Review of A Thousand Sisters, by Elizabeth Wein

A Thousand Sisters

The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

by Elizabeth Wein

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 388 pages.
Review written March 18, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Did you know – I certainly didn’t – that during World War II (called “The Great Patriotic War” there), the Soviet Union had three entire Air Force regiments of women? This book tells their story.

Here’s part of the Prologue that tells what you’ll find here:

It’s the story of three regiments of aviators, only three out of a thousand aviation units fighting for a common cause. Along with a scattering of individual women who served in the Soviet Air Force alongside men, the young aviators in these three regiments were the only women of any nation who flew combat missions during World War II.

Some of these soldiers flew as many as eighteen combat missions in a single night.

Some of them perished in flames.

Some of them worked in the dark, feeling their way blindly, in cold so fierce their hands froze to the metal tools they held as they made sure their companions were able to fly.

Almost all of them were in their teens when they went to war.

This is the story of a generation of girls who were raised in the belief that they were as good as men, and who were raised to believe that it was their destiny to defend their nation in battle.

It’s the story of a thousand young women who grew up inspired by Marina Raskova and who were ready to follow her into the air.

It’s the story of a generation of young people who learned to work with the wind – those who soared and those who came back to earth.

This is the story of a thousand sisters fighting and flying.

This is an exciting story, though it was also a little bit bewildering. In the first place, I had a hard time keeping straight the various Russian names. The author did a good job helping by often using nicknames, but there were a lot of people to keep track of. There were many exciting and dangerous situations during the course of the war, and many of the most prominent characters died before the end of the book.

I even had trouble keeping track of the difference between the three regiments and which women were in which regiment. One regiment flew Pe-2s and another flew Po-2s, which kind of melded in my mind. It was good to give the overall picture of how the war was going, and I think the author actually did a good job explaining the differences, but the scope was so grand, I’d start to lose track.

Still, I was very surprised by how much Soviet women did during World War II – and saddened that they stopped getting chances to fly afterward. This book is full of death-defying situations and incredible hardships that these women overcame. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but I never had any idea about these stories.

The scope is grand and it is hard to grasp it all, but I still think the author did a wonderful job making the information accessible. Maybe a list of characters at the front would have helped, or more pictures of individuals. (Spoiler: The three on the cover all die before the end!) My problem may actually have been that I read it too quickly, during a day on Sick Leave during the Covid-19 crisis. I may not have been paying enough attention, because she did explain well at the beginning the differences between the three regiments and did keep mentioning which regiment she was talking about.

An epic war story – about women who fought for their country, and fought well.

elizabethwein.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Give Us the Vote! by Susan Goldman Rubin

Give Us the Vote!

Over 200 Years of Fighting for the Ballot

by Susan Goldman Rubin

Holiday House, 2020. 124 pages.
Review written April 8, 2020, from a library book

Give Us the Vote! opened my eyes about the history of voting in the United States. Sure, I knew that African Americans needed a Constitutional amendment before they could vote, as did women. What I hadn’t realized is that it’s still always been a battle to have free and fair elections.

I didn’t realize, for example, that we didn’t have a secret ballot until the early 1900s. Before that, people would buy and sell votes – and they could follow up depending on how the person voted. But even after that, it was still possible to bully people at the voting booth or try to exclude people from voting.

All the way through the 1850s, people voted with their voice. (Or I should say, men voted with their voice.)

The earliest method of voting was voicing one’s choice in public. A citizen would literally stand up and say who he was voting for or raise his hand. This made intimidation easy. Around Election Day, candidates plied voters with rum, wine, and beer to win their votes, or bribed them with food and money. Since only property owners could vote, candidates often bought “freeholds,” or temporary land rights, from large landowners. They gave these rights to landless men, and returned the deeds to the real owners after the election. Sometimes corrupt candidates would even pay voters not to vote so that they could win a majority.

This book covers the battle to gain the right to vote for many different groups, as well as the many different kinds of cheating that people have used successfully over the years our country has been a nation. One popular method is getting fake people to vote or the same people voting many times. But then another technique is stealing and destroying ballots and/or replacing them with fake ones. Getting the count correct is another whole area of danger. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until the Civil War when soldiers wanted to vote that absentee ballots were allowed, and it was a big area of controversy, including new ways of committing voter fraud.

Gerrymandering is mentioned, with both old and recent examples from both parties. The author mentions a 2019 Supreme Court case that decided that this is an issue for elected branches of government to decide, not the federal courts.

This book is geared to teens, so it includes the movement to change the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen during the Vietnam War – and the current wish of some to bring it down to age sixteen.

Many people agree that high schoolers care about local and national problems and should be allowed to vote. Studies prove that teenagers can gather and process information, weighing pros and cons as well as most adults. Research conducted by FairVote shows that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. If they start voting in their teens, they are more likely to make voting a lifelong habit and increase voter turnout.

Books like this will help young people realize we can’t take for granted our rights to fair and free elections.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of In Search of Safety, by Susan Kuklin

In Search of Safety

Voices of Refugees

written and photographed by Susan Kuklin

Candlewick Press, 2020. 246 pages.
Review written July 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Like the author’s book Beyond Magenta, which featured the stories of transgender teens, this book takes an in-depth look at individual refugees stories, with photographs. This paragraph at the front of the book explains it well:

Refugees are people who are forced to leave their country because they are being persecuted. From 1980 to 2018, the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year was between 50,000 and 100,000 people. In 2019, that number dropped to 30,000 people, and in 2020 it dropped again to 18,000. Many of them are from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, the Middle East, and Africa. Some have resettled in the Midwest because housing there is reasonably priced and jobs are relatively plentiful. The five refugees featured in In Search of Safety are from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi. One refugee had been a translator for the U. S. military. Another recently escaped the horrors of captivity by fundamentalist militants. And three spent years in refugee camps, growing up in countries other than their homeland. They all survived wars. They all were carefully screened by several security organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States State Department, and the United States Department of Homeland Security. They have all been resettled in the state of Nebraska, where they have been warmly welcomed. This book tells their stories

Some of the stories here are indeed horrific. But hearing detailed stories puts a face on a desperate situation and helps the reader understand that refugees are by no means just looking for a hand-out.

The five stories are told with multiple chapters each, with many photographs, and in the refugees own words. The group that sponsored them to come to Nebraska, Lutheran Family Services, is also featured, and we see what good work they do.

These stories will tear at your heart, but also make you rejoice that people in need were welcomed to a new home.

candlewick.com

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Source: This review is based on a book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Punching Bag, by Rex Ogle

Punching Bag

by Rex Ogle

Norton Young Readers, 2021. 207 pages.
Review written January 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

In Punching Bag, Rex Ogle continues to tell about his life. Free Lunch</em> told about the difficulty of being poor when he was in middle school. In Punching Bag, he’s in high school and his family is no longer desperately poor, but he gets frequently beaten by both his mother and his stepfather.

The book is framed with a story about coming home from a summer away when he was seven years old. His mother tells him a baby sister was born while he was gone. But she died. She tells Rex that it’s his fault because he left.

Then we flash to high school. When things get rough, Rex imagines his sister watching him, helping him cope.

Meanwhile, he’s got his actual little brother with him, to help, to entertain, and to try to protect. Rex doesn’t want to turn to violence like his mother and Sam do, but sometimes it all wells up inside him.

There’s lots of humor in this terribly sad book. His style gives us a taste of how surreal the situation must have been for a teen and how trapped he must have felt. The book is powerful, but painful. I’m so glad I read it.

Let me pass along the Author’s Note at the front of the book:

This is a true story. This is my story. It happened to me.

And as painful as it was for me to write, it may be equally or more painful for you to read – especially if you’ve lived through something similar.

If you’re not ready to read this, then don’t. Please, go enjoy some sunshine, watch a funny movie, or buy yourself an ice cream. This book will be waiting for you when you are ready.

But know this: I lived this, I survived. You survived your past too, or you wouldn’t be here reading this. We are both alive. We may have a few more scars than we’d like – inside or out – but we made it through. No matter how dark the past, or even the present, the sun will always come up tomorrow. There is hope.

This story (and that ice cream) are waiting . . . whenever you’re ready.

nortonyoungreaders.com

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Review of Call and Response, by Veronica Chambers

Call and Response

The Story of Black Lives Matter

by Veronica Chambers

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 152 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

When I checked out this book, I wasn’t sure I’d actually read it. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It’s got informative, detailed, and current information about the Black Lives Matter movement, including the widespread protests of Summer 2020. A project with The New York Times, the book is packed with photographs that keep the reader engaged.

I learned so much when reading this book, not only about the Black Lives Matter movement, but also about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The author placed current events in the context of an ongoing struggle.

I also learned about what goes into an effective protest. There was a short section about the roles of marshal, bike patrol, frontline, street medics, supplier, and legal observer. This is a book about history – recent history plus background – but it is also a book about ways that individuals can work for justice and change.

With all the pictures, this book took me longer to read than I expected. But the pages are large (the better to hold large photos), and a whole lot of information is presented in creative ways.

Whether you’re critical or supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book will help you understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they rose to the moment.

The final chapter is titled “Never Too Young to Lead,” and features young leaders of various movements, including the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and the Black Lives Matter movement today, but also young people like Greta Thunberg against climate change and the Parkland survivors against gun violence – leaving kids with inspiration to find ways to step out and get involved.

veronicachambers.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin, read by Roy Samuelson

Fallout

Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Roy Samuelson

Listening Library, 2021. 8 hours
Review written 2/22/22 from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Young Adult Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Fallout is a nonfiction book about the Cold War, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Steve Sheinkin takes a storyteller’s approach, telling you the stories of key figures, including many I’d never heard of before. Among others, these included a U2 pilot who got shot down over Russia, a Russian spy who tried to establish a network in New York City beginning soon after World War II, a paper boy who found a nickel that had been hollowed out to hold microfilm, and a Russian chief of staff of a submarine fleet who ordered a submarine captain and first officer not to launch a nuclear torpedo — after the world thought hostilities were ended, but the sub hadn’t heard about it.

The book is gripping and engaging and full of facts from witnesses. Although it takes place before I was born, I remember the climate when nuclear war seemed highly likely, even doing a drop and cover drill at my desk as a child, and being told by my parents that you could never trust the Russians.

Steve Sheinkin begins right after World War II and the development of bombs whose destructive force is hard to even imagine. He progresses through the space race and the rise of Castro and the development of the U2 program to fly over the Soviet Union. We hear about Khruschev’s ruthless rise to power as well as John F. Kennedy’s.

The one catch to this amazing audiobook is that my timing wasn’t good. I listened to it as Putin was threatening to invade Ukraine. Learning how several lucky coincidences saved us from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and learning that all-out nuclear war would mean the end of human life on earth as we know it — all made it disturbing to have Russia threatening war again, even in a different part of the world.

stevesheinkin.com
listeninglibrary.com

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Review of Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

Dragon Hoops

From Small Steps Great Leaps

by Gene Luen Yang
color by Lark Pien

First Second, 2020. 446 pages.
Review written May 26, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This is a graphic novel memoir about a notable high school basketball season at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, when the author was a teacher there. It was the 2014-15 season, and Mr. Yang had just had a graphic novel published on which he’d been working for six years. He puts himself into the story as he finds out all the hopes and dreams of the students and teachers were centering on finally winning a California state championship with their nationally ranked players. The school had previously had teams go to the championship game many times, but had never actually won.

And so we get the story of the season. The starting players and the coaches are featured. Key games are dramatized. We even get the history of basketball and why Catholic schools have a good record in this sport.

The author keeps the theme of “From Small Steps to Great Leaps” going by highlighting many small steps throughout – as people take a step into something new, and big things result. In Mr. Yang’s own life, he was trying to decide whether to quit teaching and switch to writing comics full-time, as he negotiated an offer to write for Superman.

But with basketball, you don’t know if the “good guys” win. And by making that point early in the book, we didn’t know how the season was going to turn out. The final game is well-dramatized and had me shouting at the end. Yes, shouting at a graphic novel as if it were a live game.

Now, the women’s basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd won the state championship that same year, so I found myself wishing there had been more coverage of that. (There was some, but mostly talking about the older sister of one of the players on the men’s team.) Though to be fair, the book was long enough as it was, and that might have made it unmanageable. Not to mention the difficulty the author might have had trying to get to both teams’ games.

I also wasn’t sure I liked the author writing himself into the story. But by the end, I appreciated it. It added a personal touch and emphasized that these were real kids caught up in big events.

I’m not a sports fan. (Though I was, in fact, a big fan of my high school’s basketball team and took stats for it.) But I am a fan of Gene Luen Yang’s writing, and I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The pacing was good; the history was interesting; and the competition was dramatic.

firstsecondbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Gone to the Woods, by Gary Paulsen

Gone to the Woods

Surviving a Lost Childhood

by Gary Paulsen

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2021. 357 pages.
Review written January 13, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Capitol Choices Selection

Oh wow. This book is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The illustrious children’s author Gary Paulsen writes about his childhood, during which he didn’t get to be a child very much of the time. This book came out not long before his death in 2021. I love the part at the back of the book when he describes himself deciding to write this book.

No longer a boy, he lived and filled the years and saw thousands of hills and oceans and forests and mountains and cities and some ugliness and much more beauty and people, God, all the people until finally, at last he came of an age, an old age, a still older age.

Eighty years.

Eighty glorious years absolutely packed with life.

And one day, living in a shack in the New Mexico mountains, he looked in an old box of things from his life, from moving, and saw one of the old blue Scripto notebooks that had somehow followed him in his life. And he picked up the notebook and opened it and found it was the story of the deer killed by hunters that he had written for the librarian.

But more, still more, there were empty pages after the story. Discolored, but he could still see the lines, the beautiful lines that still, after all these years, called to him, dared him, and he sat down and found a pencil and thought:

What the hell.

Might as well write something down.

My library has put this book in juvenile nonfiction, and although I don’t dispute that, I’m going to file this review with teen nonfiction. Although Gary Paulsen writes mainly about his childhood, he finishes when he enlists as a soldier at seventeen, and he saw some horribly difficult things along the way. Things like horribly wounded soldiers when he traveled on a train alone at age five, and later women and children eaten by sharks as he watched on a transport ship, and “night people” obliterated by machine gun fire when they tried to climb the fence around the American military compound in Manila.

So yes, this book has some horrible and hard things, but so much of it is tender and beautiful. Almost half the book is at the beginning when “the boy” at five years old was suddenly sent to his aunt and uncle who lived in an isolated farm (not even a phone line) in the North woods. There he learned to hunt for mushrooms, milk cows, fish, camp in the woods, and so much more. This part just bursts with love and awe for the beauty around him.

But then his mother showed up and they traveled to his father, stationed in Manila. Things got much harder and now instead of learning woodcraft, he learned street smarts. Back in the United States, living a life of his own with his drunk parents not paying any attention, my heart was captured and then wrung out with the story of how a librarian won his trust. And after she gave him the first whole books he ever read on his own, she presented him with a notebook and pencil and suggested that he write down his own stories and the mind pictures that came up as he read.

And so the seeds were planted for the boy to become a beloved children’s author.

I highly recommend this book for anyone from young teens to adults. I promise your heart will be touched. And I’m so happy to know what Gary Paulsen thought about his life before he died. His years were absolutely packed with life.

GaryPaulsenAuthor.com
mackids.com

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Review of Run, Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell

Run
Book One

written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by L. Fury with Nate Powell

Abrams Comic Arts, 2021. 154 pages.
Review written November 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Run, Book One continues the story told in the award-winning series March, about John Lewis’s experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, this one beginning after the Voting Rights Act was signed. John Lewis got to see and approve of almost all the pages in this book before his death. I hope that the collaborators did enough work with him to continue the story, and I’m optimistic about that since they’re still calling it Book One.

We see lots of backlash against what they had accomplished. The book opens with members of the Ku Klux Klan on the march. There’s also conflict in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization for which John Lewis served as chairman for years – until dissent got him removed. The whole principle of nonviolence was being challenged.

A note at the back makes me appreciate how much historical research went into getting the detailed images in this book exactly right. They not only researched things like which models of cars were made that year, but also which cars people in any given neighborhood would drive. There are also short biographies at the back of people who show up in the book, and that section goes on for twelve pages. There’s so much detail and so much to learn in this book.

I thought it was interesting that the Black Panther party produced small comic books “explaining to new voters how they could vote for the new party, as well as the responsibilities and powers of the different elected positions they’d be voting for.” So this graphic novel comes from a long and fine tradition.

I am so thankful to the team of “Good Trouble Productions” for making sure that John Lewis’s voice can still be heard.

abramscomicarts.com

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Review of If I Go Missing, by Brianna Jonnie with Nahanni Shingoose, art by Nshannacappo

If I Go Missing

by Brianna Jonnie with Nahanni Shingoose
art by Nshannacappo

James Lorimer & Company, Toronto. First published in Canada in 2019. Published in the United States in 2020. 64 pages.
Review written October 7, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book takes a letter written by the author to her local police station when she was 14 years old and illustrates it in graphic novel format. She noticed that Indigenous women who go missing do not get searched for as quickly or as effectively as white people who go missing.

Here’s a powerful part, with sinister pictures of men shown in the background:

I am more likely than my friends to be murdered by a person unknown to me.
I am more likely to be raped, assaulted or sexually violated.
I cannot take public transit or go for a walk without being approached or ogled at by men I do not know, even in a safe part of the city; even during the daytime.

She points out that treating Indigenous people who go missing differently than white people who go missing teaches everyone that Indigenous lives are not as valuable.

And she concludes with instructions to the police if she should go missing. It would not be from running away or by her own choice.

Provide details that humanize me, not just the colour of my hair, my height and my ethnicity.

Tell them that I have goals, dreams and aspirations and a future I want to be part of.

Do not treat me as the Indigenous person I am proud to be.

This book will haunt you. It draws your attention to an important human rights issue in a powerful way.

lorimer.ca
lernerbooks.com

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