Posted in non-fiction, poetry, tagged book reviews, children's literature, civil rights movement, Marilyn Nelson, memoir, military families, poetry, racism, young adult literature on January 19, 2016|
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To follow up on my MLK Day post, here’s a book for older readers.
How I Discovered Poetry, by Marilyn Nelson, illustrations by Hadley Hooper
published in 2014 by Dial Books
Marilyn Nelson’s exquisite poetry is a rare gift to all of us. Her many works illuminate dark corners, probe tender bruises, celebrate the overlooked. I have often paused, struck to stillness by an eloquent insight, rich turn of phrase, painful juxtaposition, which pierces my heart for the good.
Her memoir is a gorgeous collection
of poems spanning the years 1950 to 1959. That’s ages 4 to 14 for Marilyn. As this young girl grows up amid racial tensions and the arising Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Red Scare and a new wave of feminism, she grows in understanding herself and her society. Nelson’s miraculous ability to translate that deep, inner thoughtlife, both the initial unawareness and the spark of new realization, into words that communicate to our core, is exceptional.
For each entry, Nelson also records which Air Force Base she’s writing from because as a child of one of the first African American career Air Force officers, her childhood was transient, and this, too, was a shaping force in her identity.
Apart from a golden opportunity to meet this poet on a more personal level, Nelson’s memoir offers us a striking, young person’s viewpoint of the Civil Rights movement, and a candid glimpse of the way she discovers the artist’s calling. For anyone ages 12 and up, this is a beautiful read.
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The Boys who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip M. Hoose
published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux
I finally read this riveting non-fiction book about a group of WWII-era Danish schoolboys who intrepidly wreaked havoc on the occupying Nazi army while the rest of their countrymen meekly acquiesced. It’s a fabulous read, deeply-researched and strongly-written by an award-winning author.
Knud Pedersen was one of the leaders of the secret Churchill Club formed by a group of boys who admired the Norwegians for resisting the Germans and writhed in shame that their own Danish people did not likewise defy them. Pedersen was alive
Phillip Hoose and Knud Pedersen
when Hoose began researching this book. Their lengthy interviews provide much of the dramatic, insider information about the bold, dangerous actions the boys took against the Nazi occupiers which ultimately led to their arrest.
It’s a page-turner, and nearly unbelievable. The commitment of these guys is stunning, and the support of their parents after their arrest — the first they knew of their sons’ activity — is deeply thought-provoking for me as a parent.
Members of The Churchill Club
Standing up for one’s beliefs and values, with a willingness to suffer dire consequences, is a heady notion. In this case, the boys’ actions were heroically brave, and eventually it was they who inspired the wider Danish resistance movement to arise. Today, though, I wonder if we would be appalled at this level of covert, risky, literally-explosive behavior by self-directed teenage boys. Certainly we would bitterly condemn these actions by some groups, in pursuit of some causes. That leads to some provocative questions, of course, and makes this an ideal choice for book club discussions.
It’s no secret that teens can play monumentally-decisive, honorable, and impressive roles in society. To what lengths are we willing to let them go to accomplish this? How does our infatuation with safety affect roles teens are allowed to play? How do we encourage kids to act on their own consciences, without sanctioning utterly foolhardy, impulsive, or wrong-headed thinking? Those are a few of the questions that rattled around my mind as I read this amazing account.
Rest assured, the narrative in the book does not touch on these issues at all. Rather, Hoose gives us 165 gripping pages of high-stakes espionage, audacious sabotage, and shocking imprisonment, introducing us to an inspiring, cool-headed, determined set of boys who left an indelible mark on the world. Knud and his compatriots are definitely worth meeting.
Ages 13 through adult.
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Posted in non-fiction, tagged Adolf Hitler, book reviews, Dmitri Shostakovich, Josef Stalin, Leningrad, modern history, music, nonfiction, soviet union, symphonies, The Leningrad Symphony, world war II, young adult literature on October 29, 2015|
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I just finished reading a riveting piece of young adult non-fiction, and although my blog normally focuses on books accessible to those 12 and under (not that they are not valuable to those 12 and older!), I want to draw your attention to it.
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press
It’s an immensely powerful book taking place during an era of history surprisingly under-covered in young people’s literature, Stalin-era Soviet Union. The plot revolves around one of the Soviet Union’s most famous composers, Shostakovich, and the dire circumstances that led to his composing his Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad Symphony.
If this does not seem like a spell-binding topic to you, take a cue from this excerpt from Anderson’s prologue:
This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare…
[A]t its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings…how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you — you are not alone.
You will come away from the book having learned an extraordinary amount about Shostakovich himself, an immensely gifted man who was presented with unthinkably wrenching choices and consequences, who lived through unspeakable darkness, endured threats, betrayals, and losses, yet persevered with an artistic vision that moved the world.
You will also have a hideously uncomfortable front-row seat to the raw, insane cruelty of Josef Stalin unleashed upon the Soviet citizens, as well as the sickness of Adolf Hitler, unleashed upon these very same people. Torture, black misery, death, cannibalism — the full force of man’s inhumanity to man is painted in stark, unflinching strokes. It is not a book for young readers, but for those old enough to stomach these realities, it is a necessary confrontation with the brutality of untempered power.
Finally, and perhaps most inspiringly, you will see a curtain drawn back on the immense power of art — in this case, music — to touch human souls, to lift broken people out of seemingly impossible darkness, to turn humiliation and despair to dignity and hope. There’s a lot to reflect on here, to think about what this means for our world, for ourselves as creative persons, and for our children if the arts are slighted in their education.
A facsimile of the Seventh Symphony manuscript.
I highly recommend this for ages 15 through adult. Those with a background in music history or the arts, those with an interest in the Soviet Union, WWII, or Stalin — you will be especially rewarded. Copious source notes, a lengthy bibliography, and a number of historical photos are included.
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