I finished it 20 minutes ago and already I’m plotting how to get Lifeboat 12 into the hands of my 4th grade teachers. Help me with this. Some administrators and parents can be very conservative about what it “appropriate” for elementary readers. Let me try out my case on you, then let me know if you think it’s convincing.
- Our 4th graders will be studying historical fiction as a genre this year, followed by a unit on social issues. The mentor texts for both units are set during WWII in the European theater. First they will hear The War That Saved My Life and then Number the Stars. Both books address difficult issues in a way that is both highly engaging and yet gentle enough for young readers. In much the same way that the young boys in Lifeboat 12 awaited Mary’s story installments, this novel in verse will have readers eager to hear the next part of the story. The spare language of the verse means that the story moves quickly. Author, Susan Hood, noted that the white space on each page leaves room for the big ideas lurking there. Between them, these three books provide a more complete sense of what life was like for civilians during WWII. And even though bombs and torpedoes feature prominently in these stories, so do small kindnesses, connections with strangers, and the importance of family and friends. You know…the things that matter to all of us today.
- Beyond which, on reflection I notice that in all three stories children become refugees. White children become refugees. Because they are white, no one questions the motivations of them or their families in fleeing danger. It seems natural that families and communities would want to shelter and protect the young and innocent, even when they arrive ragged and dirty. Perhaps if our readers can first experience refugees in a story more akin to a mirror, the experience will feel familiar and able to be honored when the cast of characters are darker skinned or from less familiar points of origin. In other words, maybe caring about Ken and Ada and Ellen will build empathy to help them to care about other young refugees fictional and very real.
- This is a true story! Well, it’s based on a true story, including interviews with actual survivors and archival research. Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up. When you read the book you won’t be able to miss that Ken is convinced his mum will kill him if he loses his new wool coat. So the honest-to-goodness-true fact that forgetting (and returning for) his coat when the ship was torpedoed saved his life will absolutely amaze readers. Hood found Ken and his trunk of memorabilia from this adventure in his early life almost by accident. She was reading old letters written by a family member during the war. One story lead to another and then…the SS City of Benares, carrying a cargo mainly of children. There are 50+ pages of informational back matter for those who want to learn more.
- Although the details related to it are minor ones in the telling of an utterly captivating tale, the idea looms large that “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” Throughout the novel are mentions of the adventure stories Ken loves to read, the Plane Spotter Guide he had to leave behind when he packed for his journey, and the oral stories of Mary Cornish that gave the children a reason to go on another day as hope wore thin on Lifeboat 12. Not only are books powerful, they can help us to survive and be powerful ourselves.
- Plus, did I mention the kids will really like it?
What do you think?
Will my reasons fly with administrators? Should I add it to the official recommended list…or Rebel Librarian that I am, should I quietly book talk it and hand copies to the teachers?