A Boy and His Dog, Both with Disabilities, Share Their Boundless Love

Back in 2015, my younger daughter told me about a book she was reading and with which she became entranced. It’s about two misfits, a little boy and a huge dog. Both have physical disabilities. And as each is endowed with a great heart and heaping dose of empathy, they understood each other perfectly. As I love both animals and children with disabilities, I had to buy a copy and read it. I am very glad I did.

 

Haatchi and Little B

Book reviewed: Wendy Holden, Haatchi & Little B (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014). ISSN 1250063183

He remembered the deafening roar of the train as it rumbled over him. Left for dead, an abandoned dog whimpered in the chilly night air. Fortunately, a kind-hearted rail supervisor spotted him and alerted the local animal welfare authorities. A series of veterinarians, nurses, animal shelter personnel, and animal advocates did everything they could to restore normalcy in his life. Everyone who met this dog was taken in by his large amber eyes, which belied his gentle nature. They did all they could for this unusual dog, but they could not save one of his hind legs and tail, making walking and communicating a major challenge for him. Now the problem was who would adopt a three-legged dog, an Anatolian shepherd, a breed most people associate with aggressiveness; even as a puppy, he was a very large dog. Those who met him knew he was a gentle giant. At one of the sanctuaries, the staff realized how loyal this dog was. They thought of a much-loved canine folk hero in Japan, an Akita named Hatchiko, who waited for his owner at a train station, even many years after he passed. They decided on an Anglicized variant, Haatchi. Little did they then realize that the name would suit him perfectly.

Will Howkins has a son, Owen, a boy with a very rare genetic neuromuscular disorder. The one dog he had was sweet-natured, but it was not in his nature to cuddle. Will and Kim, Owen’s mother, had divorced; Will was the boy’s primary care taker. Several years, later, Will met Colleen on line; like Will, Colleen loved dogs. One day, while browsing the Internet, Colleen was smitten by the face of an Anatolian shepherd staring back at her with enormous almond eyes. When the couple visited the dog in person, their feelings of love were even stronger. But how would Owen, Colleen’s “Little Buddy,” or “Little B,” react to a dog so much larger than he. They would have to give it a try. Little B was very shy and withdrawn, but when he and Haatchi met, they were in love; Owen became much more lively and outgoing. Soon, the story of the little boy and large dog spread, millions of people having viewed their account on Facebook. This is the book behind the story.

Haatchi and Owen had adapted to their disabilities, overcoming a great deal of painful surgery. The two inspired each other with their determination and positive outlook. Throughout the book, each experienced many more setbacks and challenges. In fact, the “happily ever after” is the astonishing positivity of all members of the family. Nobody knows the long-term future of either Owen or Haatchi; for now, however, both are extraordinarily grateful for what they have. That is the story of the family with the boy and his dog, who inspire each other—and will inspire anyone who takes the time to absorb this very enjoyable and highly readable true story.

Love in All Its Forms Will Turn Darkness into Light

Love Is Love is a beautifully done 144-page anthology expressing a wide variety of emotions and thoughts in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Love Is Love is a beautifully done 144-page anthology expressing a wide variety of emotions and thoughts in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

One year ago, the world woke up to news of unimaginable horror: a lone gunman entered a Pulse, a dance hall in Orlando, Florida. Inside, many people were enjoying themselves in a place they felt safe to express their love, who they are. Their affirmation was shattered in the predawn darkness of June 12, 2016.

Feeling helpless in the aftermath of this tragedy, a prominent writer of comics and other books, Mark Andreyko, felt he had to do something—something. Like many of us, he took to Facebook. He reached out to his own community, suggesting people involved in writing, drawing, and inking comics somehow contribute. By late afternoon, offers contributions poured by the dozens. All were united by the vision that “Love creates. Love heals. Love gives us hope. Love is love.”

As Patty Jenkins writes in her introduction, the many artists succeeded in “turning darkness into light through art.” What we have are 144 pages expressing hurt and hope, acceptance and rejection, bravery and fear, and love. “Diversity makes us stronger. Embracing it makes us more human.” Each page tells such a story; yet, the artwork and writing is as diverse as was the community at the Pulse nightclub that night. “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.” Here, artist Joseph Michael Linsner was quoting Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, adding his artistic interpretation. On the facing page is a poetic excerpt from another writer named William, namely Shakespeare. Artists Jim Lee and Mark Chiarello pay tribute to another beloved author, J.K. Rowling, in quoting Aldus Dumbledore: “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hears are open.” Elsewhere, figures of Love, Peace, and Unity hold up planet Earth while diabolical, angry representations of Hate, Intolerance, and Fear threaten beneath in a heroic struggle of good versus evil in a piece by Mark Buckingham. Readers will find other favorites among the pages of this gem of a book. And by purchasing a copy, one will also do something – spread the ever-important message of Love Is Love; in addition, the writers and IDW Publishing will donate the proceeds of all sales to help the families (in every sense of the work) of those lost and other survivors. Love will survive.

A thoughtful review in the Huffington Post and another in the New York Times include other examples from this anthology.

Finally, there is the classic music video by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Same Love feat, by Mary Lambert.

Please watch this space for my forthcoming review of another excellent book, though one of a very different nature, Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality.

Rethinking Sexism Gender

Remembering and Appreciating Natalie Babbitt

Readers of Natalie Babbitt’s classic learn that immortality is not all it’s made out to be.  However, this gifted author’s classic, Tuck Everlasting, will live on in the memories of readers young and old who are lucky enough to have read this classic.  Natalie Babbitt is also one of a select group of great children’s authors who won the Janusz Korczak Medal for children’s literature.  These books embody the empathy for the child for which Janusz Korczak will be remembered for generations to come.  The New York Times published this heartfelt obituary.

tuck-everlasting-anniversary-edition

This is the cover of the special 40th Anniversary Edition of Natalie Babbitt’s classic.

 

An Unfished Chapter in a Life: A Review of The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard

An Unfished Chapter in a Life

Occupied Warsaw, 1940-1942.  The Ghetto.

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

At ten years of age, only the first chapters of Aron’s life had been written.  His life was a work in progress.  Yet, at his tender age, Aron had literally experienced a lifetime.  The book of Aron was still being written.  Even so, like the Book of Jeremiah, the book of Aron was filled with foreboding, for the present as well as the future.  Would there be redemption?  Could there be redemption?  One could even draw a comparison with another prophet – Job.  Like him, Aron found himself questioning, asking whether there could be justice, as he confronted one tragic obstacle after another.

He was only 10.  Yet, Aron had to help care for his family.  When his ailing mother succumbed to typhus, Aron was forced to live by his wits.  Anyone who has read about life in the Warsaw Ghetto (or seen photos) will recognize the truth of the tremendous bravery and ingenuity of children like Aron in facing extreme danger to smuggle the most basic of goods from the world beyond, the world beyond the barbed wire-topped walls of the Ghetto.   When Aron was near death, our hero was saved by another hero, Dr. Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korczak was a real person, the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, born in 1879 in Warsaw.  Korczak studied in his native Poland and abroad to become a pediatrician.  However, Korczak would gain fame by founding an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw and developing an educational system very far ahead of his time, when discipline consisted of corporal punishment.  It is no coincidence that Korczak’s most enduring nonfiction works bear these titles: How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect.  Korczak did not just write these beautiful words, he lived by them.  His orphanage was a model of respect for the dignity of the child, a place where young souls were nurtured, where everyone – Korczak included – had a role in the community, washing the floors and, at the same time, participated in his innovative Children’s Court.  It was a place where penalties for breaking the rules involved restitution to the community rather than punishment, expectations of self-improvement and learning from one’s mistakes rather than threats.  After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and created the Warsaw Ghetto the following year, Korczak was forced to abandon his beautiful building on Krochmalna Street and find new quarters.  Though the patchwork of ruined buildings on Sienna Street bore no physical resemblance to the original edifice, Korczak, his assistant Madame Stefa, and the dedicated staff worked tirelessly to maintain some sense of normalcy for the children.

So, in a sense, one hero rescued another, though in this story, the definition of heroism in the context of the purgatory of the Ghetto are in flux, in conflict to the very end.  And what lives on  in both Aron and Korczak is the latter’s most enduring legacy, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This was probably the easily overlooked redemption of the Prophets.

Gripping, first-hand accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto have come down to us, themselves miracles.  How does one write a fiction work of this terrible place and period?  Jim Shepard, through the genius of his writing, has succeeded admirably.  Shepard’s bibliography of original sources – diaries, memoirs, and Emmanuel Ringelblum’s historical archive, Shabbat Oneg (for which he ultimately paid for with his life) – and the best historic accounts is indeed impressive, enabling him to – in his ords “approach inner reality … through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford.”  Details abound: a sadistic SS guiard known as Frankenstein, the patched holes in the Ghetto, Korczak’s love of sparrows and geraniums, a theatrical production of Tagore’s The Post Office….  Indeed, those fine details all come together to cfreate the masterpiece that is The Book of Aron.

Reviewer’s note:  The copy I read was the British paperback edition, which appeared earlier than its US counterpart.  I am grateful to have been able to secure this edition.  However, this otherwise appealing paperback suffers from an editorial flaw:  the description on the back cover, aside from being somewhat obtuse, incorrectly states that the Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1939.  Warsaw was invaded in September 1939; the Ghetto was established a year later.  Aron’s age would have been 10 or 11, not 9, as stated.

A Sculptor of Children’s Souls

book review Sculptor Children's Souls biography

This wonderful book by former teacher and scholar Marcia Talmage Schneider, offers details of Janusz Korczak and his orphanage from the perspectives of several orphans and former teachers.

To the children he took in, Janusz Korczak was more than a teacher, doctor, or orphanage director.  He was, in the words of one of the young lives he touched, a “sculptor of children’s souls.”  The teachers who worked for him thought likewise.  Although all of Korczak’s children and staff during the World War II years perished with him at Treblinka, several earlier students and teachers managed to flee Poland and have survived.  Marcia Talmage Schneider undertook the arduous task to locate these survivors, most of whom were living in Israel, to obtain first-hand accounts of Pan Doctor.  By doing so, Ms. Schneider offers a valuable supplement to Betty Jean Lifton’s superb biography, The King of Children.

Although Ms. Lifton’s book is highly worthwhile, interested readers gain a good background knowledge of Janusz Korczak – who he was and what he believed – through Ms. Schneider’s fine preface and introduction.  Numerous historic photographs grace the book, enhancing the reader’s “picture” of Dr. Korczak, the orphans, and Dom Sierot, the orphanage at Krochmalna 92, Warsaw.  Locating the survivors in Israel was a labor of love, involving a great deal of research, especially the archives of Lohamei HaGetaot (The Ghetto Fighter’s House) and Kibbutz Ein Harod, shamor v’zachor, to observe and remember, to which Ms. Schneider adds ten eyewitnesses, as follows:

  • Yitzhak Belfer, one of Korczak’s orphans who went on to become a famous and highly respected artist whose drawings and bronzes highlight the life of Janusz Korczak and his love for children
  • Mira Caspi, an orphan who became a bird enthusiast, a remembrance of the great love Korczak had for the tiny sparrows he fed from the window of his attic office
  • Shevach Eden, a teacher who trained at Dom Sierot, who went on to serve as president of the Israel Korczak Society and write a book (in Hebrew) about the man who had such an impact on his life
  • Yehuda Kahane, who like Dr. Eden was an educator and active in the Israel Korczak Society and wrote a book about the Old Doctor
  • Sarah Kremer, another orphan with a son “just like Korczak”
  • Erna Friedman Lador, a teacher and counselor at the orphanage who became a respected children’s psychiatrist
  • Klara Maayan, a teacher at Dom Sierot who remembered the flowers Korczak gave, forget-me-nots
  • Schlomo Nadel, an orphan who was inspired by Korczak to undertake photography, his profession and life’s passion whose most prized possession was a walnut that Korczak and Stefa gave him
  • Dov Netzer, a retiree whose children and grandchildren would have made Korczak proud
  • Scnuel Nissenbaum, an artist who, like Belfer, devoted many of his sculptures and paintings to the memory of Dr. Korczak.

Each spoke with passion and clarity on what it was like to be an orphan or a teacher at Dom Sierot, adding a personal vision and perspective to all that made Korczak so memorable – the newspaper, the court, Stefa, mealtimes, stories, and summer camp.  The common theme, however, is how Korczak influenced and inspired each member of this diverse group, not only in their professional lives, but also in the way they chose to live and raise their children, their very moral and ethical codes.  It was there, this book makes clear, that Janusz Korczak had the greatest effect.  With Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls, Korczak is more than a legend; he is a very real person.

From Darkness to Light

She’repith hapletah – the Saved Remnant, the “few who escaped,” they were known.  The Final Solution during the Holocaust was supposed to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe, literally roots and all, and it nearly succeeded.  In the spring after World War II, in 1946, a group of these displaced persons met in Munich, Germany, to celebrate one of the most poignant and meaningful Passover Seders in history.  In normal times, the theme of the holiday is the escaped from servitude and darkness, and looking with hope and deliverance in better times.  Of course, this year, those themes would take on added meaning.  The Haggadah (meaning “retelling”) used at that Seder reflected that in both traditional and novel ways.

A Survivor's Haggadah Passover Pesach Haggadah Shoah Holocaust

A Survivor’s Haggadah. Front Cover, Dustjacket/.
Saul Touster, Ed. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 2000

A Survivor's Haggadah

The “A” Haggadah, published for the Passover service of 1946, Munich, Germany.

Our book actually begins almost exactly a half century later, in the spring of 1996, when a Brandeis University professor named Saul Touster was going through one of his father’s files, when a most unusual booklet fell out.  Beneath a simple letter A enclosed in red and blue circles were the words “Passover Service,” with the year 1946.

   Within the covers Dr. Touster found pages with Hebrew type surrounded with borders that contained striking images contrasting the symbols of the Holocaust with others of the Promised Land by a Polish survivor named Yosef Dov Scheinson, interspersed with striking woodcuts depicting the toil of enslavement by a Hungarian artist, Miklos Adler, all supplementing the usual visual representation one would expect to find in a Haggadah.

Hagaddah page enslavement Nazi Germany Hitler Egypt Pharaoh Passover Shoah Holocaust

The enslavement under Pharaoh in the book of Exodus provides a metaphor for the more recent ordeal in Germany   One of the most dramatic pages is dominated by a large Hebrew letter Beth, symbolic of the phrase “Bechol dor” (In the beginning…), the very first words of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.  Here it also stands for “Brause Bad” (shower bath), as well as “brichal” (fleeing west), two themes that recur throughout this Haggadah.  Other border designs incorporate images of the Promised Land and the Holocaust – on the same page!  “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany,” our Haggadah opens, before going into the Seder, the order of the Passover observance.  Ancestors were forced to make bricks for Pharaoh under bondage in Egypt, but the same trowels shown would (it was hoped) be used to create the foundations for new homes in the Holy Land.

   The high quality of the A Haggadah is fascinating in its own right, but Dr. Touster’s insightful commentary provides an invaluable context, making this excellent volume much more than a coffee table book that is pretty to look at.  Much more, it preserves – through retelling – the precious memory of a history that must be told, when Passover was truly a t’shuvah, a redemption, coming home, a passing from darkness to light.

Hagaddah page enslavement Nazi Germany Hitler Egypt Pharaoh Passover Shoah Holocaust

This is one of the woodcuts by Milkos Adler, which the author of the Haggadah, Yosef Dov Sheinson, selected to supplement his own illustrations and writing.

The Book of Aron, a New Novel by Jim Shepard, Features Korczak in Cameo Role

Author Jim Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, has just been published. It is an acclaimed National Book Award finalist.  Most notable is that Janusz Korczak is a featured character in this otherwise fictitious work.  The New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR gave the book highly positive reviews, and the Huffington Post profiled its author.  I look forward to reading the book and reviewing it in this space.

Book of Aron with Jim Shepard