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.”

2020 Just Won’t Let Up…Grim Books

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve got to be kidding? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, economic depression, and an unprecedented post-presidential election transition and you should see the books the publishers are sending us to read! We understand that reading builds empathy and provides survival and coping strategies, but we need cuddly puppies, comfort food, and beach reads since we can’t travel to beaches. Instead, take a look at the depressing topics the authors and publishers are offering up:

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison (Amulet, 2020)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but that just makes it all the more depressing to think about reading since it illustrates in words AND pictures the horrors that happened at this prison. Important stories, to be sure, and about a subject most of us know little about, but hardly the beach read that the picture postcard-inspired cover promises.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2020)

Narrated by Hunger, the tragic story of the men and women and children who end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with nothing to eat but their dead does make our toilet paper shortages of 2020 seem lame, but really? Is this the book you want to read NOW?

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2020)

As if the natural disasters the world has been facing all year aren’t enough, let’s revisit one of the most horrific manmade disasters, which at its root was due to class divides and social injustice.

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar (Peachtree, 2020)

You know things are bad in the reading world when even the promise of sweet candy leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Welcome to the world of black market candy rings…

Good grief! This list looks like the Goodreads account for Count Olaf! What books have you seen that you just can’t pick up right now? Or, please….tell us what you are reading that is bringing you comfort!!!

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.

Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!

 

City Spies – A Summer Blockbuster Film – I mean BOOK for Kids

Lynn: I love a good summer blockbuster whether it is a book or a movie and I know a lot of kids are right there with me on that notion. James Ponti’s new and totally entertaining book City Spies (S&S/Aladdin, 2020) will happily divert kids looking for a bit of a break from the summer heat.

This crazy romp is a series starter that should create fans of every reader. The initial premise – that MI6 has recruited a secret group of teen spies, all terrific talents—requires a leap of faith but once that jump is made the reader is off to the races. The story begins as a new member, an American girl just sentenced to juvenile detention for a well-intentioned hack into the foster care system, is added to the team. A fair amount of time is spent setting the stage and introducing the characters but a well-paced plot with increasing suspense keeps the story moving nicely. Settings include Scotland and Paris and both the Eiffel Tower and the Catacombs are part of the fun. Like most summer blockbusters, the action is non-stop and nail-biting.

Ponti gives readers an engaging diverse group of young teen characters, snappy dialog, and a dose of humor plus the addition of STEM topics that make this terrific fun. There is a definite cinematic feel to this one that I really enjoyed and readers like me will be eager to read the next installment.

Welcome to the Alley – Harper Alley Graphic Novels

Lynn and Cindy: It is nice to find something to celebrate in these difficult times and we are happy to help welcome Harper’s new graphic novel imprint, Harper Alley. Nine titles are coming in September and October and we’ve been lucky enough to have been sent some of them to preview. And what a treat! Here’s a quick look at a few of these wonderful upcoming new books.

Early Readers

Pea, Bee & Jay: Stuck Together by Brian “Smitty” Smith (September 2020)

Pea loves to roll! He brags to his friends that no one on the farm as ever rolled as far as he has – all the way to the fence! Like kids everywhere, one of Pea’s friends challenges him with a risky dare – roll all the way to the big red tree OUTSIDE of the farm fence! Pea can’t back down and he rolls right into the biggest adventure of his round little life. Pea finds danger, two new friends and a new appreciation for home. Plenty of kid perfect humor and cute illustrations with just enough danger and surprises to keep the story rolling along. Simple vocabulary and plenty of visual assistance for early readers. Watch for more adventures to come!

Arlo & Pips Series: King of the Birds by Elise Gravel (October 2020)

Arlo is a crow with a big ego and he tells his friend, Pip, about his talents. He can imitate other sounds (a car honking) and count up to six. Footnotes add additional facts to back up Arlo’s claims. For instance, crows can count, and may even be able to add.) Arlo and Pip’s adventures are divided into three chapters, and the clear illustrations are in panels from one to six on a page with text appropriate for beginning readers. Humor, friendship, and animal science facts make this a winner for early comic fans.

Middle Grade

Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian by Tim Probert (September 2020)

Have you been struggling to find something to give to fans of the Amulet series (Graphix 2008) by Kazu Kibuishi? Look no farther than this outstanding new fantasy series. The sun has disappeared from the land of Irpa. Bea is the adopted granddaughter of the Pig Wizard who owns the Salty Pig and makes medicines and tinctures. While out gathering herbs, Bea encounters a strange traveler, Cad, a supposedly extinct Galdurian, looking for the Pig Wizard. When they return to the cottage, Bea’s grandfather has disappeared leaving only a note and a precious Jar of Endless Flame. The pair set out on a quest to find the Pig Wizard and perhaps they will save their world along the way.

A terrific storyline, endearing characters, humor, and mystery will delight readers along with absolutely gorgeous illustrations. I read this in galley form and even in that format, the luminous quality of the illustrations took my breath away. I cannot wait to see the finished copy and young fans will be clamoring for the second installment the minute they finish the first!

Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte (October 2020)

There’s nothing like a food competition to bring on stress in the kitchen and between friends. Cici is new to Seattle and misses her A-ma back in Taiwan but winning a local kids’ cooking battle would give her the means to bring her beloved A-ma over to celebrate her 70th birthday with the family. Schoolmates have already mocked her packed lunch food choices, so what can she make for the judges that they will like? Cici is a likeable character in a fun story that navigates some of the pitfalls of middle school, especially as an immigrant. Perfect for readers who liked Amina’s Voice, about a Muslim girl finding her self through music instead of food.

Cindy once created a bulletin board with chef’s aprons and red checked tablecloths captioned “Are You a Foodie?” and this book needs to be added to that fun display.

Ick! A Book About Toxic Toots and Bubbles of Goo for Kids

Lynn: National Geographic always does a great job of publishing books that kids love but Melissa Stewart’s new book, Ick!: Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners. Dwellings and Defenses (National Geographic, 2020) stands out even from that crowd.

The book is divided into the 3 main chapters listed in the title: dinners, dwellings, and defenses—all icky. All of the delightfully disgusting creatures get their own two-page spread. Each of the creatures featured has the same categories of information provided including a Stat Stack of statistical facts, a general description, Extra Ick with additional or related information, and magnificent large color photographs. Stewart’s writing is terrific! The general descriptions are wonderfully done, snappy, full of groan-worthy puns but also clear, informative, and attention-holding. It is far more than just eww-inducing! There is a lot of great information provided here about why the behavior is employed and the advantages gained by the organism.

Let me be clear. There is plenty of disgusting icky facts that kids will gleefully read and share with everyone around them. How about a lacewing larva that uses its own toxic farts to stun its prey? Or the Caecilian babies who literally eat their mother’s skin? Yup. And of course, there are plenty of poop-related facts like Burrowing Owls who line their underground nests with poop—theirs and anyone else’s they can find. Or read about young Komodo Dragons who roll in their own foul-smelling poop to keep from being eaten by OTHER Komodo Dragons!

I set out on this book, thinking I would read a few pages a day and work my way slowly through but I ended up reading half the book in one sitting and finishing it eagerly the next morning. Stewart’s writing and the fabulous photographs hooked me. It certainly is icky but I learned so much! The excellent back matter includes a Glossary and 2 pages of Selected Sources for additional revolting reading. This is bound to be wildly popular with a lot of kids who will loudly share the grosser elements but they are going to learn a whole lot of solid biology along the way!

Hilary McKay Proves There Is Magic in Reading

Lynn: Passionate readers have always talked about the absorbing magic of books. One of our favorite authors, Hilary McKay, explores that concept in her new middle-grade book, The Time of Green Magic (S&S/McElderry, 2020) set to be published in July. Eleven-year-old Abi is a reader.

“She read while her father dragged into her life Polly as a stepmother, plus two entirely unwanted brothers. She read through the actual wedding ceremony… She read through the year that followed, squashed with three strangers into a too small house. Most recently she had read through the start of a new school. But she had never read a book like this.”

For a few startled moments, Abi was ON the Kon-Tiki in the middle of the ocean. She had never experienced such a vivid feeling of being in the book and when she came back to herself, there was salt on her skin. Was it the book, Abi wonders, or something strange about the new house? This delicious opening introduces readers to Abi, her father Theo, and her newly blended family. Desperate to find a bigger home, the family has moved into a house swathed in green ivy with room for all of them. It is far too expensive for their budget but the house enchanted them all. I was hooked from the beginning and the way this plotline plays out is a joy that avid readers will love.

But there is a lot more going on here! One of the elements of McKay’s writing that I deeply appreciate is the way she gets inside kids’ heads and describes so perfectly what she finds there. That element nearly stole the show for me in this book as we as readers feel every bit of Abi’s reluctance to share her family with her deeply annoying new stepbrothers, 6-year-old Louis’s emotional hunger for an animal/companion all his own, Max’s painful quarrel with his former best-friend or his soul stunning first crush on Louis’s babysitter. The thoughts, feelings, actions, and fears of each character are exquisitely written here as are the intricate and achingly real relationships developing between them. In fact, they felt so real while I was reading that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have had a little green magic bring them walking into my living room! Hand this wonderful story to every book lover you know!

Cindy: We’ve often raved, I mean blogged, about Hilary McKay’s books (The Exiles series is one of my all-time favorite series). Can I rave about the cover on this one? The cat is larger and not quite what I imagined as I read the book, but it will certainly draw in readers. I want my own attic room in this ivy-covered cottage. Lynn describes the book beautifully, but one of my additional favorite parts are the letters Granny Grace sends to Abi from Jamaica. Granny Grace finally was able to pursue her own dreams after caring for Abi during the ten years after her mother’s death. It is she who provides the title when she ends her letter, “So much ivy, so much news! What a time of green magic!” Her letters always come with a pressed Jamaican flower, too, and little Louis is jealous. He’s not a reader and avoids all tricks to get him to read until, finally, a letter comes addressed to him. My heart melted a little. My heart also melted as Max devotes himself to learning French to speak to Louis’s French babysitter, Esmé, in an effort to get this older girl to notice him. Young love. Book love. Family love. Don’t miss this one. “Iffen” you do, you’ll be sorry.

Heroes We Need: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Cindy: Children who embrace time alone, time to think, and time for their own pursuits are going to quietly embrace Sara Pennypacker’s new middle-grade novel, Here in the Real World (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020). Ware’s summer plans with his grandmother get sidetracked when she falls and breaks a hip landing her in rehab. His parents immediately sign him up for another summer of “Meaningful Social Interaction” with a side of humiliation that is the local Rec camp. He offers to pay them twice as much as the camp fees to let him stay home alone, he’s eleven, after all. They refuse. He skips out of Rec on the first day during a morning run and takes refuge at a crumbling church nearby. There he meets Jolene, who is using the church’s lot to grow a garden in coffee cans. Battle lines are initially drawn as the two stake their claims and go about their projects. Ware, fascinated by the Middle Ages, is turning the church into a medieval castle. Soon their refuge is threatened by a bird welfare organization and the potential sale of the church. Jolene and Ware must join forces and fight for the land that is so important to them.

Both kids have personal issues. Ware is different and he has overheard his mother wish that they just had a normal kid. Jolene’s situation slowly comes to light, although experienced readers will understand her issues of abandonment and abuse sooner rather than later. Both kids inspire the reader to champion their cause and to enjoy watching the transformations that ensue. Being quiet and being different is okay.

Lynn: One of the things I admire most about Sara Pennypacker’s writing is the way she gets how kids think and then puts readers right there in that experience too. That aspect is a highlight of Here in the Real World. Introverted Ware with his rich inner life, is vividly and authentically portrayed here. We feel Ware’s acute anxiety over the prospect of daily immersion in the summer rec program and we also feel his misery at how he thinks he disappoints his mother by being who he is. Watching Ware grow throughout the story and become confident in himself is the real joy of the book. I was a kid like Ware. I remember still my deep unhappiness at the prospect of the noisy horror of things like birthday parties and I still shudder at the thought of games like Musical Chairs!

One of the great gifts of reading is the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and this thoughtful book provides children unlike Ware to experience his feelings and those like him to be reassured. And seriously – what kid could resist the idea of that medieval castle complete with moat? Don’t miss this quiet and wonderfully crafted book.