Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Green Glass Sea, Ellen Klages

Title:  The Green Glass Sea
Author:  Ellen Klages
Publisher:  Puffin
Year:  2008
Pages:  368
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  World War II, Death of a Loved One
Age Range:  4th through 8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads):
It is 1943, and eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is en route to New Mexico, to live with her mathematician father. Soon she arrives at a town that, officially, doesn't exist. It is called Los Alamos, and it is abuzz with activity, as scientists and mathematicians from all over America and Europe work on the biggest secret of all-the gadget. None of them, not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey, know how much the gadget is about to change their lives.

World War II, aside from being one of the largest wars ever fought, gave the world two powerful lessons.  Our lesson from Europe was the dangers of racism, xenophobia, and genocide.  The one from Japan was the dangers of nuclear war.  Oppenheimer and his army of scientists gathered in Los Alamos to create a weapon that was so powerful that just the threat of it would be enough to force the Japanese to surrender.  Unfortunately, once it was finished the government couldn't resist its use.  The Green Glass Sea details the months leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Dewey Kerrigan is an interesting, quirky little girl.  Interested in science, used to being alone, she enjoys tinkering with bits and pieces of old machines and creating new inventions.  She's unique, and so lonely.  The other main character, Suze, is also lonely, but where Dewey seems to have come to terms with her loneliness, Suze is desperate to get the approval of the other girls on "the Hill".  It really isn't a surprise when they find comfort in each other.

This is a rather quiet novel-much of the "action" takes place in the character's thoughts, and in the interactions between Dewey, Suze, and the other children.  But what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in mood-I could feel the dry desert winds and imagine the dust.  I could visualize the small, identical army housing and the "dump" where Dewey went to look for her spare parts.

My only complaint, and it is a small one, is the age level at which this book is written.  The story of the girls would appeal to girls age ten to twelve, but I felt like I relied a lot on my background knowledge of the Manhattan Project and the origin of Los Alamos to figure out what was going on.  I suppose that it may read as mysterious to someone without such background knowledge, but given the fact that most children won't have any clue about the context it seems like they might miss the import of the "gadget".  Of course, it also made me slightly less in awe of the wonder of the sea of glass created by the extreme heat of the bomb.  And when the girls actually walked out on it and collected pieces of it all I could think of was their future reproductive health and cancer risk.  I suppose there is something to be said for the innocence (ignorance) of childhood.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Web English Teacher

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Title:  The Book Thief
Author:  Markus Zukas
Publisher:  Alfred A Knopf
Year:  2007
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  War, Racism, The Holocaust
Age Levels:  9th Grade and Up

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak takes place during World War II, and tells the story of 10 year old Liesel.  Her mother is forced to place her children into foster care.  Liesel's brother dies on the train taking her to Munich, where she is given into the care of a couple on Himmler Street.  Through the tough love of her foster mother, and the sweet compassion of her foster father, she finds a way to cope with not only her brothers death but the quickly declining standard of living in Germany.  Things go along OK, until the dark night that a Jew shows up at their door looking for sanctuary.

Despite the tragedy and the devastation contained within the story, when I think of a word to describe this book I can only say beautiful.  This book is so heartbreakingly beautiful, I could almost weep just from the use of language.  But the story is so compelling that even if it weren't written so beautifully I would have had a hard time putting it down.  So often books about World War II focus solely on the fate of the Jews-and rightfully so.  There is nothing so important as ensuring that the world never experiences that level of genocide-or any genocide-again.  But the fact is that most of the German people were suffering as well, and this book shows so clearly how the poison of hatred and fear spreads, and how it takes an incredible strength not to give in to the despair.  Despite the constant threat of being found out, of starvation, of being killed by bombs, Liesel and her parents held on to their humanity and compassion.

Teacher Resources:
Lesson Index
Web English Teacher