Among the more unpleasant euphemisms deployed by the Nazis in their attempted mass extermination of Europe's Jews during World War II were "special work" and "resettlement." These bland expressions were a type of promise designed to fool victims into going quietly to their deaths, and they were frighteningly successful. In the stories contained in "Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust" (Candlewick, 228 pages, $22.99), we're repeatedly reminded of how difficult it was even for many Jews to grasp the scope of the horror on which the Nazis were embarked. Many people found it all too monstrous to believe.
Not all were deceived, though, and Doreen Rappaport has unearthed remarkable stories of Jews (and Gentiles) who saw what was happening and engaged in harrowing attempts to thwart the Nazi project. Jewish partisans played cat-and-mouse with German troops, bombing military transports, shooting informers and collaborators, and dynamiting German army warehouses. Ms. Rappaport introduces readers ages 14 and older to valiant Jewish children like the 12-year-old violinist and spy, nicknamed Motele, who blew up a building full of SS officers in occupied Ukraine.
Young readers also meet 11-year-old Sara Menkes, who survived the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews in the forest of Ponar in 1941. Appallingly, when she made it back to Vilnius, her elders didn't believe her story. "Resettlement could not possibly be a lie," the head of the Jewish Council told the girl, Ms. Rappaport writes, and "warned Sara that if she wanted her father to keep his work permit and stay alive, she'd best keep her silence." With numerous archival photographs, including portraits of the brave individuals it describes, "Beyond Courage" is beautifully designed and a sobering, bittersweet read.
Author Steve Sheinkin brings a terrific sense of urgency and an almost novelistic propulsion to "Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon" (Roaring Brook, 266 pages, $19.99). Like a novel, too, this real-life World War II-to-Cold War story speeds "around the world, from secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings," and it's full of odd and memorable characters. In America, there's Harry Gold, a half-hearted secret agent for the Soviets, sweating under FBI surveillance. There's the brilliant, nerdy physicist Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, along with his "loud, bossy, demanding" collaborator in the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves. In Europe, meanwhile, we follow escaped German scientists who lent their genius to the Allies, innocent-looking KGB agents and daring Norwegian saboteurs (on skis, no less), all caught up in the desperate three-way race between Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Allied powers to harness the terrifying power of nuclear fission.
This superb and exciting work of nonfiction would be a fine tonic for any jaded adolescent who thinks history is "boring." It's also an excellent primer for adult readers who may have forgotten, or never learned, the remarkable story of how nuclear weaponry was first imagined, invented and deployed—and of how an international arms race began well before there was such a thing as an atomic bomb.
"The Book of Blood" (Houghton Mifflin, 152 pages, $17.99) is the sort of nonfiction that certain children ages 10-15 will find irresistible. The predominant color here is red—there are drips and splatters on most pages—but, stylized gore aside, H.P. Newquist has written a lively and engaging account of the liquid that is both so vitally necessary and so disconcerting: "Bloodsucking vampires, blood transfusions in a hospital, and even the blood from a wound make many people queasy," he writes; "they don't like to think that this red fluid fills up our insides."
In clear prose, he proceeds to explain how blood functions in the human body before touching on the blood sacrifices practiced among the Inca and in the Old Testament (and indeed the New). The author explores early blood-related ideas of illness, from imbalances of "the humors" to the medical practice of applying leeches. The famous figure of Vlad the Impaler makes a cameo here, as does the less-well-known Transylvanian countess Elizabeth Bathory, born in 1560, who was said to refresh her complexion with the blood of young girls. At once lurid and informative, cringe-making and intriguing, this is nonfiction for curious children with strong stomachs.
A far more tranquil exploration for younger children ages 6-9, "Island: A Story of the Galapagos" (Roaring Brook, 29 pages, $16.99) begins six million years ago. Author and illustrator Jason Chin introduces an element of anthropomorphism in this picture-book treatment of a volcanic island that rose and fell in the Pacific Ocean long before our time, part of an archipelago. We see the island's "birth," as powerful eruptions force lava up from the seabed and into the air. "Nothing lives on it until . . . a seed falls from a tree on one of the older islands," we read. Where one seed germinates, life can begin.
As the millennia roll along, this unnamed island becomes home to seabirds and iguanas, mangrove trees and turtles, before subsiding slowly back into the sea. Prefiguring an end-of-book appearance by Charles Darwin in 1835, Mr. Chin explains the theory of natural selection. Its results, he implies, are vividly on display in the Galapagos, where today live "descendants of the plants and animals that once called our island home." Handsome and succinct, this semi-imagined (yet nonfiction) account fosters a calm attitude toward environmental change.