Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Silver Lining

The wind is whipping the tree branches around as if they are rag dolls, as the rain ceaselessly assails my windows. The temperature is less than fifty degrees and there are only a few adventurous souls on the street. I find it difficult to believe that it will be the first of June in two days, and practically unimaginable that summer vacation begins in six days. Because surely this is March. Oh, but wait, this is Chicago. Duh! So, like you, reader, I looked for and found the silver lining in one of those clouds, accepting Mother Nature's dramatic cancellation of all outdoor activities as my personal invitation to read all day. But I'm taking a break to share a couple more books with you. Summer storms aren't unheard of, and you'll need something to read. You're welcome!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, Puffin Books, $6.99, ages 9-13

I rarely re-read books (more on that in another post) but I've read Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel several times since first stumbling upon it in the Ruby F. Carver Elementary School library in Richmond, Virginia when I was in fourth grade with Miss Lampkin (see my first post for more on Miss Lampkin). The book chronicles the life of a refugee family during a dark, tense time in world history from the perspective of nine year-old Anna. The story begins in Berlin in 1933, where posters of Hitler, with his Charlie Chaplin mustache, are everywhere. Anna and her twelve year-old brother Max are too busy being kids to pay attention to the upcoming elections (which Hitler is poised to win), but their father, a well-known anti-Nazi writer, knows that, as Jews, he and his family won't be safe in Germany when Hitler's in power. Anna awakes one morning to find dear Papa gone, with Mama explaining that the rest of the family will soon secretly join him in Switzerland. And thus their almost-three-year-long odyssey begins. I keep coming back to the book because Anna, a young writer herself, is always optimistic, no matter how dire the situation. In one passage, Kerr has Anna thinking "It seemed rather fine and adventurous to be a refugee, to have no home and not to know where one was going to live. Perhaps at a pinch it might even count as a difficult childhood like the ones in Gunther's books and she would end up being famous." She's a little self-centered, but who of us as children wasn't. Anna is also steadfastly intrepid and she finds herself in many stranger-in-a-strange-land situations. One of my favorites is when a red-haired boy and his friends (Anna is in Switzerland now) follow Anna home from school and begin throwing gravel at her and chanting "An-na! An-na!" Mama intervenes and later Max explains, "It's what they do here...when they're in love with anyone they throw things at them." Anna looks at events in her immediate world in a matter-of-fact way and this creates some of the funniest and scariest moments in this life-affirming novel. This is a must-read for historical fiction lovers, as well as family saga lovers. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a modern classic that I hope you read, and read again.

In an earlier post I declared that I want to read EVERYTHING. I need to clarify that statement. I generally want to read EVERYTHING that's FICTION. I don't read much non-fiction, and when I do, I prefer narrative non-fiction because these books deliver their non-fiction in the form of a story. So, it feels like I'm reading a novel and I'm learning a bunch of cool facts! I also don't read many graphic novels because blah, blah, point is that I can't believe that I read and enjoyed this next book!

This is the fourth book in Hale's Hazardous Tales series and it's the story of World War I told in graphic novel form. HUH??!! I know what you're thinking. How can he reduce the horrors of the Great War to a comic book? Well, Hale doesn't reduce anything, especially the horrors. The hazard level indicator on the back of the book assigns TTMB a hazard level of green, for dire, and warns that the book contains, among other atrocities, assassination, bombing, bayoneting, flamethrowers, guts, machine guns, trench warfare, and tanks. Obviously Hale had to include all this because he's telling the true story of a violent moment in American history. Actually, Hale the author has Captain Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War hero/spy executed by the British, tell the story of WWI, along with his Hangman and a British Provost. These three narrators provide unexpected (and much-needed) comic relief and are the "storytellers" in each book in the series. Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a rich, vivid overview of what was called the War to End All Wars, from its complicated beginnings when an archduke is assassinated in 1914, to the deafening cacophony of booming shells in France's Argonne Forest at 11:00 on November 11, 1918. It's important to mention that one troop, the 33rd Prairie Division from Illinois, feature prominently in a particularly grim final scene. And, because in the beginning the Hangman finds the tale "the most boring story in the universe!", our narrator Nathan Hale reluctantly agrees to make all the major players in this retelling of the conflict "cute little animals." And, of course the United States of America is represented by the bunny. WHAT!? I guess a bald eagle isn't cute enough. 
This is number four in the series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. I just found out that the fifth book in the series is the story of Harriet Tubman. I can't wait!!

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