Kid Lit Review of “Virginia Was a Spy: The Story of World War II Heroine Virginia Hall” by Catherine Urdahl

Virginia Hall was born in 1906 on her family’s farm in Baltimore, Maryland. In school she excelled in languages and hoped to become a government diplomat.

In the 1930s while working as an embassy clerk in Turkey, she lost her left leg below the knee after a hunting accident. Thereafter she wore a wooden prosthetic attached to her thigh. She accepted another clerkship in Italy where she was working when World War II started. Virginia made her way to London and trained with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was a secret agency coordinating sabotage, rescue, and spying missions in occupied Europe.

As each episode in Virginia’s life is presented, along with horrific setbacks and obstacles, the author repeats the refrain, “Virginia was Virginia,” accentuating her persistence and valor.

In August 1941 Virginia became the first female SOE agent sent into France. In 1944 she directed nearly 1500 resistance fighters in acts of sabotage. In the Afterword the author tells us:

“For her heroic actions in supporting the liberation of France, Virginia was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. She was one of only three U.S. civilians and the only woman to receive the prestigious honor for service during World War II.”

In 1951 Virginia became one of the first female officers at the CIA. She retired in 1966 and until her death, the author writes, she enjoyed reading spy novels, inter alia.

Good story aside, Gary Kelley’s pastel illustrations are exceptional as always, not only for their realism but for their beauty and ability to engage the emotions of the viewer.

If adults are interested in pursuing her story, they can find an excellent biography by Sonia Purnell: A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, published by Viking, 2019.

Evaluation: This inspiring biography for ages 6 and up has a number of lessons to impart, including the dangers (rather than oft-touted “glamour”) of wartime and the ways in which a disability doesn’t necessarily mean one cannot live a full life making many contributions to the welfare of others. And frankly, even aside from the story, any book illustrated by Gary Kelley is worth perusing for the art.

Virginia Hall, CIA photo, via NPR

Rating: 5/5

Published by Creative Editions, an imprint of the Creative Company, 2020

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Review of “Hatchet Island” by Paul Doiron 

This is the 13th book in Doiron’s crime series featuring former Maine game warden and now warden investigator, 32-year-old Mike Bowditch. (In Maine, game wardens are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers: “They are the ‘off-road police.’” A warden investigator, on the other hand, is “for all intents and purposes a plainclothes detective.”)

This book begins with Mike and Stacey Stevens, now back together again after two years apart, heading out in canoes for a camping trip. They decided to take a detour to Baker Island, a seabird research station off the coast, after Stacey received a call for help from Kendra, her college roommate and fellow intern on Baker Island. Coming ashore, they learned that not only the puffin population was in danger, but the biologists as well. They were being threatened by local lobstermen and harassed by unknown assailants. Moreover, the head of the facility, Maeve McLeary, seemed to be falling apart and had become quite unpredictable. She had taken off to parts unknown, and they were worried.

After talking to the biologists – Kendra along with Hillary and Garrett, they left to sleep on a nearby islet, but were awakened by gunshots. When they returned to Baker, they discovered the gruesome murders of two of the researchers, and the third one missing. Mike and Stacey called in the Marine Patrol and the state police, and began their own investigation. They not only unlocked the secrets to what was happening on the island currently, but what had happened in the past to lead to this awful moment.

Discussion: I love learning more about the biology of Maine from Doiron’s books. He excels at evoking the sights, sounds, and even smells of the area, as in these passages when Mike and Stacey set out on their canoes. No Maine tourism guide could be as compelling:

“The sea was a sheet of hammered platinum. Every stir of my paddle brought the fecund smell of the ocean into my nose and mouth. It was as if I could taste the teeming life in the depths: the phytoplankton and the zooplankton, the oyster beds, the shoals of mackerel, and the deep-diving seals. The sensory stimulation left me feeling intoxicated.”

“The sea was a chameleon; it changed color as the mist lifted. It had been a leaden gray when we’d pushed off from the boat launch. Now in the fullness of the sunlight, the water above the shoals was transmuted, as if by alchemy, from metal into turquoise. Out in the open ocean, it changed again, becoming as hard and blue as sapphire.”

On Baker Island:

“Above the island, a living storm was raging. White shapes spiraled skyward like pieces of paper blown aloft, and from the cloud of seabirds came a cacophony of barks, shrieks, cackles, and screams. Half a dozen species giving voice to their alien, unknowable emotions.”

Evaluation: The crimes in Doiron’s books can be complicated, but they hold your attention. I always look forward to more stories in the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2022

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Kid Lit Review of “Why?” by Taye Diggs

“Why?” Is a book that perfectly mirrors the reaction to children who are trying to understand all they see and hear around them. Diggs reported he was inspired by questions by his own son, and surely everyone with a child will be very familiar with the “why” phenomenon.

In this case, the Black children asking the questions are curious about protests against racism. The adults reply honestly. For example, a little girl asks her granddad: “Why are those people marching?” He replies, “Our people are marching because we have been stomped on and stepped over for way too long. Way, way too long.”

More controversial activities are included, as when a young child asks, “Why are those buildings burning?” The adult answers:

“Because, little one . . .
when we get tired of shouting
and not being heard,
when we have cried so many
tears from always getting hurt,
when we scream out for help
and continue to get ignored,
when we march and march and
march but are not really moving –
when all this happens. . .
Sometimes buildings must burn.
The buildings burn for us.
The anger burning those
buildings is us.”

The message has not gotten through to whites, however. In fact, it is being drowned out recently with white backlash in the form of “The Great Replacement Theory,” i.e., as articulated by Renaud Camus, a popular proponent of the theory, the belief that native white Europeans are being replaced in their countries by non-white immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the end result will be the extinction of the white race. A domestic terrorism database shows that Right-wing extremism began gathering fresh momentum after the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. Now domestic terrorism incidents have soared to new highs in the United States, driven chiefly by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremists on the far right.

Blacks are believing, with justification, that “thoughts and prayers” are just not enough. As Garnell Whitfield, a former fire commissioner in Buffalo, who lost his mother, Ruth Whitfield, in the mass shooting by a white supremacist on May 14, 2022, stated:

“‘You expect us to keep doing this over and over again, forgive and forget,’ said Whitfield, who was accompanied by the civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. ‘While the people we elect and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal.’”

On May 30, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson spoke at Gettysburg on an occasion marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Vice President Lyndon B.Johnson in Wilmington, Del., in 1963, the year of his profound Memorial Day speech.

Vice President Lyndon B.Johnson in Wilmington, Del., in 1963, the year of his profound Memorial Day speech. Bettmann/Corbis

In a notable speech, he observed:

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed.

One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.

The Negro today asks justice.

We do not answer him – we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil – when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.”

It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans – white and Negro together – must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.”

Taye Diggs helps to raise awareness of these issues. He said in an interview about this book:

“I’m sure children all across the globe were looking at what was happening here in America during Black Lives Matter and wondering what the deal was. And I wanted to do my best to give an accurate portrayal of at least my perspective and the way that it applies to my son as well.  

Sometimes, the answer to these questions can be uncomfortable and there isn’t necessarily an answer, or not an answer that is going to make either party happy and I wanted to experiment with that in this book.”

“Why” is the fifth collaborative children’s book between Diggs and multiple award-winning illustrator Shane W. Evans. Evans uses textured mixed-media watercolor and pencil drawings for characters that brilliantly reveal a panoply of emotions from confusion to frustration to understanding to hope.

Evaluation: This exploration of the conversations parents and children of color are having about race and injustice is one that remains timely. When, oh when, will it be just a sad reflection of history? Highly recommended for all ages and races.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Feiwel & Friends, 2021

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Review of “A Mirror Mended” by Alix E. Harrow

This book is the second in a ”Fractured Fables” series by the author. The first, A Spindle Splintered, was a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” that not only takes us through a door [one of Harrow’s favorite tropes] into the multiverse, but switches the story around to be a feminist manifesto with a lesbian slant.

Zinnia Gray knew she was cursed to die on account of environmental pollution by a local corporation. No one who sustained genetic damage had survived past age 22. Thus she identified with the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Starting in childhood when she insisted on “Sleeping Beauty” character bed sheets, to being a college student majoring in Folk Studies and Anthropology at Ohio University, she made the story the theme of her life. On her 22nd birthday, however, she found a way to avoid what seemed like her inevitable death.

In this sequel, protagonist Zinnia Gray is now 26. In the five years since the previous novel ended, she has continuously moved among universes in an attempt to escape her fate. She has been “diving through every iteration of Sleeping Beauty, chasing the echoes of my own shitty narrative through time and space and making it a little less shitty, like a cross between Doctor Who and a good editor.” She now considers herself not only to be “Zinnia Gray the Dying Girl,” but “Zinnia Gray the Dimension-Hopping, Damsel-Saving Badass.”

She explains that to understand, one should “picture the multiverse as an endless book with endless pages, where each page is a different reality.”

So far, she has met 49 varieties of Sleeping Beauty. Now, however, she suddenly gets pulled into the story of “Snow White.” Zinnia was summoned by the Evil Queen using her magic mirror, because the queen, like Zinnia, also wants to escape her foretold destiny. As she pleads with Zinnia, “Tell me how to get out of this damned story.” She has never even been given a name – she is always just “the villain, the stepmother, the wicked witch, the evil queen.” Zinnia starts calling her Eva, short for “evil queen.”

They start jumping through “Snow White” stories together, and in one, it is Snow White who is evil. Zinnia says: “A confession: I was totally expecting her to be ugly. Which is pretty fucked up of me, but in my defense, Western folklore persistently and falsely equates a character’s physical appearance with their inner morality . . . ”

As Zinnia learns Eva’s story, she gets another lesson. Eva is the way she is for a good reason. Her backstory and her fate are tied into her perceived “failure” as a female. It is a more nuanced situation than the fairytales – recorded by men – ever suggested. Zinnia muses, “Oh, Jesus. I’m suddenly sick of these faux-medieval worlds and their shitty gender politics, all the pretty stories we tell about ugly worlds. A terrible sympathy [for Eva] crawls up my throat and lodges there, just behind my tongue.”

It also seems that Zinnia might be falling for Eva.

Eva confesses to Zinnia: “All I wanted was power. . . . I know how I must sound, what you must think of me, but I only mean power over myself. Power to make my own choices, and arrive at my own ends.”

Zinnia tells her, “It’s called agency. . . It’s like, the power you exert over your own narrative.” She adds: “So, the universe is like a book, right? And each world is like a page. And if you tell the same story enough times, you can bleed through to another page.”

Eva then asks a question that prompts an epiphany in Zinnia: “You mean – I must write down my own story?”

Zinnia comes to realize she has been trying to outrun her own ending, but maybe, just maybe, she can write a different one.

Evaluation: Although this book grew on me as I continued to read, I didn’t find it as satisfying as the first book. Zinnia seemed to be running out of steam, and I got the same impression about the author. Nevertheless, Harrow never fails to be thought-provoking, offering fresh, enlightened perspectives on a number of subjects.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Tordotcom, 2022

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Kid Lit Review of “The Cot in the Living Room” by Hilda Eunice Burgos

Both the author and illustrator, who share a Dominican heritage, drew upon their childhood memories to create this book. It features a young girl in New York who resentfully imagines that neighbor children who stay at her apartment when their parents are working get better treatment than she does.

Eventually she takes a walk in their shoes, or more specifically, spends a night herself on the cot in the living room, and finds out the experience wasn’t as great as she thought it would be. After that, she not only feels empathy for her family’s temporary guests, but adds her efforts to those of her parents to help the kids staying over feel more safe, secure, and welcome.

In an interview, the author said:

“I hope that kids who share something in common with the characters — for example, bilingual, growing up in an apartment in a big city, and/or with parents or guardians who work the night shift — can see themselves and their lives reflected in these pages. Additionally, I would like all readers to see the beauty of a close-knit and helpful community, and the sacrifices that many working parents have to make in order to provide for their families.”

Illustrator Gaby D’Alessandro does an excellent job of adding variation and interest to the art despite the fact that the story takes place just inside one apartment. The pictures are full of detail and adept at showing the emotional changes experienced by the characters.

Evaluation: This book has some excellent lessons for readers, as ably delineated by the author in the above quote. Adults may appreciate that this story comes from the same world as the one portrayed in “In the Heights,” the 2021 film co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. That story also takes place in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City. In the film (and Broadway show on which it was based), every member of the community pursues dreams of a better life with the support of family, friends, and neighbors. In this book for children aged 4 and up, we benefit from a child’s eye-view of that community support.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021

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