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What can a piece of paper from the past tell us?

The research continues while the writing nags.  It is a balancing act of joy for me.  What to do? Read or write?  For now, you will find me writing in the mornings and reading in the afternoon and evenings. Pouring over my notes from my trip to the National Archives in London, I remembered I hadn't shared my experiences there.

I took the long train ride to Kew from Primrose Hill, making two transfers before I arrived to the village. I walked through a quaint residential neighborhood making my way to the archives.  I spent a little time getting my reading room ticket.  I simply presented a utility bill and my passport and I was handed a card, valid for three years.  Armed with a clear plastic bag containing my camera, pencils with recently removed erasers, and my surface (the best writing tool I have ever purchased), I made my way to the computerized catalog to order my desired documents.  I submitted my top three items and made my way downstairs to wait for them to show up in my assigned cubicle.  Excited, I ate quickly and went upstairs, cleared security and watched the clear red plexi door, waiting for my treasures.

The smell and texture of the documents transported me back to the past.  I saw the hand writing of the very people I had been researching for a year.  They were real, not fiction.  I wished I had the forensic insight of Hanna Heath of Geraldine Brooks creation in People of the Book. Combing through the items I had picked before I left the US was hit or miss, but I found some real treasures.  Whatever your interests, if you ever have a chance to dig into papers from the past, take it.  It was a thrill from beginning to end.

I would also recommend you or your young adult try out this amazing book.  Hanna Heath, a rare book specialist is tasked with the restoration of an usually illustrated Haggadah.  It is a story about a book that has a past of its own and a story to tell.  I loved it.  Romance alert:  I didn't read it with YA readers in mind, so you may want to check the brief romance scenes to make sure they fit within your family's boundaries, if you are recommending it to your young adult reader.

A Rare Movie Review

by Veronica Roth
(to see my thoughts on the book click here)

Just a quick note to say I loved this movie.  Last week was our spring break and my son and I saw it twice.  I just loved the way the art director transformed Chicago.  I couldn't get enough of the imagery presented of my favorite American city's future.  They did a great job of being true to the story and the pace of the movie made me want to read the next book in the series, Insurgent.  Unfortunately the novel hadn't compelled me to do the same.

If you find you have an evening free, check it out!


Keeping an eye on things

The best part of researching this book is meeting the people and joining them in going to unusual places.  One of the best places I found while in Great Britain was a bunker in Uxbridge.  It was the bunker for RAF Fighter Command 11 where Winston Churchill spent September 15, 1940, the day the Battle of Britain is commemorated.  At the bunkers, all the movements of the assigned units were monitored manually.  It was important for me to visit because Millie will begin working her way up through the WAAF ranks as a plotter. 

I visited the Bunker on my first full day in London. Because I had plenty of time after breakfast before my 2pm appointment, I decided to walk around Regent Park.   I walked around the Zoo and Wildfowl sections and then I could take no more.  My feet were killing me.  My boots were the wrong choice for footwear!  I thought they would be best for the rain, but I’d rather have wet feet than sore ones.  Luckily, I needed to head to Uxbridge, so I made my way to the closest tube station, Baker Street tube stop.

I caught the train and kept thinking I was never going to make it for the week with my current foot pain.  And wouldn't you know it, I didn’t bring an alternative pair of shoes.  That will never happen again, I assure you.  The tube ride was a straight shot, so I arrived in Uxbridge by 1.  I got off at the station and, to my relief, there was a sporting goods store.  Uxbridge was a delightful little village, which has many quaint little homes and a lot of shopping.  I walked straight into the store and bought a pair of waterproof hiking shoes and a pair of gel inserts.  While I was trying on the shoes, I noticed that I had lost my directions to my destination in Uxbridge.  I was of course planning to walk.  I searched high and low but could not find them anywhere.  At 1:40, I surrendered and headed to the taxi stand outside the tube station.  The first taxi driver knew right were the bunker was and we were on our way.  It wasn’t far, and the driver Mark was really kind. With the status of my feet, I have to admit it was the best 5 pounds I have ever spent.  And, I do not think I would have ever found it even with my maps!

The Bunker was everything I hoped for.  The curator Jerry was excellent!  And, all those in attendance were curious and attentive.  I struck up a friendship with a pair of gentlemen who were in from Cambridge.  We spent three hours discovering, listening and learning.  Once we finished up, my new friends offered me a ride to the tube station, as it was getting dark.  I decided to accept, thinking that anyone with common but obscure interests must be trustworthy. Two things stood out at the bunker:

 1-The phones were, as you might expect, dial-ups.  The three children there had no idea how to operate them and were fascinated that you would put your finger in and dial.  The curator encouraged this.  They were allowed to touch and explore everything.  At one point, we were all trying on the flight jacket the pilot model was wearing.  He was just so pleased they had an interest.  I do believe those children fell in love with history that day.  Why is our American approach so restrictive!

2-There was an elderly couple there. The woman was particularly interesting.  I overheard her telling the children that they had to practice putting on the gas mask and that they were very tight on your face.  We struck up a conversation and I told her about the book and my research.  After I mentioned my interest in women and the war, she told me that all women 18-35 were expected to serve, if not in the military then in the factory.  I asked if she had served and she said, ‘Sadly, No.  I had wanted to be a WREN. They had such stunning uniforms.”  We talked a little longer and I asked if she had grown up in London.  “Yes,” she answered, “in Windsor.  My Father used to count the bombs dropping like sticks during the Blitz.  One night while counting, he realized it would land on our house and indeed it did.  We were buried in the wreckage, and my 19 year old brother was killed." She went on to say,” Funny, during the war I never thought about it much, it was just how things were.  I never really thought about it until the 9/11 bombings.  As I watched the victims running from the towers, I could remember the feeling of my mouth and nose being filled with concrete.  I couldn’t breathe.”

It is amazing what people will share if you are willing to listen.

If you find all of this World War II action interesting and want to share it with your middle reader, I would suggest a book called The Coastwatcher by Elise Weston.  It has been a while since I have read it, so here is a review from School Library Journal:

School Library Journal

Gr 4-6-It is 1943 and Hugh and his family escape a polio epidemic by leaving Charleston for the South Carolina seashore for the summer. While there, the 11-year-old considers it his duty to watch for any signs of enemy activity. He becomes suspicious after seeing what he believes to be a periscope off the coast, finding German cigarettes, and stumbling across an unreadable map. When no one believes him, he goes out on his own to discover if the town has been secretly infiltrated. At times, it feels as though the author is compelled to get in as much background information surrounding WWII as possible. This may become a slight distraction for some readers, but the simple, flowing story will still appeal to reluctant readers, and boys, especially, will connect to the protagonist. An author's note gives more specific details about what occurred on American coastlines at this time. An enjoyable historical novel.-Christine McGinty, Newark Public Library, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.


Gathering Intelligence

One of the main purposes of my research trip to England was to find this stately home in the Buckinghamshire district.  It is named Danesfield House.  It was the home of RAF Medmenham during WWII.  The WAAF and RAF personnel who were stationed here were responsible for all of the photographic interpretation during the war.  It was the Central Intelligence Unit and served all military functions during the war.  I learned about its important roll in the war one night watching NOVA on PBS.  If you are interested you should check out the show, 3D spies of WWII. This house and the work that happened here are the backdrop to my protagonist Millie's journey to adulthood.  

It was not unusual to use these grand homes for war work, but can you image working day in and day out in a magnificent place like this.  Standing on the stairs pictured above, you are looking at the Thames!  Sadly it had broken through its banks on my trip, the result of one of the rainiest years in over 250 years. It was the most amazing trip, made perfect by the Guest Service Manager of Danesfield House, Peter Faarup, my tour guide, cheerleader and friend.  Here is a look inside.

On a final note, if the topic of intelligence-gathering or spying interests you or your young reader, you may want to check out  Code Name Verity  by Elizabeth Wein.  I realized after my posts a few weeks ago, I told you about her second book before mentioning how much I like the first.  This novel takes an original approach to examining espionage during the war.  But more than that, it tells the story of two girls, growing in deep friendship, during one crazy time in history.


Where do ideas come from?

It is possible that this entire adventure began when I read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.  My son and I were on a kick of reading narrative non-fiction, so I picked it up.  For what ever reason, I have always been fascinated by the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  I was doing a little research on my grandfather and his life in the late 20s.  I had written a few short stories, but was hitting a lot of brick walls when I looked for fact to balance the fiction.

In the meantime, my niece was diagnosed with asthma.  After a visit and seeing how tired her poor little nose was of the constant contact with paper tissue, I went looking for dainty hankies.  A dear friend offered me a few and I greedily took them.  There was just one problem, the monogram was an F, not a B.  So I decided to give the handkerchiefs a new life with a story.  As I sat down to write the story, deep in Larson's world of Germany, I began to write the story of an evacuee.  It was quite short and just explained how she would be in possession of a handkerchief with the wrong monogram, but Millie, my main character was born on those pages.

I tried to continue the work on the American Depression Era, but Millie wouldn't relent.  She is one of those needy children the Indigo Girls sing about.  And so, here I am writing her story.  This is it in a nut shell:

An unfeeling mother, Nazi bombs and youth conspire to expel Millie from her beloved London.  Remote country life brings only a string of tedious days until she discovers a British secret weapon and her own special gifts.  Combined, they bring Millie the family she never knew she needed and an end to the war.

On my trip to London, I found her house, the paths she would have walked and the city she adored.    What I found out while I was there was remarkable!  Now for the continued writing and research.

By the way, if any of you have every wondered about how Hitler rose to power or how we as Americans responded to that rise, you should check out this book.  If you have a kiddo who is interested in the topic, it is a curious look at that time, through the eyes of the newly appointed American Ambassador to Germany.  It is a hard truth, but any advanced reader 7th grade and up would be able to sort it out.


Back, but a bit changed

After reading fiction all of my life and making a living by leaning on my technical writing abilities, I have decided to try my hand at fiction.  I have been learning and practicing for the last year, and I have never done anything harder.  I am not sure if I will ever see my stories in print, but I am having a ball writing.  The shorts stories are growing up into a novel.  Characters I have grown to love and worry about are evolving and I am ready to share a bit of this experience.

So for now, I will be reading less and writing more.  Don't misunderstand, the reading is going to happen, but it will be more by my own design and less with my book club kids in mind.  My novel is a young adult (or maybe new adult, according to a fellow writer) historical fiction novel. I spent the last few month buried in pre-writing exercises.   This includes research and putting words on paper, or really a digital screen.  Meeting new characters has been the best part of the journey so far.  Working on the back stories so that I don't bore my reader, but can understand each person's motives has been energizing.  I often fall in love with the characters in my favorite novels.  I never imagined I would grow to know characters of my own creation so well.

But, place is kicking my _ _ _!  So I am on my way to London, to walk around Millie's home and get to know her better as I learn about her home.  I leave Saturday, facing floods of the quarter century, and I must admit I am excited.

In the mean time I would like to suggests you consider reading Elizabeth Wein's newest novel, Rose under fire.  I will warn you that it is a harsh look at humanity, but hope is always present, though at times only in whispers.  You will learn a lot about the German concentration camps.  But, you will also learn about heroism in unexpected places.  If you enjoyed Code Name Verity, you might be glad to see Maddie and Jamie again.  And, I am sure you will love Rose.


Harry Potter Anyone?

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

This week I opened a Harry Potter book for the first time in years. The last time I read Harry Potter and the Socerer's Stone was about  6 years ago when my son was seven. I had put him off as long as I dared, and we read it together, in case Quirrel and his little friend might frighten him.  Before that, this was the book most often requested in the libraries in which I read books aloud.  The year it was published and for many years after, I read this book regularly.

I must say that once the movie came out, the requests began to diminish. I am not sure that many kids are taking the time to read the books at all.  They may read one or two, but the whole series is certainly reserved for the reading enthusiast.  That is why I am reading it know.  My 6th grade book club wanted to read and discuss the books.  Enough of the kids had read none of the books that we decided to go back to the beginning.  When going to get the cover art I was surprised to see it had changed.
I am looking forward to talking with the kids about the books. I am sure the other novels, if not movies, will come up in the discussion.  Harry is a terribly flawed hero and I love pointing that out to kids.  It seems to make them believe that they too might have a bit of hero inside.

As expected, the book was great.  I had forgotten how much I loved McGonagal, Hagrid and Snape.  They are lively characters even in the beginning.  It was nice to be reminded of how Hermione found her spot in the trio that would go on to change the wizarding world.  Mostly, it was nice to read through this horribly imaginative book.

If your reader hasn't read the series and is up for a bit of fantasy, you can't go wrong here.  I would remind you that with every book Harry is a year older and his problems age with him.  He begins as an 11 year old.  Let that be your guide.

By the way, do any of you find it odd that in three of my bookclub books the name Granger comes up? Mrs. Granger in Frindle, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and Granger, Guy Montag's friend, in Fahrenheit 451.  Weird Huh?