Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth (4 out of 4 stars)
Any modern author of World War II / Holocaust stories, memoirs, poems, novels, or plays walks a tightrope with every word. Most authors want to tell honest stories (or as honest as memory can be) but are not always armed with the facts. Fortunately, Susan Campbell Bartoletti did her research. Her new historical novel, The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth, rings true on every page, from the fascination almost everyone in Germany had for Hitler’s cult of personality to many Germans’ eventual disillusionment and rebellion, both overt and silent. Through research and interviews, Ms. Bartoletti reconstructs an engaging study of a good German who wants to help his countrymen and fatherland, but betrays the Nazis to save his friends and his soul.
Helmuth Hübener is a proud 17-year-old ex-Nazi waiting for execution. While waiting, he remembers the events that led him to his jail cell and death sentence. At first, the Nazis are exciting: “Brown-shirted men wearing black-and-red armbands and tall, black, shiny boots are marching. One swaggering Brownshirt bends over Helmuth. ‘What a big boy you are,’ he says. ‘Do you want to be a soldier for the Fatherland?
Helmuth likes to play with toy soldiers . . . He nods and tells the Brownshirt, “Yes!” (4). But Helmuth’s grandparents are scared of Hitler and the dreadful possibilities he offers to Germany: “‘Oma sits next to Opa and says, “‘Hitler frightens me. Those crazy eyes of his . . .’ Helmuth knows they are afraid of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party. But he doesn’t understand why they fear a man who wants to fight for Germany and make it better” (9-10). However, as Helmuth’s rights at school disappear, he is forced to join the Hitler Youth, and his home life deteriorates as his mother starts dating Hugo, a gruff, dictatorial Nazi Rottenführer (non-commissioned corporal), Helmuth gradually becomes skeptical of the Nazis’ intentions. But criticism has its price in the “new” Reich; when Helmuth complains loudly that the Nazis forbid fun things like American dancing and “un-German” music and literature, his practical, pragmatic brother Gerhard demonstrates the fear of the common German citizens of the time: “Gerhard grabs his brother’s hand, grips it, iron-fisted. ‘Stop that,’ he whispers, shocked. ‘Are you a fool? Do you want the neighbors to hear?’” (92). Despite such warnings and to the surprise of his friends, Helmuth feels compelled to battle the Nazis on the only battleground on which he can compete—the war of information. This personal war drives Helmuth to the brink of trouble so threatening that even his strong Mormon faith may not be able to provide him solace, and he is forced to choose between his friends and family on one side and Truth on the other.
Truth can be felt like rain or danger in the air; as in her 2005 Newbery Honor Hitler Youth: Growing Up In Hitler’s Shadow, Ms. Bartoletti does not shy away from the horrifying but undeniable reality that Hitler bewitched and entranced many “good” German citizens who felt more beaten at Versailles than on the battlefield. I still remember the chill that went down my spine when I read in Hitler Youth about good young people rebelling against their parents for not being good Nazis. Both the Hitler Youths in her 2005 non-fiction work and Helmuth in her new book share the excitement and disillusionment of Germany between the wars, and with a presidential election looming, there is no better time than now to explore these powerful forces. The Boy Who Dared is a fine example of World War II / Holocaust literature that will resonate with students and adults; its message that Truth can be a costly luxury is an important historical lesson no society or individual can afford to forget.

Sheth, Kashmira. Keeping Corner (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)
According to NJDOE data, there were 104,930, or 7.5% of the population of New Jersey students, listed under the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category in 2005-06, and this number may be higher now. I worry that, after 9/11, publishers are more conservative and xenophobic than ever; they will publish graphic violence, gratuitous sex, and foul language (read one Gossip Girl novel and you’ll know what I mean), but they will not explore Middle Eastern or Asian cultures for fear of backlash, or worse, slow sales. Lately, however, there have been more books published featuring Asian cultures (my recent favorite is Ying Chang Compestine’s Revolution is Not a Dinner Party), and Indian-American Kashmira Sheth’s Keeping Corner is a fine addition to this growing trend. Although the action takes place in the era of World War I, the story is timeless: a child’s struggle to overcome the limitations of her society and grow into a strong, healthy adult free from the restrictions of the previous generation.
Leela is so excited she can hardly contain herself. Not yet thirteen, she is soon to have her anu (the celebration that commemorates her move into the family home of her fiancé Ramanlal) and begin married life. Leela does not mind her arranged marriage, because she is very fond of her soon-to-be family. Her schooling will end with her anu, but she does not mind that either: “Like my classmates, I knew I wouldn’t go to school after my anu. Last year there were only five girls in my class” (8). Leela enjoys the finer things in life: pretty bangles, gold jewelry, colorful saris, and she looks forward to wearing beautiful things every day. However, Leela’s world is rocked when the unthinkable occurs: Ramanlal is bitten by a snake and dies. Now, without even her anu as a memory, Leela suddenly becomes a widow and must adhere to a strict and oppressive set of social rules: “Ba [Mom] and I had never talked about it, but there was a saying that a widow’s life was a living death” (53). As a Brahman of the early 20th Century, Leela must stay in the house for an entire year, a ritual known as keeping corner. She may not wear bright colors or any jewelry, and she must keep her head shaved. She may not ever marry again. Her life seems hopeless until she meets with her school principal, Saviben, who offers to tutor her and release her from the prison her small town of Jamlee will become for her: “‘If I stay here, the rest of my life will be like this year. Instead of keeping corner in our house, I’d be keeping corner in our town’” (199). The entire family must make some difficult decisions in order to do the right thing, whatever that may turn out to be.
The extensive use of Hindi/Indian words in this novel offers a glimpse into an exotic and colorful culture, even though reading so many foreign words makes the beginning of the novel a bit clunky. Colors and sounds play an important role in Keeping Corner; clothes, jewelry, and background are either vibrant with reds, golds, purples, and blues, or they are black or brown in mourning. Either the clink of jewelry, the sizzle of food cooking, and the braying of animals fills Leela’s life, or their absence empties it. Also, the novel’s backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi’s rise as a leader is an inspiration to both the characters and the reader, and there are many modern parallels to draw between India’s earlier struggles and the fight for self-determination being waged in many countries today. Also, Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth is a reminder of how far women have come in the world (I cannot imagine Leela’s generation voting, for instance, though they would today) and how far they still have to go to attain true equality. Finally, Hinduism is frequently misunderstood (my non-Indian students often ask if it’s a form of Islam), so a novel like this is always welcome because it is an enjoyable read and the students (and possibly you) will learn something as well.

Malley, Gemma. The Declaration (4 out of 4 stars)
I have always been a fan of dystopian literature. In high school, classics like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Zamyatin’s We, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 were my royal road to imagining what could go wrong with society as a precursor to dreaming about what could go right. Since I do not particularly like blood and gore in my books, dystopian lit became my scary books, my Stephen King. Young adult dystopian literature was scarce in the 1970s, but it is now very common. In fact, Gemma Malley’s first YA novel The Declaration is reminiscent of one prominent collection of works, Haddix’s Shadow Children series, without being too derivative because the author adds a medical twist not present in Haddix’s more Orwellian work.
Anna has no other name but the name assigned to all unwanted people: Surplus. Living in Grange Hall in the year 2140 with others like her, Surplus Anna is convinced by the stern, cruel headmistress Mrs. Pincent that her parents are evil and grossly irresponsible for conceiving her: “‘Of course I hate them . . . the Declaration was introduced for a reason and my parents abused Mother Nature’s benevolence. They make me sick’” (65). Since the drug Longevity was invented, people can now live virtually forever, but that has created such an overpopulation problem that the Declaration had to be established to prevent those on the drug from having children. Violators of the Declaration are sent to jail and their children are either taken to surplus halls like Grange or “put down” if necessary. The surpluses are taught to be Valuable Assets (mostly housekeepers and servants) and return their debt of life to society, as outlined in the Evening Vows: “I vow to serve to pay my dues / And train myself for Legal use. / I vow to bear the Surplus shame / And repay Nature for the same” (92). Surplus Anna is a Prefect and is set to become a Valuable Asset for some Legal family; her only vice is that she keeps an illegal diary (a la Winston Smith) in which she shares her thoughts. Everything proceeds as expected until a new Surplus named Peter arrives and turns Anna’s world upside down. Peter tells Anna about an Underground Movement that fights the system that keeps Anna and Peter enslaved. He describes using computers, traveling, eating good food, even feeling guiltless: “The truth was that Peter was a window through which Anna could glimpse the world outside, and the temptation to keep looking was quite overwhelming” (62). When Peter’s true intentions are discovered and he is placed in grave danger, Anna must decide if she is willing to risk everything she has earned for an uncertain, but free, future.
When I began The Declaration, I groaned at what I thought was a Shadow Children clone. However, Ms. Malley takes an entirely new approach to the question of overpopulation and green living, and her medical-miracle-turned-nightmare resonates loudly in this age of Western overconsumption without consistent scientific superiority. The invention of a drug that cures all disease but creates another entire set of problems is a satisfying twist on the standard “be careful what you wish for” plot, and Ms. Malley writes with a voice that feels believable enough for her purpose; Anna’s change throughout the novel is set up appropriately, and the excitement in the second half of the novel is maintained well. The Declaration by Gemma Malley is a fine first novel; I look forward to her next book, whether or not it is a sequel, which is entirely possible within the context of the story.

McMullan, Margaret. When I Crossed No-Bob (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)
Mississippi was not a good place to be an African-American during and after Reconstruction. According to Gale Cengage’s Student Resource Center, the Tuskegee Institute reports that more African-Americans were lynched during that tumultuous period in Mississippi than in any other state. However, as Margaret McMullan’s new novel When I Crossed No-Bob points out, it was not such a great place for anyone who was poor, and the ignorance that reigned during the post-war years manifested itself in the mistreatment of anyone who supported a non-White agenda. The KKK appeared during this time and is a prominent character in this novel. Fortunately, not everyone felt the need to return to a morally repugnant status quo, and Mississippi finally emerged from the muck of antebellum America to enter the Union as a partner once again. Ms. McMullan’s novel follows the exploits of one young woman as she tries to navigate these very difficult waters and grow up without the fierce racism and ignorance that permeates everything around her.
Addy O’Donnell is certainly an O’Donnell, but she does not feel like one: “We know what they say about us. They say the O’Donnells is no better than termites. We only do harm and you can’t get rid of us” (7). The O’Donnells, almost always barefoot, are known for stealing, cheating, and fighting. However, although the O’Donnells appear to be the roughest class of folks in Smith County, Mississippi, they are united with many others in the state against the free blacks. At twelve, Addy neither accepts nor appreciates the racial division shattering the state, and when her mother abandons her to search for her abandoned father, Addy is left all alone to figure things out. She is eventually taken in by a newlywed couple, but husband Frank has had past dealings with the O’Donnells; Garner O’Donnell tried to steal his land: “I listen to Mr. Frank’s voice and it sounds like he still has some of what Pappy used to call ‘grudge business’ to take care of with Garner and maybe even with all the other O’Donnells” (19). Although Addy still likes to fight and play practical jokes, as she stays with her newfound benefactors, she starts to mature and realize that the ignorant O’Donnell way may not be her way. When her Pappy returns and steals a goat to throw a party for his kin, Addy starts to see the separation between her and her clan: “They smell like wet dogs and the dogs smell like them and the children don’t care any more than the dogs do. Have O’Donnell children always been this dirty or am I just now seeing it? Was I like that? Am I going back to being like that, slipping back into old ways?” (102). When Pappy arranges a marriage for Addy with a scary O’Donnell named Smasher and then gets involved in other, more insidious plans, she runs away and lives in a cave, then with a local Choctaw tribe where she is identified as a future healer because of a prophetic dream. But when Frank gets in trouble, Addy must make the most difficult decision of her life if she chooses to save him.
All people old enough and independent enough to sustain themselves have the choice to accept and embrace their legacy or find a new path free of the shackles of their old lives. Margaret McMullan gives her character Addy that choice, and a well-developed plot leads her to that place logically and poignantly. Also, Ms. McMullan’s prose is often quite lyrical, and her use of threes in repetition (i.e. cried cried cried on page 83) is a simple but effective device to show her character’s emotions. The denouement may be a bit long, but it is sustained with additional plot movement that reasonably ties up any remaining loose ends. When I Crossed No-Bob presents an entire state in turmoil embodied in the small, tough frame of a poor, young girl. As Addy matures and gradually realizes that her way is not necessarily the way of the future, she both finds and saves herself, healing the rift between her broken past and an uncertain but promising future as a healer of both people and, to a lesser extent, our shared heritage.

Hawking, Lucy & Stephen (with Christophe Galford). George’s Secret Key to the Universe (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)
While attending the NJEA convention in November 2007, I stopped at a booth that had a semi-circular screen that looked like the night sky. It was a demonstration for a product that enables any student “traveler” to go anywhere in the Universe. Sitting in a chair under a canopy of stars, I felt the thrill that all explorers feel when they discover something startlingly new, that exultation Keats felt after reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer, Einstein felt at solving relativity, Sagan felt among his starstuff, and Hawking felt when he first imagined standing on the event horizon of a black hole. The last example is most relevant here because Hawking, his daughter Lucy, and science writer Christophe Galford have turned a love affair with science into an enjoyable Magic Tree House-type book (and planned series) on astronomy. As well as being scientifically perfect (as far as any reader of A Brief History of Time can tell), George’s Secret Key to the Universe pays particular homage to Hawking’s favorite topic, black holes, and it introduces information I did not know about those strange cosmological phenomena.
All that George Greenby wants is to be a normal kid with a computer, cell phone, iPod, and Game Boy, but his vegetarian, earthy parents are staunch Luddites who refuse to allow any technology to taint their lives: “The only problem was that in getting rid of everything that could possibly harm George, his parents had managed to do away with lots of things that would also be fun for him” (5). The greener his parents are, the more George wants to explore technology, and in particular, science. He gets his chance when his pet pig, Freddie, escapes and runs Next Door, to an overgrown and scary yard. But when George overcomes his fears of the unknown and runs after Freddie, he discovers new friends in Annie, her astronomer father Eric, and Cosmos, who boastfully refers to itself as the world’s most powerful computer: “In the future, there will be computers more powerful than me. But there are none in the past or present” (37). When George is forced to tell his teacher, Mr. G. Reeper, about Cosmos, he starts an adventure that leads him to the edge of the galaxy and into a plot by Reeper to steal Cosmos and get rid of Eric.
Like many current novels, the Hawkings’ effort is a cross-genre work. Interspersed between text and black and white margin pictures are Magic Tree House-style, full-page descriptions of cosmic phenomena. Also, color pictures enhance the material by adding a dose of reality to the storyline. George is a likable character who will appeal to all science lovers, and teachers will love many of the characters’ intense curiosity about the Universe. Although the story gets a bit far-fetched, and Dr. Reeper’s behavior is a bit over the top, Science is the main feature of George’s Secret Key to the Universe, and it is presented enthusiastically and lovingly in the spirit of Sagan, Feynman, and Dr. Hawking himself.