West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Having only read one or two previous books based on East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a Norwegian folk tale, I couldn’t remember the talewest of the moon completely, except that a bear takes a young girl from her impoverished home and brings her to his castle. Similar to Beauty and the Beast, he is really a prince, but has been bewitched. I read Preus’ book, West of the Moon,  after reading Elizabeth Bird’s article “The Unlikable Female Character: Thoughts on Middle Grade Literature” on her SLJ (School Library Journal) blog, a fuse #8 production. What struck me immediately was the way Astri comments on her circumstances relating how “In the story…” things went as though looking at herself from afar or in some detached yet sardonic way.  She distinguishes between that story in which a white bear came to a house a promised the family everything they wanted if only he could take the youngest daughter with him. In Astri’s story, “my story,” she calls it, a humpbacked man, as “ill-mannered as a goat, too,” came to take her away, the terms having been decided upon previously it appears. Astri and her young sister Greta live with their aunt and uncle and three girl cousins because their mother has died and their father has gone off to America. The aunt is greedy and is planning to marry off her daughters to wealthy men. In the story, the girl climbs on the bear’s back and they head off. “Well. That is a story and this is my real life, and instead of White Bear King Valmont, I’ve got Old Mr. Goat Svallberd. And instead of “Sit on my back,” he says ”Carry my bag”…

Astri is a combative girl. She knows better than to show any signs of weakness and for her own protection, she steals his knife and hides it below her bundle that serves as her pillow. She will need it. The weeks pass and Astrid is busy taking care of and milking the goats, mucking out their shed, cleaning the filthy house and often getting slapped. After defending herself from assault she is banished to the storehouse where she finds a spinning girl who spins smooth perfect skeins of yarn well into the night but never speaks. After a particularly brutal beating, she is outside when something catches her eye. It turns out to be a boy on his way to the port to sail to America within a fortnight. He is lost and asks directions of Svallberd. As he walks west Astrid decides that “that is the direction I will have to go to get to America.” The rest of the book is of her escape, but not before going for the spinning girl, her sister Greta and stealing money, a ring of keys,the boatman’s Black Book, with charms and curses, and the knife. She also tricks and steals from many along the way at great cost. it is the parson’s wife, a man she has stolen from, who says to her”It’s strange, but there is this odd feature of my personality that almost always makes me sad when I’m surrounded by joy and cheerfulness.” Astrid immediately recognizes herself in the words.

There is much more than immediately meets the eye in Preus’ West of the Moon . In her notes the author tells us that the idea for the book came from a few lines in her great-great-grandmother’s diary when she and her husband sailed to America in 1851. There are also many other Norwegian folktales that are referred to within the story that Preus lists at the end. Most of these were completely unknown to me. I appreciate the notes, the glossary, and the prodigious Bibliography at the end of this beautiful, mystifying book.


More books about children during World War II

I’m looking forward to reading The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  I just read a review of it by Elizabeth Bird on her blog A Fuse #8 Production.  I’ve put the book on hold at the library.  I remember loving Goodnight Mr. Tom by Michelle Margorian.  I’ve also got The Children of the King by Sonia Hartnett on my “to read” list.  It was also suggested by Elizabeth Bird.  All of these books are about children that were sent to the British countryside during WWII to escape the London Blitz.

Hidden written by Loïc Dauvillier; illustrated by Marc Lizano; colored by Greg Salsedo; translated by Alexis Siegel

A young girl wakes in the night and leaves her room with her doll.  She finds her grandmother awake in the living room and crying.  She asks if her grandmother has had a nightmare, ‘You know when I have a nightmare, I tell mommy about it and that makes me feel better.”  And she persuades Elsa to tell her.

“It was a long time ago.  Grandma was a little girl.  I must have been around your age.”  So she tells her about living in Paris, with her mother and father, a WWI vet, and her daily life hiddenof going to school with her best friend Catherine.  But one night her father tells her she will have to wear a sheriff’s badge to school.  Of course, it is really the Jewish star she must wear, but she doesn’t know.  When Dounia arrives at school her friend will not play with her and the teacher moves her to the back of the room and tells her she’s lucky she’s allowed to be in school.

Jews are arrested in the streets and anti-Semitic graffiti painted on buildings.  As the situation gets gloomier and she leaves school, the pictures become darker.  One night the police bang on the apartment door and her father hides her in an armoire with a lid over her.  They tell  her they love her and to keep quiet until an adult comes to help her.  Down is brought by neighbors in the building to live with them.  Eventually though they are told by the resistance that they must bring her to a building where she will be picked up and taken to the country.  On their way out of the building, Dounia is recognized and the janitor calls for the police.  Mrs. Pericard and Dounia arrive at their destination and are taken to a farm house where they stay with Germaine for the remainder of the war.  It surprised me in Daovillier’s book that the farmer’s wife takes Dounia, now called Simone, and Mrs. Pericord to church, as it would have provoked questions among the town’s people and could be dangerous for Germaine as well as the two people she was hiding. 

The story is told through dialogue in word balloons, but also running narration in first person in boxes.  The illustrations by Marc Lizano are excellent, showing a somewhat naive young girl who all too quickly becomes fearful, sad and terrified.  There is a mix of closeups, as when Dounia is hidden in the armoire, and long shots.  There are many details in the illustrations that are important to take in.   The coloration is reminiscent of the cover of Coraline the graphic novel illustrated by P. Craig Russell with a lot of browns, blacks and grays, but other colors too. 

This is a very personal story the way it is written and illustrated but is is also the story of thousands of children who were given new names and religions and sent to hide on farms or apartments throughout Europe.  Those who rescued them also endangered themselves and there families and they are called righteous gentiles.  My husband was two when he was sent to stay with an older couple in the outskirts of Paris in a place called Vert Gallant. Previously he had been stayed with them during the week while his parent worked, but when the war started, he stopped going to be with his parents on weekends.  He stayed in Vert Gallant for five years, rarely going outside, never going to school or playing with other children.  Like Dounia, he called his rescuers Maman and Papa.  And like Dounia, there was confusion about who the woman who came to get him after the war was.   He continues to think of all of them as his parents. 


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

     Woodson has written a richly textured memoir in verse, poems that flow one to the next that endlessly.  I was sad to come to the end.
brown girl dreamingBROWN GIRL DREAMING begins with a family tree of the Ohio Woodsons and her mother’s family, the Irby family from South Carolina.  Then “i am born” with her birth in Ohio and her father’s wish to have a boy named after him, Jack.  Her mother would not let him name a girl Jack, so she was named Jacqueline, until years later in  Brooklyn school, when told to write her name in cursive and changed it to Jackie because
                     I want to say, No, my
                     name is Jacqueline
                     but I am scared of that cursive q, know
                     I may never be able to connect it to c and u
Jacqueline was born in 1963
                    “…as the south explodes
                    too many people too many years
                    enslaved,  then emancipated
                    but not free, the people
                    who look like me
                   keep fighting
                   and marching
                   and getting killed
                   so that today–
                   February 12, 1963
                   and every day from this moment on,
                   brown children like me can grow up
                   free.  Can grow up
                   learning and voting and walking and riding
                   wherever we want.”
     In the chapter “the stories of South Carolina run like rivers” Woodson tells of growing up in Nicholtown, an African-American community located in Greenville, South Carolina after her where her mother moved back to her parents’ home after leaving Jacqueline’s father. There she was surrounded by the sit ins at lunch counters and her grandmother’s refusal to patronize businesses that were slow to serve her, even though segregation was banned.  I love the poem “the fabric store” from that section.  After her mother moved to New York City some years later to join her sister, Kay, and brother, Robert, she and her sister Dell and brothers continued to spend summers in the South.  Parsed throughout are short numbered poems, “how to listen” which seem to encapsulate each chapter in three lines.
     All these places, and the people who lived in them, like her best friend Maria from Brooklyn, are woven into the tapestry that formed who Woodson is today.  The forward to the book is a poem by Langston Hughes, “Dreams” and indeed Woodson did, becoming a celebrated writer.  At the end are photographs of the people spoken of in Woodson’s poems and on her family tree.  Everything about Brown Girl Dreaming is special from the soft paper on which it is printed with its crinkly edges, to the drawing of butterflies on the title page.  Woodson’s first book of poetry was about butterflies, to the photos at the end.
                     no one believes a whole book could ever come
                     from something as simple as
                     butterflies that don’t even, my brother says
                     live that long.
                    But on paper, things can live forever.
                    On paper, a butterfly
                    never dies.
     Even the “thankfuls” page is a pleasure to read with its sense of connections. Connections ,  a strong sense of place and a girl dreaming about what she wants to be and working towards that goal make up this amazing book.