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Books in Brief: The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson, Infinite Hope by Ashley Bryan

CHILDREN'S

Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace an autobiography by Ashley Bryan; a Caitlyn Dlouhy Book/Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 99 pages ($21.99) Ages 10 and up.

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Acclaimed artist and storyteller Ashley Bryan offers an unforgettable portrait of his experience as a 19-year-old soldier in the segregated armed forces of World War II in this remarkable memoir, a beautiful volume liberally illustrated with his artwork, letters written to his Cooper Union classmate Eva and sketchbook journal entries. Bryan, now 96, said he did not speak of his war experience for 40 years; his autobiography for young readers is a remarkable illustrated testimonial of how his love of art helped him survive both the horrors of war and the ugliness of racial discrimination.

Bryan was a 19-year-old art student at Cooper Union in New York City when he got his draft notice in 1943. Although he had experienced racism growing up in the North, the U.S. armed forces offered his first experience with segregation, starting at the train station at the military induction center in New York.  He offers a vivid portrait of his army experience: the boredom of basic training, the terror of a battle simulation. He offers amusing descriptions of the work he was supposed to be doing, how inept he was at it, and the generosity of his fellow soldiers who would tell him to just draw instead. First stationed in Boston working as a winch operator with the 502nd Port Battalion, he was billeted in an old schoolhouse in South Boston where he gave art lessons to the neighborhood kids.  His next assignment, in Glasgow, Scotland, was a revelation, as the Scots' friendly acceptance of black soldiers irritated white officers, who imposed restrictions so blacks could not leave camp in the evening without permission.

Bryan was part of the Normandy invasion and he offers a fascinating perspective of the event. (A friend told him in July 1945: "He says he's going to tell [my folks] ... how I just painted through the invasion like it was art school.") The black quartermaster companies were given the dangerous task of clearing the beach of mines before the infantry could storm the beach. He remembers his collapsible shovel collapsing when he tried to dig a foxhole on Omaha Beach, sleeping "to the searing buzz of the Luftwaffe as they flew overhead like mechanical locusts." The discrimination continued after the Germans surrendered: black soldiers sat in the back of the bus while German POWs sat up front. Ships returning to the U.S. took white soldiers first.

After the war, Bryan enrolled in Columbia University to study philosophy, leaving his war drawings in a map case for 40 years. Among the wonderful artworks in this book are new paintings inspired by his World War II drawings and sketches superimposed on black and white photos of the war.

YOUNG ADULT

The Hand on the Wall: A Truly Devious Novel by Maureen Johnson, Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 368 pages ($18.99) Ages 14 and up.

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Maureen Johnson brings her delectable "Truly Devious" murder mystery trilogy to a thrilling conclusion, neatly tying together her dueling narrative threads, one set in 1936 and the other in the present day, with an action-packed finale during a blizzard at Ellingham Academy in the mountains of Vermont.

Teen sleuth Stevie Bell has made it her life's mission to discover who kidnapped and murdered Iris Ellingham, wife of the academy founder, in 1936 and what became of the Ellinghams' three-year-old daughter Alice, who disappeared after being abducted with her mother. The title comes from a threatening note – pasted letters cut out from magazines – sent to academy founder Albert Ellingham around the time of the abductions and signed "Truly Devious."

Stevie has figured out who "Truly Devious" is and is fairly certain she has figured out why two of her classmates and a professor have met with fatal accidents in the present: a secret codicil in Ellingham's will offers a fortune to the person who finds out what happened to Alice. After yet another dangerous accident involving a student's Rube Goldberg machine demonstration, the academy decides to send all the students home. But David Eastman, Stevie's love interest and the son of a right-wing, anti-immigrant senator, returns to the academy and persuades his former classmates to hide themselves on campus to help comb through evidence that could derail his father's presidential ambitions.

Johnson does a masterful job maintaining the tantalizing suspense of narratives set in the 1930s and the present, bringing her ambitious mystery to a most satisfactory conclusion. (Alert readers will recall clues sprinkled throughout the first two books; fuller portraits of the 1930s characters emerge in this final book, including the interesting information that Iris Ellingham had a cocaine habit.) The many nooks and hidden tunnels of the academy campus are a fine setting for murder and mayhem against the backdrop of a deadly blizzard. Stevie suffers from anxiety disorder, and Johnson does a fine job portraying how she manages her anxiety as she navigates her relationships with her oddball, brilliant classmates – and with David – and the single-minded focus that helps her identify the killers in the end.

Review Book One: Truly Devious

Review: Book Two: The Hand on the Wall

 

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