Picture Book Resource
Wall by Tom Clohosy Cole
A story of a family separated by the Berlin Wall, and the boy's work to bring them back together.
This is a very quick and safe East/West Germany story for kids. There's only one picture with a person in shadow carrying another person to imply the fatalities that could result from unsuccessful escape attempts. I actually found it a bit hard to swallow that the family's escape was so easy, but the author does say it was based on real stories so this is an example of one of those miraculous times when the guards turned a blind eye and let families escape.
- Cold War History: If you’re covering the Cold War in history, this is a book that could be used with multiple age levels to explore some of the basics of what people in Germany went through during that era.
- Human Rights: This book provides a good opportunity to have a class discussion about what human rights are, and/or have them brainstorm what they think some basic human rights should be.
- Current Events: This is a story from history, but there are several places in the world today where people are suffering under similar circumstances. Have students research where these places are and even what they can do to help these people.
Middle Grade Fiction Resources
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
The night East Germany put up the Berlin Wall, Gerta's father and middle brother, Dominic, were in the West scouting out options for the family there. Her mother had decided to stay behind with Gerta and her oldest brother, Fritz. But then the Wall went up, and suddenly Gerta's family was cut in half. Gerta's father had long been hounded by the East German police, the Stasi, for probable involvement in the resistance movement. It had made things challenging for the family. You would think that since he is stuck in the West, the rest of the family would be left alone, but that isn't the case. When a friend of Fritz's tries to escape to the West, he is brought in for questioning and he discovers that the Stasi have files on the entire family, even him and Gerta, and that there are microphones hidden in their apartment. Suddenly, Fritz loses his job, and soon he will have to join the East German military. On the way to school one day, Gerta glances towards the West and sees a familiar face on the platform that looks from the West into the East. It's her brother, and then her father. Her father does a strange dance, which Gerta first interprets as him being silly for her, but later she realizes it was a message. Papa wants her to tunnel. Later he manages to sneak a picture to her of an abandoned building. Eventually, Gerta finds it and starts her project. It is extremely dangerous, though. She knows if she is caught even the very signs of digging will be a death sentence. She tries to cover it by gardening, but she suspects nosy neighbors are about to turn her in. Can she get her family to freedom before it is too late?
There really aren't that many books out there for middle grade about life in East Germany during the Iron Curtain era. I am old enough to remember current events stories about people making dramatic escapes from East Germany, seeing current maps with East Germany on them, and watching movies about such escapes that were popular when I was in upper elementary school. But the Wall came down long enough ago now that even some teachers at our school were never alive when this was a reality! So it is important for such stories to start making their way back into fiction and help everyone remember and learn from the past.
Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:
- Current Events: As mentioned for Wall by Cole, readers of this could investigate places in the world currently where there could be modern day Gertas. Have students investigate how to help these modern-day Gertas.
- East Germany/Cold War: If you have a reader who wants to better understand what life was like in East Germany or during the Cold War era, this is an option.
- Drama: Someone out there could easily adapt this into a play production. (Of course, remember to do this the right way so you don’t break any copyright laws and so Ms. Nielsen gets credit where credit is due!)
- Historical Fiction/Mild Thriller: For readers who can’t take things too tense or bloody, this is a nice option in that it isn’t nearly as tense as it could be (a lot of time is spent watching Gerta dig which isn't all that tense) and there is only one fatality on page towards the end of the book. It is still clear that things are dangerous for Greta and her family, though kids who can’t handle nail biters should be fine.
Dead End in Norvelt (Norvelt, #1) by Jack Gantos
Based on the author's childhood, behold the crazy adventures of Jack in a little town in Pennsylvania founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to give people a boost during the Depression. Now, some 30ish years later, the town is starting to die out. Literally. Jack knows because his one reprieve from a lifetime grounding sentence this summer is that his mom has rented him out to the town's medical examiner/obituary writer/original town nurse, Miss Volker, as an on call helper. Miss Volker's hands are all knotted by arthritis, so he becomes her writing hands, typing hands, and all around assistant. Things are usually pretty slow in little ol' Norvelt, but this summer starts to get a bit more exciting when Jack's dad comes home with a plane, a Hell's Angel gets flattened dancing in the road, and the town starts to become a little suspicious as the original residents drop off more and more regularly. One thing's for sure, grounding or not, Jack's life will NOT be dull in Norvelt.
See Activity Tie-ins below, linked with 2nd book in series.
From Norvelt to Nowhere (Norvelt, #2) by Jack Gantos
After town founder Eleanor Roosevelt dies, Jack is asked to accompany Miss Volker to the gravesite so she can mourn properly. His mother tells him to take good care of her and do whatever Miss Volker tells him to. But neither Jack or his mother have any notion of all of Miss Volker's plans. While mourning over Mrs Roosevelt, Miss Volker gets word that her twin sister has passed away in Miami, FL, so she and Jack are now off to Miami. But they aren't alone and it seems Miss Volker has a side mission of ridding the world once and for all of Mr Spizz, the white whale to her Captain Ahab side. Before they left Norvelt, Jack also heard that Mr Spizz wasn't the only suspect in the deaths of the old ladies of Norvelt. Soon there's this wild and crazy trail of weasley detectives, Mr Spizz, Mr Huffer the undertaker (who's coming down to handle Miss Volker's sister's burial), and Jack and Miss Volker in a beat up old VW Beetle armed with a harpoon all headed to Florida for their own diverse reasons.
I’m including these books in this blog, because behind the wild and crazy adventures of Jack and Miss Volker, the Cold War is going on in the larger world and it does affect them. Part of Jack’s adventures include digging out what will eventually be a bomb shelter for his family, and the second book mentions the Cuban missile crisis and provides a good picture of how everyday Americans reacted to these events. That said, you have to have the right kind of humor to appreciate this series. Gantos’ humor is somewhat random and a bit dark. After all, in the first book Jack is following around a lady doing obituaries and investigating deaths and the second book is a crazy train/car trip with Miss Volker channeling Captain Ahab and threatening to hunt down a certain someone like he’s a white whale. This is one crazy collection of 1960s adventures of a boy with a little too much knack for trouble sprinkled throughout by regular doses of wacky history antidotes thanks to Miss Volker's mission to keep the town, and Jack especially, up on history in her obits.
Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:
- Off the Wall Humor: Give this to those kids who speak sarcasm fluently or have this innate ability to find trouble. They should identify with Jack.
- Goofy Historical Fiction: Those readers who think history is boring haven’t met Jack or Miss Volker, obviously. Challenge them to get caught yawning while reading these books.
- Middle Grade Serial Killer Mystery: There aren’t a whole lot of serial killer mysteries out there for the middle grades, but this is one. For those who like dark humor with their puzzling mysteries that stretch out for multiple books (the real killer is not identified till the end of book two), point them in the direction of this series.
- Cold War & the Average American: If readers want a picture of what life was like for the average American kid during the Cold War, these definitely provide that.
- Eleanor Roosevelt Fans: These two books are full of little bits of trivia about Eleanor Roosevelt, mainly because she supposedly founded Norvelt and Miss Volker practically worships her.
- Newbery Medal: This may be one of the craziest books to have ever won the Newbery in recent history. If you think all Newbery winners are sappy and written to make you buy tissues in bulk, this will change your mind.
Omega City by Diana Peterfreund
Gillian and Eric Seagret are stuck in a tiny town in nowhere after their Dad's life project, a biography on NASA scientist and Cold War inventor, Aloysius Underberg, is publicly derided. Conveniently for their father's opponents, his research all got wiped out in a plumbing accident at their cottage last summer, so he has no way of backing up the stories in his book. And let's face it, a guy who teaches university level classes on conspiracy theories isn't exactly someone looked up to a whole lot to begin with. Gillian knows her father's research was solid. Eric just wishes it hadn't lost them their Mom and their boat. When a beautiful research assistant shows up claiming to be their Dad's newest fan, Gillian smells a rat. She quickly discovers that her suspicions are well-founded. This lady, Fiona, has been snooping around in Dad's files. And it seems she was looking for one specific page. A page that has a very cryptic message on it. With the help of Gillian's best friend Savannah, and astronomy whiz classmate, Howard, the kids figure out the page is actually a treasure map to something Dr. Underberg claims was his last gift to mankind. Gillian knows from her Dad's research that Dr. Underberg had supposedly developed a battery that would solve the current energy crisis, but it had gotten hushed up. Of course, no one believes that research. But if she can find the battery it will prove her Dad isn't loony and he can get the recognition he deserves. With the help of Howard's older brother Nate, the kids pile in a pickup and follow the clues they untangle from the cryptic message. Instead of a battery, though, they stumble on an entire underground city...and Fiona plus goons with guns are close on their tail. Soon, the kids find themselves struggling to find a way out of Omega City with bad guys behind them and flooded, broken down sections of the city between them and exits. Forget finding the battery, they just want to get out of there alive!
This book happens in present day, but most of the book is spent exploring an old Cold War bunker (a very, very big bunker) and helps modern readers get a picture of just how freaked out some people got by the Cold War.
Normally I roll my eyes at conspiracy theory based stuff, but as soon as the kids find Omega City, this is one high octane, fun adventure! I would have loved, loved, loved this story as a kid. Kid smarts and know-how versus a secret underground city, and they occasionally find little tools to help them out. Yep, it's all sorts of exciting, but never feels too dangerous. There's usually enough distance between the kids and the bad guys that it doesn't feel like they might jump around the corner at any second. Mostly, there's a bunch of problems and the kids have to put their heads together to figure out how to overcome the next obstacle. They learn a lot about teamwork and benefiting from the unique skills everyone comes to the table with, even Howard, who seems to have a mild form of autism, possibly Aspergers (though he is not labeled in any way, it just says he completely shuts down under certain kinds of stress, has a hard time understanding joking, and is really smart in some subjects). There's even a good message worked into the story for girls on how ridiculous crushes can be. (Not preachy at all. It is actually funny.) Survival/adventure stories have a bad tendency to swing either to the extreme of everything going wrong or things working out a little too easily, but this stayed pretty well balanced. The kids face some serious dangers and don't always come out unscathed, but they also find some helpful things every once in a while too. It doesn't feel like their doomed or getting through on magical fairy dust. A superb, fun survival/adventure story.
Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:
- Fun Adventure/Survival Fans: Looking for a super fun read in which kids team up to help survive some crazy circumstances? Look no further.
- Appreciating Everyone’s Gifts: This story provides some great reminders that we all have something of worth to contribute, even those we might normally ostracize. It provides lots of good discussion points on what determines popularity, why some people get avoided at lunch, how to combat these surface-level errors in judgment, and how we should treat people.
- Cold War Craziness: There was a lot of speculation about doomsday during the Cold War, and this book displays an extreme level of fear that the era brought about.
- Conspiracy Theories & Evaluating Information: If students are reading this book, you might want to discuss conspiracy theories and good ways to evaluate information you receive about anything. Especially in the age of the internet when anyone can publish anything, kids need to know how to evaluate the information they are bombarded with.
Young Adult Fiction Resource
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Lina, her mother, and her younger brother Jonas are marched out of their home in Lithuania, and forced on a harrowing journey which eventually ends in Siberia. They spend countless days in horrible conditions on trains and in work camps. They are fighting to survive just because the Russians decided their family was anti-Soviet.
This is a beautifully harrowing narrative, and memorial of sorts to the unheard stories of thousands of people from the Baltic states the Soviets decided to relocate in the 1940s. There are many books about people caught in the battles of WWII and caught in POW or concentration camps, but few that relate this tale of the Soviet work camps. As Sepetys explains in her notes about the book, that is because this was a story mainly unknown until the Baltic states were free in the 1990s, because even those released from Siberian work camps were threatened with death or return to the camps if they told about their experiences.
Though this starts in 1941, it does not end until well into the Cold War era, and thus the reason it is being included here. Lina is an interesting character, because she doesn't seem the "normal" literary prisoner. Prisoners in concentration camp-type settings or dystopian books are usually inordinately brave (almost superhuman and super lucky) or inordinately submissive and hopeless. Lina is a curious limbo between anger and desire for action and restraint and fear because of the consequences of actions. In other words, she feels real. She relates how things are and mixes in memories of the past certain things bring up. Sepetys does a good job of portraying the horrors Lina's family faces, without glorying in the horrible or making the book awfully depressing. It is a delicate balance done wonderfully, such that I found myself tearing through the book as fast as possible. And I’m not the only one, there’s a whole group of teens at my school who love this book.
Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:
- Thriller Histories: Pretty much the only kind of historical fiction I can convince teens to read are those that have a good adrenaline rush. This is one of those that has been proclaimed a teen-approved read and is now recommended by teens to their peers.
- Tragic Read: There’s this group of teens out there that love tragic stories. This one does have some elements of a happy ending, but much of the book is hard and sad. Maybe it’s the “at least my life isn’t THAT bad” factor that makes teens love these kinds of stories? Not entirely sure, but I just love that they are reading and learning some history at the same time.
- Hidden History of the Cold War: For much of the last century, only the silent survivors knew what happened to those deemed anti-Soviet in the Baltic states. It wasn’t until the Iron Curtain came down in the 1990s that these stories started to come out. Lina’s story helps stand as a memorial for thousands of people who suffered and died in these work camps. It is a hard read, but a good read. If we do not learn from history, we’re apt to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís
Peter Sís has created a unique autobiography of his life growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. As he says in the afterward, "I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life -- before America..." The blend of drawings and words to tell his story makes it all the more powerful and poignant.
- Art & Symbolism: The illustrations are highly symbolic and could be used in art or history class to be analyzed for their subtle messages. (As he explains, artists under Communism had to be masters of subtle messages.)
- Life under Communism: Sís presents a firsthand perspective of life under Communism that should be eye-opening for readers.
- Country Lines Change: Sís grew up in a country that no longer exists on our maps. Have students examine how Eastern Europe has changed on maps over the past one hundred years. What caused the changes?
- Caldecott Honor: Peter Sís has won three Caldecott Honors to date for his books. This book won one, Starry Messenger won another, and Tibet: through the Red Box also won one.
- Sibert Medal: This book also won the Sibert Medal, an award for best nonfiction for kids.
- Artist Biography: If you’re looking for a biography of an artist, this is a unique one for several reasons. First, the artist is still alive. Second, the person may be someone kids are familiar with since he illustrates children’s books. Third, he was an immigrant/refugee escaping from a Communist regime.
There are two other Cold War era autobiographies that came out recently, and in fact, they both won awards this year. I mentioned both in a previous Brainstorm The Brainstorm 57: 2016 YMA Winners Cont., but wanted to remind people of them again. See the previous Brainstorm for Activity-Tie ins for each. When I mentioned Symphony for the City of the Dead before I hadn’t finished reading it. I have now, so clicking on the title will link to a full review now.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: a Memoir by Margarita Engle
A Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Sostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson