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Books of Hope and Healing

18 Dec

Ed. note: I’m excited to welcome back Lois Rubin Gross to the Staff Picks blog for this informative post on an important topic for our children. -kw

Hello, Hoboken. I’m making a guest appearance on the blog from chronically sunny Florida. I’ve missed so many of you and your children. I wish you all happy holidays, whichever ones you celebrate. This is a season of light and acceptance for all people, although your children are getting very different messages from the television and, perhaps, from classmates, this year.

The reason I asked the wonderful editor of this blog, Kerry Weinstein, for permission to visit with you is that messages that are inundating us. I’ve heard from one mother whose child is packing her bags in case the army comes to the door to take them away. Another mother told me, on Facebook, that her child is five years old and sensitive to the scorn of classmates who may not understand differences but can certainly parrot bad adult messages. One child checks the locks, each night, for safety. Another child cries because she is afraid she will be deported to a country she has never visited.

There are, literally, hundreds of titles to teach children acceptance of cultural, religious, ethnic, and differences in abilities. I’ve selected a really small group of these titles to present to you. Most are mild, focusing on being new in a class of strangers who don’t speak your language or look like you. Two graphic novels are appropriate for older children young teens with more serious content and explorations of self-identity. If these books don’t meet your needs, the Children’s Department Staff will be happy to help you find alternatives. You may also respond to this column and I will do my best to find you other books specific to your child’s needs and comprehension levels.

I’ve always thought that the old saw about the United States being a melting pot was wrong. I see our country as more of a salad bowl, where different ingredients maintain their identifiable shape and taste, but contribute to a fine dish. By the way, if you are interested in clarifying your own thoughts on the events of the day, I’d like to suggest a book that came out, post 9/11.  Its title is The Faith Club, by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner. In the dark days following the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, these three women–Muslim, Jewish, and Christian–formed a group to learn about each other’s religions and cultures. Through many meetings, they exchanged often diverse and angry messages, but also learned to appreciate the great similarities among the Mosaic faiths and the goals they had for their families. This is an excellent book club selection.

Remember that you can control the message in your own home, even if you can’t protect your child from every screen or every significant encounter with adults who have different opinions or classmates who have been influenced by the adults in their lives. You are also the best judge of the appropriateness of the media your child consumes and the best judge of how the news of the day is impacting your child.

The universal message of peace on earth seems to be lost, this year, and we must work to making it a clearer goal in the coming year. Meanwhile,  I sincerely wish that you are all happy, fed, clothed, and surrounded by love. Please give your kids an extra hug from me. You are all in my heart.

 Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki.


The author and his family were interred in a camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.  Mochizuki’s parents lost their home and possessions because of their Japanese ancestry. Ken and his friends need a distraction and turn to the great American pastime of baseball to help them deal with racism in this important book about a dark chapter of American history. (Ages 6 to 12)

Beautiful Yetta, by Daniel Pinkwater.


This is one of my favorite multicultural books by one of my very favorite authors. Yetta, the chicken, is on her way to the butcher’s shop with all her poultry friends. The truck she is riding in has an accident and Yetta, a clever bird, manages to escape in Brooklyn. At first, she wanders the streets, meeting only threatening rats and unfriendly pigeons. Soon she stumbles on a flock of parrots who live in Prospect Park (it’s true!). When Yetta saves them from a cat, the parrots adopt her into the flock making them birds of an unusual feather. The book is written in Yiddish, transliterated English, English, and Spanish. It is the best possible example of unlikely alliances that form unusual friendships. (Ages 4 to 9)

The Composition, by Antonio Skarmeta and Alfonso Ruano.


Pedro loves to play soccer. It’s his passion. However, when his teammate’s father is imprisoned by the government, Pedro learns an important lesson about courage and standing up for one’s beliefs. Pedro writes an important school composition about living in a dictatorship called, What My Family Does at Night. A story of friendship and courage. (ages 5 to 10)

Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco.


Image via Amazon

An African American family befriends a young Jewish girl from Russia. She and her new “brothers” are mischievous but are wrongly accused of egging a shop owned by an observant Jewish man. The three work together to try prove their innocence in the face of the unfair accusation. (Age 5 to 10)

Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson.


Chloe and her friends won’t play with the new girl, Maya, because she has old-fashioned toys and hand-me-down clothes. When Maya stops coming to school, Chloe and her friends learn an objective lesson in both inclusion and kindness. Chloe becomes the change she wants to see in the world. (Ages 4 to 9)

El Deafo, by Cece Bell.


This is a superhero book with a decided difference. Cece’s old school only taught children with hearing impairments. Her new school is immersive and Cece finds it hard to fit in with hearing people. Equipped with a Phonic Ear, Cece discovers that she has a “superpower” in that she can hear whatever her teacher is saying, anywhere the teacher is. This new ability helps Cece make friends but she soon figures out that she is being used to spy on the teacher. This experience teaches Cece the real meaning of friendship and how her special power can be used for good. An acclaimed graphic novel for older children and young teens.  (Ages 10 to 14)

Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say.


This is a beautifully illustrated Caldecott winning book that tells the real life story of the author’s grandfather who loved his native country, Japan, but also loved his new home in California. This is a poignant story about longing for a lost land while striving for acceptance in a new place. (Ages 4 to 10)

Hidden, by Loic Dauvillier.


A French Jewish grandmother shares a hidden part of her past with her granddaughter. Grandmother reveals that, during World War II, she and her mother were hidden with the help of a Christian neighbor and a nearby farmer. The Nazis have imprisoned the child’s father, and she and her mother and child rely on the good will of strangers to keep them safe. Grandmother’s revelation or her secret leads to a confrontation with her own daughter about why she hadn’t shared her history. A moving graphic novel for older children and young teens. (Ages 10 to 14)

Looking Like Me, by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers.


This picture book done by an award-winning father and son team, teaches children about identity, self-esteem and the wonderful possibilities that exist for every child. While the child in book is African American, the book presents a strong poetic message of what qualities make every child unique.

The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi.


Unchie is a new arrival in the United States. She has come to this country from Korea. When she starts school, she discovers that no one in her class can pronounce her name. She wants to be liked and accepted and so she decides to change her problematic name. She asks for suggestions from her classmates, but a jar full of commonplace American names do not suit her as well as her own Korean name. She decides to stay Unchie and teaches her friends about her culture so they can appreciate where she comes from. (Ages 4 to 8)

The Sandwich Swap, by Queen Rania AlAbdullah with Kelly DiPucchio.


Two girls of different backgrounds become fast friends. They meet, each day, to share their lunches until the day Salma brings humus and Lily brings PBJ. Lily says Salma’s sandwich sounds yucky and their disagreement goes schoolwide. The solution is a picnic for everyone and a delicious lesson in cultural diversity. (Ages 4 to 8)

Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad, by James Rumford.


Ali loves soccer, music, and dancing but, most of all, he loves the ancient art of calligraphy. When bombs start falling on his city, Ali begins to write and draw to give his life purpose. A story of purpose and survival in a war torn land. (Ages 6 to 10)

Snow in Jerusalem, by Deborah da Costa.  Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.


Image via Amazon

Two boys in Jerusalem’s Old City, one Jewish and one Muslim, unwittingly adopt the same stray cat that wanders the streets of their city. When the cat unexpectedly crosses the street that divide them, the boys meet and become friends on an unusual day when snow falls in their divided city. (Ages 6 to 10)

All of these books are available in the BCCLS Library System. I can also make other recommendations for your child’s specific needs if you contact me through the comments at the bottom of this post.

-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Retired Children’s Librarian

Seventy Years from Evil

20 Apr

April 15/16 is Yom H’Shoah, the day on which Jews and other victims of the Nazis remember the horrors of the Holocaust.  Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but an additional five to six million people went to their deaths for being gay, political enemies of the Nazis, disabled, Romany, or simply for trying to help their neighbors survive the war by hiding or helping them.  There have been other horrific genocides since then, but the Nazis set the template for the horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.

This year, however, is even more important because 70 years ago, on April 15, the most notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, was liberated.  There will be many commemorations of the event in large part because the remaining survivors will probably not be here for the 75th or 80th ceremonies.

The hardest question many parents and educators ask is when is the right time to start teaching about the Holocaust? The answer will be different for each child.  However, it is safe to say that children under the age of six should be shielded from the information. Some picture books that are not too detailed in the atrocities and focus mostly on the aftermath of the liberation of the camps, may be appropriate at age 8.  Mostly, however, you will want to look at ages 10 to 13 as the earliest age to introduce this subject to your child.

The list of books on the Holocaust, including first person accounts from survivors, is very long.  I could not possibly do a comprehensive list on this blog.  However, for guidance in teaching the Holocaust, check out the following websites:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial MuseumAttached to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. this is the most comprehensive resource for information on the Holocaust.  If you can visit with your older children, it is an unforgettable experience.  You can also access their learning resources at

The National Museum of American Jewish History:  Located in Philadelphia, PA on Independence Mall, this is another arm of the Smithsonian.  You can find out about their resources, including an internet classroom program, at or

The USC Shoah FoundationThis is the organization that was founded by Steven Spielberg after he made Schindler’s List.  Its purpose is to record the testimonies of survivors of the period so that the memories of the victims will be perpetuated.

The Museum of Tolerance: Not only does this resource document the events of the Holocaust, it also works to prevent future events of hatred and even bullying.

This is a partial list of easily available (through your library) books and films that are appropriate for younger audiences, and adults as well:

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.


I include this because Anne is arguably the most well-known victim of the Nazis.  Her diary, however, ends with her captivity. In addition to the book, which I would suggest for ages 11 and up especially because of the much discussed conflicts between Anne and her mother, there have been several films and plays made based on the diary.  The most well-known film was made in 1959 and directed by George Stevens.  It is probably the most palatable for younger audiences because most of the serious conflict was removed and the love story between Anne and Peter Van Daam, is sweetly innocuous.  It also ends with a hopeful scene of birds wheeling in the Amsterdam sky.  Subsequently there was another American TV version made with Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie fame playing Anne.  Frankly, this is an inferior version.  The BBC have done at least two productions of the story, the most authentic and effective being  Anne Frank: The Whole Story, starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank.  It is very well done.  It is also very graphic because it extends the story to time that Anne and her sister, Margot, spent in Bergen-Belsen before dying of typhus just weeks before the end of the war.  There is some mild nudity, but it is the hopelessness of Anne, at this point, that would be very hard for a child to grasp.  I would show this film to teens, ages 16 and up.

The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen.


This was an award-winning book, several decades ago.  In the book, Hannah, a reluctant participant in Jewish ritual attends her family’s Passover seder where she hears oft-repeated stories of the Holocaust victim whose name she carries.  In events similar to the Wizard of Oz, Hannah becomes unconscious and awakes in a Polish village where she befriends her namesake and then is taken to a concentration camp.  Things do not go well for Hannah as she hears the doors of the gas chamber close behind her before she awakens, back home in time for D’ayenu.  There was a TV movie made of this book which suffered from some misguided casting, with Kirsten Dunst playing Hannah. However, the late Brittany Murphy was actually quite good as the Polish girl from the past.

The Extra, by Kathryn Lasky.


This is an important book for teens primarily because it deals with the fate of the Romany (Gypsy) victims of the Holocaust.  A group of Romany inmates including Lilo, a teenage girl, are recruited to help Leni Riefenstahl make movies.  Riefenstahl was notoriously Hitler’s favorite movie maker and as the Romany group discovers, she was both a genius and a monster.  Adults might pursue the subject by reading Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach.

One Candle, by Eve Bunting.


This is the elusive picture book for younger children, grades 3 to 6.  In this story, a family shares a much-told tale of how a relative celebrated Chanukah in the camps with a piece of salvaged candle that had to last for eight nights.

Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story, by Marci Stillman.


Similar to One Candle, this is the story of nine dedicated women who gather spoons, one for each night, so that they can have a makeshift menorah in the camps. Grades 3 to 6.

The Harmonica, by Tony Johnston.


Based on a true story, this book tells the tale of a young boy who was given a harmonica by his father.  When he is imprisoned in the camps, the music he makes is his solace.  It also attracts the attention of a Nazi officer who commands him to play for him.  That music saved many prisoners is a fact.  This story is recommended for grades 3 to 6.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne.


Bruno’s father receives a promotion that moves the whole family to the countryside.  Bruno is particularly unhappy to leave his friends and home behind.  He doesn’t understand that his father’s reassignment has made him the commandant of a concentration camp.  Bruno goes exploring and makes a new friend on the other side of a barbed wire fence.  The two boys, the prisoner and the commandant’s son, meet frequently and, one day, decide to try a trick of changing places.  It does not end well for Bruno.  This book is frequently referred to as “a fable.”  For me the problem comes in the intended age of the readers, perhaps 11 and up, and the age of the protagonist who is much younger.   There was a well-received movie based on the book if you wish to introduce it in a different media.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-44.


Image via Amazon

There are several books that deal with the dichotomy that was Terezin (or Theresienstadt).  Built on the site of an old Czech fortress, this camp was designed for show, so that visiting dignitaries and the Red Cross would see a lovely village populated by happy Jews.  The camp fronted something far more sinister.  However, while children were interned there, they were able to take classes in art, music and put on performances.  This book is a collection of some of the work the children produced.

Brundibar, by Tony Kushner with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.


This is the beautifully drawn fable of a Czech village.  Aninka [in English Annette] and Pepíček (Little Joe) are a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. But they have no money. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár [who represents Hitler] chases them away. However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat, and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing in the market square.  This opera was actually performed in Theresienstadt to the delight of the apparently clueless SS soldiers.

Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin, by Susan Goldman Rubin.


This book covers the years in which the Czech artist, Dicker-Brandeis, was able to help the children of the camp produce art, poems, and stories.  Examples are inculded.

Auschwitz Explained to My Child, by Annette Wieviarka.


As her child turns thirteen, the author, the child of Holocaust victims, decides to explain to her daughter the process of historical events that led from Hitler’s rise to power, through the discriminatory acts perpetrated on the Jews, to the incarceration and murder of Jews in the concentration camps.

Let the Celebrations Begin!, by Margaret Wild.


This is an anniversary edition of the original in which a small boy, imprisoned in the camps, enlists women in the barracks where he lives to make toys for other children who will be celebrating the day of their liberation.

The Flag with Fifty-Six Stars, by Susan Goldman Rubin.


With their liberators on their way, the residents of one concentration camp decide to make a flag to honor the Americans who will save them.  Based on a true story, the determination of the men to produce a flag from rags is awe-inspiring.  Grades 3 to 6.

On this seventieth anniversary, I quote Yehuda Bauer who said, ““Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”   Books and movies can train up a new generation that will not be onlookers or perpetrators, but will help to build a better society for all.

-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian

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