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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?

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An illustration by Josée Bisaillion from Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. (joseebisaillion.com)

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.”

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

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,
Almost invisible,
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 Cats in Krasinski Square

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.”

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So what has Ingall done to bring the Holocaust into people’s minds. Take cheap shots at someone who has. Pick you nits, Ingall.

Elegantly written. I revel in the line, “I simply don’t see the hurry to introduce anyone who still wears pull-ups at night to Baby’s First Holocaust.”

Carol

Although this piece is critical of a children’s book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the controversy surrounding Roberto Benigni’s not-for-children’s movie “Life is Beautiful.” When friends related how they loved the film, I, who was appalled at its depiction of the Holocaust, couldn’t help but yuck their yum.

Joyce Peckman says:

A magnficent, thoughtful review that should be seen by every librarian and parent.

i wish marjorie ingall had ended her article at the penultimate paragraph – the quote
of the librarian. i question if anne frank is the greatest holocaust writer for children.
she might be the most popular. but there is controversy about who wrote the ending of her book – which tends to wash away guilt. and ingall’s final paragraph, her anne frank quote, does not illuminate
or contribute to understanding.

w

the

i wish marjorie ingall had ended her article at the penultimate paragraph – the quote
of the librarian. i question if anne frank is the greatest holocaust writer for children.
she might be the most popular. but there is controversy about who wrote the ending of her book – which tends to wash away guilt. and ingall’s final paragraph, her anne frank quote, does not illuminate
or contribute to understanding.

I’d like to recommend a picture book of another sort, aimed at ages 9-15 (and adults, as well): Memories of Survial by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz and Bernice Krinitz Steinhardt. It is filled with breathtaking art by Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz, telling the story of her experiences as a girl in Poland before, during, and after the war–and of her courageous struggle to survive by posing as a Polish Catholic farm girl. In the last decades of her life, Krinitz began making elaborate, large-format panels of fabric collage and embroidery, depicting her memories. Each panel has a caption stitched into the border, and that–reproduced in typeface–serves as much of the text of the book, along with stories that the artist told her daughters that shed more light on the images. The book was originally published by Hyperion, and is now available through http://www.artandremembrance.org (full disclosure: the organization I work for). It can also be found on Amazon.

Eileen Shapiro says:

Well done! The Cats in Krasinski Square is a wonderful book and a great teaching tool. There are many picture books that teach respect and understand which is the best foundation for Holocaust Studies for kindergarten to third grade students.

Eileen Shapiro, Holocaust Studies Program Planner
School District of Palm Beach County, Fl

PS Alana Newhouse is speaking @ my Temple 2/4 and we aew all excited she is coming.

Steph F. says:

I don’t see any “cheap shots” in the article above, just thoughtful reviewing. The point is not that one shouldn’t “bring the Holocaust into people’s minds,” but that it should be done in a way that respects the developmental stage of the reader and considers what would be the most effective approach to the material. Thanks, Marjorie, for tackling a thorny yet crucial topic.

London Pilgrim says:

Well said. Thank you.

Minna, thanks for that recommendation. I’m excited to check that book out.

Harrietb98 says:

I think that we try to shield children from unpleasant facts, far too much. Perhaps, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass might put the story, of the Holocaust in a way that children might understand.

The cat who watches could be the non-Jewish Germans who did nothing. Perhaps that is the lesson.

My sentiments exactly. The comment I wrote in the AJL Newsletter said:
“A cat’s perceptions of events that culminated in Kristallnacht are necessarily limited. Despite good writing and stunning illustrations, this “picture book” will at best confuse readers unless they bring to it considerable background information about the Holocaust. Picture book readers are unlikely to have that information and, except in rare cases, there is no reason why they should. An explanatory afterword is an unsatisfactory substitute for the historical background and context that is missing from the story itself. In addition to inadequacies of content, the format is misleading because it implies that this is a book for younger children. The publisher’s age and grade level recommendations are also way off base. Certainly not an introduction to Kristallnacht or the Holocaust, and certainly not a picture book in the commonly understood use of the term, Benno… is a misfit.”

my wife emailed me this related to the article (we both are children of
holocaust victims and survivors
“re good kitty bad kitty….how true this line “it is important to remember
that an encounter with the Holocaust hastents the end of innocence”. Why none of t
the readers picked up on these this being the most important message.

I am a former children’s and teen librarian, and feel that Benno is a stunning contribution to holocaust literature for children. It’s not a book for young children, but there are many successful picture books for older children. The book is relatively restrained in what is actually shown.

Tackling difficult subjects in picture books is not a new thing, and Wiviott and Bisaillon have done an excellent job.

For comparison’s sake, take a look at Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night which deals with racism and the L.A. riots. Bunting’s book features two cats belonging to a black family and an Asian American family, all of whom keep to their own kind. In this case the cats, and the families are able to pull together in response to the riots.

Children are aware of the violence in our world. If we can initiate discussions with them about it in a way that they can relate to emotionally, perhaps they will become committed to trying to prevent violence and hatred.

Thank you for this review and opening the conversation. The entire concept of “Holocaust picture books” has always struck me as beyond bizarre all the way to ruinous. Why can’t we let children be children? Why can’t we bide our time, let at least some of their molars come in before feeding them this darkness? How do these books affect a child’s Jewish identity? How many joyous Shabbos dinners, sukkahs and Seders does it take to neutralize the anxiety ? There is a time and place for everything, nothing more so than learning about the Shoah. What’s next, board games? Some dark version of Chutes and Ladders where players try to skip over the cattle car spaces and instead land on the spaces marked get out of Treblinka?

The audience for this book is well-intentioned librarians and teachers who can read the story and then use it as a foundation for a discussion.

And that isn’t a bad thing at all.

Roslyn Ross says:

As a child of survivors I APPLAUD the choices available today for parents and libraries. There is an audience out there for this type of literature, which may not be for each and every child. It is ever so important however to keep as many channels as possible open to educate and inform the next generations. Children may emotionally/intellectually connect to stories in a way that is not at all obvious to many critics. I personally welcome another attempt to tell and re-tell the story, just the way children are re-told every year about our slavery in Egypt.

Chaia B. says:

I tend to agree with this thoughtful review that there is no need to introduce the Holocaust to most picture book readers, but exceptions might include children whose family history means that they are likely to hear references (or simply sense a loss) that they need to begin to understand while they are still little. Little children whose day schools are marking the day also may be helped by the right picture books to understand what their older classmates are commemorating.

While I am intrigued with the angle employed by Ms. Wiviott, I too am dismayed with the end result. The Shoah remains one of the most catastrophic experiences in our people’s history. And it IS important for our children to understand how it figures into our collective reality. But, as Ms. Ingall eloquently outlines for us, there are more appropriate ways to reach this goal.

Having a great deal of choices is a positive thing when, and only when, the choices are good ones.

Sara Baim says:

It would be interesting to hear older students, middle school and above, talk about the appropriateness of this book. They often have younger sibs, babysitting jobs, strong memories of their own first encounter with Holocaust stories.

Alana Newhouse says:

Hi, Ellen! I’m excited, too!

I think we are all in agreement that Holocaust books are not appropriate for the Pull-ups set. However, the argument of this article is based on the false assumption that picture books are always meant for young children. The picture book format can be used to distill difficult content and convey it in an emotionally compelling way. Such books often make perfect discussion starters for older children and teens. As a librarian, I don’t even *mention* the Holocaust to kids below Grade 5, but for older kids, Holocaust picture books can be just the ticket. They can be less overwhelming than chapter books, and they easily stir the emotions so that readers understand the importance of the events about which they are reading. It is a shame that people feel so bound by format that sometimes they can’t match the right books with the right readers.

I don’t assume picture books are always meant for younger children. As I pointed out in an earlier column, I thought last year’s picture book Champion of Children, about Janusz Korczak, was genius, a work of brilliance — and wonderful for older kids. I don’t think Benno is a very good book, for the reasons I discuss in the piece. I can see teaching older kids Karen Hesse’s book, because it is an excellent book — from both literary and pedagogical perspectives. (I’m not sure I would teach it, but I’m certainly open to the notion!)

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Good convo.

Lisa Silverman says:

Interesting topic! I am a librarian and children’s book reviewer and I have compiled a bibliography entitled “Illustrated Books on the Holocuast for Children”. I often present it at various conferences for educators and people are generally shocked at how many titles are on it. (The Benno book is one of the better ones, in my opinion, mostly as a discussion starter with older kids about what Kristalnacht is.) As of last count, there are 77 PICTURE BOOKS on my bibliography and surely more to come. In fact, I am developing an article on the subject for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and I appreciate reading what you had to say and also the interesting comments here.

Mostly, I think teachers and librarians are using these books within the classroom as discussion starters–maybe for 5th grade and up, although some are suitable for 4th grade because Jewish Day Schools introduce the subject due to Yom HaShoa. I really don’t think moms are buying them to read as a bedtime story. In our day school, our 8th graders have acted out one excellent book for an assembly,projecting the illustrations above them, and we have also used 23 of them at one time, in one classroom — with each 7th grader reading one book and discussing how he/she felt about it. It was an excellent lesson.

So, no, these books were not meant to be sold on the shelf with baby wipes, but they are accessible/educational to kids in a more immediate way than YA or middle grade novels.

As a survivor of Kristallnacht , and a volunteer at a Museum which deals with the Holocaust for the past seven years, I agree totally with Majorie Ingall. Starting too early serves no purpose except that when youngsters are old enough to deal with these events , the attitude becomes a jaded ” I have done that already and I know all about it.”.I introduced my own 4 children to my own experiences before they began Religious School because I knew that the topic would come up there. They are exposed to a great deal of violence in the various media today no matter how carefully we monitor what they see or listen to.

I agree with Harrietb98,Nancy, Roslyn Ross,Frank,ChaiaB,and Liza Silverman; and to Miriam Chaikin, it was undoubtably Otto Frank who wrote that ending to the Diary. Sometime in the last decade,The New York Times produced a brilliant article on the finding of old papers in file-cases stored in a New York warehouse, and they photocopied many of these pages, signed,Otto Frank. I would suggest to anybody writing in response to the cat’s observations: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, that they check the archives of http://www.nytimes.com for Otto Frank,and papers of,etc. to see this for themselves, so much has already been dumped, pictorially, much of the photographs and illustrations of articles that I can not guarantee that you will get the full impact, as I did in shock, to the letters of Otto Frank pleading for somebody to help him get a job in the US, including those to relatives who ignored him. It brought my childhood more closely back to me with memories of my class mates who had somehow been brought out. Kristallnacht occured on my third birthday when living with Austrian emigrees who left well before Anschluss which took place 8 months earlier. They too had to leave people behind like our landlady’s married sister. I may need to write a second post –

Our landlord was a baker, and everyday at Kaffee klatsch,my parents looked forward to his wife,Aggie,reading her sister’s most recent letter from Ostereich. Those that stick in my mind were when the Austrian wrote using the expression,”He said” or,”He says,we can have brod mit butter; or, with Jam. But not both at the same time. We must make sacrifices for the Vaterland”. This may have been the well-remembered occasion when Oscar slid the plate of “Danish”(as Austrian pastry has come to be called)toward me,saying softly,”but, you can eat all that you want.” My father, a physician, was the only one among the five of us who did not understand,’German’.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE PHOTOS INCLUDED IN LETTERS FROM OTTO FRANK. My friend,Rosemarie looked like Anne Frank. By the time that I was in grade-school, I can recall walking home with my friend Rosemarie Siegel who lived less than two blocks from our new home in the suburbs; there were just the four of them, her mother and father,Rosemarie and her brother Richard. We were told not to walk the same way home as usual but take the next street over and kind of duck-into their back yard from the adjoining yards. A P.O.W. camp had been built across the road from Mrs. Siegel’s kitchen door. I was 54 years of age before I realized how frightened Rosemary’s mother must have been.
While still living back above the bakery, I recall that a school chum of my mother’s, from Nursing School, was the only other person who used the same expression as Aggie. Betty Schoen,upon returning from the Berlin Olympics told my mother,”He has built the Autobahn. He has seen that everyone has work….” I think that this puts everything said today by the Tea-Party, their choice of innuendo, in a different light,entirely.

Matthew Zvi says:

“It’s torture porn for little children.”

Really? I can’t imagine you literally mean that.
Personally, I quite enjoyed Benno, as did my nieces and nephews. I thought it was an important book, and not an age inappropriate one. The children in my family hear about Nazis from a young age, at passover seders and the like. This book lays out for them the horror of that era quite well—-I appreciate that it translates the horror without (what I would consider) age inappropriate details of gas chambers and the like.

Also, worth noting. I, personally, quite liked The Cats of Krasinsky Square—my nephews and nieces did not. They said it felt like one of grandpa’s historical lectures, i.e. boring and too history specific.

Thank you for this review. Great considerations, and great suggestions for books when the kids are old enough to start asking their own questions about the Shoah.

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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?

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