Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.
The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.
This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.
Elephant and Piggie. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Knuffle Bunny. These perennial story-time favourites were all created by one author, the endlessly original Mo Willems. In addition to his series titles, Willems also writes popular standalone books. Most child readers (and those who read to children) will be familiar with Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs and Tyrone the Terrible. This year, he has brought one series to a close and opened a new chapter.
After twenty-five stories, two gold medals from the Theodor S Geisel committee and five Geisel Honors, Willems has ended the adventures of Elephant and Piggie with The Thank You Book. These boisterous friends have had many adventures; including There is a Bird on Your Head! and We are in a Book! Told through humorous dialogue and simple, sparse illustrations, these books are a great pick for early readers and new installments will be missed.
However, rather than saying a final farewell to these popular characters, Willems is using them as a vehicle to bring attention to other exciting and worthwhile children’s authors in a new series called Elephant and Piggie Like Reading! In these books, Elephant and Piggie act as a framing device, introducing the story to readers and commenting on it in the final pages while another author writes and illustrates the central story itself.
I fully recommend checking out both of these new books. The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat uses a goofy cast of characters to introduce sharing and fractions to readers in a scenario all kids will recognize: four friends, but only three cookies. We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller explores individuality and self confidence amongst a group of silly grasses. Both books contain the humour and endearing characters found in Mo Willems’ own work and should satisfy any disappointed Elephant and Piggie super-fans.
Popular perception is that Westerns are out of style for readers. Despite this, Western influences have been appearing in young adult books in recent years. There have been westerns with steampunk elements, those set in dystopian worlds, and even one with zombies. However, Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman includes no extras – only the classic settings and tropes. The book opens with, “It weren’t no secrets Pa owned the best plot of land ‘long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him.” Written in a dialect liberally sprinkled with ain’t, yer, and gotta, Vengeance Bound was my first real Western read and I was not originally convinced I was going to enjoy it. Luckily, it is a highly entertaining mystery adventure with propulsive plotting that kept me glued to the page.
Similar in theme to Cormac McCarthy’s True Grit, Vengeance Road follows a young woman thirsting for revenge. After her father is viciously murdered by the Rose Riders gang, eighteen year old Kate Thompson disguises herself as a boy and sets off to track them down. Intelligent, wily, and ruthless, Kate dispatches her first villain ten pages in with a cold-blooded shot to the heart, and steels herself against sentiment throughout the book despite her growing connections to allies met along her journey. Cowboys, grizzled prospectors, a possibility of romance and an Apache guide play important roles, but the core of the story is Kate’s discovery of her father’s lies and family connection to a legendary gold mine. Featuring a journal with mysterious clues, genuine villainy and heroics, and an entirely feminist and capable heroine, adult Western fans and fans of strong female heroines alike should look past the “young adult” label and give Vengeance Bound a look.
ones with * are adult books