A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman

Two worlds. The first world is our world, and various historical events and places make an appearance in this magical realism/fantasy/folktale story about escape from persecution and horror and about forgiveness and peace-making. The second world is only accessible through a crack in the sea that only opens at unexpected times to people with unexpected gifts, like the gift of talking to fish or that of walking on the bottom of the sea.

Three stories. The first story is about Pip, the boy in the second world who can talk to fish. And the second is about Venus and Swimmer, two young people captured in Africa in 1781 and taken on a doomed slave ship, and how they escape. The third is about Thanh and his sister Sang, boat people from South Vietnam whose escape from their own war-torn country goes terribly wrong when they meet with storms and pirates and near-starvation.

A Crack in the Sea is also another story about the power of stories. Although I believe in the “power of stories”, that particular meme is getting a little shopworn. Nevertheless, this novel has some new things to say about tenacity and communication as avenues to restoration and forgiveness. And the author manages to bring the three separate stories together to make a complete picture in a way that was surprising and satisfying.

The question, of course, is what do all of these characters and situations have to do with one another? And indeed, it’s not really clear until near the end of the book’s 350 pages what the relationship is, but trust in the author and the book is part of the journey. If you are interested in reading more fantasy featuring diverse characters, people of color, brother/sister relationships, and peace-making themes, A Crack in the Sea is the book for you.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

The Rest of the Story: Phan Thi Kim Phuc

The late Paul Harvey had a feature on the radio called “The Rest of the Story” in which he would tell familiar stories of well-known people and events or commonplace tales of ordinary people–and then tell “the rest of the story”, the part that not many people know or the part that gives the true story an ironic twist. I’ve been reading a lot of unusual stories with unexpected endings myself lately, and I decided to share a few of them with you here at Semicolon.

On June 8, 1972 nine year old Kim Phuc was with her family in her village of Trang Bang near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam when a South Vietnamese pilot mistakenly dropped napalm near the outskirts of the village. Photographer Nick Ut took a picture of the resulting scene, and the photo won the Pulitzer Prize and was chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year in 1972. It is not a exaggeration to say that this photo of children attacked by America’s own allies in an already unpopular war helped influence American opinion against the war in Vietnam to such an extent that the Americans left Vietnam less than a year after the photo was taken.

'Kim Phuc - The Napalm Girl In Vietnam' photo (c) 2007, David Erickson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Mr. Ut took little Kim Phuc to a hospital where she received extensive treatment for her burns, and she survived and grew to adulthood in what became the Communist state of Vietnam. She was recruited by the Vietnamese government as a propaganda tool, the “napalm girl” who survived American and South Vietnamese wartime savagery. But it is the book that she discovered when she was a second year medical student in Saigon and what she did as a result of that discovery that make the rest of the story of Kim Phuc so intriguing and inspiring.

Want to read more about Kim Phuc and her amazing story of healing and forgiveness?

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong.