Monday, March 30, 2020

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels is a fictional story based on true events that happened in Le Chambon-sure-Lignon and nearby villages located in southern France during World War II. These villages worked together to save countless Jewish children from death at the hands of the Nazis.

The story begins in early December of 1942 with the arrival of twenty-two-year-old Inspector Perdant to the fictional village of Les Lauzes. The region where the village is situated has been "living in its own little way outside the rules of the current government". Perdant is determined to see that change. He knows that the village boardinghouses are likely hiding foreign Jews and other "undesirables".

Leon and Sylvie, brother and sister, live in a boarding house called Sunnyside.  Henni, along with Madeleine, lives in a house called the Beehive along with many children who had come from French concentrations camps. Henni had been rescued from the concentration camp at Guz by Madame Desault, who is a Jew. The house is run by Monsieur Boulet. Food and care had transformed the children from being malnourished, angry and prone to stealing to smiling and healthy.

One night Perdant, out walking the deserted streets, catches young Jean-Paul Filon, a seventeen-year-old riding a bicycle without a headlight and tickets him. Later that night, in his boarding house called Sunnyside, Jean-Paul tells Sylvie that the ticket is useful because it acts as a proof of identity signed by a local policeman. This further cements his forged identity as Jean-Paul Filon. He shows Sylvie his identity card, anxious to see if it is good enough. Leon examines it and believes it to be very good.

Jean-Paul tells them about working as an office equipment repairman. His real name is Otto and one day he went to the office of the prefect of Nice on the pretext of repairing a typewriter in the prefect's office. There he was able to type a letter authorizing the release of his mother Eva Grabowski. The letter worked and they were able to come to Les Lauzes, Otto as Jean-Paul Filon and his mother as a middle-aged Turkish-Russian spinster named Mademoiselle Varushkin.

Inspector Perdant's attempt to "pay a friendly call" on the Beehive boarding house one snowy evening is thwarted by Sylvie, Leon and Jean-Paul. They engage him on the doorstep of the boardinghouse. When Perdant mentions that he heard singing, they begin to sing the Marseillaise loudly, drowning out the sound of the Hannukah celebrations going on inside and saving the Jewish children inside from certain discovery.

The next day Jean-Paul is visited by ten-year-old Jules who offers to help him. Jean-Paul warns Jules that helping is risky, that he can't know what the documents he delivers say or who they are for. Jules is undeterred and determined so Jean-Paul takes him on.

By December, 1942, wounded German soldiers are billeted at the hotel next to the boarding house where Jewish children are living. Some of the children believe the presence of the Nazis is due to a letter some wrote protesting the roundup of thirteen thousand Jews in Paris, including four thousand children. However, some of the children believe that they must speak out against the Nazis and their French collaborators.

On Christmas Day 1942, the service at the village church prompts many to think about what is happening in their country and their little village as the pastor recounts the Christmas story. While each of the children have their own thoughts, Perdant is consumed by his thoughts about the teenagers in attendance. "Like that row of teenagers. That redheaded kid, for one. He'd seen him once pulling his sled along in the middle of the night. What had he been doing out at that hour?"

At the end of the service, Pastor Autin invites Perdant to his home for dinner but Perdant turns him down. Instead, Perdant warns Autin that he knows "...there are homes full of non-Aryans and anti-patriots." and that if he isn't careful he may be arrested too.

But Perdant continues his snooping, determined to find out how the Jews are being safely brought to the village. He is determined to do something about the pastors whom he believes are deeply involved in rescuing Jewish children. In the winter of 1942-43 the two pastors and the school director are arrested. More men join the maqisards hiding in the forests. Leon disappears from school. Henni writes her aunt in Switzerland to try to get a visa. Jean-Paul, aided by Leon and Sylvie continues forging documents, ration cards and identities. And Madame Creneau who locates safe houses for the Jewish refugees and who helps them cross into Switzerland, decides that it is no longer safe to hide people. She asks Philippe to take on the task of helping them across the border into Switzerland.

When Jules and his friend Claude Dupont are caught painting anti-German slogans on the road, they are taken to Perdant who questions them. Protecting Claude who is actually giving Perdant clues as to what is going on, Jules maintains that Claude is slow. Perdant lets Claude go but decides to use Jules, whom he suspects of knowing much more than he lets on, as an informant.

As the Gestapo sets up more and more raids, and Perdant becomes determined to sniff out those helping hide the Jewish refugees it becomes necessary to move the refugees out of the village and plateau. As Philippe, Jean-Paul, and others work to help the refugees, Jules works to convince Perdant that he has chosen the wrong side.


Village of Scoundrels tells the story of a fictional French village that works together to save thousands of Jewish refugees from certain death during the Nazi occupation of France. The story is based on the real life events that occurred in the village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon during the course of the Second World War.

From 1940 until 1944, the residents of Le Chambon, led by Pastors Andre Trecome and Edouard Theis, helped over five thousand refugees, including up to three thousand Jewish refugees. The village is situated on the Vivarais Plateau in south-central France. Its past history of persecution of the largely Huguenot by French Catholics during the 16th to 18th century may have played a significant part in the resistance activities of the villagers who did not support the Vichy government led by Marshal Petain. However the efforts to help the Jewish people in this region involved people from all faiths including Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals and nonbelievers.

Preus tailored many of the characters in her novel after real people. At the beginning of the novel Preus provides readers with a helpful alphabetical list of the cast of characters. At the back of the novel in the Epilogue, she describes the real life people who each character is based on. For example, Jean-Paul was based on Oscar Rosowsky, a Jewish teenager who wanted to study medicine and who became a master forger during the war. Oscar was able to forge a letter ordering the release of his mother from Rivesaltes internment camp. The character of Philippe who leads people to safety in Switzerland was inspired by Pierre Piton, who also was a passeur or people smuggler. Catherine Cabessedes Colburn inspired the character of Celeste, the young girl from Paris who eventually carries messages and contraband for the maquis. Madame Desault, Madame Creneau , Henni and Max are also based on real life people. The character of Jules is based somewhat on Paul Majola who did make deliveries for Oscar Rosowsky. Inspector Perdant is loosely based on policeman Leopold Praly who was shot by the maquis eight months after arriving in Le Chambon.

Village of Scoundrels is a novel whose overarching theme is that of journeys. There are the physical journeys of the refugees rescued from the concentration camps on their way to safety in Les Lauzes, of the refugees from France to Switzerland. But there are also many personal journeys, ones from fear and inaction to courage and resistance. An example of this journey can be found in the character of Celeste, a young French girl who watches as events unfold in the village. However, at some point she can no longer just watch.

When Mme. Creneau asks Celeste if she knows of anywhere they can hide the refugees safely for a short period of time, "Celeste's urge was to go home, climb into bed, and pull the covers over her head. " She believes everything is falling apart until Sylvie reminds her that "as long as there was something to do, there was hope. She tells Mme. Creneau about the abandoned chateau. Mme. Creneau now gives Celeste may responsibilities, which she steps up to take on.

As she and Philippe rush back to the chateau to help those hidden there, Celeste explains to Philippe how she became involved. "For a long time I watched you and others doing things, and I admired you...but I was too afraid. I didn't think I could do it -- I was sure I'd mess up. Then I went on a little mission. I was still afraid, but I was doing something. I had a little power. I could actually do something to resist. To fight back. And the oddest thing happened. That huge dark fear of what could happen -- it went away...I guess I had to do the thing I dreaded most in order to lose my fear of doing it."

Perhaps the most dramatic journey is that of Inspector Perdant. He is sent to a small French village to check up on the locals. It is suspected that the villagers are hiding Jewish children and other "undesirables" as Perdant refers to them. Upon his arrival, Perdant definitely senses that something is amiss in the village, although he's uncertain as to what it might be. He's determined to find the Jewish children he believes are being hidden. He comes to believe that almost everyone from the pastors, to the children to the farmers are complicit. And he is correct.

 His initial warnings and threats have little effect on the pastors or the farmers, so he decides to pressure ten-year-old Jules, a young boy who tends his goats on the hills surrounding the village. But Jules is not afraid of Perdant. In fact, quite the opposite. He becomes Perdant's conscience pushing the young policeman to face the morality of his choices as hunts down those helping save the Jewish refugees.

Perdant is pushed into action when the Gestapo conducts a raid on one of the boarding houses. Humiliated at being outdone by the Gestapo, Perdant is decides he must act despite his repulsion at the brutality of the raid. But he is deeply conflicted.  He goes to the river and throws stones into the water.
"Each stone a bad decision he had made.
The decision to join the national police.
His desire for pormotion that had led him here.
His fawning admiration for the leaders of Vichy and, worse, their German overlords."

Like the most French, Perdant doesn't like the Germans but he wonders "Why did he want to do what he did?" Perdant had started out wanting to help France. "He didn't know what to believe anymore, except that he'd seen these kids on their sleds and bikes, singing as they hiked in the woods. They were hardly dangerous. They were just kids! All they wanted was to have a life." Yet Perdant is not yet ready to give up. He wants to make that big arrest.

So he seeks out Jules who he orders to take him to the abandoned Chateau de Roque. Jules of course, knows the maquis are using this old building as a place of refugee so he tries his best to physically thwart Perdant. At the same time Jules attempts to get Perdant to see how his actions are morally wrong.  Perdant believes that "Someone has to keep law and order...." and questions Jules as to why the people of Les Lauzes do not follow the law, stating they cannot "choose the laws you like or don't like, willy-nilly." But Jules tells him that it is not a case of people not "liking" the laws, instead they believe the laws are wrong. "...Everybody knows what is wrong, but some people are too afraid to say or do anything. And some people manage to do a lot of twisty turns in their minds because they wish it to be right. But you can't make it right by wanting it to be right."

Perdant insists that people have to follow the law, but he knows that he is really trying to fill a quota demanded by Hitler in retribution for two German officers killed. Remembering his one successful arrest of two Jewish brothers brings no comfort to Perdant because it is not the capture of the brothers but the resistance of the young teenagers in an attempt to save the boys that fills his mind.

Eventually Jules, desperate to stop Perdant, confronts him with the policeman's gun, asking him what he thinks he is accomplishing by his spying, hunting and arresting of people. It is a question Perdant has asked and now has no answer. "Now he tried to rouse himself to answer with his usual patriotic fervor -- to save France for the Frenchmen, save the country from anti-patriots, communists, immigrants, the Jews who had been working to undermine the civilized nations of Europe....The problem was, he wasn't sure he believed it anymore."

It is only when Jules is seriously wounded that Perdant comes to his senses. He now sees all the resistance's activities with complete clarity,but even more importantly he sees his own actions compared to those of the teens in the resistance. He now must decide what to do with his life; he can continue to go down the path he is on or he can change direction.  Perdant acts to help them. He stalls the police and gendarmes as they arrive at the chateau. When they do raid the chateau, he has bought them the time to escape. It is the beginning of Perdant's redemption.

Village of Scoundrels is a beautifully crafted novel based on a true story of courage and resistance that occurred in France during World War II. It is a novel of courage and resistance in the face of great fear, and redemption. That Preus did extensive research prior to writing the novel is evident. She also visited the region of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

There is a wealth of supplementary material at the end of the novel including the detailed Epilogue with information on many key figures in the resistance, a Historical Timeline and a detailed Bibliography listing many resources for further research.

Well done and highly recommended.

Book Details:

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus
New York: Amulet Books        2019
302 pp.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Allies by Alan Gratz

Allies tells the story of the D-Day invasion of June 1944 over a twenty-four hour period through the eyes of four main characters and a host of minor ones.

Private Dee Carpenter is only sixteen years old. His parents were political refugees from Germany. When Dee was only five-years-old his Uncle Otto vanished in what has become known in Germany as "Night and Fog". His uncle was a labour leader involved in organizing factory workers in Nazi Germany. Dee's parents did not support the Nazi government's policies. But as the Nazis gained more and more support, Dee's parents fled to the United States. Dee's real name is Dietrich Zimmerman.

When the United States was drawn into the Second World War, Dee decided to enlist, something foreign nationals were allowed to do. Determined to return to his homeland of Germany to "beat Hitler", Dietrich decided to change his name at the suggestion of the recruiter.

Now in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, as part of Operation Overlord, Dee finds himself aboard Higgins landing craft on the English Channel, headed towards Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. With him is seventeen-year-old Private Sid Jacobstein, a hulking six-foot four-inches tall Jewish New Yorker bent on revenge.But their landing on Omaha Beach is a disaster as they face a brutal hailstorm of bullets that cuts down many of the soldiers.

Eleven-year-old Samira Zidane and her mother Kenza are racing along the road outside their village in German-occupied northern France. Being outside after curfew is dangerous. If caught it means automatic arrest and jail and even being shot as a spy. Samira's mother is a spy for the French Resistance.

Samira's parents had been students from Algeria at the University of Paris when the Nazis overran Franch. Samira's father was killed in student protests against the German occupation. Only seven-years-old at the time, Samira and her mother fled to the countryside, working as messengers for the Resistance.

Now Samira's mother must let the Resistance, hiding in the forest south of Villers-Bocage know that the Allied forces are set to invade France and begin the liberation of Europe. The message has been broadcast in a code over BBC radio.

In the countryside, Samira and her mother witness Nazi soldiers rounding up French farmers to be executed. This is in retaliation for the murder of  a German officer, Major Vogel. When her mother sees a woman lifting her children out the back window of a farmhouse, she rushes forward to help the woman but is captured along with the French family. Samira narrowly escapes capture by hiding in the family's doghouse.Terrified but determined to help her mother, Samira decides to try to find the "Maquis" as the French Resistance is known. She hopes they will help her free her mother.

After managing to outwit a Nazi patrol at a bridge, Samira is found by the Resistance. She delivers the coded message that informs them of the impending Allied invasion. But when Samira begs them to help her free her mother from the Bayeux garrison, they refuse. The Maquis tell her that the message is also an instruction to carry out Operation Tortoise and Operation Green which involve the sabotaging of roads and rail lines to hinder the German response to the invasion. At this Samira decides she will join the Resistance, although they are not keen to have her.

Nineteen-year-old Lance Corporal James McKay of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion is from Winnipeg, Manitoba. With him is Lance Corporal Samuel Tremblay, a Cree Indian from Quebec. Both are in the twin engine Albemarle troop transport aircraft, enroute to France where they will parachute in to support the Allied invasion. Their Alpha Company's mission is "to protect the 9th Battalion's left flank on the Merville Battery, then cover their advance to Le Plein." The Merville Battery is an important bunker with four 100-mm howitzer cannons that are aimed at the Normandy beaches where Allied troops will be landing.

However, after a dangerous parachute into France, dodging tracer fire in sky and "Rommel's asparagus" on the ground, James and Sam land mostly unharmed, but seven miles from their objective. Eventually they meet up with survivors from B and C Companies and then Major MacLeod from C Company. Their mission now is to destroy the radio station at Varaville as well as the enemy headquarters there.

Private Bill Richards is a nineteen-year-old Sherman tank driver in the Royal Dragoons. Bill who is from Liverpool, England has a crew that includes his tank commander, Lieutenant Walter Lewis, his co-driver Private Thomas Owens-Cook, and tank gunner Private George Davies, Private Bryan Murphy the tank's gun loader. Their tank, named Achilles is on a boat with two other Sherman tanks, the Valiant and Coventry's Revenge. Part of Operation Neptune, they are supposed to be landing at the British sector's Gold beach but have drifted west to the American's Omaha Beach. After watching two other tanks, the Indefatigable and Mama's Boy! sink in the rough seas, Lewis orders the boat to take them in closer to shore.

As they land on the beach, Coventry's Revenge is hit by a shell and destroyed. The Achilles hits a mine which disables it, destroying the tank's left tread. Because their tank is too high to fire on the German 88 mm gun that is taking out the tanks, Bill and the others get out of the tank to dig a pit underneath it. He is helped by American soldiers including Dee Carpenter who has managed to make his way up the beach. They are successful but while the Achilles does take out the one German gun, its crew is killed minutes later by a shell from a second German gun.

Corporal Henry Allen belongs to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all black unit, in the segregated US Army. Twenty-year-old Henry is from the South Side of Chicago, Ill. and was a premed student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania when the US entered the war. He decided to train as a medic when the Army wouldn't place him as an officer because white soldiers didn't trust black officers. Now, on Omaha beach among wounded and dying white soldiers, Henry finds the white soldiers have no such qualms.

Henry sets up his medical station on the beach. The invasion at Omaha Beach has been a disaster with hundreds of wounded and dead American soldiers. His own unit, scheduled to come ashore when the beach was secure is now fighting for their lives. As he works through exhaustion to save soldiers, Henry encounters Lieutenant Richard Hoyte, a white soldier from Georgia.  Hoyte who had made Henry's life in boot camp miserable, lies badly wounded on the beach, his right foot destroyed by a mine. Henry helps Hoyte, who now treats him with respect and thanks him for saving his life.

Among the soldiers Henry helps, are Sid who has shrapnel in his leg and Dee who has a bullet in his left arm. Dee and Sid along with other surviving American soldiers decide to get off the beach and try to attack the Germans manning the bunkers. As the invasion continues, each soldier struggles to complete his mission, one step at a time.


Allies is an excellent, well-written novel that portrays the reality of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. In particular the novel focuses in on the battle on Omaha Beach,  located in the American sector, weaving together five storylines over a time period of twenty-four hours.

The main characters are sixteen-year-old American-German immigrant Dee Carpenter and his Jewish buddy Sid Jacobstein, eleven-year-old French-Algerian Samira Zidane and her mother, Private Bill Richards a British Sherman tank driver and his crew, Canadian paratrooper James McKay, and American medic Henry Allen, a black man working to save lives on Omaha beach. Each of these storylines portray the various aspects of Operation Overlord; the invasion by sea with troops and tanks, by air with paratroopers as well as aerial bombardment by the Allies, and help from within France by the French Resistance.

The novel's focus at Normandy is on the battle at Omaha Beach, one of five landings sites for the invasion. Omaha Beach has the distinction of being the sector which suffered the worst casualties during Operation Overlord. The landing on the early morning of June 6 intially was a disaster. The Allies were misinformed as to the strength of the German defenses in this sector. American bombing of the German bunkers the night before was inaccurate and ineffectual. The heavy smoke from the night's Allied bombardment masked the true situation at the beach - the German bunkers remained intact and operational. Rough seas and troops landed in wrong areas also contributed to the disaster.

The first wave of soldiers were decimated by mortars, artillery and machine gun fire. Their landing was supposed to be supported by Sherman tanks, but many sank in the rough seas, were disabled on the beach or destroyed by German shells. Sappers sent to destroy the beach defenses were unsuccessful, as most were killed or wounded. The second wave of troops fared just as badly, this time jammed on the beach with no where to go, making them easy targets for the Germans. Eventually, some soldiers made their way off the beach and were able to secure some of their objectives. Over two thousand American soldiers were either wounded, missing or dead at the end of the day.

Gratz successfully portrays some of the chaos, terror and death of the assault on Omaha Beach. This is no glamorous portrayal of war, although there are moments of valour and sacrifice. There is blood, grit, agony, terror and death. When Dee lands on Omaha Beach, his experience is brutal, shocking and unforgettable:
"Lungs burning, eyes stinging, Dee kicked again, breaking the surface. This time he floated, and what he saw as the waves took him up and down was a scene from hell. Dead bodies bumped into Dee, and the sea was dark with blood. Men screamed and cried out for medics who weren't there. German pillboxes on the high cliffs laid down a deadly cross-fire. "Czech hedgehogs" - huge three-legged, three-armed anti-tank obstacles made from steel bars welded together into an X shape -- littered the beach, undamaged by the Allied battleship barrage. Soldiers lay crumpled on the wet sand around the obstacles like stones."

Dee's experience of watching the death of a tank crew he had been helping only minutes before is also heart-rending.
"Dee scanned the raging bonfire that had been the Achillies, trying to find anyone who had survived. But there was nothing. Whoever had been inside the tank, and the two soldiers who had dug out the crater with hime -- they were all dead.
What were their names? Where were they from? Who had they left behind in England who would mourn them when they didn't come home?"
All Dee knows is that the friendly soldier was Bill whom he will remember for the rest of his life.

But the soldiers on the beach are not the only ones who encounter danger and stomach churning fear. As paratrooper James McKay fights his way into France to take out German positions, he witnesses death. As they engage the Germans, James's commander and three other men are  killed instantly from a shell. The finality of it, shocks James.
"But the way Major MacLeod and the others had been there one moment and then just --- just obliterated the next, chilled James to the bone. The thought that his life might end instantly explosively, in the fraction of a second, scared a stillness into hi he knew would be with him the rest of his life."

However, as the fight continues on the beaches and inland, Gratz shows the tide turning and the Allied soldiers beginning to score victories. With this comes hope as the Allies gain a foothold in France. Gratz neatly ties up his story by having some of his characters meet at the end. Dee and Sid reunite after becoming separated when Sid learns Dee is a German. They both meet Samira and her mother, who was saved by the liberation of Bayeux by the Allies.

Gratz also includes a storyline that portrays the courageous contributions made by the French Resistance in helping the Allies. Their work, as Gratz shows, was not without risk. They were a vital component in helping slow the German response to the Allied invasion.

Allies is populated by a unique cast of characters that represent the major players in the invasion; England, Canada, and the United States. The characters are well crafted with Gratz focusing on their humanity, making them very believable. Some are noble like Henry Allen a black medic who has encountered discrimination both in society and in the army and who chooses to aid the very man who made his life so miserable in boot camp. Some like Richard Hoyte, Allen's tormentor, start out mean, but come to realize Henry's humanity in a moment of intense suffering. Many like James, Dee, Bill and Sid show unwavering courage - acting while filled with fear for their lives, not even certain why they signed up.

Gratz's extensive Author's Note at the back provides good background information on D-Day. On one note however,  Gratz is terribly incorrect. He writes, "Canada was slow to send its soldiers into a war so far from home, so many Canadians who wanted to fight joined the US military to see action right away." This is mostly inaccurate. The Battle of Dunkirk, which occurred from May 26 to June 4, 1940, was an operation to withdraw English, Canadian and Polish troops (among others) from France as they were losing the battle for Western Europe to the Germans. Canada already had troops in Europe fighting by mid-1940. On August 19, 1942, the infamous Dieppe raid was launched. Over six thousand soldiers, the vast majority of which were Canadians, were involved. It was a disaster that led to the deaths of  over three thousand Canadians. Only about fifty American soldiers were involved in the Dieppe raid.The United States did not enter World War Two until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, although they did supply material to the Allied war effort.

My own father enlisted in September of 1939, along with his three brothers. He was sent over to England immediately to train and was placed into the signal corps. After the Dieppe disaster, the Allies were reluctant to launch another invasion until they were certain there was a good possibility of success. My father was not part of the attacking forces on D-Day but arrived shortly afterwards and was not involved in the liberation of Holland but stayed on as part of the occupying army in Germany after the war. As an American, Gratz should give Canada.

Gratz provides his readers with an excellent two page map that shows where the events for each character occur. Allies is well written, engaging and tense. This novel will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction and in particular, those who want to learn more about the Normandy invasion.

Book Details:

Allies by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press 2019
322 pp.

Friday, March 13, 2020

All In A Drop by Lori Alexander

Antony van Leeuwenhoek lives in the town of Delft, Netherlands. It is a place of tree-lined canals and busy merchants. Antony lives at a time which comes to be known as the Golden Age for the Netherlands. The Dutch own the largest fleet of ships  in the world and travel to many countries bringing in many goods from Africa, North America and Asia.

Antony's family are tradesmen: his grandfather was a beer brewer and his father makes wicker baskets used to transport fragile goods on the ships.

Antony's father dies when is he is quite young. With his mother's remarriage, he is sent, at the age of only eight to a boarding school outside of Delft.

At the age of fourteen, his schooling now finished, Antony moves to Benthuizen to live with his uncle. He sends Antony to Amsterdam to train in a linen's merchant's shop. In Amsterdam, Antony meets people from different countries and cultures.

For six years, Antony works as an apprentice to a linen merchant. Finally ready to start his own business, he moves back to Delft in 1654. He is only twenty-two years old and is now a draper, a person who sells cloth.

To check the quality of the cloth he sells, Antony uses a magnifying glass that helps him to see the number of threads in a swatch of cloth.

In 1668, a trip to London, England for vacation changes the course of Antony's life. While in London, he learns about the work of Robert Hooke, an English scientist who uses a microscope to view objects very closely. Hooke has written a book called Micrographia about what he's seen through his microscope. Although Antony cannot read Hooke's book because it's written in English, the pictures intrigue him.

When Antony returns home to the Netherlands, he decides to build his own microscope. This microscope is different from Hooke's. It has a pea-size lens held between two small brass rectangles and a screw mount to hold a specimen. His first subject is a bit of moldy bread. But what Antony sees is more detailed than the picture in Robert Hooke's Micrographia.

After viewing many different specimens through his microscopes, (each specimen is mounted on its own microscope), Antony decides to show his work to a friend, Reinier de Graaf, a scientist who encourages him to share his findings with the Royal Society in London. At first scientists are skeptical because Antony is unknown to them but they find his observations interesting and they request that he write them each time makes a new observation.

This is thrilling for Antony and he begins his work in earnest, hiring a local artist to draw what he sees in each of his microscopes. But Antony's most famous discovery is yet to come. It is one that one hundred years after his death would lead scientists to make important discoveries about disease.


All In A Drop chronicles the important work of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, now considered the Father of Microbiology. Written in third person, Alexander brings to life Antony's efforts to learn about the hidden world that surrounds all of us. His work with what was a relatively new instrument called the microscope demonstrated that an  invisible and unknown world hidden from human eyes existed. This  microscopic was difficult for scientists living in Antony's era to fully comprehend.

 In the chapter, The Father of Microbiology, Alexander considers how Antony's discovery of hidden organisms was to eventually play an important role in medicine. Unfortunately, few scientists in Antony's time, including Antony himself failed to recognize just how important this hidden world of microbes was to the health of mankind. It would be one hundred years before the connection between microbes and disease would be made, allowing doctors to save millions of lives. This delay Alexander believes was likely partly the fault of Antony who worked alone, had no rigorous scientific training, and kept his methods a secret. He never passed on his knowledge through lectures or teaching, although his letters were published in the oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions. Nevertheless, as Alexander writes, "...the work Antony did with microscopes forever changed the way we see the world around us."

Alexander's third person narrative is straightforward, easy to follow and enhanced by the illustrations of Vivien Mildenberger which were rendered in pastels, watercolours and coloured pencil. Included are relevant photographs, a Timeline of Events, a Glossary, an Author's Note which explains the importance of Antony van Leeuwenhoek's work, Source Notes and a Selected Bibliography for further reading. This short chapter book is also indexed. A great introduction to microbiology for young readers.

Book Details:

All In A Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World by Lori Alexander
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company    2019
93 pp.

Image credit:

Friday, March 6, 2020

Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga

Jude lives in a small city in Syria with her mama, baba and her older brother Issa. Their town, situated below the mountains and close to the sea, is very supportive of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Jude's father runs a store near a tourist hotel. Jude's best friend, Fatima lives across the courtyard their families share. Although Fatima is only a bit older, because she has her period and now wears a headscarf, Jude feels her friend is "kilometers ahead" of her. Both girls love American movies and want to be movies stars, although Fatima also wants to be a doctor.

Jude's most favourite person in the entire world is her brother Issa who has become involved in meetings about democracy and revolution. He wants something better for Syria and he wants change. Their baba is furious that Issa attends these meetings which he considers treasonous but Issa insists that it is Assad who is treasonous. Their mama tells Issa that they should not tempt fate, that life is good however, Issa reminds her that life is not good for everyone in Syria.

On the day of a huge protest, Jude is forced to stay home. The next day her baba shows her pictures in the newspaper of bloodied protesters. After the protest, police are everywhere, at school, the butcher shop, the beach, and there are rumours of people being rounded up and put in jail. In a nearby town, men with stolen tanks and weapons have taken over and are fighting the Syrian army. In Jude's town, people are now openly showing their support for the president by bowing before his picture which is hung in shops everywhere.  Jude's mama is careful to make sure the police are aware of her support for Assad.

Despite the violence, and warnings from Baba, Issa remains committed to the protests. Eventually he moves out of the family home into his own apartment. On the day that Jude is finally allowed to visit him, his apartment is raided by armed police. Issa manages to lead Jude to safety but this leaves their parents terrified. Her father must now stay at his shop to ensure it remains safe.

Amid rising tensions, Jude learns that she and Mama, who is expecting a baby, will be visiting her uncle who lives in America. However, both Baba and Issa will remain behind as Baba must stay to care for their store.

After one final party with friends, Jude and Mama travel to Cincinnati Ohio where they are met by Uncle Mazin, his wife Aunt Michelle  who "looks like an American movie star" and her cousin Sarah. Uncle Mazin and Aunt Michelle are very welcoming but Jude's cousin Sarah seems unhappy about their visit. Jude and her mother settle into a bedroom on the third floor of her uncle's huge old home located in a neighbourhood called Clifton.Once they are settled in, they call Baba in Syria.  Their town is safe for now but Jude senses fear in her baba.

In the fall, Jude begins attending the same school as her cousin Sarah.Instead of helping Jude, Sarah shuns her and goes off to be with her friends.  Jude has seven classes including math and ESL. Although Jude knows how to speak some English, she dreads the ESL class. However, in Mrs. Ravenswood's ESL class, Jude finds a place to belong.

As she struggles to fit in at school, to cope with homesickness and missing Baba and Issa, her aunt and uncle try to help Jude adjust to life in America. Gradually Jude begins to find her way, make friends and to dream again of a future filled with hope.


Other Words For Home is a delightful gem of a novel, written in free verse. The story, which covers about nine months, focuses on a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee's experiences as she struggles to adapt to life in America. Fleeing from the violence of the Syrian Civil War, Jude and her mother travel to Cincinnati to stay with her mother's brother, Jude's Uncle Mazin and his family.

When she first arrives in America, Jude is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a country so different from Syria. Everything is bigger, brighter and faster. So much selection and the feeling that "everyone is trying to sell you something", Jude finds herself "... dizzy with want," But Jude also notices another side to America when she sees the poor on the street. She notes that Americans like to label things because "They help them know what to expect." and that her school is filled with many different types of people, with different skin color and shapes and sizes. Jude is also struck by the boldness of Americans as exemplified in restaurant ads.

Warga's portrayal of the struggles a Syrian refugee might encounter in a new country like America seems realistic. The author states that Jude's story reflects the experience of a family friend who was able to leave Syria by plane, a method most refugees did not have to means to use. (Most fled over land and by sea in rickety boats.)  Jude struggles with learning a new language, making friends, understanding a new culture and encounters the ugliness of racism. She must deal with missing her way of life in Syria and with the fear of having her brother missing in Aleppo. Jude must also begin to cope with personal changes as she starts having her period and moves to wearing a head scarf. If her skin colour and heavy accent haven't already set her aside, her head scarf opens her to more visible racism, with unsettling and unkind remarks from both strangers and even her well-meaning Aunt Michelle.

Warga employs the tried formula of a new student who finds herself through participation in a school event such as a concert, competition or school play. In Other Words For Home, Jude gradually attains a sense of belonging, when she takes the bold step of auditioning for a speaking role in the school play, Beauty and The Beast. She is warned by her new Muslim friend Layla, that such roles are not for girls like us.
"Jude, those parts aren't for girls like us...
We're the type of girls that design the sets,
that stay backstage.
We're not girls who
glow in the spotlight."

But Jude is having none of it. She wants to be one of "those girls." The required two minute monologue gives Jude the chance to speak out and speak up.

"Every time I practice,
I think about how wonderful
it feels to speak
for two whole minutes,
with no fear of being interrupted,
with no one saying, Skety.

Just me and my big mouth,
being heard."

Auditioning and winning a speaking part, offers Jude the opportunity to be a part of something big, to fit in, to make friends. It is the beginning of her rebuilding her life in America.

One of the themes explored in the novel is that of luck and the belief that those who are able to move to America are "lucky". Jude experiences guilt that she has been able to escape from Syria while so many have not. As the war intensifies and America and other countries begin to close their doors to refugees, Jude tries to find a reason why she deserves to be one of the "lucky" people:
"I search every day for a clue about why I deserve
to be here in Aunt Michelle's kitchen,
and fed.
When so many others
just like me are not.

Lucky. I am learning how to say it
over and over again in English.
I am learning how it tastes --
sweet with promise 
and bitter with responsibility."

As Thanksgiving approaches, both Omar who is from Somalia and Jude struggle with how luck has impacted them. When Omar struggles to mention what he's thankful for, Jude understands.
"Omar goes next.
It takes him a moment to speak,
and I wonder if like me,
he is searching for something to say.
If he is struggling with how you can feel so lucky
and unlucky
at the same time...

we are lucky to be here
when so many others aren't
But we don't understand the luck of
why or how
just the luck."

Other Words For Home is a book about journeys both geographical and personal. There is the obvious journey of Jude and her mother by plane from war-torn Syria to safety in America. There is Jude's own inner journey, as she begins to make her own choices like whether or not to wear a head scarf or to apply for a speaking part in the school play instead of accepting what others might expect of her. There is Jude's journey from being told "Jude, skety", meaning "Jude, be quiet" to speaking a two minute monologue in front of an audience.

Jude's cousin Sarah experiences her own inner journey as she moves from shunning her cousin and experiencing jealousy over the cultural connection Jude shares with Sarah's father,  to moving towards acceptance. Sarah apologizes to Jude for her unkind remarks, offering to help Jude's friend Layla after their restaurant is targeted in a racial attack and is drawn into a deeper relationship with her cousin after the birth of Jude's sister, Amal. There is Jude's mother's journey towards adapting to a new life by learning to speak English, and encouraging her daughter in her own journey of self-discovery.

Although Other Words For Home may not necessarily reflect the typical Syrian war refugee's experience in fleeing the country, it seems realistic in its portrayal of the struggles that newcomers to America might experience in adapting to a different culture and in dealing with discrimination and misunderstanding. Jude is a thoughtful, strong, intelligent girl, whom readers will come to identify with. Warga has put a face to refugees, those who are different and vulnerable, showing their dignity and humanity.

Book Details:

Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga
New York: Balzer + Bray       2019