The power of books

There are only eight books in her library. Dita protects every last one of them with her life. Prisoners are forbidden to have books. To be caught with a book is an instant death sentence. The SS guards will send you to the gas chambers. Or worse, they will send you to Dr. Mengele’s experimentation block.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, a 14-year-old Auschwitz prisoner. The few books in her library are tattered, ripped and worn. They are used to teach children in a secret school in Block 31, the family block. It is one of the few places in the camp where there are young children. Those who come to the camp who are deemed unfit for labour (mostly children, the elderly and pregnant women) are sent to the gas chambers. Block 31 is a propaganda tool. It exists to give outsiders the impression that life at Auschwitz is ordinary.

Although it involves difficult subject matter, The Librarian of Auschwitz is not a dark story. It is a story of life and hope. The secret school created by the prisoners in Block 31 serves to go beyond simple teaching: it serves to create a sense of normalcy for the children, to prevent them from giving into despair, to show them that life goes on and to give them hope for better days.

As the librarian, Dita keeps track of which books were lent to which teacher. She collects the books after school and returns them to their secret compartment. At night, she mends their worn out spines with thread and glue smuggled in from the working block. To expand her library, Dita invents the idea of a living library, where adults recite stories and events to the children from memory.

As time goes on and conditions in the camp worsen, Dita draws strength and assurance from her library. The books allow her to forget, even if it’s just momentarily, the terrible place where she’s living.

“A book is like a trap door that leads to a secret attic: you can open it and go inside. And your world is different.”

As a library assistant, I’m always in awe over the power books can hold. The books Dita had were mildew stained and broken but they gave her the ability to transport her mind to somewhere far from the nightmare of Auschwitz. Something as simple as an atlas gave a group of children the chance to see all the major cities and countries on the earth. A history book allowed them to learn about civilizations of the past. They gave hope to a group of people who would otherwise have none. For me, The Librarian of Auschwitz really enforced the importance of libraries. They are so much more than just a collection of books – they open doors to the past and let you dream of the future. Ultimately, they change lives. In Dita’s case, they saved lives.

-Lesley L.


Revisiting a classic

I think that everyone has a book that they read when they were young that made them feel like the author was speaking directly to them, as if the author could see right into their soul, and that no other person would read the book in the exact same way. The book that meant that much to me is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and I know that I pestered my parents and older siblings with constant references to book until they probably thought it might be worth ‘losing’ my library card for a few weeks so I’d find something else to talk about. Written in 1962, it was the winner of the 1963 Newberry Medal, and has never stopped being a touchstone in children’s literature (and, I really think, literature for all). I re-read it almost every year and our shelves at home have more than one copy because our kids have received it as a gift several times. It’s probably good that we have so many copies as each person will want one when they move out.

It’s not just that reading the book takes me back to a cozy time from my reading past, although in a way it does, because the main character – Meg Murry – has a loving family, a wonderful dog, supportive friends. In fact, the book is edgy and has more darkness than you would expect of a novel with a young main character. Part of the appeal of this book is that Meg is at an awkward time in her life, doubting her appearance and her place in the world, but she has to travel across the galaxy to rescue her father with the help of her incredible younger brother Charles Wallace and a new friend, Calvin.  The three kids at the centre of the story are united because they all see themselves as different from their peers and they know themselves well enough to place value on their ability to think independently. Reading this when I was little felt wonderful and I still value their loyalty to one another when I read it now. It’s a story of friendship and trust but the author had a glorious imagination like no one else I was reading at that time – unless I was taking books from my brothers’ bookshelves.

This novel shows all three children facing challenges, doubting themselves, seeing horrible danger approaching and at some moments they despair that they might not succeed in rescuing Meg’s father. Madeleine L’Engle chose not to ‘write down’ or ‘sugarcoat’ a situation for her readers and the first time I read this one I was so worried for the fate of Meg and Charles Wallace. It’s an adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat, casting Meg as the hero – a girl! – long before that was popular. She is the 1960s version of Katniss Everdeen but uses her love for her father as the weapon against the villains. As the child of scientists with a gift for math and a stubborn streak, Meg was an anomaly in the books I was reading and she continues to be one of my all-time favourite book characters. Her story, her love of her family, and the friendship she forms with Calvin has not aged a bit, making it possible to hand this book out to a young person at the library today and be confident that they will adore it.

Here is some great news for all who love the words of Madeleine L’Engle – her granddaughters have written a biography (for middle-grade audience but I don’t think that matters at all to fans of a woman who wrote for children with such respect) using their family stories, her own manuscripts and journals, and photographs as the basis for the book.  The book has been given the wordy title of Becoming Madeleine: a biography of the author of A Wrinkle in Time by her granddaughters.  I’ve read that her granddaughters had been thinking of doing something to celebrate the author’s 100th birthday (she was born in New York City in November 29 of 1918) and, inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics from Hamilton where the cast sings “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, they knew what they wanted to do.  They chose to focus only on the years of her life up to when this novel was published and tried to examine only documents which were relevant to the biography in an effort to be respectful of their grandmother’s privacy. L’Engle had agreed for all of her papers to be housed at the archive of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois so I’m sure that they must have spent many happy hours there collaborating on this incredible project. It’s a book that will be popular with fans of all ages.

Another significant event happens this year to tie in with her important birthday – the much anticipated film based on A Wrinkle in Time. It’s been adapted before, once for TV, and it wasn’t exactly… perfect. We have that 2003 film here at the library if you would like to check it out. We also have a glorious graphic novel version that is so worth your time. I knew that this new adaptation was in the works and was thrilled to see that Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay would be the powerhouse behind it. It’s a tricky film to produce as Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin travel across galaxies and meet wonderful, magical, and spectacular beings so the special effects staff must have been working overtime every weekend. In addition to this challenge DuVernay is producing a film based on something that has lived on in memories for decades so there is pressure there to keep fans happy. In the novel the kids have three guides in their cross-Galaxy journey who are known as “the Mrs.” – sometimes referred to as guardian angels – and DuVernay cast Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. In a recent TIME magazine article she said that she chose them because she wanted “leaders – icons” to play these incredible personalities. Good or bad decision? What do you think? Well, they are such iconic women that I have seen three magazine cover stories featuring them, a Dec 25, 2017 TIME magazine cover, the February 2018 issue of Essence and March 2018 issue of Oprah Magazine. We have copies of these magazines on the library shelves and both Oprah Magazine and TIME are available for you to stream or download through the Digital Library so you can read all about the cast, the movie and how they feel about Madeleine L’Engle’s iconic work.  

I’m not sure how I will feel about any of the decisions the director and producers have made about the most recent film adaptation but I do know that the first time I saw the trailer (@WrinkleInTime takes you to the trailer and all kinds of great news about the movie) in a theatre with my kids I really did tear up. It’s beautiful stuff. And, more than that, it’s simply thrilling that so much attention is being paid to a wonderful story about children who are saving the world, going out to fight against a horrible darkness, to protect their father from something so cruel when they know that they might lose their own life in the fight. I am feeling a little bit worried about what Disney is doing with my very favourite story but I’m hopeful. Please don’t ask me how I feel about the sales of those A Wrinkle in Time Barbies

-Penny M.


The cost of perfection

Kara is intelligent. Kara is flawless. Kara is a fraud.

Teenager Kara has chased perfection since she was a child. Her test scores are always the highest. Her freestyle swimming is always the fastest. Her achievements earned her the nickname “Perfect Kara.”

Her parents have great expectations. They want her to graduate high school with honours and attend Stanford. They want her to follow in their footsteps of academic success. They see her as a tool to be programmed rather than a person with feelings and dreams of her own.

“Pushing yourself is the only way to get better,” her mother warns her. And so Kara does push herself. She pushes until she begins to crack. Anxiety begins to gnaw away at her. She becomes isolated, shutting out her friends.  Her anxiety comes to a head when she faints during the SATs.

What I liked best about Pushing Perfect is how it illustrates that anxiety is a serious problem and not just a phase or a mood. Everyone experiences anxiety now and again, but for some it can be a crippling condition. Panic attacks can often be shrugged off as teenage drama – just something people orchestrate to get attention. But panic attacks are a valid and frightening reality for some. What Kara experiences during her SATs is not uncommon.

The second part of the book is much different than the first. The plot switches gears into a fast paced, suspenseful story. No longer able to control her anxiety, Kara wants to try medication but her parents refuse to give their permission for a prescription.  Kara makes a decision to purchase illegal pills from a dealer instead. Later that weekend she receives a text from a blocked sender, along with pictures of her buying pills. The sender wants some favours in exchange for silence.  Kara soon finds herself giving into the perpetrators demands.

As the story develops, Kara discovers she’s not the only one being blackmailed. Academics, athletes, theatre majors – the perpetrator has trapped students from all corners of the school. A series of clues are left open to the reader – who is the real architect of this scheme? Who is lying and who is the real fraudster?

Pushing Perfect is an action based book that is strongly character driven.  It’s a great read for those who crave a fast-paced plot but also enjoy a strong lead character.

-Lesley L.



Inside a marriage

For Valentine’s Day I want to share with you a book that I love and it just happens to be about love. When the brilliant Lauren Groff opens her novel Fates and Furies, we are introduced to newlyweds Lotto and Mathilde. They are everything – brilliant, young and beautiful. So much in love and with their entire lives in front of them. That, and they have only just met. As the chapters go by we learn about Lotto’s past and watch the couple through the years – yes, they stay together! Groff provides us with what we think is a clear view of their marriage until something happens and we realize that for the twenty some years that have gone by, we’ve only seen things from Lotto’s point of view. What about Mathilde? Who is she really? We realize we don’t know her until Groff gives us the chance with the entire second half of the novel. Now the marriage is different – it doesn’t crumble, they remain in love – but it’s amazing how much we didn’t know before.

I have read reviews saying this book it terrible. Reviews that say it’s a literary Gone Girl because of the secrets revealed through Mathilde’s part of the story. It’s not. Everything Mathilde does is to keep herself and her husband alive. She spends her years with Lotto loving him and taking care of him, but she also has to take care of herself. Also, this book is not a thriller.

One question that could come up when reading this book is whether we need to like the protagonist in order to enjoy a story. I don’t think we do because reading about different people – whether we like them or not – is a way to open our minds, become more empathetic and learn. It’s great to sometimes read out of your comfort zone.  That’s why in the past year there has been a big push to read BIGGER with online challenges like this one.  I didn’t find this novel uncomfortable, I really did love it and already have Groff’s other novels and short stories piled up at home and ready to attack. I did tell my husband after I finished it that I may not have loved it if I’d read it twenty years ago, when I was in university and perhaps not as open-minded as I am now. And that makes me so happy because that means growth, right?

But this book doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be something you relate to (although there is something for everyone, if not just the beauty of the language and the story that kept me turning pages long after my bedtime). Books open windows, they’re magic. They let us travel in time and place and we’re always okay with that. So to take in something that’s a little different, even if we don’t agree with it, can open our minds. And right now, the world needs bigger minds and stronger hearts.

– Sarah C.

Treasures from afar…mostly

In the 80s there was a television commercial for a hair replacement company where the spokesperson would enthusiastically say “I’m not just the president, I am also a client!” and I think of this when I use our interlibrary loan, or ILLO, services here at WPL. I work here but “I am also a client!”, and I really love using all of the library’s services. Which is fitting because February is known as Library Lovers’ Month and my interlibrary loans are just one of the things that I adore about the library.

By filling out a simple form which includes information about how to contact me and the book I would like staff to find, I actually have access to the library catalogues of the many libraries that WPL has lending agreements with and the possibilities can seem endless.  Our ILLO staff will do the search and then reply to let me know if they have been successful. If things work out I receive a notice through e-mail and my beautiful book is wrapped in an ILLO wrapper and placed on the Holds shelf for me – is there anything more lovely that this? It’s part of the thrill to just imagine where my interlibrary loan might be coming from because you really never know.  Books can sometimes arrive from as far away as Calgary or Vancouver or arrive from a library as close as Hamilton. Of course, if the item is only available to be loaned to us from a library at a greater distance then there might be charges involved but you have an opportunity to set that preference when you first make the request.

I just never know when I am going to come across an unusual book I will want to read and am reassured to know that the interlibrary loans staff will get to work and try to find that unique book for me. A few months ago I asked them to find Madeleine Albright’s Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box which was part memoir and part social history as it illustrated the way that she used the pins that she wore to indicate the way that she was feeling when she met world leaders during her time as the Secretary of State for Bill Clinton.  Her memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, was a favourite of many local book clubs because of the vivid stories she shared and the way that she addresses political and historical impact of the war.  Two wonderful books I was able to read and learn more about this outstanding woman, one from our collection and the other on loan from a library who was willing to share their treasure with us.

I’ve also used the interlibrary loan service to do a deep dive into the world of picture books that I have loved. John Burningham’s style of art and the gentle stories he told have always been favourites of mine so when I came across a newspaper article that mentioned a book he had written about himself I checked our catalogue to see if we had purchased it. When I saw that it hadn’t made its way onto our shelves I asked the ILLO staff to try and find it for me and was thrilled with the chance to read more about his early life, his development as an artist and get a behind-the-scenes look at his approach to creating picture books. With a few clicks of my keyboard and a few weeks of waiting I was able to get Behind the Scenes in my hands and it was a wonderful read.  I probably drove my kids crazy with reading parts of this book aloud when really they just wanted to remember how much they loved us reading Mr. Gumpy’s Outing over and over again when they were small.

Sometimes the items I request through ILLO are not as spectacular as an autobiography of an award winning author-illustrator or a memoir from a former Secretary of State… sometimes they can be a lighter read. A recent book which came to me all the way from Edmonton was the less-than-fabulous Amber Fang: The Hunted, the first in a YA series from popular Canadian author Arthur Slade. You see, there are so many reasons someone might need to request a book through the ILLO system. A book might no longer be in print and we can get it from a library that still has it on their shelf – this can happen with specialty genres like Westerns, for example. We might have a series of nineteen books and the sixteenth book is missing from our shelves but a customer really wants to know what happens before they go on to read the seventeenth book. Or, in the case of Amber Fang, it isn’t a great book and WPL never needed it on our shelves in the beginning. I was fooled by a catchy tagline of “Librarian.  Assassin.  Vampire.” Amber was really all of these things but she was only good at being one of them – the vampire one – and that’s usually okay with me. Not this time. I do like a good vampire book but I won’t be putting in an ILLO request for the next one in this series. I’m not sure what my next ILLO request will be but if you want to give it a try here is the link to the ILLO services on our web site: I know you will love it.

-Penny M.

Girl Power

There has been a huge shift in the world recently: women and girls are taking centre stage, their voices are being heard, their talents, strengths, and abilities recognized. Books, movies, and television are featuring strong female characters, such as Katniss from The Hunger Games, Diana Prince from Wonder Woman, and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones.

The heroine in Tyrell Johnson’s The Wolves of Winter is no different. Gwendolynn (Lynn) McBride is a survivalist in a world laid to ruin from nuclear war and a pandemic flu. Lynn and her family eke out an existence in the cold and snowy Yukon, away from what’s left of humankind and the clutches of disease. Lynn spends her days skillfully hunting with a bow and arrow, trapping animals, and remembering what life was like before. She is not afraid to speak her mind, or fight for what she feels is right. In my mind I picture Lynn like Ygritte, the wildling from Game of Thrones (she even has long red hair).

After seven years in the wilderness, Lynn is surprised to encounter a man named Jax and his dog, Wolf. She brings them home, never imagining the whirlwind that follows. Jax seems full of secrets and dangerous talents, and, when more strangers appear, things quickly spiral out of control. Lynn will find herself questioning everything and everyone she thought she knew.

This may be Johnson’s first book but I feel he does an amazing job of making you feel like you can see what Lynn is seeing; the Yukon he describes is beautiful but also dangerous.  Johnson’s apocalypse is believable: you only have to read newspaper headlines to feel afraid this book could come true. The plot really quickens in pace after Lynn meets Jax. The Wolves of Winter has action scenes, plot twists, and even some romance. I would not be surprised to see Johnson write a sequel to continue Lynn’s story. Overall, I would give The Wolves of Winter 4 out of 5 stars.

-Sandy W.

The hidden wolves

Wolves are wild. Wolves are sly. Wolves are elusive. Most wolves are never seen.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is told from the perspective of an adult Linda, trying to make sense of the decisions she made in her youth. In the first chapter we learn that a four-year-old boy named Paul has died and his parents are on trial. It is clear that Linda has a connection to Paul. The remainder of the book flips from present to past giving us clues and details to how Paul came to be part of Linda’s life.

Her teenage years take place in rural Minnesota, miles away from civilization. The setting paints a picture of cold and solitude, much like Linda’s life. She lives in a neglected and derelict cabin, left over from the ruins of a now disbanded commune.  Ignored by her parents, Linda is left to raise herself.

At school she is called ‘commie’ or ‘freak.’ She sits on the outside of things, a permanent spectator, never quite fitting in.

Her isolation is lifted one spring when she meets young Paul and his mother Patra. Linda is offered the job of watching Paul during the day. Patra suggests she adopt the title of ‘governess’ instead of babysitter or nanny, symbolizing her new role within their family. Nurturing does not come easily to Linda. At times Paul irritates her and she struggles to bond with him. But her desire to belong is overwhelming. Paul and Patra offer her an intimacy that she has long desired.

Unfortunately, there are wolves hiding among this seemingly perfect life. Indeed, there are wolves hidden throughout entire the book.

History of Wolves leaves so much to be unraveled; it will be a popular choice for book clubs. Emily Fridlund is a master at creating both descriptive metaphors and themes that cycle through the story. Self awareness is at the core of the book, as is loneliness. It opens up many questions to be answered – who is the real wolf in the story?

History of Wolves was long listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Midwest Booksellers Choice Awards.

-Lesley L.