The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String

Elissa Brent Weissman, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Adoption, Identity, Family relationships, Jews, African Americans, Holocaust

Synopsis:

Imani is adopted by a Jewish family. Now that she’s turning 13, she knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white.

When her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Imani keeps the diary a secret for a while, only sharing it with her best friend, Madeline. Anna’s diary chronicles her escape from Holocaust-era Europe and her journey to America and her new life with a Jewish adoptive family. She continues to write to her sister Belle about the tall New York sky scrapers, shopping in supermarkets, eating Chinese food, modeling fur coats, and playing Chinese checkers, until news about her family stops. She fears the worst and puts down her pen.

Imani decides to make Anna’s story her bat mitzvah research project. She uncovers some important information about the war and Luxembourg. As Imani reads Anna’s diary, she begins to see her own family and her place in it in a new way.

Why I like this book:

The author skillfully weaves two stories, one from the present and another from the past, using characters that you will feel like you know intimately. This is a very different holocaust story because it focuses on the identity of Jewish and African-American girls (70 years a part) and their search for self, something that readers will find relevant. The setting, the unforgettable characters, and the plot create an engaging reading experience. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

You learn about Anna Kirsch and the painful decision her family makes in deciding which of their seven children to smuggle to America as the Nazi’s begin to occupy Luxembourg.  Anna is selected and separated from her identical twin sister, Belle, the other half of her heart. On the ship she begins to write Belle daily letters daily chronicling her journey so that she keeps their connection alive. Anna lives with  loving strangers, Hannah and Max, a Jewish family who open their hearts and home to her. Anna is essentially adopted, like Imani. She continues to write to Belle about her adventures until news about her family stops.

My children are adopted, each responding differently like Imani and her adopted El Salvadoran brother. Like Imani, my daughter had so many questions about her past. What were her ethnic roots? Who did she look like? Why was she adopted? Like Imani’s family, we ran a genetic DNA test for our daughter so she had a sense of her heritage. This eventually led to her finding two biological sisters this past year.  Now she has answers and it has brought her peace as an adult. We need more MG and YA books for adopted children who are trying to figure out who they are and need to see themselves in stories.

Elissa Brent Weismann’s novel is a captivating story that is a departure from her humorous Nerd Camp series. Her website includes teacher resources and curriculum for all of her books.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Oskar and Eight Blessings51kJJQr3hbL._SY399_BO1,204,203,200_Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Richard and Tanya Simon, Authors

Mark Siegel, Illustrator

Roaring Book Press, Fiction, Sep. 8, 2015

Pages: 40

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Kindness, Refugees, Jews, Holocaust, Hanukkah, Blessings, New York City

Prologue: “Oskar’s mother and father believed in the power of blessings. So did Oskar…until the Night of Broken Glass. His parents put him on a ship to America. He had nothing but an address and a photo of a woman he didn’t know — “It’s your Aunt Esther.” — and his father’s last words to him: “Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings.”

Book Opening lines: Oskar arrived in New York on the seventh day of Hanukkah. It was also Christmas Eve.

Book Jacket Synopsis: It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. Oskar, a refugee from the horrors of Nazi Europe, arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he’s never met. As he walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his aunt’s home uptown, he encounters the sights of the city at holiday time — and receives small acts of kindness from its people, each in its way welcoming him to the city and a life in the new world.

Why I like Oskar and the Eight Blessings:

Richard and Tanya Simon’s heartwarming story captures the best of New York and its residents who welcome Oskar to their city through their generous spirits and acts of kindness– a helping hand, a loaf of bread, a superman magazine, a snowball fight, a pair of mittens, and a friendly wink. It is the essence of what America is about, welcoming immigrants fleeing oppression or seeking a better life.

The story is realistic and believable for children. The characters are diverse. The plot is engaging. Oskar is overwhelmed by how small he feels in such a big city. He is tired and hungry. The sights and sounds are strange and confusing. Oskar is brave and remembers the wise fatherly advice he receives that wraps him in warmth during his 100-block journey to his aunt’s house.

This Hanukkah story, set in 1938, is timeless and should be shared with children no matter what tradition they celebrate. Compassion and kindness towards others is not limited to color, race or culture. This is a story of hope for humanity.

Mark Siegel’s illustrations are hauntingly beautiful. With spare text, the illustrations are expressive and really show the story. There is so much feeling captured in the characters eyes and smiles. The illustrations are uplifting.

Resources: An Author’s Note offers historical insight into the story, a glossary provides definitions of key words, and a map shows Oskar’s walk up Broadway in 1938.

Check out Susanna Leonard Hill’s review of Oskar and the Eight Blessings, on Perfect Picture Book Friday, which will return January 8.

Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale

Simon and the Bear9781423143550_p0_v2_s260x420Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale

Eric A. Kimmel, Author

Matthew Trueman, Illustrator

Disney Hyperion Books, Fiction, Sept. 2, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Pages: 40

Themes: Miracles, Survival,  Shipwreck, Hanukkah, Jews, Polar Bear, Faith, Courage

Opening: “When Simon set out for America, he promised his mother and brothers and sisters that he would work hard and save money. As soon as he could, he would send tickets for all of them. Simon’s mother lovingly packed his knapsack for the journey…Because Hanukkah was coming, she added something extra.”

Book Synopsis: When Simon leaves his home in the old country, his mother reminds him to celebrate Hanukkah during his sea voyage: “Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey.” Turns out Simon does need a miracle. When the ship strikes an iceberg Simon is offered the last seat on a lifeboat, but selflessly offers it to a gentleman who has a son. As the ship sinks, Simon leaps onto the iceberg. Knowing he needs a miracle, he pulls out his menorah and lights the Shamash. A polar bear appears from the icy water. Simon shares some of his latkes and eggs with the bear. In turn the bear curls up and sleeps next to Simon, keeping him warm. Days pass, Simon runs out of food and has one last candle to light. Will Simon run out of miracles?

Why I like this book:  There are never too many altruistic books for children during the holiday season and this one is perfect for Hanukkah. Eric A. Kimmel has written a heartwarming story for children that encourages faith and a belief in miracles, which is what Hanukkah is about. The story mirrors the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. The plot is strong with just the right amount of tension to keep you turning the pages. Kimmel’s tale is filled with details of foods and traditions related to Hanukkah. Simon is a child filled with heart, faith and courage.  Matthew Trueman’s illustrations are evocative and add considerably to the sacred mood of the story. His stunning double-page spreads of black and deep blues are contrasted with images of light in the darkness, symbolically suggesting miracles are possible. Beautiful collaborative work between author and illustrator.

Resources: An Author’s Note on the history of Hanukkah is included at the end.  Jewish communities in the United States celebrate Hanukkah from Dec. 17-24. Visit the Lookstein Center for activities, poetry, games and projects.

The Whispering Town

The WhisperingTown9781467711951_p0_v1_s260x420The Whispering Town

Jennifer Elvgren, Author

Fabio Santomauro, Illustrator

Kar-Ben Publishing, Historical fiction, 2014

Suitable for ages: 7-11

Themes: Denmark, German Occupation, Jews, Holocaust, World War II

Opening: “There are new friends in the cellar, Anett,” Mama said when I woke up. “Time to take breakfast down to them.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: It is 1943, in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Anett and her parents are hiding a Danish Jewish woman and her son, Carl, in their cellar until a fishing boat can take them across the sound to neutral Sweden. Worried about their safety, Anett thinks of a clever and unusual plan to get them safely to the harbor.

Why I like this book: The Whispering Town is based on a true story. Jennifer Elvgren’s text is simple and will teach children about the Holocaust and the heroes who risked their lives to help. It is a great introduction book to the Holocaust. This is a compelling story about the courage and compassion of a girl, her family and village to defy the Nazis and house and guide Danish Jews to Sweden. The story is narrated by the main character, Anett, who is very mature and learns to keep a very big secret. Anett is courageous and clever. She knows how to sneak extra food from the right people who are helping on the underground. When the Nazis begin knocking on doors, the stakes rise. The Jews must be moved. A problem occurs when it is too dark to sneak the Jews through the town. The villagers like Anett’s idea and “whisper” the Jews to the fishing boats. Fabio Santomauro’s artwork suggests an air of secrecy with his dark and muted tones and black lines. This is an important book to add to a school library as it focuses on the courage of a community.

Resources: Visit Jennifer Elvgren at her website. Kar-Ben Publishing has resources on the Holocaust. It is growing Jewish library for children.

Rachael’s Secret

Rachel'sSecret9781926920375_p0_v1_s260x420Rachel’s Secret

Shelly Sanders, Author

Second Story Press, Historical Fiction, 2012

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Tensions between pre-revolutionary Russian Jews and Christians, Hatred,  Rumors, Riots

Synopsis:  Rachael is a 14-year-old Jew living in Kishinev, Russia, in 1903.  Unlike most girls her age, she has dreams of being a writer.  Her life is turned inside out when her Christian friend, Mikhail, is murdered after a day of ice skating on a river with friends.  Rachael is the only witness to the murder, but realizes the great danger she faces going to the police.  She knows her family will be at great risk.  She shares her secret with her sister and her Christian friend, Sergei.

In keeping her silence, tensions begin to mount between the Jewish and Christian communities.  The Jews of Kishinev are blamed for the murder of Mikhail.  The entire community turns on the Jews and the local newspaper spreads rumors and propaganda daily.  Even the police fail to protect and support the Jews.  A riot breaks out and the community is destroyed and blood is shed.  Sergei tells his police-chief father the truth, but Sergei is dismissed and his father does nothing.  Rachael and Sergei feel hope dwindling, but know they must stop the violence.

Why I like this book:  This is a debut novel for Shelly Sanders and she is a very skilled writer.  She has done a superb job of taking history and fiction and combining them in this unforgettable story.  The events in the story are true.  Sander’s story is inspired by her grandmother who lived in Kishinev in 1903 and survived the riots.  Many of her vividly developed characters in the story, including Mikhail, Sergei, and Sergei’s father, are based on real people.  The story Sanders weaves is compelling and gives her readers a very realistic view of life in Kishinev in 1903.  I did not know about this piece of history.  I highly recommend this book for middle and high school students.

Visit Shelly Sander’s at her website.  She has written a sequel, Rachel’s Promise, to be published September 15, 2013.  Rachel and her family escape Kishinev on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia and board a boat to Shanghai.  Follow her journey and new life in an unexpected country.