The one upside of Ruth Graham’s article trashing adults who read YA is that it prompted me to think about books written for children and teens that I still love at age 32. From Anna and its sequel, Listen for the Singing, came immediately to mind. These books aren’t even quite YA — they are written for a preteen crowd. And yet I don’t think any adult should feel shame or embarrassment about reading either of them.
Eight-year-old Anna Solden is the youngest of five children and has always felt overshadowed. Things seem to come so easily to her siblings, but Anna does poorly in school and is constantly scolded for her clumsiness. But even as Anna struggles in Frau Schmidt’s class, she can sense that there are bigger troubles brewing in her homeland of Germany. In the book’s opening chapter, we learn that her school’s headmaster will not allow Anna’s favorite song, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts are Free”), to be played at the school assembly. Moreover, her classmate Gerda’s father has gone missing.
Anna can tell that her beloved father is disturbed by the changes coming over Germany. One night Ernst Solden announces that the family will speak only English at the dinner table. A few weeks later, he makes an even bigger announcement: the Solden family is moving to Canada.
Although From Anna has the Solden family’s flight from Nazi Germany in its background, most of the book focuses on the changes that happen to Anna when she arrives in Canada. At a routine medical exam for new immigrants, the doctor — a kindly fellow emigré named Dr. Schumacher — asks Anna to read an eye chart. Anna sees only one letter: the big E at the top. Suddenly Anna’s struggles in school and her clumsiness have an explanation. When Anna gets her glasses, her entire world starts to change.
What I love about From Anna is how real and solid the story feels. Anna’s glasses do not magically make her a genius or an athlete; she has to get used to being able to see thing like buttons and fabric textures and letters, and even with the glasses she still does not see perfectly. She is enrolled in a special class for visually impaired children, where she begins to make her first Canadian friends. All the while, stubborn and secretive Anna hides how much the glasses have changed her life from her dismissive older siblings and even her parents.
Listen for the Singing resumes Anna’s story as a teenager as she prepares to enter a mainstream high school. By this time war is brewing in Europe. Anna finds that some of her classmates and even her teachers resent Anna’s German last name. The war touches the Solden family when Anna’s older brother Rudi decides that he will join the Canadian army in order to fight Hitler — and when Anna’s Aunt Tania goes missing along with her Jewish father-in-law.
Although both books were written with a younger audience in mind, I think adults can’t help but be drawn in as well. Jean Little masterfully captures both Anna’s smaller-scale struggles and major historical events. Pick these up if you have a ten-year-old who likes to be read to sleep — or if you’re in the mood for some lovely historical fiction yourself.
Rating: Buy It