Monday 30 October 2017

The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books, 2015)

46 chapters; 316 pages

Subjects: World War Two, London, evacuees, family, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Image result for The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I’ve always been fascinated by stories about World War Two evacuees, as it’s not part of the New Zealand war story at all. This author takes a different approach. The main character Ada is already damaged by a childhood of emotional and physical abuse by her mother, who seems to hate Ada for her disability (a clubfoot, which could have been easily fixed) and never lets her go outside. (The local children, who only ever see her waving from their window, think she is simple, not disabled.)

Ada is about ten years old, although she doesn’t know for sure. Despite being kept indoors for her whole life, she is smart and determined, and she gets her chance when her little brother Jamie comes home from school and announces that they are being sent to the country because of the war. Ada manages to escape to the train with him and as nobody else wants the two of them, they are reluctantly taken into the home of a childless woman, Susan Smith.

WW2 forms a backdrop to the story, with the neighbouring airfield and the danger of spies, and it provides several important plot points, especially at the end. The book traces the developing relationship between Ada and Susan, but also Ada’s growing sense of her own self-worth, which has been almost destroyed by her mother’s treatment of her.

Because she has lived such a restricted life up until now, Ada has never been to school, and can’t read or write.  The fact that she doesn’t know what everyday things like shops or banks are, or the meaning of many common words, is potentially tricky for a writer but Kimberly Bradley handles the challenge very skilfully.

This is a memorable story and I especially liked Susan as a character. Her life story is only hinted at, never fully described, but enough is hinted at to make it understandable, at least for older readers.      

I didn’t find Ada’s mother quite as convincing. She was so utterly malevolent that she seemed less believable, although the scene when Jamie finally realised the truth about her (which he had always been shielded from before) is very sad.

There are many glowing reviews of this book, such as this one on NZBookgirl
Kidsreads calls it “an unforgettable gripping story, one that is not only earmarked to be an award-winning novel, but also has the potential of becoming an all-time classic.”
The School Library Journal describes it as “Anne of Green Gables without quite so much whimsy” in which “hope, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is the name of the game.” “Enormously satisfying and fun to read, Bradley takes a work of historical fiction and gives the whole premise of WWII evacuees a kick in the pants.”
And this from Kirkus Reviews: Set against a backdrop of war and sacrifice, Ada’s personal fight for freedom and ultimate triumph are cause for celebration.”
You can also find lesson plans here

About the author
You can find Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's website here
In this review on book reporter, she describes how she was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, studied chemistry at college and married her high school sweetheart, and now lives on a 52-acre farm, with ponies, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, and lots and lots of trees in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.

Other books you might like:
Other books about evacuees include: Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence, When the siren wailed by Noel Streatfeild, Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley, The dolphin crossing by Jill Paton Walsh, Carrie’s war by Nina Bawden and Uprooted: a Canadian war story by Lynne Reid Banks.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Thursday 12 October 2017

Hiroshima no pika written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki

Hiroshima no pika written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki (translation of the same Japanese title; New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1980)

48 pages with colour illustrations, sometimes full page double spreads

Subjects: World War Two, Hiroshima, atomic bomb, anti-war books, Japan, picture books (Year 6-8)

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This is based on a first-person account that the author heard when he was holding an exhibition of pictures about the atomic bomb in a small town in Hokkaido.

It begins with a cloudless blue morning in Hiroshima, with streetcars picking up people on their way to work and the seven rivers flowing quietly through the city. Seven-year-old Mii and her parents are breakfasting on sweet potatoes “brought in the day before by cousins who lived in the country” when the bomb falls at 8.15am on August 6, 1945. Mii’s mother carries her injured husband on her back across the city, across rivers and all the way to the coast, where they stay for days until he is taken into a makeshift hospital: “no doctors, no medicine, no bandages – only shelter.” 

The illustrations are stylised but portray a powerful sense of the horror of the event, and the consequent suffering, partly through the lurid and unnatural colours of the skies and surroundings.

This is a terrible event, and parts of the text would be upsetting to younger (or even older) children: the mother carrying a dead baby, the floating bodies, the wasteland of the city, Mii’s father’s death, the glass slivers that poke their way out of her scalp in years to come.

Look out for the red chopsticks that Mii clutches for days after the Flash, until her mother manages to prise them from her grip. It’s a clever way to identify her on each page, but also hints at the hidden trauma she has undergone.

The book feeds in some factual details about the atomic bomb and ends with the lantern memorial service held each year on the seven rivers. I couldn’t see a translation of the title anywhere – maybe I missed it – but it means The Flash of Hiroshima.  

An entry in Kirkus reviews is always prestigious. “Japanese artist and antiwar activist Maruki manages to avoid the opposing perils of giving children nightmares and belittling the horror.”

About the author
Toshi Maruki (1912–2000) was born in Hokkaido and studied Western art at the Joshibi Women's School of Art and Design.
“I am now past seventy years old. I have neither children nor grandchildren. But I have written this book for grandchildren everywhere. It took me a very long time to complete it. It is very difficult to tell young people about something bad that happened in the hope that their knowing will help keep it from happening again.”

Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, established by husband and wife Iri and Toshi Maruki, "is famous for its message for peace all over the world". The artist couple went into Hiroshima city just three days after the bombing and spent 30 years painting the 15 panels.

Other books you might like:
Sadako by Eleanor Coerr, illustrated by Ed Young, also tells of a young girl in Hiroshima. 

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know that other Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya had already experienced air raids, so the people of Hiroshima were readying for them by storing water and making evacuation plans. There is a sad poignancy in the statement that “Everyone carried small bags of medicine and when they were out of doors, wore air-raid hats or hoods to protect their heads.”

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!