YA – Impossible Escape: A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe

Sheinkin, Steve. Impossible Escape: A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe . Roaring Brook Press, 2023. 978-1-250-26572-2. 235 p. $19.99. Grades 8-12.

Rudi Vrba and Gerta Sidonová were just schoolmates in Slovokia when Hitler’s forces drove into Poland in 1939 and officially began World War II. As Jewish teens, Rudi, Gerta, and their families were subject to the extreme, escalating antisemitism in Europe. Both teens lives’ took different paths as they were forced to flee their homes. While Gerta and her family went into hiding in Hungary, Rudi’s attempted escape led him first the Nováky prison camp, then to the Majdanek concentration camp, and then into Auschwitz-Birkenau where every single day continued to be a fight to survive against the organized genocide taking place. While imprisoned at Auschwitz, Rudi realized he must attempt escape to tell the world about the camp. Against all odds, Rudi, along with Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape Auschwitz-Birkenau. They went on a harrowing journey through the southern part of Poland into Slovokia where they gave vital testimony about the secret horrors and mass murder taking place at Auschwitz. This testimony fueled an imperative BBC report on the genocide. This report helped to increase political pressure against Hungary’s corroboration with the Nazis; as a result, Hungary stopped sending transports of Jewish people to the concentration camps, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

THOUGHTS: Many of the details in this book are hard to read, but it is a necessary and important piece of history never to be forgotten. Steven Sheinkin writes this book in a way that does not shy away from the horrible Nazi atrocities of WWII. This narrative nonfiction includes graphic details about death, torture, and mass murder during the Holocaust in concentration camps. Sheinkin shifts seamlessly between Rudi and Gerta’s individual stories while also including vital context about the war, locations, and antisemitism. Impossible Escape would make a strong companion to students reading Elie Wiesel’s Night because Sheinkin’s text includes context about antisemitism and the Holocaust for young adult readers while also recounting a powerful, personal story of survival through memoir. Sheinkin also places emphasis on both the systematic, planned nature of the genocide and on both cruelty and kindness within humans. Sheinkin builds this book through careful research and eyewitness testimony. Rather than disrupting the narrative, Sheinkin includes detailed source notes and a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book. The epilogue, which covers the topic of Rudi testifying against a Holocaust denier in post-war Canada, is also a powerful and important read.

940.53 World War II

MG – Nothing Else but Miracles

Albus, Kate. Nothing Else but Miracles. Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House, 2023. 978-0-823-45163-0 $17.99. 278 p. Grades 4-7.

The Bryne children–seventeen-year-old Fish, eleven-year-old Dory, and six-year-old Pike–are on their own in the middle of World War II after their dad enlists. Their mother died a few years prior, but Pop is sure the tight knit Lower East Side neighborhood will take care of his children while he’s away. And they do. The ethnically diverse neighbors lavish food and care on the small family. No one anticipates, though, the entrance of a mean-spirited landlord after the sudden death of the kindly one. Dory, the protagonist, is a magnet for trouble, and does little to avoid getting in scrapes. When the new landlord presses to see their elusive father and threatens foster care, Dory takes it upon herself to find a solution. Caputo’s, their friend’s Italian restaurant, houses an ancient dumb waiter that acts like an elevator. Dory sneaks in and risks all to try out the unused equipment only to find that the ascending floors reveal an abandoned hotel. Once school is out for the summer, the family takes up residence there, avoiding detection from both social services and the restaurant staff. Until D-Day. Pop’s letters–and the rent checks–stop coming. Fish takes a job to help the money situation, but as more of the neighborhood’s fathers’ and sons’ blue service stars get replaced by gold, the children’s fear that Pop may not be coming back grows more real. This historical fiction book gives a vivid picture of a working class New York City neighborhood in the 40’s. Author Albus creates a memorable character with spunky Dory and does not stint on mystery or historical background. All characters seem to be white.

THOUGHTS: Though not a deep read about life during World War II, Nothing Else But Miracles drops a lot of names, places, and objects connected to the time. Give this book to readers interested in World War II stateside. Similar to Island Spies by Sheila Turnage, this book has some suspense, but the former has higher stakes for the country (spies vs. foster care, Pop’s return). Pair with the poignant The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s book with its exquisite narrative and soulful characterization. Albus’s book is so much lighter, even with the loss of life. The reader never gets the same feeling here as one gets when Ava (in Bradley’s book) describes sleeping on sheets for the first time. A footnote: at one point, the family wants to go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building and needs $3.00, a small fortune at that time. I researched this and found that the Empire State Building did charge $1.00 admission. However, as a twelve-year-old New Yorker in the sixties, I recall walking into the lobby of the Empire State Building one evening and just taking the elevator up for free. My siblings confirm this.

Historical Fiction

YA – It’s My Whole Life: Charlotte Salomon, An Artist in Hiding During World War II

Wider, Susan. It’s My Whole Life: Charlotte Salomon, An Artist in Hiding During World War II. Norton Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-324-01531-4.$19.95. 160 p. Grades 7-12.

Illustrated with original drawings and photographs, this brief biography of an obscure Jewish artist living through World War II brings to light a sensitive soul living a troubled life in a troubled time. In a flashback from Charlotte Salomon’s student days at the United State Schools for Applied and Fine Arts in Berlin, the book traces her life from a lonely childhood to her dismissal from the art school–despite her superior talent–to the days in hiding in France at American heiress, Ottilie Moore’s Villefranche. In the midst, the reader learns of the introverted Charlotte’s obsession with art, her rocky relationship with her stepmother, and the cycle of depression and suicide on the maternal side of her family. Charlotte experiences unrequited love with intellectual Alfred Wolfsohn and finds mutual love with co-habitant, Alexander Nagler; they marry, get pregnant, but stay at Villefranche and are sent to their deaths at Auschwitz before she was thirty years old. Charlotte Salomon spent her last years making a visual autobiography entitled, Life? or Theater? She left this important package for her parents to find after the war. Since then, this life tribute has made its way into history gradually. The works of art show a special artist; those with an interest in World War II and the Holocaust will appreciate. 

THOUGHTS: Charlotte Salomon may well pass under the radar in this period of history. However, her distinctive artwork and commitment to her art make her memorable. The mental health issues underlying Charlotte’s background reveal pain others may suffer. One puzzling characteristic of Charlotte is her reluctance to save herself during these turbulent times, though it seems she had some opportunities to escape or keep herself hidden. There is also a connection between Charlotte’s parents and Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank. 

Biography          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Lost Ryu

Cohen, Emi Watanabe. The Lost Ryu. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14132-6. 200 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book explores an alternate history full of magical realism where dragons or “ryu” are real; some big ryu even helped Japan fight in WWII, but now most big dragons have disappeared. Even though they both care for small family dragons as pets and companions, Kohei and his new friend Isolde want to try to find a “big” dragon and bring back the majestic creatures who were lost after the war. Kohei is also trying to discover more about the father who passed away when he was three and reconnect with his mother and grandfather, who both seem stuck in the past. Will Kohei and Isodle ever discover where the big ryu have gone, and will that discovery help to heal all the terrible scars the war has left on the world?

THOUGHTS: Students who like historical fiction and fantasy will like this imaginative take on friendship, family, and Japanese dragon mythology. Kohei is Japanese, Isolde is Japanese-Jewish, and the story uses their mutual love of dragons to help them deal with the complicated history of Japan, World War II, and the Holocaust. The relationships in this book also show the struggles of children who cope with the trauma suffered by their parents and contain hopeful messages about learning how to move forward after tragedies have happened within a family.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – Great or Nothing

McCullough, Joy, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, Jessica Spotsword. Great or Nothing. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37259-3. $18.88. 393 p. Grades 7-10.

Louisa May Alcott’s four March sisters have entered the 20th century, circa 1943. Beth has died, and the family struggles to cope with the overwhelming sadness of this loss. Marmee distracts her grief with committees and charitable works; Father, next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence, and teacher John Brooks go off to fight the war; and the three young women are split apart. Four talented authors take on the personas of the classic characters, and each chapter recounts that character’s experiences against the backdrop of World War II. Beth’s voice in verse reflects her omniscient view of each of her sisters. Meg decides to stay close to home, dedicated to teaching at her former high school, but is so lonely, she concedes to pal around with an insipid but wealthy former classmate which results in revelatory consequences. After rebuffing Laurie’s unexpected marriage proposal, Jo goes off to Hartford, Connecticut, to work in a munitions factory and live in a boarding house with other female workers and pursue her writing. When she meets Charlie–Charlotte–a war journalist, Jo starts to come to terms with her sexual identity. Under the pretense of studying art in Montreal, Amy instead takes on a false identity and ships off with the Red Cross to minister to the morale of soldiers with coffee and doughnuts in London, England. There, she encounters prejudice and discrimination foreign to her upbringing, as well as the promise of true love. This contemporary spin on the classic Little Women is an easy read with touches of romance, LBGTQ+, and slang from the forties. Grab yourself a cuppa, curl up in your favorite chair, and hunker down to meet these Little Women.

THOUGHTS: Though four authors take on each of the March sisters, the writing flows smoothly and the writing is fairly even. Beth’s perspective voiced by Joy McCullough was my least favorite.  Reading the prose, characters were more well developed and satisfying. Though the story begins with the March sisters going their separate ways, it ends with the promise of them reuniting. Suggest this novel to lovers of the classic, but those who have never read Little Women will still understand the closeknit March family and the dynamic among the sisters.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Freddie vs. the Family Curse

Badua, Tracy. Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Clarion, 2022. 978-0-358-61289-6. $16.99. 256 p. Grades 5-8.

Freddie Ruiz–AKA “Faceplant Freddie”–is plagued by the family curse in Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Unlike his talented, popular cousin next door, Sharlene (Sharkey) Mendoza, Freddie cannot bust a move on the Wylde Beast breakdance team, make friends with the other Robo-Warrior card players, or join any sports team because he risks injury or humiliation. His academic career is not filled with high grades and trophies but a collection of embarrassing moments and pratfalls. Just when it seems his luck cannot get much worse, he discovers an amulet while searching for glue to complete a last-minute school project on family trees. Great grandmother, Apong Rosing, calls the coin on a leather strap/cord an anting- anting and explains in a strange mix of spirituality and Filipino superstition that its magic can be unleashed through a priest and recognizes the coin as the one worn by Domingo Agustin (Ingo), her deceased older brother’s best friend. During Mass at Holy Redeemer Academy, the amulet becomes activated. Great Grand Uncle Ramon materializes, visual only to Freddie, Sharkey, and Apong Rosing.When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, seventeen-year-old Uncle Ramon went off to fight in World War II and died from an infected cut on the Bataan Death March. Through the warm and often humorous relationship Freddie develops with his newly found uncle, the seventh grader discovers the source of the curse was Uncle Ramon’s transgression, and the only way to banish the curse and keep Freddie alive is to return the amulet to its rightful owner–within a 13- day timeline! When Sharkey becomes collateral damage for the Ruiz curse, Freddy’s best solution to deliver the amulet is to master his dance moves and fill in at the breakdance championship in Las Vegas. In his chase against time, Uncle Ramon helps Freddie realize he has the talent and cleverness to make his own luck.

THOUGHTS: Author Tracy Badua involves some Filipino history in a heartfelt story of an underdog struggle to believe in himself. Story includes information about the Rescission Act, the unkept promise the U.S. government made to the Filipino soldiers to make monetary recompense. As Freddie works out how to break the curse, the reader finds a close knit Filipino-American family with their customs and folklore. The relationship between Freddie and his great grandmother and uncle forms an opportunity for an intergenerational perspective. In the beginning of the story, the author seems to include many descriptive details as though she were remembering her own family: grandmother wears a purple shawl when she goes for her dialysis, Freddie’s family observes the Filipino custom of not sweeping the floor at night for fear of “sweeping out the fortune.” Lead students who like this book to Erin Estrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Seas for their next choice.

Fantasy (Magic Realism)          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Love in the Library

Tokuda-Hall, Maggie. Love in the Library. Candlewick Press, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-5362-0430-8. Grades 2-4.  $18.99.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which “relocated” Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. Inspired by a true family story, Tokuda-Hall has written a fictionalized account of her grandparents’ experience in such a camp. Tama was in college when she was abruptly placed in Minidoka Camp in Idaho. The conditions were harsh, with very cold winters and very hot summers, and an entire family was forced to live in one room. Tama’s only solace was working in the library. She loved the way books magically took her to other worlds. A camp resident named George became a daily library visitor, checking out several books and returning them the next day. One day, Tama is overwhelmed by the injustice and begins to cry. George comforts her, and Tama realizes why George comes to the library so frequently. The couple marries and has their first child in the camp, demonstrating the power of love and resilience in overcoming prejudice and hate.  The author’s note includes more of Tama and George Tokuda’s story along with a photo. Imamura’s gouache and watercolor drawings help readers understand more about this unjust time in American history. 

THOUGHTS: This text can be used as an introduction to World War II units about the home front.  Like Say’s Music for Alice or Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, Love in the Library promotes discussion about prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. Highly recommended for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Historical Fiction

MG – Stealing Home

Torres, J. Stealing Home. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30334-0. 112 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Baseball is Sandy Saito’s favorite hobby – in fact, he sees it as more of a lifestyle than anything else. His favorite team, the Asahi, are the pride of the Vancouver community. Sandy loves playing catch with his younger brother Ty and his father, a respected doctor. His life changes drastically; however, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and suddenly anyone of Japanese descent is treated very differently than before. His father daringly breaks the curfews imposed on the Japanese to care for patients but one day, he does not return home. The Saito family is relocated to an internment camp without Dr. Saito. Sandy’s mother explains that his father is in a camp where his medical expertise is needed, but Sandy is doubtful he will ever see his father again. Eventually, Sandy realizes that, much like in baseball, he will have to figure out how to handle what is thrown his way.

THOUGHTS: Even though this is a complex historical event, baseball ties the story together and makes it relatable to young readers who may only be learning about Japanese internment camps for the first time. Back matter in the book provides more information and sources for readers eager to learn more. This graphic novel is a great fit for middle grade libraries and complements other graphic novels like George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy and Kiku Hughes’ Displacement which are on the same topic.

Graphic Novel           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

Wallmark, Laurie. Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars. Illustrated by Brooke Smart. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-419-73963-7 $18.99 Grades 3-6. 

“A cryptoanalyst is a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used.” Elizebeth Smith Friedman, born in 1982 in Indiana, became a relied-upon, yet secret, cryptography expert who helped the U.S. government to intercept coded messages during two world wars, and helped to identify and send thirty-three German spies to prison in “the greatest spy roundup in American history.” She never spoke of her work, classified as “Top Secret Ultra,” and most was not known until declassified in 2015. Wallmark, with Smart’s well-matched illustrations, follows Friedman’s story from childhood, to education to first job, to marriage, to secret work. Friedman was repeatedly requested for the most difficult code-breaking, and often testified in criminal cases, demonstrating her code-breaking when needed. In one case, she decoded two years of backlogged messages in her first three months of work. Friedman created the first code-breaking unit for the OSS–Office of Strategic Services, now known as the CIA–Central Intelligence Agency. In at least one major case, another person earned the honor for her work. But Friedman’s work helped the U.S. in two world wars and can be well-recognized today.

THOUGHTS: This book is an excellent addition to World War II units and will inspire readers to learn more about code-making and code-breaking.

Biography          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD