Powerfully Poignant – Historical MG reviews

Courage to CareBeing part of the human species is not always a club I’m proud to belong to. We can be pretty awful to each other sometimes even though most of us, most of the time err on the side of kindness. History allows us to mark the good times and the kind people. More frequently however, it serves as a reminder of the inglorious periods of our human existence. We cannot and should not hide from them if we want humanity to evolve, which is why these next three books make for such fundamental reading. All would complement the historical fiction shelves of young readers aged between 11 and 15. All encourage us to recognise discrimination, understand its origins, and be brave enough to fight its ugly consequences. All invite us to care in a powerfully poignant way.

One Thousand HillsOne Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noel Zihabamwe

This book is devastating. Powerful and wrenching yet achingly beautiful. Roy and Zihabamwe have given one ten-year-old boy a voice among an ocean of hundreds of thousands that were silenced without reason or mercy. Written with understated force and crisp, almost child-like clarity, One Thousand Hills traces the tension fraught days leading up to one of the most despicable acts of genocide the world as ever known, the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Pascal lives in Agabande, close to Kigali, in the heart of Rwanda. His life is simple and idyllic despite the taunts of his older brother and annoying traits of his little sister, Nadine. His parents work hard, worship what is good and Godly, and provide for their family as devoutly as the rest of the villagers who reside in the verdant mountainous countryside. They are a mixed family of Hutu and Tutsis, yet they share the same brutality and sheer ‘awfulness’ of this crime against humanity, born of fear and a need to sustain power with over 800,000 other Rwandans.

This novel does not sensationalise the violence nor does it dwell on the political legitimacy and shortcomings of the world’s nations who at first refused to acknowledge the genocide and certainly did nothing to prevent or end it. Instead, readers are shown how Pascal, via his vivid and eloquent narrations to a counsellor in Brussels some five years later, survived the ordeal and how his experiences changed him.

His voice rings loud and pure yet is tragically and irreversibly altered by what he has seen and had to do to save himself and Nadine. The final picture is not a straightforward prediction of how the previously pious and life-loving Pascal will evolve. He is at the endpoint, painfully sad and despondent; we, like the counsellor are incredulous and shocked that he has emerged with any sense of hope at all.

Despairing and gut wrenching, yes, however rather than fuelling hatred and disgust, this poignant tale promotes understanding and hope ‘to prevent children having to hide or run in fear from conflicts that have nothing to do with them.’ (Paraphrased from James Roy’s dedication.)

Powerful, essential reading.

Hanna My Holocaust StoryMy Holocaust Story: Hanna by Goldie Alexander

This is the first title in the Holocaust series aimed at upper primary readers and at first glance, I had mixed feelings about curling up to read this one. On one hand, I find the potency and importance of this subject terribly arresting but on the other, if handled oafishly instils depression and worse, a kind of muted blasé trance – we’ve-heard-and-seen-it-all-before kind of attitude. Happy to report, Hanna exhibits none of the latter and is an excellent introduction of the Holocaust and its impact for young readers.

Peppered with edgy characters, spirited narration, and well-paced drama, Hanna is another title that skilfully addresses the atrocities of ethnic cleansing without bogging young minds previously unexposed to the grim details of WW II.

Hanna Kaminsky is a Polish Jew forced into hiding with her family, then surviving in the Warsaw Ghetto at the onset of WW II. Like Pascal, she can almost taste the rising tension of political unrest but is too absorbed by her love of gymnastics, her best friend, and her warm family life to comprehend the danger it represents.

Pascal’s refuge was an old disused water tank. Hanna’s is reading. Throughout her nerve-destroying confinement she clings to the one novel her mother allowed her to flee with, The Scarlet Pimpernel. She begins to mirror her survival on his character and adopts the mantra ‘pluck and audacity’ to make it through each moment of escalating horror. In spite of her own hardships, Hanna shows spunk and fortitude in the face of adversity, using them to help others in dire need.

Alexander’s historical notes give this story depth and dimension describing the staggering loss of life associated with the Holocaust, millions being children, but again are presented in a balanced, informative way. For there is no need to over-describe the tragedy of these events.

It’s interesting to note this title is endorsed by Courage to Care, an organisation devoted to educating and challenging young people to stand up to injustices rather than just being passive bystanders.

Inspiring and purposeful.

Paper Planes by Allayne L. Webster

This did not pull me as much as the title and cover promised it might owing to continued overzealous exposition however, it is nonetheless a fascinating account of the conflict thPaper Planesat divided a nation and its people for nearly half a decade. Ashamedly, I knew very little about the Civil War that savaged the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s in spite of the fact that I was living and working in Europe at the time.

Paper Planes traces the plight of one family in Sarajevo through the eyes of the quite naive 12-year-old Niko and his eventual escape from the city under siege. Flecked with historic accuracies, this story does prick the emotions and beggars the belief as to how we humans are (still) able to fight our fellow man in such prehistoric ways for so little substantial reason.

Recommended for mid-grade readers, Paper Planes is another story about a terrible war and cultural genocide, the sufferers of which are often the innocents; the children and the people who never wanted it in the first place and like all war-torn tales, it is based on real historical facts and the lives of those who lived them.

Find all books here.

Scholastic Australia March 2015 – March 2016



Bitter Chocolate

Bitter ChocolateI’d like to say that I was being considerate of you by not writing and posting this blog before the chocolate binge fest that is Easter, but in truth it was because I couldn’t stomach it myself.

Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate charts the unsavoury history of chocolate, dating back from the early days when indigenous peoples knew it was the bomb but Europeans (who hadn’t yet discovered that combined with sugar it was heaven) couldn’t fathom the interest. It follows it through to the present-day big-business bullies who continue to turn a blind eye to child slavery and other awfulness in order to keep their supply of cocoa beans cheap.

It’s sickening stuff, and appears at odds with the delectable flavours of the chocolate and the slick packaging and marketing campaigns that have us salivating over it and hankering for ever more. And it’s kind of ironic that the people—read: children—whose forced labour brings this goodness to our shelves and our tastebuds don’t know about and never get to eat the chocolate fruits of their labour. I’m feeling particularly guilty given that I ate enough Red Tulip rabbits in the lead-up to and over Easter to be the eating equivalent of Myxomatosis.

Ever since reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (twice now, actually), I’ve been unable to shake the sense that everything that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the West. It’s just that, as the adage notes, history is written by the winners, and for that reason so we rarely glimpse anything but the wholesome projection they’d like us to.

Which is why they’re nervous about journalists poking around and documentaries being filmed—both reveal a seedy side to cocoa bean production, which includes enslaved children working for no money and almost no food, the unethical farmers being crunched themselves by militia and corrupt officials who expect payoffs, fights over land that has been in families for generations due to new laws refuting immigrants’ rights, and wars and genocide as a direct result of this land and wealth scrabble.

Meanwhile large chocolate companies and governments stand back, actively turn a blind eye, and let this play out before pouncing on low prices and desperate people. And then they cry poor to governments when these governments try to make a move to ensure all chocolate must be human-slavery free. They can do this; they just don’t want to.

Perhaps saddest of all is that children from Mali, the poorest of the poor African nations, often go to Cote D’Ivoire to work because they heard about a boy who went and came back with a bike. If they do come back to their families, they are broken boys who’ve experienced all manner of abuse and horror. They certainly don’t come back cashed-up and sporting a shiny new bicycle.

I’m not selling this book well, and that’s perhaps because I’m disillusioned that the apparently oh-so-tasty chocolate that is marketed and sold to us as innocuous, feel-good treats are anything but that. I’m shocked and saddened that the low shelf costs comes at a high human one.

I’d recommend reading Bitter Chocolate to understand what’s involved with that tasty treat we enjoy, often mindlessly. I’d also recommend applying pressure to big chocolate manufacturers to change their ways through letters and the like. And I’d recommend voting with your dollars and your feet and buying only chocolate that is organic and fair trade.