CAPTAIN ROSALIE: A Jewel of a Book About the First World War

Captain Rosalie

by Timothee De Fombelle

Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Translated by Sam Gordon

Candlewick Press, 2019

ISBN 978 1-5362-0520-6

This slim and gentle book will surprise you. CAPTAIN ROSALIE could easily slip under the radar, but I urge you to take time to find it and read it. The effort won’t be great, not in the search or in the reading. The impact, though, will be enormous. In fact this sixty-page picture book/novella hybrid is an ideal read-aloud for those very reasons.

Within a few pages, CAPTAIN ROSALIE will burrow into the hearts of readers/listeners. Its simple but deep text combines with occasional but emotionally powerful  images using limited colors and  sketchy lines. Together they bring to life a heartfelt view of perhaps the most horrific war of all time. That war was too often overlooked by young and old today. The first “world war”, the one that most said would “END ALL WARS”, unleashed a blend of conventional, innovative, and atrocious weapons that revealed the pointlessness of centuries of strategy and the inhumanity of chemical and other technical weapons.

The magic behind making those long ago times and events matter lies in the voice of Rosalie, whose first person narrative leads us into her heart and exposes the broken hearts of war. This is written as if in a journal, by a spy “disguised as a five-and-a-half-year-old girl”. This little redheaded waif occupies an empty desk at the back of a classroom of older students, hiding among the coats while her mother works at a factory after her father “went off to fight”.

As she honestly reports in the  first line, “I have a secret.” She pretends to draw while observing, learning, and revealing her inner observations and worries to us, the readers, in hints and hopes, gradually trusting us to share her mission. We soon meet her gentle veteran teacher who lost an arm in battle. We realize that only one older student, Edgar, even seems to know she is there. She does some chores, accepts Edgar’s occasionally gentle attention, and eagerly greets her mother when she finally arrives at the school to pick her up each day- long after everyone else has left.

This opening quickly established a pattern for Rosalie and her mother and her spying days. Unable to read, Rosalie welcomes letters from her father which her mother reads aloud- presenting loving, reassuring, and confident words that are meant to calm and support Rosalie. Even so, she resents not being able to read them for herself, to access a direct link to her father. His style of simple drawings on each letter feels familiar, even though they show trenches and forests and barren fields. But Rosalie’s spy instincts are alerted when her mother continues reading on and on even though each is only a one-page letter.

Within only a few pages of this book there is a knock at the door and other news is delivered. In the remainder of the book, Rosalie executes a plan to sneak home and read those letters for herself. She doesn’t read fluently, but she has used her spying time well, learning how the alphabet works. When Edgar follows her home one day he becomes a trusted ally, offering support but respecting her orders.

Rosalie soon learns that her father’s letters reveal a horror that is nothing  like the idyllic descriptions in her mother’s words. She finds and reads (partially) all of his past letters but not the ONE letter that caused her mother to gasp, to change, to confuse Rosalie. The one that made her mother no longer feel like the mother she knew and loved.

A high-tension conclusion unfolds quickly, one that is both heartbreaking and satisfying. Rosalie’s need “to know” and her mother’s willingness to share her grief are by no means rare, but are also distinctly specific to these two, to this small and vulnerable family.

Trauma seems to surround more children than it spares, these days more than ever. The quiet “spies”among us know (and ache) so much more than we can begin to imagine. The events in this story are anchored in history from more than a hundred years ago. Even so, the tragedy of loss and grief in these individual lives is universal and will resonate with the specific and personal losses, worries, and pain in the lives of young people today.

The language and storytelling in this seemingly simple little book will appeal even to readers who live protected and privileged lives. Despite that, those “safe” young lives are being lived with an awareness of the fears of this little spy- noticing and knowing far more than we can even imagine. I hope you will search for, read, and share this book.

On a side note, how long has it been since you read THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery? All the while I was reading Captain Rosalie, and after, I was reminded of this short classic. I’d be willing to bet that this iconic little book has been read by anyone reading these words, and that it left you with a residual emotional tug. I’m sure I read it several times when young, but it has been so many decades that I checked it out of the library and read it again. CAPTAIN ROSALIE called THE LITTLE PRINCE to mind, but after rereading I struggled to put a word (or more) to why they felt so related. I’m sure that the determination, resilience, anxiety, and intentions of both Rosalie and the Little Prince triggered that link, but I’m still working out the many other ways that they seem to share space in my heart and mind. If you happen to read both, I’d love to know how you respond to my reaction to this for paired reading.
Please stop by and comment, if you have an interest. And whether that invitation appeals to you or not, please accept my advice to read CAPTAIN ROSALIE.

 

 

A Biography-In-Verse: It Rained Warm Bread

Christie Ottaviano Books, 2019 (Henry Holt)

IT RAINED WARM BREAD: Moishe Moskowitz’s Story of Hope (A Novel in Verse)

Story by Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, Poems by Hope Anita Smith, Illustrations by Lea Lyon

Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2019

ISBN: 9781250165725, 160pp.

Summary:

Holocaust survivor Michael (Moishe) Moskowitz was a Jewish child in 1936 when Hitler’s Nazi rise to power turned his homeland, Poland, into a very dangerous place. In short but soul-stirring, first -person poems, his experiences are revealed in stages/chapters. The 1936 collection recounts bullying and physical attacks, Crystal Night, family life, and bartering his school smarts for the protection of two burly peers allows him to make his way back and forth from home to school without being attacked. The next section, 1939, includes his family’s failed attempt to escape and hide, their regret about not escaping earlier, and the accelerating presence of soldiers, tanks, dogs, and barbed wire fences. Bullies have become beasts, and one last attempted-escape by his father is too late- the borders have closed. Chapter 4, the Kielce Ghetto, escalates the horror of his life in an enforced Ghetto, an isolation-rationing-starvation-execution enclosure within the city itself. Play, friendship, cunning, and his school-smarts buttress his battered spirit and provide bartering material to enhance his chances for survival, but just barely. By August, 1942, the section is named LIQUIDATION and the first of several evacuations to death camps results in Moishe losing his mother and being separated from his father.

Finally, From Camp to Camp finds Moishe hanging on to hope, struggling for life, and relying on luck and hope to sustain himself and his friend. He values the example of  the few adult men with enough strength to encourage and occasionally help him survive. One poem shares its title with the book, IT RAINED WARM BREAD. During one of many open-cattle-car transports between camps, near the end of the war, Czechoslovakian women defy the guards to raid a bakery and hurl warm loaves of bread over the tops of the cattle car to the starving, freezing prisoners. Moishe retains the scent of their courage longer than the aroma of fresh bread. The conclusion describes his final death march, one that did not end Moishe’s life. Read for yourself to learn about how he survived and then dedicated his life to the survival of their stories. This book is his daughter’s effort to keep that story alive after her father can no longer do so.

My thoughts:

For a few years I’ve been studying and preparing to be a Holocaust Educator in the Milwaukee area. Through this structured program I’ve gained so much in knowledge, nuance, and appreciation for the overwhelming task involved in transmitting to a new generation the immeasurable horror and impact of the Holocaust. I had spent a lifetime reading fiction and nonfiction on this topic, actively researching scholarly and personal accounts, digesting and processing a reality that is mind-numbingly horrific and yet undeniably true.

The task is overwhelming, and yet a worthy challenge. I’m neither Jewish nor a survivor, and yet I am invested deeply. Why? Because I am human, and this was a HUMAN atrocity. It is the humanity of the Holocaust that makes the genre of novels so effective and powerful as a tool of education, especially for the young. First person accounts are important beyond measure, but a novelized story, one that is well-researched and prescreened by sensitivity specialists, can reach a place in readers’ hearts and minds that might otherwise be closed off to direct instruction and/or academic materials.

I loved this novel-in-verse approach to recounting a portion of the life of Michael Moskowitz, a very young Polish Holocaust survivor. IT RAINED WARM BEAD: Moishe Moskowitz’s Story of Hope is the story in free verse poems that was lovingly shared by his daughter, Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet to the Poet/Author, Hope Anita Smith. Illustrator Lea Lyon has enhanced this story with its own power by skillfully inserting sepia-toned line sketches throughout the story in exactly the right moments.

Christie Ottaviano Books, 2019 (Henry Holt)

This novel in verse offers a poetic revelation of one man’s memories of the years he spent in ghettos and camps throughout the war years in Europe. It’s an up-close view of the physical and emotional price paid for being Jewish in the midst of the unprecedented Nazi genocide.
The format and scenes introduce a tragic and overwhelming slice of history to somewhat younger audiences, and these days it feels necessary to begin that exposure sooner rather than later.

A book like this is an ideal way to introduce younger readers to a personal story from the Holocaust. It is only one of millions, (MILLIONS! ) of individual stories. Each person experienced a different story of survival, of suffering, or of death. Even so, one detailed story, well told, can be a more effective way to grasp and connect with that ONE personal story than to generalize and imagine, wrongly, that all of those individual experiences were the same.

Sometimes, one story is enough.

Flights of Fancy: Creativity Pompts from “The Greats”

 

Don’t miss this treasury of

writing wisdom and wit:

Anthology from Walker Publishing, 2019

FLIGHTS OF FANCY: Creative Inspiration from Ten Award-Winning Authors and Illustrators is an anthology of essays and writing prompts by the first ten Children’s Laureates of the UK: Malorie BlackmanQuentin Blake, Anthony Browne, Lauren ChildJulia DonaldsonAnne FineMichael Morpurgo, Chris RiddellMichael Rosen, and Jacqueline Wilson, with an introduction by Anita Silvey.

This is a delightful picture book as a literary work, incorporating essays, storytelling, writing prompts, poetry, illustration snippets, and creativity prompts that are suitable for novice or veteran teachers, or self-directed writers and artists. As a whole it is a hefty but accessible volume with colorful images and language, suitable for front-to-back consumption or dip-and-sip random searches. The magnitude of the laureates featured is undeniable. It isn’t surprising that such icons should have both wisdom and wit to offer, but each does a magnificent job of stepping off any presumed-pedestal and plants them very firmly in the camp of the curious audience, providing a wide array of opportunities to consider creative ventures but also reframing the brilliance of their familiar published works in a new perspective. Readers can sense that these brilliant laureates are collaborators, unconvinced that they know the way or have answers or even see a light at the end of a tunnel.

What stuck me as most powerful in each case, from each unique approach, is the bravery displayed. Each seemed able to view a blank page or open space or unformed thought as an opportunity, not as a  block or obstacle to be overcome.

I can’t begin to count the many times I’ve heard young people (or people of any age) repeat some version of “I can’t think of anything to write (or draw)”. The overall impression I gained from this book, the powerful message I hope any reader will take away from this book, is to see those openings, those blanks, those gaps as invitations, convinced of our capacity to celebrate and welcome them, to move toward them with open arms and minds.

This is my feeling, and one I plan to revisit in this book the next time I find such negative thoughts encroaching. There are no drastic or magical aspects to the suggestions and prompts, and yet they are far from trite or familiar. What’s more, these make me even more eager to consider possibilities that the work of creators I admire may serve as mentor prompts in even more ways than I had previously considered.

Please take a look, and share!

***When you have some time on your hands, go back up to that first paragraph to click each contributor’s name. You’ll  see what really BIG DEALS these folks are and also find suggestions from among their many published titles.

 

Review and Reflection: Troublemaker for Justice, Bayard Rustin

Long ago (REALLY long ago) when I was in college, an instructor asked me who my living role models were. It took me forever to decide, since I was only allowed to respond with three names. My first thought was to name family members, all of whom I loved and admired. But I realized that they were not providing ROLES I emulated.

This was in the sixties, and I had been stoking my activist, independent spirit since kindergarten. It was not a requirement, but I knew I wanted to name a feminist leader, a civil rights leader, and a political leader. So, in the civil rights category I named Martin Luther King, Jr., prior to his assassination. In case you are curious, the other two names were Gloria Steinem and Mahatma Gandhi.

I’ve always avoided naming “favorites” in any category, from foods to books to music to… you name it. This is a great example of why. At the time I wanted to include names of fictional characters from literature, historic figures (even from the recent past, like John F. Kennedy), and individuals whose character and values I admired, even if their “roles” were not ones I would choose.

Looking back to that time, I wish I had named Bayard Rustin in that civil rights category. Even though I knew a bit about his pivotal role in the long efforts to achieve equal justice for all, I didn’t know enough about him to name him. I also didn’t know the reasons WHY the details of his leadership and choices at that time were less well known than other leaders.

That’s why I’m excited to cheer for the recently released TROUBLEMAKER FOR JUSTICE: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington (City Lights Publishers).This biography was originally produced and distributed by the nonprofit QuakerPress as BAYARD RUSTIN, the Invisible Activist, and bothversions wereco-authored by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long. I read the original work. In it, I learned so much more about this towering figure in the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin. I enjoyed rereading this important work, which added to  valuable back matter (discussion prompts, timeline, and reference notes) to include an index. It’s all information I wish I had learned when I was younger.

This remarkable man has been the subject of various academic  and adult studies, and Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Even so, Rustin’s name is rarely mentioned in accounts of those important and dramatic decades in current classroom materials geared to younger learners. This dedicated biography of Rustin for young adult readers is overdue and welcome.

My personal participation in civil rights campaigns and protests was active, but limited by youthful compliance with cautious parents. I was involved enough in youth civil rights organizations that the name Bayard Rustin was familiar to me from strategy discussions, and brochures. In later years I read limited references to him in materials about the historic events of that era.

Rustin played an integral role in the movement and mentored various iconic figures whose names are so much better known than his. When you read this thorough account of his life, you’ll understand why he has slipped between the cracks of history, so to speak. As the authors reveal, his comparative obscurity was the result of intentional efforts by Rustin to remain behind the scenes throughout events receiving public attention.

It’s not that he was stage shy, having used his outstanding gifts for music and song to win college scholarships, to earn spending money, to rally support, lift spirits, and simply entertain. He was an eloquent speaker as well, impressively articulating issues, questions, and persuasive arguments. What’s more, he was a handsome man with confident carriage, a ready laugh, and a welcoming attitude. He was direct and creative, well-liked by nearly all who met him. So why is he not better known?

The answer will surprise many present-day young readers.

Rustin was gay. He was accepting of his preferences and identity, never trying to hide or deny it among his close acquaintances. He was not closeted.

But the mid-twentieth century (and long beyond) was an era of bigotry and persecution, a time when homosexuality was considered degenerate, disgusting, shameful, and even illegal. This was such a prevalent attitude that it was codified in laws that criminalized any evidence of homosexuality.

After considerable reflection, Bayard recognized that his own acceptance and openness were not the issue. He was concerned that by assuming a more prominent role in the many public actions of the Civil Rights Movement he would bring more attention to his sexual orientation and relationships. If so, it could develop a “guilt by association” effect on the movement.

He would sacrifice his direct public role to avoid undermining the success of the movement.

Working as a champion for Justice and Fairness and Peace was Rustin’s lifetime goal, his central identity. He was unwilling to risk any actions that could delay or reduce the momentum of the civil rights movement, even though it meant stepping aside from visible public roles. Instead, he worked tirelessly to advise, organize, and promote the many steps along the way from rights denied to rights claimed and established at great cost. The price he paid personally included arrests and attacks, but it also cost him his rightful status among the leaders. Many of those involved say that the March on Washington could never have occurred or succeeded without Rustin’s energy and expertise at the helm, behind the scenes. This biography make it clear they are correct.

The best part of this biographic profile is the skillful balance Houtman, Naegle, and Long achieve in the writing. They deftly explore rich details of Rustin’s early years and beyond. Raised by his Quaker-educated grandma, Julia, he was inspired to relieve suffering, to resolve injustice, and to speak out rather then stand by in the face of war and wickedness. From childhood and on throughout his life, he was called on to demonstrate, time and again, that his actions would speak louder than words.

His words, though, were eloquent, as original music lyrics, poetry, and leadership manuals confirm. Even then, he agreed to leave his name off of authorship to avoid attacks on the organization by those opposed to him for his personal orientation.

Rustin’s story reads as compellingly as a superhero adventure, including imprisonment, working on a chain gang, interactions with iconic civil rights heroes, and so much more.

I wish that this information had been available to me at the time of that original college-age question. I could have cheered for Rustin even back then, claiming him as a role model worthy of wider attention. In that sense, I celebrate this book beyond its obvious outstanding qualities. I welcome the attention it is receiving, including four starred-reviews to date and praise from Representative John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington. I have no doubt that award season will find this title on the shortlists in many categories. It feels like another step toward justice to see Bayard Rustin now rising to greater awareness among all people, but especially among young readers.

This book, and the research and inquiries it inspires, could well land Rustin’s name on the response lists in the current generation when they are asked, “Who are your role models?”

TROUBLEMAKER FOR JUSTICE: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington, by  Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long.

City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2019

Paperback, 160 pages

Biography, Juvenile Nonfiction, Young Adult

ISBN 978-0-87286-765-9

Please support independent bookstores!

Also available in digital format: Kindle/eBook 

 

STOLEN GIRL: One-of-a-Kind (Important) Novel

THE STOLEN GIRLis an engaging historical novel, but quite different from others I’ve read about post-WWII survivors. I enjoyed this well-told tale, explored though the eyes, voice, and patchy memory of twelve-year-old Nadia, a refugee from five years in a displaced persons camp in Europe. How she came to be there is the crux of a gradually resolved mystery.

The story begins with her emigration journey to Canada in 1950. This skillfully written story opens with scenes that are viscerally compelling, both revealing and mysterious. On the transport ship, her would-be mother, Marusia, is so seasick she wears a bag around her neck throughout the long voyage. Without supervision, Nadia thinks nothing of climbing the rail to dangle her legs over the deck above the ocean waves, savoring the sensation of freedom. My stomach lurched during both descriptions. The opening pages reveal that her survival demands young Nadia adhere to a claim to be the daughter of a caring couple who are nother parents.

In those first chapters, readers experience Nadia’s confusing journey to Brantford, Canada and follow her through earliest days of settling into the dirt-floor, bare-bones wooden house, built for them by her not-really-father. Nadia’s point of view reveals taut and conflicting emotional adjustments to the house, the foods, the school, and her peers. Her long blond braids and blue eyes trigger bullying and accusations that she is a Nazi, an attack of the worst possible kind.

Reading those early-days chapters, I was struck by the many parallels with modern day refugees. They, too, face countless adjustments to language demands, cultural differences, financial struggles, and comparisons with demonized stereotypes. This is a well-researched story that rings true to historic events but is entirely relevant to current events, even though it was published in 2010.

The story’s focus and tension shift as Nadia’s memory of her earlier life gradually returns in fits, flashbacks, and nightmares. The more she recalls, the more frightening and confused she becomes. In troubling scenes she relives being imprisoned in a room with barred windows, living in a grand home, wanting for nothing, but wanting none of it. Eventually she realizes her “Votter” (father) is none other than Himmel. In another episode, she sees Hitler’s face, inches from her own, as he pinches her cheek and calls her a “perfect example of Aryan youth”. As memories assault her, she is plagued with doubts about who she really is. Is she, WAS she, actually a NAZI!

The author’s note at the end of this book begins with the lines ”I first heard about the Lebensborn…”. I first learned about Lebensborn while researching the German occupation of Norway for my trilogy. Among the many hateful policies planned and implemented by Hitler and the Nazi Party (instituted years before the actual war was initiated), this is policy is less known than most. The drive to create a master race, a society of “perfect Aryans” is marked by the horrors of Genocide: euthanasia, sterilization, death camps, and mass murders. The less-discussed aspect of the campaign was the formal policy of LEBENSBORN.This is described in the author’s note, briefly and in age-appropriate language. One aspect of the comprehensive plan to build a superior society involved identifying children who fit a detailed profile of body metrics (blond hair, blue eyes, nose shape, skull size, no defects, intelligence, etc.). Children who “measured up”, especially girls, were forcibly removed from their families and placed in German homes, raised to be the future mothers of the Fatherland, so to speak. That horrific truth inspired the fictional story presented here.

To create a novel centered on such policies, not to mention details of their implementation, feels like an insurmountable challenge for a middle grade novel. In my own books this topic is referred to indirectly and with limited details. Skrypuch has succeeded in this a remarkable challenge by using twelve-year-old Nadia as the lens through which readers learn yet another truth about what happened during that war. We empathize and explore those truths in ways similar to Nadia’s- a bit at a time, returning again and again to the safety and comfort of a loving family and loyal new friends.

THE STOLEN GIRL offers the usual aspects of great middle-grade books in abundance: character development, relationships, increased agency, rising tension, mood, and story structure. This story has depth and topical issues that elevate it to an even higher level than other novels. It will hold its own in literature circles and thoughtful discussions comparing social issues, historic eras, and other titles that feature war-torn lives in other decades.

I hope you’ll read STOLEN GIRL and share it with others. If you do, I’d love to read what you think about it in comments below.

STOLEN GIRLBy Marsha Forschuk Skrypuch

Scholastic Press, Hardcover, 2010. (194 pages)

978-1-338-23304-9 Historical Novel, World War II

Available through independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and Amazon