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Books in Brief: The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron; Chirp by Kate Messner

YOUNG ADULT

The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron; Scholastic Press, 377 pages ($18.99) Ages 12 and up. (March 3 publication)

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An extraordinary true story of heroism – of a Polish Catholic teenager who risked death sheltering 13 Jews in the attic of her home during World War II – comes to vivid life in this harrowing, unforgettable novel by acclaimed author Sharon Cameron.  Her beautifully researched tale is based on Stefania Podgórska's unpublished memoir, a trip to Przemysl, Poland, and interviews with some of the attic survivors, although Cameron says in the afterword it would take 1,000 pages to do justice to Podgórska's story.

Stefania was always a feisty, independent-minded girl, traits that saved her when she was telling necessary lies, sliding down the banister to escape a burning apartment building, scavenging for food, evading a Polish policeman with a crush on her, smacking an officer with a bag of coal or punching a man in the nose. She was not yet 13 when she rebelled at the tedium of country life, and insisted on moving to the City of Przemysl in 1936 to live with an older sister and work at a grocery store.

She was taken under the wing of the kindly Jewish shopkeeper and her family, eventually moving in with the Diamants and falling in love with their son Izio, a medical student. The Diamants became her family, and when the Germans invaded Poland and Jews were forced to move to the ghetto, Stefania stayed in their apartment, smuggling food and supplies to them in the ghetto. Her attempt to help Izio flee a labor camp ended in tragedy; Mr. and Mrs. Diamant were killed.

Stefania became the caretaker of her 6-year-old sister Helena after her widowed mother and her brother were taken to work as slave labor in Germany. So it was Helena's life, as well as her own, she risked when she agreed to shelter the Diamants' son Max and other Jews. She found a new apartment, a place with an attic but no electricity or running water and thus began the marathon of feeding, housing and keeping quiet a group of difficult personalities, from children to old men, so the neighbors wouldn't hear them through the shared wall of the building. With breathtaking immediacy, Cameron follows Stefania as she works 12-hour shifts at a screw factory, shops for food for her guests, empties waste in a bucket down a ladder,  and escapes detection numerous times. In one particularly chilling episode, German doctors performed some kind of medical experiment on Stefania when she sought a medical excuse to avoid being deported to Germany.

Stefania always knew she was risking her life and her sister's life; Poles, including children, were hung or shot for helping Jews. But she always said she would do it again: "One death or 13 Jews. It was a good trade." The afterword notes that while Stefania survived the war, married and had children and emigrated to the U.S., her mother disowned her for marrying a Jew and for helping Jews during the war.

CHILDREN'S

Chirp by Kate Messner; Bloomsbury, 227 pages ($16.99) Ages 10 to 14.

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This absorbing novel for middle-grade readers is two mysteries in one. First, is someone really sabotaging Mia's grandmother's cricket farm or has the woman lost her mind after suffering a stroke? The other, more sobering one: What happened to Mia, to turn her from promising gymnast and free spirit into a quiet, hesitant girl who has lost all her confidence? Kate Messner offers a wonderful mix of mystery and message of female empowerment in this fine novel of a girl finding her voice.

It's the summer after seventh grade, and Mia and her parents have moved to a Vermont town where her grandmother, a retired entomology professor, is struggling to make a go of a cricket farm. Mia loves her grandmother and has wonderful memories of jumping off tall rocks into the water below as a free-spirited kid, a kid she somehow left behind when she gave up gymnastics after breaking her arm on the balance beam. At her parents' urging, she signs up for two summer day camps, a Warrior Camp stressing physical challenges and a camp for young entrepreneurs where she makes friends and comes up with a plan for marketing her grandmother's cricket products. Her new friends also help her investigate the apparent sabotage of the cricket facility.

Along with the suspense as the friends work to identify the saboteur, Messner offers an entertaining and instructive lesson in marketing, in particular the challenges involving in winning people over to the idea of eating crickets. "Chirp" also offers strong female role models who are interested in science and an empathetic and realistic look at the suffering of a girl who has undergone a traumatic experience and finally finds the courage to speak up. The title reflects that theme of girls and women being silenced: Female crickets don't chirp.

 

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