The War that Saved my Life

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Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015). The War that Saved my Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

This is one of my middle daughter’s all time favorite books. It is the story of a ten year old girl who is evacuated during the bombings in World War Two London, and how it changes her world forever. In addition to receiving the Newbery Honor, The War that Saved my Life was a New York Times bestseller, a Schneider Family Book Award Winner, and awarded for being one of the best children’s books of the year by the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Ada is an unusual character for children’s literature, the object of intense abuse by a mother who embarrassed by her clubfoot, never allows her outside of their London flat.  She knows nothing about the world except what her younger brother has shared with her. Secretly teaching herself to walk, Ada escapes the city with her brother, Jamie, and hundreds of other children. When they finally disembark the train, they are the only ones not chosen to be housed by the villagers.

Under much protest, Susan Smith is forced to take them in. Living alone and grieving the loss of her best friend, she is forced to admit that she doesn’t “know a thing about taking care of children” (p.38). Susan learns not only how to care for and teach Ada and Jamie, but to love them as well. Ada, who finds it safer not to rely on or love others, finds healing she never realized she  needed.

The changes in Ada and Susan couldn’t be more beautifully portrayed. It’s a page turner filled with surprises including an extremely late climax- ending unexpectedly and with a punch.  Were the kids and I ever thankful when we discovered that a sequel, The War I Finally Won was being released in October 2017. Together we began reading it aloud the day it arrived, scarcely able to put it down.  The following is from the sequel’s flyleaf:

“This masterwork of historical fiction completes Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity that began with The War That Saved My Life, and shows us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.” (2017)

We only wish it didn’t conclude the story of the characters we have truly come to love. While the heroines do have some misconceptions about faith and salvation, there is nothing objectionable and so much to learn from both novels. Together The War that Saved my Life and The War I Finally Won are a perfect introduction for upper elementary and middle school readers of the history of World War II England, but both are worth the read even if you’re not teaching this time period. As I mentioned in an earlier post (May 5th, 2017), Bradley is also the author of Jefferson’s Sons and Weaver’s Daughter, among other titles.

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A Grain of Rice

Pittman, Helena Clare (1996). A Grain of Rice. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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Humble farmer Pong Lo longs to marry the beautiful Princess Chang Wu, and the feeling is mutual. Unfortunately the Emperor finds the request outrageous,

“Prince!” shrieked the Emperor. “A peasant cannot be a prince! A prince must come from noble blood!” His moustache twitched madly.  (Pittman, p.4)

With his daughter’s coaxing, the Emperor concedes to the farmer’s working in the palace. The clever, cheerful, and hardworking Pong Lo more than proves himself- but it is still not enough to become the son-in-law to the highest in the land. When her father invites all of the young nobles of China in hopes of finding a suitable match for the princess, Chang Wu becomes gravely ill in her sorrow over not marrying Pong Lo.

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“With no hope of marrying Pong Lo she grew sadder and sadder until at last she only stayed in bed. Her black eyes lost their sparkle and her cheeks became pale.” (Pittman, p.20)

With his knowledge of herbs Pong Lo creates a potion to save the princess. He tells the Emperor, “It will cure the disease if the heart is willing. But you must tell the Princess that it comes from me.” The Emperor promises the farmer anything he wants if his daughter lives, but when her health is restored, and Pong Lo again requests her hand in marriage, the Emperor still will not budge. And so the clever Pong Lo requests… a grain of rice.

“But if His Majesty insists, he may double the amount every day for a hundred days.” (Pittman, p.32)

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And a lesson in multiplication is born! Pong Lo becomes the richest person in the land, and deemed acceptable to provide for the Princess Chang Wu.

A Grain of Rice is a simple, humorous story incorporating some wonderful character qualities, while making mathematics meaningful at the same time. Reading level is 4.0, but this title is very appropriate as a read aloud for early elementary students, and just plain fun for the entire family to listen to. I would recommend it as one resource for learning about Asian cultures to use with six and seven year olds, while older siblings are enjoying Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

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Lewis, Elizabeth Foreman (1932). Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is a must read for any literature based history unit on the Eastern Hemisphere. As the fortieth anniversary’s book jacket describes, “Elizabeth Foreman Lewis has vividly portrayed the turmoil of Chinese life during the 1920’s”- and she has. Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1932, and translated into more than a dozen languages, this book is a perfect example of how to make learning history fun.

It is the story of a changing period in the city of Chungking as seen through they eyes of a teenage boy experiencing adventures with bandits, fire, flood, and uprisings. This book keeps moving. Through page turning historical fiction readers learn about the Chinese fears of angering spirits, and of western ideas. They learn about social classes, customs, lifestyles, foot binding- even Marxist philosophy and drug abuse. As is common in Asian children’s literature there is an emphasis on the values of humility and diligence. Following the story are additional historical notes to fill in any gaps,

Young Fu is a likeable protagonist, as is the coppersmith, Tang, to whom he is apprenticed. Fourteen when the story begins, and eighteen when it’s finished, this book is perfect for fifth through eighth graders. Young Fu’s heart is one of integrity and kindness, and young readers (and listeners) will be blessed that while he makes his share of foolish mistakes, he always learns from them.

Heart of a Samurai

Preus, Margi (2010). Heart of a Samurai. New York: Amulet Books.

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Heart of a Samurai is the fictional account of a Japanese teenager’s unprecedented encounter with America in the mid 1800’s. Shipwrecked at the age of fourteen, Manjiro, (also known by his American name, John Mung), is rescued by a whaling vessel, along with four of his Japanese shipmates. After sailing for two years with the crew of the John Howland, Manjiro returns to the United States with Captain Whitfield, who later adopts him. In the book, Manjiro must address fears based on preconceived ideas,  homesickness, and choose between a myriad of opportunities placed before him.

To give you a taste of Pruis’ writing style, here is an excerpt that shows the inner struggle Manjiro is going through. He has just been informed by a Japanese shipmate that the choice to stay with the rescued sailors from his own country, or go on to America with Captain Whitfield, was to be his own:

“Manjiro opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Thoughts collided in his mind. To see America…but to possibly miss a chance to return home to his mother and family. To learn a thousand new things…but to go to a strange place where people might hate and reject him. To feel again the lift of his heart when the sails filled with wind and the ship seemed to soar over the ocean…but to have to say goodbye to his comrades with whom he’d shared so much…” (Pruis, p,74)

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In Japan Manjiro was being raised as a Buddhist. Not much mention is made of this, other than a reference to early missionaries trying to change not only the beliefs of the Japanese people, but their lifestyles as well. John Mung’s adoptive family must change churches twice before finding one accepting of their new son, but it is clear that somewhere along the way, he was presented with the gospel, for in his final letter to Captain Whitfield  before returning to Japan he writes:

“I hope you will never forget me, for I have thought about you day after day; you are my best friend on earth, besides the great God.” (Pruis, p.251)

In this her first novel, Margi Preus successfully weaves together a number of historical accuracies into creative writing. The book is informative in its descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, the codes of the Samurai, the  California Gold Rush, and Japanese and American perceptions of one another in the mid-nineteenth century. Heart of a Samurai is suitable as a read-aloud for any age, and as an independent read for grades six through eight. It could be used in conjunction with Commodore Perry and Land of the Shogun, perhaps reading  this aloud and having the kids read Preus’ book on their own. (Manjiro’s adventure, and consequent ability to counsel and interpret for the Japanese government, was instrumental in paving the way for the end to 250 years of Japanese isolationsism). It can also be connected to Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, as after returning to Japan, Manjiro translates his book The New American Practical Navigator into Japanese. (Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr. Bowditch was awarded the Newbery medal in 1956).

In addition to being a Newbery honor (2011), Heart of a Samurai made the Best Children’s Books of the Year lists for Bank Street College, the New York Public Library, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Beautifully done!

The Kite Fighters

Park, Linda (2000). The Kite Fighters. New York, NY: Random House.

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Linda Sue Park is one of my all time favorite authors. In October of 2012 I had the privilege not only of hearing her speak, but of sitting beside her for both lunch and a campfire, when I attended the Books That Rise Above conference offered by the Highlights Foundation. She is best known for her Newbery award winner A Single Shard, however my personal favorite of all her books for children is The Kite Fighters.

Set in 1473, The Kite Fighters is the story of a second born Korean son coming to terms with his role in the family. Young-sup, and his older brother, Kee-sup, are more than excited about the annual New Year kite fighting competition. Kee-sup is gifted at kite design, but it is Young-sup who naturally possesses skill at flying. As the elder brother it is Kee-sup who is expected to bring honor to the family name, and who subsequently receives the boys’ father’s attention. Young-sup and Kee-sup remain close even as the expectations change when Kee-sup is “capped” (recognized as an adult in Korean culture).

I love the way Linda Sue Park keeps the brothers’ friendship strong, even allowing Kee-sup to risk correction for disagreeing with their father. And I love how she weaves in the young king’s loneliness for friends his own age. I also really like that it isn’t until the end of the story that the boys’ father begins to see things differently.

Rich in cultural knowledge, The Kite Fighters is an excellent example for upper elementary aged readers of a radically different set of  customs and traditions. It is brimming with experiences easy for young readers to identify with: sibling and parent relationships, fairness and honesty, and competition. They will hardly notice they are learning history- and if they’re anything like me, Young-sup, Kee-sup, and their friend, the king, will remain favorite characters for years to come.

Also recommended by Linda Sue Park: A Single Shard, A Long Walk to Water, The Firekeeper’s Son, and Seesaw Girl.