Chance – Uri Shulevitz’s Story of Survival and Hope

Lynn: Survival in desperate times is often a matter of chance as Uri Shulevitz says in his new book, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (Farrar, 2020). But as in all things in life, there is much more to Shulevitz’s story. This book is a searing tale of horrifying privation but it is also about determination, love, and the start of an artistic life.

When Uri Shulevitz was only 4, the Nazis attacked Poland. Uri’s father fled into Russia and the plan was for Uri and his mother to join him later. In a brief period when the borders remained open, Uri and his mother traveled by smuggler’s truck from German-occupied Poland into Russia, joining his father in Bialystok. Escaping from the Nazis was an incredibly fortunate act but this still was the beginning of 10 years of horrifying oppression, extreme poverty, disease, and starvation. Denied employment except in labor camps, the family traveled to a settlement north of Arkangel on the Baltic Sea, east to Turkestan, and in 1945, an equally harrowing journey back to Warsaw and eventually to Paris.

Shulevitz writes for a young audience and he forges a remarkable combination of an honest picture of the reality in language and images appropriate for the audience and manages somehow to never be overly graphic. Shulevitz speaks straight to the reader and his choices of small vignettes move the story forward while also skillfully giving youngsters the tools to understand the unimaginable.

“Hunger is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he writes.

He goes on to describe being so hungry that his mother made and cooked a patty of grass for him. Uri devoured every bit and then, unable to process it, he suffered intense diarrhea, having to flee to a maggot-ridden outhouse with no roof and wipe himself with stones because there was no toilet paper. Shulevitz also provides the moments that kept him going. Drawing was his lifeline and his love of the stories his mother told.

“My poor loving mother couldn’t feed my body but she did magnificently feed my mind.”

It is the masterful use of these and other brilliantly written moments that make this a book that readers will never forget. This is a truly inspiring story of deep suffering and amazing survival. It is a look inside a mind and soul who somehow came out the other side of a living hell and triumphed after all. This book is a gift to us all.

Cindy: We know Uri Shulevitz from his long, successful career authoring and illustrating award-winning picture books. Departing from this format, at age 85, he has written a memoir that will find a wide audience age range, starting with the upper elementary students who can handle the painful experiences. For the older students and adults who read this, it will be a book they won’t forget. The painful events and the sweet, simple joys that helped Uri and his family and all of those with shared experiences, are chronicled not just in words, but in Uri’s art. He started to draw at the age of three and encouraged by his parents, continued to use his art as one survival strategy. The scenes include touches of architecture and his surroundings but feature the vivid expressions of the many emotions, illnesses, and deprivations he experienced. Photographs and mementos that miraculously survived the wartime travels are included as well. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux deserve mention for giving this book the quality bookmaking that it deserves. It is a beautiful volume that will become a classic.

This past year as many have endured family loss and true hardships and others have complained about less serious deprivation like toilet paper shortages and mask-wearing, this memoir shows another time in our history in which true suffering was faced, and if you had good fortune or chance, you endured. Ingrid Roper interviewed Mr. Shulevitz for this July 17, 2020 Publisher Weekly article, and at the end, he speaks of what he hopes will help others through our current pandemic:

“My mother’s stories and drawing were a lifeline for me during that time as a refugee,” he says. “And I hope readers will seek their own lifeline now. Everyone is different, and it will be different for everyone. But finding that is critical. And if this book helps them do so, my book will be happy and so will I.”

A Classroom Gem – Dictionary for a Better World

Lynn: What words would you use to describe a better world? That is what Irene Latham and Charles Waters have done in Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z (Carolrhoda, 2020). They use words like hope, humility, and empathy as well as more unexpected words like laughter, exercise, and netiquette. The opening page shows an abecedarian style poem using all the words they’ve selected. From there, the book moves to an alphabetic dictionary using the words.

But it is not just a simple definition that the reader finds. Rather, each entry features a poem in a wide-ranging number of forms, a note that identifies the form, an inspiring quote related to the word, a personal reflection on the word by one of the authors, and a suggestion for an activity.

This is a book to be sauntered through, enjoyed, and reflected on. It is a gem for the classroom with a multitude of uses. It is thoughtful, playful, earnest, and challenging. The quotations are wonderfully selected, rich, varied, and thought-provoking and from such diverse sources as Oprah Winfrey, Hippocrates, and a glorious wealth of youth literature. It was a personal delight to find The White Darkness quoted here.

Mehrdokht Amini’s illustrations add a lively interest to each page turn. The excellent back matter includes a wonderful Authors’ Note, a list of the books, poems, and speeches referenced, additional recommendations, an index of the poetry forms used, and the authors’ Gratitude List, one of the activities suggested. The more you look at this treasure of a book, the more wealth you find. Language Arts teachers especially, don’t miss this!

Furia – Following Her Dream

Lynn: There is a saying in Camilla’s family, “Lies have short legs.” She has heard this all her life but despite this, Camilla has been lying to her family for over a year now. Yamile Saied Mendez’s debut novel, Furia (Algonquin, 2020) has a setting and a theme unusual in American YA. 17-year-old Camilla Hassan lives in a barrio in Rosario, Argentina. She is a tremendously gifted athlete, dreaming of playing futbol at the professional level. It is exciting to have this strong new voice and subject. But this is much more than a “sports” book. The driving theme of this exceptional book is the exploration of an extraordinary young woman fighting cultural and family expectations to follow her dream.

Camilla has been leading a double life. Her strict family and domineering father, in particular, think she is the model daughter, studying hard for a career as a doctor. And Camilla IS the perfect daughter. She works hard, she is making excellent grades, she stays away from the temptations and perils befalling many of her classmates. But she has also been playing on a women’s futbol team for over a year. Camilla shines as an athlete, dominating the field, and earning the nickname “Furia.” Somehow she has kept this secret from her family, washing her uniforms secretly, hiding her equipment, and struggling to balance practice, games, and school. Now, her team has qualified for the South American tournament and Camilla knows that this opens doors for her to play professionally. But this tournament requires parental consent for travel and more. Camilla can no longer hide her dreams from her family.

Mendez adds even more complications to the story. Camilla’s childhood friend and first love, Diego is the pride of Rosario, playing international soccer for the Italian team, Juventus. He is a true futbol star and he stopped writing to Camilla more than a year ago. Now, suddenly he is home visiting and intent on rekindling his relationship with Camilla. Wary of being hurt again and even more fearful that her dreams and goals could be sidelined by her feelings for Diego, Camilla is overwhelmed by all she is trying to juggle.

I am a long-time futbol fan and I greatly enjoyed seeing the sport, especially the women’s teams, as the focus of the story. My only quibble might be that I yearned for a bit more scenes of games and practices. But the overarching exploration of this fast-paced and fascinating story does not require a sports fan to appreciate. This is a universal theme that readers everywhere can relate to, portraying the many obstacles a young woman faces to follow her dream. The reality of the difficulties presented by family demands, cultural obstacles, relationships both romantic and family, and the lack of resources and financial support will resonate with many teens. It is a balancing act that young women everywhere will understand.

First-time author Yamile Saied Mendez keeps a lot of balls in the air in this heart-felt story and she manages them all well. She is an author to watch and Furia scored all the goals for me.

See the Cat – Metafiction as a Primer

Lynn: I learned to read from the Dick and Jane primers and I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot to this day! We have come a long way since then, folks! I know that most of you out there came along after Dick and Jane but I know that David Rochelle’s new book, See the Cat (Candlewick, 2020), a delightful spoof of the classic primers will please all generations, most importantly the current crop of beginning readers.

This three-chapter book opens with our hero, Max the dog, responding to the text, “See the Cat.” “I am not a cat,” responds Max, indignantly. Each page juxtaposes a Dick and Jane type statement and an illustration of  Max, reacting to the statements which get progressively sillier. As in any good beginning reader, there is ample repetition of the words and illustrations to assist in understanding. What sets this excellent book apart is the clever humor that works so well for the audience. Mike Wohnoutka takes the joke and extends it wonderfully. Readers will be giggling through the entire book as each page-turn offers another riff on the on-going joke.

Kids will read this adorable book over and over and start on the path to being happy lifelong readers. “Hurray for David, Mike, and Max,” said Lynn.

Cindy: With Covid quarantining and social distancing, it has become harder for Lynn and me to exchange books to review so we’ve had more solo posts than usual (my committee reading and birding obsession may have contributed to those increased solos as well) but we recently risked infection to share this delightful book. I need funny books right now and this beginner reader made me laugh out loud. I can sympathize with Max in the third story as he is denied a nap, but it is a new grandpuppy that is keeping me from my naps.  At any rate, Mike Wohnoutka’s comic illustrations add to the fun text and will delight the adults who are helping the young readers who are finding their way to the magic of reading. Great job, guys. You deserve treats…but I’ve run out while trying to keep my shoes from being chewed.

 

Elatsoe – Ghost Dogs, Murder, and a Lipan Apache PI for Teens

Lynn: It is rare to find a book that is wholly fresh and original with a voice at once authentic and unique. it is even rarer for that book to be a debut, yet masterfully crafted and uniquely plotted. In Elatsoe (Levine Querido, 2020), Darcie Little Badger’s power with story, character, world building, and setting took my breath away. In a year when I have struggled with focus, Elatsoe held my attention utterly and her voice and this story will stay with me. This is truly brilliant writing and its mix of mythology, Lipan Apache culture, fantasy, and murder mystery is like nothing I have ever read before.

This is set in an alternative American southwest. Seventeen-year-old Elatsoe plans to become a paranormal investigator when she finishes school but those plans get a kickstart when her cousin Trevor is killed in an apparent car crash. Trevor appears to Elatsoe as he is dying, begging her to protect his family. Elatsoe, her friend Jay, and her ghost dog Kirby investigate and are convinced that Trevor was murdered. Little Badger seamlessly weaves Lipan Apache culture and mythology into a gripping blend of mystery and carefully constructed fantasy, complete with daily magic and an array of monsters. Along the way, Elatsoe deals with her own grief and steps up to take her place in a long line of protectors for her people. Characters are richly developed and the portrayal of a supportive family and respect for traditions is especially heartening.

Little Badger breaks into the taut sense of the mystery with insertions of traditional stories, and while this slows the pace, it heightens the immersion into what makes Elatsoe the person she is. A reader’s patience is rewarded as all these pieces come together into a remarkable whole. The pleasure of this book is enhanced by the striking quality and beauty of the book design. Levine Querido has done an exceptional job, including the black and white sketches by Rovina Cai that begin each chapter.

I was reluctant to leave the book and while I see no indication that this might be a series, I hope that Darcie Little Badger will bring Elatsoe back in future PI cases.

Canyon’s Edge – a Literal Cliff-Hanger for Tweens

Lynn: My introduction to Dusti Bowling’s writing was with the wonderful Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling, 2017) and I have enjoyed her books and desert country settings ever since. Her new book, Canyon’s Edge (Little, Brown, 2020) has just recently published and if ever there was a book guaranteed to hold a reader’s attention, it is this one!

It has been a year since the random shooting in a restaurant killed Nora’s mother. Both Nora and her father are suffering from PTSD and terrible grief and have pulled back from the world. Today is the first step back to attempting normal. Father and daughter are heading to the desert to rock climb and hike—a pastime the family has loved in the past. When a flash flood sweeps Nora’s father away along with her backpack and supplies, Nora is left to survive on her own in the aftermath. Determined to find her father and discovering a deep desire to live, Nora has to use all her skills, knowledge of the desert, and grit to survive.

The story is told partly in prose and partly in verse and it is quite literally a cliff-hanger! This short book was almost impossible to put down and it is going to make a terrific book talk. Nora’s journey to find her father is also a journey through the grief and anxiety that have been paralyzing her and this internal battle plays out starkly alongside her physical fight to survive. The setting is vividly portrayed and is almost a character as Nora battles the intensity of sun, harsh landscape, snakes, scorpions, the brutal conditions, and the “Beast” in her mind. Young readers will be rooting for her every step of the way.

I listened to this book on audio and the production was excellent.

How Kids Can Change the World

Lynn: Let’s set politics aside and admit that our world is in big trouble. Kids know it and are motivated to do something about it. But many also feel overwhelmed by the size of the problems and don’t know how to start. Happily, we have a book to help! You Can Change the World: The Kid’s Guide to a Better Planet (Andrews McNeal, 2020) by Lucy Bell is just what the planet doctor ordered. Practical and encouraging, this is a doable catalog of actions that kids everywhere can put into practice, backed up by solid information, interesting facts, and lists of resources.

The opening introduction says it perfectly:

“When we hear about these problems, most of us want to help, but it’s hard to know where to start. And some of these problems are so big, they can seem impossible for one person to fix. But we can fix them, if we each do our part.”

Bell next lists “Things to remember when you’re changing the world.” These are so encouraging, hopeful, and practical! The list reminds readers that change can’t happen in a day and you can’t change it all at once. She also advises kids not to feel they have to read the book cover to cover, but instead pick a topic they are most interested in and start there. The book is beautifully designed for kids to do just that. The table of contents lists 8 broad topics including plastics, food, energy, animal activism, and more. Each section lists simple easy-to-do activities, and why this matters. Bell includes fascinating facts on Did You Know pages that are easily shared and add to the reader’s knowledge. For example, did you know that there are more plastic flamingos in the world than living ones? Or that 85% of all textiles bought by Americans end up in landfills?

This book is an absolute treasure for libraries, teachers, groups, and individual kids! Librarians, buy two if you can! This book is going to get heavy use. I’m off to try the recipe for toothpaste!

Cindy: Certainly, in a book like this for tweens, I figured Greta Thunberg would make an appearance, and she does, but interspersed throughout the book are many other profiles of inspiring youth who are leading the way. Nine-year-old Milo Cress launched the Be Straw Free campaign in 2011, Adeline Tiffanie Suwana, concerned about the natural disasters hitting her town in Indonesia formed the group “Friends of Nature” at the age of 12 and is making a difference in a multitude of projects, Maya Penn (18) has been designing and selling eco-friendly accessories and clothing for ten years, and 14-year-old Solli Raphael of Australia is a writer and slam poet using his voice to fight for the environment and animal protection among other issues. These are just a few of the youth included in the book who are taking action to change the world. Websites and social media links for these youths’ projects are listed in the backmatter along with listings for other organizations, stores, charities, and parks mentioned in the book.

A few of the tips and ideas will have to be put on hold until the pandemic is under control (many stores don’t allow bringing your own bags or snack counters your own cups right now), but there are plenty of ideas that can be put into practice immediately. Parents who are looking for activities to get kids active off of devices and screens will do well to have a copy ready. The recipes, handicraft projects, and gardening ideas for all seasons indoors and out will provide hours of productive activity while helping to change the world for the better. I defy you to just read a few pages and not get sucked in for a longer read…unless you are immediately spurred to start your own project NOW.

Graphic Novels for the Beginning Readers

Lynn: Kids love graphic novels and I am always very happy when I find graphic novels written for our youngest readers. We have two fun new GN’s for you today that are perfectly designed for beginning readers.

First up is Donut Feed the Squirrels (Random/RH Graphic, 2020) by Mika Song, a heist story with not one but two tails! Norma and Belly are determined to bring home donuts for everyone. They tried to pay with chestnuts but the human didn’t seem to understand. So now the two squirrels decide to crack open the little red truck and grab a cache for everyone. Easy Peasy, right? They even figure out a getaway driver and a car. No plan could ever be batter! So why is batter everywhere and how DO they get out of the truck?

Mika Song’s adorable drawings and easy to follow panels create a graphic novel that young readers will eat up. Word balloons are large and consist a few words. The simple vocabulary and short sentences easy to decode make this a very appealing choice for primary collections. Jokes abound, both verbal and visual.

Song’s illustrations use simple lines and warm colors. Belly resembles a plump gumdrop and Norma is shaped more sharply with two triangles. The characters are adorable and easy to root for. Five short chapters divide the story into easy sections and the happy resolution will have everyone cheering for a donut party!

Cindy: My graphic mystery takes place on a farm with plenty of suspects. Farm Crimes! Cracking the Case of the Missing Egg (Owlkids, 2020) by Sandra Dumais. Hen raises a ruckus when she finds her egg is missing and begins to accuse the other farm animals of having stolen it. They ring cow’s bell to summon Inspector Billiam Van Hoof World’s #1 Goat Detective. His skills might be legendary, but not for their brilliance. Laughter and puns ensue as the Inspector enlists the help of the animals and the clues pile up to a final happy solution to the “crime.”

The text was translated from the French for this edition and the illustrations range from a few full-page spreads, to single page, to halves and quarters, making it an easy graphic novel for the youngest to follow, even if the text is being read to them. Early chapter book readers will have no problems with the text or following the panels. The brightly colored scenes are full of details for readers to enjoy on multiple reads. I do hope this might be the start of a series and I bet young readers will too!

Frog and Toad Are Friends – Fifty Years of Fun

Lynn: I got a lovely surprise in the mail recently—a wonderful oversize new edition of Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harper, 2020) by Arnold Lobel. Particularly notable to me though is the fact that it is a Fiftieth Anniversary Commemorative Edition! Fifty years! What were you doing fifty years ago? I’m sure many of you weren’t even in this world yet and some of you were very young. I am also sure that no matter your age, you have been touched by Frog and Toad. As an elementary school librarian, I always purchased the Frog and Toad stories and as a mom, I bought them for my boys. And when my grandsons came along, it was a delight to find that they loved them too.

This new edition comes with a special set of bonus pages with archival photographs, sketches, information about Arnold Lobel, his creative process, and more. There is even a reproduction of Lobel’s draft of the first story written by hand on lined notebook paper. Something that made me smile is the tidbit that when the book went on sale in 1970, a hardcover copy with slipcase cost all of $2.50! This is such a sweet treasure of a book!

As Arnold Lobel created his wonderful first story, I was just married and working in my very first full-time library job as a periodicals clerk for the Purdue University Library system. I remember now with amazement that after opening the hundreds of magazines and journals that arrived every day, we recorded each one by hand in our Rolodex system and then in the main catalog. No computers for us yet. How things have changed! Let us know what you were doing fifty years ago or when you first met Frog and Toad.

Cindy: I got the same promotional package, complete with a Frog and Toad bookbag big enough to carry all 70+ titles written and/or illustrated by Arnold. I reread these stories in this new large format and Frog and Toad win my heart every time. In the back matter is a question once posed to Lobel, did he see himself more as Frog than as Toad. His answer? “Both, both. I think everybody is both.” And maybe that’s why these characters are so beloved.

Fifty years ago on the “book birthday” Lobel received a very different congratulation notice from his publisher, Ursula Nordstrom, and editor Barbara Borack than authors do today. A yellow Western Union telegram arrived for him at his hotel in Venice, Italy. Fifty years ago I was just a couple years beyond I Can Read books and was devouring another Harper & Row series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I discovered those in my elementary school library where I worked almost every day. I got to see all the new books first and I was able to work as a librarian filing catalog cards (above the rod) for Mrs. Jean Ducey, my mentor. She was a published poet and nature essayist and even authored a few children’s historical fiction books, in addition to being a school librarian. She was everything I aspired to be and we kept in touch until her death a few years ago.  As Lynn requests, please share your connection with Frog and Toad and tell us what you were doing 50 years ago.

Every Good Thing about I Am Every Good Thing

Lynn: The current schism in this country often has me attempting to build a nest of blankets and bury myself in them. The only way to keep moving forward is to search for the good things and focus on them. One of the really bright spots in our dysfunctional culture the last few years has been the movement for diverse and “our own voices” in youth literature. The stories are powerful, heartfelt and important. They are also excellent examples of writing and illustrating. I love seeing these outstanding books that offer kids the chance to see themselves in books and for all of us to see and hear those stories.

This year, in particular, we have a treasure trove of such books and my absolute favorite so far is I Am Every Good Thing (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2020) by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James. We loved Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Bolden, 2017) by this same duo and I think I love this one even more. There is such joy in this exuberant picture book that celebrates all the good things about young boys of color. Barnes’ lyrical text soars. It is radiantly proud, dynamic and oh so tender. It is reassurance and it is a confident statement that goes straight to the hearts of readers.

Gordon James illustrations are a vibrant emphasis to the text. A rich energetic palette underscores the strength and the humanity of each scene. I would love to frame each and every illustration. I simply cannot say enough about this outstanding and deeply moving picture book. It demands to be read aloud and shared again and again.

Cindy: When I opened this book and saw the first spread of a young, black boy soaring through the air, superhero style, I thought, this should be a poster in every classroom and in every young boy’s bedroom. The words by Derrick Barnes are as powerful as the image painted by Gordon C. James:

I am
a nonstop ball of energy.
Powerful and full of light.
I am a go-getter. A difference maker.
A leader.

Imagine who these young black boys would grow up to be with those words in their heads instead of slurs and demeaning dismissals of their worth? Political yard signs were popping up this fall in West Michigan where we live with the slogan: “Joe and a Hoe, Vote NO.” Is this who we are as a nation? Do we want our young people growing up thinking this is okay? Do we want young people to internalize this message about the first woman Vice President?

What I want is the message on the final page of this book. The rival for a poster for every classroom and kid’s bedroom: A  young black boy smiling, eyes sparkling, hugging himself, with these words:

And without a shadow
of a doubt,
I am worthy
to be loved.

I am worthy
to be loved.

Pair this book with Hey, Black Child (Little, Brown, 2017) by Useni Eugene Perkins for another empowering book that features both boys and girls.