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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Greatest Skating Race, story by Louise Borden and illustrations by Niki Daly. Simon & Schuster, 2004. $21.99 ages 8 and up

"We passed more skaters and a windmill,
then a big solid farmhouse with an ancient red roof.
We were very cold now from the wind -
too cold and too tired to hum a tune..."

Piet Janssen loves skating, as most young Dutch children do in the winter of 1941. He dreams of following in the footsteps of his hero Pim Mulier, who was the first to skate the Elfstedentocht, a 200 km route to each of eleven towns in northern Netherlands...all skated in one day!

Piet's father makes skates as did his grandfather and his great-grandfather. Piet spends many hours on the winter canals perfecting his skating ability and preparing himself as Pim Mulier did before him. Germany is wreaking havoc throughout Europe and families are being torn apart daily. When Mr. Winkelman is arrested by the Germans for helping the Allied cause, his family is in danger. Piet's father is in England serving with the army. Grandfather decides that there is only one way to take the Winkelman children to safety and keep them out of the clutches of the German soldiers; Piet must skate with them across the Belgian border.
Grandfather is sure that Piet can do it, and gives him explicit instructions for the journey. He will take Johanna and Joop to their Aunt Ingrid:

"I want you to skate as fast as you can,
but you must look like an unimportant schoolboy.
You will take Johanna and Joop Winkelman
and help them find their Aunt Ingrid's house.
We think this is the safest way to escape from those
who may wish these friends of ours harm."

It is a long and difficult journey, fraught with unknown danger and constant caution. Preparations are made for their departure. Piet is not without fear as they set out on the canals, and try to find their way safely to Brugge:

"I tried to remember all my grandfather's words.
The sun was almost down, and the winter air
seeped under my jacket and through my mittens.
Then I shrugged off the cold.
I was the oldest.
Johanna and Joop were counting on me."

The best books about war and its effect on children are the ones that tell the story without too much drama, and that do not invoke terror in those who are reading about the bravery of children much like themselves who perform selfless acts of heroism while showing the world the resilience and strength of its children. Louise Borden tells her story eloquently and gives us a character to honor in Piet. His determination to keep his friends safe and his calm reaction to danger is evident as the children make their way along the cold canals.  Niki Daly's watercolors give readers a clear sense of time and place. She uses a palette of subdued color to match the tone of the story, and to help us understand what life was like in this time of fear and unrest.       

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