Posts tagged ‘Foreign’


Title: Shadow
Author: Michael Morpurgo
ISBN: 9780312606596
Pages: 180 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillian, c2010.
Publication Date: Sept. 4, 2012 (US) (first published Jan. 1, 2010)

I saw then what they had seen, foreign soldiers, several of them, coming slowly toward us. The one in front had a detector–I’d seen them before in Bamiyan–and I knew what they were for. He was sweeping the road ahead of him for bombs. I think it was only then that I put two and two together, and realized what Shadow was doing. She had discovered a bomb. She was pointing to it. She was showing us. and I knew somehow that she was showing the soldiers too.
But they still couldn’t see her. She was hidden from them by a boulder at the side of the road. So I just ran. I never even thought about it. I just ran, toward the soldiers, toward Shadow, toward the bomb.(72-73)

When Aman was just a child living in Afghanistan, his father and grandmother were killed by the Taliban. Forced to flee the country with his mother in the hopes of meeting up with an uncle in England, Aman faced some insurmountable odds. Finally making it across the border with the aid of a unique dog he named Shadow, Aman leads a relatively comfortable life in England. After spending six years in England, Aman and his mother receive the shocking news that their asylum request has been denied and they need to return to Afghanistan. They are locked away, awaiting deportation. That’s when Aman’s friend Matt and Matt’s grandfather make a last-ditch effort to save this family from a separation that could kill them.

Allowing Aman to tell the story in a flashback format prevents the urgency and apprehension from building. We already know that he and his mother make it to England successfully because he is locked there awaiting deportation. By the time readers catch up to present day, there are few pages left to resolve the conflict, and it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen and you’re really not surprised by the ending. While the ending is fairly serendipitous, it’s also realistic, as you generally hear about “Hail Mary passes” being caught by someone and being taken all the way by a network of people.

The characters are likeable enough, but even Aman comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, as the focus is on the journey and not the people. Readers can sympathize with his situation, but you don’t get emotionally involved like some other stories encourage. Matt and his grandfather are supplemental, even though they are the only ones relating “present” events. I think it would have increased urgency if we had seen Aman’s state first hand, like when he was detained in the deportation “camp”.

However, I can see teachers using this in lesson plans about ongoing wars overseas, immigration, refugees, and comparing detention centers of today to other times we’ve had something similar occur, such as during World War II with Hitler’s concentration camps and the Japanese internment camps here in the United States. With short chapters, many of which have a dangling if not a true cliff-hanger ending, it would make an interesting read-aloud during transition times or for several minutes each day. Being written by Michael Morpurgo helps too, especially with the recent release of the War Horse movie generating interest in his war based realistic fiction. He provides some background information about asylum-seeking families and military dogs in his acknowledgements and postscripts. I’m very interested in getting the two movies he sites, Phil Grabsky’s The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan and In this World, directed by Michael Winterbottom, although I’m not finding either at any library locally at this time.

Between Shades of Gray

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Narrator: Emily Klein
ISBN: 9780142428979
Pages: 344 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2011.

“Davai!” An NKVD officer grabbed Jonas by the shoulders and began to drag him away.
“NO!” screamed Mother.
They were taking Jonas. My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.
“Mama! Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.
“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them. Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian–pure, fluent Russian. He stopped and listened. […]
Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer. He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head. Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into the NKVD’s hand. He didn’t seem to be satisfied. Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat. I knew that watch. It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back. The officer snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch. (26-27)

Fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are violently taken from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police. Being deported to who knows where, it’s a constant struggle to survive as they travel by train car to first one labor camp and then another. Forced to do back-breaking work in deplorable conditions with little food or medical care, Lina spends her days alternatingly fearing the worst and hoping for the best. But when you’re faced with insurmountable odds, is there really any difference between hoping for life or begging for death?

It really amazes me the coincidences that happen when no one is aware of them. The fact that this book and Breaking Stalin’s Nose could both be about Stalin’s rule during World War II, events that most Americans including myself have very little knowledge of AND be published within six months of each other is amazing enough in my mind. To have them both be recognized by the various awards committees is even more remarkable, with Breaking Stalin’s Nose receiving a Newbery Honor and Between Shades of Gray receiving a host of recognition, including nominations for the Cybils Award for Young Adult Fiction, the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the ALA Teens’ Top Ten list. I feel like I should go hunting for more books about Stalin’s regime! The beauty of this coincidence that with these two books you have perspectives from both sides of how life was like from authors who both have personal connections to that time in history. The fear that Sasha suffers from in Breaking Stalin’s Nose is almost incomparable to what Lina and her family go through in Between Shades of Gray, although it did slightly prepare me for what I would find in Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta Sepetys stresses at the end of her book that to this day, seventy years later, still no one talks about the horrors that happened at the beginning of the war. Librarians, teachers, military professionals, lawyers, and doctors along with their families were just some of the professions that were rounded up, shoved onto trains, and forced to hard labor in the camps for years. As a librarian, knowing about this left me thinking if I would have survived the journey, and the answer would have most likely been no. They took the educated, the informed, and the influential, and reduced them to scavengers, sickly citizens, forcing them to sign documents that marked them as criminals and labeling the train car they rode on as carrying prostitutes and thieves to further demean their existence.

There were so many scenes in this book of the torture that these people endured that stand out to me so vividly even after finishing the last page and closing the cover. I can’t lock those descriptions away and put them on the shelf as easily as I can close the book and put it away. From being threatened with being buried alive to suffering from lice, scurvy, and other diseases to picking up and eating the trash that is pelted at you just so you have something to eat that night, to watching a new mother be shot for mourning the death of her new-born, which suffered the irrevocable fate of having been born to someone on the “list”. The United States, as far as I’m aware of, doesn’t share the histories of atrocities that other countries do, as even slaves back in the 1700s were taken care of to some extent because they had value. These people were seen as worthless by the NKVD and made to feel worthless by any means necessary.

Sepeyts spares nothing and no one when portraying the hardships, but the book is also filled with instances of caring and the small actions that helped Lina, her brother, and everyone around her maintain a shred of hope and decency. When asked to undress for the first time in the open air for showers, the women avert their eyes and turn around so as to give the boys some modicum of privacy. Jonas gives his school ruler as an ineffective splint for a crotchety and pessimistic man who broke his leg in a failed suicide attempt. The prisoners share what little knowledge, food, and warmth they have with each other because they recognize that sometimes the littlest things could mean the difference between hope and despair, between another day above ground or the first of many below.

Emily Klein narrates the book, and the part she excels is Lina’s varied feelings and the clipped and impatient tones of the NKVD officers, many times shouting just one hated word: “Davai!” While her differentiation between characters is only really noticeable with Lina, Jonas, and one or two others, the emotion is raw and palatable and certainly is a welcome addition to the experience. However, you should also take a look at the map included in the printed text, which gives a visual of how far Lina, her family, and the rest of the captives had to travel over the course of more than a year.

Ruta Sepetys summarizes the conflict succinctly in the video on the book’s website. She also recently wrote a piece for NPR, explaining how her book is frequently confused with that “other shades of gray book” but that’s she’s embracing the opportunity to educate people who wouldn’t normally have been interested and claims the “mix-up is a victory.” It’s a powerful novel, both informative and inspirational in the same way that Anne Frank’s diary was for the Jewish Holocaust, and I highly recommend not only for book groups and school reading, but for individual reading as well.

2 the Point Tuesday — Tua and the Elephant

For my new job, all the librarians write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be adding my contribution to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Title: Tua and the Elephant
Author: R.P. Harris
Illustrator: Taeeun Yoo
ISBN: 9780811877817
Pages: 204 pages
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books LLC, c2012.
Publication Date: April 18, 2012

“I have an elephant,” Tua said, ignoring the question. Then she began to relate the story of how she had rescued an elephant from a pair of rogues who were mistreating it, how they had stolen money from a poor woman and her baby, and what else was she to do?
“That’s nice, darling,” Auntie Orchid yawned. “Every girl should have a ‘special friend.'” The yawn reminded Orchid that it was quite late after all.
Kha, Auntie. Can I show it to you?” […]
“Yes, you may,” said Auntie Orchid “if you must.”
Tua opened the door and gestured with her head for her auntie to look outside. […]
“Tua, darling,” she calmly asked, “would you please tell me why . . . there is an elephant standing on MY . . . back . . . porch?”(45-46)

In this debut tale of courage and tenacity where Homeward Bound meets Dumbo, ten-year-old Tua is visiting the night market in her town of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Running across a baby elephant clearly in need of rescuing from her abusive and questionable owners, Tua whisks the elephant away into the night while they are sleeping. Naming her Pohn-Pohn, clever Tua reasonably rationalizes that “Taking an elephant home was definitely out of the question.” But what should Tua do with her? So beings an incredible journey across rivers and Thailand farms, in search of a home for the elephant. The purple and yellow illustrations emphasize how out-of-place poor Pohn-Pohn is in the populated yellow fields of rice and corn. But Pohn-Pohn’s previous owners are intent on getting their valuable possession back, using whatever means necessary.

If you want to read a longer synopsis of the book, it was reviewed in the New York Times by none other Sara Gruen, author of her own elephant based book Water for Elephants.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

Title: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons
Author: Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
ISBN: 0689308752
Pages: 220 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum, c1982.

My hands were shaking, but I clasped them so tightly no one could see that. I made my voice strong and firm. “I want to do what my cousins have done. I’ve always dreamed of it. I’m as smart as they are. Send me to one of the cities along the coast. With the money, I’ll set up shop. Those seaports are full of sailors. They sell their goods cheap, they’re so eager to get rid of them. And merchants come, on caravan, just as eager to buy. I’ll send what I make to you. You’ll be rich in a few months time. My uncle will be as nothing compared to you.”
At first my parents were so flabbergasted they couldn’t speak. That’s why I was able to say so much without being interrupted. My mother recovered her voice first. “Tomorrow I’ll send for that old woman who lives in the Muqtadiyya district. She makes a secret broth from a certain herb she finds in the desert. It’s said to cure madness.”
“Mother, I’m not mad.” (24-25)

Buran is one of seven sisters born to a merchant and his wife. Her uncle constantly berates her father’s bad luck, since her uncle has seven sons who he can send out into the world to increase the family’s fortune. When Buran’s father falls ill, Buran is finally able to convince him to assume a disguise and travel dressed as a man in a convoy and set up trade. But dressing as a man has its disadvantages, especially when Buran starts falling in love and is forced to choose between shedding her disguise or her independence.

While I liked the story well enough, it lacks the action and tension that most readers seem to expect these days from a retold fairy tale. Written three decades ago, the age of the story might contribute to the slow pace of the novel. Most of the story covers either Buran’s travels to and from her home or the courtship between her and her love interest. The travels that take her away from home are relatively uneventful, and no real detail is given to her task master/teacher.

The book does give an insight into the culture, although some of the references again might be dated. I’m left wondering how likely it would be for Buran to assume this hidden identity when being raised in a “proper” household, revealing that her father has been the only male to see her since she became a woman. If Buran had been rebellious as a child I could understand a little better this change in clothing, but we don’t really get any sort of rebellious vibe, just the impression that her father is slightly indulgent in teaching her typically male activities and hobbies.

The Kite Rider

Title: The Kite Rider
Author: Geraldine McCaughrean
Narrator: Full Cast; David Baker, Cynthia Bishop (narrator), Daniel Bostick, Bob Brophy, Bruce Coville, Ted Davenport, Galen Druke, Ann Marie Grathwol, Todd Hobin, Mimi K. Mead, Bill Molesky, Gerard Moses, Lauren Synger, Thea Van Der Ven
ISBN: 9781932076387 (book on CD), 0780066238753 (hardcover)
Pages: 272 pages
Discs/CDs: 6 CDs, 6.75 hours
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, c2001.

The hurdle-a big square hatch cover woven out of palm leaves-was being carried along the deck by seven or eight sailors. The rope was already attached to it by a harness of four cords shackled to each of the four corners. Also bound to this giant kite was a man.
A cloth had been wrapped around his head, but now, as he twisted this way and that, struggling to break free, the cloth slipped down and Haoyou caught a clear glimpse of his face.
“Father!” […]
Haoyou flung himself at the man-a brute as thick-set and sturdy as a post, with a round, neckless head. “You sent him up there! You killed him!” Haoyou shouted, pummeling the flat, unyielding stomach, bruising his fists on Di Chou’s leather belt.
Di Chou took hold of Haoyou by the ear, and the shining flesh of his cheeks twitched with menace as he smiled down at the boy.(7-12)

Obedient, twelve-year-old Haoyou’s life is turned upside down when his father is killed. His father’s killer offers to marry Haoyou’s beautiful mother, but between Haoyou and Mipeng, the family’s medium, they set into motion events that prevent that from happening. As a result, Haoyou finds himself recruited to perform in the traveling circus of the Great Miao as a kite rider, soaring high over the grief that his father’s death has caused. But can Haoyou rise above his own guilt, his uncle’s greed and the teachings of his youth that weigh him down?

Readers will soar with Haoyou when listening to the full cast production of The Kite Rider. Not to be confused by The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or Linda Sue Park’s The Kite Fighters, the story starts with a punch and keeps the excitement high as Haoyou encounters greedy uncles, abusive suitors, and the “honorable” Kublai Khan. Some of the situations seem meant for a slightly older audience, which is probably why I’m finding copies of this book in children’s and young adult collections.

The audio is well voiced, although whoever voices Haoyou is sometimes just a tad over enthusiastic with his lines. His excitable voice works for most of the time though, as he’s either yelling, crying, or exclaiming over some event, probably as a result of his naivety. Narrator Cynthia Bishop does a good job at bridging the gaps between the different characters, and the landscape is described in breath-taking detail and poetic language.

[…] rising out of the roofless building, the fragments of countless kites rode on the incandescent updraft, trailing tails of fire, lurching and plunging, climbing and ditching: a flying menagerie of flame, a fleeting festival of catastrophe. (46)

Mipeng showcases some feminist traits that are well beyond the thirteenth-century Chinese culture that the book is set in. While she provides a more modern perspective and contrasts the rest of the characters’ attitudes with her opinions, it’s a little jarring to hear and see her disregard for everyone else’s teachings and beliefs, which was what she too was taught.

Overall the story has a lot of suspense as, just like the tail of a kite, McCaughrean leaves plot points dangling until the very end, waiting to be caught up again and tied up into a neat little bow. While the package might look a little too neat, I think readers will be well pleased with the results and remember the story for quite some time.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose

cover imageTitle: Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Author/Illustrator: Eugene Yelchin
ISBN: 9780805092165
Pages: 154 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, c2011.
Awards: Newbery Honor, 2012

“Why does Vovka call you Amerikanets?”
I shouldn’t tell him. “My mom was American. Don’t tell anyone.”
He squints at me. “And she was arrested and shot?”
“What do you mean? Of course not. She came from America to help us build Communism.”
He nods. “They think all foreigners are spies.”
“She wasn’t a spy! She was a real Communist.”
“My mom and dad are real Communists, too,” Four-Eyes says. “They are in Lubyanka prison now–enemies of the people.” […]
“My aunt took me there last week,” says Four-Eyes. We stood in line for two days, but when we got to the door, they wouldn’t let us see them. No visitation rights, they said. My aunt tells me they always say this when the prisoners have been shot already, but I know she’s lying. They’re alive and I’m going to see them.” (63-64)

Sasha Zaichik has dreamed about becoming a Soviet Young Pioneer for as long as he can remember. His father works for the secret police force, unmasking enemies of Stalin’s Communist regime, and is scheduled to attend the ceremony taking place tomorrow as a guest of honor. In the middle of the night, Sasha’s father is taken by the same police force and Sasha is forced out of his home by opportunistic neighbors. He hopes that this is all a big misunderstanding and that his father will be waiting for him at school. With enemies at every turn, both imagined and real, Sasha must be careful that no one finds out about the “mistake” that has occurred. But compounding events and accusations during the school day lead Sasha to see the world in a whole new light. What if it wasn’t a mistake that his father was taken?

Velchin writes in a succinct and appropriate manner, placing events strictly from the viewpoint of Sasha. Sasha, for all the information he thinks he knows, is naive about what the government is doing and how people feel about it. Readers see this in his letter that he writes to Stalin in the opening pages, filling it with the propaganda that he’s been fed his whole life. Part of that is due to his father shielding him from his environment. We never really find out what happened to his mother, or what role anyone had in her death, which Sasha can’t even confirm for us since he never saw a body or funeral.

Readers witness the fear and greed that arise from the Communist life style through Sasha’s eyes, even though Sasha himself doesn’t recognize it. He mentions how his room that he shares with his father is bigger then the one the family of six down the hall have, and is “embarrassed that we live in luxury”. (14) His father gave that same family their ring on the large iron stove that the twelve families share when they added a stove to their room. But Sasha tells readers that “My dad and I oppose personal property on principle. Personal property will disappear when Communism comes.” (32) American readers will be exposed to a lifestyle and government system that they have no knowledge or experience with, and witness the horror.

Stalin’s rule reminds me of Hitler, the way innocent people who believed in something different were secretly whisked away. In an author’s note, Velchin talks about his own experience with the secret police and provides important background information. During Stalin’s 30 years in power, over twenty million people were executed, imprisoned, or exiled. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the commonly accepted number of people who perished in the Holocaust. I personally think it might be the residual bad feelings regarding the Cold War and the USSR/Rusia that might be preventing students from getting information about these events. There is so little literature about Communism available for students that this book is a necessary addition just for the subject matter alone. The fact that it won a Newbery Honor only stresses the book’s importance.


Title: Nothing
Author: Janne Teller
Translator: Martin Aitken (from the Danish)
ISBN: 9781416985792
Pages: 227 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2010
Originally published in Denmark in 2000 as Intet by Dansklaererforeningens Forlag

It was then that Pierre Anthon stood up.
“Nothing matters,” he announced. “I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” Calm and collected, he bent down and put everything he had just taken out back into his bag. He nodded good-bye with a disinterested look and left the classroom without closing the door behind him. […]
I looked around the class. The uncomfortable silence told me the others had felt it too.
We were supposed to amount to something.
Something was the same as someone, and even if nobody ever said it so out loud, it was hardly left unspoken, either. (4-5)

On the first day of school, Pierre makes this provocative statement and then proceeds to sit in the plum-tree outside the school, pelting his classmates with fruit and discouraging remarks about the state of the world. His classmates, perturbed by his apparent lack of motivation and care, set out to create a pile of meaning in the abandoned sawmill outside of town to prove him wrong. What starts out as a pile of self-chosen prized possessions quickly grows as classmates take turns designating what is most important to their peers. But no one ever expected it to grow to such proportions, and no one knows for sure what Pierre will think when the task is finally completed.

This book took a very long time to get into, probably as a result of the meandering narrative in the beginning. It might just be a problem with translation. You’re introduced to Pierre sitting in a tree with no apparent consequences from anyone in authority; not his parents, not his teachers, not even the police. In fact, the children are the only ones who seem to notice him and take to heart his message of meaninglessness. (Is that a word? I don’t know.)

It’s an interesting concept of meaning, which I think is an idea that teens are examining as they are constantly encouraged to “make something” of their lives and grow up to become “somebody.” And Pierre seems to agree with the philosophy that “You’re born, you live, and then you die, so what’s the point of living?” This pile of meaning that the students begin to create becomes a pile of importance. But then the stakes progressively get higher in terms of things children give up. They go from inanimate objects (the narrator gives up a pair of green sandals) to things that are more valuable, both in monetary value and what they represent to the children, their families, and their town. You can’t look away, even when you want to, because you are pulled into what the next person will demand as a sacrifice.

So where does meaning come from? Is it possible to accurately portray an inanimate feeling in an animate object? And if that object doesn’t have the same meaning for someone else, then is the meaning still there? Or all things relative, and therefore meaningless because the “meaning” or importance will never stay? Can you assign a price to something with true meaning? These are some mind-blowing questions that you get to by the end of the book.

The problem is that you do have to slog through the first half of the book and get over the absurdity of a boy in a plum-tree. There are some awful, horrific, and touching sacrifices by the end of the book that make you realize these kids don’t have any idea what they’re doing. In which case, is their pile more or less meaningful? The philosophical questions interspersed with the shocking outcomes will leave your brain reeling and grasping for answers. This book does not provide them.


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