The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas by John Boyne and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
It’s been a few months since I’ve read these books—one after the other—but I felt like I needed some space away from them before recommending them to you. Though students often ask for “Holocaust book” recommendations, it’s pretty depressing to read too many at once. However, these two deserve to be read. Unlike many ‘young adult’ books that are for kids in the fifth grade and up, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief” are truly for high school and beyond.
The main character in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is Bruno, a small inquisitive nine-year-old living in Berlin, Germany during World War II. Though the narrative is third person, the point of view is Bruno’s. Although his father is a high-ranking officer, and Hitler (whom Bruno calls “the fury” because Fuhrer is a word he doesn’t know) comes to visit Bruno’s home, the boy has no knowledge of the war, nor any understanding of the Holocaust.
Bruno’s innocence is the one big problem I have with this novel. It’s not that he should understand the Holocaust—at that time, who could have imagined it, especially a little boy? It’s that he has no knowledge of Nazis or anti-Semitism. I gather from several other books on the period that being in the ‘Hitler Youth’ was vital for children if their parents were not to be ostracized. Bruno would have had a little uniform, gone to meetings, marched, and have been indoctrinated. He would have addressed others by saying “Heil Hitler” and he would have known who the Fuhrer was.
But seeing the story of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a total innocent helps the reader to see how truly out of balance Bruno’s world is. When his father is promoted to ‘Commandant’ and the family moves to ‘Out with’ (as Auschwitz sounds to the boy), Bruno can see a death camp from his window, only 50 yards away, but he doesn’t know why the people in it wear striped pajamas. As there are no children to play with (except his twelve-year-old sister, who plays with dolls), Bruno goes exploring and meets a boy who is on the other side of the fence, Shmuel. Though on opposite sides of the fence with very different lives, the boys maintain a friendship through conversation and imagination.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” made my thoughts jump all the way back to a story I read in third grade (and believe me that’s a big leap!) entitled “They Grind Exceedingly Small,” in which a father, through his own acts of selfishness and disregard for others, loses all that matters. (I guess that wasn’t an appropriate story for a third grader, but my teacher thought I was a good reader and gave me a high school literature book to read from.) This quiet book of two boys’ lives ends horrifyingly, heartbreakingly.
Perhaps there is no other way to end a book that takes place in Germany (or Poland) during World War II, but “The Book Thief” is another heart breaker. Even so, I loved reading it—it’s one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read—because the writing is so good, the form of the narrative is creative, and the characters became so important to me.
“The Book Thief” is narrated by Death—and he’s not the cruel being you’d imagine, but he witnesses plenty of cruelty and pointless suffering as he arrives to take souls on their journeys. He becomes fascinated by a little girl, Liesel Meminger. He first ‘meets’ her when she is on a trip with her mother and brother to Molching, Germany, where the children are to live in a foster home because their mother has been branded a “Kommunist.” Liesel’s brother dies on the trip, and it is at his funeral that she steals her first book, a gravedigger’s manual.
Liesel can’t read. However once she is living in her foster home in a poor working class neighborhood, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her. He is a gentle man and helps Liesel through her nightmares about her brother. He plays the accordion and sleeps in a chair so that Liesel won’t be alone. Rosa, Leisel’s foster mother, is much more gruff—and yet, she has a kind heart, too, despite her use of pejorative language.
We readers not only love these people, but also the neighbor boy Rudy, who wants to be like Jesse Owens and becomes Liesel’s best friend. And when Max arrives, we are riveted, knowing that little good can come to those who refuse to join the Nazi party or to those who are Jewish.
Though Max had a friend who was helping him to escape the Nazis, he has been drafted into the army. Max’s one chance for survival is to get to Molching and find Hans. Years before, in World War I, a Jewish man saved Hans’s life. That man was Max’s father, and Hans had promised him that he would do anything for him. So with Max hidden in the basement, Liesel, though young, must keep the secret.
In the meanwhile, Liesel has learned to steal books from the library of the mayor’s wife (who allows this because she, too, cares for Liesel, a reader.) It is by reading that Liesel calms her terrified neighbors in a bomb shelter. Through all, Max and Liesel become true friends, helping each other to survive their losses. In a beautiful and ironic gesture, Max paints the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf so that he can write a story and paint pictures for Liesel—a gift of a book, a most meaningful choice.
I rarely love characters more than I did these. I wanted them to survive—all of them—but of course, this is Germany in World War II.
I, along with some friends who’ve read “The Book Thief” think it might be a good replacement for “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the eighth grade curriculum. If you have the opportunity, you should read both “The Book Thief” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If you are short on time, you should read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (which is a small book). If you have time for one longer book, and you want to remember it for the rest of your life, read “The Book Thief.”