Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

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Shifting Sands: Life in the Times of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (2014), by Kathy Lowinger

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.5.

Lowinger-Shifting SandsWhen I first picked up this book, I thought it was a non-fiction account of these three religious figures. The subtitle at the top of the cover dominates, despite its smaller type; the title itself blends into the image below. (It’s the colour of the sky in the picture, and the colour of the type in the title, I think…) Regardless, readers should look past any assumption about the content and be prepared for three very human stories of young people living through three formative moments in history.

Dina is a slave in the House of Weavers who makes a difficult choice in following Moses and her people; Mattan is a farmer’s son who leaves his home and whose path crosses that of Jesus and his disciples; Fallah and his older brother have left their tribe and become victims in a conspiracy against Muhammad. Their histories twine seamlessly into the historical accuracy of Lowinger’s narrative, allowing readers to feel the insecurities of life the common people of these times endured. Although from our modern perspective we believe we know the benefits and dangers associated with the choices Dina, Mattan, and Fallah make, Lowinger helps us to understand how hard it would have been for simple young men and women to leave all that they knew and follow a new path, cutting themselves off from family and community. Little details of every-day life accentuate our narrative experience of history: the broken sandals Dina is given for her excellence in weaving; the small infected scrape that – with no antibiotics to prevent infection – kills Mattan’s sister Nirit; the dried fruit, nuts, and mare’s cheese that Fallah takes on the road. The minutia and the focus on human emotions and experience combine to give us powerful images of the effect these three religious leaders had on the people around them, and thus on the history of our world.

Touched by Fire (2013), by Irene N. Watts

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Watts-FireTouched by Fire is the most recent in a long line of powerfully moving stories told by Irene N. Watts. Like Goodnight, Marianne (1998) and its sequels Remember Me (2000) and Finding Sophie (2002), Touched by Fire recounts the experiences of the Jewish communities persecuted before and during the Second World War. In Touched by Fire, Miriam’s family flee the pogroms in their village, and start a new life in Kiev. As the persecution of the Jews grows worse, Miriam’s father emigrates to America, promising to send for his family, to bring them to the “Golden Land” (7) and freedom. Through unforeseen circumstances, Miriam must travel alone to meet her father, leaving her mother, brother, baby sister, and grandparents behind.

Watts’s description of the hardships Miriam endures—travelling alone to a foreign land, braving the immigration procedures on Ellis Island, and trying to find work in a new, English-speaking city—are balanced between the threatening possibilities and a more idealistic view of events. Miriam’s positive attitude earns her friends, who in turn help her to find a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Readers will almost certainly be unaware of the 1911 tragedy, in which 146 of the company’s employees died in a fire. The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, and for Miriam, brings back memories of the screams, the flames, the fear, when the Cossacks burned her family’s home and village. Watts places Miriam firmly in the middle of the tragedy, and we are caught there with her. We see only what she sees; we feel her panic, her fear, as the building burns and many of her co-workers jump to their deaths, unable to escape the flames.

Watts has a talent for expressing the seemingly inexpressible in a way that young readers can comprehend. Even through the calamity and its aftermath, when readers feel the trauma Miriam experiences as she waits for news of her friends, Watts’s characters exude a strength that readers will see and be comforted by.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), by Judith Kerr

Kerr-HitlerThis is a simply written tale, aimed at quite a young readership, that exposes the child reader to the very periphery of the Holocaust experience.  For those aware of the history, parts of the story are extremely tense: the border crossing from Germany into Switzerland; almost getting on the wrong train when leaving for Paris; and mostly, the family’s decision to settle in France, when the reader knows of the impending German invasion.

Young Anna’s life is turned upside-down when her father, a famous liberal journalist, intelligently chooses to flee Germany days prior to Hitler’s election in 1933.  Anna’s growth as a character is indicated strongly in her responses to the things she no longer has: her first birthday away from home, in Switzerland, is a trying disappointment; but by Christmas in France, she has learned to find solace in having her family whole and together.  Her one dream is to become famous, like her father, and the book culminates—in the midst of yet another relocation—with her hopes being validated: she had read that all famous people had “difficult childhoods,” and far from feeling sorry for herself, is gratified when her Uncle Otto comments how it must be “quite difficult to spend one’s childhood moving from country to country” (257).