122 – Winterkill by Marsha Skrypuch

Marsha Skrypuch is the author of Winterkill, a work of children’s historical fiction about a boy who lives through the Holodomor, a genocidal campaign of starvation that the Soviet Union imposed on Ukraine during the 1930’s. In this interview, we talk about the research that went into this book, the difficulty of writing about such a heavy topic, and what Marsha will publish next.

In our interview, we mention several things that listeners will enjoy checking out. First is Marsha’s book Enough, a folktale about the Holodomor with beautiful artwork by Michael Martchenko:

Marsha also recommended Red Famine by Anne Applebaum as the best available non-fiction book on the Holodomor. Listeners can also find excellent historical and statistical information at holodomor.ca, a site managed by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.

Marsha is also the creator of gorgeous Pysanky eggs. These are a traditional Ukrainian art form and Marsha has worked hard to master it. You can see examples of her work on her website, where she also has instructions so that you and your kids can give it a try!

Activity: Would I have done what Alice did?

In Winterkill by Marsha Skrypuch, a girl named Alice comes to Ukraine from Canada with her father. She has been told that the Soviet Union is a worker’s paradise, where everyone is equal and government programs will solve all problems within only a few years. She eagerly joins in, idealistically joining a youth group and helping her father with his work. She brings a clipboard to Nyl’s village and begins making an inventory of each family’s possessions. But she never stops to think about why she might be doing such a thing.

After reading this part of the story, have an honest conversation with your kids. Can they understand why Alice thinks what she is doing is good? How much responsibility does she have for what happens to the villagers? Would they be able to forgive and even befriend Alice as Nyl does? Encourage students to think about how much they might act like Alice if they were encouraged to do so by parents and teachers. Without placing excessive guilt or blame on children who could not possibly have escaped their historical circumstances, encourage students to thoughtfully consider the reasons young people get swept up in bad political and social movements.

Activity: Make Pysanky

Pysanky are a beautiful traditional Ukrainian handicraft. You and your kids can try making them! Author Marsha Skrypuch has written instructions at her website. “A Simple Pysanka, Step by Step” offers the following advice:

Step one: lightly sketch outline in pencil, then cover up with hot wax everything you want to remain white.

Step two: soak egg in your next lightest colour of dye (yellow is a classic second colour).

Step three: cover up with hot wax everything you want to remain yellow.

Step four: soak in the next next lightest colour — in this case pink — then cover up with wax everything that you want to remain pink.

Step five: soak in your darkest colour.

Step six isn’t shown, but I use raw eggs with the guts still inside because the egg settles into the dye jar better. I remove the guts once all the dying is complete. I dribble hot wax onto the spot where I make my one hole so that the egg guts doesn’t disturb the dye and then I blow air with a syringe, followed by water with the syringe. I ensure the opening is free of filament (ie, if the hole is plugged, the egg will explode in the next step).

Step seven: put a soft buffing cloth on the tray of your microwave. Set your hollowed egg on top. Zap for 10 seconds. Immediately remove and buff with a clean soft cloth. Done!

119 – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as Historical Fiction

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is not about World War II, except . . .  it kind of is. This novel was published in 1950, but it is set in 1940. Many of the events and themes in the book would have been instantly recognizable to those who first read it, and it’s useful to point that out to children today, who will not have the same emotions and experiences as children from 1950.

The most obvious connection to the war is that the four main characters are children sent away from London to get them away from The Blitz. But there are a surprising number of other things in this story that reflect wartime experiences, from the food to being part of an underground resistance movement!

118 – Number the Stars

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a book that often gets pride of place in school libraries. It’s a thrilling adventure tale in its own right, but it also has much to teach children about the preciousness of human lives, and how the most important kind of courage is the quiet, ordinary kind. This novel tells the story of how the people of Denmark worked to save the lives of over 99% of its Jewish population during World War II. By telling the story from the perspective of a young Christian Danish girl, young readers are able to experience the same emotions that she does as she learns about the horrors that her Jewish neighbors must flee from.

Activity: Replacement Goods During World War II

Number the Stars is a very effective work of historical fiction for its accurate depiction of how ordinary life was impacted by shortages of all kinds of goods during World War II. The book describes how items like sugar, cheese, and butter were in short supply, and even describes shoes made of “sea leather.” With real leather unavailable, Scandinavians came up with a way to use fish skins to make shoes.

Have students research what kinds of consumer goods were unavailable, rationed, or only available on the black market during World War II. After compiling a list of common items in short supply, ask students to consider what it would be like to live without these things, and how they might compensate. As a follow-up activity, have students consider the creative ways that people learned to be more economical and less wasteful during World War II, and encourage them to think of how some of these techniques could help reduce waste, pollution, and excessive spending even in times of peace and prosperity.

Activity: Analyzing the Text of Psalm 147

The title of Number the Stars is a reference to Psalm 147, in which people are compared to the stars, each one precious and known and with its own name. This is not a casual reference; in the story, the Psalm is read out by a Danish resistance fighter who is not Jewish, and it is heard by both Jews and Christians who are together under one roof as they wait for the right time to sneak to the boats that will carry the Jews to safety in Sweden.

Have your students read the text of Psalm 147 before reading Number the Stars. Ask them to identify the basic meaning of the Psalm and note any interesting bits of symbolism. Revisit the same text after reading Number the Stars, looking for any textual or thematic parts that are referenced by Lois Lowry in her novel. Have the children explain how this Psalm is particularly fitting to reference in a story about Jews and Christians working together to protect human lives from destruction.

112 – Interview with Angela Pham Krans

Angela Pham Krans is the author of Finding Papa, a beautiful and touching tale about Mai, a little girl whose father has to say goodbye for a while when he leaves to find a new and better home for the family. Eventually Mai and her mother make a dangerous and daring journey by boat to rejoin Papa in their new home in America.

This story, which is beautifully illustrated by Thi Bui, is based on Angela’s experience as one of the many Vietnamese people who fled their homeland in the wake of the Vietnam War. In our conversation, we discuss the effect that Finding Papa has on readers of different ages, why Angela chose to focus the plot on one family rather than the larger historical and political context, and where she got the inspiration to give the main character a pet chicken.

Finding Papa has recently been placed on the American Library Association’s 2024 Notable Books list. Angela has also recently published Words Between Us, a charming story about how an English speaking grandson learns to communicate with his Vietnamese speaking Grandmother. You can learn more about Angela and her work at angelakrans.com and follow her on Instagram at angela.pham.krans.

Activity: The Geography of the Boat People

While younger kids will be able to appreciate Finding Papa for its moving story about family reunification, older children can use this book as a starting point for exploring how the Boat People left Vietnam and made new homes all over the world.

Have students locate Vietnam on a map. Ideally, provide an outline map of the world that they can draw on. Have students research the different routes that refugees took out of Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Try to discover which countries most of them traveled to and in what numbers, as well as estimates of how many of the Boat People did not survive their journeys. If it’s difficult to know exact numbers, try find out why. Students can label the map with differently colored arrows labeled to show how many people went from Vietnam to each new country.

Activity: The History of the Boat People

There were many reasons that people decided to leave Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Students can research the history of this country during this period and present a written report or give a presentation about the reasons people chose to leave, and what drew them to the new countries they arrived in.

Activity: Mai’s Mother Keeps a Journal

Finding Papa focuses on Mai, a very young girl, who is taken on a dangerous but hopeful journey to a new home. But what must her mother have been feeling? Students can write journal entries from the point of view of Mai’s mother. Entries might include describing the decision for Papa to go ahead of the family to prepare the new home, the first night without Papa, a night on the boat after the storm, the first night after being rescued, or any other part of the story. Encourage students to imagine what it would feel like to be a young woman with a toddler on such a journey, and to express these emotions in the journal entries.

109 – I Survived Some Bad Historical Fiction

The I Survived historical fiction series by Lauren Tarshis is popular, influential, and . . . completely full of errors and distortions of people, places, and events from the past. This year the show will give special attention to works of historical fiction for children, and we’re beginning with an example of what authors should not do when fictionalizing the past.

Well written historical fiction can bring the past to life, making history easier to understand and more exciting to study. But works in the I Survived series suffer from skimpy historical research, incorrect depictions of societies in the past, and perpetuating misunderstandings about key events. I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic is the first book in the series and, unfortunately, provides many examples of just plain bad history.

Distortions or falsehoods in the book include an incorrectly rosy view of the social class system of 1912, a false depiction of the Titanic’s crew as violent and unprofessional, an incorrect description of the Titanic’s collision with the iceberg, a misunderstanding of how the lifeboats on board were actually used, and unfortunately so much more.

Books in the I Survived series are fun to read and work well as adventure stories, but children should not be given them to read as reliable sources of information about history. In the future we’ll have more fun looking at good examples of historical fiction, but it’s helpful to parents and teachers to examine what to avoid when choosing works of historical fiction for children to read.

Activity: Hunting for Historical Errors

When reading any work of historical fiction, there will be times when the author has misrepresented past events, places, or people. This may have been done intentionally, as when several characters need to be condensed in order to streamline the storytelling. Sometimes this is because an author wrote the tale before new historical or scientific discoveries were made that shed new light on the past. And sometimes an author has been sloppy with research, careless with the facts, or simply indifferent to historical accuracy.

While reading a work of historical fiction, encourage your kids to make notes about people, places or events that interest them in the tale. Students can do research to find out if the fictional representation matches the historical reality.

80 – Interview with Bali Rai

This month’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is Bali Rai. Born and raised in Leicester City, he still lives in Leicestershire with his two daughters and is an active part of the local, national, and international literary scene, making frequent visits to schools and publishing new works for children at a steady rate. In our interview, Bali talks about how Sue Townsend influenced and encouraged him as a writer, why he is unafraid to tackle difficult topics in his books, and why he loves reggae music.

Bali is the author of dozens of books, many of which explore overlooked areas of history and struggle with complex social problems. He’s also able to tell sweet, believable tales about ordinary school kids finding their way through childhood. But whether his writing is about folkore from India, an RAF pilot evading the Nazis in occupied France, a teenager struggling to escape an arranged marriage, or boys and girls playing soccer together, Bali Rai’s work honors his Leicestershire roots.

You can follow Bali online:

balirai.co.uk
Facebook
Twitter
Instagram

A note for those listening who may not be a Chissit (someone from Leicester):

Twice in the interview Bali says “mardy,” which is a very useful bit of Leicestershire slang that generally means being grumpy or unpleasant. Back in Southern California as an equivalent we would say “in a funk” or “being a downer.” The term “mardy bum” means someone who is moping or complaining a lot and could be translated as “sourpuss” or “sad sack.”

63 – Mists of Iga by Kyle Mortensen

My brother, Kyle Mortensen, died unexpectedly last week at the age of only 37. He was a wonderful storyteller. He had a singular mix of wit, sarcasm, abrasiveness, affection, and insight, and all of these things bubbled together whether he was telling a story or writing one down. Kyle spent years researching the history of the people who lived in Iga province in medieval Japan, and from this grew a meticulously crafted work of historical fiction that he self-published a few years ago with the title Mists of Iga. It was intended to be the first in a series called Sons of Yōkai. I had planned to review this book when the sequel was ready to be published, but as that will now never happen, I would like to offer this small tribute to the writing of a good man, a wonderful husband and father, and a talented writer who should have had many more years to tell his stories to us all.

The themes and characters in Mists of Iga will appeal to teenagers, who will recognize the struggle of having growing skills and knowledge, but lacking the wisdom and experience to be seen as fully adult. The novel also shows the sort of strong, healthy masculine bonds that help boys grow into good men as two older shinobi take on the role of surrogate uncles to the orphaned sons of their friend and mentor. Set amidst the chaos of Japan in 1581 as Oda Nobunaga’s forces swept across the islands in an unstoppable conquest, Mists of Iga is a stirring tale of adventure and friendship told with wit, wry humor, and the unmistakable talent of a writer who will be dearly missed.

Get your copy of Mists of Iga on Amazon. All of the profits will go to Kyle’s wife and three young sons.

You can also donate to the Kyle Mortensen Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will be invested so that his sons can afford a good education one day.

Music in this Episode

“Kōjō no Tsuki” by Taki Rentarō

23 – Island of the Blue Dolphins: Lost but not Forgotten

This is the first of two episodes about the Newbery Award winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This book is a work of speculative historical fiction that imagines what the life of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas might have been like. It is not and never could have been a work that reported history accurately, because the history can never truly be known. But O’Dell did his best to research what he could, and his novel ignited interest in researching the life of the Lone Woman that still burns bright today. Because of Island of the Blue Dolphins, not only is the Lone Woman not forgotten, but she and her lost culture have be the subjects of some of the best historical and archaeological research in the world.

This episode summarizes the most accurate information currently available about the life of the Lone Woman. Whenever Island of the Blue Dolphins is taught, kids want to know how much of the story is real. There are a lot of scraps of information you can find online, and very little of it is accurate. We now know that the stories recorded in the nineteenth century ranged from mostly true to flat out fabrications by people who never even met the Lone Woman of San Nicolas. Parents and teachers can use this episode to help them feel confident about answering kids’ questions about what we do and don’t know about the Lone Woman, or Karana as she’s called in the novel. The next episode will focus on the fictional story in Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Reliable Sources for learning about the true history of the woman that inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park guide to Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park YouTube Channel

Islapedia

Articles written by the following people about San Nicolas Island and the Lost Woman of San Nicolas are very reliable:

    • John R. Johnson, an anthropologist with expertise on the languages and cultures of coastal and island tribes of Southern California
    • Susan L. Morris, a researcher who examines original documents such as maps, letters, shipping documents, company records, and newspapers to re-create an accurate timeline for the period of the Lone Woman’s life.
    • Steven J. Schwartz an archaeologist who worked for the US Navy doing excavations on San Nicolas island
    • René L. Vellanoweth, an anthropologist at California State University who has also led expeditions to sites on San Nicolas island
    • Carol Peterson, the education coordinator for Channel Islands National Park

Activity: What is a Reliable Source?

Talk with students about the definition of the word reliable: “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.” When doing research for school work, students should only use sources that are reliable.

Reliable sources:

    • Are written by someone who is an expert about the topic
    • Have information that is accurate and up to date
    • Do not express opinions without strong evidence behind them
    • Do not try to persuade the reader to agree
    • Are published by well-respected groups or people who have a good record of sharing accurate information

On a piece of paper or whiteboard, make two columns, one titled “reliable” and the other “unreliable.” Ask students to suggest sources of information that are reliable. They should come up with ideas like museums, scientists, researchers, teachers, librarians, experts, academic books, and so on. Ask students to also suggest sources which are unreliable sources of facts. They should list things like articles without an author, gossip, rumors, advertisements, political arguments, old and out of date documents, or sources which promote a belief at the expense of facts. Discuss how students can recognize the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.