Category Archives: nonfiction

The Diary of Laura’s Twin by Kathy Kacer

Laura's TwinLaura is thirteen, and has just a few weeks left before her Bat Mitzvah. She’s been going to Hebrew classes for almost a year, and is ready to stand up in front of everyone in the synagogue and recite the prayers in Hebrew. She’s even taken on an extra project to make the experience more meaningful to her, raising money for the African Well Fund to provide clean drinking water for children in Africa. Then her rabbi tells her Hebrew class that they are going to participate in a twinning project, and each of them will research the life of a Jewish child from the Holocaust who did not get to celebrate his or her own Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Laura is resistant at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the diary of thirteen year old Sara Gittler.

Laura is a super involved and committed kid, and is a bit too perfect and rational about things. Her point of view verges on being didicatic–in one breath, Laura is fretting over her mom insisting on dropping her off to visit Mrs. Mandelcorn, an elderly woman her rabbi has suggested she contact about the project, and in the next she is reminding herself to be grateful to her mother for how much she does for her and how often she drives Laura and her friends places. When a Jewish cemetary is vandalized, the crime conveniently fits in thematically with what Laura is reading, and of course, has been committed by the older boys bullying one of her best friends, Adam. And her other best friend, Nix, also conveniently, was a witness to the crime. The writing style is very prosaic, much better suited to a retelling of historical events than middle school fiction.

However, the historical portion of the book is much stronger. Sara’s diary is a stark and straightforward account of the life in the Warsaw ghetto. The diary format works well to establish the character’s voice, and to tell Sara’s story without getting too grim for the intended audience. The author contrasts Sara’s memories of her life before, whether it’s going to school or cooking with her grandmother, with the bleak, hungry realities of life in the ghetto. Kacer doesn’t shy away from showing the adults as powerless, either. Sara’s grandmother slides further into depression, her father becomes a shadow of her former self, and her teenage brother channels his anger and outrage into working with the resistance.

One of the high points of this book is the bits of nonfiction. Sara’s story is illustrated with actual historical photos, and the book concludes with short biographies of a number of the young heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and several real-life stories of modern Jewish kids’ experiences with Holocaust twinning projects.

Laura’s story is only there to function as a parallel to Sara’s, and really only works as a framing device. This would have been a much better book if it were historical fiction and nonfiction, like Barbara Greenwood’s Factory Girl or The Last Safe House. Kathy Kacer’s written some excellent nonfiction like Hiding Edith and the The Underground Reporters.

The strong historical story and the appealing nonfiction parts of the book make this a decent supplement to the plethora of Holocaust literature out there, and it’s an approachable book for middle school kids who are interested in the Holocaust, but Laura’s story pales in comparison to something like Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, or books by Marianne Watts or Eva Wiseman. For a nonfiction story of modern kids relating to the Holocaust, I’m still going to go with Hana’s Suitcase every time.

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Everything But The Kitchen Sink: Wierd Stuff You Didn’t Know About Food by Frieda Wishinsky and Elizabeth Macleod

kitchen-sinkWell, the basic premise is pretty straight-forward. (Here’s a hint–the title totally gives it away!) Everything But the Kitchen Sink is a grab-bag of historical coverage, food by category like breakfast or snacks, food science, and the inevitable gross-out moments, like edible grubs, rattlesnakes, durian and stinky tofu.

Do you want to try your hand at matching diner lingo to more mundane phrasing, like “cowboy with spurs” to “Western omlet with french fries?” Curious about traditions and superstitions surrounding chopsticks, the origins of Caesar salad, or what they drank with breakfast in medieval England? Want to find out how to make an omlet in a bag, or dancing raisins? You’ll find all of this and more. What you won’t find is a structure particularily conducive to report writing. Not that that’s a bad thing–this one’s purely a fun, browsing book. There is an index, but the chapter categories are fairly arbitrary, and the information inside is more focused on the minutiae of trivia, and quick generalizations. I’m usually kind of a snob about the visuals in my kids’ nonfiction–I love me lots of shiny, relevant photos, I do–but the bright, cartoon illustrations fit well with the breezy style of the text. Also, the ending is a bit abrupt, finishing up with astronaut food and nary a paragraph of concluding remarks to be seen.

My biggest issue with the book is not so much a criticism as an observation. Despite having two Canadian authors, it is SO American, written from a perspective presupposing that the reader is American with very much a “here in the United States…” kind of viewpoint. Since it was published under Scholastic and not Scholastic Canada, I’m guessing it was purely a marketing decision. (And I can forgive the lack of Canadian food, since at least it’s not the usual mishmash we see from American publishers all the time of Canadian cuisine being fiddleheads, nanaimo bars and tortiere–but the only food mentioned at all is grunt pudding. Grunt pudding?? Apparently, it’s a thick fruit pudding that grunts as it’s steamed, due to escaping air. Okay, guys, shoulda gone with the nanaimo bars.)

Although it never really progresses past the random collection of cool facts, this is a fun book, stuffed full of bite-sized bits of info (no pun intended), tons to fascinate the trivia-minded, and quizzes and matching games to add an interactive element.

In Flanders Fields: the Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson

In Flanders Fields: the Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson.

Written by a Canadian doctor in the field during WWI, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is familiar to several generations of Canadian schoolchildren. Remembrance Day assemblies always bring a class of kids chanting the three short verses in singsong montones. And there’s a reason why the poem is still around.

This book intersperses lines from the poem, richly illustrated, with bits and pieces of information about the first World War, John McCrae, and how the poem came to be. For something similiar, see Where Poppies Grow: A World War I Companion, also by Linda Granfield. Both titles are upper elementary territory, possibly junior high, with some appeal for reluctant readers. Older readers may want something more substantial, but it’s an excellent browsing book for grades four and up.