Tag Archives: Leon Leyson

2014 Newbery Picks

ImageThis season, I have read some wonderful children’s books while preparing to make predictions on the Newbery Medal. The Newbery award is given to the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature written by an author who was either born in the United States or lives in the United States at the time of publication. The book has to have been published in the previous calendar year, and must have been originally published in the United States. It has to be complete in itself, that is, not dependent on prequels or sequels. Of the twenty-ish books I’ve read particularly for the award, these five stand out to me, arranged in my idea of their audience, youngest to oldest.

  • The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes
  • Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Navigating Early, by Claire Vanderpool
  • Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

ImageI am very conscious of the books that I did not read, most notably Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey and Rita Garcia-William’s P.S. Be Eleven [reviewed January 20, 20104]. (I did read the previous title, One Crazy Summer. Does that count?) I just could not read another children’s book! Furthermore, none of the nonfiction that I read met my idea of a Newbery winner, even though I enjoy nonfiction and usually find at least one worthy title each year. I am also well aware of the fan clubs for Far, Far Away and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, both of which I liked, but not as much as these titles. Far, Far Away may actually be too old for Newbery, but the committee may not agree with me, and I could never connect with the characters in True Blue Scouts.

ImageI am a character-driven reader. If the author has written strong characters and I fall in love with them, the plot is not as important to me as it would be to someone whose favorite genre is more plot-driven, such as a thriller. I also treasure distinctive writing, particularly witty banter and exquisite turns of phrase. All of these five titles have strong characters whom I remember clearly and fondly. The writing was probably most distinctive in Flora & Ulysses and Navigating Early, with the best dialogue in The Thing About Luck.

ImageMy friend, Martha, who runs the Mock Newbery Club in our library system, mentioned months ago that even the very best offerings this year have flaws. I have to agree. The Thing About Luck has info-dumps about wheat harvesting, Navigating Early requires suspension of disbelief for some of its more fantastical coincidences, and Counting by 7s is partly told by adult characters and some of the plot twists seem somewhat contrived. As for these three older novels, I am most pleased to suspend disbelief for the fantasy in Navigating Early, but then I am a big fan of magical realism.

ImageFor the two younger novels, The Year of Billy Miller is probably the most flawless book I’ve read this year. It is more straightforward than the other books, too, but that is not negative, considering the age of the target audience. Flora and Ulysses has quirky characters in crazy situations, a type of book that I adore, but it may not appeal to a group that is looking for a book that will be assigned in school for decades to come. As an aside here, Kate DiCamillo has just been named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. An excellent choice! All of her books are brilliant, each in its own way.

ImageThe Newbery Committee usually chooses a book on the high end of the range, so I’m thinking that Navigating Early could be their choice. If they decide to go with a younger audience, I’d say The Year of Billy Miller. For myself, I’d be very happy with Navigating Early, and my younger choice would probably be Flora & Ulysses. However, I really love all five of these titles, and I recommend all of them highly for you or your children.

The 2014 Newbery announcement will be on January 27th, so we still have a few weeks to go. If I read something better in the meantime, I’ll be sure to let you know!


Postscript: Yes, I can think of a nonfiction book that I loved! Leon Leyson’s autobiography, The Boy on the Wooden Box, was quite distinguished, and a story that children should read for generations. I don’t know why I forgot about it.

Update: I went on to read Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle, reviewed on January 15, and P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia, reviewed January 20. Of these two, only P.S. Be Eleven is a strong contender. Although it is not a favorite of mine, it is quite distinguished.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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The Boy on the Wooden Box, by Leon Leyson

“He who saves a life saves the world entire.”- The Talmud

The Boy on the Wooden BoxLeib Leyson was eight years old when his family moved from his parents’ ancestral village of Narewka, Poland, to the then-capital city of Krakow, where his father had taken a job that would help his family to live more prosperously than they could in a small town. His mother missed her family, but Leib was entranced by the beauty of a city he had only seen in pictures and heard about in stories. He went to school, played with friends, and lived securely with his loving, Jewish family. Jews made up about a quarter of Krakow’s residents, and everyone lived and worked together amiably.

Toward the end of the 1930s, the Polish people began to hear rumors that Germany’s Führer, Adolph Hitler, wanted to amass more land for Germany, and that he had begun blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong with the country since their humiliating defeat after World War I. Like most people throughout history, they found the news disturbing, but putting food on the table and other daily routines crowded out any time they might have had to worry about whether these far-off events would ever affect them personally. Gradually, though, Leib’s friends began to shun him, and his teachers called him names. In 1939, his brother, Herschel, joined a group of Jews running east to escape the German soldiers. They never saw him again. The Nazis arrived in Krakow, closed Jewish businesses, and broke into Jewish homes. Orthodox Jewish men were beaten on the streets. Nazis took over the formerly Jewish companies, and Leib’s father was allowed to keep his job only because he spoke German. One night, the Nazis broke into Leib’s family’s apartment, beat his father and dragged him to prison on trumped-up charges. He was released several weeks later just as randomly.  Soon after, Jewish children were forbidden to attend school, and Leib’s formal education ended at the age of ten.

One day, Leib’s father was asked to perform a menial task for a Nazi-owned business. When he was done, the owner offered him a job. Since his family needed food, he accepted, however distasteful his decision may have been. Little did he know that that moment saved his family’s lives, since the owner of the business was Oskar Schindler. Although the Leyson family suffered cruelly in ghettos and work camps throughout the duration of the war, Schindler put all of their names on his list of expert machinists and metalworkers, ensuring that they would not be sent to Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. Even Leib, who was tiny for his age because of extreme malnutrition, worked at a machinist’s post in Schindler’s factory, standing on a wooden box in order to reach the controls.

The author of this moving memoir, who now goes by the name of Leon Leyson, was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, and he did not reveal his past to anyone in his new American home until after Stephen Spielberg’s famous movie. If you have seen the movie, you will know about the personal sacrifices that Oskar Schindler made for his group of 1,200 Jewish people, posing as one of the Nazi party faithful while shielding helpless people from the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of his own countrymen. There are so many fictional accounts of Holocaust survivors and other true stories of Jewish people’s rescue by righteous Gentiles in Europe, but a memoir of a Jewish boy’s rescue from the Nazis by a Nazi brings up all new questions and explorations of the human spirit. Most shocking to me in all of these tales is the ease with which long-time neighbors and friends will turn away from those who are “officially” marginalized, turning a blind eye to the suffering of those they should protect, often looking to their own safety. Sometimes those same friends will quickly become their tormentors, allying themselves with the stronger enemy, hoping to profit from the new rulers. Yet even in the darkest times, tiny acts of resistance keep the soul alive. In the Polish ghetto, Jewish rabbis would hold worship services in secret. Groups of Jewish actors would perform skits and theater productions in private, defiantly holding on to art and creativity while being held captive. Leon relates that even if he was too young to understand the comedies, he would laugh anyway, just to show that the Nazis did not own his very thoughts. In much the same way, Oskar Schindler performed little acts of resistance. After one of his renowned parties, he would walk into the factory where the Jewish machinists were working and speak to each of them, calling them by name— which was illegal. Sometimes he would “accidentally” leave a pack of cigarettes beside Leon’s father’s workstation so that he could sell them for food. He called Leon up to his office, ostensibly to reprimand him, but after chatting for a few minutes, he would slip him some bread.

leon-leysonAnd thus, in small and unseen ways, Oskar Schindler brought over 1,000 Jewish people through the years of World War II, spending all of his fortune on bribes to Nazi guards and food for all of his workers. There were so many opportunities for all of it to collapse, including once when Leon, his father, and his brother were in line to board a train to Auschwitz. The family was separated, reunited, and separated again.  At the end of it all, Leon decided to leave Europe entirely and emigrate to the United States, where he continued his education, taught high school, married and had children and grandchildren. He died this past January at the age of 83.

I was honored when Baker & Taylor’s Jill Faherty emailed to tell me that she had given Simon & Schuster my name to receive one of the five manuscripts of this book that they had allotted to B&T. I had heard of the title and was very interested in it, since the movie Schindler’s List was so powerful. Once I received it, I read the 207-page manuscript the very next day. Regretfully, I cannot quote from the book, since the manuscript is not the final product, but there were many moving and thought-provoking passages that made me stop reading to consider my own heart and our own times. The Boy on the Wooden Box will be released on August 27th, and I highly recommend it for older children, teens, and adults. The opportunities for discussion are limitless.

Disclaimer: I read a manuscript copy of this book, provided by the publisher. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. My thanks to Jill Faherty of Baker & Taylor and Victor Iannone of Simon & Schuster.

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