
It's hard to understand how one leads to the other,
how stories could ever
make us criminals."

Storytelling is easier at first for Woodson as she explains in the poem, "writing #1"
"It's easier to make up stories
than it is to write them down. When I speak,
the words come pouring out of me. The story
wakes up and walks all over the room...."

In the poem "birch tree poem" Woodson captures what poetry and words mean to her, how peoms open her imagination in a way that brings tears to her eyes. When she tells her family that she wants to be a writer, they acknowledge her love of writing and it's benefits as a hobby, but suggest she should consider something else...a teacher, a lawyer.

When Woodson's quiet, older brother Hope shocks everyone including his family with his wonderful voice at a school concert, she wonders,
"Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden
like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe
waiting to be discovered."

Woodson love of stories is shown when she memorizes the story of the Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde and recites it to her classmates, enthralling them,
"But I just shrug, not knowing what to say.
How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again."
After this she knows that "Words are my brilliance."

After this she writes a book of poems about butterflies, and another time whispers a song she thinks up on the bus to Dannemora to visit her Uncle Robert. Her sister believes it's "too good" to have been thought up by Jacqueline. But she's now beginning to find where she belongs, what her "small gift" might be.

Brown Girl Dreaming is about finding your own niche, learning to accept yourself and finding that hidden "small gift" that everyone has. It's about believing in yourself and having the courage to follow where your "small gift" might lead you! For Woodson, words are her gift, everlasting,

"...on paper, things can live forever 
On paper, a butterfly
never dies."

Well-written, Brown Girl Dreaming captures the essence of coming of age in America during the 1960s and 70s.

Book Details:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
New York: Puffin Books     2016
348 pp.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a picture book about teen inventor, William Kamkwamba whose determination to help his starving family made a huge difference to his village in Africa.

William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi on August 5, 1987. He lived near the village of Wimbe with his parents and six sisters. William was curious about how things worked and dreamed about taking apart things and figuring out how they worked.

William worked in the fields with his family. His father was a farmer who grew maize. Then one year the rains did not come and drought spread across Malawi. People began to starve, including William's family.  His father rationed their food with the family eating only one meal per day. Without crops, Williams family began to run out of money and he was no longer able to attend school. This upset William because he enjoyed learning.

Then he remembered the library that had been started by the Americans. William began visiting the library and reading books about science. These books explained to him how engines worked. Because he could not read English, William had to use a dictionary to read the books. It was a picture of a windmill which was described as a means to produce electricity and pump water that intrigued William the most. He knew immediately that he wanted to build a windmill for his family's farm so they could have electricity to light their homes at night and pump water from the ground for his father's crops.

William set out to build a windmill, searching for the materials he needed at a local junk yard. His determination and efforts, which were successful, would change not only his family's life, but his own and that of his village forever.


The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a picture book that tells the basic story of William Kamkwamba's life and his astonishing feat of building a windmill for his father's farm. His story is so remarkable that readers will also want to learn more in by reading the adult version of his autobiography with the same title.

In the adult version, William writes that before he discovered science, the belief in magic dominated the world he lived in. William's parents started out their married life in Dowa, a small town southeast of Masitala. In Dowa his father Trywell worked as a traveling trader. When William was a year old, his Uncle John came to Dowa to convince his father to move to his village of Misitala to farm. He felt his brother could make more money and better support his family. Trywell agreed and the family moved to the village, first living in a one room house near Uncle John. Eventually, William's uncle gave the family a one acre plot to grow tobacco to sell and maize and vegetables to eat.

William's father and his Uncle John built up a good business farming tobacco as well as operating maize mills in nearby villages. When John tied from tuberculosis, the business was taken over by his son Jeremiah. However, poor management resulted in the business collapsing, meaning William's family was on its own.

When William was thirteen, he and his friend Geoffrey began taking apart radios to learn how they worked. At this time William's father was farming mostly maize, a food eaten at every meal in Malawi, in the form of a porridge calls nsima. William stresses that maize was the most important fod staple in Malawi. Anything that might interfere with the production of maize in the country would be catastrophic.

In December of 2000, the rains were late and then too heavy, causing serious flooding. This was followed by drought, resulting in very small yields of maize. William's father's farm yielded only five sacks of maize. It was during this time that a friend of his father visited their farm, riding a bicycle with a lamp powered by a dynamo. William was determined to understand how it worked. His experiments with the bike soon helped him to learn about electricity. In Malawi, only two percent of the population had electricity meaning that life and work stopped when it became dark. Eventually William would return to the idea of electricity and how it might help his family.

Famine, cholera and malaria followed the drought in 2001 in which William's family and his country starved. The descriptions of how the famine affected William and his family are distressing and heartbreaking. William also explains how the drought was enhanced by the deforestation of Malawi due to the tobacco farms. Because of the crop failure William had been unable to return to school. When the country recovered, he never returned. At first he tried to occupy his mind playing chess and bawo but this didn't work. He remembered that the Malawi Teacher Training Activity had opened a small library in Wimbe Primary School, stocked with books donated by the American government. William began taking out books from the library and borrowing the notes of his friend, Gilbert who was attending school. With the help of a teacher Mrs. Edith Sikelo from Wimbe Primary School who was also the librarian, William began to understand many basic concepts in physics such as magnetism, electromagnetic induction.

William writes in his adult version of his autobiography, "I can't tell you how exciting I though this was. Even if the words sometimes confused me, the concepts that were illustrated in the drawing were clear and real in my mind." It is important to remember that these books were written in English and that William had to use an English-Chichewa dictionary. But it was an American textbook, Using Energy that was to change William's life forever. It was pictures of windmills and the explanation of how energy can be converted from one form to another that made William realize a windmill was what his father's farm needed to generate electricity.

William's remarkable story, well told in the simple and less detailed picture book version captures all of the tenacity, ingenuity, determination and intelligence William exhibited to overcome many obstacles. The story is also well told  by the oil paint and cut paper artwork of illustrator Elizabeth Zunon, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design. This picture book lends itself well to homeschoolers and students wishing to study about sustainable development in the developing world, the role of education in Africa and the power of libraries. Older readers who wish to learn more about the backstory to William's success are encouraged to read his autobiography by the same title.It too is well written and well worth reading.

You can learn more about William at his website,

Book Details:

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers         2012