Broken Strings – Healing Hearts: A Middle Grade Holocaust Tale

Lynn: Veteran authors Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer have joined forces in their new middle-grade novel, Broken Strings (Penguin/Puffin Canada, 2019) and the result is a complex, layered and very moving story that shouldn’t be missed.

There is a lot going in this book! Set in 2002 in the aftermath of the attack on the towers, Shirli Berman, a 7th grader, is disappointed to learn that she has been cast in the role of Goldi instead of Hodel in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli rallies though and goes looking for possible costumes and props in the attic of her grandfather’s house. There Shirli is shocked to discover an old violin and a poster showing her grandfather as a young boy with what looks like a family group all posed with instruments. Zayde had never allowed music in the house nor had he ever attended any of Shirli’s recitals or performances. When she takes her discoveries down to her grandfather, he is deeply shocked and then angry. Confused and hurt, Shirli goes back a few days later with her father and then for the first time, Zayde begins to talk about his family and his past.

Slowly over the course of the next few months, the family learns about their Polish family who were a traveling Klezmer band, moving from village to village. When the Nazis took over Poland, the family managed to stay unnoticed at first and then hid in the forest until they were eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz. Stubbornly carrying his violin during the capture and transport, Zayde was conscripted in a camp orchestra and forced to play as each new transport arrived and the Jewish prisoners were sorted with most sent to their deaths. Shirli’s Zayde was the only survivor from his family and after the war, he put music aside forever until Shirli’s discovery opened the door to the beginnings of healing.

The authors do an outstanding job of providing this history for young readers, connecting it to the history of the Sept. 11th attack and examining issues of prejudice, hatred, and oppression in a way that is never heavy-handed but thoughtful and relevant for today. Plot threads of the middle school musical production and a sweet first crush provide a bit of lightness and help keep the interest high. The role and power of music is also a theme that flows throughout the story and young musicians will find much here to think about.

This piece of Holocaust history was new to me too and with Fiddler on the Roof being a personal favorite, I too learned and was deeply moved by the story. An Author’s Note at the end provides additional historical information.

Fate or Chance? Two New Books Explore What Happens Because…

Lynn: Do you believe in fate or coincidence? Maybe you think it’s a divine hand at work, or pure coincidence or perhaps there really is a touch of magic loose in the universe. No matter which way you lean, these are fun concepts to play with, especially in books. Early 2019 has brought us two delightful books that will get kids wondering about fate, magic, and connections.

A Drop of Hope by Keith CalabreseFirst up is a charming debut middle school book, A Drop of Hope (Scholastic, 2019) by Keith Calabrese. Take a town down on its luck, a boy new in town who has made his dying grandfather a promise, a girl whose family has come unglued, and a boy who secretly does chores for his neighbor. Add the town legend of a wishing well, a chance eavesdropping, and a spur-of-the-moment decision and watch what can happen to an entire town from one act of kindness.

Calabrese’s intricate plot traces the ripple effect of seemingly unrelated actions and individuals on the fortunes of an entire town. It’s a little like watching a Rube Goldberg invention: wacky, convoluted, highly entertaining, and it leaves you cheering at the result. There is a large cast of characters to keep track of but Calabrese manages to give them all a separate voice and readers will care about them all. Told in short individual vignettes, the story moves quickly, gaining speed as the connections begin to multiply.

I was given this arc at ALA and the publisher rep said it was a story of “hope that wasn’t cheezy,” and she was so right! It’s also a story of the mysterious forces that connect us all. Give this to a good reader looking for something really different.

Cindy: Because a 4th grader was ahead in her work and because an elementary school librarian gave her jobs and because the girl had a hard time choosing between many subjects she loved, she became a librarian so she could dabble in them all. And over time, because she worked very hard, and she was lucky, she was chosen to serve on award committees and to review and blog for Booklist magazine. Because of that, books like Because (Hyperion, 2019) by Mo Willems and Amber Ren arrive on her doorstep waiting for her to read and promote. Mo writes the “score” here, telling the story of how chance, fate, coincidence, passion, hard work, and serendipity and, yes, perhaps a touch of mystery, results in a young girl finding her passion in a career as a musician and conductor. Amber Pen provides the “performance,” the illustrations, to this moving story of how small moments can result in life-changing opportunities. A colorful trail of musical notes winds through the pages that start and end with musical scores. The opening piece is Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B-minor, and the closing piece was composed for the book by Hilary Purrington. Have a listen.