Review of My Selma, by Willie Mae Brown

My Selma

True Stories of a Southern Childhood at the Height of the Civil Rights Movement

by Willie Mae Brown

Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2023. 230 pages.
Review written July 31, 2023, from my own copy sent by the publisher

In My Selma, debut author Willie Mae Brown tells stories from her childhood, where she lived with her big family in Selma, Alabama. She was a child at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, so she gives us stories of what it was like to find out about those events from a child’s perspective.

The stories are a little on the rambling side, and I’m not quite sure about how they’re organized – they don’t seem to be chronological. But that does give them the authentic feel of childhood memories. Some of them are stories about blatant racism – especially when her brother and sister were jailed for a week after being part of a peaceful protest. Others are just stories of being a kid in a big, loving family – like the year she wanted a baby doll for Christmas and then got so excited about her new bike, she didn’t open all the presents.

The book isn’t long, and it pulls you into these stories of a child who was witness to some events and people that shook the world.

As the author says in the Preface:

I write these stories of a Selma that I knew and loved. My own Selma. A Selma that brought me joy, troubled me, and baptized me into racial injustice and into the race for justice. I write these stories through the voices of people who lived at the time when I was growing up in Selma. We lived together, schooled together, played together, churched together, and fought together for the same rights as our white brethren who denied us the freedoms we were born with….

I write about Selma because our lives have historical precedence in shaping the future. I write so that you may hear, see, smell, and feel the injustice of ignorance but also the sweetness of everyday life, illuminated in my words.

And yes, you’ll find things both serious and sweet in these pages, all maintaining a child’s perspective.

Williemaebrown.com
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Review of Impossible Escape, by Steve Sheinkin

Version 1.0.0
Impossible Escape

A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Rob Shapiro

Listening Library, 2023. 5 hours, 45 minutes.
Review written March 25, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 CYBILS Award Winner, High School Nonfiction
2024 Sidney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal, Young Adult

Impossible Escape tells the story of Slovakian teen Rudi Vrba, who in 1942 tried to escape Slovakia in order to avoid being “resettled” by the Nazis. That escape started out fine, but ultimately did not succeed, and he got pulled into the Nazi Concentration Camp network.

When reading this book, I knew he was going to escape because of the title, but the tension kept building as I wondered when it would happen. The odds against him mount as he gets sent to more and more secure camps, but the escape happens with two hours left in the audiobook. And yes, it’s certainly legitimate to call the escape impossible.

His story is so full of human details, I thought the author must have interviewed him. But realistically, we’re getting past the time when that is possible, and the Author’s Note revealed that the author instead researched in a library of Rudi’s papers. (Rudi ended up becoming a professor.) The story is gripping, and even though I have read many books about the Holocaust, the horrible barbarity he endured and witnessed is something my heart doesn’t want to believe is even possible.

Why was his story important? Because he was the first eyewitness to escape Auschwitz and testify to the systematic mass murder taking place there. At the time of his escape, Hitler was beginning to convince the Hungarian government to deport the Jews of Hungary — and Rudi’s testimony helped sway world opinion so that the remaining Jews of Hungary were saved — including his childhood friend, whose story we get alongside Rudi’s, as she did manage to leave Slovakia and escape capture.

This audiobook had me riveted — the kind of story it’s hard to stop listening until the book is done. I also wish it weren’t necessary to keep reminding the world how much evil can come from dehumanizing your enemies. May this never be repeated, and if and when it is, may heroes like Rudolph Vrba arise and escape with the truth.

stevesheinkin.com

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Review of We Are Still Here! by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac

We Are Still Here!

Native American Truths Everyone Should Know

by Traci Sorell
illustrated by Frané Lessac

Charlesbridge, 2021. 40 pages.
Review written June 30, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book has the frame of kids from a Native Nations Community School making presentations on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It does throw a lot of information at the reader, but the information is presented in digestible amounts.

There’s a theme throughout the book, straight from the title. The beginning spread sets up the book:

Our Native Nations have always been here. We are Indigenous to the continent now called North America. Our leaders are sovereign and have power to make rules. Our ways of life changed when white people arrived from Europe….

Most people do not know what happened to Native Nations and our citizens after treaty making stopped in 1871.

Despite the continued occupation of our homelands,
regular attacks on our sovereignty,
and being mostly forgotten in US culture,
Native Nations all say,
“We are still here!”

The spreads in the rest of the book tell about aspects of Native Nations’ history after 1871 and all end with the refrain, “We are still here!”

The topics covered include Assimilation, Allotment, Indian New Deal, Termination, Relocation, Tribal Activism, Self-determination, Indian Child Welfare and Education, Religious Freedom, Economic Development, Language Revival, and Sovereign Resurgence. These are presented simply, in ways an upper elementary school child can understand. That’s a good thing, because I had a lot to learn, too.

The text tells about ways treaties were broken, but also about ways that Native people made sure their voices were heard.

There’s lots of informative back matter. The author is absolutely right and this history isn’t taught in school – I had some inklings because of my own reading, but I still have a lot to learn. And this beautiful book will help kids get a better start.

tracisorell.com
franelessac.com

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Review of The Tree of Life, written by Elisa Boxer, illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig

The Tree of Life

How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World

written by Elisa Boxer
illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig

Rocky Pond Books, 2024. 36 pages.
Review written March 20, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review

Here’s a nonfiction picture book about the Holocaust that manages to focus on the inspiring rather than the terrible.

The story is told simply, with more detail in the author’s note in the back. From the start, the focus of the pictures is on the tree. Here’s how the book begins:

In a season of sadness, hope came to the children as a tiny tree, tucked inside a boot.

It was winter, World War Two, and the boot belonged to a prisoner in a ghetto called Terezin.

There were children in the ghetto too. The prisoner saw they were scared and separated from their families.

He also saw a woman secretly teaching the children to read, write, and celebrate Jewish holidays.
Tu BiShvat was coming — The New Year of the Trees.
The teacher, Irma Lauscher, risked her life when she asked the prisoner to sneak in a sapling.
the prisoner risked his life when he said yes.

They planted the tree, and the children of the community gave drops from their water rations to keep it watered. Even when there were fewer and fewer children to care for it.

Even though the children who left were taken to a place that was even worse, that tree kept growing and kept hope alive. By the end of the war, the tree was taller than the children.

That tree, planted during the war in Terezin, grew to be sixty feet tall and stood as a symbol of hope across the generations. The teacher who planted it sent seeds from the tree all over the world.

We learn that the tree finally died in 2007 after a flood destroyed its roots. But the book ends with schoolchildren in New York City in 2021 planting a sapling born from the original tree, standing as one of over 600 trees throughout the world, grown from the original maple.

Like all picture books, this is one you’ll appreciate more by looking at it yourself, and that won’t take long. A sensitive and lovely story of hope rooted in the history of a terrible time.

ElisaBoxer.com
AliannaRozentsveig.com
penguin.com/kids

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Review of Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged! by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged!

by Jody Nyasha Warner
pictures by Richard Rudnicki

Groundwood Books (Anansi Press), 2020. First published in 2010.
Review written November 9, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

We’ve all heard of Rosa Parks. This picture book tells the story of Viola Desmond, an African Canadian who protested the segregation of a movie theater in Toronto in 1946.

The story is presented simply in a way that’s easy to understand. There’s a little bit of drama added to the story as they start off by telling us she’s brave and then tell about her car breaking down on the way home. It was going to take hours to fix, so she decided to see a movie.

At first, she was told politely to move. But they ended up bringing in the police.

But I told you Viola was brave, didn’t I?

She wouldn’t budge one inch because she knew this seating rule wasn’t fair to black folks. It was just plain wrong.

So the manager and the policeman dragged her out of the theater in a real rough way.

Viola didn’t even win her court case. The court refused to face it as a segregation issue and accused her of not paying the right price for the ticket.

Still, Viola’s bravery made a big difference.

She inspired all kinds of people to fight against segregation, and by the late 1950s it was made against the law.

So come on and join me in saying thank you to Viola Desmond, a real hero, who sat down for her rights.

The book has bright, colorful pictures, making attractive to young children a story about making the world more fair.

groundwoodbooks.com

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Review of Chance, by Uri Shulevitz

Chance

Escape from the Holocaust

by Uri Shulevitz

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 330 pages.
Review written March 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

When Uri Shulevitz was four years old, bombs fell on Warsaw, where he lived with his parents. But Uri’s father was in Bialystok, where he had found work. A chance encounter led to him not returning to Nazi-occupied Poland, but instead writing to his wife to come with Uri to Bialystok. They were Jewish, and all their family who stayed in Warsaw were killed during the war.

This book tells about Uri’s life as a very young refugee. A series of apparently chance encounters led them deeper into the Soviet Union. A clerk would not grant them Soviet citizenship because of Uri’s name. Uri was actually named after the father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible. But the clerk thought he was named after a Zionist poet and they were anti-Soviet reactionaries.

Not having Soviet citizenship meant they had to move farther from the border. Since Uri is an artist, the book is full of illustrations and has large print, and we’re given a clear view of what it’s like to be a refugee when you’re too young to really comprehend what’s going on. They spent much of the war in Settlement Yura in the far north, and much of the war in Turkestan, far east of the border, and much of the war, wherever they were, hungry.

Although the book is long, with the large print and the abundant illustrations, it makes for quick reading. Since he was a child when the events took place, he has no trouble speaking on a child’s level and talking about things children are interested in.

He was eleven by the time the war was over and they got out of the Soviet Union. So this is also the story of growing up and the seeds that were planted that led to him becoming an artist.

urishulevitz.com
mackids.com

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Review of Those Who Saw the Sun, by Jaha Nailah Avery

Those Who Saw the Sun

African American Oral Histories from the Jim Crow South

By Jaha Nailah Avery

Levine Querido, 2023. 277 pages.
Review written October 30, 2023, from a copy sent to me by the publisher.

Those Who Saw the Sun is a collection of interviews with African American elders, most of whom were born during the 1940s and 1950s, and all of whom were kids in the Jim Crow era.

The book feels important – hearing the voices of people who lived through those times. It harnesses their wisdom and we get insights on the things they saw during their long lives.

I was very interested that none of the interviewees were big fans of integration. Although segregation had been harmful and unjust, they had also been part of vibrant Black communities. Outstanding Black teachers taught in their schools, even though many also mentioned they always used school books passed on after white schools had used them. Once integration happened, some Black businesses failed, and some Black teachers lost their jobs.

But it’s also true that most of the elders heard about lynchings when they were kids and other racist acts of violence. So their stories were filled with progress and hope as they witnessed great changes.

Although I think this is an important book, I wish some more helpful content was added to make it more accessible to teens and, well, to me. I would have liked a timeline for each person interviewed. Each interview started by asking where they were born, but I would have also liked to know when they were born. In an oral history, folks skip around in time, so I would have liked a scaffold to fit their remarks onto.

Some of the subjects also rambled a bit and repeated themselves. Though that does communicate their personalities, a little more editing might have increased readability. After finishing the book, I don’t really remember which person said which thing, so some commentary explaining why the order was chosen or something about the subjects in the present day – with present day pictures – might have helped it all stick in my head. It was certainly fascinating while I was reading it, though!

All the interviewees were asked, “Do you believe Dr. King’s dream is possible in this country?” Eleanor Boswell-Raine’s answer catches the spirit of what most of them said:

I think anything is possible. I like his method better than the let’s-shoot-and-kill-everybody mentality. I am definitely a nonviolent person. I really thought, though, given my age and everything, that we would almost be there by now. And so I’m deeply disappointed in terms of . . . of where we are in this country. So I want to say yes, I believe it’s possible. But I would also have to say that I doubt seriously that it will be in my lifetime.

levinequerido.com

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Review of Flight for Freedom, by Kristen Fulton, illustrated by Torben Kuhlmann

Flight for Freedom

The Wetzel Family’s Daring Escape from East Germany

by Kristen Fulton
illustrated by Torben Kuhlmann

Chronicle Books, 2020. 52 pages.
Review written September 11, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book tells the true story of two families who escaped from East Germany in a homemade balloon.

They tell the story from the point of view of six-year-old Peter Wetzel, whose parents planned the escape with another family. They welded together a basket, purchased nylon fabric a little bit at a time and sewed it together, and little by little purchased fuel for an engine to heat the air. They designed the balloon based on a picture in a newspaper that a friend had sent to them.

They were discovered soon after lift-off, and the balloon didn’t go as high as they had hoped, but soon ripped in spots and they ran out of fuel. The balloon crashed in a field, and it turned out they had made it – landing in West Germany.

The back matter gives more details and the text explains the situation in a simple way that kids can understand. It turns out that these two families made three escape attempts, and it was the final one that worked. I wish the author had told the story of all three, because it added some urgency that they needed to escape with the third balloon or they would have been caught by the Stasi. But she chose to tell a simple version that still included the danger of capture.

When I lived in Germany, I worked in the library with a lady whose family had gotten a tip when she was 13 years old and escaped into West Germany shortly before the wall went up. It’s hard to imagine leaving everything you know. It’s also hard to imagine constructing a balloon large enough to hold eight people in secret and without schematics. This inherently dramatic story pulls the reader in and makes you interested in all the details in the back matter. The family who escaped still lives in Germany, and the author got to interview them to write this book.

chroniclekids.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 The Mona Lisa Vanishes, by Nicholas Day

The Mona Lisa Vanishes

A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity

by Nicholas Day
with art by Brett Helquist

Random House Studio, 2023. 276 pages.
Review written February 22, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review
2024 Robert F. Sibert Medal Winner
2023 CYBILS Award Middle Grade Nonfiction Winner

It’s easy to understand the awards this book won. Nicholas Day takes facts and gives us an entertaining and suspenseful story with a conversational tone.

Picture the Mona Lisa. I’m guessing you can easily bring her image to mind. This book tells the story of how she became so famous — by getting stolen in 1911.

Along the way he gives us the story of the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the story of Lisa Gherardini and how unlikely it was that he would ever paint her portrait. It also tells us about the thief who pulled off the heist, the detectives who utterly failed at finding him, and the stories and publicity that grew up around the theft — right before World War I started, so it wasn’t eclipsed in the press.

He weaves all this together skillfully, mixing chapters about Leonardo during the Renaissance with chapters about Paris in the early twentieth century, never leaving us hanging, but always leaving us wanting more.

You also learn about the background of both settings, with information given as it’s needed, never letting the story go slack.

Here’s an example about the newspapers of the day:

The Mona Lisa heist ran on the front page of Parisian newspapers every day for over a month. With each story, the painting grew more significant, the loss more tragic. It was no longer just another painting, or even just another great painting. It was a transcendent painting.

Over the next month, it was transformed into a painting that was beloved by all, that spoke to everyone, that moved everyone. In fact, it became less a painting and more an object of worship. It was a myth, a mystery, almost a living being.

“What audacious criminal,” asked the magazine L’Illustration, “what mystifier, what manic collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?”…

It was the perfect story at the perfect time. Why? Because all of a sudden, people could read.

For centuries, literacy had been a specialized skill. That was changing fast. More people were going to school; more jobs required reading. The result was a surge in literacy.

The side effect was the golden age of newspapers.

In 1870, over one million newspapers were sold every day in Paris. By the time the Mona Lisa was stolen, that number was up to almost six million — in a city of less than three million. The price of a daily paper was half what it once was. Mass media had arrived.

Read this book for a rip-roaring story (with wonderful illustrations by Brett Helquist), and you will end up learning all kinds of things about Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance, the Louvre, early criminal science, and even fake news.

bretthelquist.com
rhcbooks.com

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Review of Prequel, by Rachel Maddow

Prequel

An American Fight Against Fascism

by Rachel Maddow
read by the author

Books on Tape, 2023. 13 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written February 29, 2024, from a library eaudiobook

Wow. This book was eye-opening. Prequel is a history of Fascism in America in the decade leading up to World War II. And I’d had no idea how deeply entrenched, how scripted by Nazi Germany, and how nearly successful it was. I do not recommend that any of my Jewish friends read this book. You probably already know how horrible anti-Semitism is in America, but I needed my eyes opened, and I was honestly shocked. Rachel Maddow quotes Americans who wanted to go further than Hitler against the Jews. And they say so in descriptive and hate-filled language.

They had detailed plans, with thousands of followers on board. Plans to kill Jews and stockpile weapons and bombs and overthrow the government. Of course, they claimed Roosevelt was a Jew, all Jews were Communists, and all Communists were Jews.

A few turns of luck helped foil their plans, though I feel a little guilty saying that, because one of those turns of “luck” was an assassination of a key figure. Another bit of “luck” was that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, taking the wind out of the sails of isolationists.

Rachel Maddow has dug through the abundant documentation and gives us a grim story. Yes, private and government investigators got to the truth — but most of the Fascists were never brought to justice, mainly because of politics — and because many of them were Senators and members of Congress. In fact, one major plot successfully carried out was that the German government was able to distribute propaganda postage-free by using members of Congress and their free postage for official mailings.

The whole thing is well-researched and well-documented, thoroughly shocking (at least to people who don’t believe in white supremacy), and eerily resonant with events of today.

And that’s why she gave the book the name Prequel — these events were a prequel of the rise of white nationalism in our own time. Sadly, the results of the tireless investigators who uncovered the fascist plots were not widely known in the time the work was done. But now, more than eighty years later, we have access to all the details and can take note.

Something that struck me was that actual Senators and others who called themselves American patriots were literally giving speeches and sending out mailings quoting verbatim from scripts and talking points written in Nazi Germany. The Nazis had to use an elaborate scheme to get free postage from Congressmembers. But today — sending information over the internet is already free. Do we think for a moment that foreign propagandists won’t use that power?

This wasn’t a particularly happy book to listen to. But it was certainly eye-opening. And extremely educational.

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