Sunday, July 31, 2022

Inspiring Women and Girls

Vernick, Shirley Reva. The Sky We Shared
June 7th 2022 by Cinco Puntos Press
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

During World War II, we meet Tamiko, who lives in rural Japan in 1944 and dreams of one day sewing costumes for the theater. Her parents are dead, and she lives with an aunt. Her brother Kyo, has worked with her in the rice fields, but food is so scarce that he decides to join the army. Tamiko is not happy, but there is little she can do but send a daruma doll with him for luck. She and her friend Suki are told that they will be going to a nearby city to work on a project, and Tamiko hopes she can use her skills. When the group has to walk, she is told that she will not be going because she is somewhat lame, having had polio. She sneaks into the group and is soon working on giant paper balloons that are washi paper with potato glue. There are twelve hour shifts, only two rice balls a day, plus some amphetamine tablets, and the girls must sleep on the cold floor. Everyone works hard, hoping to aid the soldiers who are fighting for the Emperor Hirohito in his holy war. 

In Oregon, in 1945, we meet Nellie. Her father is stationed in Alaska with the army, and her best friend Joey seems distant since the death of his older brother. Life goes on, and the families must deal with rationing, scrap drives, and propaganda. Joey is angry at the local military recruiter and sets fire on his property, but Nellie covers for him, and the man is actually very understanding. Nellie's best friend, Ruby, has a grandfather who raises pigeons, and the girls go about their days, attending school and church. Since the weather has been warm, Pastor Mitchell and his wife, who is expecting, plan on taking some of the children on a picnic in the woods. 

When the balloons are almost done, the soldiers let Tamiko know that they will be used to bomb the US. Tamiko tells the other workers, who are all glad to help the soldiers and hopefully bring a swift end to the war by attacking the US. Suki has been sent home because she is coughing blood, a sure sign of tuberculosis. Hiroshima is bombed, and Suki feels that attacking the US is not the best idea, but Tamiko is still so worried about her brother that she falls out with her friend over this. Conditions continue to worsen as the Japanese food supply is cut off, and even the local trader has nothing to give Tamiko for a picture frame, or even to eat herself. When Kyo comes home, but is injured, Tamiko continues her attempt to fold 1,000 origami cranes and hope that the war will soon be over. 

On the church picnic, Nellie is worried about Joey, who is still struggling with his brother's death. When Mrs. Mitchell takes some of the children into the woods to look for another, Nellie is just about to head after them when there is a huge explosion. One of the balloon bombs made in Japan had landed on Gearheart Mountain but not exploded, but detonated when it was perhaps kicked. Five children, along with Mrs. Mitchell, were killed. Joey and Nellie both worried it was their fault, for various reasons, and their small town of Bly is rocked by the deaths. They don't quite understand why the Navy had to be called in to investigate, but they later find that these bombs have landed around the US, but had not killed anyone. There had been a gag on the press reporting the bombs, which was lifted for public safety, albeit too late for Bly's residents. When a family of Japanese citizens goes through town shortly after the funerals, since internment camps were being closed, the residents attempt to stone them. Nellie, however, goes out with a pitcher of water and yells at her neighbors to leave them alone. She's all too aware that her father is still out there, and that more hate is not the answer. 

Just when I thought there were no more WWII stories for me to discover, here is one that is entirely new. This is based on the only civilians who were killed by enemy weapons on mainland soil, Vernick does a masterful job of weaving together both sides of the balloon bombs in a sympathetic way. Young readers might be surprised by Nellie's derogatory use of the term "Japs", but this book does manage to capture the sentiment of characters from both Japan and the US. 

In addition to delving into the complicated emotions that war engenders, which were well researched and had several sensitivity readers for Tamiko's story, there are a delightful plethora of historical details about daily life. Lee and Low, now the parent company of Cinco Puntos Press, always produces books that handle cultural topics sensitively. I'm a huge fan of working the smallest details into a story, such as the teacher being (gasp!) barelegged but drawing a hosiery line up her leg, visiting the Best Novelties store to look at toys, or describing some of the meals caused by rationing. Vernick doesn't collect these details just for life in the US, but does a great job of mentioning details of clothing and food in Japan. The one inclusion that I found fascinating and wanted more elaboration for was the pills that the girls working on the balloon received with their rice balls; I knew that the Germans gave their soldiers cocaine and methamphetamine so that they could fight longer, but the stimulants for the girls was only mentioned in passing! 

This was a sad but utterly riveting book detailing two sides of a devastating conflict that should have been a warning against all future wars. While Burkinshaw's The Last Cherry Blossom or Napoli's In a Flash offer rare glimpses of life in Japan during WWII, there aren't many books that cover this topic, so this is a great addition. Other than Seiple's Ghosts in the Fog or Giff's Island War, there is little about attacks on US territories during WWII. The combination of historical detail, unusual history, and exploration of the emotions of two similar girls on opposite sides of a conflict made for riveting reading. If you read just one WWII book this year, make it The Sky We Shared

Chambers, Veronica and Baker, Rachel. Shirley Chisolm is a Verb
July 28th 2020 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central 

For readers who are too young for Bolden's Speak Up, Speak Out! The Extraordinary Life of "Fighting Shirley Chisholm (2022) or as an excellent classroom read aloud, Chambers and Baker's Shirley Chisholm is a Verb introduces Chisholm and her career in politics through lively illustrations and innovative prose.

Moving forward from the thought that "Verbs are words that move the world forward", we see Chisholm's childhood in Barbados, her move to New York City, and her path through college and her early career. She started in education, working in early Head Start programs, and using every opportunity to better the world around her for others. She ran for a seat on the New York State assembly and won that, then continued on to serve as a congresswoman and eventually run for president. This was not an easy course to follow, since both women and Blacks faced a lot of opposition, but she was dedicated to changing the world and never gave up.

The use of boldfaced verbs, and pages revolving around how Chisholm "campaigned", "represented" and "created" gives an interesting focus and rhythm to the information presented. This drives the story forward in a compelling way that a standard text might not. This has a lot of information for a read aloud, but the format of the prose keeps the story from seeming lengthy.

Baker's illustrations are bold and bright, and capture some well known photographs of Chisholm. Some of her 1960s and 1970s polyster suits are captured with bright colors; there were so many astonishing outfits that I wish a few more bright colors had been used in the clothing. I love that she didn't default to the black and navy ensembles that so many current women politicians wear!

Chisholm's legacy is well addressed, with information about Ferraro, Obama, Clinton, and the host of new female representatives that have been elected in recent races. The personal note from Chambers, with her recollections of seeing posters for Chisholm as a child, end the book on a personal note.

There are a growing number of picture book biographies, like Bryant's Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX, Levy's I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, and Sotomayor's Turning Pages: My Life Story, that cover pioneering women in the political arena. These make me hopeful that soon there will be so many women in office that it will no longer be noteworthy. Young readers of all cultural backgrounds will soon be able to picture themselves in the highest offices in the land.

Tarnowska, Wafa' and Mintzi, Vali. Nour's Secret Library
March 29th 2022 by Barefoot Books
Copy Provided by Young Adult Books Central

Nour lives in Damascus, a city she loves and which lives up to the meaning of its name, which is often described as "fragrant". She and her cousin Amir love rambling around the city, and wish to have a secret club that would meet in the storeroom of Nour's father's bakery. When the war comes to their neighborhood, they hide in a nearby basement. The fighting wears on, and they spend many nights hiding in the basement, although there is some time during the day when people can go out for more supplies. Buildings are destroyed, and things are very difficult. Nour notices that books help people pass the time, and starts to pick up books that she sees spilling out of abandoned buildings or lying on the street. Soon, her family's home is filled with them, and her parents want to know her plan. She and Amir put together a secret library in the basement of a damaged building that still has some people living in the upper floors. The word spreads about this precious resource, and soon they have a large number of people using their collection for all kinds of reasons; finding medical information, teaching children, or reading to forget the horrors of war. Books, after all, "don't fight with each other like people do".

This timely tale also includes information about Syria and Aleppo at the end of the book, as well as information about famous libraries through history. There is an author's note that informs us that this book is based on the real life library that children put together in Syria.

The illustrations are rendered in beautiful shades of teals, browns, and reds, and the illustrator does an interesting job of playing with the saturation of these tones to indicate whether the moods and settings are dark or light. The prewar pictures have a lot of white space on the page, with light colors of teal, and the basement features very dark colors of it. This was very striking. There is an impressionist feel to the pictures, and the roughly done lines give a feeling of motion to the pictures.

It's good to see Nour and Amir's life before the war, and with what is currently going on in Syria and now Ukraine, this is an excellent book to introduce what children go through during times of war to young readers, but also shows the resiliciency and hope of the young.

There are a lot of picture books about libraries and reading, but not as many that show libraries set up during wartime situations. Stamaky's Alia's Mission gives a graphic novel treatment to a similar setting in Iraq. This is a great book to pair with Tokuda-Hall's Love in the Library, which covers a library that was created in a Japanese internment camp, and has a similar feeling of hope. Tate's William Still and His Freedom Stories also would be a good companion for this one, and talks about the power of words during the time of the Underground Railroad in the US.

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