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Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I am always drawn to stories from the Holocaust and try to read everything that comes out. It’s odd, I think, to want to read about something so unthinkable but I do. For me it is akin to staring down the devil. While teaching in London back in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. It was a difficult trip but I felt that I wanted to witness what happened to all of the people who died so horribly in those camps. I am glad that I did.

9780763664039_p0_v3_s260x420In Playing for the Commandant, Zail takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl, just 16, who was an accomplished pianist in Budapest, Hungary when her family was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the camp she and her mother and sister are spared the gas chamber and sent to a barracks where their daily torture of starvation and back-breaking work begins. Soon her mother begins to lose her faculties and Hannah and her sister try desperately to protect her from the daily “selections.” Hannah is chosen to be the Commandant’s personal pianist and with very mixed feelings she accepts the position. She knows she will be given more food and better clothing that she plans to pass along to her mother and sister. At the commandant’s house Hannah gets to witness close up the abject cruelty in the heart of her captor but she is surprised by his artistic son who despises what is going on in the camps his father oversees. The conflict between playing beautiful music and “selling out” is a wonderful dynamic in this story. I think this book will find a place in the corpus of Holocaust literature for young adults. This book is meant for readers age 12 and up.

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This book brought a documentary film to mind as I read it. Called The Lady in Room 6 it tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year-old survivor of Terezin. Ms. Sommer was an extraordinary pianist who secured a place in the Terezin orchestra and, through the music, was able to survive the Holocaust. This documentary is absolutely fantastic. Ms. Sommer had a joie de vivre that was unbelievable given what she had been through. The documentary won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014. Sadly, Ms. Sommer died just before the Oscar was awarded. She died at 110. Treat yourself to this documentary which is available in numerous places online. It was the most uplifting true story I have ever seen. Her story had a lasting effect on my life.

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Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

One of my favorite books last year was Katherine Rundell’s novel, Rooftoppers. I have book talked it all over the place and when I do I have come to describe it as a cross between Mary Poppins and Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl because of the quirkiness of his characters and their eccentric lives in England. In Rooftoppers we find baby Sophie in the English Channel sailing in a cello case following the sinking of a ship. She is found by an eccentric professor, Charles, and he decides to raise Sophie himself since she is clearly an orphan. And their life together is wonderful to them – but to, say, a child welfare clerk, maybe not so much. It is just different but we all know what different can lead to! The welfare agency threatens to take her away from Charles and the two of them head for Paris. Sophie has always felt that her mother is still alive and is convinced she is living in Paris. Charles and Sophie make it their mission to find out. It is there in Paris that Sophie meets Matteo and joins him on the rooftops of Paris looking down at the city. It is this foray onto the rooftops that helps the three of them figure out what happened to Sophie’s mom. It is an adventure, it is a little wacky, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful read. I haven’t had anyone say they weren’t crazy about it – quite the contrary – it’s a huge hit. It would make a great classroom read aloud for kids ages 8 and up.

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I couldn’t figure out how Rundell could pull off such a distinctive book again but she did it in Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms which came out in August. Twelve year-old Will (short for Wilhelmina) is in heaven on her family’s farm in Zimbabwe. she loves the wide open spaces, all of the different animals, and the new adventures that pop up every day. Her dad loves her to pieces and leaves this idyllic farm to a friend of theirs to keep for Will until she is grown. Enter the wily woman who tricks him into marrying her and the farm is gone in no time. The wicked stepmother packs Will up and sends her off to an English boarding school where she will be out of her hair. Will hasn’t a clue how to act with all these girls wearing the same outfit and mocking her every chance they get. When she can take it no more, this n]brave and gutsy girl decides to strike off on her own and takes off into London. She has survived the wilds of Zimbabwe – can she survive London? This is such a great read and, like her first book, wonderfully imaginative and fun.

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You’ll enjoy every minute of this story!

National Book Awards for YA Literature Announced

As promised, NPR announced the five finalists for the National Book Award which is scheduled to be announced on November 19th. They are (in no particular order):

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

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Revolution by Deborah Wiles

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Brown Girl Dreaming
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Noggin by Corey Whaley

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Port Chicago 50

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I have yet to read Threatened and Noggin – wouldn’t you know they were the only two on the long list I hadn’t gotten to! I know what the next two books I’ll be reading are! The other three are stellar examples of what the world of young adult literature offers. I can’t possibly say which I like best because they are all outstanding. We’ll leave the announcement to the judges. I think they have a very tough job ahead of them!

The National Book Award Finalist announcement on October 15th!

Tomorrow we find out which of the ten books on the long list for YA fiction will survive the cut. The list will be down to five finalists and, from there, will come one winner. That winner will be announced at a benefit dinner on November 19th in New York. I grabbed this announcement from the National Book Award web site so that you can all tune in tomorrow to find out the five finalists:

On October 15, at 8:40am ET, the Finalists for the National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction will be revealed exclusively on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Very Exciting!

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

In an attempt to read all the books from the National Book Award long list, I have just finished 100 Sideways Miles. From the flap copy I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it. A teen thinks he just might be caught in his father’s science fiction novel? Generally not my taste. But that goes to show how sticking to the safe books can mean missing out on a lot of those quirky, risky (and wonderful) novels.

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And this one is very quirky and also hilariously funny. Finn, our protagonist and also the protagonist in his father’s book, is 16 going on 17 who has a best friend named Cade. Cade is legendary for things, well, best not said. 🙂 He’s a star athlete and says exactly what is on his mind whenever it comes into his mind. No filter there! Finn is kind of a loner and that’s likely down to his epilepsy. Ever since the accident that killed his mom and injured him (did I mention a dead horse fell on them? I told you it was quirky!), he has suffered with seizures. Smith writes them so that we can see, feel, and almost touch them. They’re that wild. But Julia, the new girl in school, sees beyond that and despite the  damage they both bring to their relationship, they begin seeing each other all the time.

Cade and Finn set off on a road trip to visit a college in Oklahoma and it is on that trip that Finn begins to see that he is not predestined by his father’s book; he is Finn the friend, boyfriend, son, protagonist of his own story. Despite all the wild and crazy trappings, this is a coming of age book. It’s deeply satisfying to see Finn come out of the whole experience all in one piece.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Honestly, this graphic novel is one of the most engaging and creative books I have read all year. It’s just astonishingly good and I think kids are going to absolutely love it.

9781419712173_p0_v3_s600Cece Bell already has a reputation for producing great books. She won a Geisel Award in 2013 for Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, a wonderful beginning reader that she wrote and illustrated. She also has a number of strong picture books. Among them are Sock Monkey in the Spotlight, Itty Bitty, and Crankee Doodle which her husband, Tom Angleberger, wrote and she illustrated. It’s not surprising, then, to see her tackle something as unusual and personals  El Deafo.

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El Deafo is Cece’s story , plain and simple. When she was four years old she contracted spinal meningitis and life was never the same for her. She lost her hearing and as much as we think we all know what that would be like, it takes Cece to tell us how baffling it really was. Why couldn’t she hear the TV, her Mom, her friends? When you are four years old how do you know that you are deaf? Cece had to adapt to a quiet world (pros and cons, she says) and especially to being different. She had something called a Phonic Ear which was a very large amplification system that hung around her neck on her chest. She wore it under her clothes to hide it but the ear buds were always visible. I have seen her Phonic Ear, by the way, and it really was unbelievably gargantuan! Cece’s art is perfection in this graphic novel. Her characters are bunnies which distances her a bit from her own story. By the time you finish this book you will have a whole new way of looking at all people and realize that each of us is different – some more obviously than others. This is a tale worth telling and I am so glad Cece has shared her experiences with all of us. This is an awesome book in every way!

 

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