Prom: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge

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promProm: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Twenty-First Century, 2017.

Psychotherapist Zimmerman Rutledge looks at one of the American teen’s rites of passage: the prom. Starting with traditional proms from their beginning as middle-class versions of the debutante ball, the book then briefly examines changing cultural attitudes since then, and how this has affected prom.

However, the author’s intent is also to show that prom is not stuck in the unenlightened 1950’s, and there are chapters about how proms are now integrated and (mostly) welcoming to LGBTQ couples, and photographs to reflect this.

Prom fashion is a central theme, though there is a scarcity of photographs of many of the dresses described, including in a section on how fabulous dresses need not cost a fortune.

The author tries hard to moderate the perception of prom’s weighty significance with a rather-longwinded chapter of tips and not always rosy reflections from twenty-somethings; and there is advice on dealing with the pressures that can lead to a challenging experience, along with helpful resources.

Though there are few nonfiction books on this topic, a mismatch between the style of the book (chatty tone, large font) and the age of the intended audience make this a discretionary purchase for libraries but it may be of interest to some teens.

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick

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plot-to-kill-hitlerThe Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son in a large, wealthy, brilliant German family. Born in 1906, he lived through the First World War (in which one of his brothers was killed) and then went into theology, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime at a time when the Church was, at best, keeping quiet and, at worst, actively supporting Hitler and his decidedly unChristian policies.

Dietrich, along with his one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law plus members of the military all became involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. Most of them were captured and executed before the end of the war.

After a 1943 prologue in which Bonhoeffer is quietly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Gestapo to arrest him, the subsequent chapters are laid out chronologically, mixing both the events in Germany and Bonhoeffer’s activities and thought processes. This allows the reader to see how he progresses from a brilliant theology student to outspoken opposition, as the Nazis unleash their “Final Solution” and shows his justification for plotting to commit murder.

McCormick does a terrific job of showing how Bonhoeffer’s position was solidified by both his internal threshing through of the issues and by external discussion with members of the Church outside Germany, notably in New York. He had many opportunities to stay out of Germany but his conscience would not let him: “It was not enough to simply “bandage the victim under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself.” (Hey – notice any similarities to the present day in the US?).

Throughout the book, the author inserts snippets of a timeline, so the reader can understand the context of what they’re reading, and there are also boxed off inserts which further explain some of the events.

Back matter includes an author’s note explaining how Bonhoeffer’s writings have resonated with oppressed people across the world.

(Note: there is a quotation on the back of the book “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” which is attributed to Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately this appears to be an incorrect attribution.)

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!

Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

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factory-girlFactory Girl by Josanne La Valley
Clarion, 2017.

Inspired by the author’s experiences while traveling in northern China, the author uses the fictional story of Roshen to shed light on the young Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) women who are transported thousands of miles to work in Chinese factories. As the Chinese suppress Uyghur culture and traditions, the oppressed families are coerced into signing over their teenage daughters under the Transferring Surplus Labor Force to Inner China policy with threats of losing their land and livelihoods by the Chinese cadres who rule the provinces.

Roshen, along with several other Uyghurs, is assigned to the Hubei Work Wear Company as, effectively, indentured labor. They are forced to work long hours in harsh conditions, poorly fed, tricked out of their pay, and kept isolated from their families and the outside world. Despised and discriminated against by the Chinese, both for their ethnicity and for being Muslim, the young women have different coping mechanisms: Roshen is outwardly “sweet” but inwardly recalls traditional poetry; Mikray rebels and tries to escape; and Hawa cozies up to the factory owner. Though the young women are preyed upon and exploited by the bosses, there are a few kind locals who try and alleviate their situation as best they can.

Roshen holds close the poetic command to “wake up!” but she lacks agency, and it’s there that the novel falls down a bit. Of course, in real life, simply surviving this ordeal would be an achievement, but in a novel like this, the protagonist really needs to be less passive.

Other than Roshen, the other Uyghurs are a little thinly developed. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of them and only a handful emerge with any clarity. However, the strength of the protective kinship between the young women is beautifully drawn and contrasts sharply with the utter hopelessness of their situation. The author does not pull her punches about the casual and relentless cruelty and indifference of their bosses.

There are some context notes at the end, and a few sources for further reading, but it does appear that the deliberate persecution of the Uyghurs and the elimination of their culture is mostly undocumented.

Ideal for teens interested in novels about social justice.

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It Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt

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it-looks-like-thisIt Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt
Candlewick, 2016.

This is a moving, if somewhat melodramatic, coming out story that has power in its quiet understatement. 14-year old Mike’s family moves to a small town in Virginia and Mike settles in at school: he makes a few friends but also attracts the attention of bully Vincent. Then, thrillingly, he meets Sean and as they work on a French project together, their friendship moves into something else.

Both Mike and Sean come from socially conservative and deeply religious families, and neither Mike nor Sean know what to do with their attraction except keep it secret. Mike’s Dad is always on at him about playing sports (a bit of a cliche), whereas Mike is interested in art, and uses his acute observational skills to write some lovely descriptions (ok, time to confess – this is where I should put in a quote, but I had to give the book back and didn’t take any notes, so this is all done on memory. I also forgot to note down if there were any descriptions that would indicate racial diversity. Sorry).

Mike appears to brush off the abuse from his father, Victor, and even his teachers, but it gradually emerges that he has absorbed it. Though the word “gay” is never used, it is clear that his parents, church, and much of the school is homophobic, and take offence at Mike’s demeanor. But his two friends, and his younger sister, Toby (sigh – why do strong girls always have to have boys’ names?) are supportive and protective, vehemently so in Toby’s case.

The book has a melancholy, foreboding air, right from the start and, inevitably, tragedy ensues, though here the novel crosses the line into melodrama, But on the horizon, there is hope, more tolerance, and, at least, an effort to be more accepting.

I found this book most absorbing, and I think it will appeal to teens who enjoy well-written, character-driven realistic novels.

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Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).

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