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.

Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance

Seventh grader Claudia Miravista loves art, especially painting. None of her schoolmates share her interest, though, and when Claudia sees a blue-eyed boy inside a Dutch Renaissance painting at the local art museum and begins talking to him, her classmates think she’s crazy. But when Pim—that’s the boy’s name—talks back and asks Claudia to rescue him from captivity to an evil witch in the world behind the canvas, Claudia thinks her classmates may be right. Maybe she is crazy to even consider entering a dangerous world of canvas and paint and witches and cubists and magic.

The book definitely could have used several full color reproductions of the famous paintings that are mentioned, but I understand that would be costly. Instead, the author uses made-up explanatory footnotes from “Doctor Buckland’s Art History for the Enthusiast and the Ignorant” to give the reader information about artists, paintings, and schools of art that are mentioned in the story. I liked the rather whimsical footnotes, and for a glimpse of the actual paintings, there’s always Google.

The story itself doesn’t exactly move slowly; there’s lots of action. However, sometimes the journey from one artistic landscape to another to another gets a little monotonous. The grand theme of the book is about learning to see things (art in particular) from different perspectives and using one’s imagination to see through confusion to the heart of the matter. Claudia and Pim have trust issues and must learn to trust and help one another in spite of past lies and obfuscations.

Particularly recommended for art lovers who are also fantasy lovers, and for fans of Blue Balliet’s art mystery books or Elise Broach’s Masterpiece or Marianne Malone’s 68 Rooms series.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Edith Nesbit’s classic story of siblings and magic, The Five Children and It, was first published in 1905. In Five Children on the Western Front, British children’s author Kate Suanders gives us the Bastable children about nine years older and wiser and the Psammead (pronounced Sammy-ad) as irascible as ever, but not quite so magical. Maybe that’s because the world itself was more magical in 1905 than it became in 1914.

World War I has intruded upon the lives of the grown-up or nearly grown-up children, Cyril, Anthea, Jane and Robert, and even The Lamb (Hilary) and the new little Bastable sister, Edie, are living in a wartime Britain rather than the idyllic turn-of-the century British countryside in which the older children first encountered magic. The story covers the wartime years, 1914-1918. The Psammead has returned to see the children through the war—or maybe he’s come back because he can’t really control his magic or grant wishes anymore, and he just needs a place to live. He thinks he’s been “de-magicked and dumped” in the Bastables’ garden by an angry universe. At any rate, Edie, nine years old at the story’s inception, takes a liking to the grumpy and rather sleepy sand fairy, and occasionally even manages to be involved in some magical adventures on his behalf.

I thought this was a fascinating look at “what ever happened to the five children and It”, but I would have to try it out on a real child to know whether this is just a book for nostalgic adults and teens who were Nesbit fans or whether actual children would enjoy it, too. There’s a lot of kissing and war romance and war scenes, shown from a child’s (sometimes eavesdropping) perspective and totally appropriate for children, but the story is really about adults as much as it is children.

It’s also about repentance. The Psammead has a cruel and tyrannical past life, and part of his task during the years of the book’s tale is to repent. Repentance in this particular case means understanding that he’s done something bad and feeling a bit sorry. No reform or payment is required, but the Psammead has trouble with even a minimal amount of humility or apology. So, the children take turns laughing at his unrepentant cruelty and carelessness and trying to convince him that he is not the center of the universe. Again, I was interested in whether or not the old Psammead would ever be able to “go home”, reconciled to the universe, but I don’t know how many children would stay interested.

For fans of Edith Nesbit or Downton Abbey (for the history) or maybe World War I settings.

Cybils Nominations Are Open

The 2016 Cybils nominations are now live!

What are Cybils?
The Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles. Nominations open to the public on October 1st.

What are the categories?
An award will be given in each of the following categories:
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction
Fiction Picture Books/Board Books
Graphic Novels
Middle-Grade Fiction
Middle-Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction
Juvenile/Elementary Nonfiction
Young Adult Fiction
Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Why do I (and why should you) care?
Well, every year thousands of new books for young adults and children are published in English in the United States and Canada. Some of those books are really good, but many are not. Sorting out the good from the bad and the ugly takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. The Cybils help, along with other awards like the Newbery, Caldecott and the National Book Awards, to highlight some of the best children’s books of the year, including some that might otherwise be missed in the rush. And I get to be on the judging panel this year for Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction to choose a shortlist which will be the basis for the award given in that category. (So be sure to nominate your favorite “Middle Grade Speculative Fiction” books so that I and the committee I’m working with have all the best books to read and choose from.)

More important information about Cybils:
Be sure to check out the category descriptions. If you don’t know where the book should go, please read through the descriptions to help you decide. If you’re still not quite sure, make your best guess, and the Cybils organizers can straighten things out behind the scenes.

Take a minute to check out the rules for nominating. The big one: the book needs to be published in the U.S. or Canada between October 16, 2015 and October 15, 2016. Also you can nominate only ONE book per CATEGORY per PERSON. No exceptions. The form will kick you back if you try to nominate more than one book (or if someone else has already nominated the book).

If you have any other questions, check out the FAQ page.

Follow this link to nominate your favorite books in all categories. You have until October 15th.

Saturday Review of Books: October 1, 2016

“All her life, Sophie had been taught that books are precious. Each one holds people and worlds. Each one is a piece of someone’s heart and mind that they chose to share. They were shared dreams.” ~The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

Alaska. Boat capsized. Two teens marooned on the coast with no means of communication. Survival fiction. If these are your buzzwords, The Skeleton Tree should be your next read. It’s not as feel-good as the classic, My Side of the Mountain, but it is a well written, as far as I can tell well researched, survival story about two boys who learn to cooperate in spite of their deep differences.

Chris is twelve. His father just died a year before the book begins, and his Uncle Jack wants to take him on a sailing adventure down the Alaska coast from Kodiak. When Chris arrives to join Uncle Jack on the boat, he finds that there is another person on the boat, a sixteen year old boy named Franklin. Almost immediately after they cast off, with the boys’ questions about each other still unanswered, a storm overtakes the sailboat, and tragedy strikes. Uncle Jack is lost at sea, and the two boys must survive in the wilderness with bears, wolves, and imminent starvation as their immediate adversaries. Unfortunately, Frank is a bully and a braggart, and Chris is a boy who is used to being bullied, but tired of taking it. So, their relationship and lack of cooperation threaten to be more of an impediment to their survival than the outside dangers.

I was impressed with the details in this book about how to (or how not to) start a fire, how to treat an infected wound, how to catch salmon and preserve it, and other survival skills. The author says that he lived on the coast of British Columbia for many years within sight of Alaska and that he learned a lot about living in that “surprisingly wild” environment. The title, Skeleton Tree, is taken from the tree that the boys find that is a Native American burial ground, for lack of a better term. The skeletons of dead people are in coffins wedged in the tree, not buried and not on the ground. According to the author who got his information from a book about Alaskan history by Charles Haddock, “tree burials were once common in Alaska.” Mr. Lawrence also recounts his story of once having seen a still-living skeleton tree himself somewhere on the Northern Pacific coast.

The book is older middle grade or young adult with some difficult family situations referenced, but not described in detail. I’d say any fan of survival stories from age twelve to sixteen or seventeen might want to check this one out.

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan wrote the wonderful, Newbery award winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Sarah is her most successful and most read novel. The books for children that she has written since Sarah, aside from the sequels to that novel, have mostly been innovative and different and even quirky, but just not as accessible and not as captivating as Sarah.

The Poet’s Dog follows in this same vein, interesting but not exactly an instant classic or even a best seller. The story is about a talking dog, an Irish wolfhound, who rescues two children who are stranded in a snowstorm. I don’t quite understand why the children decide to leave the car where their mother left them when she went to look for help. They say, “People came and knocked on the car windows, telling us the car was going to be towed off the road before it got covered with snow.” So the children left the car in a blizzard? Why would people knock on the car windows and then leave two children there in the snow? Why would the children not wait for the tow truck to help them get to somewhere safe? Or wait for their mother to come back? Nicholas is twelve years old, old enough to know better than to go off with his little sister into a blizzard.

That bit of illogic aside, the dog is sweet. He used to belong to a poet named Sylvan who lived in a cabin in the woods, low technology and high on the poetic, free spirit, Wendell Berry kind of a life. But Sylvan is gone, and the dog, Teddy, lives alone in the cabin until he finds the two children. Teddy can talk, but the only people who can hear him are poets and children. Nice touch.

I also liked the references to picture books and the recognition that many good picture book texts are also poems. Specifically, Sylvan says that Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall is one of his favorite poems. Other poetic picture books: Summer Is . . . by Charlotte Zolotow (almost anything by Charlotte Zolotow), Wake Up, City by Alvin Tresselt, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, Umbrella by Taro Yashima, A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans. Actually, most of the picture books that are more about the language, and the rhythm of reading the book aloud, and the word pictures than they are about plot and characters are really little illustrated poems. That’s not an original thought with me or with Ms. MacLachlan, but it was a nice thought to be reminded of.

In the end, though, this book had several “nice touches” but not much substance. I can’t see it being popular with dog lovers, in spite of Teddy’s cuteness, or beginning readers, in spite of the large, sparse text and abbreviated length (88 pages), or poetry fans, in spite of the poetry connection. Maybe eight to ten year old poetry fans who like short books with talking animals? How many of those are out there?

Assassin’s Heart by Sarah Ahiers

A society is built on the foundation of legalized murder, purchased assassination, killing as an offering to the goddess. Nine families serve the goddess Safraella. They are her acolytes, killing people in her name with the promise of resurrection to a new life for those who die in the goddess’s good graces. Lea Saldana is one of Safraella’s clippers, those who clip people’s lives short in the name of law and order and the goddess.

In this book, murder is good, family loyalty is the paramount value, and revenge is an obligation to one’s own honor and to the gods. This world turned upside down could have been worth exploring. What happens to a society in which murder is legalized within strict boundaries and rules? Is it possible to become a cool, dispassionate murderer for hire and at the same time retain a passionate love for family and for friends? Or does that kind of conscience-bending to the breaking point carry over into all relationships? Why does one of the nine Families decide to follow the God of Light instead of remaining true to Safraella, the Goddess of Death and Resurrection? Is it possible to worship death and resurrection (life) at the same time? Does legalized murder really make a more well-behaved populace because people are afraid to offend anyone lest they be marked for assassination?

Lots of questions to explore in this story, but the emphasis is on Lea Saldana’s love life, her revenge for the murder of her family, and her assassin skills. The deeper questions are sometimes raised, but not pursued. Instead, Lea rather blithely falls in love while plotting her revenge, and why she is able to trust one stranger when another lover has just betrayed her and her entire family is barely questioned and unresolved.

Because I misread a review, I started this book thinking it was a middle grade fiction novel. It isn’t. It’s definitely Young Adult, but I wouldn’t recommend it for that age group either. There’s a Romeo and Juliet-type love affair in the beginning pages of the novel, but for that plot and characterization, teens would be better off with Shakespeare’s play or with watching West Side Story to get a much more realistic view of the consequences of star-crossed lovers in a lawless and honor-based society. Assassin’s Heart gives readers a cold-blooded assassin with a tender, loyal, and trusting heart, not a likely combination. And it turns traditional morality upside down without really asking the important questions about what such a revolution in moral standards would do to individuals and to a culture as a whole. Cheap thrills and unexamined rebellion are not an adequate foundation for a good novel, just as assassination and revenge are not adequate values to sustain a society. In fact, these things undermine good novels and good communities.

The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

In Book one of this series (or maybe it’s just a book and a sequel), The Fog Diver, Chess, the foggy-eyed tether boy, and his crew escape from the slums of evil Lord Kodoc, and the slum kids make it to the “promised land” of Port Oro. However, in The Lost Compass, Chess continues to be a target for Lord Kodoc’s diabolical plans to rule the world above the fog. And the Fog itself continues to be both a menace and a possible concealer of rich and useful secrets. Furthermore, the citizens of Port Oro may want Chess to pay them back for their rescue of Chess and his friends and for their healing of Mrs. E, Chess’s mentor, by doing something that will risk the loss of everything that they have gained.

The characters in this series are the draw for me. Chess is brave and bold, yet self-effacing and unsure of what his true destiny is. Hazel, the crew’s captain, is described as “bossy”, but she’s bossy in a good way. She usually has good ideas and knows what to do and how to do it. Bea, the gear girl (engineer), is my favorite. She talks to engines and other machines—and they talk back to her. Swede is the pilot, more than competent and kind of grumbly. And Loretta, a raw and uncivilized slum brawler, is an extreme example of what a kid without a home or family or love could turn out like. Her attitude is summed up in this quote from a discussion of information found in books: “Books . . . What’s the point? You can’t wear’em, you can’t eat’em, and you can’t even stab someone with’em.”

The Lost Compass depends on the same kind of sci-fi and pop culture jokes and the same kind of non-stop action as The Fog Diver. If you read and enjoyed The Fog Diver, you will also enjoy this more than adequate sequel. The ending feels complete to me, but Mr. Ross may have one or even a dozen more novels in this series yet to be revealed. The very last words in the novel are: “Maybe our story wasn’t over. Maybe the world was bigger than I’d ever imagined.” Take from that what you will.

The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton

The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice by Andrew S. Chilton.

I was reminded of the movie and book The Princess Bride while reading this debut middle grade fantasy novel, and that is high praise indeed. For a book to remind one of The Princess Bride, it must be clever in a similar way to the the wit and wisdom of that classic. It is. I can also say that I wanted to see The Goblin’s Puzzle as a film and that I think it could be a good one. Other than The Princess Bride, which may or may not have been an inspiration, Mr. Chilton’s sources seem to be good and quite varied:

From the author’s website at Penguin Random House: “Andrew S. Chilton drew inspiration for The Goblin’s Puzzle from a wide variety of sources, ranging from The Hobbit to Monty Python to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As a kid, he gobbled up fantasy novels and logic puzzles, and as an adult, he spent over ten years as a practicing lawyer before launching his career as a writer.”

The book stars a nameless slave boy, a girl called Plain Alice (to distinguish her from all the other Alices in the kingdom), Princess Alice, heir to the throne, and a goblin named (something long and complicated), Mennofar for short. The Boy is running for his life from an unfortunate incident that ended in the violent death of his master’s son. It really wasn’t The Boy’s fault, but it will be blamed on him anyway, and he feels quite guilty about breaking a lot of the 99 rules for being a good slave, most of which he can’t even remember. Meanwhile, Plain Alice, who wants to become a sage but can’t get an opportunity because she’s a girl, has been kidnapped by a dragon. And Princess Alice, who should have been the object of the dragon’s kidnapping, is worrying King Julian, her father, with her frequent giggling and lack of a serious education. The goblin, Mennofar, is running away, too, and he owes The Boy for his help in the goblin’s escape from captivity. But Mennofar is indeed a goblin, and “it is hard for a goblin and a human to be friends. Goblin honor and human honor are so very different.” Mennofar feels obligated to do something for The Boy, but his “goblin honor” also demands that he make the whole thing into a particularly difficult and complicated puzzle.

There’s a afterword to the book that explains a bit about the basics of the study of logic, which is the main theme and framework for the story. But it’s a subtle use of logic, not an in-your-face teaching of logic. (Don’t worry. If you aren’t at all interested in the study of logic, it’s still a great story, and you won’t be tricked into learning logic—much. Although goblins are kind of tricky that way.) I enjoyed the discussions between Mennofar and The Boy and between Plain Alice and the dragon, Ludwig, that were illustrations of the different aspects of logic, which is the study of how we prove things, according to Mr. Chilton. I might have guessed, if I had thought of it, that Mr. Chilton was a lawyer before he decided to write a book for middle grade logicians and fantasy lovers.

I also just liked this story. Do I have to prove that it’s a good book for this to be a good review or for you to believe me when I say that you would probably enjoy it, too? I don’t think so. After all, we’re humans, not goblins. We don’t have to be strictly logical. Or tricky.