Two Excellent New Picture Books Help Kids Learn About the Holocaust
‘The Whispering Town’ and ‘Hidden’ are among the best contributions in years to Holocaust literature for young children
I’ve written before about the challenges of finding appropriate kids’ books about the Holocaust. How young is too young? Do you go with fiction or nonfiction? How do you convey the magnitude of the tragedy without leaving your kid aghast, looking like a Keane painting?
A lot of us drag our heels when it comes to discussing the subject at all. We tell ourselves we want our kids to maintain their innocence for as long as possible. But what avoidance means, practically speaking, is that someone else often does the educating. Do you remember your own youthful trauma of watching documentary footage of bulldozers and piles of corpses like brittle sticks, of emaciated and haunted-looking men in stripes, of ovens and charred bodies? For many of us, the horror didn’t educate. It made us shut down, or turned the Holocaust into some sort of Freddy Krueger-esque monster movie. It was terrifying, yes, but also distancing.
Holocaust education has come a long way since then. In most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools, the Clockwork Orange approach to edification is a thing of the past. But there are still a lot of paralyzingly scary movies and a lot of badly written, ahistorical and/or emotionally manipulative books, and even a lot of very good books that your kid might be exposed to before he or she (or you) has the context to understand them. It’s best if you’re the one to lay the groundwork of explaining this seminal event to your child. If you wait too long (as I did), your kid’s introduction to the topic may not be the one you’d choose.
Last week, my colleague Stephanie Butnick wrote about how Israel is launching a new Holocaust education curriculum that starts in kindergarten. (And it reportedly tells teachers to avoid those black-and-white archival images.)
You may say, wait: kindergarten? What? No! That’s too young! But the Israeli curriculum is aimed at explaining the two-minute siren that’s blasted all over the country on Yom HaShoah in memory of the victims. Here, with the right approach, a book is a fine way to begin a lifelong conversation. Until now, I would have suggested that Marisabina Russo’s I Will Come Back for You was the only Holocaust title appropriate for kids younger than second grade. But a new book doubles the length of that reading list: The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro, is wonderful. The publisher recommends it for age 7 and up, but I think it’s appropriate for a bright 5-year-old. It’s the story of a little Danish girl named Anett who wakes up to learn that there are “new friends” hiding in the basement. Anett brings them breakfast (when she tells the baker, “We have new friends,” he gives her extra food and murmurs, “Stay safe”). After Annet learns that the little boy in the basement loves to read, she walks to the library and whispers to the librarian, “We have new friends.” The librarian whispers back, “Be careful” and gives her extra books. The entire town colludes to hide Jews from the Nazis and smuggle them out to Sweden. Annet not only shows bravery when the Nazis come to her door, but also comes up with a plan to guide her new friends to the harbor on a very cloudy night. (An afterword explains the Danish resistance movement, the fact that almost all the Jews from Denmark survived, and the true story of the town depicted in the book: Gilleleje, from which 1,700 Jews escaped.)
Maxine, age 9, loved this book and read it over and over. Visually, it’s a lot like a graphic novel—word balloons, cartoony illustrations, motion depicted with arrows, shock depicted by short vertical lines over a character’s head. I think that familiar comics style makes the book appealing to slightly older kids who might ordinarily insist they’re too old for picture books. But the drawings are also cute enough to appeal to younger readers, and the pedagogical approach is in line with the kind of books the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recommends: age-appropriate, not pornographically terrifying, placed in context, and providing balanced perspective on history. (The museum educators point out that over-emphasizing the role of rescuers “can result in an inaccurate and unbalanced account of history,” but when you’re educating the very youngest students, introducing the Holocaust through the notion of helpers and everyday heroes feels exactly right.) Little kids will identify with Annet and feel reassured by the communal efforts of her small town. And the story is historically accurate, unlike the too-often-repeated tale of King Christian wearing a yellow star in solidarity with Danish Jews.
Meanwhile, Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo, takes a more graphic approach—and I mean that on two levels. It’s an actual graphic novel, and it’s more explicit about the barbarity of the Nazis. That means it’s better for slightly older kids. The publisher says 6-10, but I’d say 7-13.
It’s utterly masterful. A grandmother named Dounia tells her granddaughter the story of when she was hidden by non-Jews, first in Paris and later in the French countryside. In the end, she’s reunited with her mother; her father doesn’t survive the camps.
The story is harsh, and it’s told with more novelistic detail than the simple tale of The Whispering Town. (Maxie said, “Hidden is really good, but it’s too sad.”) We see Nazis spit on an old man; Dounia tells a story of her classmate Isaac being forced to stand on his desk while a teacher pulled his pants down and “explained to the class that Jews had a piece of wee-wee missing.” (The scene is narrated in flashback, but there are no drawings of it.) Dounia’s parents hide her in an armoire when the Nazis bang on the door. (“Mommy was saying over and over how much she loved me. She was saying it so much it was scary.”) The panels showing Dounia waiting alone in the dark and coming out to an empty apartment are terrifying. We meet French people who collaborate with the Nazis as well as those who work to protect Dounia.
But it’s not a relentlessly upsetting book. Dounia’s neighbors help her and are kind. She’s kept safe. She comes to enjoy the country. She’s proud when she learns to milk a cow; she cuddles with a sweet farm dog; she begins to feel at home. And finally her mother returns for her.
The drawings are often adorable—characters have oversized, round heads like Charlie Brown, and the art is confident and brilliantly colored. It’s a packed, exciting story. The panels vary in size, shape, and perspective, with smart use of silhouettes and shading and tons of absorbing detail. (For what it’s worth, Maxie was most distressed by an image of a rabbit being skinned. You know, French people.) There are only three full-page illustrations in the entire 80-page book. One shows Dounia’s mother, skeletal and unrecognizable with a barely-grown-out crew cut after the war. (“It took me a moment to be sure she really was my mommy.”) Another shows a small black-and-white photo in a sea of white space, depicting the blissful little family before the war.
Hidden is nuanced, deep, dark, and real but also sweet. It’s accessible but not trivializing. I cried only once: In the last couple of pages, we see the morning after Dounia has told her granddaughter Elsa her story. Over coffee, Dounia’s son tells his mother, “You know, when I was growing up, I would’ve liked to hear the story, too.” Dounia starts to stammer, but her son interrupts, saying he now understands why she didn’t want to talk about her past. A six-panel spread is filled with close-ups of segments of the old woman’s face as she absorbs her son’s love and pride. The final full-page illustration shows all three characters—Dounia, her son, and her granddaughter, embracing on a bright green suburban lawn while a puppy chases a ball. Hidden is an astonishing achievement.
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