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Check It Out

Courier Article by Carol Banks
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Children's Stories Twist Tales of Adventure, Courage

Irish-born essayist Oliver Goldsmith once wrote that "life is a journey a" Here are three recent children's books in which a journey profoundly affects the main character's life. Each story champions the resiliency of the human spirit. Each title has been selected for inclusion in the latest listing of the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

Dangerous Crossing: The Revolutionary Voyage of John Quincy Adams, written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin.

Time: February 1778. Place: the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Situation: desperate. Badly needing funds for his fledgling country and its war-ravaged army, John Adams undertook a secret wintertime odyssey to enlist the aid of France against her long-standing enemy -- England. American delegates were already in Paris pleading the American cause, but their deliberations were uncertain. Meanwhile, colonial soldiers were in dire need of clothes, shoes, muskets, powder and other necessities. It was hoped that by sending Adams, a deliberate and persuasive talker, an accord could be reached in Paris. Ten-year old John Quincy (Johnny) traveled with his father as an aide. They set sail on the Boston, a "twenty-four-gun frigate a with three towering masts a and a deck more than a hundred feet long a" As predicted, the voyage was not easy. After outrunning three British warships, passengers and crew were then pummeled by a deadly storm that "splintered" masts and ripped sails. When the Boston glimpsed the coastline of Europe on March 24, father and son not only "a had seen firsthand that war was not all glory and games, [but] they had tested their own courage as well."

Hidden Child, by Isaac Millman. "My name is Isaac Sztrymfman, and I was a hidden child." So begins the riveting account of Millman's childhood in Nazi-occupied France. Millman was one of the thousands of Jewish children who escaped deportation to the death camps by living undetected in the homes and villages of caring people who risked their own lives to save these children.

Following the 1941 arrest of his father, Isaac and his mother were no longer safe in Paris. Enlisting the aid of a close friend, the two journeyed by train in hopes of reaching the free French zone. But it was not to be. With the line of demarcation in sight, Isaac, his mother and other Jewish refugees were arrested and placed in prison.

Bribing a French prison guard with money and her jewelry, Rivele, Isaac's mother, was able to secure his release, but not her own. Isaac was then sent to a hospital where he had to pretend to be sick. Safe again, but only for a short time, Isaac was released and returned to Paris to another family friend -- who refused to shelter him. Not knowing what to do with him, the "guardian" from the hospital left Isaac alone on sidewalk in front of his old apartment.

It was there that Hena, a kindly woman, found the frightened child. She knew his best chance of survival was to hide with "good people" in the countryside. After one disastrous encounter with a couple whose only interest in Isaac was the money they would receive to care for him, Hena placed Isaac with Madame Devolder. Isaac thrived in her care .

At the war's end, he hoped that he would be reunited with his parents. "As time passed, I learned of the Nazi death camps. Still I clung to the hope of being reunited with Mama and Papa," writes Isaac. Again, it was not to be. Isaac found out that his parents, had been sent to Auschwitz in 1942. They were not among the few survivors.

An American Jewish couple learned about Isaac and wanted to adopt him. Hena urged Isaac to go. And so Isaac Sztrymfman, aged 15, left France for America. Meyer and Bella Millman provided a stable home for Isaac, adopted him and sent him to college.

Drafted into the U.S. Army, Isaac was then stationed back in Europe. He visited Hena, once again meeting her grandchildren, including granddaughter Jeanine. Isaac and Jeanine fell in love and were married -- much to Hena's delight. Of all his family members -- parents, "four grandparents, many uncles, aunts, and cousins," Isaac writes that "a only one cousin, one uncle and I survived."

Super Grandpa, written by David M. Schwartz with art by Bert Dodson.

Who hasn't heard of Lance Armstrong and his incredible Tour de France achievements -- but have you heard of Gustaf Hakansson? No, I thought not. In 1951, he took part in the Tour of Sweden. So, big deal, you say. Big deal, yes! What if I told you Gustaf was 66 years old at the time? What if I told you the judges of the race refused to allow him to enter because of his age? What if I told you Gustaf was not to be deterred in his goal, and that he rode his bicycle an additional 600 miles just to get to the starting line in the town of Haparanda (in northern Sweden)? What if I told you that Gustaf didn't worry about officially entering the race -- that he just wanted to prove that he could complete the grueling journey?

What if I told you that Gustaf pedaled by day and into the night, stopping only to rest and sleep for brief periods? What if I told you that Gustaf, who came to be known as "Stalfarfar" (Super Grandpa), crossed the finish line before any of the official cyclists? What if I told you that even though he finished first, the judges disqualified Gustaf because "it was against the rules to ride at night"?

What if I told you that nobody cared what the judges thought -- the Swedes considered Gustaf to be the true champion? What if I told you that "a Gustaf lived to be 102 and was still participating in bicycle races at the age of 85"? What if I told you that everything you've read here about Gustaf actually happened? It did! (An accompanying CD of the actual story also features a musical Swedish treat.)

Carol Banks is supervisor of the READ Center, Central Library's children's Department. Contact her at (812) 428-8222. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.