Monday, February 20, 2017

Loving vs. Virginia: A Review and Autographed ARC Giveaway!

Congratulations to Connie Saunders for winning AUDACITY JONES STEALS THE SHOW.

Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle Books, February 2017)  by Patricia Hruby Powell is more than just a book about the interracial couple who challenged Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. It is a documentary novel, which combines free verse, black and white illustrations by Shadra Strickland in the Visual Journalism style, period photographs, and copies of civil rights documents. The net result is a book which will teach middle and high school students about the black struggle for equal rights. 

As I often do when reviewing free verse novels, here are excerpts from some poems that show Mildred and Richard's love and struggles. These quotes speak for themselves; Powell's poignant verse intimately connects the characters with the reader.

(this is in the middle of a poem about a community gathering at Mildred's house. Fall 1952)

One of the fathers calls
a square dance
and everyone joins in.
Otha dances
Mama dances
Lewis dances
I surely dance.
Some of the big boys dance.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving--
eyes fastened on each other
even when they've been passed
to the next person--
their names are
Twilley and Lola.
I love their names. 
But we call them
Mr. and Mrs. Loving
of course.
And they pretty much are.

If I stop and watch
I see young and old--
Indians, Negroes, Whites--
all mixed together. 
Everyone likes each other 
in our neighborhood.
Everyone dancing

Whites and coloreds--
we go to different schools--
to different churches,
drink from different water fountains.
But our section is different.

My world is right here
in Central Point.
That's what it's called.
Central Point,
the center
of my universe.
My family.
My world. (p. 27-28)

(In this poem Richard hitches a ride from his black friend, Ray. The local sheriff pulls them over. Fall 1952)

Me, I'm white, but my daddy,
he drives a truck for P.E. Boyd Byrd--
maybe the richest roundest jolliest "colored" farmer in the section.
In other parts, a white man working for a colored man--
that would be unusual.
But that's how it is here in Central Point.

Sheriff don't like this one lousy bit.
White man puts hisself beneath a colored man?
Workin' for him?
Worse than being colored, right, Sheriff?
'Course I didn't say that.
Just thinkin'.

Sheriff looked like he was chewin' on his teeth,
kept turnin' over that itty-bitty license,
trying to figure out what mean thing he could to us.
We wait quiet
while he walked back to his car.

To Sheriff Brooks there are only two races--
white and colored.
In all of Virginia, just two races--
white and colored.

We know Sheriff ain't done with us,
but he let us of for now. (p. 31-32)

(This poem touched me since Mildred reflects on the two of them being seen in public together. She alludes to how some folks have passed and left their community. This theme is echoed in Half-Truths. July, 1956)

Richard once said,
      "It could be worse, Bean.
       If you was the white one
       and I was the colored one,
       people saw us together?
       They'd lynch me.
       We can do this."

I'm not really dark--
'bout the color of a grocery sack--
and I have good hair,
but I surely
There are plenty of people
from our section,
who are mixed like I am--
and one day,
when they're grown,
they leave home
and never ever
come back.
And we know they
into white society--
away from 
where everyone know you,
where everyone truly
cares about you.
I feel sorry for them
who pass-
and don't come
home. (p. 82-3)

(after Mildred is denied access to a dance. October, 1956)

The moment they said,
No, you can't go in,
he saw--
I know he really saw--
what it is 
to be colored.
His face folds up
He steps out of the car.
I wail.
He's gone what feels like
in the dark.

I'm in the car whimpering.

He comes back.

Drives me home. (p. 93-94)

(This is after Mildred gets pregnant with their second child. May, 1958)

Ray said, You can't marry a colored girl. Not in Virginia. 
     "You're white, Man. Did you forget that?

I told him, "We'll do the marrying in D.C.

He said, "For godsakes, Man, live next door to her,
        if you have to be big about it.
        Look at Farmer.

In our section
white man named Farmer
set up his colored woman in a little house
and he lived next door.
They have a mess of kids.
Everyone knows, but no one says.
All his kids take her name and when they grow up, they
pass as white people.
Away from here.

Farmer didn't want to rock the boat.

Millie deserves better.
I called Ray a pig. I called him worse than that. 
Ray said, You are dreamin'. You been rockin' Sheriff's
      racial hatred
      a long time--
      pretending all y'all ain't no different,
      everyone the same.
      Race mixing?
      That ain't gonna slide in Caroline County. (p. 113-114)

(After their second child is born, October 1958)

I stand before Justice of the Peace
Edward Stehl III
in the Bowling Green courthouse.
I am told I acted
"unlawfully and feloniously"
by marrying a white man.
Our lawyer, Mr. Beazley,
advises me to plead
just like Richard did
at his hearing in July.

And then I go home
to my baby
and little Sidney.
You'd think that 
they'd want 
us to be married,
what with a child and all.

But it's our beautiful brown baby
that is the problem.
This perfect baby is the result
of race mixing.
This child is the very reason
they don't want us married. (p. 147-148)

(After Mildred wrote to Bobby Kennedy and the ACLU, Mr. Cohen, a lawyer called them. September, 1963)

We went to the lawyer's little office--
nothin' fancy--
and talk and talk and talk.
He said something like,
      I think we can win, but it will be a long process.

     More than a month? Why?
     We just want to live as husband endwise in Virginia.
What is so difficult about that?

Mildred put her hand on my wrist.

Then he said,
      If you were to go back to Virginia together--
     get rearrested-
     that might be a good way
     to get this back in the courts.

This guy is complete nuts.
Mildred grabbed hold of my hand
real tight--
like she thought I'd get up and walk out. (p.188)


Nine years after Mildred and Richard were married, in the famous Loving vs. Virginia case, Chief Justice Warren and the eight associate justices ruled unanimously that marriage between members of different races was not unconstitutional, thus ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage.

Mildred and Richard went home.

Illustration by Shadra Strickland

I have an autographed ARC to give to one fortunate reader. If you are new to my blog, share this on social media, or are a teacher/home school educator and plan to use this in your classroom, please let me know and I'll put your name in twice. Giveaway ends February 24th. 

Please see this interview with Powell that provides some of the backstory for this book; and an interview with Strickland with glimpses into her studio and this book.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Audacity Jones Steals the Show: Review, ARC Giveaway, and a Mini-Lesson on POV

Congratulations to Sandra Warren for winning Augusta Scattergood's book, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG.


Here's the question:

On a multiple choice test, which would you choose?

a. Kirby Larson's newest book, Audacity Jones Steals the Show (Scholastic, 2017), is about an eleven-year-old girl ("Audie to her friends") who makes an elephant disappear.

b. Audacity Jones is about Cypher, who in his new job with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is charged with the duty of keeping an eye on Theo Quinn. 

c. Audacity Jones is about a young scientist, Theo Quinn, who provides Houdini with the necessary illusions to cause a seven-foot elephant to vanish. 

d. Audacity Jones is about Harry Houdini's newest and most fantastic trick ever.  

e. Audacity Jones is about Min; a persistent, smart chocolate-striped puss, who speaks Dog, learns to speak Elephant, and refuses to let her girl out of her sight. 

f. Audacity Jones is about the fraud Oberon who thinks he can use Theo Quinn to outwit Mr. Harry Houdini and become the world's greatest magician in his place. 

g. All of the above.

Third Person Omniscient POV

The answer is probably obvious, but I gave you these glimpses into this story for a reason. Although Audi is the heroine, Kirby Larson uses third person omniscient point-of-view to show readers what these important secondary characters think and want.

The interplay between these characters moves the story forward at a fast pace. Since this device is not seen in too many contemporary books (and generally advised against, particularly for new writers), I asked Kirby what prompted her to write Audacity Jones in this manner. 

She said, "I do not have any fancy names or explanations for the method I used in writing this book. I was aiming for an old-fashioned storytelling feel, thus the moments of omniscient narration; I also chose to break the “fourth wall” by speaking directly to the reader on a few occasions (a nod to Jane Austen). And I do know that we writers of books for children are advised not to use multiple viewpoints, etc., but honestly that is how I felt the story needed to be told. And I am lucky enough that my editor and publisher supported my choice, no matter how many “rules” there are against it!" 

A recent Writer's Digest article, "Why Point of View is So Important" by Joseph Bates, concludes: "Oftentimes we don't really choose a POV for our project; our project chooses a POV for us...Often stories tell us how they should be told--and once you find the right POV for yours, you'll likely realize the story couldn't have been told any other way."

Min's Voice

As I think you'll see from this scene from STEALS THE SHOW, that's exactly what Kirby Larson has done. This is from the POV of Min, one of my favorite characters. In this scene, she has snuck on board a train bound for New York City, for "Where the girl went, so did she." (p. 15)
Despite her abilities and intuitions, Min was stymied by the cargo put aboard at the most recent stop. More cage than crate, it took six men to load it into the baggage car. The creature inside was ten times greater than the heft of both Corgis combined and a thousand times more intelligent than the chickens. Min struggled to interpret the new creature's language, reminiscent of Bison, with a hint of Eagle. It didn't help that the language--or perhaps it was the speaker; Min hadn't worked that out yet--was rather nasal in tone. Min had worked out that the creature was either named Punk or was a punk; at least that's what the men had called it. By its limited vocabulary, she had also surmised it was not full-grown. It smelled of hay and apples and something else: The young thing reeked of sorrow. Once the cage had been situated in the baggage car, that smell did more to keep Min awake than all the clucking of those flibbertigibbet hens.
Early on, Min had learned how to comfort little Audie during lonely nights. Min hesitated: Would this baby, huge as it was, also welcome such comforting? If Punk stepped on her, then farewell to one of Min's remaining lives. Yet, she could not bear the creature's melancholy any longer. She padded close, straw shifting and scratching under her paws, to rub her scent against the metal bars of Punk's crate. After a few moments, the creature slowed it's rocking. Made a snuffling noise. Min waited, not a muscle twitching. Then something stroked her back through the bars. It was Punk's curious appendage, the one that hung from between his eyes. If it was Punk's nose, it was the most ridiculous nose that Mind had ever seen on an animal, but she kept that to herself. Hard enough for this baby to be alone; no need to rub salt in the wound by pointing out how homely he was. But then truthfully, what animal compares to a cat?
"Moww-rr?" Min inquired, paw poised in midair. 
Punk snuffled again. Puffs of warm air from his long appendage blew tracks in Min's chocolate-striped fur. Min took this as permission and eased slowly between the bars, into the cage, a cage too small for Punk to do anything but stand. She pressed against Punk's front leg and he stopped rocking altogether. Then he slowly eased his solid self into a lean agains the metal bars. Min leapt to a spot at the back of Punk's flat head, between ears as big as boat sails. Turning once, twice, three times, she settled herself, purring. Though Punk could not lie down, Min felt him relax.
Min locked at the leathery skin beneath her. It was dry. Punk needed water. Needed rest. Needed...
He said something.
Punk said something. And Min understood.
Thank you, he said. Thank you, friend (p.39-41. Used with permission.)

Giveaway and Resources

I have an autographed ARC to send to one of you. If you share this on social media or become a new follower of my blog, I'll enter your name twice. Just be sure to leave me your email address if you are new to my blog and tell me what you have done. Giveaway ends on February 17. Kirby is donating a portion of her royalties to The Elephant Sanctuary.

For other resources on using the third person omniscient POV see:

Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited  by Nathan Bransford

How to Write in Third Person Omniscient POV by Brian Davis. Brian gives good examples of "head-hopping" (which is NOT what Kirby has done) and subjective vs. objective omniscient. 

Whose Head is it Anyway? by Janice Hardy.

Immersive POV by Donald Maas. Not specifically on third person POV, but excellent article. (Aren't all articles by Maas eye-opening?)  

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Making Friends With Billy Wong-- BONUS GIVEAWAY!

In conjunction with this week's review of MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG Augusta Scattergood is giving away an autographed copy of this timely book. 

Please leave your name (and email address if you are new to this blog) by 7 PM Saturday, February 11. If you are a teacher, home educator, or librarian,  let me know in your comment and I'll enter your name twice!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood: A Review with Help from David Corbett

Congratulations to my fellow blogger, Clara Gillow Clark, who won a copy of TWICE BETRAYED on last week's blog. Stay tuned friends, I have lots more giveaways coming up!

One of the writing blogs I follow is Writer Unboxed. When I find an article by one of their contributors in Writer's Digest, I pay extra attention. 

Soon after completing Augusta Scattergood's middle grade novel, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG (Scholastic Press, 2016),  I read David Corbett's article "To Change or Not to Change?"(Writer's Digest, January, 2017). Thanks to Corbett, I found a terrific template to review Augusta's book. (Quotes from his article are in bold.)

Every story implicitly asks two simple questions: 1) What happened? and 2) Why? These questions may remain unanswered, but they cannot be escaped...we need to keep in mind what Les Edgerton means when he says every story is about the same thing--trouble--or what Steven James means when he says that stories are not about what happened, they're about what went wrong. (Writer's Digest, pp. 26, 27)

For Azalea Morgan, the protagonist in MAKING FRIENDS, her life goes wrong in the first paragraph: 
All it took to send my summer on the road to ruin was a fancy note and a three-cent stamp. The minute that envelope showed up, Mama was packing my suitcase. (p. 1)
The reader quickly discovers the three types of problems which Corbett says characters try to answer:
  • External challenges: tasks in pursuit of a goal in the physical world. 
For Azalea, that means surviving a summer in Arkansas without her best friend and being asked to help a cranky grandmother she doesn't really know.  
  • Internal questions: doubt concerning deep-seated issues such as one's worth, purpose, nature, identity--in which characters are forced to ask, Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? 
Azalea doesn't make friends easily and when she finds out her grandmother expects her to be friends with Billy Wong, the local grocer's grand nephew, Azalea thinks,
Like it or not, I was going to meet more people than I was ever friends with back in Texas. (p. 26)
Would this Billy Wong boy want to talk to me? Did we speak the same language? I wasn't so great at talking to ordinary boys back home--boys who didn't look like they'd just arrived from some faraway country. Mama says I'll get over that talking-to-boys thing. I doubt I'll get over it this summer in Paris Junction, Arkansas. (p. 29) 
  • Interpersonal Relationships: efforts to grow closer to or distance oneself from another character or characters. 
In spite of her doubts about being friends with a Chinese boy, Azalea begins to see the ostracism Billy faces. That, along with his friendliness, draws the two together. After they get ice cream at the drug store, Billy asks her if she wants to bike at the creek or hunt turtles. 
If I hadn't already talked more than I'd talked in my entire lifetime to a boy, I'd be explaining that no, I will not be exploring a creek. I will be fixing dinner and watering Grandma Clark's garden till the cows come home....Even though it was easy eating ice cream together, I had a hard time picturing being good friends with a boy. Especially one so different. 
But today was fun. So I looked right at Billy Wong, and I answered, "Maybe." (p. 64)
In the Writers Digest article David Corbett wrote, 
When a protagonist of any kind changes, it's usually because the struggles and conflicts he has faced have forged a different understanding of himself, his abilities and/or his world, including the people in it. (p. 28)
By the mid-point of the book, Azalea is calling Billy her friend. She is also surprising herself by becoming braver than she ever had been in Texas. She discovers hidden truths about Willis, the town bully, as well as about her grandmother. These discoveries spawn new actions.  

Despite her fears, towards the end of the book Azalea climbs up her grandmother's tree behind Willis, who has been throwing acorns down on her and Billy. She asks:
"You doing this because you're mad at me? What'd I do?"
"This was my tree till that Chinese boy came. Now every time I climb it, he's around." 
When a breeze rustled the tree's leaves, I grabbed hold of a thicker branch and held on. "Ever think about being friends with Billy?" I asked, still not quite believing I was perched in a tree with Willis DeLoach. (p. 173)

With that interaction, the reader knows that Azalea is well on the way to growing and changing. 

Like Kirby Larson's LIBERTY, Augusta Scattergood inserted poems from Billy's point of view. Her sparse use of language gets to the heart of how Billy is feeling. This is one of my favorites:

Keeping Notes on Lucky Foods, My Private File

The screen door pushes open.
The bell ting-a-lings.
A white man steps inside, tall, frowning.
Hat pulled close over his forehead.
Eyes darting fast
from Kay's Cookies to Dum Dum suckers,
cash register to cigar boxes.

"Need me some garden fertilizer," he snarls.
"Near the fishing lines," I answer, nicely.
He draws his words out.
"Bologna? Cheese? Bread?"
"Right this way, sir," I say.

I reach into the cool case of cheese and lunch meat.
Weigh a thick wedge of cheddar.
Punch the cash register's round buttons.
Hand the man groceries.
Watch him leave.

He'll go in my stories.
Mixed together with
track meets,
Future Farmers,
Student Council,
dusting soup cans,
pricing crushable cracker boxes.
And new friends.              
Property of Billy Wong, Spy (p. 123)

Corbett concludes the article, 
Look to your story to determine whether your main characters must change, and the degree of change they will undergo. Change is by no means a requirement--but when the story leads to self-examination, or revolves around a relationship, it is all but inevitable that the action will create the re-evaluation of self that we equate with change. (p.29)
Teachers and home school educators: Augusta just posted her classroom discussion guide on her website. You can download it here.
Augusta and I have been Facebook friends for several years.
We enjoyed meeting in person a few weeks ago, half-way between our homes in Florida.
We talked about books and writing for three hours-
and now I have a new "real" friend!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Twice Betrayed: A Cover Reveal and ARC Giveaway!

I'm honored to share a cover reveal for a tween book that will be released next month. TWICE BETRAYED, by my fellow Highlights Summer Camp participant, Gayle Krause, will be available on March 28th from Trowbridge Books.

Isn't this a gorgeous cover?

Here's the blurb for the book:

The thread of friendship is stretched to the breaking point…

With the spark of independence crackling in Colonial Philadelphia, 
Perdy Rogers chafes under the strict rule of her Quaker grandmother and the endless duties of her apprenticeship in Betsy Ross’s upholstery shop. So when her best friend shares a secret and invites Perdy to help plan an elopement, she’s thrilled to be with her friends again. But Perdy has no idea that one favor will unravel the stable fabric of her life and involve her in a tangled web of deceit, lies and treachery.

Disguised as boys, three girls head to the river to put Perdy’s plan into action, but only two return. When the third, a young milliner’s assistant, is found drowned with gold coins sewn into her hems, coded spy letters in her bodice, and a journal implicating another sewing apprentice as her co-conspirator, all eyes turn to Perdy Rogers. But she’s no spy!

Accused of treason, she struggles to prove her innocence with the help of a handsome stranger and learns the hard way that freedom, whether an individual’s or a country’s, comes at a cost.

Gayle shares some of the backstory behind TWICE BETRAYED:

I’ve always loved history and discovering how things came to be. In the Caribbean, the long-lost pirates whispered to me with each crash of the waves. I’m working on a female pirate story. When I walked in Pompeii, I felt like I had been there before. In the Coliseum, a new story blossomed, about one of the entertainers. I’ve yet to write that one!

But Perdy’s story was different. I wrote it first, and when I visited the Betsy Ross House, after the story was completed, I froze in my tracks and my husband asked me what was wrong.

But nothing was wrong…it was right. I had described the shop, the kitchen, the bedroom Perdy shared with her sister and grandmother in great detail, with the only difference between TWICE BETRAYED and the real thing being the shape of the stairs. And since the whole story about Betsy Ross making the first flag is a legend, with no real proof that she actually did make it (you can ask any historian) it was a perfect setting for my story.

I come from a long line of seamstresses and am a certified Home Economics teacher so you can see how the sewing bits in the story are relevant.

TWICE BETRAYED is a mix of fact and fiction stitched together to bring a new light to the fabric of our beginnings, told from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl, who fell into a web of deceit and struggled to win her freedom.

Gayle is giving away an autographed ARC to one fortunate winner. Please leave your name and email address (if you are new to my blog.) and I will pick a winner on February 4. If you share this on social media, let me know what you do and I'll enter your name twice. 

Gayle Krause was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania where she led the younger kids in creative dramatics, wilderness expeditions, and fossil hunting. Those early interactions led her to a career in teaching, where, as a Master teacher she continued to inspire teens as she prepared prospective Elementary Teachers and Early Childhood Educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Simultaneously, she directed an instructional Laboratory Pre-K for her students, where she worked with eager young preschoolers.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Liberty: A Review with a Focus on Writing Craft

Congratulations to Jessica Jacobson, a new blog subscriber, who won SOLDIER BOYS from last week's blog. 

When Alan Gratz, a prolific NC author, presented a workshop at SCBWI-Carolinas in 2010 on Plot and Pacing, my blog was only a few years old and I was learning how to review books. Fast forward to 2016, and I've decided to integrate writing craft instruction as much as possible into my reviews.  

LIBERTY (Scholastic, 2016), by Kirby Larson is the third in her Dogs of War series for readers in grades 3-7. As Gratz stated in the opening of his workshop, a good story must include conflict. "Kids won't read boring stuff." Authors must entertain early and set the tone of the book. How's this for the opening paragraph of LIBERTY:
Thomas Edison said, to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. Fish Elliott had both. Unfortunately, he also had Olympia. Fish heard her before she even poked her braided head through the loose board in the fence between their yards. (p.1)
What tone does that set?

Without one iota of info-dump, Larson shows the reader that Olympia isn't allowed to attend Fish's school because she's a Negro; his sister, Mo, works at Higgins Industries, which builds landing craft; his pop has enlisted in the war; Fish is battling the lingering effects of polio; and he's determined to rescue a dog from a mean neighbor.

Not bad for ten pages.

Gratz, using material from Vogler's Writer's Journey, talked about the importance of internal and external goals, which are both resolved at the end. For Fish, his internal goal is to have his father not see him as a cripple. "Fish would do whatever it took to be the kind of son that his father really wanted." (p 28). His external goal is to keep Liberty, the dog he rescues more than once.

Larson added depth to her story by incorporating an important secondary character. Erich is a German soldier and a French prisoner of war near Algiers. Sprinkled throughout Fish's story which takes place in New Orleans, the reader learns about Erich's goal: "He was going to do whatever it took to stay concealed, to stay hidden. He could not let anyone see the Erich within.... It was his only chance of surviving." (p. 37) 

Gratz said that the decision to act occurs in the first 25% of the book. Fish almost gives up on gaining Liberty's trust. "He wasn't going to find Liberty. It had been silly to think he would. Just like it was silly to think he could fix his leg." (p. 51)  After Olympia chides him that he shouldn't give up, he goes inside to do his secret leg strengthening exercises. His sister comes home bragging about one of Fish's contraptions that inspired a new idea at the plant and Fish is empowered. "He'd done something that would make Pop proud." (p. 57)

As Gratz pointed out using the Wizard of Oz, Act 2 includes the adventures along the yellow brick road. For Fish, that includes losing Liberty, riding a bike for the first time since he'd been diagnosed with polio, and interviewing Mr. Higgins at his plant for a school project.
Mr. Higgins rested against the railing. "They said we couldn't do it. But last year we deliver seven thousand LCVPs and a thousand LCMs...." He clapped Fish on the back. "Two things I've learned, Fish." He held up a plump finger. "Don't let others set the bar for you." A second finger. "And if you think you can't, you're right." (p. 121)
For Erich, clear across the ocean, his adventure begins when he sneaks aboard a transport that was taking Germans to a prison camp in the United States. "What's the worst they could do if they catch you?...Send you to prison camp?" his friend says (p. 90). When Erich arrives in New Orleans, the reader is on the hook. How will these two characters--who have no connection to one another-- meet? 

The climax of the book, as Gratz says, should be the moment that was promised in the beginning; the moment when the internal and external goals come together. In LIBERTY, that means both Fish and Erich performing heroic feats for Liberty's final rescue. Since I want you to read this book, I'm not including any spoilers! But in this tease, Fish recognizes similarities between Erich and some of his favorite people: 
Fish glanced over at Erich. He's eyes were as blue as Roy's. His smile as warm as Mo's. It was hard to think of him as an enemy. Maybe he had been. Maybe he still was, in some ways. But they were allies, too, over Liberty. (p. 185)
Erich gives Fish a carving of Liberty:
Fish stared at in wonder. It was Liberty in miniature perfection. He'd got her ears, her face, her shape, just right. "For me?" 
"Inside each piece of wood waits its true self, waiting to be revealed by the carver." Erich turned away from Liberty's pen. "This is true for people, too. We do not know what lies within until we are prodded into action." (p. 186)
This book for boys and girls will introduce younger readers to segregation and World War II in a gentle, yet provocative and meaningful manner. This would be an excellent classroom resource but sorry, I'm not giving my copy away. I have grandkids who are ready for this book; another novel commandeered for The Cousins Club

Monday, January 16, 2017

Soldier Boys: A Review and a Giveaway

Congratulations to Caroline McAlister  for winning TANGLED LINES on last week's blog.


Two soldiers, two boys. One American, one German. Prolific author Dean Hughes brings their lives, hopes, and dreams together in Soldier Boys (Simon and Schuster, 2001. Audio CD, 2016)

Spencer Morgan has just turned 15 in 1941. He longs to show that he is a man. He believes he'll accomplish that by joining the war effort and becoming a paratrooper--the toughest soldiers who receive the most respect. He daydreams about returning from action and impressing his crush, Lu Ann, with how brave and mature he has become. Although his father sees through his motivation, he reluctantly allows his son to drop out of high school and join. 

Spencer's superficial motivation is apparent. He wants to be a paratrooper in order to wear pants that blouse up, feel taller, do something hard, and be part of the best fighting group. He's also driven by his fear that the war would be over before he has a chance to accomplish his goals. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Dieter Hedrick, has a similar ambition to be seen as a man. His story begins in 1939 while training with the Nazi Youth. He is ashamed of his parents who don't support Hitler; perhaps his father was a coward in the Great War. Dieter is small, delicate, and timid and like Spencer, is afraid he'll never have a chance to be a solider. Many of his decisions within the Hitler Youth are based on wanting to be known for his bravery and to be different than his father. 

The story flips back and forth between the boys as they prepare for combat. Not unexpectedly, Spencer finds that his training is much more difficult than imagined. Dieter digs anti-tank trenches with the Hitler youth to do his part in killing the "stinking Americans." He witnesses a friend deserting and being shot, but his devotion to his Fuhrer outweighs any sadness over his friend's death. 

As the story progresses towards the soldiers' inevitable meeting, the point of view switches quicker which increases the tension. The boys' beliefs in what they are doing push them forward and help them stay alive during freezing, snowy conditions. The reader views the Siege of Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge) from both perspectives and sees how homesick both boys are at Christmas, how they kept warm in the trenches the same way, and how they both hear the order to fall back and retreat.
American soldiers of the 117th Infantry RegimentTennessee National Guard, part of the 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5A1 "Stuart" tank on their march to recapture the town of St. Vithduring the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945. (Wikipedia

There are significant secondary characters in the story. Dieter's commanding officer, Schaffer, takes a father-like interest in Dieter and advises him not to get himself killed. Not until the end does Dieter realize that Schaffer was right and not the traitor he had supposed Schaffer to be. Spencer's friend Ted realizes that, "Out here you need to hate in order to kill them." Although he was similarly motivated as Spencer, he comes to believe, "We should not have wars."

The battle scene at the end is written in great detail. The ending is sad--how can a story about war not end without sadness? But Hughes redeems the ending by showing Dieter's changes: he quits the war and says he will think about it the rest of his life. 

Soldier Boys is obviously well-researched, but I didn't connect to the story emotionally. To be honest, that may have been because the narrator sounded dispassionate to me. I wasn't sure if that was on purpose--like a reporter narrating a news reel--or that was the narrator (Stephen Plunkett)'s way he interpreted the story. I was disappointed that so much time was spent in the book showing Spencer's paratrooper training, and yet a parachute never opened when they arrived in Europe. Perhaps that was what happened in "real life."

I recommend this book as one that boys will enjoy and as a classroom resource when studying World War II. It would provoke great
discussion about character motivation and why some young men enlist.

GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment for a chance to win this audio CD along with your email address if you are new to my blog. I'm giving it away in conjunction with TALKING STORY's winter issue on Tough Topics. Leave a comment there and you'll be entered twice. Giveaway ends January 23.