Posted in Book reviews, diversity, historical fiction

Prairie Lotus

Hanna is tired of moving from place to place. Since her mother died, her father has moved them from California further and further east. Hanna longs to stay in one place, to go to school, and dreams of being a seamstress. She draws and designs any chance she can. And she hopes that this latest move to LaForge, in the Dakota Territory, will be a lasting one.

Hanna is half Chinese, and faces discrimination and prejudice wherever she goes. Hanna herself shows kindness to the Native Americans in the story. She faces challenges in making friends and is determined to change people’s minds, despite the hurt that she feels. Young readers will be drawn in to Hanna’s story, feeling her pain, and rooting for her as she seeks a way to find a place for herself.

Linda Sue Park says that it took her whole life to write this book. It’s personal, based on her childhood love of Little House, and her experiences as a Korean American in the United States. She explains this experience in Sticks and Stones and the Stories we Tell, sponsored by SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. You can also read more about it in this New York Times Review.

Recommend to those looking for historical fiction — a welcome alternative to Caddie Woodlawn and Little House. I was a fan of the Little House books myself — they were the first chapter books that I read — a gift the Christmas that I was in second grade. I still remember vividly the feeling of trust — an important adult in my life believed that I could read these books. I’m so glad to have Prairie Lotus to recommend to young readers.

Posted in @ the library, Book reviews, historical fiction, international books

Lithuania

What do you know about Lithuania? I certainly didn’t know much before reading Ruta Sepetys’ books. I knew it was one of the Baltic states, taken over by the Soviet Union in the early yeshadesofgray_bookars of World War II and kept as one of the buffer states during the Cold War. Lithuania became independent in early 1991 — with only short lived interference  from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Before reading Sepetys Between Shades of Gray, I knew little about Lithuania. I didn’t give much thought to what Soviet occupation meant. How much brutality lies underneath those few sentences on the subject in a textbook. That anyone seen as part of the intelligentsia, that is, anyone with an education, — teachers, doctors, lawyers, and yes, librarians — all were rounded up and deported. Homes, belongings, possessions lost, families divided. Sepetys draws upon her own family history in her writing, as she is of Lithuanian descent.  Fifteen year old Lina narrates the harrowing tale of her families removal, the long journey on the train, work in a labor camp, and final journey to Siberia.

Salt to the Sea reveals another story often hidden from history — the story osaltf the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the worst maritime disaster in history. As World War II draws to a close, refugees are fleeing the Baltic States through Poland and Prussia from the advancing Russian army, who pillage everything — that is, everything that the Germans have not destroyed as they are retreating. Refugees, children, soldiers alike seek an escape, a way out. Told from four different narrators whose stories intersect, this is another powerful and eye-opening story from
Sepetys.

The links above will take you to Sepetys own site, and I highly recommend listening to her talk about her research and tell the story in her own voice. It also includes more history of the Wilhelm Gustloff, more about displaced persons of the Baltics during the war, and about refugees.

I’ve been thinking about these books quite a lot recently. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, joined NATO in 2004. With all the talk of NATO in the recent election cycle, what are the people of the Baltics concerned about these days? It is more important than ever to learn and remember history. In the Author’s Note section of Salt to the Sea, Sepetys writes: “If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, history, memoirs, and personal testimonies, available. These are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.”

Posted in Book reviews, historical fiction, international books

The Children of Crow Cove

I’ve recently read Danish author Bodil Bredsdorff’s series, the Children of Crow Cove, which begins with The Crow-Girl (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), translated by Faith Ingwersen.

Eidi was translated by Kathryn Mahaffyin 2009, and Tink was translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssgaard in 2011.  The first two books were recognized as Batchelder honor books.

The series is set in an unstated historical period, a pre-industrial age, as the characters eek out a subsistance living, travel to market town to sell goods, walk or travel on horseback. The setting of ocean, cove, fields of Denmark are beautifully described. All three include themes of identity and self-discovery, finding family, finding a place to call home.

Each book focuses on a  different character, beginning with Myna, who is called “Crow-Girl” and not given a name until the end. She lives in a cove with her aging grandmother. After her grandmother dies, the Crow Girl sets off into the world. She meets people who take advantage of her, then others who desparately need her help. And eventually she finds a place and the beginning of a new family. And a name.


Eidi is the story of a young girl, a minor character in the first book, who feels displaced upon the birth of a new sibling. She, like Myna before her, sets out to seek her own place in the world, and eventually finds her way home. Along the way she rescues an orphan, Tink, who is featured in the third story. Emotions are deeply felt, but understated in the text. Serious issues, including alcoholism, are dealt with. The overriding themes of finding home and family are powerful in all three.

For fans of historical fiction, especially works like A Midwife’s Apprentice and Avi’s Crispin books.

Posted in biography, Book reviews, historical fiction, international books

Thinking about revolution

China’s Cultural Revolution is a period of history I know little about.  Probably because it was happening in my childhood and in school we didn’t get much past World War II. In college I majored in International Studies, and concentrated mostly on contemporary political issues. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of books that explore this period. Recently I’ve come across two books detailing personal histories during the Cultural Revolution.

Mao and Me written and illustrated by Chen Jiang Hong (Enchanted Lion, 2008) tells the story of the author’s childhood growing up during the Cultural Revolution in a city in northern China where his parents still live. It is powerful. The story is told from the viewpoint of a child, with no judgment, and the relating of facts is powerful partly because of this simplicity. The narrative stays true to the boys’ point of view, so there is not much explanation of the political upheaval.  The boy and his sisters don’t have much food, and their mouths water as they stand gazing at the candy shop windows. The change is shown in the decor of the house; where once was a hanging of a tiger, there is now a huge portrait of Mao. Changes happen in how lessons are taught at school as well, with his sisters joining the Red Guard. The boy has a close relationship with his grandparents and especially his grandfather, who takes care of him while his parents work. His father is sent to be re-educated, and though the boy doesn’t understand what is going on, his sadness is palpable. A beautiful memoir and fascinating piece of history.

The Red Piano by Andre Leblanc (Wilkins Farago Pty Ltd, 2010)  is the story of a young pianist (based on the childhood experiences of pianist Zhu Xiao Mei), who was sent to a re-education camp during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is an amazing story of how her family was separated, the harsh conditions she endured, how she managed to play piano despite them . . . until she was caught. There is a short historical note, but I wanted to know MORE! Fortunately there is more information available on the publisher’s website: http://www.wilkinsfarago.com.au/red_piano.html and an interview with the author here: http://wilkinsfarago.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/meet-andre-leblanc-author-of-the-red-piano/. The interview is a must read for those who seek the truth and those interested in the craft of writing, for the author explains what parts of the story are true and what parts he has changed or adapted. Though based on a true story, this is historical fiction. Barroux’s illustrations are very striking, dominated by black and white, shades of gray, and flashes of red. The use of red is dramatic and effective, and collage newspaper elements and Chinese characters add to quality of design. You hear Zhu Xiao Mei playing the piano for the book trailer:

Posted in historical fiction, Newbery

Moon over Manifest

This book really drew me into the narrative. Abilene is an appealing young heroine, who is a bit terrifyingly (to me) on her own at age 12. Just for the summer (so she is told) Abilene has been sent to Manifest, Kansas, where her father once lived. She is sent alone, on the train, to stay with Pastor Howard, who we quickly come to know as Shady. And what a character he is — part minister, former bootlegger, but a man of few words and a bit of mystery about him. There is a pervasive air of mystery over the story . . . what did Manifest mean to Abilene’s father? And why did he leave? And why did he send her away now? Who is the mysterious Rattler? There are some notable supporting characters — the diviner Miss Sadie whose house lies at the end of the Path to Perdition, garrulous and friendly Hattie Mae who reports all the whos, whats, whys and wheres of the goings on in Manifest; Velma T., the high school chemistry teacher who concocts healing potions and Ivan the postmaster who leaves her secret love letters, new friends Ruthanne,  a natural leader, and Lettie, her gullible, sweet-natured cousin, the indomitable Sister Redempta, and Shady too, of course. Abilene gradually discovers the story of Manifest of 18 years before, in 1918, when her father lived there, through letters, newspaper clippings, and Miss Sadie’s stories. And what a story it is! There is a fascinating backstory about the variety of nations that people have come from  in the 1918 story — this is a story of immigration, of getting past differences and discovering things you have in common.A story about finding your place in the world, wherever you may land. Of making a home. The author did a wonderful job of building interest and suspense as the stories unfold. A compelling, moving narrative with a satisfying ending, and well deserving of the 2011 John Newbery Medal.