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History on the home front for young readers

Liberty by Kirby Larson

A couple of years ago, Kenmore children’s author Kirby Larson introduced a winning new historical fiction series that featured kids and their dogs in World War II-era stories.

The first book, “Duke,” was about a German shepherd who is loaned by his 11-year-old owner to the military to serve overseas in the K-9 Corps.

In “Dash,” a Japanese American girl has to leave her dog behind when she and her family are sent to an incarceration camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And now you can find the latest addition, “Liberty,” on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.

In this tale, fifth-grader Fish Elliott has moved to New Orleans to live with his grown sister, Mo. His mother died when he was a baby, and now his dad is fighting in the European theater. Crippled by polio, Fish is regarded as an outsider by his classmates, so he spends most of his time alone, tinkering with his own inventions.

This intrigues Olympia, the girl who lives next door. Fish is white, she is black, and in the segregated South, their elders don’t associate much. Children can ignore society’s ingrained conventions of racial discrimination, at least to a point. And Olympia, curious to the core, will not be denied answers to her questions about Fish’s projects.

Her inquisitiveness can be annoying, but Fish generally puts up with her. He is more concerned about a belligerent kid who likes to pick on him because of his disability. And one day, when ducking down a side street to avoid an encounter with the bully, he comes across a man who is throwing rocks at a skinny mutt.

As an “underdog” himself, Fish’s impulse is to rescue the stray and take him home, but that is easier said than done. First he needs to win the dog’s trust; then he needs to wheedle his sister’s permission to let the dog stay.

To bring World War II-era to life for today’s young readers, the author salts this tale with historical nuggets, including now defunct brands of soda pop and dog food, and star flags in the windows of military families.

Larson also develops story threads that reflect those times.

Racism rears its ugly head in everyday transactions.

Sister Mo works at Higgins Industries, the real-life New Orleans plant famous for manufacturing the amphibious landing craft used for D-Day and many other battles throughout World War II.

There’s a subplot about a German soldier who was captured in North Africa and transported to a prisoner of war camp in New Orleans.

Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance in this story.

Not all of these story strands seem to be woven sufficiently into the fabric of the overall story. But Fish’s relationship with the dog – Liberty – is heartwarming, and his friendship with Olympia is bumpy and real. Through this book, young readers can’t help but soak up profound lessons about the history of the home front.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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