Beswitched by Kate Saunders

In The Freedom Maze, Sophie found out that life back in the antebellum South wasn’t all Scarlett O’Hara and Southern plantation mansions. In Beswitched, Flora Fox finds out that a girls’ boarding school in 1935 isn’t exactly filled with modern conveniences either.

Time travel is like that: the time traveler who goes back in time gets to find out how the other half lived. Flora finds out that the clothes and manners of the 1930’s were rather uncomfortable, but she and her roommates become great friends with only a few missteps and cultural misunderstandings. The story paints a lovely picture of life in a girls’ boarding school in 1935, just before the second World War, and I almost wanted to go back in time myself to visit, if I could be sure to get back to my time before the war started.

I liked Beswitched, but a couple of things about the story made me uncomfortable. I didn’t much like all the spell-casting and witchy magic, even though the magic itself turned out to be benign. Maybe that was the problem: witchcraft, real witchcraft, isn’t a bit of good-natured fun. It’s a religion, and it’s evil. It’s the same problem that many Christians had (and still have) with the Harry Potter series, and I can get past it by telling myself that the magic in the Beswitched is just a mechanism to enable the time travel element of the story. (Harry Potter is an alternate world, and so the “rules” about magic and witches are different. Those books don’t raise my “dabbling in witchcraft” sensors at all.) Still, schoolgirls casting spells is kind of, well, disturbing.

The other part of the book that bothered me is that I didn’t really like the two main characters very much. Both Flora and her friend from the 1930’s, Pete, are, well, to put it bluntly, spoiled brats. The point of the book is supposed to be that the experience of magical time travel and each of them encountering a girl from another time period changes them both, but I never did warm up to either of the two girls. I guess I have twin prejudices against spoiled children and spell-casting witches.

1935: Events and Inventions

March 16, 1935. Adolf Hitler announces German rearmament in violation of the Versailles Treaty.

'Middle East, 1925' photo (c) 2007, Gabriel - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/March 21, 1935. Persia is officially renamed Iran.

June, 1935. Bolivia and Paraguay sign an armistice to end their three-year dispute over the Chaco region.

June 10, 1935. Alcoholics Anonymous is founded in Akron, Ohio by William G. Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith.

August 14, 1935. United States President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law, introducing welfare for the sick, old, and unemployed.

September 15, 1935. Hitler’s Nuremburg Decrees deprive German Jews of their citizenship and ban them from a long list of jobs, including teaching and journalism. Existing marriages between non-Jews and Jews are now illegal, and those couples who will not divorce are subject to imprisonment.

October 3, 1935. Italy invades Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in North Africa.

October 20, 1935. After 12 months of long and difficult marching and fighting, Mao and his diminished Communist army reach relative safety. The Long March is ended, but the Communists are still on the defensive against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops.

November 14-15 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaims Philippine Islands a free commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Philippines becomes semi-independent with its own elected government and constitution and is promised full independence after a suitable period of time.

'Humble Beginning' photo (c) 2009, JD Hancock - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

December, 1935. Monopoly, a new board game produced by the company Parker Brothers, goes on sale in the U.S. for $2.50.

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Nominated for 2011 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Nominated by Teacher.Mother.Reader.

Berlin, 1935-1938. Fourteen year old Karl Stern doesn’t look Jewish, and he doesn’t feel Jewish. His family has never been religious, and Karl’s name doesn’t give him away either. However, Germany is slowly but surely becoming a place where it doesn’t matter what you think or believe or feel: being Jewish is like being a rotten apple. And, according to Nazi propaganda, the rot will come out and become apparent for all to see.

So, Karl is one of those “self-loathing” Jews who denies his heritage and just wants to fit in. He wishes he could join the Hitler Youth like all of the other boys in his school. He wishes he weren’t Jewish. The problem with reading these Holocaust and pre-Holocaust novels is that one knows the ending. Karl won’t be able to hide from his Jewish background for long. His family isn’t safe in Germany no matter how much his father thinks that Nazism is a passing political phase. The Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht and Dachau and the entire Holocaust itself are coming, impending doom hanging over the events of any novel set in pre-war Germany, especially any novel involving a Jewish protagonist.

Yet, The Berlin Boxing Club held several surprises and revelations for me. I didn’t know much about German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling who stars in this novel as Karl’s mentor. As Karl learns to box from the champ, he “comes of age”, and he learns to respect his own father, an intellectual and an art dealer with his own secret past. Over the course of the novel, Max Schmeling, the hero of Aryan racial superiority, has two fights with black American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. I had a vague memory of the matches, but I didn’t remember who won.

I learned about Schmelling, about the culture and atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, about the art scene in Berlin at that time, about boxing, and most of all, about how complicated people can be. Schmeling hobnobs with the Nazi elite, including Hitler himself, and yet Schmeling’s manager is Jewish.

Karl feels the contradictions and conflicts of the time within himself. He’s an artist and a fighter. He loves his intellectual father, but he identifies with the more physical men at the Berlin Boxing Club. He despises and fears homosexuals, but it is a homosexual friend who rescues him and his sister on Kristallnacht. He admires and is grateful to Max Schmeling, but he doesn’t know if he can really trust him.

I would recommend this book for older teens. Some of the scenes and characters are too mature for younger readers. As I think about it, the book would make a good movie, but it would definitely be rated at least PG-13, probably R.

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Readalikes: Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Soup by Robert Newton Peck, The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, Flush by Carl Hiaassen.

Related Movies: The Goonies, Little Rascals, Annie, (NOT Shirley Temple).

Song: Mississippi Squirrel Revival

Key West, Florida, June, 1935.

Take one eleven year girl named Turtle with eyes as “gray as soot” who sees things exactly as they are. Plunk her down in Key West, Florida with her Aunt Minnie the Diaper Gang and a bunch of Conch (adj. native or resident of the Florida Keys) relatives and Conch cousins with nicknames like Pork Chop and Too Bad and Slow Poke. Leave her starry-eyed mama back in New Jersey keeping house for Mrs. Budnick who doesn’t like children and dreaming of being married to Archie, the encyclopedia salesman. Add in an ornery grandmother that Turtle didn’t know she had and a cat named Smokey and a dog named Termite.

All of that put together by author Jennifer L. Holm makes a story that reminded me of the above movies and and books and song but at the same time had its own feel and flavor. Turtle is a great little anti-Pollyanna who hates Shirley Temple and knows that “kids are rotten,” especially boys. The Diaper Gang is the Conch version of Our Gang with a wagon for babysitting bad babies and a secret formula for curing diaper rash. And if you’re a fan of the movie The Goonies, you should enjoy Turtle in Paradise, and vice-versa.

I leave you with a recipe from the book that gives you yet another comparative flavor and indication of the appeal of this story:

“After we finish swimming, we have a cut-up. A cut-up is something these Conch kids do every chance they get. Each kid brings whatever they can find lying around or hanging on a tree–sugar apple, banana, mango, pineapple, alligator pear, guava, cooed potatoes, and even raw onions. They cut it all up and season it with Old Sour which is made from key lime juice, salt and hot peppers. Then they pass it around with a fork, and everyone takes a bite. It’s the strangest fruit salad I’ve ever had, but it’s tasty.”

Nonfiction Monday: The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

The Day-Glo Brothers is subtitled “The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors.”

These are the closest examples I could get of Day-Glo (fluorescent) colors:

Fluorescent Green
Day-Glo Yellow
Day-Glo Orange

They’re those colors that crossing guards wear and that characterized the 1960’s, and they glow in the daylight or when illuminated by an ultraviolet light source. The Switzer brothers, Bob and Joe, invented these colors just before World War II, and the colors became useful in wartime, especially on aircraft carriers and in naval warfare and rescue, and later in peacetime as companies and individuals began to think of multiple uses for these easily visible colors.

I can see how a book like this one might inspire young inventors and scientists who are still in elementary school to think about the many unexplored areas of science and about the intersections between science and other disciplines, in this case art and advertising. Mr. Barton tells the story in straightforward prose and yet includes enough anecdotes about the Switzers’ lives and personalities to keep readers interested. The bright Day-Glo illustrations on black background complement the story perfectly.

Buy some Day-Glo make-up.
Day-Glo Brothers Activity and Discussion Guide
Chris Barton’s blog, Bartography.

This book has been nominated for the Cybil Award in the Nonfiction Picture Book category. I received my copy of Day-Glo Brothers from the publisher for the purpose of review. Nonfiction Monday is hosted today at Jean Little Library.