Category Archives: war

Win a copy of An Eagle in the Snow

An Eagle in the Snow is an extraordinary story, based on true events, about one moment that could have saved the world from the Second World War.  Michael had me captivated from start to finish.  You can read my review here on the blog.

Thanks to HarperCollins NZ I have 2 copies of An Eagle in the Snow to give away.  All you have to do to get in the draw is email bestfriendsrbooks@gmail.com with the subject line ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ along with your name and address.

Competition closes Monday 26 October (NZ only).

 

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The Bakehouse by Joy Cowley

Joy Cowley is a New Zealand legend.  Children grow up reading her books, from the very first school readers, through to school journals, picture books and on in to novels for children and young adults. She has been writing for many years and that experience truly shows in the depth and quality of her writing.  In the last couple of years the wonderful Gecko Press have been publishing Joy Cowley’s novels for older readers.  Her first with Gecko Press, Dunger, went on to win the Junior Fiction category at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2014.  Then came the haunting, Speed of Light.  Joy Cowley’s latest novel from Gecko Press, The Bakehouse, takes readers back to Wellington during the Second World War.

Viewed from a distance of seventy-plus years, 1943 was history soup, everything mixed up, and it was difficult to separate reality from what he had read or been told.  One event, though, was crystal clear and refused to be forgotten.  He’d never talked about it to the others, not Meg and certainly not Betty, but he didn’t want to be buried with the truth.

Someone should know what happened that winter day.

Bert wants nothing more than be old enough to fight in the war—to handle weapons, defend his country, and have a life filled with adventure. Little does he know that the secrets and danger of war don’t always stay at the front line, and that one boy’s actions can change everything.

The Bakehouse is Joy Cowley at her best.  It’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel about secrets, lies and how the consequences of one boy’s actions ripple throughout his family.  Joy Cowley shows readers what life was like in New Zealand in 1943, with the threat of Japanese invasion and many of the men off at war.

We meet Bert as an old man in a nursing home, who recalls the story of the Geronimo Bakehouse for his grandson.  There is something that Bert needs to get off his chest, something to do with the Bakehouse, and as the story progresses you wonder what the big secret is that Bert has been keeping for seventy-odd years.  It is Bert who first ventures in to the Bakehouse and claims it as the family’s bomb shelter.  He cleans and tidies it ready for his family, and one day decides to show his sisters.  It is on this day that they discover a soldier hiding in the Bakehouse.  The soldier, Donald, has escaped from the army and is hiding in fear of being captured and court marshalled.  Bert and his sisters keep Donald as their secret and look after him, bringing him food and clothing.  Life gets complicated for the children, but little do they know what is to come and how much their lives will change in one moment. You know that something bad is going to happen but I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out.

The way that Joy tells the story reminds me of John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas.  Like Bruno in that story, Bert is a naive boy who doesn’t quite understand what is going on around him.  There are several incidents in the book where, as an adult, you know what is being implied but Bert has no idea.  Bert can’t understand why his sister Betty wants to go and visit Donald so much, especially without her brother or sister.  When Bert’s Auntie Vi takes him and his sister to the movies, but then ends up meeting her friend and a couple of soldiers, disappearing with them, we know what is implied but Bert is confused.  It is very good storytelling.

Gecko Press should be applauded for once again producing a wonderful little package that matches the other Joy Cowley books that they have published.

The Bakehouse is a must-read book from a New Zealand legend.

Recommended for 9+

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Morris Gleitzman on his new novel, Soon

Watch the video to hear more from Morris Gleitzman about Soon, Felix’s story so far, and the unexpected reaction to the series in Germany.

Soon is out now in NZ from Penguin Random House

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I Can’t Wait For…Soon by Morris Gleitzman

Morris Gleitzman’s Once , and the sequels Then, Now and After, are some of my favourite books.  As soon as I started reading Felix’s story I felt like he was my best friend and I wanted everything to work out for him.  If you haven’t read this brilliant series yet (you really should) it’s about Felix, a boy growing up in Poland during World War Two.  His story is heartbreaking and harrowing and Morris Gleitzman really tugs on your heartstrings.  I wrote a post back in 2013 about the books that hold a special place in my heart and these books certainly do.

I heard Morris Gleitzman talk at the Auckland Writers Festival about Felix and his story.  Morris told us that he’s not ready to let Felix go yet (which I can totally understand) and that he has 7 books planned in this sequence.  That means we still have 3 books to look forward to about Felix.  The next book in the sequence is Soon, coming this month from Penguin Random House.  Here is the blurb:

I hoped the Nazis would be defeated.
And they were.

I hoped the war would be over.
And it was.

I hoped we would be safe.
But we aren’t.

Soon continues the incredibly moving story of Felix, a Jewish boy still struggling to survive in the wake of the liberation of Poland after the end of World War Two.

I can’t wait to read Soon to find out what happens to Felix next!

What are your thoughts on the series?  Have you read them?

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John Boyne talks about Stay Where You Are And Then Leave

The day the First World War broke out, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the following day. Four years later, Alfie doesn’t know where his father might be, other than that he’s away on a special, secret mission.

Then, while shining shoes at King’s Cross Station, Alfie unexpectedly sees his father’s name – on a sheaf of papers belonging to a military doctor. Bewildered and confused, Alfie realises his father is in a hospital close by – a hospital treating soldiers with an unusual condition. Alfie is determined to rescue his father from this strange, unnerving place

I’m loving John Boyne’s latest book, Stay Where You Are And Then Leave. Here’s John talking about the book

Stay Where You Are And Then Leave is out in bookstores and libraries now.

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2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards Finalist: My Brother’s War by David Hill

My Brother’s War by David Hill is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.  This was one of the books that I hadn’t read at the time it was released, but I read it recently as part of my challenge to read all of the 2013 finalists. 

I’ve been a huge fan of David Hill since I was a kid.  I remember See Ya Simon being read to me at school in Year 6, laughing out loud one minute then crying the next.  One of the things I love about David is that he hasn’t stuck to one type of story.  He’s written historical stories, hilarious school stories, thrilling adventure stories, and even some science fiction (Bodies and Soul is one of my favourites).  David is a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards with his novel, My Brother’s War, which offers a different perspective on the Great War and the New Zealanders who went to fight.

My Dear Mother,

Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve joined the Army!

Don’t be angry at me, Mother dear. I know you were glad when I wasn’t chosen in the ballot. But some of my friends were, and since they will be fighting for King and Country, I want to do the same.

It’s New Zealand, 1914, and the biggest war the world has known has just broken out in Europe.

William eagerly enlists for the army but his younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector and refuses to fight. While William trains to be a soldier, Edmund is arrested.

Both brothers will end up on the bloody battlefields of France, but their journeys there are very different. And what they experience at the front line will challenge the beliefs that led them there.

My Brother’s War is a compelling story about two brothers who have very different opinions and experiences of the First World War.  William feels very strongly that he needs to play his part in the war and so he enlists in the army.  The people in his town commend him for being brave and doing his part.  He believes he is doing what is right to protect his country and the people he loves.  He can’t understand his brother and thinks that his refusal to enlist is ‘wrong and stupid.’  His brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector who believes it is wrong to go to war and kill other people.  The story switches between their two points-of-view so you see the huge differences in their experience of war.  The story is mainly told in the third person, but each of the characters write letters to their mother which gives more of an insight into their thoughts and feelings.

You experience the build up to the fighting and the horrible conditions of the battlefield through William’s story, but it was Edmund’s story that shocked me.  I knew a little about conscientious objectors before reading this book but Edmund’s story really opened my eyes to how horribly they were treated.  Conscientious objectors like Edmund were labeled cowards and treated like second-class citizens.  Edmund constantly refuses to obey army orders, but in the end really has no choice.  He’s put on a boat and taken to France where he is forced on to the battlefields.  In the training camps he is locked away with little food and water, and he also faces excruciating punishment for not following orders.  Edmund is incredibly strong-willed though and stands by his principles.

A quote from Edmund towards the end of the book sums up war perfectly , ‘I never knew some men could do such dreadful things to one another, and I never knew some men could be so kind and brave.’

My Brother’s War presents a view point of war that hasn’t been dealt with before and it’s a story that all older children should read.  It would be a great book to share as a class text in Year 7/8 as it would create a lot of discussion.

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The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen

Before he becomes a bush, Toda’s father is a pastry chef. He gets up at the crack of dawn to bake twenty different sorts of pastries and three kinds of cake. Until, one day, everything changes. Fighting  breaks out in the south and Toda’s father has to go there to defend his country.

Luckily he has a manual called ‘What every soldier needs to know’. This tells him how to hide from the enemy by using branches and leaves to disguise himself as a bush.

Toda remains in the city with her grandmother but even there it’s no longer safe. She is sent to stay with her mother who lives across the border. Toda’s journey is full of adventure and danger. But she doesn’t give up. She has to find her mother.

The Day My Father Became a Bush is a touching story about war told from the unique perspective of a girl who is caught in the middle.  The war that is taking place in the story is not identified as a specific war, only that the north is fighting the south.  The events of the story, including families being split up, fathers going away to fight, children being sent away, and a dangerous journey to get to safety are applicable to any war though, which makes Joke’s story universal.

As in some of the best stories about war, this story is narrated by a child (Toda) who is caught in the middle of this horrible event.  Toda is one of those characters you can’t help but love because she has a unique way of looking at things.  It’s her view of things that bring some humour to the situation she is in.  When Toda is hiding in the forest waiting for the coast to be clear, she finds the best thing to do is to give her brain something to do.  She lists her favourite foods (including her father’s pastries), her classmates, and then she lists things in alphabetical order (from Ape to Zebra).  I love the way that Toda describes different things too, like the way that she feels.  When an old couple take her in to their home and offer her some food she says, ‘My stomach was full of homesickness.  There was no room for anything else.’

On her journey, Toda meets some strange and interesting characters too.  There are some families who come to the public welfare home to give books and toys to the children, but then end up taking them away as they seem ungrateful, there is a room of old women who want to adopt her as their granddaughter, a strange old couple who try to kidnap Toda, and a captain who has deserted the army because he can’t command.  This captain was one of my favourite characters because he gives you a different perspective of the captains who give the orders during war.  One of my favourite quotes from the book came from this captain.

“I couldn’t command,” he said. “When I had to call out, ‘Open fire!’ I said instead, ‘Perhaps we should try shooting now, as long as it’s not too dangerous and not too much trouble for anyone.'”

Special mention needs to be made of the wonderful translation of Joke’s story by Bill Nagelkerke (recent winner of the Margaret Mahy Medal).  You really get the sense that Bill has remained true to the tone of the story while carefully choosing language that is beautiful to read.

The Day My Father Became a Bush is the best war story I’ve read that is told with so few words.  There is more emotion and character packed into this little book than some authors put in to 300 pages.  It can stand alongside John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword as a must-read war story.

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Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.

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A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

When I was a teenager I went through stages of reading nothing but war stories.  I was fascinated by them because I couldn’t believe how people, especially children, could survive such a horrific event.  These stories put me in the shoes of teenagers in another time, taught me empathy and taught me a lot about the survival instinct of humans.  The thing that always gets me with war stories is that you know these horrible things happened, but you struggle to accept that anyone can be that cruel.   In her latest book, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik introduces us to a Polish family who do everything they can to stay together and stay alive.

Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.

 

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds.  Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink.  They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia.  People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife.  In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.

The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes.  You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food.  When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us.  You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.

One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are.  Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong.  None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a great addition to any home or school library.  It’s a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages.  Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars

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Win A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo

A Medal for Leroy is Michael Morpurgo’s latest book.  It’s a story of war, love and family secrets from this master storyteller.  If you haven’t read a Michael Morpurgobook you don’t know what you’re missing.

Thanks to everyone who entered.  This competition is now closed.

 

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