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Christmas in Holland, 1943

A Dutch family celebrates Christmas/St. Nicholas Day during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands:

St. Nicholas told Pieterbaas to look in the bag and see what was in it. To everyone’s amusement, Pieterbaas pulled out six chocolate bars! They were small bars, but they might have been of gold. Chocolate had been unknown in Holland for the past three years. Now Betsy believed more than ever in St. Nicholas’ magic!

St. Nicholas sat at the table and had supper with the family. Mother had added to the meal a sauce of the mushrooms Joris had picked, so that there would be enough food for everyone.

Betsy exclaimed that she had never before eaten with St. Nicholas. “Are you going to see my Daddy,” she asked.

St. Nicholas was struggling with the soup; he seemed to have difficulty finding his mouth through the beard. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Of course, I don’t forget people.”

“And what will you bring him?” asked Betsy. “Bread pudding?” Bread pudding seemed to be a family joke at the stationmaster’s house.

“No, I’m going to bring him good news of his girls. He’ll like that best,” said St. Nicholas. Koba and Betsy nodded. That seemed reasonable. ~The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum

Christmas in Northeast China, 1940

David Michell was born in China, the son of Australian Christian missionaries working with the China Inland Mission. He was at Chefoo School, away from his parents, when the Japanese took the students and staff there captive. He spent part of the war in an internment camp, the same camp where Olympic runner Eric Liddell was held. This Christmas, described in a letter to the students’ parents, was just before the Japanese took over the area in 1941.

From A Boy’s War by David Michell:

“Just before Christmas the well-known story of Scrooge once again delighted youthful eyes and ears and prepared the way for the Spirit of Christmas 1940. On Christmas Eve little messengers went round the compound or to the houses of other friends carrying bulging bags, waste paper [baskets], or even laundry baskets full of gifts, while others with dolls’ prams filled them with gay packages and wheeled them off. Meanwhile a bevy of artists from the Girls’ House transformed our dining room into a Christmas bower, where red and green and silver glowed in the soft lights from the tree.

Just as supper was over a Chinese school visited us and filled the hall with their hearty singing while our children looked on in solemn amazement. . . . That night a package found its way on to the foot of each bed, not quite burning a hole through the covers in the few short hours till Christmas Day in the morning. That morning began at 6:30, and instead of the clanging of a gong, church bells relayed by a gramophone echoed down the passages. Breakfast was followed by family prayers round the table, and again the soft lights on the tree shed their radiance over a scene which you would love to have looked upon. Our hearts bowed in worship as we sang of the One who came, ‘A little Child to earth, long ago’ from the knowledge of whom comes all peace and joy and love.”

Christmas in Southern England, c. 1350

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite deAngeli, winner of the 1950 Newbery Medal:

“There never was such merrymaking as took place in the Hall that Christmas Eve. Such ballads sung! Such tales told!

Branches of holly and spruce decked the Hall and filled the air with fragrance. The yule log burned on the hearth and flaming torches filled the sconces.

The King and Queen sat enthroned in the great chairs on the dais. A tapestry was draped on the screen behind them and rich Eastern carpets beneath.

**********

‘Sire,’ Robin began, ‘I do thank you for this great honor, and I beg you to accept my song of Christmas.’ He brought forward the little harp he had grown to love and sang this carol:

Come to Bethelehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the new-born King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy

Mike gets a letter a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday: “If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry, but I was killed in the war in Afghanistan.” Thus begins a series of letters to Mike from the dad he didn’t really know who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old. Can Mike get to know his dad and maybe get some wisdom and advice, even though his dad is gone?

This YA contemporary fiction book has several things going for it:

It has a male protagonist, written by a male author. Mike really feels like a typical sixteen year old guy, kind of a straight arrow geek, but those really do exist. Mike reminds of some sixteen year olds I know.

The plot hinges on and features football, a very popular sport that hasn’t received its due in YA fiction. At least not in a good way. The stereotypical football player inmost YA fiction is a popular brain-dead jock who’s dating or dumping the also popular, brainless cheerleader. Mike finds friendship and community and the enjoyment of being part of a team in playing football, even if he does have to deceive his mother in order to make the team.

Mike’s dad is an everyman soldier who died in Afghanistan, and we get to know him as Mike does through his letters. Mike’s mom is over-protective and also distracted by trying to provide for Mike and his sister. These are real parents, not cardboard, and they both play an important part in Mike’s life and in the story. Not many YA novels really delve into the parent/teen relationship of imperfect parents who nevertheless love and try to relate to their also imperfect sons or daughters. Usually the parents are absent, stupid, or evil. Mike’s parents are none of the above.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to any teen who’s trying to make sense of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the future wars we manage to get ourselves into. It’s not the final word on war or the meaning of life or heroism or honor, but it is a perspective. It’s an honorable and real perspective. I am quite impressed with Mr. Reedy as an author and as a commentator on the effects of war on families and especially young men. I like his other book that I read, Words in the Dust, and I liked this one, too.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Lists!

Lu/Leslie at Regular Rumination asks us to Be/Become/Ask the Expert:

Share a list of titles that you have read on a particular topic, create a wish list of titles that you’d like to read about a particular topic, or ask your fellow Nonfiction November participants for suggestions on a particular topic.

Well, I have two three ongoing projects, and I’d love to have suggestions for either.

My U.S. Presidents Project is stalled at the moment, but I’d like to take it back up in January. I have a copy of David McCullough’s Truman waiting for me to get around to it. And here I have a list of presidential biographies I’d like to read. What books should I add to my list? Leave me a comment about any biographies of U.S. presidents that you’ve read and enjoyed, and please leave a link to your review, if you wrote one.

My Africa reading project is also ongoing. I was trying to focus on one are of Africa each year, but that idea fell by the wayside when I would find a book set in another part of Africa that I wanted to read. So any nonfiction about Africa or African countries?

I almost forgot about this list of 50 Nonfiction Books for 50 States. Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

I am going to enjoy exploring other bloggers’ nonfiction reading lists and projects. I may have to restrain myself from taking on another reading project as a result of reading others’ lists.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin

This story takes place before, during, and after the Pinochet reign of terror in Chile in the 1970’s. Although the dictator’s name is never mentioned and the author takes some liberties with the timeline and with the historical facts, Ms. Agosin, who herself lived in Chile during the Pinochet years, brings to life the anxiety and the courage that emerged in many of those who experienced the “desaparedcidos” and the government repression that took place during Pinochet’s presidency.

Celeste is an eleven year old only child who lives with her parents, her grandmother, and their live-in cook and nanny, Delfina, in Valparaiso, Chile. The book begins by painting a carefree, somewhat sheltered childhood for Celeste, but her pre ants, both doctors, are just beginning to show Celeste the poverty and need that lies below the surface in Chile’s slums where the two physicians practice medicine in a number of free clinics. Then, Celeste begins to notice that things are changing at school and at home as many of her classmates begin to drop to of school and “disappear”. Either their parents have been arrested, or the families are in hiding. No one really knows, and no one wants to be caught talking about the possibilities.

Celeste’s parents also go into hiding, and Celeste herself is sent to Maine to live with her Tia Graciela. The second part of the book, about a year or a year and a half, takes place in Maine as Celeste learns what it means to be a refugee in a foreign land with the help of a loving, but somewhat unusual, aunt who reads tarot cards for a living and lives mostly in seclusion, still getting over an unhappy love affair. Celeste goes to school, learns English, and makes friends.

Then, the government changes again, and Celeste can return to her beloved Chile.However, Celeste’s parents are not able to return home without Celeste’s help. In fact, they seem to have suffered so much that they have become indecisive and unable to function as adults. This part of the novel felt real, but the fact that Celeste takes this kind of abdication in stride was a bit surprising. The story ends with Celeste beginning her own project to help her country heal from the years of oppression and dictatorship.

This book is long, 453 pages, rather fanciful, poetic and even superstitious at times, and it moves slowly. Many readers won’t have the patience for this one, but those who do will be rewarded with a story that introduces children and adult readers to the zeitgeist of a Chile molded by years of government oppression and poverty and repression of free speech and other freedoms that we in the U.S. take for granted.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Trains. Well, really, one l–o–n–g train that’s so long that it might as well be a traveling city on wheels. This train, The Boundless, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!

The Boundless is a world to itself, inside a literary world that includes sasquatch, a mesmerist, a steam-powered automaton bartender, treasure, and a weeping hag who induces people to commit suicide (no one dies except expendable redshirt bad guys). The last element, the hag, may be a little much for some younger readers, but it somehow wasn’t terribly scary to me. And I’m not a fan of scary.

Anyway, The Boundless takes place in an alternate steampunk North American continent, and most of the action happens on the train. the train. I loved the train. I want someone to draw me a picture of the train, car by car. Or, even better, I want to ride on the train all the way across the country and experience each part of this marvelous magical train myself. (I wonder if in heaven the good things we imagine can become real and be experienced through eternity? Jesus and I could have a lot of fun exploring The Boundless, without all of the bad guys and hags and thieves.)

Will Everett is our humble hero who grows into a self-assured young man by the end of the story. The only thing I didn’t like about the story was the tired old theme of “follow your dream.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Will wants to be an artist while his father insists that he do something more practical with his life. If you want to know why I think that “follow your dream” is a stupid theme to be drilling into kids in every other book they read, not to mention the idea that parents are a bunch of spoilsports with no wisdom to be imparted, then watch this TED talk by Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs (which I’ve never seen, but I like his perspective on the value and dignity of work in this video).

So I just pretended that the simplistic Disney-esque follow-your-dream parts weren’t there, and I enjoyed the train and the adventure and the Picture of Dorian Gray subplot.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions by Lenore Look

Alvin Ho is back again, kind of like his namesake, the chipmunk. (Actually, the two have nothing to do with one another. I just was reminded of Alvin the Chipmunk for some reason and wanted to post a picture. Maybe because both Alvins have a penchant for getting into lovable trouble.)

This time Alvin Ho goes on a trip at Christmas time to China with his family to visit his relations who live in a tall scary apartment building. And Alvin has to fly across the ocean in an airplane, aka tin can, to get there. And there are maybe a billion people in China who could squash you. And you might have to use a squat toilet or be stuck all over with acupuncture needles like a pincushion. Scary, right?

Those are only a few of the dangers Alvin faces as he explores, or tries to keep from exploring, a new country. I’m getting a little jaded on Alvin, but I think this book might be just as funny and just as comforting to the average second or third grader as were Alvin’s previous adventures.

I did especially like chapter 15, You Can Make a Friend Anywhere, where Alvin does something very generous and kind in spite of all of his fears and phobias. The rest is standard Alvin Ho fare, although it provides a good introduction to the tourist attractions and interesting aspects of a visit to China. I felt sorry for Alvin’s dad, though, who is forced to be very, very patient and forgiving with Alvin’s childish anxieties and careless misdeeds.

Read this one if you’re a fan or if you want a painless introduction to China or if you have yet to meet the inimitable Alvin Ho.

Poetry Friday: Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers by Gloria Whelan

Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers By Gloria Whelan. Illustrated by Yan Nascimbene. Sleeping Bear Press, 2008.

This week and next in our homeschool we’re traveling to Japan: sushi, haiku, kimonos, rice paper, origami, big city, small farm, tsunamis, cherry blossoms. And what else might we discover in our imaginary journey to Japan?

When you’re looking for children’s books with an international setting and flavor, Gloria Whelan is a go-to author, and Sleeping Bear Press is definitely a premier publisher of such books. Sleeping Bear has published a whole bushel basket of alphabet books featuring different countries, states, regions, and interests from A is for Aloha: A Hawai’i Alphabet to K is for Kabuki: A Japan Alphabet to Z is for Zamboni: A Hockey Alphabet. And their non-alphabet, non-concept books rate high in both beauty and educational value, too. Sleeping Bear Press specializes in picture books, ergo the pictures in the books are delightful, colorful, and rich in detail.

Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers is no exception to that description. The illustrations, in double page and page and a half spreads, are Japanese in flavor, with the delicate figures and light and dark contrasts of Japanese character writing. However, there’s also a lot of color splashed all over these pages to delight the eye and engage the imagination. Yan Nascimbene also did the small, intricate illustrations for another lovely picture book set in Japan, Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner.

Gloria Whelan’s text tells the story of an seventeenth or eighteenth century girl, Yuki, who must accompany her family on a 300 mile journey to the capital city of Edo. Yuki must ride in a palanquin (most of the time), and her teacher has given her an assignment to write a haiku every day to chronicle the journey. Yuki writes all of her longing for home and her fears about the future as well as her enjoyment in the small pleasures of each day into her haiku.

Once outside the gate
how will I find my way back?
Will home disappear?

River is busy
making its own long journey;
it doesn’t look back.

Gulls write their haiku
in the sky, dipping and darting,
not caged in a box.

Once during the long journey, Yuki is able to climb out of the palanquin and walk a little way. She writes:

Grass under my feet
plum blossoms drift down on me
just for a minute.

Finally, the family reach Edo, the end of their journey, and Yuki learns to appreciate where she is, instead of always looking back to long for her old home.

The book is a fantastic introduction to historical Japan and a lovely story of overcoming homesickness through poetry and awareness of daily blessings.

Jama’s Alphabet Soup has today’s Poetry Friday Roundup.

The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

“You writers always have to be so cryptic.”

So says a character in this Australian YA fiction title, honored by The Children’s Book Council of Australia, but, she said it, full of cryptic. The Ink Bridge tells the story of two young men, one Afghani named Omed and one Australian boy named Hector, Hec for short. Omed’s story comes first in the book. Maimed by the Taliban when they cut out his tongue, Omed is unable to talk, lost inside himself, and a lot of his internal dialogue is obscure and puzzling (cryptic) to say the least. Omed’s story is the tale of a refugee with very little hope, as Omed makes his way from Afghanistan to Australia in the clutches of and dependent on an evil smuggler called The Snake.

Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to Hec, another boy without words. Hec is an elective mute; he chooses not to talk because the tragedy which has occurred to disrupt his life has sucked all the words out of him. As he gets to know Omed, however, whom he calls Silent Boy, Hec finds a reason for words and telling stories. In fact, he finds himself compelled to tell Omed’s story in the hope that somehow telling the story of Omed’s struggles will give voice to the suffering people of Afghanistan and will change in some small way the tragedy that is being played out daily in that country.

A lot of the book fits the cryptic label. Omed and Hec both are very internally focussed for much of the story. Since they can’t or won’t talk, they imagine a lot, and some of their introspection is a stew of secrets and mysteries and regrets and visions and just plain craziness. I can imagine not talking for a year, like Hec, and sometimes I think it would be a relief. But it might make me a little more crazy than I already am.

The Ink Bridge is a book about the power of words, but I think it would take a motivated and discerning young adult reader to stick with the story through the enigmatic passages and the difficult relationships that make up the bulk of the narrative. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in refugees in Australia or in the people of fghanistan.