Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Nine year old Subhi is a Rohingya was born in a refugee detention camp in Australia, or perhaps on an island off the coast of the Australian continentthe-bone-sparrow. He lives in Family part of the center with his mother and sister but yearns for his Ba to arrive, to bring him stories, for he has never met him. His maá has been lying in bed, barely eating. Subhi is a dreamer, at night he dreams that items that float up to the tent are gifts from his Ba. Like a seashell that he holds up to his ear to listen for his Ba’s voice. He also savors stories, having learned to read when there was still a school at the center. His Maá used to tell him about life in Burma, about having their house burnt and not being allowed to go to school and his father being arrested for writing his poems. No more, now she just sleeps.
Subhi’s friend Eli and he share everything, stories, food, whatever. Eli protects him and involves him in running an underground trade market in the camp, but he makes sure that Subhi is safe. That is, until one day Subhi is careless. The detention center is guarded by men who Subhi calls Jackets. Most are brutal and corrupt, especially Beaver, but there is one man named Harvey who befriends Subhi and other kids, learns their names instead of calling them by number and gives them a wading pool on a scorching day.

Alternately the book focuses on Jimmie, a motherless girl who lives on the Outside, outside of the detention center. She lives with her dad and brother. Jimmie wears a bone sparrow necklace that belonged to her mother around her neck and she also has a notebook that her mother wrote, but she can’t read. Subhi also has a connection to sparrows, having seen one on his bed in his tent. His sister Queeny tells him that a sparrow inside the tent is a sign of death.

One night Jimmie sneaks into the detention center. Subhi has gone outside and sees her standing with her backpack, her book and her frizzed hair, so different from everyone in the camp. They begin a friendship based on Subhi’s ability to read her the stories her mother wrote her. This friendship has a remarkable effect on both of them; Jimmie brings him food and hot chocolate, things he has never tasted, and he gives her her mother’s stories. She also helps him get his voice when he needs it most.  With all the heartbreak of this novel, there are moments of humor.  Subhi has a toy duck, the Shakespeare duck, who talks to him and makes droll comments on his situations.

As I began to read this new work by Australian writer Zana Fraillon about a young boy and his mother and sister who live in a detention camp, I thought I was reading a dystopian novel. I decided to look up the term Rohingya, and learned that the Rohingya are a people who live in Burma, Myanmar, who are completely stateless. Myanmar does not recognize them as an ethnic minority, or as citizens, in fact using the name Rohingya by government officials is not permitted. They are referred to as “people who believe in Islam” and are not allowed to own land, receive higher education or to move freely. They are subjected to forced labor for the military. The United Nations calls them “the world’s most persecuted minority.” Many have escaped Myanmar Bangladesh where they are kept in detention camps, while others have escaped by boat to SE Asia. Australia refused to accept any Rohingya refugees, keeping them in camps instead and this motivated Fraillon to write her moving novel.

Given the refugee crises all over the world, this is an important book. Except for recalling the stories his Maá told him about why they had to flee Burma, I got the sense that not everyone in the camp were Rohingya. In a way, Subhi seems like Every Child. His cultural background is not clear to the reader. Perhaps that is because the camp has stripped them of everything, their beliefs and holidays. Subhi, though, has his stories and they give him strength. But in feeling for Subhi, we can empathize with all of the millions of refuges around the world.

My thanks to Disney/Hyperion for giving me permission to read this exceptional book.

Booked by Kwame Alexander

It’s been a while since I read a book told through poems and Booked by Kwame Alexander felt fresh and wonderful. I love the way that you get little nuggets of a character’s life, in bookedthis case Nick Hall, and he really comes alive.  Alexander uses his verse to bring the reader in and to make one feel totally present.

Nick and his best friend Coby are in eighth grade and are both soccer fanatics. They play together on the school team but are on different travel teams. Nick’s dad is a linguistics professor ‘with chronic verbomania” and he has written a dictionary called Weird and Wonderful Words. He’s on Nick to read his book, which Nick resents, and many of these weird words, like codswallop, logorrhea and onomatophobia, are used throughout the book and explained in a glossary at the back.

Nick stays up late playing Fifa online and daydreams about soccer in Honors English, till he’s busted. He finds out that his travel team is going to go to Dallas for a world youth soccer tournament, but just when he’s most excited, his world comes crashing down when his parents tell him that his fantastic, lively mom, a former jockey, is moving to Kentucky to do the work she loves, train a racehorse, that in fact they are separating.

Thought

It does not take
a math genius
to understand that
when you subtract
a mother
from the equation
what remains
is negative. (p. 59)

Poems like this one captures the essence of what it feels like for Nick to find out that his mom is leaving in so few words.

A lot happens in Booked though it is short. Nick likes a girl named April who is a frequent user of the school library. The librarian Mr. Mac, a former rapper, keeps putting books in Nick’s hands. And two brothers constantly bully him and beat him up. With help from his friend Coby, his parents, and others Nick comes to terms with his parents’ separation and how to deal with his other problems and lots more.  But the book ends with a big question regarding the contents of Mr Mac’s dragonfly box and only Nick knows.

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.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

25614492Ruta Sepetys’ forthcoming book for teens, Salt to the Sea, is about the largest maritime disaster ever, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. First built by the Nazis as a cruise ship in 1937, and named for a Nazi officer, it was later requisitioned by the German Navy. On January 30, 1945 it was sunk by Soviet torpedo strikes while evacuating over 10,000 German civilians, Nazi officials and soldiers, 162 of them wounded, and crew. The ship’s capacity was 1,465. Septys captures the overcrowding and panic among the passengers and crew of whom only 1,252 survived. Not many people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff though more people died than on the Titanic.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was shrouded in secrecy partly due to the fact that it was a German ship carrying Nazi officials and their families, soldiers as well as civilians. It happened in the last days of the war in Europe and news accounts were focused on the allied victory. Not wanting to demoralize the German population anymore, the German government suppressed the news about it. Also, the captain of the Russian submarine, Alexander Marinesko, was facing court martial for his problems with drinking. He was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev in 1990.

The story focuses on a group of characters who have joined up to get to Gotenhafen, or as the Poles called it, Gdansk, before it fell into German rule and after it was returned to Poland. There they hope to escape the Red Army by ship. They are Joana, a young Lithuanian who came to Germany as a refugee and is a nurse with a big secret. There is a wonderful old man who is a shoemaker who has become a guardian of a young boy who lost his parents. Florian, who they call the Prussian, is really a German who unknowingly worked with those responsible for stealing art for the Nazis. He has fled them, is afraid for his life and has many secrets, including something he carries in his knapsack. The last is Amelia, a 15-year-old Polish girl who is pregnant, fearful and somewhat delusional. The story of their trek to the port of Gotenhafen, evading the Red Army and dealing with their own predicaments is moving. They were all, except one character who chooses not to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, sympathetic, but, except for Florian, seemingly in denial of the crimes committed by the Nazis. He actually is a positive character as he wants to get to Finland to tell about the Nazi theft of art.

I have a conflicted relationship with Ruta Septeys’ new book. I feel that the author turns a blind eye to the Nazi attrocities. Afterall, the city Gotenhafen contained a Nazi concentration camp, not mentioned in the book and it’s hard for me to sympathize with Nazi officials and soldiers in flight. The one openly Nazi character in the book is such a caricature of a Nazi that everyone else seems to be wonderful.

I cannot accept that there is a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Soviets. When the Red Army marched into Germany and liberated the Auschwitz they had gone through a German occupation in which 2.6 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were starved in camps, another half-million mostly Soviet Jewish soldiers were shot. and a million Soviet civilians died during the siege of Leningrad. I find that this book simplifies what was an amazingly complex period of history.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

Zoe Webster, or Princeton as Digby calls her, has just moved to the small upstate New York town of River Heights. She’s skipped school on day one, not knowing how fast she’d wind up9780525428404 in detention. The trouble is, Digby is there too and he’s trouble. He wants her to help him find out who has been abducting young girls and he thinks it’s one of the town’s OB-GYNs, the one her mother goes to. She just wants to go back to go to a private school that will help her get into Princeton, and live with her dad and stepmom. Thus the nickname Princeton.

As much as Zoe dislikes Digby, she can’t help participating in his schemes, whether it’s going to the doctor with Digby and then downloading the his hard drive or breaking in at night to get Dr. Schell’s password, so Digby can open the encrypted files he stole.

Then there’s the weirdos across the street, an “end-of-the-world cult,” a bunch of kids that live in a mansion that supposedly runs an herbal tea business. The girls who wear prairie dresses are always cleaning and their driveway smells like chemicals while the boys  put bags with biohazard waste logos on them in their van.

This treat of a book is fast paced, funny, with close calls and plenty of sarcasm. As Zoe figures, “Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.”

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter is an elegantly written book, narrated by Jack, the Orbiting_Jupitertwelve-year-old son of an organic farmer and his wife. Set in rural Maine, the family has taken in a thirteen-year-old boy, Joseph Brook, as a foster child. Not only has Joseph been in juvie, but he is also the father of a baby girl named Jupiter. He is withdrawn and remote. Joseph won’t let anyone walk behind him, but Jack lets him know he “has his back.” He walks the 2 miles to school in the freezing cold with Joseph who gets harassed on the bus. Jack also teaches Joseph to milk cows and the cows take a liking to Joseph.  And Joseph shows Jack the planet Jupiter which he searches for nightly.

Despite the principal’s dislike of Joseph, Coach Swieteck, who’s back from Okay for Now, admires Joseph’s talent as do his math and English teachers. But Joseph wants so much to find his daughter whom he’s never seen but whom he loves.

Gary Schmidt is a tremendous author who creates real and unique characters all of whom are searching for something.  Watch him talk about Orbiting Jupiter

Winter by Marissa Meyer

WinterWhoo, I finished Winter, Book Four of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer!  After a somewhat slow start, I sped through the last two thirds and I’m not a person that can sit in place for long periods of time.   It’s definitely a thriller, hard to put down.   All of the series are retold fairy tales and this on is based on Snow White,  Levana is like the evil, vain and hideous stepmother and her stepdaughter, the beautiful Winter.  Winter is fragile; she has Lunar sickness because she resists using her Lunar gift to control people’s minds.  She realizes what the effects doing so are.  Just like she refuses to use glamour the scars on her face which Levana made her inflict on herself.  Because of that she has nightmares, believes the walls to be bleeding and ceaselessly puts her childhood friend and loyal guard, Jacin, in danger.
 Cress, the third book in the series, ended with Emperor Kai being kidnapped on what was to be his wedding day.  He had agreed against his better judgement to marry Queen Levana in order to obtain the antidote to Letumosis, a type of plague, that was spreading to the Earth’s inhabitants.  Cinder knows better though, and along with the  sarcastic and egotistical criminal, Captain Thorne, kidnaps Kai and takes him on board the stolen airship, Rampion.  As Kai and the crew learn of Lunar attacks on his palace, he becomes determined to return to Earth to do his job.  There he sets up a plan to travel to Luna for the wedding, convincing the queen that it would be impossible to interfere.  Soon Kai and his chief advisor, Konn Torin, are back onboard the Rampion along with Cinder, Thorne, Cress, Wolf, and the lovable and sarcastic Iko,  and headed to Luna where Wolf hopes to rescue  Scarlet and all hope to put Cinder on the throne that rightly belongs to her.
Luna turns out to be very similar to the world of The Hunger Games, with various sectors kept apart to prevent rebellions and each having different industries or agriculture that feed supply the capitol, Artemisia, with its indulgent upperclass.  The wealthy even dress ridiculously, as they do in The Hunger Games.
I’d forgotten lots of details from the earlier stories, but without Meyer doing awkward replays, I was able to recollect who Cinder’s friends were and their own stories. But this book would be impossible to figure out without having read the first three. There are many twists and turns, as well as a few overly convenient meet-ups.  I really liked the way the short chapters change between recounting the events as they unfold for the main characters.  This becomes even more stunning as the events move toward crises.  As in the earlier books, all of the characters, cyborgs, androids, some of Levanna’s guards and Earthens have such human characteristics: fear,  doubt, senses of humor, sarcasm, loyalty and love.
 

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

the rest of us just live hereSeventeen-year-old Mikey just hopes that his school isn’t blown up before  graduation,   so he can finish school and leave town for college.  Well he also wants to kiss Henna and take her to prom but there’s a new boy who just moved to town who wants the same thing.  Around the town are woods where the zombie deer hang out, like the one who lands in Mikey’s car when he and Henna run into him.  Occasionally an Indie kid. “that group with the cool-geek haircuts,” is killed.  And while all sorts of strange things go on like zombie deer, a demigod of cats and mountain lions, and iridescent blue eyes shining from the woods,  like the title says, “the rest of us just live here.” The bizarre elements are mostly confined to the edges, to chapter summaries with their own Indie characters.  The rest, the main body of the book is about Mikey, his friends and his family.

Mikey’s father is a drunk, his mother is a state senator who rarely has time for her kids except when she needs them.  His sister almost died from an eating disorder, his best friend is  a demigod and his friend Helene is about to go to Central Africa where there are wars going on, with her missionary parents.  It’s no wonder that he’s OCD in the worst way.  How Mikey and his friends get to graduation is a rollercoaster of an enchanting ride.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here is another wonderful book by Patrick Ness.

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond

Dominic Hall and Holly Stroud have been connected since they were very young and lived across the street from one another in a town in the North of England by the Tyne River. As five year old Dom and Holly were walking on garden walls, Dom was hit by a stone thrown by the new boy in town, Vincent McAlinden and that’s where the story really begins. Vincent who is three yearstightrope-walkers older than Dom, lived in “the lower wasteland,” “squatted in holes in the dirt by smouldering fires. He wore a sheath knife at his waist. He smoked, he spat and snarled.”

Their walking on walls advances to homemade tightropes after a visit to the circus and later to wire ones that Holly’s father gets from work . It also becomes a metaphor for their dreams of walking in air as well as the balancing act Dom has to make of his life. As Dom and Holly excell at primary school, other boys are hit with mis McKane’s cane and Vincent is always on the edge of their lives causing trouble. In primary school Dom watches as another boy falls under Vincent’s bullying allure. When Dom and Holly graduate and move on to high school, Dom feels out of place. He is a caulker’s son and grandson of a tank cleaner while many of the others are sons and daughters of office workers, doctors and teachers. Dom wants to be a tightrope walker, to read and wander, to go far but heis is conflicted and also wants to be hard like Vincent . His bitter father is frightened by his potential and tells him “never forget where you come from.” .

In high school he starts to hang out with Vincent McAlinden and changes into a brutish thing. His father welcomes this new friendship. When Vincent shows up at his house with an air gun, he encourages Dom to go with Vincent. He thinks Dom needs toughening up. Vincent takes Dom out shooting animals for the thrill of it, they curse, smoke and drink, they fight with knives and soon Vincent teaches him to steal. Their relationship is intense as Vincent is something of a psychopath. Their friendship is broken quickly when their actions come to the awareness of the police, but McAlinden enters their lives again with devastating consequences when Dom and Holly are about to take their University entrance exams.

The struggle inside Dom between becoming a writer or staying in his hometown and working in the shipyards is central. Almond used the Geordie dialect of the Newcastle Tyneside region to write this book and the sense of place is deep. Listening to the audiobook narrated by Richard Halverson was a wonderful experience.

Almond’s writing is very sensual. You smell the shipyard, hear the noises and see the grime. You can hear the thrashing of the cane on students’ hands in primary school. The setting in the fifties through the late sixties is clear with references to bands and poets. The characters are clear as well. There is a mute wanderer Tom, who lives in a mining hole where he has painted tightrope-walkers-brit-edimages, and who seems to watch over Holly and Dom. There are supportive teachers and their fathers are well drawn. Holly’s is very encouraging of her artistic and academic talents while Dom’s takes longer, but eventually begins to see that Dom needs to move on.

This is a terrific book that absolutely grabs you with its rawness and beauty. I believe it may have been published for adults in the UK while in the US it was published for young adults.