The Literary Hill

May 2019

691

Confronting Demons
Fina Mendoza is searching for her lost sweatshirt in the Crypt of the US Capitol when she encounters a ghostly shadow that meows and disappears behind a marble statue with a flick of its tail. A Capitol policewoman offers little comfort. “Beware the curse of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill,” she tells a spooked Fina. “It usually makes an appearance right before something really bad happens.” As if the poor kid didn’t have enough problems.

In Kitty Felde’s new novel for young readers, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza,” the ten-year-old daughter of a California congressman has been yanked from her school, her beloved grandmother, and her friends to live in a rowhouse near the Capitol. Her mother had warned her she would hate D.C. “Such tiny closets, mijas,” she’d say to Fina and her sister. “Where would you put your clothes? And the ugliest shoes in America!”

Fina longs to talk with her about it, but her mother is gone. Her father, consumed by his congressional duties, has little time for her, and her 15½-year-old sister has other things on her mind. In fact, her one friend in DC is a dog named Senator Something, who was “the only one who wasn’t too busy to listen to my stories.”

When bad things begin happening, Fina fears that the curse of the Demon Cat is coming true. It takes all her bravest instincts—along with a lucky cinnamon stick from her Abuelita—to confront her fears and to learn, as one of her father’s aides reassures her, that “the truth can never be as awful as one’s imagining.”

Award-winning public radio journalist Kitty Felde covered Capitol Hill for six years and currently hosts the popular Book Club for Kids podcast. www.kittyfelde.com

Peter J. Stein recalls his childhood in wartime Prague and his immigration to America in “A Boy’s Journey.”

A Childhood Under Occupation
When Peter J. Stein was growing up, his father was frequently away “on a business trip.” Other people close to him often went away as well. “My childhood seemed to be full of disappearances of persons I loved,” he writes. It wasn’t until many years later that he learned what had happened to them. In “A Boy’s Journey: From Nazi-Occupied Prague to Freedom in America,” he tells their story—and his.

Born in 1936 in Prague to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Stein was only three when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite shortages and restrictions, his family did their best to give him a normal childhood—he skated, played with toy soldiers, and had dinner at his grandma’s—but the occupation still ruled their lives. When he was seven, he was forced to give up his seat on the tram to a German SS officer, and in 1945, he and his classmates huddled in a school basement “trying not to cry” as bombs rained over Prague.

It isn’t until 1948 that Stein and his mother were able to leave to join relatives in New York, where the 12-year-old struggled to reinvent himself as a bluejeans-clad, football-playing American named Pete. Stein’s father, who survived Nazi work camps, stayed behind in communist Czechoslovakia to try and reclaim what was left of their family fortunes. He was not reunited with his wife and son until three years later.

“Leaving one’s home and one’s country in the hope that life will be better elsewhere is never an easy decision,” Stein writes. His immediate family made the critical decision to leave everything behind and flee. Others were not so fortunate. His grandmother and three of her four children—as well as millions of others—perished in concentration camps. “A Boy’s Journey” is dedicated to their memories.

Peter Stein is a retired sociology professor who continues to be engaged in Holocaust education for school children, college students and adults. Find him on Facebook @Peter-J-Stein. 

Retired DC school principal Angela Tilghman delivers some lessons in civility in “I Can Only Imagine.”

Countering the Bully-in-Chief
How do you teach children to be civil when they’re bombarded daily by name-calling, profanity, and bullying? And worse, what if much of that bad behavior comes from the leader of the country?

This is the dilemma confronted by Angela Michele Tilghman in her new book, “I Can Only Imagine: The Schoolhouse and the Presidency After 44.” Aimed at school principals, Tilghman’s book presents a variety of scenarios—kids swearing, picking fights on social media, throwing rolls of paper towels at people, and boasting that they’re smarter than their classmates—and provides suggestions for conversations that let kids know these behaviors are “not okay.”

“Yes, the President of the United States is supposed to be role model,” her fictional counterpart tells a group of children, “but here at our school, we have rules to follow. You need to remember that you are to respect yourself and others in your words and actions. What we say to others can hurt someone’s feelings.”

With lively illustrations by Almar Denso, “I Can Only Imagine” delivers a potent message about how educators can help children learn respectful behavior despite bad influences. Let’s hope the White House is listening.

Angela Tilghman is a third-generation Washingtonian and award-winning educator who has taught and served as a principal at a number of DC schools during her 35-year career, including several here on Capitol Hill. For more, visit https://AT-IMAGINE.online. 

On the Hill in June
Visit these websites to find listings for readings, book clubs, discussions, and signings:

  • Capitol Hill Books
    www.capitolhillbooks-dc.com
  • East City Bookshop
    www.eastcitybookshop.com/events.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library
    www.folger.edu/poetry
  • The Hill Center
    www.hillcenterdc.org
  • Solid State Books
    www.solidstatebooksdc.com/events