By my count, there were 27 Holocaust books for kids and teens published in 2019, not including self-published titles and books published solely for school and library markets.
That’s a heck of a lot of children’s books about the Holocaust. Especially since there were, as far as I can tell, none (zero) (0) books published in 2019 that centered black Jewish teenagers loving their Jewishness; none that invoked Jewish tradition and values to talk about fighting climate change; none that addressed the great artists and thinkers of the Haskalah, the Enlightenment; none that explored conflicts between keeping Shabbat and playing a varsity sport; none that talked seriously about real-life efforts to build bridges between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian kids; none that wrestled with parents flipping their lids over the protagonist dating a non-Jew; none that explored navigating kashrut when you and your friends want to grab a snack after school.
As I write repeatedly in Tablet, great children’s and young adult lit about the Holocaust is certainly out there. But the Holocaust still holds far too much sway in our literary imagination. Jewishness is way bigger than genocide. We are more, we are greater, than attempts to wipe us out. And our literary obsession with this one cataclysm (sadly, we’ve experienced many) means that other stories simply aren’t getting told. Jewish kids and teenagers need books that offer a vision of Judaism full of meaning, love, challenge, delight, diversity, and casual contemporary Jewish life. Non-Jewish kids and teenagers deserve a broad and colorful mural of who Jews are today and all the places we’ve come from.
What’s worse, our yearning for Holocaust narratives that work for young audiences means we’re often telling profoundly flawed stories. Not wanting to traumatize readers means sharing an inordinate number of heroic survival tales, when most Jews did not survive. Most stories center on heroic non-Jewish rescuers and powerless Jewish sheep; is that how we want to see ourselves? Feel-good endings may soothe us in the moment, but they do history a disservice.
And there’s no more dangerous five-word phrase than “based on a true story.” This year’s gorgeously illustrated, beautifully written The Brave Cyclist: A True Story of a Holocaust Hero is probably not, in fact, true. As Tablet noted in 2017, there’s no compelling evidence that the great Italian biking champion Gino Bartali actually saved Jews; the story is based on the memories that one priest—who turned out to be an unreliable narrator on a wide variety of other subjects—shared with one Polish journalist in 1978.
We also tend to grade Holocaust books on a curve. For adults, these books deliver catharsis without making us work for it, because they tap into what we already know. And we don’t realize as we read that kids don’t have the necessary background to meet these books on the level that we grown-ups do. Young audiences tend to lack the emotional maturity to cope with or truly understand most picture books about the Shoah. Who’s really the intended audience here?
Holocaust books do history a disservice when they’re too simplistic, too manipulative, too laden with kid-confusing metaphor, and/or too full of cats and trees talking about their pal Anne Frank. Many picture books offer no nuance into a nuanced subject; many middle-grade and young-adult Holocaust books are written in blank verse for no reason other than to make the text seem Urgent and Emotive and Literary. (If the main character is a poet or singer, having them tell their story in verse makes artistic sense. But in most kids’ books about the Holocaust, those choppy, static, and ill-crafted lines of description substitute for the hard work of creating character, plot, and narrative momentum.)
Sometimes, too, Holocaust books are as traumatic for kids as the old black-and-white newsreels they used to make us watch in Jewish day school, those bulldozers moving piles of corpses and skeletal survivors in striped pajamas staring empty-eyed through wooden slats. Survival of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children is well researched, based on a BAFTA-nominated documentary, kinetically illustrated by a longtime animation studio professional. But as a piece of literature for children, it amounts to torture porn. Its strength is its art; any sense of context—the wider and deeper picture of European history, longstanding cultural attitudes of particular countries toward Jews and other minority groups, political opposition to Hitler within Germany during his rise to power—is absent, even in the back matter. The powerful images depict horrific suffering of children the text tells us are real people: A child rescued by the Kindertransport sobs giant tears filled with the ghostly faces of the family she tells us she never saw again; a daddy is herded into a gas chamber by a soldier gripping a machine gun; a little girl screams, “Mommy!” as her slumped-over parents are dragged away by the scruff of their necks by a huge, blocky, red soldier with giant white teeth and a swastika on his arm; a Nazi holds a wailing infant upside down, at arm’s length, by its foot; children’s hands and feet are rendered bloody by forced labor in freezing temperatures; a tattoo of a number on a child’s arm drips black ink or blood. The book is as wildly compelling as an Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book, but it certainly doesn’t dovetail with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s guidelines for teaching the Holocaust by making responsible methodological choices.
If you want to share a Holocaust book with your child or teen, here are the best ones published in the past year:
The Brave Princess and Me by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Juliana Kolesova. This somber picture book introduced me to a historical figure I didn’t know: Princess Alice of Greece, the mother of England’s Prince Philip and grandmother of Prince Charles. In 1943, when the German army occupied Athens, Princess Alice, who was deaf, offered shelter in her home to Greek Jewish refugees. (The picture book doesn’t delve into her struggles with mental illness, or how cruelly the royal family treated her—the focus is on Tilde, the young girl being hidden—but there’s a reason the princess has left the United Kingdom for Greece. Ripped from today’s headlines!) The Princess Alice we meet is kind and generous and brave, and she understands discrimination; when Rachel Cohen and Tilde show up on her doorstep—they tell the servant at the door that the princess knew their late husband and father, Haimaki Cohen, a former member of British Parliament—the servant wants to turn them away. But the princess lets them in without hesitation. Little Tilde explores the fancy home and is spied peeking out a window; when suspicious German soldiers show up, Princess Alice acts dimwitted, pretending not to understand them. (The real Princess Alice, who understood three languages, actually used this trick.) The soldiers believe she’s a pathetic, handicapped idiot and leave. While the book’s writing is a bit dry, the story itself is fascinating; the dark, formal, oil-painting-esque art is appropriately serious. The afterword, with photos of the real Princess Alice and of her great-grandson Prince William visiting Yad Vashem, makes clear what parts of the story are true and what’s fiction. That’s important. (Ages 7-10)
I’ve already told you (twice!) about White Bird by R.J. Palacio, for kids aged 8 to 12 (but young adults and grown-ups can appreciate it, too). It stands on its own as literature, not merely as a Holocaust narrative. I also recommend My Survival: A Girl on Schindler’s List by Rena Findler, with Joshua M. Greene, a well-told, straightforward memoir by a woman who, with her mother, worked as a preteen and teenager for Oskar Schindler’s munitions and kitchenware factory. Rena and her mom were scheduled for deportation to Auschwitz, but Schindler saved them, along with his other Jewish workers. Rena’s voice is direct and dispassionate, and the book doesn’t trade in sentimentality. It’s an excellent educational resource. Masters of Silence by Kathy Kacer is a page-turner about two German Jewish kids whose mom hides them with sympathetic nuns in France. Traumatized, Henry withdraws and refuses to speak, perking up only when a local mime visits. When someone informs on the kids to the Nazis, the mime—who turns out to be Marcel Marceau—ushers the kids to freedom through the woods and Jura Mountains into Switzerland. An afterword explains that the real Marcel Marceau did work with the French Resistance and led Jews with false papers to the Swiss border. It feels age appropriate for kids 9 to 12.
A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin (National Book Award Finalist for Flesh and Blood So Cheap, the best history of the Triangle Factory Fire for young readers) is utterly comprehensive and fluidly written. Winner of the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal in 2008, Marrin is a tenured history professor who values truth and deep research. If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said we don’t need any more books about Korczak, the pediatrician who took care of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and chose to stay with them rather than escape. There have been at least six Korczak picture books since 2002! (Many are soft-focused and sentimental, committing some of the sins of Holocaust lit for kids I mentioned earlier in this piece.) But A Light in the Darkness is a book for teenagers, and in telling Korczak’s story in a grown-up, sophisticated way, Marrin also tells the story of the ghetto, the story of Poland, and the attitudes toward child psychology of both Korczak and Hitler. A Light in the Darkness is incredibly readable, with lots of white space, a relaxed writing style that doesn’t call attention to itself, lots of quoted poems and songs and letters, well-deployed vintage photos and propaganda posters.
And there are 45 pages of footnotes.
That matters. It matters a lot.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.