Category: Book Reviews

The Unquenchable Faith that Saved Thousands of Children: Irena’s Children

The Unquenchable Faith that Saved Thousands of Children: Irena’s ChildrenIrena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo
on September 26, 2017
Pages: 317
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot comes an extraordinary and gripping account of Irena Sendler—the “female Oskar Schindler”—who took staggering risks to save 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. In 1942, one young social worker, Irena Sendler, was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health specialist. While there, she reached out to the trapped Jewish families, going from door to door and asking the parents to trust her with their young children. She started smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing her friends and neighbors to hide them. Driven to extreme measures and with the help of a network of local tradesmen, ghetto residents, and her star-crossed lover in the Jewish resistance, Irena ultimately smuggled thousands of children past the Nazis. She made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through secret passages in abandoned buildings. But Irena did something even more astonishing at immense personal risk: she kept secret lists buried in bottles under an old apple tree in a friend’s back garden. On them were the names and true identities of those Jewish children, recorded with the hope that their relatives could find them after the war. She could not have known that more than ninety percent of their families would perish. In Irena’s Children, Tilar Mazzeo tells the incredible story of this courageous and brave woman who risked her life to save innocent children from the Holocaust—a truly heroic tale of survival, resilience, and redemption.

“Heroes,” she said, “do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.” (262-263)

I arrived in Orlando at ALA Annual last year, with a nonfiction book on my list to pick up, Irena’s Children. I secured an ARC, and recently finished the book during a flight from Boston to Atlanta for ALA Midwinter. I can tell you that this book is fantastic!

The story of Irena and her group of courageous individuals working to save the lives of children during an incredibly dark time in world history was intense, inspiring, beautiful, heartrending, and miraculous!

I don’t often post reviews of nonfiction titles, but this is one book I would recommend that EVERYONE read. Sometimes the truth is as wondrous and as strange as fiction. In the case of Tilar J. Mazzeo’s text, that notion is incredibly true.

The book is set up in chronological order, and charts Irena’s journey as a young woman first becoming concerned with the plight of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland, and eventually moving to become a major player in the Polish resistance. Many different characters are introduced as they relate to the vast and courageous network of individuals who worked with Irena to smuggle children out of the Warsaw ghetto. This collaboration had Irena at its head, but around twenty to twenty-five other individuals played important roles. Mazzeo points out as well, that the actual number of people who took part to help save these children are actually “dozens upon dozens.”

The pacing of the story is perfect–including details and scenes of what took place as Irena and her network worked through truly terrifying and high pressure situations in order to thwart the Nazis and rescue Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Mazzeo provides plenty of relevant and interesting information about Irena, born in 1910, and continues to strengthen the narrative by also describing the people with whom Irena connected earlier in her life, that would later play a role in her work to save children.

Can you imagine facing the pressure of separating hundreds of children from their parents, and somehow keeping a secret record of where those children were hidden and their real names so that they could be later connected with their parents after the war?!? I can only begin to imagine what a monumental and perhaps stressful task this must have been. Sadly, the vast majority of parents ended up perishing by the end of the war. The book does refer to the emotional pain that Irena experienced at forcing, out of necessity, a child to leave his/her mother and father. How could you explain to a two year old that he/she has no choice but to leave a beloved parent? It’s almost unthinkable.

Irena is basically considered the female “Oskar Schindler” but, as this book attests, her identity as a resilient and brave woman who achieved the extraordinary can stand on its own. Irena isn’t the only “hero” in this book, however. Mazzeo portrays many other figures who assisted Irena in her courageous attempt to save children from a terrible fate.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This book was both gripping and difficult to read. It depicted a timeline of events I sometimes didn’t want to think about, and yet, it was a timeline of events I had an obligation to read about. And to encourage others to read about. What Irena and her network accomplished should be honored and remembered. The children who perished during the Holocaust should be remembered. The children who endured the most difficult of circumstances during this period in history should be remembered. For all these reasons and more, read Irena’s Children.

For here is an important book. A necessary book. A book you must read, even if it is the only book you read all year.

What Katie Read

Picturebook Trio: A Night Gardener, a Gryphon, and a Whisper

There are picturebooks…and then there are Picturebooks. I bring Three special titles to you today.

THE NIGHT GARDENER

This picturebook might be my favorite picturebook of 2016. THE NIGHT GARDENER is absolutely gorgeous in its design, word/image interaction, and limited but rich textual narrative. It is a gift waiting for the reader to open, and I would not be surprised to hear that others have had profound experiences with this story.

First, I noticed that the way the book opened was unique. Whereas in other stories there might be a buildup to a grand event, this narrative stepped into its beginning rather quickly—in fact, on the second page. At the same time, the build up begins with the extra-textual materials of the book, which I loved. The copyright page itself features an important double page spread.

In other words, the book designers don’t waste any space in advancing and illuminating the meaning of the narrative.

And there are multiple meanings one might take away from this gem of a book by the Fan Brothers.

For example, the Night Gardener is bringing a kind of reformation and revival of beauty to the small town in the book. But two characters are affected in the story—our protagonist, William, and then the town as a whole. First, William is awed by the work of the Night Gardener and eventually pursues and finds him, deciding to help him in his work. Then, William plays a role in continuing the important work of the Night Gardener within the town. The magic and beauty and wonder that the Night Gardener brings through his “transformations” and “works of art” begin to change everyone—in a lasting way. There is a lot more to say about this simple and yet profound story, but I’ll stop there.

IF I HAD A GRYPHON

This book is actually written by a friend of mine, Vikki Vansickle, whom I met in Toronto when she was a bookseller! What we both shared in common is that we had both completed an MA in Children’s Literature and we always had wonderful bookish chats when we met. I’m absolutely thrilled to say that If I Had a Gryphon is lovely, charming, and whimsically wonderful!

The rhyme and rhythm of the narrative pairs perfectly with the pictures, and there is much to see in these illustrations! Whimsical, bright, and vivid—these illustrations pop off the page and pull you into the dreamlife of our protagonist. The fact that the story is told in verse adds another enjoyable aspect to the book.

Read the words out loud and you’ll be captivated by their rhythm, humor, and ability to bring these mythical creatures to life on the page. Poetry for young people can sometimes be daunting and hard to understand, but the rhymes of this book remove any stress related to poetry and provide a fantastic experience with verse. Sometimes a poetry book might have stellar illustrations but mediocre text, or wonderful text, but pictures that are not as strong as they might be. If I Had a Gryphon receives gold stars on both fronts!

THE WHISPER

The Whisper is a new addition to my school library and it is gorgeous! Whimsical, imaginative, and full of wonder, this gem of a picturebook tells a story that invites endless interpretations and curiosity. Its cover boasts a girl in a red hood, holding an open book with a crown on its cover, a crown floating above the girl’s head and also a fox at her side. A bunch of grapes hover over the fox’s head, slipping in an intertextual reference to Aesop’s fables (a preview of something that will happen later in the story).

Everything about the book promises a luxurious experience—pictures filled with detail that will keep you reading for a long while, and if you are looking for an opportunity to create your own stories, you will look no further. The endpapers alone kick off the story and provide a puzzle for the reader to unlock. My favorite part in the story is the double page spread at the beginning when the girl is rushing home with the special book on loan to her from her teacher. The fox balances on a wheel as he “scoops” up the words of the story in his net.

Each picture in the book invites its own narrative…or all the stories connected? No matter—your imagination is the key to unlock it all, and it becomes a marvelous experience the more you read.

Why is it called The Whisper? Well, you’ll just have to find out.

Have you read any of these picturebooks from 2016? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please tell me what you thought of these beautiful titles!

What Katie Read

STAR SO SWEET Blog Tour & Giveaway: A Delicious Finale!

STAR SO SWEET Blog Tour & Giveaway: A Delicious Finale!Stars So Sweet (All Four Stars, #3) by Tara Dairman
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers on July 19th 2016
Pages: 288
Goodreads
five-stars


Joan Bauer meets Ruth Reichl in this charming middle grade foodie series.

As the summer winds down and Gladys Gatsby prepares to start middle school, she is nervous about juggling schoolwork and looming deadlines from her secret job as the New York Standard’s youngest restaurant critic. When her editor pushes for a face-to-face meeting to discuss more opportunities with the paper, Gladys knows she must finally come clean to her parents. But her perfectly planned reveal is put on hold when her parents arrive home with a surprise:  her Aunt Lydia, one of the only adults who knows her secret, fresh off the plane from Paris. Gladys and Aunt Lydia try one last ruse to fool her editor at the Standard, but even with her aunt’s help, Gladys just can’t manage the drama of middle school and a secret life. It’s time for Gladys to be true to herself and honest with her friends and family, regardless of what those around her think.

Gladys Gatsby is back! And this time it’s in the final installment of the ALL FOUR STARS foodie Middle Grade trilogy by Tara Dairman. You know I (and many others) adored the first two books, ALL FOUR STARS and A SUMMER OF STARS. July 19th, 2016 will see the publication of STARS SO SWEET, and let me tell you, you will not disappointed! You can expect more hilarious antics from Gladys and her friends, as well as challenges and adventures that inevitably come her way. Gladys is starting Middle School, and she is also being offered an amazing new opportunity at her top secret job for The New York Standard as a restaurant reviewer. The surprise arrival of a family member also has Gladys working on yet another project, and then you might remember the famous Hamilton from A SUMMER OF STARS. I won’t give too much away, but it’s possible the child literary star also makes an appearance. To sum up, you can expect more mouthwatering treats from Gladys as well as her creative and interesting attempts to navigate various foodie scrapes and challenges.

Now onto some of the highlights of this Middle Grade treat.

What I Loved

-Gladys’s passion for cooking and all things foodie is front and center in the narrative, as it has been in the last two books.

-Her diverse group of friends and their differing personalities and quirks are part of the action as welll—you’ll find appearances by Parm, Charissa, and Sandy. I assure you—you’ll definitely be laughing throughout the book, just as you probably were with the first two.

-The story features different cuisines and ingredients some readers may have never heard of before! Whether Gladys is browsing Mr. Eng’s specialty food shop or creating Salvadoran pancakes, she is sure to introduce readers to something new in the culinary world. At one point Gladys, Aunt Lydia, and Charissa attend a foodie trade show and sample foods such as biltong (South African beef jerky), antelope meats, yak meat, and even horse-meat bites!

-The rich themes of friendship and becoming comfortable in your own identity (something that can be quite challenging in Middle School) are appreciated and embedded in the narrative without being preachy. I love the way Tara illuminates important and relevant aspects of friendship in her storyline.

-The resolution of all the loose ends, especially regarding Gladys’s top secret job of restaurant reviewer for The New York Standard. The conclusion of STARS SO SWEET is stunning, and everything I had hoped for in the ending to this fantastic trilogy. I know this series will continue to be a popular one in my school library. I already have many students who have been waiting avidly for the last installment in the series. It’s true: Young readers love these foodie books!

-I always love the fact that each chapter features its own title. I especially enjoy that Chapter 21 is called “Irrational Doughnuts.”

Some Foodie Connections

-Gladys receives an assignment from her job: Distinguish between Salvadoran, Peruvian, and Cuban food by visiting restaurants with these cuisines. I decided to bring a few links for you to check out, so that you can do your own investigation of these three different cuisines.

10 FOODS FROM EL SALVADOR YOU NEED TO TRY RIGHT NOW: http://www.theflama.com/10-foods-from-el-salvador-you-need-to-try-right-now-1592974846.html

ESSENTIAL PERU: 10 MUST-EAT DISHES TO SEEK OUT: http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/06/essential-peruvian-cuisine.html

9 DISHES TO MAKE YOU FALL FOR CUBAN CUISINE: http://www.saveur.com/article/-/Cuban-Recipes

FINALLY

I can imagine that yet another reason you would want to purchase the book once it’s out in the world on July 19th is that the cover is as gorgeous as its predecessors and that the trilogy presented together on the bookshelf will be absolutely stunning.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 8.52.46 PM

I’m in denial that this is the last installment of Gladys’s adventures, and I’m hoping that one day maybe we’ll get another book….or a novella, even. I just don’t want to say goodbye…

GIVEAWAY TIME!

Would you like to win a complete set of the ALL FOUR STARS books? I’m running a giveaway, courtesy of Penguin, and one winner (USA only) will receive a complete set of the trilogy. To enter, all you have to do is leave a thoughtful comment about why you are excited to read STARS SO SWEET (or any of the other All Four Stars books)!

If you missed my first interview with Tara, you can explore it here. Also, if you aren’t familiar with All Four Stars, you can read about that here. My thoughts on the second book, The Stars of Summer, can be found here.

REVIEWS OF TARA’S BOOKS

ALL FOUR STARS (Putnam/Penguin, 2014)

*An Amazon Best Book of the Month*

 

THE STARS OF SUMMER (Putnam/Penguin, 2015)

“Hilarious.” – School Library Journal

 

STARS SO SWEET (Putnam/Penguin, coming 7.19.16)

“A tasty dish that series fans should eat up.” -Kirkus

Tara Dairman’s Bio

Tara Dairman is the author of the middle-grade foodie novel ALL FOUR STARS (Putnam/Penguin) which was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month and won a 2015 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. THE STARS OF SUMMER followed in 2015, and STARS SO SWEET (6/19/16) completes the series. Tara grew up in New York and holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College. After surviving the world’s longest honeymoon (two years, seventy-four countries!), she now lives in Colorado with her family.

Tara Dairman headshot

Links to Find Tara

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Instagram

Are you excited about STARS SO SWEET? What are some of your favorite memories of Gladys from the first two books?

five-stars
What Katie Read
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