Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a novel of hope and survival in the face of heinous acts committed during WWII. Inspired by her family’s history in Lithuania, Sepetys integrates true accounts and experiences from survivors as she reminds readers of the ethnic cleansing of the Baltic States that took place under Stalin’s regime. Told from the perspective of a resilient 15-year-old, Lina Vilkas, the story begins with the night NKVD officers, a Soviet law enforcement agency, brutally take Lina and her family from their home. The two children have no idea why they are forced out of their home, but the mother ensures them they will be back. Separated from the father, the officers put Lina, her mother and younger brother onto a train bound for Siberia. The children quickly discover there are hundreds of others in their situation.
As Lina finds out where and why the Soviets annexed so many, so do the readers. The passages in the book alternate between the present and to happier times in the past. Through flashbacks, Lina realizes her parents and their friends foresaw the Soviet attack, but no one anticipated the gravity of the damage it would cause. While Sepetys does not delve deeply into political details behind the invasion, she does clearly describe the mistreatment of the Baltic people. The trains transport thousands of people to work in grueling labor camps. The NKVD condemns those who survive the horrendous train journey to manual labor to earn their rations, a piece of bread. Lina, in her happier past, was going to attend an intense summer program for bourgeoning artists. She secretly uses her artistic talents to find calm and solace while documenting  the atrocities. Since there is so much emphasis placed on Lina’s art, it would have been nice to see some illustrations. While Lina, her family and all those at the camp are in the most horrific situation imaginable, everyone tries to keep their spirits up as best as they can by sharing happy stories from their past. In the midst of all this is a small love story. Lina and Andrius’ friendship and gradual understanding of each other turns into an everlasting hope. It is a bleak story and it gets worse as it progresses, but it is definitely worth reading.


Something Silly

As our November Picture Book Month draws to an end, I would just like to observe that 2104 has been a good year for very silly stories. Children love a giggle, and these books are great for curling up with someone small for read aloud fun.

Let's start with No Nap! Yes Nap! by Margie Palatini, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Read this to the very youngest, whose own vocabulary may consist largely of "No no no!" A patient mother chases Baby all over the house trying to persuade him that it is nap time. Baby can think of plenty of things he'd rather do instead. Clap, sing, get a drink, etc. The dialog is completely at the toddler level. Yaccarino's retro-feeling illustrations have a lively palette that matches the manic mood.

Now let's consider Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin. This may be the truly silliest title I will list today. The far-fetched but charming premise is that when bubbles pop, they do not disappear, but turn up in a special place called La-La Land, whose residents are easily frightened monsters. Based on his unfortunate experience with bubble gum, one of the monsters has persuaded the others that bubbles are dangerous. It takes a calming narrator, with help from young readers, to empower the monsters to use their teeth, horns and claws to attack the fragile invaders. Perhaps this book could be used to encourage youngsters to confront their own fears, but really I don't think Rubin has anything that serious in mind!

Froodle by Antoinette Portis, appeals to kids' love of imitating animal noises. The catch here is that, starting with a small brown bird, the critters get bored with their usual sounds and start speaking very creatively.  The crow starts out stiffly resisting the changes, but in the end even he can't resist joining in.

Now that we're heading into holiday craziness, take a minute or two now and then to read to your kids!


Picture Book Month: Favorite Thanksgiving Picture Books

We have been celebrating Picture Book Month all month long. This week is extra special because not only is it Picture Book Month – but it’s also Thanksgiving! Libraries and librarians give thanks for picture books and the authors and illustrators who create them. Visit the Picture Book Month website and read a series of articles about why picture books are important. 
To celebrate Thanksgiving and Picture Book Month, I thought I’d take a moment to highlight my two favorite Thanksgiving themed picture books. Both books are humorous and silly rather than serious, and both books are best appreciated when read-aloud.

‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey is a play on the classic Christmas story by Clement Moore. This rhyming book follows a bus filled with children as they take a school field trip to a turkey farm on the day before Thanksgiving. The children tour the farm and fall in love with their new feathered friends. When the turkeys’ fate is revealed, the children create a heartwarming plan to save the turkeys. The book ends with a Happy Thanksgiving for all. This book is funny, witty and surprisingly sentimental. The bright and festive pictures ensure this delightful picture book will be enjoyed by both younger and older children, and even adults!

I Know and Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie by Alison Jackson chronicles the antics of one very hungry Thanksgiving guest as she eats the ultimate Thanksgiving feast. This amusing story will make you laugh and giggle. Children devour this book and can’t wait to turn the page to see what the very hungry house guest will eat next. Page after page, the feast continues! Judith Schachner illustrated the book, and her drawings are the perfect complement to this story. Older and younger children will be thankful for this Thanksgiving tale.

Both of these picture books are fun to look at and fun to read. These are two of my favorites, but take the opportunity to seek out some of your own favorite Thanksgiving themed picture books. You may also enjoy – Clifford’s Thanksgiving Visit and Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving. If you get a moment this week or weekend, get everyone together, grab a great picture book and settle in for a different type of Thanksgiving treat.


The Ruby in the Smoke, Classic Young Adult Historical Thriller

After years of being urged to do so, I’ve just finally read Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke.  It was originally published in 1985 and is the first of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries quartet.  Let me start by saying that you’ve got to read it.  And, there’s a reason why books like these are classics.

It’s 1872 in London and sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart, our protagonist, has fairly recently lost her father, a shipping agent, to drowning in the Far East.  Although briefly forced to live with a distasteful aunt and prevented from getting at some of her inheritance, Sally has a head for financial matters and devises a plan to make the most of her immediate family’s investments.  Sally is intelligent, practical, conscientious, a bit shy and a tad self-conscious about the untraditional education she received from her father, which did not include classic literature.

One day Sally receives a mysterious letter from Singapore which warns her to “beware of the seven blessings”.  When she mentions this odd message to her father’s company’s secretary, the man has a heart attack and dies.  It is here that she meets Jim, a smart and straightforward boy a few years younger than Sally who takes it upon himself to help solve the mystery surrounding the letter.

Sally shortly receives a note from a Mr. Marchbanks asking her to come see him.  When she does, this frightened man warns her of the presence on his property of Mrs. Holland -- one of the novel’s principal baddies –  and hurriedly gives Sally a diary to help her figure everything out.  Although all but a page or two of this diary is shortly stolen from Sally, she manages to escape Mrs. Holland’s pursuit of her by hiding out in the tent of Frederick Garland, a talented young photographer.  The two strike up a friendship and Sally eventually moves in with Frederick and his sister, repaying them by using her business acumen to revive their photography business. 

This is just the beginning of a novel filled with suspense and adventure, all centered around the priceless gem mentioned in the title and Sally’s father.   Characterization is rich and varied and there is honest self-reflection on the part of Sally.  The Ruby in the Smoke is a true page-turner with a capable but real heroine who does feel fear but decides to take thoughtful action.  I recommend this novel for middle schoolers, teens and adults.

I actually “read” the audiobook and I very highly recommend this format.  Anton Lesser’s nuanced vocalization of the text brought so much to the story and all of the characters’ personalities  – you’re tempted to listen to the whole thing at once.  It was hard to believe that I was listening to just one reader, so varied were the voices and tones that he leant each character.  This Random House/Listening Library edition actually won an AudioFile Earphones Award and was recommended by the American Library Association for both young adults and children. 

At OC Public Libraries, we have the print version of The Ruby in the Smoke (and its sequels), the audiobook and the film, all available for you to check out.  Also, here is a Booklist article about additional Victorian mysteries for young people in our Literature Resource Center database.