The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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The Princess and the Beggar by Anne Sibley O’Brien

The Princess and the Beggar: A Korean Folktale adapted and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien.

The Princess and the Beggar is sort of a Korean version of Beauty and the Beast. The Weeping Princess marries Pabo Ondal, the fool of the forest. As they live together and learn each other’s way, the marriage transforms both the princess and the beggar. Or as the book says, “In time—as they planted, tended, and mended together, they learned not to fear each other.”

The illustrations show the dress and countryside of Korea during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), when the nobility wore fine brightly colored silks and brocades, while the peasants wore plain clothing of white and gray.Ms. O’Brien, the author-illustrator, lived in South Korea for thirteen years, the daughter of medical missionaries. She heard the story of Pabo Ondal and the the Weeping Princess as a child. Her faithful retelling and her beautiful illustrations show a sympathy for Korean tradition and folklore as well as an ability to to interpret that tradition for Western readers.

I would read this story along with a picture book version of Beauty and the Beast and compare the two stories. How is Pabo Ondal like the Beast? How is he different? How is the Weeping Princess like Beauty? How is she different? Do both stories end happily? Which is more familiar? Which story raises more questions? Some good picture book versions of Beauty and the Beast are:

Beauty and the Beast by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft.
Beauty and the Beast, retold and illustrated by Jan Brett.
Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

I especially like that in this Korean tale it is the wife who teaches and also gives moral support and encouragement to her husband until he becomes the man he is meant to be. And then, “Ondal’s services to the king were many and great, but his happiness awaited him at the foot of Peony Peak.” (his home with the princess)

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Kim La Fave.

Malini is a little girl in a farming community in Sri Lanka. She wakes up in the morning, excited by her opportunity to learn to plant rice seedlings for the first time. But then, on her way to the fields, Malini has the chance to help the community in a different way, as the monsoon rains come and she responds to a near-disaster with pluck and bravery.

This story is just exciting and even scary enough to enthrall young readers and listeners, even as they learn to admire Malini’s courage and resourcefulness. The text itself, written in free verse, is filled with images and onamatapoeia and word pictures that will help readers to imagine what life must be like in a small farming community in Asia. And the illustrations are colorful and exciting, too, complementing the story and bringing out details that might be lost in the rush of the verse.

I’m excited to add this book to my library since my patrons are always looking for excellent picture books that will introduce their children to life in other places in the world. When the Rain Comes may become a favorite go-to title for those who are studying India and Sri Lanka.

Philomena by Kate Seredy

Philomena is sturdy young country girl who lives with her grandmother in a village in the Czech Republic sometime in the early twentieth century. After her Babushka’s death, Philomena goes to the city of Prague to learn to be a servant and to find her Aunt Liska who deserted the family many years ago.

The story is very Catholic, and Philomena receives messages via circumstances that she believes are from the sainted Babushka. This aspect of the story didn’t bother me even though I don’t believe in praying to or receiving guidance from the dead. Philomena does believe that her grandmother is guiding her and caring for her from beyond the grave, and the device creates a gentle logic and organization to Philomena’s journey to the city and her growth from an innocent little girl to a self-sufficient and mature young lady.

“Everybody else in the village went to church every Sunday. First they listened to Father Matthias. Father Matthias was a wise priest who knew all about the weather, the sheep, and the chickens. He told the men of the village when to plant potatoes and corn. He told them what to do when animals got sick. He knew about God and Heaven, of course, but he also knew that people must have enough to eat to be happy, and therefore good, so he taught them to be good farmers. Good farmers have so much to do that there simply isn’t enough time left over for them to do anything that would make God angry with them! The good priest told them about Heaven, to be sure, but he just took it for granted that all his people would go there. He didn’t have to bother to tell them about the other place. He was a very wise man.”

While Father Matthias’ teaching or lack thereof doesn’t exactly fit with my own reading of the Bible and its soteriology, it is refreshing to read about such a good and down-to-earth priest.

Kate Seredy (pronounced SHARE-edy) was born in 1899 in Budapest, Hungary, and she grew up as an only child in the home of her teacher father. After World War II, Ms. Seredy emigrated to the United States and became an illustrator, first of cards and book covers and other low-paying artistic endeavors, then textbooks and books by other authors. Eventually, Ms. Seredy began to write and illustrate her own stories, mostly set in Central Europe, Hungary and this one in Czechoslovakia. The White Stag, based on Hungarian mythology and folklore and not her best book in my opinion, won the Newbery Medal in 1937. Philomena was published in 1955 after several other books, either written or illustrated or both by the talented Ms. Seredy, had won Newbery awards or honors.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Movies and books don’t usually make me cry. Even as I’ve become more emotional and easily moved in my old age, I still rarely cry in response to a fictional narrative. After all, it’s fiction, didn’t really happen.

Well, trigger warning, The Light Between Oceans made me bawl. In my bed at 1:00 in the morning as I read the ending to this beautiful, supremely sad, and emotional story, I cried, silently so that I wouldn’t wake up my sleeping husband. The themes of brokenness and loss and self-sacrifice and again brokenness were so poignant and so very, very sad.

Set just after World War I came to a close, the story is about a veteran of that war, Tom Sherburne, who returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, isolated island off the coast of western Australia. While Tom is on “shore leave” form his lighthouse duties, he meets a local girl, Isabel, and the two of them marry and go to live at the lighthouse where they will stay, just the two of them, without company or leave for years at a time. The real story begins when Isabel is down by the shore and hears a baby’s cry.

I have always identified with these quotations from Gone With the Wind:

“Perhaps I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.”

Rhett Butler to Scarlett: “I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.”

Or this horribly frightening and prescient quote from Cry, the Beloved Country:

–I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.
He was grave and silent, and then he said sombrely, I have only one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.

Brokenness.

We do live in a broken world. And sometimes things are so broken that there is no way to pick up the fragments and glue them back together. In The Light Between the Oceans, that kind of brokenness and tragedy comes to one couple, brought on by their own choices, wrong choices, but also very human and understandable choices. I don’t really want to tell anyone too much about this story, except that it is very sad, very real, and very good—-all at the same time. Thank you to whoever recommended it to me.

Thank God that my Jesus makes all things new. We live in a broken world, and sometimes that world is falling down about my ears. And many, many times it is broken through my own fault, my own bad decisions, my own sin. But my God promises, through Christ, to make all things new.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott.

What sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible people! This book is about the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, Mary’s step-sister, Claire, Lord Byron, and for some reason, Byron’s erstwhile doctor, John Polidori. It’s mostly about the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron and the Shelley ménage and Doctor Polidori were all in Geneva, hanging out and being sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible. Oh, and they also decided to enliven a rainy day by competing to see who could write the best horror story. Mary “won” because she was the only one who finished and published her story, Frankenstein. Polidori wrote something called The Vampyre, too, but it may or may not have been mostly plagiarized from Lord Byron

Percy and Mary were on the run from Mary’s family, unmarried and plagued by debt. They had been together for two years by the summer of 1816 and had a son, William, but they believed in “free love” and therefore were not married. There were persistent rumors that Claire, who ran away with them when they first eloped, was also Percy Shelley’s lover. However, according to this book, Claire only had eyes for Lord Byron, and she was probably already pregnant with Byron’s child when the Byron contingent and the Shelley group met up in Geneva in May of 1816. If it all sounds complicated and rather tawdry, it was.

The Poet and the Vampyre is chronologically scattered, maybe because the Shelleys and Lord Byron and Claire and Polidori led such nomadic and convoluted lives. Lord Byron was also “on the run” in 1816, escaping from his estranged wife and tattered reputation in England. He took up with Claire mostly because she kept throwing her self at him, and he had no power or reason or moral principles to make him resist. Then, there’s a baby, and Byron wants to ignore it, ignore Claire and forget the spring and summer interlude with her ever happened. The narrative keeps going back and forth between Byron’s former life in England and his rise to fame, the Shelleys and Claire and their former lives in England before the great elopement, John Polidori’s history and current situation as Byron’s personal doctor, all of the mess they made of their lives after the summer in Geneva, and various and sundry other anecdotes and historical notes that the author decides to throw in here and there.

The book could have been much better organized, and I never did understand why Polidori was even a focus of the story. Maybe the author felt sorry for him because at the time Mr. Polidori felt ignored and overlooked by the great poets, Byron and Shelley. Since the Romantic poets were so very confessional and personal in their poetry, it makes since to read about their actual lives. Unfortunately, reading about the casual cruelty and lack of any moral standard that Shelley and especially Byron exhibited in their personal lives makes me not want to read their poetry at all. Ever.

I would suggest reading the poetry on its own merits and knowing as little about the poets as possible. That method of literary engagement might mean that you interpret some of the poems of Byron and Shelley in a way that they weren’t meant, but at least you would skip the scandal and gossip and general nastiness. I did find out that Mr. Polidori was the uncle of the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. Interesting, but again I’m not sure it’s terribly significant that the Rossettis had an uncle who was Lord Byron’s personal doctor for a few months.

Christmas in Canterbury, England, 1067

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

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.

It AIn’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yusefzadeh is living in California with her Iranian family before and during the Iran hostage crisis. No wonder she wants to change her name to Cindy! Not to mention that no one can pronounce her real name, and people always ask, when they find out where she’s from, if they ride camels. Zomorod/Cindy has only even seen a camel once—in a zoo!

These are the adventures and misadventures of an Iranian girl with an immigrant family that sticks out like a sore thumb, in the community, in Zomorod’s middle school, especially after the shah leaves Iran and the political radicals take Americans hostage in the embassy in Iran. Zomorod tries to fit in, by changing her name to Cindy, by celebrating American holidays, and by making friends, but it’s hard to reconcile the two cultures she is living in, Persian and American. The book reminded me of one of my favorite movies, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as Zomorod/Cindy sees the world from inside her Iranian family and from the American point of view that she is learning. However, no weddings here, as Zomorod/Cindy is only 10-12 years old as the story progresses.

The story is kind of sad at times. Cindy’s dad loses his job as a result of the hostage crisis, and Cindy’s mom is having a lot trouble adjusting to life in the United States. However, lots of humor, and good attitude (most of the time) from Cindy, and some persistently friendly and hospitable people give the book an upbeat and hopeful feel and ending. This book would be an excellent book to give to current middle schoolers who are hearing all of the anti-immigrant talk and being influenced or discouraged by it. It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel gives a different perspective on the immigrant experience and shows how important it is to try to understand how others think and feel.

Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

This book tells the story of Polish social worker Irena Sendler, a courageous woman who risked her life to save Jewish children in Warsaw during World War War II. As I read I was reminded of my (fictional) introduction to the story of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during World War II and of how the people living there were systematically and horrifically starved, persecuted, deported to death camps, Treblinka in particular, and finally exterminated. The ghetto itself was eventually burned and then razed. I read about all of this horror many years ago, first in Leon Uris’s book, Exodus, and then in his books that focuses on the Warsaw ghetto, Mila 18.

Many of the true stories in Irena’s Children mirror the stories that Uris told in his fictional accounts of the Holocaust. Irene Sendler and those who worked with her did smuggle Jewish babies out of the ghetto and place them in Christian (Catholic) orphanages and homes. They did take older children and adults through the sewers to get them out of the ghetto. Some Jews did escape just in the nick of time before the Nazis destroyed the entire ghetto, and others died in a failed, desperate uprising led mostly by teenagers and young adults who refused to be taken alive.

And Irena Sendler was a heroine, although she often vehemently denied any right to the title. She was a socialist and a humanitarian. She was not Jewish herself, but she had a Jewish lover, and therefore, a personal interest in the survival of Poland’s Jews. She risked her life again and again, however, for strangers, for children who could not thank her or protect her. She was eventually arrested and taken to a Gestapo prison, questioned, tortured, and scheduled for execution. She escaped with the help of the Polish Underground, and she went on to help more Jews and to survive the war and the Communist aftermath of the war.

I would have liked to have read more about Ms. Sendler’s life after the war, but that part of the story and of Irena Sendler’s life was given short shrift in a book that focuses mostly on her wartime activities. Ms. Sendler became a devout Catholic in her later years, and she was persecuted by the Communist government of Poland even as she was lauded by Jewish friends and friends of Israel around the world. The book has no index, and it could have used one since many of Irena Sendler’s associates had similar names and stories. The Polish names and places were hard for an English-speaking reader to keep straight, but Mazzeo does include a list of characters at the end of the book.