Monday, September 05, 2022

MMGM-- Winterkill and Hero for the Hungry

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Skrypuch, Marsah Forchuk. Winterkill
September 6th 2022 by Scholastic Press
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Nyl's family runs a farm in 1930s Ukraine near the village of Felivka, and life is becoming more and more difficult now that Stalin has come to power. When the government sends around Canadian George White and his daughter Alice to take an inventory of their farm, the family, which includes Nyl's younger siblings Slavko and Yulia, knows this will not end well. The government is trying to force all farmers to join a collective, the kolkhoz, and are taking livestock, equipment, and other property to start this farm. Those who don't cooperate are deemed "kulaks" and face harsh treatment. Unfortunately, this treatment comes close to home when Nyl's uncle argues with Comrade Chort, who shoots him dead, leaving behind his wife and baby daughter. The aunt is removed from the house, and all of her property is taken by Chort, who moves his family in. Nyl is lucky that he is able to gets some of his family's animals out of the uncle's barn. The farmers who have joined the kolkhoz work long hours, but are hopeful that the government will pay them well, but that does not happen. Eventually, Nyl's family has all of their seed and equipment taken away, but are still expected to meet a quota for growing grain. Even the family's food is taken away, forcing Nyl and Slavko to travel to the new tractor factory to work there. Even Slavko, at nine, works all day making bricks. When the boys find out that the tractor factory is  not going to be providing tractors for the upcoming season, they know how devastating this will be, and return home. Their father has been beaten, and can barely walk, and knows it is time to try to leave Ukraine. In the end, only Nyl's aunt and cousin are sent to try to make it to Poland. Conditions worsen, food is scarce, and the father dies after Yulia decides that she is going to join the kolkhoz, having informed on her family. Food becomes so scarce that Nyl and his mother try to dig up grain from the kolkhoz field, but they are discovered and the mother is shot and killed. Nyl has an address for Roman, who father and mother were killed earlier, and decides to set out for the city to find him. Nyl meets Alice again and hopes that she and her father, who has become disillusioned with Stalin, can get him out of the country. He manages to get forged identification papers, and  they plan a sight seeing trip as cover, but when her father is arrested and Slavkov decides he wants to stay at the tractor factory, she and Nyl try to escape on their own. The two meet up with Roman, who has taken to stealing in order to survive, and gain enough strength to move on. They make their way into Russian, and end up at the farm of Anna, who is elderly and needs help. She is kind, and takes good care of them, but Alice manages to find a way to get back to Canada. Nyl is determined to keep going, even though he suffered so many losses. 
Strengths: I am old enough that in the back of my mind, the Russians always seem evil. My best friend's mother's family  had a farm in Latvia that was taken away from them, so Nyl's story seemed very familiar to me. However, younger readers won't know a lot of this history. Like all of Skrypuch's work, this is well researched, and has some connections to people who lived through similar circumstances. The horrific events are told honestly, but never in a sensational way; just with heartbreaking humanity. It's easy to sit in our comfortable homes and think "Well, why would they chance getting shot to get grain from the fields?", but the reality was that there was really no other choice. There is a lot of historical information, but it is shown on a framework of a fast moving plot, held up by sympathetic characters. Alice is certainly an intriguing character who learns what the consequences of her actions are, and I would almost like to see a separate book about Yulia and her experiences trying to be an exemplary member of the Young Pioneers. Middle school and high school libraries all need this timely book, although elementary libraries should know that many people die during the story. 
Weaknesses: The end notes with more history of Ukraine are very helpful, but I almost wanted a couple of more maps in the book so I could tell where Nyl was traveling and compare his location with current news of Ukraine. 
What I really think: I had never heard of the Holodomor, the famine/genocide carried out against the Ukrainians by the Russians, and it took a long time before the facts about this were known and recognized by the world at large. Mypublic library, which has an extensive collection, only has two books on the subject. I wish that Ukraine had some happier history; the Ukrainian people have suffered enough. Read Spradlin's The Enemy Above, Nielsen's Lines of Courage, Kerr's Winter Horses, Blankman's Blackbird Girls, or Skrypuch's other books to find out more about what this country and its people have suffered. It is not a surprise that they are fighting so strenuously against the Russians. Winterkill is another well researched and important book by Skrypuch, but one that is utterly heartbreaking. 

Thomas, Peggy and Kalda, Sam. Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug
1 September 2022, Feeding Minds Press
Copy provided by the publisher

Born in 1914 in Iowa to Norwegian parents, educational opportunities were not a sure thing for Borlaug. At the time, most children (including many of my relatives!) only went through the 8th grade, since help was needed on the farm. Because the Borlaugs weathered the crash of 1929 better than many of their neighbors, he was able to stay in school, and even took courses in agriculture. He played sports, and a coach suggested that he apply to Iowa State Teachers' College; he would even help the young man find a job. Borlaug saved up money and dreamed of going to college, but a chance trip to Minnesota with a friend lead to him applying to the University of Minnesota! He got in, even though his courses were a bit lacking, and supported himself by working at a diner in exchange for food. There, he met his future wife, and learned how important not being hungry is to getting on in life. He studied food science, which led to him being hired by Dupont (at the impressive salary of $2,800 a year in 1941-- in 1960, my mother was earning $3,000 as a teacher!) This eventually lead to work on the war effort, which was considered essential and kept him out of the service. When the war was over, he worked on solving the problems with wheat crops in Mexico. They were plagued by rust, and Borlaug fought to have test crops that he cross pollinated, and even had crops in two different areas of the country, a practice that wasn't much used but which worked to his advantage. While he was able to produce plants that would not fall victim to rust, the plants were top heavy. He tried many things, but it was a chance encounter with a dwarf Japanese wheat that enabled him to engineer a plant that was rust resistant, sturdy, and yielded more wheat. It was difficult to get farmers to use this new variety, but once he did, the wheat crops produced enough wheat to solve some of the problems with food production in Mexico. Not one to rest on his laurels, Borlaug turned his attention to food production in India and Pakistan, winning the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his efforts.
I learned several different things from this book, which is always a good thing! I hadn't been aware of the fact that there was a potato famine in Norway similar to the Irish one, and that was why there were so many farmers of Norwegian descent who moved to Iowa, and I hadn't realized how devastating the agricultural problems were in Mexico and India. 

The highest compliment I can pay any children's biography is that it reminds me of the Childhood of Famous Americans books I was addicted to in elementary school, and Hero for the Hungry is readable in this same way. Kalda's illustrations are a great accompaniment to a 20th century success story similar to that of Philo T. Farnsworth. 

Young readers won't pick up on the interesting Joy in the Morning (Betty Smith) vibe of Borlaug's college career, but that's what this made me think of. Life was certainly very different in the first half of the 20th century, and I love any book that shows this to my students. 

When I was done reading this, my first thought was "I wonder is Iowa has a statue of Borlaug in the Capitol. And they do! Image:


  1. I'm glad to see books written about the Holodomor. My grandmother and her family lived through it (just barely). I haven't read it yet, but I hope to get my hands on a copy soon.

  2. These are both going onto my TBR list. They sound fascinating. Winterkill will not be easy to read, but it is important. Thanks for the post.