6.30.2015

When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit written and illustrated by Judith Kerr, 192 pp, RL 4

 

Because my mother taught fourth and fifth grade for almost two decades I have known about Judith Kerr's book When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit for almost as long as I have known about her Mog the Cat books. For some reason, though, I never put two and two together and it wasn't until I sat down to write about one of my favorite childhood books, Mog the Forgetful Cat, that I discovered that the author and illustrator of this series is the same Judith Kerr who wrote this amazing memoir that follows the two years of her childhood her her family spent as refugees from Hitler and their native Germany.  I have to admit, I am not an adventurous reader and it is rare that I challenge myself with a book that might be emotionally wrenching. Because of that, I had read very few of the amazing children's books set during the Holocaust like Lois Lowry's Newbery winner, Number the Stars, and Markus Zusak's bestselling, powerful book for young adults and adults, The Book Thief, to name a few. Cautious as I am, I think that Kerr's When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit was the best place for me to start my journey of reading Holocaust fiction for children.

This is because Kerr tells the story entirely from the viewpoint of Anna, her nine-year-old counterpart. The book begins in Berlin in 1933. Anna's world is made up of her friends, her school, her brother Max and his friends and his school. And her parents. Mama is a loving, piano playing mother while Papa is Alfred Kerr, a famous theater critic and poet. We learn this early on when, during a visit to the paper shop, she is cheerfully accosted by Fraulein Lambeck who inquires after Anna's "dear father," and insists that Anna give him her best wishes when she learns he is ill. At almost the same time, the reader learns that Anna is newly aware of Adolf Hitler. While she and her friend Elsbeth are gazing at a poster of Hitler Elsbeth tells Anna that he, "wants everybody to vote for him in the elections and then he's going to stop the Jews." Anna wonders aloud if he will try to stop her and Elsbeth is surprised to learn that her friend is Jewish. The story moves quickly from there with Papa leaving under the cover of night and his illness, for Prague after receiving a call from a sympathetic police officer warning that his passport is about to be confiscated (and indeed the Kerrs learn after fleeing that, the day after elections, the Nazis do indeed come for their passports.) The next morning when Mama is explaining this to the children over breakfast, warning them that they must not tell anyone, not even school friends, that their father has left the country they cannot understand. Mama says, "I've explained it all to you as well as I can. But you're still both children - you can't understand everything. Papa thinks the Nazis might . . . cause us some bother if they knew he had gone. So, he does not want us to talk about it. Now are you going to do what he asks or not?" Because When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit is told from the viewpoint of a child who clearly has protective parents and because the story only covers the time from 1933 to 1935, the horrors of the Nazis, the Holocaust and WWII are largely absent from this story.

However, that does not mean that  When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit is without suspense. Besides the secret flight of her father and the anxiety filled days that pass as they wait for word that they should follow him out of Germany, there is the time when they are changing trains on their way from Switzerland to Paris when they accidentally get on a train bound for Stuttgart. At the last minute, Anna realizes their mistake and she, Max and their father scramble to collect their luggage and get off the train as it is pulling out of the station. There is also the time when they are situated in Switzerland and Anna learns that her father's books have been burned and there is a price on his head. Although she doesn't know what it means to have a price on one's head, Anna imagines a horrible shower of coins falling on him, weighting him down, and knows that this is an ominous thing. And, while (appropriately for the age of the intended audience for this book) there is almost no mention of the hideous persecution of the Jews by Hitler and the Nazis in When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit, there is the haunting figure of Onkel Julius, family friend of the Kerrs, who makes an appearance from time to time over the course of the story. From the start and repeatedly, Alfred Kerr urges his friend to leave Germany. A naturalist who took Anna on frequent visits to the Zoo, Onkel Julius believes that his government job and the fact that he is only half Jewish will keep him safe. Keeping in touch via postcards and referring to Alfred Kerr as "Aunt Alice" so that the Nazis, who are undoubtedly reading his mail, will not be able to locate the Kerrs, Onkel Julius eventually admits his mistake time. On the eve of their joyous departure to London in the summer of 1935, the Kerr's good news is dimmed by word that Onkel Julius, upon having lost his job and had his rights to visit the Zoo revoked, has committed suicide.

Because the events of When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit take place outside of Germany and at the very beginning of the reign of Hitler and the Third Reich, Anna's story is really one of being a refugee. Initially excited by the idea of moving and having a new life, Anna enjoys the months her family spends living at Gasthof Zwirn, an inn outside of Zurich. The Zwirns have a son and daughter who become the playmates to the Anna and Max and their days are filled with friends, school and play much like their lives in Berlin. They even have a visit from Omama, their mother's mother who lives in the south of France. Although Omama is well off and aware of the diminished circumstances of the Kerrs since leaving Germany, she does little to help them. Papa takes the train into Zurich every day and tries to find work as a journalist, but the family exists on very meager means. When there is the possibility of better work in Paris, the family moves once again, this time to a small apartment from which they can see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe at the same time. The Depression has a hold on the French and the Kerr's financial situation does not improve, but their quality of life does. The children learn French quickly and benefit greatly from the hard work and time that they devote to their new French schools. After less than two years living in France, both children take the certificat d'études and Max, formerly a lazy student, is awarded the prix d'excellence. They make friends, visit their Great-Aunt Sarah, Omama's sister who lives in Paris and is more generous with the Kerrs, and experience Bastille Day, from dusk to dawn. 

A truly gifted writer, Kerr weaves meaningful moments throughout  When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit. At the start of the book, Anna is well known for writing and illustrating poems about disasters. By the end of the book, after being given a bolt of fabric from which the nicest winter coat she ever had is made, Anna writes a poem for her Great-Aunt Sarah, the giver of the fabric. Kerr writes, "It described all the clothes in detail and ended with the lines, 'And so I am the happy wearer/ Of all these nice clothes from Aunt Sarah." Upon hearing this, Great-Aunt Sarah responds, "Goodness, child. You'll be such a writer yet, like your father!" During her end of the year exams, Anna writes an essay about what she imagines her father's journey from Berlin to Prague, "with a high temperature, not knowing whether or not he would be stopped at the frontier." Her essay wins her two ten franc notes and the honor of being singled out by the mayor of Paris as the writer of one of the twenty best essays in her year. As work becomes more scarce in Paris, Alfred Kerr has the idea to write a screenplay about the early life of Napoleon and the struggles of his mother to raise her children alone. While he cannot interest any French  production companies in his project, he does find a backer in London who pays him £1,000. This allows the family to leave Paris together and start their lives once again, in a new country with a new language. 

In the beginning of the book, on the train from Berlin to Zurich, Anna reads a book given to them by the family of Max's best friend, Gunther. Titled They Grew to Be Great, it described the 

early lives of various people who later became famous, and Anna, who had a personal interest in the subject, leafed through it eagerly at first. But, the book was so dully written and the tone was so determinedly uplifting that she became discouraged. All the famous people had had an awful time. One of them had a drunken father. Another had a stammer. Another had to wash hundreds of dirty bottles. They all had what was called a difficult childhood. Clearly you had to have one if you wanted to become famous. Dozing in her corner and mopping her nose with her two soaked handkerchiefs, Anna wished that they would get to Stuttgart and that one day, in the long-distant future, she might become famous. But, as the train rumbled through Germany in the darkness she kept thinking, 'difficult childhood . . . difficult childhood . . . difficult childhood.' 

As they get off the train in London and meet up with their Uncle Otto, he says to Anna, "It must be quite difficult to spend one's childhood moving from country to country." Exhausted by the events of the day, at those words, 

something cleared in Anna's mind. 'Difficult childhood . . .' she thought. The past and the present slid apart. She remembered the long, weary journey from Berlin with Mama, how hard it had rained, and how she had read Gunther's book and wished for a difficult childhood so that she might one day become famous. Had her wish come true? Could her life since she had left Germany really be described as a difficult childhood? She thought of the flat in Paris and the Gasthof Zwirn. No, it was absurd. Some things has been difficult, but it had always been interesting and often funny - and she and Max and Mama and Papa had always been together. As long as they were together she could never have a difficult childhood. She sighed a little and abandoned her hopes.

 When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit, was first published in 1971, a year after the first in the MOG series, Mog the Forgetful Cat. I feel certain that, at the she was writing either book, she could not have known how famous she would become.



On a personal note, Judith Kerr was married to writer Nigel Kneale until his death in 2006. Both their children have gone on to have successful creative lives and have achieved a certain amount of fame on their own. Son Matthew Kneale is an author and his book English Passengers won the prestigious Whitbred Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000. Daughter Tacy Kneale is an artist and has worked on special effects for the Harry Potter films. Alfred Kerr's life ended in 1948 on a sad note. At the start of a tour of German cities which began with a warm greeting in a Berlin theater but ended when, after suffering a stroke and finding himself paralyzed, Kerr took his own life. Below is a portrait of Alfred Kerr.

Portrait by Lovis Cornith 1907

6.29.2015

Secret Letters From 0 to10 by Susie Morgenstern, translated by Gill Rosner, 137pp RL 4

First reviewed on 11/16/08, Secret Letters from 0 + 10 left a great impression on me. A wonderful, quiet story, Morgenstern's writing is superlative. Your children will remember this book long into adulthood.

Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern is a gem of a book. It turned up on the shelves of the bookstore one day and I was drawn to the cover, its length and the fact that is is set in France. After reading the author information in the back I learned that Morgentstern is an American who was born in New Jersey and has lived in France for more than thirty years. It is interesting to note that she does not translate her own work. Published in 1996, Secret Letters from 0 to 10 won France's equivalent of the Newbery Award, as well as awards in America. With its large cast of unique characters and a profound, emotional story folded neatly into brief chapters, I am reminded of Polly Horvath's remarkable young adult novels Everything on a Waffle and My One Hundred Adventures. Morgenstern has written over thirty books for children in French, some of which are available in translation and look like they promise to be every bit as wonderful as Secret Letters from 0 to 10, especially The Book of Coupons, also a must read, and the only other book by Morgenstern available in English in the US that is in print. 

Morgenstern is a miniaturist and can create a complete world filled with many lives in a few pages. When we first meet our protagonist, Ernest Morlaisse, he is a ten year old boy living with his eighty year old grandmother, named, but never called, Precious. His small, circumscribed world also includes Germaine, who, although almost as old as his grandmother, serves as their housekeeper and cook. Grandmother never leaves the house, which is without telephone and television, and Germaine feeds the family a regimented diet of simple foods which include a snack of an apple and a single cracker everyday after school and soup every night for dinner. Ernest, who cannot hide the fact that he is quite handsome, has chances to break out of this routine but is afraid to try something he has never experienced, such as the cookies that his admiring female classmates regularly leave on his desk. Ernest does not realize how quiet and empty his life is until a new student in class, Victoria de Montardent, takes the empty seat next to his. Despite her immediate insertion of herself into Ernest's life, Victoria seems only charming and right in everything she says and does, even when she tells anyone who will listen that she and Ernest are in love and will marry in thirteen years, eight months and two days. Victoria never comes off as precocious or sassy, as some characters in books popular in the States can be.

Where Ernest and his life are quiet and bland, Victoria and her life are exuberant and overflowing. After showering Ernest with an avalanche of questions, most about things he had never even bothered to think about ("Have you got a collection?" only brings to mind "the fifty-seven stairs up to his apartment, or the number of steps he took on his way to school) Victoria says, "I've asked enough questions for the moment. Don't you have any for me?" Knowing that he shouldn't ask a question that he does not want to know the answer to, Ernest asks how she came to be named Victoria.  He was expecting:

a history lesson on some British queen, but she answered, "Because I was born after they had had twelve boys. My parents wanted a girl so much that they tried thirteen times . . . and finally they had me. My name means 'victory.'"

Victoria, who is collecting the aluminum wrapping from chocolate bars and hopes to have 2,000 by the year 2000, is surprised by the many foods Ernest has never tasted. Upon hearing that he has never tried chili con carne, she says, "Don't worry, Ernest, I'll take care of your food education, but it would help if you decided to like chocolate." The doors that Victoria opens for Ernest, who in turn opens for his grandmother, are delightful, funny and touching to read about. And it is through this seemingly innocent, every day occurrence of eating that Victoria does educate Ernest and open up his world outside of his his home with Precious. When Germain takes ill and the new housekeeper arrives, things begin to change inside his home as well, again through the magical, transformative medium of food.
While there is a distinct French feel to this book, it is never jarring or even outstanding. While Ten year old Victoria's conviction of her connection to Ernest and their love for each other, and the conniving Elodie's attempts to win him over, seem more teenage in nature, they never felt unnatural or uncomfortable. And who am I to question the French when it comes to love and romance? The cultural and everyday differences flow through the story and only add to the richly detailed differences in of the lives of the characters. Victoria's thriteen brothers, named for the twelve tribes of Israel, ranging in age from twenty-two to six months, and make for some very funny dialogue. Most moving, though, is Ernest's writing. A top student in school, he shares his innermost thoughts in essays sprinkled throughout the book and, along with the letters, had me in tears more than once. "Couscous Sunday" begins like this:

I have never been to a restaurant in my life. I have never been out on a Sunday. I have never eaten couscous. My grandmother has never been outside her apartment for as long as I have known her.

It is a great day when a "never" is erased. But when three "nevers" are erased in one day and are replaced by three "first times," that day is three times as great.

Yesterday, I went out with Grandmother to the restaurant on the corner to eat couscous.

And what about those letters from 0 to 10? Too much about them would give away the many surprises in this short but wonderful book. I can tell you that, in the beginning of the book we learn that Precious' father died in World War I and her husband died in World War II before Gaspard, Ernest's father, was born, and she spends much of her time in bed reading letters from the warfront. Sunday afternoons especially are reserved for "reading" an encrypted letter from her father, Adrian, that she keeps locked in a box. However, none of these are the letters of the title. I was almost done with the book before I stopped to wonder what these letters from 0 to 10 are. And, magically, at that point the story answered me with a poignant revelation that made perfect sense.

Readers who enjoyed Secret Letters from 0 to 10 might also like Saffy's Angel by British author Hilary McKay and is the first in a series of books set about the colorfully messy Casson family and their children, all of whom (except for Saffron) are named after hues from the color chart. When Saffron discovers she is adopted, she secretly plans to find a way from England to Italy to retrieve the secret legacy her mother left behind. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass, while considerably longer than Secret Letters from 0 to 10, is also a story in which a quiet, sheltered boy and an exuberant, lively girl experience life changing situations and encounter the many philosophies and belief systems that people choose in their search for the keys. 

6.28.2015

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont

If I didn't know that The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont, wonderfully written by Victoria Griffith with gorgeous pictures by Eva Montanari, was a work of non-fiction, I would have thought I was reading a fascinating story about two very creative, inventive friends set in turn of the century Paris. That would be a great book. Even better than that? Finding out that these two friends are real people who did some truly amazing things in their time.


I had no idea who Alberto Santos-Dumont was when I opened  The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Griffith's Author's Note at the end of the book tells a terrific story of how she came to know of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Griffith's writes, 

I asked my daughter Sophia,"What did you learn in school today?" "We learned how the Wright Brothers invented the airplane," she answered. It was an unremarkable response to an unremarkable question. So I was unprepared for my Brazilian husband's reaction. "That's ridiculous!" he exclaimed, horrified. "Everyone knows that Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane." I was intrigued.

I am glad she was. I have to confess, airplanes and humans in flight aren't that interesting to me (although I know they are high interest for most little kids, boys especially.) However, early twentieth century Paris, Louis Cartier and the invention of the wristwatch are very interesting to me!
Griffiths begins her book, "Alberto Santos-Dumont loved floating over Paris in his own personal flying machine. It had helped make him one of the most famous men in the city, if not the world! Everyone, he thought, should have this much fun running a small, simple errand." And, as The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont shows us, Santos-Dumont did know how to have fun, how to share it and how to be a gentleman at the same time.
Santos-Dumont also liked to set records with his flying machines but, as he tells his friend Louis Cartier when he arrives late for a coffee date, "as you know, I can't check my pocket watch up in the air." To solve this problem, Cartier invents the wristwatch for his adventurous friend. While the invention of the airplane is a tremendous, momentous event, the invention of something so humble yet so widely used and valued is equally fascinating. To know that Cartier invented the watch not for profit, but to make his friend's pursuits a little easier, is amazing to me, just as amazing as it is to think that these two great men were friends. I think that this connection, between the seemingly mundane wristwatch and enormous feat of taking to the air is the  is one that will resonate and enthrall young (and old) readers of this book.

Griffiths goes on to tell the story of Santos-Dumont's attempt at flying his first invention in 1906. When he arrived at the field, which was filled with spectators, with his plane a competitor, Louis Blériot (who would later become the first man to cross the English Channel in a plane), was waiting there with is aircraft, waiting to steal credit for flying the first airplane out from under Santos-Dumont. Ever the gentleman, Santos-Dumont suggests that his competitor take to the air first. It took Blériot three tries to get his craft into the air. However, on the third try, his plane fell to pieces. Griffith writes, "Alberto watched calmly, sipping a cup of coffee." Not only does Alberto succeed in getting his plane into the air, he stays airborne for twenty-one seconds and goes faster than his dirigible ever did. The next morning, Alberto and his airplane would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Somehow, in our own Americentric way, we look to the Wright Brothers as the inventors of the airplane despite the fact that their first flight in 1903 was with an airplane that needed assistance to get off the ground, where Santos-Dumont's did not.

I love the final piece of information that Griffiths shares in her Author's Note about Santos-Dumont, "Alberto was an idealist. He never sought patents for his inventions and gave away most of the money he won from competitios. He thought his 'flying machines' would bring about permanent world peace." Santos-Dumont invented the Demoiselle, or Dragonfly, the first aircraft to be mass-produced. However, he was also "distraught over the use of his beloved flying machines for warfare and bewildered by his abrupt fall from favor." Griffith's picture book length look into the brighter days of Santos-Dumont's life is valuable on so many levels - as an interesting, out of the ordinary subject for one of those many  biography book reports our kids seem to be doing, as a fascinating story, and as a look into the lives of people who, as is so often the case in any instance of innovation, were working towards the same goal at the same time as several other great minds.

Santos-Dumont Demoiselle


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