The Boy On the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

9781442497818_p0_v4_s260x420 The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List
by Leon Leyson

A close friend told me about this newly published book, as her family was acquainted with the author, Leon Leyson, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List.  Dr. Leyson apparently resided right here in my town for years and years, taught high school for nearly four decades, and gave talks and lectures recounting his experience living through the Holocaust.  Mr. Leyson passed away this past January, apparently before ever seeing his book published.

Leyson was the youngest of five children from a working class Jewish family in Poland.  He spent the first several years of his life living a somewhat idyllic existence in the countryside of Poland.  When he was nine, his father moved the family to the city; it was to be a new beginning with exciting opportunities.  Only, their dreams quickly crumbled when WWII broke out and the Nazis made their way into Poland, gradually but quickly stripping Jews of the civil rights, their property, their dignity, and their freedom.  By the time Leon was ten, his family, along with thousands of other Jews, were moved to the ghetto – an extremely overcrowded corner of the city enclosed by high walls and Nazi guards, where food was scarce, disease rampant, and fear as ever-present as breathing.  Often, Nazis would storm the ghetto, beating and murdering people at random, and eventually, the ghetto was steadily “liquidated,” as its inhabitants were forcibly transferred to labor camps and death camps.

Leon’s father was employed at Oskar Schindler‘s factory, though, which afforded the family some protection from the Nazis.  Schindler, a Nazi himself, was a complex man – a spy, an opportunist, a womanizer, an alcoholic, who, against all odds, made it his personal mission during the war to save as many Jews as he could.  He managed to save most of Leon’s immediate family, but they still spent time under horrific conditions in work camps under Nazi control, where surviving the next hour became the only focus.

Geared towards “young readers,” this book, nonetheless, describes in unflinching terms the horrors that the Leyson family, and hundreds of thousands of other Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis.  It’s a powerful read, and one I highly recommend.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry_Potter_and_the_Prisoner_of_Azkaban_(US_cover) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J.K. Rowling

Okay, I’m hooked.  Satisfied?

In this, the third installment of the famous Harry Potter series, Harry enters his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – but not before another dramatic exit from his Muggle family’s home, involving the blowing up of an aunt.

Harry is yet again the target of evil forces – this time the evil forces are embodied by one Sirius Black, former best friend of Harry’s deceased parents, believed cohort of Lord Voldemort, and thrown into Azkaban – the hardcorest of hardcore prisons – twelve years ago after allegedly killing thirteen people with a single curse.  Now Black has escaped Azkaban and is believed to be on the hunt for Harry.

Meanwhile, Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, has been installed as a teacher at Hogwarts of the Care and Keeping of Magical Creatures class.  Only, something goes awry during the very first class he teaches, setting off a chain of events that will culminate in . . . well, you have to read it for yourself if you haven’t already.

Two things:

1.  Harry is a bit of a pain in the ass!  His life is constantly in danger, and all these people are constantly going to great lengths to keep him safe, and he thumbs his nose at all of them in the name of seeking adventure and having a good time.  Don’t get me wrong – I like Harry, and I know he’s a good egg whose character will grow and develop over the course of the series as he matures, but sometimes I want to smack him upside the head.

2.  I am completely smitten with Hagrid.  That is all.

I enjoyed this book immensely, although I felt the last third of it or so dragged a bit – but overall, a rollicking good story.  I’ve been watching the movies with my two oldest boys as I finish each book, and this particular movie is my oldest son’s favorite of all of them, apparently.  I thought it was well done, but somewhat disappointed in how much of the story was left out.

In any case, I probably won’t get to the fourth book for a while, as I am currently committed to reading several other books over the next month or two – but I will get to it as soon as I can!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

9780439064873_p0_v1_s260x420 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)
by J.K. Rowling

Okay, I get it now – the appeal of the Harry Potter series.  All these years, I’ve thought, “I’m not interested in a children’s series.  I’m not interested in wizards and fantasy.”  But I get it now.

The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, left off with Harry and his Hogwarts friends returning home for summer break after their first year at the school of wizardry and witchcraft.  In this, the second book of the series, the story opens with summer break coming to an end – and not a moment too soon for Harry, who has spent a miserable few weeks with his adoptive Muggle family, the Dursleys.  Harry is visited in his bedroom by a house elf, who warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts – but returning to Hogwarts is what Harry longs for more than anything.  After a dramatic rescue from the Dursleys by the Weasleys in an enchanted car, Harry does return to Hogwarts and embarks on a new year of wizard education, and a new adventure.

Residents of Hogwarts keep turning up petrified – the first a cat, which is found under the ominous message scrawled on the wall of the corridor:


And so the rumors and questions begin swirling: Slytherin . . . Where is the Chamber of Secrets?  Who is the Heir?  Who is petrifying Hogwarts inhabitants?

When Harry becomes a prime suspect, he is determined to get to the bottom of the Chamber of Secrets – and get to the bottom of it he does.

Told with humor and just the right amount of suspense and intrigue, I was hooked, and finally closed the book feeling satisfied.  I’m eager to get back to Harry and his friends at Hogwarts – but, as I’m committed to several other books at the moment, they’ll have to wait.  Hopefully not for too long!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

51MU5VilKpL Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1)
by J.K. Rowling

This is going to be short and sweet, because, really, what can I say about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said?  I finally read it – the first book of the series, anyway – sixteen years after it was published, and almost as many since it became one of the biggest deals in children’s literature.  I hadn’t planned on ever reading it, but I appreciated Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy so much that it warranted, finally, a look at what else she’s done.

On the off chance that you haven’t read Harry Potter and don’t know what it’s about, it’s about a young boy in contemporary England who is orphaned as a baby and unwillingly taken in by his mean aunt and uncle.  The circumstances of his parents’ demise are rather mysterious, but it’s well known – at least among witches and wizards – that it was at the hands of the evil Voldemort, although Harry believes that they died in a car accident.  Poor Harry, neglected and abused by his aunt and uncle and tormented by his spoiled cousin, has little to look forward to, until one day – shortly before his eleventh birthday – a letter arrives for him.  Actually, a deluge of letters, the contents of which have his aunt and uncle scrambling to ridiculous lengths to run from.  Finally, the letter catches up with them on a deserted, storm-swept island, by way of Hagrid, a giant and gamekeeper of Hogwarts, the premier school of witches and wizardry to which Harry is being summoned by the letter.

And so begins Harry’s education as a wizard.  It is at Hogwarts that Harry learns of the true circumstances of his parents’ death, his own seemingly royal status, and where he befriends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger who accompany him on his many adventures.  Harry proves to be a good student, a formidable Quidditch player, and a brave wizard who finds himself in numerous scrapes in his quest to fight evil.

The beginning of the book reminded me very much of Roald Dahl’s writings, and although I’m not much a fan of fantasy, I enjoyed the book and can see what kids find so appealing about it.  Rowling is a talented and imaginative storyteller; I’m looking forward to reading her newest grown-up book.  Maybe I’ll find time to read the second Harry Potter book before too long.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

This is the story of Sylvia Mendez and her family, who lease an asparagus farm from a Japanese family forced to evacuate to an internment camp during WWII.  When Sylvia’s aunt attempts to enroll Sylvia and her brothers in school, they are turned away and sent to the “Mexican school.”  Sylvia’s father is outraged by this discrimination and undertakes a lawsuit against the school district.

Meanwhile, Aki Munemitsu and her family try to keep their spirits up and make sense of being forced to abandon their farm and everything they know and being imprisoned in an internment camp hundreds of miles away from home – forced by a country to which they’ve been nothing but loyal, but which now sees them as a “threat to national security” based merely on their Japanese ethnicity.

Inevitably, Sylvia and Aki, whose old bedroom Sylvia now calls her own, become pen pals, and then friends.

Based on true events, the case of Mendez vs. Westminster School District effectively ended racial segregation in California schools, and was instrumental in ending racial segregation in schools nationwide.

What made this story all the more interesting to me is that it took place locally – Westminster is only a stone’s throw from where I call home.  I was unaware of this little piece of history until I read this book.

Written for the grade-school set (ages 9 and up), it’s a very quick read.  Not extremely in-depth, it does skim over a lot of details that could make the story more interesting.  However, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to kids and grownups alike.

Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliott

Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliott

Meet Finn, stormy toddler, who doesn’t want to eat his peaches.  What ensues is a tantrum to rival all tantrums, earth shattering in all its glory.  The text is simple and true, and the illustrations messy and whimsical, portraying Finn as almost troll-like, but charming nonetheless.

A book aimed at the very young, this one will appeal to parents as well – and to anyone who has spent time with a moody toddler.  I loved this book and read it with my kids, who all enjoyed it as well – even my fifteen-year old.  We have our own Finn, who can throw a mean fit, so this book has a permanent place in our home now.

Evolution by Daniel Loxton

Evolution by Daniel Loxton

This is a really cool book for kids that explains the origin of all living things.  It’s chock full of wonderful illustrations, and explains evolution in plain terms, while giving lots of easy-to-understand examples.  It talks about the science of geology and how scientists have come to the conclusions they have, and how science is always expanding and looking for more answers to questions of how the earth and humankind came to be.

I was drawn to buy this book after seeing it somewhere on the internet (wish I could remember where …), as I’ve been hit up, like most parents, with questions from my kids about how the earth came to be, where did animals come from, and where did people come from.  I am a believer in evolution and definitely not a fan of filling my kids’ heads with fantastic fables and fairy tales about our origins, and this book seemed, at first glance, to fit the bill for explaining evolution to kids in straightforward terms.  When it came in the mail from Amazon, I sat down and read it cover to cover and was very impressed.

I was especially curious about what, if anything, it would have to say about god.  It contains a brief paragraph in which it treats religion very diplomatically, saying that while individual scientists may have their own personal views about religion, science as a whole does not pertain to or address religion, and spiritual matters are best taken up with parents and community leaders.

My kids (the ones ranging in age from 5 to almost 10) are completely fascinated by this book!

Meet Annie by Heather J. Scharlau-Hollis

Sandra over at Down Syndrome New Mama was kind enough to ask me to write a review of this book for a giveaway she’s doing; please check out her post here for a chance to win a copy of this book signed by the author!


Meet Annie by Heather J. Scharlau-Hollis

In this short and sweet book aimed at young children, we meet Annie who is just like you and me in all the ways that count to little kids: she likes to play with her toys, she likes to splash around in her swimming pool, and she sometimes gets in trouble.  But Annie is also a little bit different – she has Down syndrome.  Although the book doesn’t explain what Down syndrome is, it touches on the fact that Annie looks a little bit different and learns a little bit differently, and that everyone is a little bit different in their own way, and those differences make us who we are.  My favorite aspect of the book is how the author invites and encourages its audience to identity with Annie by asking a question at the end of each page:

“Sometimes my zipper doesn’t zip right.  I ask Dad for help.  Do you ever need help?”

“Sometimes I cry when I get scared.  Do you ever get scared?”

Encouraging empathy and compassion without resorting to condescension or stereotypes, this is a wonderful book that should have a place on everyone’s bookshelf who is touched by a child with Down syndrome.

Movie Review: Hugo

Based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo the movie doesn’t disappoint.  The story of an orphaned boy living in secret in a Paris train station in the 1930s, Hugo’s life intersects with a grumpy, formerly celebrated filmmaker thought to be long dead.  The film is also very much an homage to very early cinema, and as in the book, this added a unique dimension to the story.  Very pleasing to the eye (and in fact nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Cinematography among them), the sets, costumes and special effects really bring Selznick’s unique book to life.

I thought this was an interesting choice for Martin Scorsese to direct (add Best Director and Best Film to the movie’s Oscar nominations); it’s a far cry from his usual controversial and often violent adult movies like Raging Bull, Cape Fear, and Goodfellas.  Ben Kingsley plays the part of George Melies to perfection, and Sasha Baron Cohen adds comic relief as the overly stern and socially awkward Station Inspector – and for once doesn’t play a bizarre character that makes one cringe.  The real stars are the kids – Asa Butterfield as Hugo, and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle.

My two older boys and I really enjoyed this movie.  I think it can definitely stand on its own, but is even better if you’ve first read the book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

I’m not often drawn to juvenile literature, but I overheard a couple of friends talking about this book at a recent book club gathering and decided to get it for my two older boys.  When I found it at Barnes & Noble, what I found was a big, meaty book with a wonderfully colorful jacket, full of beautiful artwork and pages of text framed in black.

Let me just stop here and confess that I am often a sucker for aesthetics when it comes to books; although one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, it’s very often the cover that draws me in the first place.  So just the beauty of this book intrigued me.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of a young orphan living in a busy Paris train station in the 1930s.  Having been taken in by his drunken uncle, the keeper of the clocks at the train station, after the young boy’s parents die, Hugo begins keeping the train station clocks himself when his uncle mysteriously disappears.  Hugo knows clocks and mechanics – his beloved father was a clockmaker who discovered a mysterious, broken-down automaton in the attic of a museum, and set to work refurbishing it, only to have his project come to an abrupt end upon his untimely death.

Not wanting to be discovered without an adult caretaker lest he end up in an orphanage, Hugo continues to keep the train station’s clocks so as to not alert anyone to his uncle’s disappearance.  Hugo lives by his wits – traveling through secret tunnels and passageways in the train station, and stealing food for his survival.  In possession of the automaton his father was so lovingly trying to restore before his death, Hugo also steals mechanical parts from the train station’s toy booth, hoping to one day refurbish the automaton himself, convinced that the automaton will provide the answers Hugo needs to survive.

Along the way, he becomes entangled with the toy booth’s owner, a cantankerous old man, and a strong-willed young girl who seems intent on thwarting Hugo’s every effort.  Who is this mysterious old man and what is his connection to Hugo’s automaton?  And will the automaton provide the answers Hugo is looking for?

At 533 pages, this is actually a very quick read; my two boys each read it in a day, and I read it in two afternoons.  Half the pages are gorgeous sketches that tell part of the story, and many of the pages of text are only a paragraph or two long.  Combining elements of novel, graphic novel, and cinema, this is a unique reading experience.  I really enjoyed it, and look forward to taking my boys to see the movie version that’s recently been released.