Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer

Title:  The Mailbox
Author:  Audrey Shafer
Publisher:  Yearling
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Gabe is an 11 year old boy who has seen a lot in his short life.  After his mother died when he was two, he was bounced around from foster home to foster home until his Uncle Vernon, a reclusive Viet Nam veteran, was located when he was nine.  Two years later, Gabe comes home from his first day of sixth grade to find his uncle dead.  Wracked with grief and unsure what to do, Gabe does not report the death, and leaves for school the next day as if nothing has happened.  When he returns home at the end of the day, his uncle's body is gone, and there is a mysterious note in the mailbox that says, "I have a secret".  Thus starts a mailbox correspondence between Gabe and the mysterious stranger-and a journey towards finding the one person who needs him as much as he needs them.

I picked up this book on an impulse from the book fair at school, and I am so glad that something told me to check it out.  The story is compelling, and the characters are complex and flawed in a way that just begs discussion.  Uncle Vernon's misanthropic veteran is a gruff old man with many, many scars.  It is fair to say that most of him never came out of the jungle.  Gabe is a confused, frightened boy with scars of his own.  All of the more minor characters are completely believable and well-written. 

This is the first middle grade novel that I have seen that deals with any aspect of the war in Viet Nam, and it does so with a real sense of compassion for the veterans who fought there, while at the same time highlighting how war damages those who participate in it.  Not one of the veterans who is featured in the book has been able to entirely leave the experience behind them-and Uncle Vernon and the mysterious stranger are perhaps more damaged than most.  The book also deals with the foster care system and the effects on children who are bounced around from home to home.  Gabe himself had been through a sort of war before he came to his uncle, and he was also scarred by the experience.  It explains why he told no one about his uncle's death-he did not want to go back to not ever being secure in where he would lay his head that night.   

There is some raw language (though no actual swear words) and mature subject matter in this novel, but the readability is pretty low, so I'd say this book would be good for mature 5th and 6th graders, average middle schoolers, and high schoolers who need high-interest, low readability.

Teacher Resources:

The Mailbox Classroom Guide

William Allen White Book Awards Discussion Guides

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Boy Who Dared, Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Title:  The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on a True Story of the Hitler Youth
Author:  Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Publisher:  Scholastic
Pages:  174 plus about 10 pages of photos and a timeline
Genre:  literary non-fiction
Age Range:  6th Grade and Up

The year is 1933, and the world is in the grip of the Great Depression.  Germany is especially hard hit, after paying reparations to the rest of Europe after World War I.  Helmuth Hubener is a German schoolboy, playing with toy soldiers on the floor of his small Hamburg apartment, while outside brown shirted men in jackboots have parades in support of their new chancellor, Adolf Hitler.  At first Helmuth is taken in by the shiny uniforms and nationalist pride-until his Jeweish neighbors' shops are burned, and more and more freedoms are curtailed for everyone.  Forced to join the Hitler Youth, he grows more and more angry, until one fateful decision leads to his imprisonment and execution.

Even though this is billed as a novel, I am going to call it literary non-fiction.  It reads more like a biography than a novel, and while I'm sure some of the events are completely made-up, there is enough non-fiction here that I am not comfortable calling it fiction.

This book is sparsely written, at times almost too sparsely.  Yet Bartoletti does a good job of setting the mood of Germany during the 1930s and early 1940s.  Without going into too much technical detail, Bartoletti lays out some of the reasons that the Germans turned to Hitler in the first place.  She also shows how the media can be used to incite fear and manipulate people into doing things that go against their nature. The characters are portrayed thoughtfully, with care given not to stereotype.  When Helmuth rejects the Nazis at first, it is just as much because of his dislike of his stepfather as it is about being uncomfortable with the Nazi's restrictive laws.  So often in Holocaust literature the German people are shown to be either indifferent to or in favor of the racism and hatred spread by the Nazi's.  This book shows that some people did try to stand up, and that not every German was in love with Hitler.  Helmuth's character is influenced strongly by his brother Gerhard, who is a voice of reason during Helmuth's teenage years.  Gerhard, however, counsels following Hitler's laws in order to be a patriot (and good Mormon).  In the end Helmuth cannot.

This book would make a good companion book to Number the Stars by Lois Lowry or The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.  While most Holocaust fiction focuses on the events around the Jewish internment in concentration camps (and rightly so), there is a place in young adult literature for stories of the ordinary Germans who tried to stand up to the Nazi's.  

Teacher Resources:

Scholastic Discussion Guide 

E-Notes Study Guide