Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Making Bombs for Hitler, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Few people know about the slave raids that Hitler conducted throughout the Soviet Union during World War II. Nazi soldiers would descend upon a town of village and capture the young people who gathered together in public places. The prisoners were loaded into boxcars and transported to Germany, where they were forced to work under brutal conditions. There were between 3 and 5.5 million Ostarbeiters. Most of them were Ukranian. Many were worked or starved to death” (Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch). 
The main character’s name is Lida Ferezuk. Lida’s mother is shot and killed by the Nazis for trying to hide some Jews from them. The Nazis shoot all the Jews as well, including Lida’s best friend Sarah. Lida and her sister Larissa are captured by the Nazis and are separated. Lida was transported to the camp in Germany in a cattle car with a bunch of other boys and girls. When they stop at a train station the woman who gives them their food whispers, “Be useful or they will kill you.”

When they arrive at the camp, their heads are shaved and they are sprayed with some sort of stinky chemical to kill the body lice that had infested their cattle car. They are given OST (“East”) badges to sew onto their clothes. They are told that if they are caught without their OST badge on, they will be shot. Many girls in Lida’s barracks do a quick, sloppy job to just get it over with. Lida does a careful, neat, pretty stitch, which gets her a job at the laundry mending clothes when an officer notices her “deft hands.”

Inge, the other laundry worker, gives Lida needles and thread, and has her fixing sheets with frayed edges, and even an officer’s jacket – the officer who got her the laundry job. When Lida is done, Inge praises her, and Lida knows that she has been deemed “useful.” This is good, because the kids who are not deemed useful are sent to the hospital.  Lida makes a friend named Juli, who works in the hospital, and asks her what happens to the children going to the hospital. She is shocked to learn that the nurses there drain the children’s blood. Then the blood is given to the Nazi soldiers hurt in the war. That night, 3 new girls are taken into the barracks. Their names are Oksana, Marta, and Natalia. They take the place of Daria, Katya, and Tatiana, 3 girls who went to the hospital and never came back.

Lida wonders why the Nazis treat the kids as if they are just “spare parts for their war machine.”

One day Inge receives a package of clothing from her husband. When Lida sees the blouse, coat, and handkerchiefs she immediately knows that they are stolen. Inge tells Lida to remove the name stitched on the label on the blouse and coat and replace it with her name. Then she asks Lida to sew Inge’s initials on the handkerchiefs as well. Lida does such a good job that Inge decided to reward her. Lida asks for a new dress as her reward, and so she gets an old shirt from which she can make a new dresses for herself and Zenia, another girl in the barracks whose dress is completely ripped to shreds. The next day she is given a new assignment by Officer Schmidt because he thinks she is getting a bit “too comfortable” in her laundry job. She is now to make bombs in a factory where her job is to measure out the gunpowder.

Now Lida is pretty much
literally a part of their “war machine.”

One day, Natalia enters the barracks looking especially pleased with herself. She reaches into her pocket and shows Lida, Zenia, and 3 other girls a small package filled with brown sugar. Zenia thinks that the sugar looks like the gunpowder in the bombs. Kataryna, a girl in the barracks, thinks that the dirt outside the washhouse looks even more like gunpowder. Natalia says, “What would happen if we put some dirt into the bombs?” Zenia thinks if they did that the bombs wouldn’t work so well! That might save innocent lives. A woman named Bibi even puts little notes in the bombs that say, in several languages, “Dear Allies, this is all that we can do for you now.”   

Does the girls’ plan to sabotage the Nazi bombs work? Do they all survive the war? Does Lida ever find her sister?

Making Bombs for Hitler is a historical and captivating novel which draws the reader’s attention to Lida as she experiences physical and mental struggles as a German slave during World War II. This book is definitely not for younger readers, who may be traumatized by the way that Lida and her friends are treated in the labor camp, the evil of the Nazis – executions, enslavement, mass poisonings. The violence is necessary to make it more realistic, and the book is inspired by real events. The book, writes author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, “is dedicated to Anelia V., whose detailed recall of day-to-day life as a Nazi slave helped [her] create an accurate world for Lida.”


Daddy's afterthoughts:  When I was a kid, I don't remember  teachers rushing to force the horrors of war and injustice on us. When I was Julia's age (6th grade), I had never even heard of the Holocaust (and I grew up raised up by Jewish parents). Oh, I would have studied it in junior high or high school, at an (arguably) more age-appropriate time. Sadly, that innocence is lost, and children are introduced to these things way earlier than perhaps they are ready to. This book will absolutely trigger conversation; be ready. This book features a plucky heroine (how nice that this generation has more books for tweens and teens with strong female characters) but this young girl's heroism is not the typical overcoming-high-school-angst gumption of Marcy in The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (see Julia's blog post on that book here), or the fantasy-world heroics of Harry Potter's Hermione Granger. The evil that Lida is up against is very, very real. This book is lovely, but emotional. For students assigned Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, I would recommend this book as an appetizer course (or, to lapse into teacher-speak, an "anticipatory set.")

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, by Paula Danziger

The main character of Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit is a 13-year-old girl named Marcy Lewis. The book is in first-person point-of-view, and Marcy is the narrator and the protagonist. She is a shy, go-along-with-the-crowd person, and doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence mostly because of her weight:
All my life I’ve thought that I looked like a baby blimp with wire-frame glasses and mousy brown hair. Everyone always said that I’d grow out of it, but I was convinced that I’d become an adolescent blimp with wire-frame glasses, mousy brown hair, and acne.”
She really only has one friend. Her name is Nancy Sheridan. Nancy is really beautiful and popular. She also gets detention a lot. Nancy drives Marcy crazy whenever she writes her a note because she signs her name “Nanci” instead of “Nancy,” and she also dots the i with a “big dumb circle.” To Marcy, the dot looks too much like a blimp. Nancy’s mother and Marcy’s mother are friends. Marcy says, “I always figured that Mrs. Sheridan made her talk to me: Beauty and the Blimp.” In the beginning, it started out that way, but as Nancy got to know Marcy a bit more, she really grew to like her. Now, they’re best friends.

Marcy gets good grades in everything but gym, for she hates changing into a gymsuit. She would just sit there and watch whatever the gym class was doing. When the gym teacher would ask her why she had no clothes to change into, she would just make up an excuse (like “The cat ate my gymsuit”).

Marcy has an excellent and interesting new English teacher named Ms. Finney. Ms. Finney is not a traditional teacher. She says that she likes to try to teach in ways that “interest and excite students.” There are clues that many of the other teachers don’t like Ms. Finney. Marcy and the other students continually ask the other teachers to be more like her, but they just get disgusted at the students when they ask this. Marcy likes Ms. Finney because she makes English class fun:
Certain things were always the same. Every Monday we had to hand in compositions. Wednesday we took our spelling tests, and then there were the 'Finney Friday Flicks.' We could bring in popcorn while we watched the movies. After seeing the films, we discussed them.”
Ms. Finney starts a club called Smedley, which focuses on group-dynamics. The students wanted to do it in class, but there wasn’t enough time because Ms. Finney has to teach what was in the syllabus. In Smedley, Marcy, Nancy, a boy named Joel (whom Marcy likes), and twenty-two other kids meet after school with Ms. Finney and talk about their feelings. Marcy “should have guessed that Smedley and Ms. Finney were too good to last.” The principal, Mr. Stone, doesn’t like Ms. Finney, and he fires her.

Marcy’s new friend Joel’s father is on the Board of Education, so Joel is able to find out what has happened. She was fired because she refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Ms. Finney believes that this country does not truly “offer liberty and justice for all.” Marcy, Nancy, Joel, and a bunch of other kids decide to protest Mr. Stone firing Ms. Finney. This gets them called to the principal’s office and suspended.

Things are going really badly at her house as well. Her dad has a horrible temper, so he’s pretty much like a bomb, only easier to set off. Marcy’s dad is always saying mean things to her, like “Why do I have to have a daughter who is so stupid and so fat? I’ll never get you married off.” When Marcy’s mother decides to support Marcy on her decision to try and help Ms. Finney, Marcy’s father (who hates Ms. Finney) fights with Marcy’s mom, telling her that her place is in the house and not being political. He calls Ms. Finney a “radical.”

What happens to Ms. Finney at her hearing? What happens to Marcy and her friends? Do Marcy and Joel start dating? And how does life in the Lewis house change as a result of the Finney case? Marcy’s mom has found her independence; before this case, according to Marcy’s father, her parents never disagreed on anything. (I think that this is because the father behaves so outrageously that he probably made all the decisions and the mother just went along with them instead of arguing about it). But now, her mother is a lot stronger and making her own decisions. She is not meek anymore.

Marcy has also changed at the end: “I no longer think I’m a blimp. Now I think I’m a helium balloon,” she jokes. She’s also seeing a psychologist, and still hates Mr. Stone. (“I’d throw up on his head if I were tall enough.”) But she is more of a leader than a follower, and she too is stronger, more independent, more outspoken, more courageous, and less meek.

This novel teaches self-confidence. Both Marcy and her mother become more independent and confident, and we can learn from them. Ms. Finney encourages, listens to, and in general understands Marcy. She makes Marcy feel like she knows a lot, and that she's special and important. All you kids who hate school, you never know when an amazing teacher might come along and change your life.


Daddy's afterthoughts: This was one of my favorite books when I was a tween (which was back before the word "tween" even existed, I think). I've heard some people say that "boys won't like it because the protagonist is a girl," but that's nonsense. This book was one of the things that made me want to become a teacher. And I think that any kid who is not at the epicenter of the "in-crowd" will get Marcy and the way she feels. (Teachers may also enjoy the book, which does not cast educational administration is the best light, and I'm a sucker for any book or movie where the teacher is a hero-type character.)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer and Matthew Holm

Sunny Side Up is a realistic fiction graphic novel by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. The book is about having a loved one with alcohol and drug abuse problems. An average 10-year-old girl named Sunny is living a normal life and looking forward to the family summer vacation that is coming up soon. But suddenly, their plans change. Sunny had to go to Florida alone to visit her grandfather for the second half of the summer. But why?

Sunny Side Up takes an emotional and dramatic look at when someone keeps dangerous secrets and how it affects the person they entrust them with. Sunny’s older brother Dale has alcohol and drug abuse problems, but Sunny is too young, and does not understand. She has many questions. Why has Dale been acting the way he has? Why did the family change their plans? Why is she in Florida, alone?

All throughout the book, Sunny has flashbacks to her life in Pennsylvania. Almost all of them show that Dale has problems. In an early flashback, she remembers her first day of school. Her teacher takes attendance, and when she calls Sunny’s name, the teacher asks if she is related to Dale, since they have the same last name. Sunny says yes, and the teacher frowns when she tells her that she had taught him when he was in the 11th grade. Her teacher’s frown makes her feel miserable. She doesn’t understand exactly why, but she knows that there is something wrong. In a second flashback, her mother tells her that it is time for dinner, and to go and find Dale. Walking around town, she stops by a small bridge, and smells smoke. She sees that the smoke is coming up from under the bridge, so she goes to look. She sees her brother and two of his friends. Dale is holding a lighter up near his face. In the light of the flame, she can see that he has bags under his eyes. Her eyes and mouth open wide in surprise and shock. As they are walking home, he asks Sunny, “You didn’t see anything, did you, Sunny?” She swallows hard, and says, “No, I didn’t see a thing,” but she again looks miserable, and walks home with slumped shoulders.

Sunny feels guilty because she is keeping his secret from their parents, but she does it because she doesn’t want him to get in trouble. She loves him, but when you love someone, you’re supposed to keep them safe. On the inside, she feels torn apart, like a tug of war, pulled by both sides – her love for her brother and her worry about his safety. She is afraid for him, but she doesn’t know what to do.

In a final flashback, Dale punches Sunny on the 4th of July, just before she is sent to Florida. The family is at a park watching the fireworks, all happy. Then Dale shows up, carrying a can of beer, acting like he is drunk. His dad tries to grab the beer from him, and Dale gets super mad. He makes like he is going to punch his father, but Sunny gets in the way to try to stop him. He ends up punching her instead. She falls to the ground, her eyes tearing up. She cannot move; she is paralyzed by horror and fear. Perhaps she finally realizes that there is something seriously wrong with her brother, but she has been keeping his secret; maybe this is partially her fault? Did she bring this upon herself? Should she have said something or done something?

This is the last time that she sees her brother before the family plans change, and she ends up in Florida without him, and without her parents. What has happened to Dale?

At her grandfather’s house in Florida, Sunny finds a pack of cigarettes hidden in the bathroom. Sunny starts finding packs of cigarettes all around her grandfather’s home. He had told her that he had quit smoking, but she begins to have second thoughts. Is someone else in her family trying to hide secrets from her? Can she trust anyone in her family?

This book is very dramatic and the emotions Sunny feels for Dale and her grandfather are strong. She worries for both of them. She’s having a hard time understanding what’s going on. I thought this was a very emotional book, and while it is a graphic novel, I would recommend it for people aged 11-15, or anyone who has a loved one who is like Dale. Even though this graphic novel is loaded with pictures, and is easy to read, younger kids won’t understand the concept of the book.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do. 


Daddy's afterthoughts:  I picked this up for Julia when she was 9 (maybe 10) at a Scholastic Book Fair, but held onto it for a year or so before I gave it to her. It deals very bluntly and emotionally with the downward spiral of addiction and how it can affect a family. It is a very important conversation to have, and a very well done book (I'm normally not a fan of the "graphic novel as literature")  but parents of kinds under 10 or 11 might want to screen the book first, because it will trigger family conversations.  Common Sense Reviews gives it top marks for Educational Value, Positive Messages, and Positive Role Models, but still, preview the book before passing in on to your young ones.


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