An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)

It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.  Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.  If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years.  But they were not the offspring of average parents.  Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand.  So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs.  But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing.  That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.

Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province.  His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness.  I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition.  Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally.  Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo.  When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor.  Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch.  It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly.  It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed.  Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight.  Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J. B. Cheaney (YA Historical Fiction)

I Dont Know How the Story Ends

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends

J. B. Cheaney (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.”

Matilda Ransom was tired of the dreariness of Seattle and the restlessness of her daughters and decided that the three of them would spend the summer in California.  Isobel (Izzy) wasn’t too keen on the idea, but between her father being in France serving in the Great War and her constant bickering with her little sister, Sylvie, her mother’s mind was made up.  The family was off to visit Aunt Buzzy in Los Angeles.  Izzy would soon find herself pulled away from the security of her books and thrust into the world of early Hollywood—filled with silent screen stars, bigger-than-life directors, Keystone Cops, a moving panorama, and a headstrong boy determined to make a name for himself in film.  For a girl who loves to tell stories, this summer would undoubtedly provide Izzy with more than enough content.

Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, so when I see an interesting topic written especially for younger readers, I am beyond thrilled.  Being surrounded by everything digital, it was a joy to escape to Hollywood’s earliest years and learn more about the world of the silent screen.  Cheaney introduces her readers to such directorial deity as D. W. Griffith, Mark Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as screen legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.  Cheaney allows us to be a part of the action by giving us a first-hand look at staging, lighting, makeup, filming, and post-production editing.  We often forget just how skilled and talented these early filmmakers were and I, for one, am grateful to her for reminding us of their groundbreaking brilliance.

In addition to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, this book also examines the reality of a world at war and the brave men who returned home, but forever left a part of themselves on the battlefield.  During a particularly difficult moment, Izzy’s friend, Sam, once said to her, “Some film can’t be cut” meaning that some things just can’t be fixed and some matters can’t be undone.  While the entire book is informative and entertaining, it is the last few pages that are the most touching, emotional, and poignant.  For the first time, Izzy sees her story told and knows exactly how it ends.  Izzy’s Aunt Buzzy once told her, “Life is like that—the strangest or most unwelcome, even the saddest things that happen can come to make sense in the end.”  Like the movies in early Hollywood, Izzy’s story didn’t need any sound.  All it needed was a picture…a picture of what true love really looked like.

“Remember how small the world was before I came along?  I brought it all to life: I moved the whole world onto a 20-foot screen.”—D. W. Griffith, Director, Writer, Producer.  Thank you for making the world a whole lot bigger Mr. Griffith.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen (YA)

Tween & Teen Tuesday

Every Tuesday, we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book

 

The Devil’s Arithmetic

Jane Yolen (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

The goal is to stay alive.  One day after the next after the next.  One plus one plus one.  The devil’s arithmetic.

Thirteen-year old Hannah Stern is not looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Passover Seder.  She is bored with her family’s stories of the past.  In fact, every Jewish holiday seems to be yet another occasion to relive those bad memories.  But this year, Hannah will be transported into the past and it won’t be long before she desires the comfort and safety of what the future once held.

This period in history is horrific and harrowing, and the stories told by the Holocaust survivors still tear at our very soul and question our humanity.  In the afterward, Yolen describes the heroism of the camp’s survivors: “To witness.  To remember.  These were the only victories of the camps.”  This story and its characters will haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.  May we never forget.

Rating: 5/5