Books I Pretended to Read ‘For the Kids’

Summer vanished overnight.

My corner of the world has returned to its natural state – cold, gray drizzle.

It’s the perfect time to avoid the outside world, curl up with a mug of something warm, a plate of something fresh-baked, and a good book.

Last time, I wrote about the power historical fiction wields – the power to absorb even reluctant historians into an engaging story. In particular, I shared how I’d enjoyed reading Connie Willis’ historical sci-fi books Blackout and All Clear.

Excellent historical fiction is powerful for adults, but it might be even more powerful for young readers.

History cloaked in fiction provides something a list of facts can’t: a face. A character that kids/middle graders/young adults can relate to, empathize with, can guide them through places and times that they don’t have the background knowledge and experience to traverse alone.

I couldn’t choose just one book for this topic, oh no. One of the best things about the title ‘teacher’ is having a free pass to spend large amounts of time reading stories, because hey, it’s research!

The following are just a few of the stories I’ve come across and enjoyed.

DISCLAIMER: This list is not a recommendation to go out, buy these books, and have your child/grandchild/classroom read them, sight unseen.

My children won’t be seeing most of these for a long time yet.

After all, historical fiction deals with real people and real events. Some of these people are cruel. Some of these events are ugly. Stories can help provide teachable moments, valuable discussions, and relevant lessons, but I am a firm believer in saving books for when your child can handle them.

Books about World War 2 (Of Course 🙂 )

number the starsLois Lowry’s Newbery winning Number the Stars details the courage of Anna Marie Johansen and her family as they struggle to protect their Jewish friends in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

There’s a reason this one ends up in classrooms. It’s a moving story, building suspense without delving too deeply into the horrors of the era.

snow treasureChildren in Norway help smuggle their country’s treasure out of Nazi hands in Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure.

I read this one in grade-school. I still recall loving the adventure, of the story and loving that children were the heroes of the piece.

MilkweedJerry Spinelli tells the story of a nameless boy without a family  who finds and looses the people he loves in the Warsaw ghetto..

Milkweed is powerful and painful, and definitely one for older readers – honestly, I’d almost say that this is more an adult book (remembering the story to write this is making me tear up.) Still, it bears a mention on this list, as a remembrance of the terrible suffering during the days of the Holocaust.

American History

Johnny Tremain

An injury dashes Johnny Tremain’s dreams of becoming a silver-smith and launches him into the American Revolution.

Winner of the 1944 Newbery Medal, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain is another story I remember from elementary school that I still enjoy as an adult. Johnny’s growth as a character – from being on top of his world, to loosing everything, to finding himself again in a cause that he believes in – makes this book stand out as a classic.

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Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Isabel, a slave who ought to have been freed, who searches for freedom for herself and her sister during the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War.

I bought Chains this summer just because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and it looked interesting. I’m so glad I did! Isabel’s story moved me to tears. (Ok, honestly? I was bawling like a baby halfway through.) Despite this, it’s not a story of despair. There’s sorrow and realism, but also hope.

Chains (and its sequels) looks at this period through the eyes of slaves. I appreciated the unique approach to the era, and the even-handedness of the author. I felt she told the story without vilifying any particular group, (which makes a refreshing change from so much of what’s going on these days!)

Out of the dustBillie Jo wrestles with terrible losses in her family during the Dust Bowl years.

It’s been a few years since I’ve picked up Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the 1998 Newberry Winner, and I’m thinking I’ll have to reread it. It’s written as free-verse journal entries, and it’s a fast read, but full of depth. (If you haven’t explained childbirth to your kids yet, be prepared for questions. 😉 )

Dear America

Minnie’s family takes in an orphaned relative from the Texas dust bowl, and tries to ‘make do’ for a Christmas during the Depression.

The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift is part of the “Dear America” series. The series employed different authors for its books, and  I haven’t picked up others in the series, but if Katherine Lasky’s contribution is an indication of the quality, they may be worth looking into.

 

World History

The Bronze Bow

Daniel bar-Jamin hates the Romans and determines to help drive them out of Israel, until the teachings of the rabbi Jesus lead him to question whether his hatred will bring the healing he needs.

Set in Israel during the time of Christ, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow delves into the political and social struggles of the day (which fit in awfully well with all of the current world’s turmoil and hate) in an engaging and exciting way. Judging by the Amazon reviews, you don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy the story. As a Christian, I found the story a fascinating way to help me better visualize living in this era…and it’s a great read.

Magic Tree HouseIn The Magic Tree House books, Jack and Annie of Frog Creek Pennsylvania travel through time to complete quests, helped by the mythical figures of Camelot.

The Magic Tree House series includes a healthy dose of ‘fiction’ in its historical premise, as Morgan Le Fay and Merlin send Jack and Annie on quests for various magical do-dads. The series uses this fantastical premise to introduce all sorts of historical places, people and events in a very basic way. My seven and five-year-old love hearing these as read-alouds, and when Jack and Annie ended up in Normandy the day before D-Day, my daughter was excited that she was reading a World War 2 book, just like mommy.

Then, of course, there are the ones I’ve been meaning to read…

… and if you have others to suggest, I’d love to hear from you!

Happy reading, keep warm, and if you’re in a part of the world that is still enjoying sunshine, soak some up for me, won’t you?

 

 

 

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Connie Willis’ BLACKOUT: The Power of Historical Fiction

I’ve never found history a dull subject.

Walking into the highschool classroom, all geared up to begin my student teaching, it was apparent that I was in the minority.

Some freshmen and sophomores slumped in their seats, eyes glazing over in preparation for a lecture-induced coma. Others gripped pencils, grimly determined to make the grade, however painful the process might be.

No problem. After all, I was twenty-two, in my fifth year of college, and therefore knew everything I needed to motivate and excite them with THE WONDER OF LEARNING!!!

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Sigh. Young Anne. You have so much to learn…

 

Why is that highschool reaction so common? Why does it seem that so many people expect history to be dull?

Maybe it has something to do with the way it’s traditionally presented.

After all, history teachers have a great deal of information to impart in a brief period of time. Great world events are, by necessity, boiled down to bullet points, lists of dates, and a few ageing photos.

While I don’t intend to debate teaching styles, I think it’s fair to say that oftentimes the people who lived history get buried in minutia, and with them is buried a chance for the modern learner to connect and empathize with the past.

Tales of heroism and cowardice, of kindness and cruelty, can engage even the most skeptical learner.

Of course, anyone who perceives history as dull and dry is unlikely to seek out non-fiction books to find these tales.

Therein lies the power of excellent historical fiction.

I was recently introduced to Connie Willis’ novel Blackout and the sequel All Clear. (Many thanks to Sarah Higbee and her Brainfluff blog.)

I was attracted to the books by the WW2 photos on the covers, but what sold me was the twist in their storytelling- a change from my diet of nonfiction to historical science fiction.

Oxford in the year 2060 sends historians to study history first-hand, via time travel. The process has been perfected, and all (well, nearly all) of the experts are convinced that the historians are unable to affect history’s outcome. However, when Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in World War 2, it appears that this philosophy may be entirely wrong.

Now, I like my historical fiction with an emphasis on the ‘historical.’ (Am I the only one nerdy enough to be wee bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new about World War I while watching the otherwise entertaining Wonder Woman? No one else? Sigh.)

 

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“Now, let me explain some of the inciting incidents for this particular war…” (Hm. Ok, that probably wouldn’t have worked.)

 

Ms. Willis packs in a tremendous amount of early World War 2 historical detail. I’ll confess, I suspected at one point during the first book that a few of the POV changes existed for the sole purpose of including some of her research.

Hmmm. This story is primarily set during The Blitz Ambulance drivers and Operation Fortitude fit in…where? 

I’m pleased to announce that my suspicions were unfounded. By the end of book two, (in which I felt the pacing moved along a bit better,) all plot threads were accounted for in a most satisfying way.

Of course, incorporating a great deal of factual detail risks pulling the reader out of the narrative. Long info-dumps can weaken the most fascinating story.

I felt that Ms. Willis avoided this pitfall. Her main characters were visitors in the past, so conversations and observations about the period made sense. She didn’t lean on this ‘free pass to lecture’ overmuch; information was woven into the story as the characters lived the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, and caring for evacuees.

A history lecture on these events might fail to excite skeptics.

I enjoy learning about history, and I still find the facts and figures blending together at times.

Books like Ms. Willis’ give an opportunity to experience history in a different way.

We readers can briefly slip on the shoes of her characters and walk the rubble-strewn streets of London, struggle through crowded tube stations as threatening cacophony fills the skies overhead, and meet the everyday heroes who survived the struggle, one day at a time…

…and it’s all hidden in a time travel sci-fi novel.

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Side notes: Teaching history ended up being great fun. Every time I did something besides lecture, it was like I was a teaching ROCK STAR! 🙂

I enjoyed the stories and the fresh look at history that these books provided. Due to the harrowing nature of the Blitz and some language used in response to the dangers, this one’s not for the little ‘uns. 🙂 I’m planning to blog on historical fiction for younger audiences next time. (Ahem. Younger in theory. I still like them.)

At some point I’m going to get some more non-fiction on here, when I can climb out from under the piles of sheet music I’m trying to learn…

Thanks for visiting!

 

 

 

Watching Over Me: A German Girl’s World War II Story of Survival and a Quest for Peace

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Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

I try to resist my addiction.

With the bookshelves in our home full to overflowing, in some cases stacked triple-deep, I try to focus on using the public library for new reading material.

Still, exceptions must be made! When an acquaintance of a friend of a friend published a book, AND it happened to be a World War 2 memoir, what choice did I have?

Watching over meWatching Over Me , by Rachel Hartman, records the recollections of Elfi Gartzke, supplemented by her mother and other relatives.

Elfi was born in eastern Germany in 1940. Her family did not subscribe to the ideologies of the Nazi party. Devout Christians, they managed to lead fairly quiet lives on their acreage as war consumed the world around them.

This changed in 1944 as her father, (along with all men between the ages of 16 to 60 who could bear arms,) was drafted into the Volkssturm, or “people’s army.” He was sent away to an unknown location just before Christmas.

His family still knew nothing of his whereabouts- or even if he were still alive- when they fled their home in January of 1945 to escape the advancing Russian army.

They managed to find transport via train. The journey was interspersed with frantic scrambles to shelters to avoid falling bombs, where Elfi’s mother, ‘Mutti,’ would sing hymns in the dark to comfort her three children.

Reaching the relative safety of Harksheide, a city farther west, Elfi’s family struggled to build new lives in the rubble. As refugees, they faced negative attitudes, inadequate housing, and meager food allotments.

In spite of the challenges, this memoir is anything but bleak.  Trouble was interspersed with joys, such as the return of Elfi’s father. Elfi still experienced some of the simple pleasures of childhood: making friends, finding a place to play (even if it was only a particularly large bomb crater,) and receiving her first doll. Through all, her Mutti strove to keep their hopes alive and their faith strong.

Largely told from a child’s memories, Watching Over Me was quite different from the other books I’ve read about the same era. Elfi’s concerns were primarily relegated to day-to-day life. Her perspective was a poignant reminder of the suffering that lingers on both sides of a conflict, even after the hostilities of war have ended.

The author also interspersed some significant ‘big picture’ events into Elfi’s narrative. She dealt frankly, if briefly, with the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s regime. She also related dates in Elfi’s life with events in the world, such as the Berlin Airlift, the conflicts in Korea, and the beginnings of the space program.

The last third of the book described the family’s emigration to the United States, sponsored by a kind stranger from Nebraska and their subsequent lives- learning a new language and a different culture. While I hadn’t expected this much post-war information, I found the stories interesting. My family left their European roots a few generations before Elfi’s, but I imagine some of the experiences were similar.

Overall, I found Watching Over Me an enjoyable and uplifting anecdotal history of faith and family, and a worthy addition to my bulging bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

 

UNDER THE WIRE- the Stories of a POW Escapologist

I love a good survivor story.

I find tales of people who ‘beat the odds,’ ‘stayed the course, (or whatever cliché you prefer,) fascinating, as well as encouraging.

There is solidarity in suffering, and perhaps perversely, comfort in seeing that someone was able to survive much worse than whatever I might be struggling with.

I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of pretty amazing survivor stories through other bloggers. It seemed fitting to use today’s post to share one that I recently discovered.

Under the wire book cover

Bill Ash was a Texan, who disliked bullies. Thus, hearing the stories of Hitler’s conquests overseas, Bill decided that he would join the war, even if his country would not.

He traveled to Canada, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and ended up flying Spitfires with the RAF.

Bill loved to fly. “Once in the sky, a Spitfire pilot is alone- a hunter, an acrobat, and a warrior king. The only trouble in my case was that the king was about to be beheaded.” (pg. 9)

Bill’s plane was shot down in France. He was caught, arrested, tortured, and eventually imprisoned as a POW.

For many, imprisonment would spell the end of the war. Bill, however, was an officer. It was illegal for him to be pressed into forced labor. Instead, he was sent to a camp run by the Luftwaffe, where he continued to fight from the inside.

Bill and many of his fellow prisoners considered it their duty to cause as much trouble and to keep as many of their captors busy as possible. To do so, they became “escapologists.”

The tales Mr. Ash tells in this book are extraordinary. I grew up watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and laughing at the absurdities. Some of the stories Mr. Ash shares could have fit well into an episode.

From the well-organized ‘Escape Committee,’ to digging tunnels under latrines, to secreting hand-made radios inside of table legs, the ingenuity of the POWs reads more like fiction than fact.

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So, I’m just going over here to wreak havoc on your plans. Ok, Schultz?

Some have claimed that Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape was based off of Bill Ash. He did not agree with the comparison, not the least because of his lack of motorcycle skills. He did, however, know many of the men involved in the real-life Great Escape, though he was not available to participate in it himself.

The Great Escape

(Side note, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth your time. And if you need some levity afterwards, the spin-off below has some nice homages 🙂 )

Chicken Run

Full of laughter and sorrow, gross abuses and courageous kindness, Under the Wire is a fascinating story of survival.

Up Front by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles, and ongoing struggles that may not end this side of heaven, but once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these. At least my family has a home. At least my loved ones can get medical care. At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from. At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

My husband encouraged me to pick up some fiction again in the midst of this when the heavy topics made me gloomy. He also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front isn’t exactly a history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

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He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids! The text of the book isn’t either for that matter) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress, (though not exactly chronologically,) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

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While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.