We have recently read two books about the Holocaust and wanted to write our thoughts about them. Normally we don’t give age ranges for our reviews because it can be so subjective – everyone can enjoy a picture book and very young children often love hearing chapter books. However, we will in the case of these two books as their subject matter can be distressing for children.
The first is The Cats in Krasinski Square.
Image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com
Author: Karen Hesse
Illustrator: Wendy Watson
Age range: I would suggest at least six or seven just to cope with the ideas presented in the story. Nothing horrible is overtly described, and the illustrations are not distressing, but the questions that may spring from the book might be difficult for parents to explain and very young children to understand.
What it’s about: The story takes place in Warsaw during the Second World War. A young girl and her sister have escaped from the Jewish Ghetto and are struggling to feed themselves, while smuggling food into the ghetto to the people who are starving there. The young narrator makes a fuss of the cats who have been ‘orphaned’ because their humans have been taken away to Concentration Camps (this is never directly stated but implied). The cats are OK because they can live off the mice and their quick thinking and clever survival skills come in handy when they are used to outsmart the Gestapo at Warsaw’s train station. The book is based on a real-life event that Karen Hesse read about and is moving, exciting and compassionate.
Holly’s review: I liked the way Karen Hesse described what was happening and that it was both made up and true. It was upsetting too because of what was happening to the people. The drawings tell the story as much as the words, and the words are written like a poem. I love stories about World War II. I feel I shouldn’t be excited about them but I am interested in history and I liked it when we studied World War II at school.
Sam’s review: This book was recommended to me because of my browsing history on an online bookshop. I had been reading Holocaust survivors’ accounts (Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce and Elie Wiesel’s Night) and was interested in how this aspect of history had been explained in children’s literature. Karen Hesse’s story is brave, honest and suspenseful, as our young narrator explains the deprivations of life in occupied Warsaw and how the Resistance attempted to defy their enemies and help their fellow man. The added element of the cats’ involvement appeals to children’s interest in animals, and makes it all the more fascinating with the knowledge that it was based on a real event. I didn’t find it too difficult to explain what was happening to the Jews in Warsaw to Holly, but then again we had read a couple of other books before this and this was the gentlest.
The second book is Rose Blanche.
Image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com
Author: Ian McEwan
Illustrator: Roberto Innocenti
Age range: This book is much more disturbing than The Cats in Krasinski Square and I wouldn’t attempt it with anyone younger than 9 unless they have had exposure to the Holocaust before. Holly has read Judith Kerr’s memoirs which touch upon the fate of the Jews briefly but not this starkly. The illustrations in this story, while marvellous, are very shocking and left Holly speechless at one point. I wouldn’t show it to very sensitive children either, although Holly is and did cope, but got very angry and emotional at one point.
What it’s about: The story begins with the outbreak of war in a German town, and the positivity and optimism that they will enjoy a positive outcome. As the story progresses, situations become worse for the townspeople and impatience over rations begins. More importantly, it has in the foreground a young non-Jewish German girl who witnesses what is happening and, accidentally, becomes involved beyond her ability to cope. One day she watches as a boy escapes from the back of a truck and then is beaten by German officers. In her indignation, she follows the lorry out of her town and stumbles across its destination: a concentration camp. The inmates, including children, look out at her from behind barbed wire and their skeletal appearance horrifies her. From that day on, she secretly sets out to help them until disaster strikes.
Holly’s review: This was very upsetting because the story was tragic. It was a very good, descriptive story but if you don’t like sad books then don’t read this. At first I was angry when I read it because they shouldn’t have ended it the way they did and also I think the girl in the story should have told someone what she had seen rather than keep it to herself. The drawings were quite shocking and less child-like than in The Cats…
Sam’s review: This was a toughie. I stupidly hadn’t read the book before Holly grabbed it off our library pile and so hadn’t seen the sort of drawings we were soon to come across, which were beautifully done but harrowing. When Holly came across the scenes at the concentration camp she went silent as she tried to comprehend what she was looking at. I explained it to her but she wanted to move on, so we did. The ending was shocking because it is not what is normally expected in a children’s book, but then again this is no ordinary picture book. When we finished the story, Holly was silent and then burst out in anger ‘That’s stupid! Why didn’t she tell someone?! How could she keep that to herself?! I hate books like that!’ We talked for a while about the war, and she asked why nothing was done sooner to help the people in the camps. It opened up a lot of discussion into the matter – and about war and atrocities more generally – and I think a child needs to be old enough to process this information to understand the book and not simply be traumatised by it. It’s definitely worth reading but it is vital to get the age right. I think we did, because Holly later wanted to read it again with her father and was happy to talk about it, but I would approach it with caution, and certainly would advise any parent to read it through first before showing it to their child.
Other World War II books you may be interested in:
- When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr: A story about a young girl and her family’s escape from Austria and their continued quest for safety during the uprising of the Nazis. Based on Judith Kerr’s own experience. (Suitable from age 8 upwards)
- I am David, by Anne Holm: A Nazi officer helps a 12-year-old boy escape from a Concentration Camp, with food and instructions on where to head for. The book is the story of his journey and the people and places he encounters. Incredibly moving and beautifully written. (Suitable from age 8 or 9 upwards)
- The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank: This book hardly needs an introduction. Anne Frank and her family are in hiding from the Nazis and the diary reveals what life was like for them in their isolation, and the everyday fear they encountered. (Suitable from age 8 upwards)