The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim Wynne-Jones has written a powerful gripping Historical Fiction/ Magical Realism novel for teens.  Seventeen-year-old Evan’s father has just died suddenly.  He died the day after saying that his father, from whom he’s been estranged since he was a teen, was a muremperor of any placederer.  Evan’s father Clifford E. Griffin III, left his Marine officer father to avoid fighting in Vietnam, but also because he was opposed to everything about his father.   He and Evan have lived a conflict free life in their home at 123 Any Place.  After his father’s death Evan becomes intrigued with a book that had been on the desk at which he found his father’s body.  With the book was  a letter from a man called Leonardo Kraft that seems to implicate Evan’s grandfather, Griff in the events written about.  Though he has called his grandfather to ask for help,  when Griff arrives a week early, Evan does not feel comfortable having him in the house.
Evan has been reading the book, a translation of a Japanese soldier’s diary.  The diary was written by a WWII Japanese officer, Isamu Ōshiro on a deserted Pacific Island to his wife.  In the diary he describes how he came to and survived alone  on the deserted island he comes to call “Kokoro-jima,” the Heart-Shaped Island.  He has come to call himself the Ōshiro calls himself the Emperor of Kokoro-jima. He also describes the mythological family ghosts and jinkininki, monsters who feed off the dead that also live on the island.   One day the jinkininki lead Ōshiro to a downed U.S. cargo plane and in it the crew members are dead.   Ōshiro realizes that the navigator has left the plane.  On the beach Ōshiro sees another monster, Tengu, about to attack the American soldier, Derwood Kraft.  They come to know one another and with little ability to communicate, become loyal friends and attempt to survive.
The tension is palpable as Evan reads the diary at night and hides the book from his grandfather during the day. Griff’s presence with his military bearing and manner toward Evan are terrifying.  The two stories, Ōshiro’s and Evan’s account of losing his dad and being terrified in his own home, are woven seamlessly together.

Likewise, the narration by Todd Haberkorn is spot on.  I found myself holding my breath when he spoke Griff’s voice.


The Choice: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers by Kathy Clark

Set in Budapest, Hungary beginning on October 30, 1944.

As Brother Ferenc begins to counsel the boys in Hendrik’s class about their upcoming confirmation, he tells them that in the future their religious life will not be governed by cover80023-mediumtheir parents, but that they themselves will have to take responsibility for it, that they will have to make a choice to follow the church. Hendrik remembers his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and his mind begins to focus on his family in the Jewish quarter, in Pest. Following his Uncle Peter’s detention and deportation to a work camp in 1939, Hendrik’s father had moved them to Buda. He and his parents had taken on Christian identities complete with false identity cards. He was told never to talk about his old life or the relatives they had left behind. From the moment he moved into their new apartment, Hendrik became best friends with Ivan, son of a ranking member of the Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross. Brother Ferencs’ words cause Hendrik to wonder if his father’s decision had been the right one. Would his choice have been different?

Hendrik wants to sort all of this out for himself. He wants to confide in Ivan, who is preparing to join the Arrow Cross, but has second thoughts. He decides to visit his aunt and cousins in the Jewish Quarter in Buda and bring them food. After being asked for his papers, and finding a way to get over the ghetto wall being built around the Jewish Quarter, Jakob finds that life has changed. Jews are wearing yellow stars on their clothes, emaciated people are huddling in doorways. Jakob makes it to his aunt’s apartment where Aunt Mimi rushes to greet him but his cousin hides nervously in the shadows. When it becomes time for the Arrow Coss’s daily patrols, Aunt Mimi hurries him out, but as he is leaving, he runs into Ivan’s father. When asked what he’s doing there, he responds that he’s not Hendrik, but rather Jakob Kohn and a Jew. As Jakob and his family are being taken away in a truck, he sees his friend Ivan coming around a corner. Ivan’s father orders him to go back to their neighborhood and alert the patrols that the Vargas family is Jewish, and should be rounded up immediately along with their Christian housekeeper.

Jakob winds up being taken to Auschwitz, where he makes two friends though he understood that making friends was not a safe thing to do. Antol rescues him at his first roll call, and who, having been there for several months already seems to know how to survive the horror. The other is with an observant Jewish boy who teaches him Hebrew prayers. What keeps Jakob going, though, are his plans to seek revenge against Ivan when the war is over.

Jakob’s story is based on the experiences of the author’s father, Frigyes Porsht. Although ably told as a novel, there are several points that bother me.

One is the title, The Choice. I cringe to think that some readers may think that Hendrik made the “choice” to be taken by the Nazis. Clearly his own parents had failed to explain the situation to him, but how could a child have begun to understand.

The other problem I have with The Choice is the use of documentary photographs. Mostly they are pre and post war photographs of the city of Budapest, as well as barracks at Auschwitz. I found it strange that these were used; in some ways the story was more powerful than these photos which are somewhat grainy and taken from far away. These give the book the look of a nonfiction book and I wonder why it wasn’t written as such. Perhaps the photos were used to bar against holocaust deniers. In fact, the Holocaust is barely taught in high school these days. Young people first encounter it in literature.

As Jakob witnesses first hand the starvation, killing and gruesome humiliation of people he knows and other Jews, I would recommend it for grade 8 and up.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Just a few days after hearing her parents argue, or her mother yelling at her dad when the lights went out, and thinking that the argument had blown over Rebecca came downstairs for breakfast to find that her mother had all their mismatched suitcases laid out. Her mom told her they were going home, meaning they were leaving Baltimore for Atlanta and her gran. By the time she got home from school, the car was packed her two-year-old brother Lew strapped in his car seat, and she was
told to get in the car.

‘It’s time to go’, [mom] snapped. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see your father again. This isn’t the end of the world.’

But for twelve-year-old Rebecca, it was the end of the world. Torn from her father, her school and best friend without warning with her father running after the car, was pretty devastating for Rebecca. She stopped talking to her mother. Even when they arrived at Gran’s, she continued to boycott her mother. Looking for a phone to call her dad, she stumbled into the staircase to the attic where she found an old, red bread box. Having been wishing for all sorts of things, like her dad to show up, for a book. She found one in the bread box. Pretty soon she was wishing for all sorts of stuff that the bread box was able to proBigger-than-a-Bread-Boxvide, including money, candy for her brother, a phone, except it couldn’t bring her her dad.

Starting a new school, Rebecca, who “had never been the New Girl before,” was told to sit next to Hannah, the queen of the popular girls, and was introduced as Becky. She’d never been Becky, and never hung out with the cool girls. At home she hung out with Mary Kate; they read a lot, went to the park and liked to cook and bake together. Suddenly she found herself adopting the manners of the cool girls.

But at Gran’s she began to play with Lew and take him for walks in his stroller. She started to see that she wasn’t the only one that missed her dad. And she learned one of the reasons her mother had left home. It’s not long before all this accumulating stuff that doesn’t belong to her and being fake with her new friends blows up in her face.

At first I found the magic box kind of a strange plot device, but I still couldn’t put it down.  I realized that after an episode like she experienced, wishing and magical thinking would be about all that was left. In fact Snyder portrays the divorce and its effect on Rebecca and Lew incredibly vividly. Her Gran is supportive and loving but forthright about how Rebecca is going to have “to do some stretching.” In a way, he Gran is the person who provides her the support she needs during this chaotic period. After what could have turned into a disaster, Rebecca learns to speak for herself.

This is definitely a tear jerker. I decided to read it after reading a glowing review of Snyder’s forthcoming book, SWAN: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova . Even though they are totally unrelated, I’m very glad I read it.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson

Benny-AlvarezBenny Alvarez’s brother calls him Mr. Negativity.  He loves to argue and be contrary and his mother complains that he always sees the glass half empty.  Benny’s grandfather is really sick, his brother, Crash, is like a whirling dervish of uncontrolled energy and feelings, and he’s had it with the girls at school who think they are so smart, especially Claudine.  He has been in a battle with Claudine since 5th grade, arguing over everything, but now in seventh grade, he’s begun to blush when she sees him him looking at her.

Benny and his two best friends are into words and have a club, the Word Warriors.  They are into the Book, the thesaurus, and each day one throws out a word to see if the others can come up with synonyms.  Of course Claudine takes Latin, so she can figure out the meaning of words from their roots.  Words are at the heart of this book, which can hurt or heal.  The story takes a turn when the gorgeous teacher, Ms. Butterfield, or Ms. D for demigoddess, introduces a section on poetry.  When asked what he thinks about poetry, Benny thinks “My take is that I think less about poetry than I do about the two glands on Spot’s rear end that the vet told us to massage twice a week.”  But he says, he doesn’t really think about it.

The girls love poetry and think it’s all about verse and rhyme; the boys hate it, but they prefer not to rhyme or use verse.  Claudine and Benny get locked in a competition to see who can write and deliver the best poem.  Around the same time, Claudine’s dog dies and Benny’s grandfather has a second stroke.  Both of them are forced to look at things and each other from a different angle.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez is a light-hearted read which covers some serious territory but has some really funny parts as well.

The Children of the King by Sonia Hartnett

“But that is how life works — something is done, and it is never undone.  Everything that changes, changes everything forever.’

children-of-the-kingThe Children of the King is a literary masterpiece for young people, but a great book for adults as well.  It is so perfectly put together, the language exquisite, and full of nuance and discoveries. During the London Blitz, children were sent from London to live with family members or perfect strangers to escape the relentless bombing by the Germans.  Some children fared well and some horribly, though it was surely painful to be separated from their families even for those in the best situations.

In Hartnett’s book, twelve-year-old, not terribly bright and by her own admission, “a clumsy-clot,” Cecily and her older brother Jeremy Lockwood are sent away, along with their mother, to their family’s estate in Yorkshire.   Jeremy badly wants to stay and help out with the war effort, but he’s only fourteen and must go away.  Their father seems to be involved with some secret aspects of the war, but Jeremy is somewhat resentful that he’s not off fighting in France.  As they ride in their first class compartment, they are aware of the hundreds of children who are on the train with labels pinned to their coats, “like luggage… or price tag[s]”, evacuees from London but not with their mothers.  Instead these children were accompanied by strict ladies.

When they arrive at their destination, Cecily and Jeremy persuade their most reluctant mother to take on a child and that girl is May, a bright,  very perceptive, ten-year-old. They are met at  Heron Hall by Byron the dog and by their father’s brother, Uncle Peregrine, a widower.  Spoiled Cecily introduces May, “Look what we’ve brought with us..This is May Bright…I chose her at the town hall – just like picking a kitten from a basket,”  “Standing before such a man, no handshake or how-do-you-do seemed fitting.  Instead May did an unusual thing, she bowed.  She bowed low enough to see Peregrine Lockwood’s feet, which were clad in sloppy brown slippers.”

May is willful, leaving Heron Hall the next morning alone to explore the surroundings.  Despite Cecily’s protests, eventually Cecily tags along and together they come upon a ruin of a castle

“It’s lovely, isn’t it”  Cecily couldn’t fathom how something so fester and broken could be so spectacular.
It’s strange.  Most of the castle has gone, but— it feels like it’s here, does’t it?”

Cecily believed she knew what May meant.  Although most of Snow Castle’s walls and all of its roof were missing, their very
absence told of things that had been.

And so Snow Castle enters the story as May and Cecil continue visit it and find two young boys hiding out.   The story that Uncle Peregrine tells through many nights of Snow Castle and King Richard and the crimes he committed to maintain his place on the throne is woven in. “[it] is not a pleasant one.  In some ways it is like the fairy tales of old…But it is not a fairytale: this story is true.”   It is a story of power and powerlessness.  Jeremy as well increasing becomes angered by his own powerlessness to do anything to help England defeat Germany.

Children of the King blends history with fantasy most effectively.  The descriptions of war and its destructiveness are blunt and as Peregrine responds to Cecily and Jem’s mother who hates talk of war and “disagreeable stories,” “Why not?  History repeats itself; the battle for power is fought over and over again.”  This is a tremendous coming-of-age story in which Cecily and Jem learn that their parents may not be heroes they thought, but love them nevertheless written in beautiful language.  It bears reading over and over again.  And I’m not one for rereading books.

She (Heloise Lockwood) never recovered from the realization that children are willful people; she never trusted them again. Worse, she discovered that, when it counted, the world was immune to her wishes and commands.  She who’d believed herself important, found she was just an angry bee in a jar.

Hartnett’s interview about this book is a wonderful addition to reading the book.

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.

Bug on a Bike by Chris Monroe

This delightful book is written and illustrated by Chris Monroe who has many children’s books to her credit, including the Monkey with a Tool Belt series.  Bug on a Bike has a mixture of painterly watercolor landscapes and fairly simply yet detailed drawings of bugs and assorted other creatures that one by one or group like “ants on a log” at a time are invited to join the trip to an unknown destination by the bug on the bike. The bug is an adorable ladybug with enormous eyes, a red cycling helmet and spindly arms and legs. His face portrays sheer delight. The rhyming story is told in cumulative fashion as he picks up one friend or group of friends at a time to travel along up and down and around to the site of his spectacular birthday party. There he is happy just to see all of his friends having a great time.

Just one element of this book bothered me. The text is displayed in a rather bold, serif typeface, Gomorrah Regular 20/24, while the bug’s speaking or thinking is done in a more natural hand written style in thought bubbles. I think the book would have been served better with a less formal typeface.

Bug on a Bike is sure to be a hit with children who love bugs, surprises, unusual friends, adventures and birthday parties.  It’s a great read aloud.

New Title Needed for this Blog

This blog is in need of a new title.  I’m now retired, and though I do sub, I’m reading more widely than when I was a Teen Services librarian.  Also, I’m tutoring reading at a Detroit public school, so I’ve gotten interested in books for elementary school aged children as well as upper elementary school titles, which have always delighted me.  I’m reading a lot more adult fiction too.

The other thing is that my cycling is going to have to be curtailed after a broken collarbone and a concussion, both within a year.  I’m still spinning, as well as doing yoga and strength training.  I hope to do some cycling, but no more long rides.  

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

“”Do you think she’s ever going to come back?” I whispered.

“I’ve hoped and prayed and dreamed about it for years. But I don’t think she’ll ever come back..”

“Gloria says that you can’t hold on to anything. That you can only love what you’ve got while you’ve got it.”…

“I’m not ready to let Winn-Dixie go,”I said. I had forgotten him for a minute what with thinking about my mama.” (pp. 168-169)


ImageWhy did I wait so long to read/listen to it? I love the soft Southern accent of Cherry Jones. Her voice gives life to each character, adding to the story, and reminding me of people and towns in the South.

India Opal Buloni’s life is filled with loss, her mother left when she was three, and she has just having moved to a Naomi, Florida from Watley with her daddy, whom she calls ‘the preacher,’ He is mostly preoccupied with his sermons for the Open Arms Baptist Church and the suffering. When she goes to the Winn-Dixie for some groceries and comes home with a mangy, but smiling dog she asks him if the “Less Fortunate” could stay with them for a while. Of course her daddy has to say yes to the dog whom she has named Winn-Dixie.

Winn-Dixie helps Opal make friends with the librarian, Miss Franny Block, and other elderly and eccentric folks around town. And she eventually makes a few friends her own age, all because of Winn-Dixie.

This is one of the warmest, feelingest books I’ve ever read. No child should be deprived of it.

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle is another delightful book by Patrice Kindl. I’ve loved all the books by her that I’ve read and find that she doesn

‘t repeat herself. This is a comedy of manners, set in the village of Lesser Hoo in 1811. Althea’s father has died, her mother Imageremarried, but was immediately widowed leaving her two step sisters in addition to a very young brother. None but the step sisters have much prospects as their castle is teetering on the edge of a cliff and they are practically penniless.

Over the summer when Lord Boring and his family come to town, Althea and her step sisters make plays for his attention as they make calls upon one another’s families. Lord Boring is accompanied by his “unpleasant cousin” Mr. Fredericks, son of a merchant, but grandson of a baron. Althea discounts him and finds him annoying, “amazingly unattractive,” and rude. Soon a gold coach arrives in Lesser Hoo and in it the Vincy family, a young woman and her parents who are looking to marry her off to the highest bidder.

Althea becomes embroiled in schemes to keep Lord Boring for herself, thinking he will solve her family’s financial problems, and

marry Miss Vincy to Mr. Fredericks, but as he says, “…you are an interfering young woman, and I don’t trust you in the least when you are in this mood.” (p.173)

In discussing her book and  who she would like to see in the roles of the characters, Kindle wrote, “I had already cast my book; while writing it I’d selected images to suit each major character, and I found these images far more pleasing than anyone I would be likely to find in the pages of “Variety.”  Furthermore she said, they are all real people, except for Fido the dog, and they are all dead an

d they are drawn from period miniatures.

If you love Jane Austen this is a book for you. And if you haven’t yet read Jane Austen’s books, this is a great introduction.