Good Kitty, Bad Kitty
Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, a new picture book about a cat witnessing Kristallnacht, raises the unavoidable question: Do cute kitties belong in stories about the Holocaust?
My daughter Josie learned a new expression last week: “Don’t yuck my yum.” It means, obviously, that it’s not nice to say “ewww” about something someone else enjoys. And because we humans have wide-ranging and disparate tastes, we can legitimately disagree about what constitutes tastefulness and not-tastefulness. But fans of Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, I’m sorry: I am about to yuck your yum.
Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, by Meg Wiviott, is a picture book about Kristallnacht, seen through the eyes of a cat. School Library Journal loved it, naming it one of the best children’s books of 2010. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. I found it so distasteful I have trouble forming coherent sentences about it.
But I’ll try. The book tells the story of a cat in Berlin in 1938. He watches the city get scarier and scarier. Men in brown shirts begin throwing books into flames; little girls who once walked to school together no longer speak; Benno’s neighborhood fills with fear. “Then came a night like no other,” Wiviott writes. “The air filled with screams and shouts, sounds of shattering and splintering glass, and the bitter smell of smoke. Benno cowered in a doorway.” The synagogue goes up in flames. “They broke into Professor Goldfarb’s apartment and tore his books and papers from their shelves. ‘I must save the books!’ the professor cried, as he was dragged away.” The next morning, non-Jews’ apartments and stores were left untouched, but “smoldering fires stung Benno’s eyes. His paws were cut and sore from the broken glass that littered the streets.” Benno remains in his apartment building with its non-Jewish residents, but “He never saw Professor Goldfarb or Sophie and her family again.”
Who is the audience for this? Yes, the art, by Canadian illustrator Josée Bisaillon, is gorgeous—a mix of collage, drawings, and digital montage, in which pretty folk-arty illustrations give way to jagged shard-like slashes and darkness. But these wonderful and terrible images are in a young child’s picture book, written in simple, declarative sentences. Picture books can be a tough sell to kids over age 8 or so, because no one wants to look like a baby in front of his chapter-book- and graphic-novel-reading peers. And do kids younger than 8 really need to be slammed with this kind of brutality and horror? Surely Benno suffers, because his eyes sting and his paws are cut, but the book’s flat affect betrays no emotion. The characters are undifferentiated—some are dragged away and some aren’t, and we know nothing about them except their names and whether they give Benno snacks. This is, of course, exactly how actual cats see the world—they care only about who feeds them and who provides a warm lap. But it’s an awfully unnerving way to approach the Holocaust. It’s a book without hope. It’s torture porn for little children.
And yet there’s proof that a book for small children about cats during the Holocaust can work. The Cats in Krasinski Square, by Karen Hesse, manages to get the tone and the scariness level just right. In this 2004 book, Hesse—a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant whose 1997 book Out of the Dust was awarded the Newbery Medal—steers clear of the sense of powerlessness and acted-upon-ness that makes Wiviott’s book so soul-crushing.
In The Cats in Krasinski Square, a little girl helps prisoners of the Warsaw Ghetto. She and her sister are Jews masquerading as Poles, living outside the ghetto, working for the Resistance. Unlike Benno (or anyone in Benno’s story), this girl has agency. Her story is told in the first person rather than the third; she’s in control of the narrative. She actively fights against injustice while hiding in plain sight.
I wear my Polish look
I walk my Polish walk
Polish words float from my lips
And I am almost safe,
Moving through Krasinski Square
Past the dizzy girls riding the merry-go-round.
The horror is still there—you can’t write a Holocaust story without horror, no matter how young your readers are. Hesse makes it clear, albeit subtly, that the rest of the girl’s family is missing or dead. The little girl befriends the book’s titular cats because their owners have disappeared. But the language of the book is poetic and beautiful, the love between the sisters is evident, and Wendy Watson’s clean, golden-hued, Lois-Lenski-like illustrations invite the reader in rather than pushing her away. Most important, Hesse offers us a protagonist who tries to help others. Readers can identify in a way they can’t with the blank, passive Benno. They can consider how they’d react in such a terrifying, inhuman situation. Would they, too, have the guts to be a helper, someone who stands up to injustice? The book invites identification instead of alienation.
The little girl, because she spends so much time watching the cats slip in and out of cracks in the ghetto walls, knows how to help smuggle food inside. She has a friend who is still behind those walls; her friend needs bread, and she takes great personal risks to bring it to her. And our little heroine comes up with a plan to use her kitty friends to distract the Gestapo’s dogs. Hesse’s book (which is based on a true story), offers a historical afternote that explains that the ghetto ultimately was destroyed and most of its inhabitants died. But even in the note (which most kids and parents won’t read), Hesse takes care to explain that the Jews of Warsaw fought bravely for a long time and that there were some survivors who lived to bear witness.
I wanted my daughters’ first Holocaust book to be Number the Stars, Lois Lowry’s brilliant Newbery-winning chapter book. It, too, is about Resistance members, this time in Denmark in the early 1940s. It, too, is based on a true story. And it, too, shows a little girl standing up to tyranny to save a friend. But Josie found the Holocaust without me through The Night Crossing by Karen Ackerman, a book she discovered in the school library. This turned out to be a not-too-terrifying novel for beginning chapter-book readers about a brave little girl who helps smuggle her family’s Shabbat candlesticks out of Nazi-occupied Austria. A child stands up to bullies, digs deep to be brave, and helps others. Sense a theme among the good books here?
Still, both The Night Crossing and Number the Stars are chapter books, not picture books. I simply don’t see the hurry to introduce anyone who still wears pull-ups at night to Baby’s First Holocaust. Yes, The Cats in Krasinski Square is a fine book, but must children encounter such horrors at such a young age? “In offering such books to children, it is important to remember that an encounter with the Holocaust hastens the end of innocence,” said Claire Rudin, the former librarian for the Holocaust Resource Center and Archives in Queens. Don’t we already complain that our kids grow up too quickly? Do we really need to introduce this darkness so soon? The greatest despair a 6-year-old should feel should be the realization that she’s left a My Little Pony on the subway. As Rudin added, “The selector of books for children to read will make sure that the full horror of knowing the Holocaust is postponed until greater maturity makes possible acceptance of that reality, and then, perhaps, understanding.”
In short, too much, too deep, too fast is no way to teach our kids. Our desire to educate can’t trump their need to believe in a safe, joyful future. Cats shouldn’t be silent bloody-pawed witnesses to horror. They should be cuddly little snugglepusses seeking someone “to kiss their/velvet heads,” in Hesse’s words. Children can provide those kitty kisses. They may not have much power, but this, this they can do. And being able to kiss, to help others in small ways—that’s the path into Holocaust education. As the greatest Holocaust writer for children of all, Anne Frank, wrote, “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death.”
Ehud Barak should forsake his arrogance, take a page from Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, and recognize that leading can require giving up power