Sunday, January 31, 2010

Echoes of World War II

Background information:
This semester, I am taking a library school class on youth materials. One of the semester-long assignments for the course is to read a substantial number of both picture books and young adult novels. Later in the semester, we're to give a book talk on several books covering a theme of our choice. Wanting to start exploring my options early, I've spent the past week and a half reading a variety of books that in some way connect to World War II.

The book list, in the order in which I read the books:

Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene
I first read this young adult novel when I was the same age as Patty Bergen, the main character, who is 12 for the majority of the book. Set in a small, racially-tense town in Arkansas, the story follows Patty as she struggles to find acceptance in her own home, as she befriends and hides an escaped German POW, and as she learns what a person can be worth.
While I still cried at a major plot point in the book, I did so this time for entirely different reasons than when I was twelve years old. I think that's the sign of a good book, when the reader can continue to relate to it even after significant lapses of time.

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
Although this book is a Newbery Award-winner, and I definitely went through a Newbery-reading phase when I had just hit the double digits, this past week marks the first time I'd read this book. In strikingly simple yet incredibly full language, Lowry lets the reader into the life of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen in Copenhagen as her family helps their Jewish neighbors escape from imminent Nazi persecution.
The language here is what really captivated me; it so convincingly conveys Annemarie's lack of understanding about the events going on around her, but it illustrates that a person doesn't need to fully understand things to make a right choice. As Annemarie's parents and uncle explain what is going on around her, a young reader can also be gently yet definitely made aware of the Holocaust.

What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell
This newer book follows Evie Spooner, 15, from Queens, NY, through the events immediately following her step-father's return from the European theatre of the war. At her step-father's suggestion, the family removes for an indefinitely long vacation in Florida, where it becomes increasingly apparent to Evie that the family is really running away from something. Amidst a plot line of first love, tacit racism, and a possible crime, Evie grows up in more ways that she had wanted to.
While I enjoyed this book overall, I did find some bits of it unconvincing and a tad thrown together. What it suggests about what it really takes to know a person, however, makes it entirely worthwhile.

Crow Call, by Lois Lowry and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
This picture book takes us along on Liz's hunting trip with her father who has just returned from WWII. Liz was young when her father went off to war, so we see her discomfort and awkwardness as she gets to know him again. Through quiet narration and pensive illustrations, we also see Liz try to understand what it was her father went through while he was away from their family.
I loved the muted colors of the illustrations in this book, and I though Lowry's narration, again, got perfectly inside the mind and limited understanding of a young girl. I would not have thought that a picture book could so calmly and so completely show the most basic effects of war on a military family.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This book, the longest of the young adult novels by far, is narrated by Death and follows five years in the life of Liesel Meminger as the war escalates around her in her German town. We see raw poverty, desperation, and hatred in this book, but we also see hope, selfless love, and the power of words to tell our stories.
Perhaps the sign of a really good book is that it sneaks up on you all of a sudden so that you cannot recognize that you've become entirely engrossed. That's how this book was for me. At first I found the narration style halting and rough, but as I followed Liesel's story the reading became easier and more insistent. By the end, I had completely burst into tears; and tears were something I was definitely not expecting based on my early relationship with the book.

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