In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Two books to take seriously

Dear Annie,

I love the reading reports from your house -- your latest one gives such a strong sense of A Day in the Family's Reading Life.  I found Eleanor's Magic Tree House criticism intriguing.  It's been years since I've read one of them, but the line on them is that Annie is the adventurous one and Jack's the more timid one.  So it's interesting to hear that she thinks Jack's the more central character.  Not necessarily contradictions, those two elements...

This Monday (January 27) will bring the announcements of Newbery, Caldecott and other ALA children's book awards.  As you know, in past years I've never managed to predict the winners.  For the Newbery at least, this year the field is wide but not all that deep.  A lot of likable books came out in 2013, but nothing that makes me stand up and say, "Yes, definitely!" 

I gathered a pile of six books to put in today's blog entry, weighing each one's chances for the Newbery.  Even though I like those books, it feels more like handicapping a race rather than celebrating something special.   

Looking at this pile, though, there are two books -- both non-fiction -- that rise above the others for me.  I doubt they'll be considered medal-winning material, but they're books I've loved reading and feel very good about recommending.  I hope they'll be in print for years to come.  So I'm setting aside the rest of the pile and writing about the ones that have stayed with me.

Back in March, I wrote about Lincoln's Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin.   It's the fascinating account of an 1876 attempt by a gang of counterfeiters to steal Lincoln's body from his tomb and ransom it for the release of one of their members from prison.  They almost succeeded.  The book reads like fiction, full of plotting, planning, hilarious mix-ups, and Keystone Cop-like action.  And Sheinkin does a lovely job of putting it all in historical context.  I've sold dozens and dozens of copies of Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  When I describe it to customers, the response -- from both adults and kids -- is, "Is this real?"  It's a great yarn -- made all the more interesting for being true.

The other non-fiction is The Boy on the Wooden Box, a serious and moving memoir of the Holocaust and the years since by Leon Leyson, the youngest person on Schindler's List.  He was 15 when the war ended, a small child who had to stand on a wooden box to reach the machinery in Schindler's factory -- a ruse to convince the Nazis that he was actually working.   Leyson died last year after the book was written; his wife Elisabeth Leyson and Marilyn Harran, the director of a Holocaust education organization, are credited with helping to write it.  There's something about the way he tells his family's terrifying story -- Schindler helped five of them survive the war -- that's quiet and direct and very moving. Throughout the book, Leyson keeps his focus on human dignity.

Leyson describes one awful incident when Gestapo soldiers break into his family's apartment in Krakow, beat his father, and drag him away.  After weeks when the family thinks he is dead, the father returns:
The moment he came through our door was one of overwhelming relief and joy.  At the same time, it brought an unexpected sadness.  It was easy to see that what he had gone through had changed him.  It wasn't just that he was weak and gaunt; he was changed in a more fundamental way.  The Nazis had not only stripped him of his strength -- although he would find a great reserve of it in the years ahead -- but also of the confidence and self-esteem that had put a spring in his step.  Now he spoke little and walked with downcast eyes.  He had lost his job at the glass factory, and he had lost something even more precious: his dignity as a human being.  It shook me to the core to see my father defeated.   If he couldn't stand up to the Nazis, how could I?
Somehow the father connects with Schindler, and slowly family members get work in Schindler's forced labor factory.  Conditions are bad, but Leyson keeps coming back to the impact on him of small personal gestures Schindler made for his workers: a kind word, a pack of cigarettes, a little extra food.
Such acts may seem insignificant given the scale of the evil in those years, but, in fact, they were anything but.  Schindler dared to rebel against the law of the land, which was to torture and exterminate Jews, not to treat us as fellow human beings.  
The workers are shipped to a concentration camp, then rescued by Schindler to work in a new munitions factory.  When the war ends, Leyson describes the wave of hostility in Poland against the returning Jews.  His family ultimately makes it to the U.S., to southern California, where he becomes a high school teacher, never mentioning his past in Poland.  After the movie Schindler's List came out in 1994, he started talking about it, eventually writing the book.

The book is about a horrific experience, but also about a boy who survived with his own dignity and strength.  It speaks to the children it was written for with a clear voice.

As I said, these two books have stayed with me more than almost any others I've read in the past year, but I'd be surprised if they were chosen by awards committees above the competition.  But I did check on one thing: it's possible to win a Newbery medal posthumously.



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