Adult Books for Teens: “All the Light We Cannot See”

all the light  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

A French girl whose father is the master of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris goes blind when she is only six years old. Her father is very handy and deeply loving. He devises clever puzzle boxes for her birthday that she must figure out in order to find the prize inside, often a chocolate.

The chocolate is a big deal because this is Paris on the brink of Nazi occupation during WW II. A good deal of life’s simple pleasures are rationed. And yet, not only does Marie-Laure’s father manage chocolate; he procures one book in braille for each birthday, a true treasure that pulls the girl into the world of her imagination.

Before the Nazis overrun Paris, Marie-Laure has an interesting life with her loving Papa. He brings her to the museum where she hangs out with her favorite scientist and learns about sea creatures, running her hands over the shells of many sea snails. So that she can understand her surroundings and learn to navigate them by herself, Marie-Laure’s father whittles a model neighborhood in wood, full of streets, tiny houses, and miniature people. But when the Nazis arrive, the pair must flee, finally ending up in the home of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, a man whose service in WW I has left him shell shocked and agoraphobic; a man who hasn’t left the house in decades.

At the same time, in an orphanage in Germany, Werner and Jutta are trying to get by. While Jutta is deeply thoughtful, Werner is a ‘doer.’ He finds an old shortwave radio and is able to repair it. People discover he has a knack for fixing things, especially electronics. He’s super smart and is hoping that his intelligence will be the key to leaving his mining town, where the German government requires all boys to enter the mines at age 15. This is pretty much a death sentence after a stint of back-breaking labor. When Werner wins a spot at a German military academy and befriends the small, bird-loving boy, Frederich, he finds out how the Nazis encourage bullies to sniff out the weakest and to what lengths they will bully those who do not fit in. Werner himself can only escape torture because of his talent–he is learning to track resistance fighters as they transmit coded information over radios.

High school housekeeping: This wonderful novel should be read by teens for many reasons. First is the writing–it’s a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. But there is also the deep sense of what individuals in Europe suffered and struggled through during WW II. History on the personal level–where you get the emotional lives of both resistance fighters and Hitler Youth–has great appeal and helps you to understand why people behave as they do. You empathize with others, comprehend their plights.

Doerr doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, but at first focuses on bombings and air raids that bring the German boy and the French girl somewhere in the vicinity of one another in Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast. Only after this does he pan out to show you the events that lead to this strange twist of fate. Even then, the chapters are not chronological. I’ve worked with teens  who had a hard time understanding books that shift back and forth in time. In the case of All the Light We Cannot See, chapters indicate the season and year, so if you don’t skip these, you should be OK.

I know you are busy with homework, and this is a long book. Nevertheless, don’t miss this one! It reminds us all of how the human spirit can survive the atrocities men are capable of plaguing one another with.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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4 Responses to Adult Books for Teens: “All the Light We Cannot See”

  1. Laurie says:

    There was a scene I remember, about a group of schoolgirls that were going to be raped by the Russian soldiers coming through. I don’t remember anything particularly graphic about it, but I don’t think that would be appropriate for an 11 year old.

    • It is truly an adult book but much of the message of the book is great for high school students. What we value, what we struggle toward. I don’t think of an 11 year old as a teen. I have always worked with high school students, who are about 14-18 years old.

  2. Jennifer Moran says:

    I know this is an old post, but I have been wondering if All the Light We Cannot See might be ok for my 11yo daughter to read. She’s an enthusiastic reader, mature for her age and has been reading other books about WWII, both in school and out. I remember this being one of my favorite books ever, but I can’t remember any of the specifics that might make me hesitate to share it with her. Your note about the chronology makes sense though, that it might be hard to grasp the changes in time. Would appreciate your thoughts on any specifics that may be inappropriate at this age.

    • It’s been a while. I don’t remember sexual content, etc. There are some people who are hurt and killed in the war (so violence of war). Besides the war, there is the wonderful relationships between the characters. If she is a mature reader, she will probably like that. The main thing I would worry about is the war trauma. However, there are no gratuitous descriptions of gore or anything.

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