Monday, October 31, 2016

Fannie Never Flinched: One Woman's Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights by Mary Cronk Farrell

Fannie Never Flinched begins with the end of the story - the violent fatal shooting of Fannie Sellins, a 52 year old little known union activist who only wanted better wages and conditions for workers like herself.

When Fannie found herself a widow with four young children, one still just a baby, she knew she would have to get a job.  Living in St. Louis, Missouri in 1897, there were very few opportunities for a woman and Fannie took what she could find - sewing piece-work in a sweatshop owned by Marx & Haas Clothing Company.  Here, the air was foul, the hours were long, wages were low, the chance of an accident was great and the doors were locked from the outside.  Plus, there was the knowledge that if you couldn't do your job for whatever reason, it would immediately be given to the next person waiting to be hired.  There was always a seemingly endless line of woman willing to take ones place.

But when Fannie heard that seamstresses in New York City and Chicago had formed a union called the United Garment Workers of America, or UGWA, and had successfully demanded higher wages and safer working conditions, she knew that garment workers in St. Louis needed to organize, too.  In 1902, Ladies' Local 67 of the UGWA was officially launched, followed by pay increases and shorter working days.

For Fannie, it was the start of her career as a union organizer and president of the local UGWA.  But it was not an easy path for her.  Marx & Haas really wanted to break the union hold on their company, and in 1909, they locked out 1,000 workers over a dispute with one of the tailors.  The workers went on strike, picketing the company. When a judge ordered them back to work, they stopped picketing but continued their boycott.  Before she knew it, Fannie was traveling from city to city asking other garment workers to support their strike.

By now, Fannie had quite a reputation as a leader in the garment workers' union and in 1913, she was invited to visit coal miners in Colliers, West Virginia.  Miners and their families were living and working in deplorable, dangerous conditions.  But going against the owners of Allegheny Coal and Coke, who did not want their workers unionized and had law enforcement on their side, ultimately proved fatal for Fannie. Hit in the head and knock unconscious, she was shot 5 times by Sheriff's deputies.  It is a sad statement that the deputies who killed Fannie in cold blood never paid for their crime, and in fact, it was Fannie who was blamed for leading a charging mob against law enforcement.

The struggle to establish labor unions in the United States was a long, hard, often dangerous fight and nothing exemplifies that more than then the life and death of Fannie Sellins. And Mary Cronk Farrell has written a clear, incisive biography of this courageous lady, who, as she says, never flinched in the face of danger.

Using photographs, documents and newspaper articles Farrell chronicles the rise of Fannie's career, and puts it into the larger context of what was happening in industries all over the United States in this picture book for older readers.

In her Author's Note, Farrell writes about the difficulty of finding reliable information about Fannie. She did achieve a certain amount of fame and martyr status among workers wanting to organize after her death, but their attempts were usually met with soldiers, police and even hired guns.  Did she die in vain, Farrell asks, challenging her young readers to think carefully about their answers.

Farrell also includes an extensive Glossary, a Time Line of Select Events in the American Labor Struggle, 1877-1935, Notes, Sources, Books for Further Reading and Websites for More Information.

Fannie Never Flinched is a excellent book for young readers interested the history of unions and the history of women and/or American history in general. It is also a poignant portrayal of a time in this country's history that still resonates in today's world, as we see unions losing ground and jobs being outsourced to countries overseas.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Abrams BFYR

Friday, October 28, 2016

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

The best biographies are usually about people who should always inspire us - to be better people ourselves. to try new things, to think in new ways, to learn about and appreciate our own as well as different cultures and their cultural productions  And that is just was Duncan Tonatiuh’s book Funny Bones accomplishes for today’s young readers.

Using his own signature Mixtec style, Tonatiuh introduces them to José Guadalupe Posada.  It was Posada who created the calavera or skeleton art so prominently associated with Mexico’s El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations every November 1st and 2nd.

But while his calaveras may be familiar, the artist who created them is not as well known.  Tonatiuh takes readers though Posada’s life and shows them the influences that formed his signature style, and the mediums that went into his later printed creations, including engraving, lithography, and especially etching. 
Lupe, as Posada was called, was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1852, the sixth of eight children and the son of a baker.  He attended art school growing up, and at 18, worked in a print shop, where he learned lithography and engraving.  At that time, the Mexican people were not happy with the job the government was doing, and before long, Lupe began drawing political cartoons for the local newspaper called el Jicote, sometimes depicting the politicians as skeletons.
When politicians became angry at the cartoons, Lupe and his boss Don Trinidad decided to move to the city of León.  There, Lupe opened his own print shop, married and had a son.  But a flood destroyed his shop and Don Lupe moved his family to Mexico City.  Eventually, he opened another shop there.  In the print shop, he began published "broadsides,"intriguing stories on large brightly colored paper.  His drawing on these were so well-done and detailed, everyone was fascinated by them.
El Día de los Muertos celebrations were always a busy time in Mexico, with vendors selling everything needed from marigolds, to sugar skulls, and others items needed for their ofrendas (offerings) for their dead loved one.  Don Lupe began etching the illustrations of the literary calaveras created by fellow editors for the celebrations, which were again very popular among the people.  

Tonatiuh also includes a series of 6 illustrations, juxtaposing the living in his using his Mixtec style with Posada’s calaveras and asking the reader to think about what the illustrations are saying, teaching kids that often there is a powerful meaning behind what appears to be just a fun picture. Below are two examples of that:

This is from an original broadside illustrated by Posada. It refers to the Mexican Revolution.
Tonatiuh used it in the book, asking the question:
Was Don Lupe saying that sometimes calaveras are not a laughing matter?
Funny Bones is a wonderful, well-done biography that is accessible to today's young readers, giving them a cogent look at a powerful artist of his time, whose influence is still felt today.  Be sure to read the Author's Note in which Tonatiuh details the history of El Día de los Muertos. There is also a helpful Glossary and a Bibliography for further exploration, as well as a list of places in the US where you can see José Guadalupe Posada's work.

A detailed Educator's Guide is available for Funny Bones thanks to Vanderbilt University's Center for Latin American Studies.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Halloween Roundup for Young Readers

Halloween can be a scary time for younger kids and here are some gentle books to help them navigate the day.  These books all are Halloween friendly and are sure to get your kids into the spirit.

You Are My Pumpkin by Joyce Wan
Cartwheel Books, 2016, 14 pages, age 1+
This is a very sweet board book designed to make Halloween a less scary time for the youngest kids by reassuring them that they are special.  Each two page spread has a traditional Halloween icon, such as a ghost, a monster, a witch, and even candy corn, done in Wan's simple, friendly style with a text that read begins with "you are my happy, smiley pumpkin and continues "my sugary, sweet candy corn.  The book ends with a bat and the words "Baby, I'm Batty for you.  This is a happy, fun book that might need to be read more than once on Halloween night as older kids come to the door trick or treating in frightening costumes, and it is sure to be a favorite of babies and toddlers long after Halloween is over.

Seeking A Witch by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Allie Smith
Little Simon, 2016, 30 pages, age 2+
I loved this simple rhyming board book that also uses traditional Halloween icons as the characteristics of a witch are described by a trick or treater looking for the perfect witch. Of course, the trick or treater turns out to be the witch in the end, but it is a fun journey getting there. The rhyme scanned nicely throughout the book and the simple, colorful illustrations compliment the text on each page. The bold illustrations are done in seasonal colors of orange, black, green, purple and yellow.  A nice introduction to the kinds of creatures a new trick or treater might see on Halloween night.

This Is The House That Monsters Built by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Jared D. Lee
Scholastic Press, 2106, 32 pages, age 3+
Halloween can be a scary time for young kids.  Suddenly, other kids they are familiar with are dressed differently and may feel unrecognizable, and they also see lots of frightening masks and other decorations in otherwise friendly places.  How to take the fright out of Halloween?  Well, Steve Metzger takes the old “this is is the house that Jack built” and gives it a fun Halloween twist.  Each creature - ghost, zombie, witch, Frankenstein, mummy and more - adds something to the house they are building, but each one is in turn scared.  Why?  Kids will delight when they discover the scary Halloween creatures are scared of the trick or treating kids dressed up as scary creatures knocking at their door.  Between the predictable repetition of the rhyme and the fun illustrations, this is a book that really takes the “scary” out of Halloween.   

The Fierce Yellow Pumpkin by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Richard Egielski 
HarperCollins, 2003, 32 pages, Age 4+
In this Halloween story by the author of Goodnight, Moon, "a fat little, round little, yellow little pumpkin" has springtime dreams of growing into a very fierce, very scary pumpkin, inspired by the scarecrow he sees on the other side of the field scaring away birds. Sure enough, when October rolls around he has become "a fat little, round little, orange little pumpkin," perfect for Halloween.  And when three kids chose him to be their Jack-O'-Lantern, carving a scary face on him, his dreams of being a fierce pumpkin come true.  The bright illustrations are done in a palette of greens, golds, yellows, blues and oranges, perfect for the season and Richard Egielski's two page up-close-and-personal spread of the newly carved Jack-O'-Lantern is a wonderful surprise, this pumpkin's fierceness dream come true.

Black and Bittern was Night by Robert Heidbreder, illustrated by John Martz
Kids Can Press, 2013, 32 pages, age 5+ 
I picked up this book at the library on a whim, attracted to it by its cover.  And when I started reading it, I began to think this may not be a good book to include here.  But as I read it, I began to get into the swing of things, and by the end of the first reading, I found I liked it.  By the end of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th reading, I really liked it and so did the kiddos I read it to.  Written in what sounds like a nonsense language and in verse, it is Halloween night and the SKUL-A-MUG-MUGS are out and about town in force, and the frightened adults refuse to let their kids go out trick-or-treating.  The kids call a secret meeting and decide to take on the SKUL-A-MUG-MUGS, using the battle cry "Outbrave them! Out SKUL them!"  The language is a little tricky, but it doesn't take long to realize "big-talls" are adults and "Noras and Nicks" are kids.  The simple, cartoony illustrations are Photoshopped in blacks, blues, oranges and yellows and help to reassure young readers that this story is just for fun.  However, as much as I liked this book, I have to concede it is just not for everyone.   

Bonesville by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet
Harry N. Abrams, 2016, 48 pages, age 5+
There are 1,275 skeletons living in Bonesville and that makes for a lot of bones (262,650 bones to be exact) and now a monster is on the loose, stealing one bone from each of the residents - a fibula here, a tibia there, and so on.  No one is safe, and everyone has a slightly different description of the bone stealing monster, but not to worry, Bonesville’s great detective Sherlock Bones is on the case.  Little by little, as more and more bones disappear, Sherlock Bones puts together the clues.  And just as he solves the mystery, along comes his sidekick, Dr. Watsbones who can explain exactly why people’s bones have been stolen.  And it’s a pretty good story that is sure to tickle more than a few funny bones.
I know this isn’t really a Halloween book but I decided to include it anyway.  Bonesville is creepy, it’s playful and it has lots of great puns.  I read a library copy so we couldn’t see the giant skeleton on the inside of the book jacket with all the names of the bones in the body on it, which was too bad, it would have been interesting.  The illustrations are quite jolly rather than scary and all done on a dark background, the better to see the skeleton population of Bonesville.  This is great for kids who are developing a real liking for mysteries.

Tony Baloney: Yo Ho Ho, Halloween! by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Scholastic Press, 2016, 40 pages, age 5+ 
It’s almost Halloween and this year, Tony Baloney doesn’t want to wear a homemade or a hand me down costume.  This year, Tony decides to take his savings and get a story-bought costume.  And he really loves the pirate costume he picks out, loves it so much he can’t stop wearing it.  When his parents tell him it will be ruined for the big Halloween costume parade at school, he stops wearing it.  But by the night before the parade, Tony realizes that  little by little each part of his costume is either ruined or missing.  Can the rest of the Baloney family help Tony make a new pirate costume in time for the parade?
This is a nice four chapter transitional reader for kids going from picture books to longer chapter books.  The digitally created illustrations are fun and kids will surely enjoy exploring each page. And the clear message for young readers - you don’t need to spend lots of money to have an great Halloween costume when you have a family willing to help you make one that is awesome.  Fans of Tony Baloney will be happy with this new edition to the series, and newcomers to it will want to read all the other Tony Baloney books.

It's Halloween by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner
HarperCollins (Mulberry Road Read-Alouds), 1996, 56 pages, age 4+
A small book of 13 Halloween poems for young readers about all of the traditional icons of the season, such as ghost, goblins, a haunted house, pumpkins and kids trick or treating. The poems are fun, but gentle and the illustrations are sweet and compliment the text.  Our copy is rather worn out, but it was one of my Kiddo's first poetry books and I just could never bring myself to replace this well read copy.  My Kiddo's favorite poem is the last one.  I think after the build up to Halloween and all the excitement of trick or treating around the neighborhood, she was always glad to be home, safe and sound, with a nice bag of candy (minus any Twix I might have noticed in there):


It's late and we are sleepy,
The air is cold and still.
Our jack-o'-lantern grins at us
Upon the window sill.

We're stuffed with cake and candy
And we've had a lot of fun, 
But now it's time to go to bed
And dream of all we've done.

We'll dream of ghosts and goblins
And of witches that we've seen, 
And we'll dream of trick-or-treating
On this happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

When the Sea Turned To Silver written and illustrated by Grace Lin

The Tiger Emperor, disguised as a soldier, is going around to all the mountain villages and kidnapping men to help build a Vast Wall around his entire kingdom. When the Emperor arrives in Pinmei's village, not only does he take all the men, but he also takes Amah, her elderly grandmother known as the Storyteller.  Amah had hidden Pinmei in a large empty wine vessel to keep her safe.

Before the soldiers leave, young Yishan arrives at the hut and demands they not take Amah, but the Emperor only laughs.  Tossing him aside, he tells Yishan that he can have her back when he brings the Tiger Emperor a Luminous Stone That Lights The Night.  As they leave, the soldiers set fire to the little hut Pinmei and Amah lived in.

Pinmei and Yishan decide to go rescue Amah and set out on a quest to find a Luminous Stone That Lights The Night, traveling from their home on the Never-Ending Mountain through deep snows in what seems to be a never ending winter to the City of Bright Moonlight. Along the way they are given much help in exchange for one of Amah's story, which Pinmei knows by heart.

Pinmei and Yishan are not in the City of Bright Moonlight long before they must journey to the Crystal Palace at the bottom of the sea to seek the help of the Sea King and then back to the Capital City to try to get Amah released from the Tiger Emperor's dungeon.  Along the way, Pinmei begins to suspect that Yishan is hiding something from her as his demeanor begins to change to a more confident person when dealing with all the obstacles they meet on the quest to rescue Amah.  Her suspicions aren't without foundation, providing one of the big surprises at the end of the story.

Besides Pinmei and Yishan's journey, there are parallel chapters of Amah in a dungeon with a fellow prisoner, a stonecutter, as well as the plight of the entrapped Black Tortoise of Winter, both adding to the mystery and enchantment of Pinmei's adventure. At the heart of this cleverly woven tale is the Tiger Emperor's desire for invincibility but also for immortality and he is willing to do anything to achieve that. But why did the Tiger Emperor kidnap Amah, the Storyteller? Why did he ask for a Luminous Stone That Lights The Night? And why can't the Black Tortoise move on so that winter can end?  How can they help the Emperor achieve what he wants?

The answers to these questions can be found in the stories that Pinmei and Amah tell and which are strategically interspersed throughout the book (of course, I didn't realize the strategic part on my first reading of When the Sea Turned To Silver).  Though rooted in traditional Chinese folktales, Grace Lin has given them her own spin to support the story of Pinmei, Amah, Yishan and the selfish Tiger Emperor.

I was really looking forward to reading When the Sea Turned To Silver and I wasn't disappointed. It is an adventure with lots of twists and turns, where nothing is as it seems and there are a few surprises along the way  The tales fit smoothly and relevantly into the framing story, so the reader doesn't experience any disjunction or lose track of Pinmei and Yishan journeys.

When the Sea Turned To Sliver is the third companion in the trilogy that so far includes When the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky but you don't need to have read these two previous tales to enjoy this third one.  Although there are references to the past narratives, this one does stand alone.

I found the writing to be clear and clean, but not quite as lyrical or poetic as Lin's two previous novels.  In fact, sometimes I thought Yishan sounded a little colloquial.  None of this takes away from the loveliness of the basic story, but I was surprised by it.

When the Sea Turned To Silver is an enchanting work and Lin has invented an imaginative ancient Chinese world that is at times rather dark in tone and at other times is just beautiful. And she has provided the reader with illustrations that will take your breath away, beginning with the cover, and continuing with the full color images throughout the book and the two-tone vignettes at the start of each chapter.
This illustration is one of my personal favorites.  I love the way Lin frames her illustrations like her stories with what appears to be her version of traditional Chinese designs that fit her story. You can see that Lin really puts a lot of care and  thought into what she creates.  In this first full color illustration in the story, you can almost feel the bitter cold of the winter that is going on and on, and the isolation in which Pinmei, Amah and Yishan live (Yishan lives alone in a different hut since his Aunty Meiya died).

When the Sea Turned To Silver is a eminently readable, spellbinding tale that is sure to please fans of Grace Lin, young readers who enjoy good fantasy, and everyone who likes to read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased to send to my Kiddo, but I read it first.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Two New Picture Books from National Geographic Kids

Natumi Takes the Lead: The True Story of an Orphan Elephant Who Finds Family by Gerry Ellis with Amy Novesky
National Geographic Kids, 2016, 32 pages, age 4+
Available November 8, 2016

Natumi was only 6 weeks old when her mother was killed.  At the sound of guns, the remaining elephants in the herd that they were part of scattered, Natumi found herself all alone.  Luckily, she was found and taken to an elephant orphanage, where other lost and wounded elephants lived.  Soon the eight new elies formed a new family together.  At the orphanage, they were well cared for by their keepers, but soon they would have to be released into a new wilder place, a protected park that would become their home.  But before that could happen, they needed a leader and to everyone's surprise, it turned out to be shy Natumi.

This is a book that will help introduce young readers to the importance of elephants conservation. Although it doesn't focus on elephant poaching beyond Natumi's mother, it does make clear that the elephants population is dwindling and that it is possible for them to soon become extinct.  The beautiful photography of Gerry Ellis captures Natumi's family of elephants playful personalities as they are cared for by their keepers.  There is a map of the places where elephants can be found in Africa, sources for further reading and learning about them, as well as some basic facts.  And be sure to read the note from the photographer at the back for more interesting information about his relationship with Natumi.

Ocean Animals: Who's Who in the Deep Blue by Johnna Rizzo
National Geographic Kids, 2016, 112 pages, age 7+

Did you know that there were different layers to the ocean and that different life-forms live in each layer?  Or that the deepest part of the ocean is 7 miles down form the surface?  Well, neither did I.  Now, kids can learn all about this and more in this book about the sea creatures and plant life that call our oceans home.  They will discover facts about marine life including sharks, mammals, birds, turtles, reptiles, and other creatures and plants as well as the different oceans and habitats where they live and thrive.  There is even a chapter that includes how and why coral reefs are formed, and the importance of conserving them

This an ideal book for young readers who are already familiar with animals of the ocean through their love of Disney's Nemo and Dory. Ocean Animals will provide them with some general information at the beginning of each chapter about what species will be covered in it, followed by a more in-depth look at the differences that can be found within a species. This includes things like where they dwell, what they eat, how they sleep, how dangerous to other sea creature or humans, but there are some fun facts, too.  Readers, both young and older, will also marvel at the exquisite full color photographs throughout the book. At the back of the book is a glossary for words that may be new to young readers.  And of course, it is important to conserve our waterways nowadays, so there are also suggestions for 20 ways young readers can protect the oceans.

Both of these books are designed to introduce curious young readers not only to some of the other creatures we share the earth with, but to also help them understand the importance of conservation before it is too late.  I highly recommend both of these books.

These books were provided to me by the publisher, National Geographic Kids

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge is a weekly celebration of 
nonfiction books hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Blog Tour: Chasing at the Surface by Sharon Mentyka

It's fall in Washington state, the chum salmon are running in Dyes Inlet, and Marisa Gage, 12, along with her best friend Lena are out in a rowboat catching as many as salmon they can.  Suddenly, something strange is spotted in the water.  It turns out that a pod of 19 orca whales have made their way into the inlet to feed on the salmon.

For Marisa, the whales really bring some very difficult feelings of loss and abandonment to the surface.  Her mother had suddenly decided one day that she had to leave for reasons unknown to Marisa and her dad, causing their lives to turn upside down.  No longer able to afford their house, Marisa and her dad have moved into a houseboat.

Hurt and angry, Marisa has essentially shut her dad out of her life, and throws her mother's letters away unread.  But it was her mother who had been so fascinated by whales and who had taught her everything she knows about them. In fact, when they had spotted a new baby whale on vacation one year, Marisa had been allowed to name it, deciding to call it Muncher.

By day 3 of the whale sighting, a group of marine biologists is expected and Marisa's science teacher asks for volunteers to help them monitor the whales.  Marisa decides not to, even though she knows more about whales than most of the kids in her class, but Lena signs them both up anyway.

Now, all the talk and excitement about the whales is bringing up more and more memories that Marisa would rather not think about, made all the more difficult because this is the pod of which Muncher is part.  And Marisa knows that while there is still plenty of salmon for the whales to feed on, it's the end of the salmon run and given how many they must eat per day, they will soon start to run out and if they don't make their way out of Dyes Inlet, they will be in a dangerous life or death situation.

But when Marisa unintentionally hurts the feelings of a classmate and his special needs younger brother, and her dad finally tells her what he knows about her mother's childhood, Marisa suddenly realizes how angry she has been and begins to see things differently.

As the whales remain in the inlet, they are surrounded by crowds of boats of all sizes containing whale watchers, upsetting the whales and making it more and more difficult for them to find their way out of the inlet, and worse, the watchers simply ignore pleas to turn off motors and back away.

By day 30, the orca's situation is critical. Is it already too late to save the this pod of whales that Marisa has become so attached to, an attachment that somehow has so much to do with her feelings about her mother?

I was really excited to read Chasing at the Surface.  I've always been fascinated by whales and whale behavior, although so sad when something goes wrong, as it seems to do more and more frequently.

But Sharon Mentyka has written a beautiful coming of age novel that explores the meaning of family, courage, and forgiveness, weaving these themes around a family of displaced orca whales mirroring the kind of displacement that Marisa feels now that she and her family also find themselves in unfamiliar waters.

Interestingly, I found that neither Marisa's or the whale's story overshadowed the other.  It helps that chapters concerning the whales are clearly indicated - Orca Day 1, Orca Day 2, etc., as are chapters relating to Marisa situation. And along the way, young readers will learn much about orca whales, their family structure, and their behavior, though without any of it feeling pedantic, as well as the importance of animal conservation.

I found Chasing at the Surface to be a multi-dimensional novel that explores the mystery of nature and what happens when people interfere with it, but it also looks at nature's ability to help humans heal their wounds.  Highly recommended.

Chasing at the Surface is based on an actual event in which a subpod of 19 whales swam into Dyes Inlet in 1997.  It is every bit as fascination to read as this novel is and you can find out much more about it at Dyes Inlet Orcas - Ten Years Later.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, WestWinds Press

Be sure to visit the other stops on the Chasing at the Surface Blog Tour

October 2, 2016        Interview          Girls Who Reads
October 3, 2016        Interview          Gidget Girls Reading
October 4, 2016        Review             The Book Faerie
October 5, 2016        Review             I Read Until Dawn
October 6, 2016        Review             Kitty Cat at the Library
October 7, 2016        Interview          Provato Events
October 9, 2016        Review             Randomly Reading
TBD                          Interview          ALSC Blog
October 14, 2016      Guest Posting   Kirby Larson's Blog

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Encore: The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

This was originally posted on my other blog, The Children's War, but I thought I would share it here as well.  Sometimes a book is just too important not to post on both blogs.  The Last Cherry Blossom is a powerful story about one young girl before, during and after the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. 

August 6, 2016 marks the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed by the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th.  And by now, most readers are familiar with the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr.  Sadako's compelling story focuses on her illness 9 years after being exposed to the deadly radiation that resulted in the aftermath of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. However, we don't really learn much about what Japan was like during the war, before the atomic bomb destroyed two cities and some many lives.  Until now.

The Last Cherry Blossom is the fictionalized story based on the experiences of the author's mother living in Hiroshima as a child during the war. 

Despite the fact that Japan has been at war with the United States since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, life hasn't been too difficult for 12-year-old Yuriko Ishikawa, affectionately called Joya by her beloved papa.  She is proud of her samurai heritage, and loves to hear papa tell stories about it.  But, when her teacher tells her that she has made a mistake on her koseki or family tree project, Yuriko becomes quite upset, asking papa what she meant.  Instead of an answer, he has the teacher fired.  But why?

Despite that, living on the outskirts of Hiroshima, with papa, owner of a newspaper, and her annoying Aunt Kimiko and five-year-old cousin Genji, the family hasn't suffered many of the usual hardships of war - rationing and making do just don't seem to be in evidence.  Of course, there are air raids, American planes flying overhead, and Yuriko, her best friend Machiko, in fact, all school children are expected to learn how to fight using a bamboo spear, if necessary.  But when Yuriko's papa and Aunt Kimiko both decide to get remarried at the same time, there is still silk to buy for new kimonos.

Yuriko has always cherished the time she spends alone with her papa, and wonders if her new stepmother, Sumiyo-san, now living in the family home, along with Akira-san, Aunt Kimiko's new husband, will understand that.  Happily, Sumiyo-san turns out to be a loving, kind stepmother who understands.  But when the mother of her fired teacher tells her that a man named Nishimoto-san would love to see her, she opens a Pandora's box of family secrets that turns Yuriko's world up-side-down and it is up to Aunt Kimiko to explain things.

Yuriko barely has time to digest what Aunt Kimiko tells her, than the war begins to hit closer to home.  First Tokyo is badly bombed, and, a few months later, an atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, changing Yuriko's life forever. 

The Last Cherry Blossom is author Kathleen Burkinshaw's debut novel, and I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to write her mother's story and yet, how necessary.  Perhaps having listened to her mother's memories of Japan during WWII and of her survival after the bomb was dropped while growing up is what made this such a realistic narrative.  Told in the first person by Yuriko, the reader is pulled into the story right from the start.

The Last Cherry Blossom is a shattering story, and part of what makes it so devastating is the detailed descriptions of daily life and favorite special occasions that Yuriko lovingly provides when all the while the reader knows what was coming.  I did like reading about the happy times, so filled with Japanese culture, such as how Yuriko's family celebrated the weddings, as well as Oshagatsu (New Year's Celebration) and Sakura Hanami (the Cherry Blossom Festival) and other festivals, though the chohei pati, the celebration party families have when a son is sent to war, is definitely not a happy occasion.  It is supposed to be an honor to fight for Japan, but in reality, no one feels very honored. 

(Burkinshaw does use lots of Japanese words throughout the novel, giving this a real feeling of authenticity, and there is an extensive Glossary in the back matter to help readers.)

In fact, the chohei pati points to the ways in which propaganda is used during war by all countries. At the beginning of each chapter, there are quotes from radio addresses, newspapers and propaganda posters about how well Imperial Japan is doing in the war or what is expected of civilians at home, most of which is incorrect, but people are expected to simple believe what they are told.

The Last Cherry Blossom is a story of unfathomable loss, but also of hope, resilience, and survival. Paired with Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, both these stories should stand as a cautionary tale about war and the use of what we would now call weapons of mass destruction, and never forget that, as Burkinshaw reminds us in her Afterword, "the victims were all someone's mother, father, brother, sister, or child."  It was true then, and is still true today.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline

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