Wednesday, March 7, 2012

World War II Titles

Titles: Number the Stars/Lois Lowry (***=A)
Highly Recommended
Lily's Crossing/Patricia Reilly Giff ( *=C)
Recommended with Reservations
Across the Blue Pacific; The Greatest Skating Race;
The Little Ships/Louise Borden ( **=B) Recommended

Audience: Ages 10 and up for Number the Stars and Lily's Crossing
Ages 8 and up for Louise Borden

We just completed a short home study on World War II and I find one of the best ways to reinforce history is to supplement with historical fiction. These books are a good selection.

Number the Stars is a Newbery Award winner and well deserving of the honor. In a mere 140 pages the author deftly describes the efforts of the Dutch Resistance to rescue 7000 Jews and secure their safe passage across open water to Sweden. Told from the perspective of 10 year old Annemarie, the novel carefully shows the reader when and how it becomes necessary to stand against evil. In discussing the themes of courage and honesty, I'm reminded of the apostles Peter and John before the high priest in the book of Acts: "We ought to obey God rather than man." (Acts 4:19)

The writing in this book is some of the best I've read. No word is wasted or unnecessary; the plot is engaging and suspenseful. Lois Lowry ends the book with a clever historical twist and adds an afterward that clearly explains to the reader the facts and the fiction of her book. When your middle schooler is not yet ready for Anne Frank, give him or her Number the Stars.

Measured against such high praise, it's almost unfair to compare Patricia Reilly Giff's Lily's Crossing. Giff has crafted a worthy effort in her stateside story of 5th grader Lily Mollahan, but it does fall a bit short in terms of plot, history and language. Lily is a more complex protagonist than Annemarie, and there will be readers who relate better to her mixed emotions and behavior. Overall, I would say Lily thinks and behaves more like a 13 year old than her stated 10 year age. The downside of this is a character with a dishonest streak: lying, eavesdropping, keeping secrets, sneaking into movies, cursing her piano lessons and displaying a negative attitude toward her grandmother, her primary caregiver. On the positive side, Lily is well aware of these shortcomings and this gives her ample opportunity to improve.

When she tells a lie that endangers her new friend, Hungarian refugee Albert, Lily is remorseful and makes a willing sacrifice for his rescue. Lily's character matures and develops, which essentially saves the novel from an otherwise unremarkable plot. Giff also inserts one small mystery/riddle for Lily and the reader to solve, leading to a tidy, satisfying ending for the characters.

Louise Borden has written a nice trio of picture books for younger readers (age 8 and up) who are ready for a brief discussion of WWII. Across the Blue Pacific takes a short look at the war in the Pacific with a bittersweet ending. The Greatest Skating Race takes the reader to Holland with the fascinating story of a ten year old boy skating his neighbors to safety across the Belgium border. The Little Ships tells the remarkable story of the Dunkirk rescue, when over 300,000 troops trapped in France escaped the German onslaught by re-crossing the English Channel in any available sea vessel.

Books like Number the Stars and The Greatest Skating Race teach our young people that they can make a difference no matter their age. Sometimes history calls even on children to show courage and I want my children to have these examples to follow.

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