fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

I will never understand the Holocaust. I don’t know that anyone will. Because there’s no good answer to all the many, many whys and hows of it. Why would anyone do that? How could anyone act with such cruelty? I don’t know. I don’t know how the perpetrators never once took a hard look at what they were doing and went, “Wait a minute…” But I keep trying, because these stories need to be told and read and shared, and that’s how 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel Press, 2019) ended up on my TBR. I heard so much about this a year or two ago, and it was just now that I had the mental space for it. It was worth the wait.

In 1942, 999 young unmarried women in Slovakia, including a lot of teenagers, were rounded up and shipped off, away from their homes and friends and family, under the guise of three months of forced government work. They were the first group to whom this happened. Instead of working in a shoe factory, as they expected, they were taken to Auschwitz, where their nightmare began. Working outside in the worst of weather with no shoes (or wooden sandals at best) and only a thin dress to cover their emaciated bodies. Starvation. Shaved heads that blistered in the sun. Barely adequate water, if they were lucky. Typhus. Injuries that went untreated. Being made to stand naked outdoors for hours in all kinds of weather in order to be counted. The threat of death, yours or someone you loved, at every possible moment. There was no end to the nightmares suffered by the young women imprisoned there, and Ms. Macadam doesn’t shy away from the details.

This is a heavy book, filled with the stories and memories of the few who survived, and the stories and blessed memories of those who did not. The survivors’ pain is evident in what they choose to share. Ms. Macadam points out several times things that are not common knowledge and that most survivors don’t share, due to shame or embarrassment, even all these years later. They still cry as they share what they went through, and when they share stories about their families who were torn from them and murdered solely for being Jewish. It’s a heartbreaking book, one that I had to set down a few times and take a lot of deep breaths before I could continue reading, so great is the pain on each page.

It’s hard to write about these books that are so emotionally difficult to read, in a way that will convince people to read them as well. “Here’s this book that highlights the worst of humanity and that deftly portrays images that (hopefully) only show up in nightmares these days; you should read it!” is one heck of a take, right? But you should. It brings honor to the survivors, honor to the memories of those who didn’t survive, when we read their stories and further our commitment to speaking out against human rights violations and working for a better world. It helps us to recognize the signs of fascist governments that are bound on stripping our fellow citizens of their rights and of their humanity. ‘Never again’ isn’t just a slogan; it’s a directive. And if we’re truly committed to an atrocity like the Holocaust never happening again, it’s up to us to understand it to the best of our ability. And that is why we should read these kinds of books, even when it’s hard and unpleasant and scary.

Heather Dune Macadam brings to life a world that no longer exists in pre-war Slovakia, and shows us the horrors that happen when we stop recognizing the humanity in others. This is a deeply important book, one that I recommend highly, but it’s okay to wait until you’re able to handle it, because it’s a lot.

Visit Heather Dune Macadam’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.

Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.

RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.

This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.

His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)

This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.