The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose.

The Newbery honor and National Book Award winning author of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Phillip Hoose, has chronicled the fascinating true story of a group of Danish boys who jump-started the resistance to the Nazis in Denmark during World War II. Knud Pedersen, a pastor’s son, joined with his high school buddies to harass and subvert the Germans who were occupying Denmark. They stole guns, burned German vehicles, confused signage, posted graffiti,and cut phone lines, among other acts of sabotage and resistance. And they acted when almost no one else in Denmark was resisting the Germans at all. Pedersen says they did it because they were ashamed of Denmark’s easy capitulation to the Nazis and the collaboration that characterized the Danish response to the German occupation.

“I kept asking myself: How on earth could I lie on the beach sunning when my country had been violated? Why were we not as brave as Norway? Had Denmark no pride?”

Eventually, the boys, who after all were just boys with no military or resistance experience, were arrested and imprisoned. But they became an inspiration to the adults of Denmark who began their own resistance movement. Mr. Hoose credits Knud Pedersen and his Churchill Club with “setting the ball in motion” and making Denmark “a hotbed of resistance.”

I would have liked to have read more about the religion “ghosts” (hints about a religious or Christian influence that aren’t fleshed out) in this story. Pedersen’s father was a pastor, but we are never told what denomination or what that fact meant to Knud Pedersen. Pedersen tells how the boys decided that they would have to be willing to kill Germans in order to form an effective resistance cell, but he never says anything about how they reconciled the violence they were willing to commit with their Christian background or faith. In fact, it is hinted, but never stated, that perhaps Knud Pedersen and his brother, who was also involved in the Churchill Club, didn’t have much faith or Christianity to reconcile. However, perhaps they did, but the author doesn’t tell us about it. Pedersen is filled with hatred: for the Germans, for the Danish collaborators, and for his jailers. A struggle with what to do with such hatred in a Christian context is never mentioned.

Religion ghosts in the text:

“Holy Ghost Monastery . . . would host Edvard Pedersen’s Danish Folkschurch and provide living quarters for the Pedersen family.” Folkschurch?

Most of the boys of the Churchill Club attended Aalborg Cathedral School, presumably a Christian private school?

Knud Pedersen: “Each Sunday morning Jens and I practiced shooting the guns in the gigantic open loft at the top of the monastery during father’s church services. We would lie on our stomachs, waiting for the music to swell, and when it did we’d blast away, firing at targets positioned in the hay on the other side of the loft.” So the boys didn’t attend church services?

Pedersen on Christmas in prison: “I wanted to cry, but I had forgotten how. I finally discovered that by softly singing Christmas songs in my cell at night I could make the tears flow down my cheeks. I sang every song I knew and wept the whole next day.”

Knud Pedersen, describing the end of the war for him: “Father distributed hymnals. I ended the war at the monastery chapel just a few meters away from the room in which the Churchill Club was born–singing hymns with the men of my K Company group. I was eighteen.”

Knud’s brother, Jens, “struggled with depression.” “He died in a hospital after a very unhappy life.”

After the war, Knud Pedersen wrote a memoir about the Churchill Club. His father, “Edvard Pedersen, arranged to have a secretary type the finished manuscript, but—unbeknownst to Knud and his club mates–he had the typist cross out all the curse words just before publication. This angered the group when they finally saw the book.”

These ghosts/hints are interesting for what is not mentioned: no prayer, no consolation from remembered Scripture or Biblical truth, no Christ or Christian commitment. Judging from a quick skim of his blog, Mr. Hoose himself seems to have Buddhist sympathies, so it’s understandable that he would not be as interested in the Christian underpinnings or lack thereof of the Churchill Club and its members. But I was. Unfortunately, since Mr. Pedersen died in December of last year, 2014, I can’t ask him whether he rejected or found strength in the faith of his parents or what exactly that faith was.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is a book about teen heroes, young men who decided that if the adults wouldn’t do anything for the honor of Denmark and the confusion of her enemy, the German invaders, they would. As such it’s an interesting and exciting portrait of youthful zeal and even foolhardiness which can sometimes trump an adult over-abundance of caution and planning. I just would have liked to know more about the boys’ foundational thinking, about what motivated them and sustained them, or didn’t sustain them, through prison and life after the war.

Down Ryton Water by E.R. Gaggin

Down Ryton Water is a 1942 Newbery Honor book about the Pilgrims–published back when children’s books were really meaty and challenging reads. It’s 369 pages of pilgrim wanderings and family building and moving and rearranging and traveling and birthing and marrying.

The (sainted) Pilgrims come across as real people with personalities and foibles and humor and salty language (nothing that’s shocking for nowadays) and full lives. The book focuses on the Over family: Mother Orris Brode Over, a gardener and herbalist; Father Matt Over, a farmer; Young Matt, five years old as the story opens in Scrooby, England; and baby Remember, “the damp woman child” as Young Matt calls her. The family soon grows: Young Matt’s young uncle John Brode, an adopted orphan child named Winifrett, a new baby boy born in Holland and named for the Dutch St. Nicholas, and later a young Native American teen named Wisset, all join the Over family.

It’s a book about family and about continuity of that family amidst pilgrim upheavals and separations and reunions. I found it encouraging and full of wisdom nuggets:

Orris to Young Matt upon the occasion of the Overs leaving Scrooby for Holland: “Strangers and pilgrims on the earth. That’s what we are . . . Because pilgrims, my lad, are strangers in a strange land. And so will we be–and my poor simples! Pilgrims wander about the earth in search of the blessed vision that keeps ever out of reach, just ahead of them. . . . Our vision is a place to live where we may have freedom to think, freedom to worship, and freedom to dig in the muck once more.”

Uncle John, when the Pilgrims are leaving Holland: “Freedom must be earned; it must first be understood and then fought for. It must be forever guarded, lest it slip away. It is the most precious thing in life.”

William Bradford at the first Thanksgiving: “We have been in a race for life. But a halt must be made in such a race sometime. A halt to consider what has been accomplished with God’s help, and to give thanks to Him for His blessings. A halt for–for–well, for laughter and feasting and pleasantry. Both young and old need a bolus of merriment now and then to keep them in good health.”

When Young Matt is building himself a house, his uncle John tells him: “Get some beauty into the design! No dwelling is too simple for beauty! There’s a correctness for every need. In building, as in garments.”

This fictional family of Pilgrims, the Overs, shows young (and old) readers the vicissitudes of life in colonial America as the first Europeans came to settle in the New World. It would make a good November read aloud book for upper elementary or even middle school children. And for skilled readers in that age group who are interested in history, this book would also be a fascinating and challenging independent reading choice. The book is long and descriptive passages abound, so patience and a tolerance for such is required. I found it a good antidote to the internet-based reading that I often get accustomed to and have to wean myself from in order to read deeply and enjoy fully the reading that I do.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus is the best children’s fantasy I’ve read in a long time. How do I love this book? Let me count the ways:

1. Circus Mirandus is magical. When Micah realizes that the stories his grandpa Ephraim has been telling him all his life about the Circus Mirandus are real, Micah is sure that the miracle that Grandpa Ephraim has saved up to claim from the circus performer called The Lightbender will also become real.

“Magic is . . . the parts of you that are just too big to keep just to yourself.”

2. At Circus Mirandus, seeing is believing, and believing means seeing. Micah has a friend, Jenny Mendoza, who has a natural explanation for all the magic of Circus Mirandus. But it’s Jenny’s “scientific” explanations that don’t seem very believable or real. The magic is inexplicable, and if one believes in it, it becomes real.

“When you try too hard to hold on to something, you break it. Sometimes, we need to let go so that other people can have their chance at the magic.”

3. Grandpa Ephraim and Micah have the best grandfather/grandson relationship ever. I had grandmother like Grandpa Ephraim, minus the circus, and I’ll bet many of the children who read the book will identify with Micah and his grandfather and their close relationship.

“Grandpa Ephraim was always saying things that sounded so important Micah wanted to wrap them up in boxes and keep them forever.”

4. Circus Mirandus doesn’t shrink away from the hard stuff. The hardest stuff of all is death and dying, and I love Tolkien for making Frodo’s return to the Shire difficult and insufficient because that’s how things really, truly are on this earth. I like the events in Circus Mirandus (which I’m trying not to spoil) for the same reason that I like the ending of Lord of the Rings, because sickness and consequences and incompleteness are a real part of the world we live in. And children can deal with that if it’s presented well.

“Father would want me to do the right thing, he thought. Even if it hurts.”

5. Circus. Magical knot-tying skills. Bird-woman. Flying. Invisible tiger. Treehouse. Danger. Friendship. What more could one ask for?

“Just because a magic is small doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Even the smallest magics can grow.”

P.S. Look underneath the dust jacket.

Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation Award for Children’s Literature

The book I reviewed yesterday, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, was a Newbery Honor book. However, curiously enough, the copy I read had no Newbery sticker on it. It did have a medal sticker proclaiming it to be the recipient of the “Award of the Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation (for) Children’s Literature.”

Mrs. Ford seems to have been a prominent New York socialite and author and patron of the arts. I looked for information about her on the web and found this brief bio at an art website dedicated to the paintings of John William Waterhouse:

Julia Ellsworth Ford, neé Shaw, was a New York socialite, philanthropist, author of children’s books and doyenne of a salon that included the Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran, Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, and American dancer Isadora Duncan. Her husband was Simeon Ford, financier and noted host of the old Grand Union Hotel, New York (co-owned with Julia’s brother Samuel Shaw).

Mrs. Ford “though extremely wealthy, was more interested in meeting famous people, whom she collected as others did stamps or butterflies, than in disbursing her capital: ‘the woman who aspires’ was the way he described her to Florence Farr.” (from a 1905 letter by John Quinn quoted in Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, William Michael Murphy.)

“Mrs. Ford had a great interest in the Pre-Raphaelite painters and later artists such as JW Waterhouse and Arthur Hacker, both of whom she knew personally. She went to Germany to meet the German painter Franz von Stuck and to get photographic reproductions of his work. She created her own wallpaper for her upstairs study by arranging on the walls as a mosaic over two hundred photographic reproductions of pictures by these artists.”

Ms. Ford was the author of the children’s book, Snickerty Nick and the Giant, illustrated by famed artist Arthur Rackham, and also of other children’s tomes, somewhat less well-known than old Snickerty Nick. I couldn’t find a list of the books that Ms. Ford’s foundation gave awards to, but I did find some of them individually attributed here and there across the internet. Apparently, the award was a competition for the best children’s book manuscript submitted to the foundation. Here are a few of the award winners that I could find:

Singing Paddles by Julia Butler (Hansen). Holt, 1937. The story of Sally Ann Blair and her family who travel from Kentucky to Oregon in 1842.

My Brother Was Mozart by Benson Wheeler and Claire Lee Purdy. Harcourt, 1937.

The Stage-Struck Seal by James Neal. Holt, 1937.

Hello, the Boat! by Phyllis Crawford. Illustrated by Edward Laning. E.M. Hale and Company, 1938. The journey of a store-boat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. This book won a Newbery Honor in 1939.

Falcon Fly Back by Elinore Blaisdell. Messner, 1939. In medieval France, 12-year-old Anne de Hauteville trains a falcon and later rescues it when it escapes.

The Listening Man by Lucy Embury. Illustrated by Russell Hamilton. Messner, 1940. In sixth century Ireland, Ollave wants to become a “listening man” rather than a fighting man.

Walt Whitman: Builder for America by Babette Deutsch. Messner, 1941.

Journey Cake by Isabel McLennan McMeekin. Messner, 1942. In 1793, the father of the Shadrow family whose mother has recently died goes into the Kentucky wilderness to establish a new life for his family. The children leave their home in North Carolina in the spring to meet their father in Kentucky. Along with their freed slave woman and her husband they face drudgery, opposition and danger along the way. During their travel they participate in a pioneer wedding and meet Johnny Appleseed.

Valiant Minstrel: The Story of Harry Lauder by Gladys Malvern. Illustrated by Corinne Malvern. Messner, 1943. Sir Harry Lauder was a vaudeville singer and comedian from Scotland.

Raymond L. Ditmars: His Exciting Career with Reptiles, Insects and Animals by Laura Newbold Wood. Messner, 1944. Ditmars, according to Wikipedia, was an American herpetologist, illustrator, writer and filmmaker. He wrote several books of his own about snakes and about his adventures as a Bronx Zoo curator and naturalist. Mr. Ditmars died in 1942, so this biography was rather timely as well as informative, I’m sure.

The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes. Illustrated by Kate Seredy. Messner, 1946.

A Horse to Remember by Genevieve Torrey Eames. Illustrated by Paul Brown. Messner, 1947. Joker the Pony and Jarvis solve a mystery together.

The Canvas Castle by Alice Rogers Hager. Illustrated by Mary Stevens. Messner, 1948. Ms. Hager “worked as a reporter in Los Angeles, California, and was the Washington editor and war correspondent throughout China, Burma and India during WW II.” I’m not exactly sure what the book is about. A memoir of her travels, perhaps?

Tomas and the Red-Headed Angel by Marion Garthwaite. Illustrated by Laurence J. Borjklund. Messner, 1950. The spirited young Spanish girl, Angelita, befriends an Indian boy, Tomas.

After the first couple of years of the contest, there seems to have been some sort of arrangement with Julian Messner Publishing Company to publish the winning manuscripts. I couldn’t find any award recipients after 1950. Julia Ellsworth Ford died in 1950, so I suppose the foundation and the award died with her.

Is anyone else familiar with this contest/award or with any of the books that won the award? As I said, I just read The Wonderful Year, and enjoyed it. I have also read other books by author Gladys Malvern and would love to have any of her books in my library. Are any of these authors or books familiar to any of my readers? Don’t some of them sound interesting?

The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes

I found this book at a local public library, and I was rather surprised to discover it in the middle of the vampires and the magical worlds and the middle school angst: a realistic, turn of the century setting story, published in 1946, about an only child, Ellen, who travels from Kansas to Colorado with her lawyer father and her adventurous mother to start a fruit-growing farm. The family is also in search of a rest cure and healthy situation for Father, who has been prescribed fresh air and exercise to alleviate the pain in his neck. Ellen, who is a worrier like her father, is reluctant to leave her friends in Kansas, but Mother is excited about the the new venture and soon talks Ellen into joining in her eager anticipation.

Ah, I see now why the book is still on the shelves at the library; it won a Newbery Honor in 1947. And I would say the honor was well-deserved. The pace and atmosphere of the story is reminiscent of Ruth Sawyer’s Roller Skates or of the Betsy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, especially the older Betsy books in which Betsy goes to middle school and high school. Ellen is eleven as the story begins, and she has her twelfth birthday near the end of the book, but as only children tend to be, she’s somewhat mature for her age. One of the themes of the novel is about growing up and staying a child and not growing up too fast nor being too impatient to leave one’s childhood behind. Ellen makes friends with a fifteen year old boy, Ronnie, who lives nearby, and there is some understated tension about whether the two can remain friends and comrades in adventure when Ronnie is so much older and interested in girls his own age while still enjoying Ellen’s company as a friend. The interpersonal give and take is very well written, and I would love for my early teen and pre-teen girls to read the story and then discuss the possibilities that are suggested about boys and girls being friends and not having to get jealous of one another or have crushes.

Another area for discussion would be the “sexist” and “feminist” stereotypes that the characters seem to take for granted. Boys don’t cry. Girls need to be more like boys, tough and hardy, if they are to be seen as equal partners in adventure. It’s important for a girl to “find her own place, stand on her her own two feet, and not cling to anyone.” Are these true lessons? How is Ellen “like a girl”? How is she “like a boy”? Are these really even useful descriptions?

At the risk of being sexist myself, I would recommend The Wonderful Year for girls ages eleven to thirteen who want to read more about girls in other times and places. Fans of Betsy-Tacy, the Little House books, the American Girl series, or other girls-in-history realistic fiction should enjoy this coming of age story. And Colorado readers would especially enjoy this look at the history of Colorado settlement and farming. The illustrations in the book are by author and illustrator Kate Seredy, and they are quite lovely in their own right. Pen and ink, or perhaps pencil, drawings show Ellen and her family and friends in the thick of their homesteading experiences, and the expressive faces and captured actions add a lot to the story.

I would love to have a copy of this book for my library, and I’ll be adding it to my wishlist, which is growing much too long for the available shelf space in my library.

What’s New in My Library?

I have a private, subscription library in my home—sort of a school library for literature lovers and homeschoolers. It gives me an excuse to purchase and rescue those treasures of books that I find in the thrift store or at the garage sale. I bought lots of books this week, first at the Books Bloom seminar with Jan Bloom, then at the thrift store. Something for everyone!

Picture books:
Wombat Stew by Marcia K. Vaughan. A dingo captures a wombat and decides to make himself a gooey, brewy, yummy, chewy wombat stew. But the wombat has a few tricks up his sleeve. This is a great Australian classic picture book for those who want to make a quick trip Down Under.

Moy Moy by Leo Politi. Politi was an Italian American author and artist who was both a devout Catholic and a pacifist. His books celebrate cultural diversity and children living within those diverse cultures. Moy Moy is a Chinese American girl living in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Most of Politi’s books are set in California, near Los Angeles and future loving families, ethnic celebrations, and colorful scenes.

Listen to the Rain by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. “the slow soft sprinkle, the drip-drop tinkle, the first wet whisper of the rain.” A rain poem, with beautiful illustrations by James Endicott, this book is one of the many recommended in my preschool curriculum, Picture Book Preschool.

Also, I found paperback copies of the Picture Book Preschool books Galimoto by Karen Lynn Willliams, A House Is a House for Me by Mary Ann Doberman, and The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack.

Easy readers:
The Littles by John Peterson. I also bought copies of The Littles Take a Trip, The Littles to the Rescue, The Littles and Their Amazing New Friend, The Littles Go to School. These books about “little people” are for beginning readers who are not quite ready for The Borrowers, my favorite little people series.

Shoes for Amelie by Connie Colker Steiner. The story of a French farming family during World War II who take in and hide little Jewish girl named Amelie, based on the true story of the rescue of Jews by the people of the French region of Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. I didn’t have a copy of this classic Dr. Seuss romp, but now I do. In fact, most of my Dr. Seuss books were read to death by my eight lovely children a long time ago, so if you have any to donate, they would be well-loved and well read, I’m sure.

Middle Grade Fiction:
The Bobbsey Twins of Lakeport by Laura Lee Hope. The first of the Bobbsey Twins series, and I have a few others in the series in the library, too. If you have any of these books you’d like to donate to Meriadoc Homeschool Library, I’d be happy to have them.

The Fox Steals Home by Matt Christopher. In this sports story Bobby plays baseball and deals with his hurt over his parents’ divorce.

The Thief by Nancy Rue. This episode in the Christian Heritage Series, The Williamsburg Years, shows readers the deep enmity in the 1780’s between loyalists to the British crown and patriots who were determined to make a new nation, separate from England. Can the two sides ever come to agreement on anything, even the meaning of right and wrong?

The Black Stallion Legend and The Black Stallion Revolts by Walter Farley. I now have five of the many Black Stallion books in my library. If you have any others you’d like to donate, I have some horse-loving readers who enjoy these books.

The Rescuers by Margery Sharp. The mice of the The Prisoners Aid Society rescue a Norwegian poet, with Miss Bianca as interpreter and Bernard, the humble pantry mouse, and Nils, his partner, as mice-to-the-rescue.

The Mississippi Bubble by Thomas Costain. One of my favorite history writers tells the story of land speculation and emigration gone crazy in France and French Louisiana in the 1700’s. Speculative and economic bubbles are nothing new, as this true history in the Landmark History series demonstrates.

The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss. A family in the 1950’s adopts a diverse group of children of mixed race and heritage. This book was one of my favorites as a teen, and although we never adopted children, I think the lessons learned of acceptance and indiscriminate love from this book and other similar stories helped me to understand and affirm the multi-racial families of many of my friends and neighbors.

Corn Is Maize: The Gift of the Indians by Aliki.

How Animals Talk by Susan McGrath. National Geographic Books for Young Explorers.

More Than Moccasins: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Traditional North American Indian Life by Laurie Carlson.

Kids Around the World Create! The Best Crafts and Activities from Many Lands by Arlene N. Braman.

Collecting good books is such a fun hobby, or maybe even a calling or vocation. I am immensely thankful that I get to preserve and share these books with my community. (These are only few of the books I found this week. I’ll tell you about more in another post soon.)

Yellow Copter by Kersten Hamilton

For those helicopter and airplane-loving boys and girls in your life, Yellow Copter is sure to please. The story is rather slight: Yellow Copter, the rescue helicopter, rescues the schoolteacher from the top of the ferris wheel. The end.

Still, the pictures are bright and simple. The story is short and sweet—with sound effects and some rhyme and rhythm. So, toddlers and younger preschoolers should enjoy looking at his one over and over again. The blurb in the back of the book refers to Ms. Hamilton’s first “action-packed adventure for young readers”, Red Truck. I haven’t seen it, but if your child likes Yellow Copter, and you’re looking for more of the same, Red Truck might be a good choice.

I wouldn’t give either book to “young readers”, but I would buy it for those who are just past the book-chewing age and who love vehicles of all kinds and shapes. Maybe a toy helicopter to go with the book would make it a perfect gift.

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Take Wing by Jean Little

I’ve been talking to several families who are trying to teach their children, mostly girls, about friendship—how to make friends, how to deal with “mean girls”, how to forgive, how to take the initiative to make and heal friendships. It’s hard stuff for adults sometimes, much harder for six to fourteen year olds who are apt to misinterpret nonverbal communication, take offense easily, become shy and inhibited, or on the opposite end, be inconsiderate and even rude to one another.

Take Wing is an older book, published in 1968, for middle grade readers by Canadian author Jean Little. It’s primarily about ten year old Laurel Ross and her eight year old brother James. Laurel realizes, even though no one else in the family agrees, that James is different, slow to learn and immature for his age. Then when Mrs. Ross breaks her hip and has to stay in the hospital for months, everyone in the family, including Aunt Jessica and cousin Elspeth, must come to terms with James’s problems and try to find out what to do to help him. So James and his “mental retardation” (the term used in the book which would need to be discussed and reinterpreted in today’s terminology) are the main issues in the story.

However, the book is also about friendship and how to make friends and how to resolve differences and misunderstandings. Laurel and her cousin Elspeth start to become friends when Aunt Jessica and Elspeth move into the Ross’s house to help out while Mom is in the hospital. But it’s a false start, marred by a series of missteps and crossed wires. Finally, Elspeth and Laurel learn to communicate with one another and restart their friendship. The same kind of misunderstanding and hurt feelings has been holding Laurel back from being friends with the girl down the street. The road to mending this friendship also takes communication and some courage on the part of both girls.

I would really like to hand this book to a couple of eight to twelve year olds I know. It’s a quiet, gentle story, but I think it might be good bibliotherapy for some sensitive, insecure, and easily discouraged young ladies who need an extra push to “take wing.”

This poem by Jean Little, who “has been partially blind since birth as a result of scars on her cornea and is frequently accompanied by a guide dog,” is featured in the book. From the poem and the book and Mrs. Little’s other novels, I would guess that Jean Little knew what it was like to be different and a bit diffident when she was growing up. And perhaps she can teach some of us, adult, teen or chlid, to “endure through the (friendship) journey’s stress.”

A friendship is a fragile thing
Like the dust of the moon on a butterfly’s wing
Presuming on it is like trying
To keep a butterfly from flying
You cup your hands, try not to clutch
But it is crippled by your touch
By all the self-involved demands
Implicit in your closing hands
Yet, deep in love, there also lies,
The bravery of butterflies.
Butterflies go through nights of storm
Migrating to a land that’s warm.
They drift in brilliant frailty,
Testaments to mortality,
And all the while, they own the strength
To mount the wind and come at length
Home again, their loveliness
Enduring through the journey’s stress.
A treasured friendship also can
Survive the blundering of man.
Although it is a fragile thing,
It has the courage to take wing,
Dare to ride the dark, and come
Bravely home.

Arcady’s Goal by Eugene Yelchin

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the essay “Live Not By Lies” in 1974, just before he was arrested by the Soviet police and exiled from his country. My Saturday Review friend Glynn led me to the essay in a review he wrote.

Arcady’s Goal is the story of a boy in Stalinist Russia who has been raised on lies. Arcady lives in an orphanage. The director of the orphanage lies about how the boys are treated and skims the provisions from the government, meant for the orphans, to feather his own nest. The inspectors of orphanages go along with the lies. Everyone is complicit, even the boys themselves, who show off their soccer skills to earn a bit of favored treatment. When Ivan Ivanych comes to the orphanage, disguised as an inspector, but really a bereft father looking for an orphan to adopt, Arcady makes an impression. But can Arcady and Ivan break through all the lies, the ones they have been told by the government, the ones they have told to survive, and even the lies they have told themselves, to make a real family built on trust?

Born and educated in Russia, author Eugene Yeltsin left the former Soviet Union when he was twenty-seven years old. His other children’s novel set in Communist Soviet Union, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, won a Newbery Honor. His writing style in this book is stark and unadorned, like the subject. The descriptions, like the illustrations, are gray and without much hope, although Arcady’s courage and tenacity shine through even in the soccer games he plays so well. And yet the book has an almost implausible happy ending as Arcady and his adoptive father do manage to form a connection.

Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I don’t know if I can believe that it so easy to change from believing and participating in The Lie to confronting lies with the truth. Easy or not, I do believe that I and especially my children are going to find out very soon what it is like to live in a culture permeated and ultimately ruled by lies and half-truths. In fact, we are already faced with the choice of whether to participate in the lies our society is telling or to stand up and declare the truth. There will be a cost for the latter decision, and there may not be a happy ending in this life.

“And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me. . . . So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.”

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Some Kind of Magic by Adrian Fogelin

Book #4 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
223 pages, 3 hours

The last summer before high school. Things are changing for Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben, and some of them are ready for a change while others just want to keep things the way they have always been.

The four friends, plus Ben’s almost seven year old little brother Cody, discover an old hat that might be magical and an old abandoned building that seems to be just the right place to spend their summer before high school. As relationships between the four friends and others in the neighborhood shift and change, Cody has to figure out what the hat is telling him and whether to listen. And Justin must decide whether to try to think and speak for himself or give up before he ever gets started. Cass has to learn to accept the changes that are inevitable. Ben needs to deal with the restlessness inside him. Jemmie just wants to enjoy the summer and then head for high school, new people, and new adventures.

I liked this book a lot. I’m not sure the pacing is just right for some readers. The book sort of moseys along like a long, hot summer. And the way it’s arranged in chapters from different characters’ viewpoints made it hard at first for me to keep the characters straight. The chapters from the point of view of the teens–Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben—are written in first person, and the chapters told from Cody’s vantage point are all in third person. Because Cody’s so young, only six years old, and couldn’t really “tell” his parts of the story in a mature voice? Anyway, the shifting voices and the slow pace might throw some readers off, but I didn’t have any trouble sticking with it and becoming engrossed.

Ben is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for summer reading, and there’s a bit of a TKAM feeling to this story: a neighborhood story with kids trying to figure out an old mystery from way back, family history, serious stuff going on under the surface of a summer’s recreation. The neighborhood setting is in Tallahassee, Florida, where the author herself resides. And although one of the young people in the story, Jemmie, is black, there’s not really a hint of racial tension in the story, unlike TKAM.

However, I looked up the author, and learned that Some Kind of Magic is the sixth and final book in a series of books about the same neighborhood, called appropriately enough, The Neighborhood Novels. And the first book in the series, Crossing Jordan, is about Cass and Jemmie when they first met, and it definitely deals with racial tension and bridging the gap between white and black residents of this multi-racial neighborhood. I am really interested in reading the first five books in this series so that I can get the backstory of these characters and of other residents of The Neighborhood. Maybe that backstory would have helped me keep the characters straight as I began to read Some Kind of Magic. Still, I recommend this book on its own, and on the basis of having read this one, I also recommend that you look up the other books in the Neighborhood Novels series:

Crossing Jordan
Anna Casey’s Place in the World “Anna Casey must deal with the loss of her family and adjust to living in a foster home. Feeling abandoned and alone, Anna turns to her closest companion, her explorer journal.”
My Brother’s Hero “When his aunt and uncle win a Christmas cruise Ben and his family are off to watch their marina in the Florida Keys. This is Ben’s chance to live aboard a boat, swim and snorkel, fish for the big ones, and have some adventures for a change.”
The Big Nothing “When everyone in his life lets him down, Justin Riggs discovers something inside himself—a hidden talent that helps him survive.”
The Sorta Sisters “Anna and Mica have the same problem. They’re both lonely. Although separated by the entire state of Florida, they keep each other company through the exchange of letters and strange and sometimes mystifying objects.”
Some Kind of Magic

Yep. Gotta add these to the TBR list.

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