New on the Youth Bookshelf

May 2, 2024 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Some adult book clubs choose one “young adult” title a year to read, simply to sample from the many excellent books in that category.  This year, two outstanding young adult historical novels illuminate lesser-known Jewish experiences in Romania and the United States during World War II:  The Blood Years by Elana Arnold and We Are Not Strangers by Josh Tuininga.  Teens and adults will find both books well-worth reading.

The Blood Years

the blood years book coverThe Blood Years earned the top Jewish book awards for young adult literature – a National Jewish Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal – as well as accolades in the wider book world. It was named a best book of the year by the Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and other publications.

What makes the book special is its unusual setting (Czernowitz, Romania), historical accuracy, and multifaceted characters.  The novel is based on the World War II experiences of the author’s grandmother, buttressed by research.  The story follows the fortunes of a Jewish family – two sisters, Rieke and Astra; their melancholic mother, Anna; and Anna’s father, Heinrich, called Opa by his granddaughters.  Opa is fiercely protective of his family and serves as the moral center of the book, striving to live by his ethical code even in the midst of violent antisemitism, murder, and war.

The novel incorporates the complicated history of Czernowitz (now called Chernivtsi and encompassed within Ukraine), long a thriving center of Jewish life.  Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city came under Romanian control after World War I.  In 1940, Soviet troops occupied the city, but then German and Romanian troops took charge from 1941 until 1944, when the Soviet Army returned.  As depicted in the novel, many Jews who survived the war owed their lives to Czernowitz’s heroic mayor, Traian Popovici.

We Are Not Strangers

we are not strangers book coverLike Blood Years, Josh Tuninga’s We Are Not Strangers, a graphic novel, is based on its author’s family history.  Set in Seattle, Washington, during World War II, it tells the story of a Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Turkey and his friendship with a Japanese-American man.

Marco Calvo and Sam Akiyama bond over a shared loved of fishing off the Seattle pier, as well as a sense of being outsiders.  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam, although born in the United States, becomes subject to President Franklin Roosevelt’s now-infamous Executive Order 9066.  This authorized the U.S. Army to forcibly remove from the West Coast over 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens and incarcerate them in prison camps.

The novel depicts Marco as horrified by the threat to Sam and his family, yet reluctant to protest the order or do anything that could potentially undermine Roosevelt’s war effort and prolong Jewish suffering in Europe.  But at a Shabbat service at Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim Synagogue, Marco reflects on the Torah’s teaching to welcome the stranger.  Ultimately, he devises a plan that will help Sam and others affected by the executive order.

With the magic of art, Tuininga captivatingly recreates old Seattle.  In interviews, he said that archival photos and videos helped him capture the look of historic Seattle locations as well as the faces of his characters.  In the novel’s illustrations, Tuininga incorporates actual American newspaper headlines of the time including the chilling, “Walls Will Enclose Warsaw Jews Today.”

Both Blood Years and We Are Not Strangers relate compelling, lesser-told Jewish stories of World War II.  Like many good books, they prod readers to ask themselves how they would behave in similar circumstances.