“Who was Hitler?” asked my seven-year-old, a couple of weeks ago. It was 7.30 on a weekend morning.
It turns out he’d been inspecting the books on my desk. I ought to have seen this coming: I’ve amassed heaps of primary and secondary sources about the Second World War over the past three years. It just never dawned on me that he’d go browsing through the unglamorous adult books in the study when there are so many age-appropriate books for him in nearly every other room of the house.
Over the past two weeks, taking my cues from S’s direct questions, we’ve spent quite a few hours talking about race, racism, Hitler, war, conscience and resistance. It’s been hard: the most complicated, painful thing I’ve had to explain to him thus far. When I defined racism his first response was, “That’s rude.” He was so innocent that he didn’t have the vocabulary for talking about hate. I had to correct him: “No, that’s evil.” Yet he’s capable of morally complex questions, among them: “Why do people go to war?”, “Why did Hitler believe what he did?” and “What would you have done if you lived in Germany and Hitler said you had to be a soldier?”
S’s questions also uncovered a cultural fault line in our house. Nick grew up in 1970s/80s England. When he thinks of Hitler, he thinks about the Battle of Britain, rationing, conscription. For him, the war is recent and local and deeply personal. Because I grew up in Canada, Hitler means the Holocaust, the Jewish diaspora and the Allied war effort. For me, the war is frightening but also distinctly historical, definitely elsewhere. S’s three-word question has really underscored for me that while our children are biracial, they are also inheriting (at least) three cultures.
We will get to the Battle of Britain and British military history. We will also get to the Pacific War. But for now, our first priority is to introduce the Holocaust without too many nightmares, both literal and figurative.
When I began looking for children’s books about the Holocaust, most seemed written for middle-grade or young adult readers. I wasn’t even sure there existed such a thing as Holocaust literature for younger children. It was only when I began asking, not googling, that titles began to pop up (hurray for people, not search engines!). The list below is drawn from the generous, well-read brains of bookseller Rachel E. L. King, librarians Eugenia Beh and Paige McGeorge, authors Robin Stevenson and Jill Bryant, book blogger Rebecca Herman, my aunt Cynthia Krause, and a couple of Facebook friends who like to keep a low profile.
Here’s a list of picture-book titles thus far. Titles with asterisks are the ones I’ve read, thanks to the Kingston public library, and for those I include my notes in italics.
Picture books about the Holocaust
*Adams, Simon. World War II (Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness series). Straight-up military history with excellent photographs. Middle-grade. Will save for a couple of years.
*Borden, Louise and Allan Drummond. The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret & H. A. Rey. Primarily for committed fans of the Reys. The story is diffuse and children will need a firm grasp of the events of the War in order to make sense of how the Reys’ journeys fit into it.
Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust.
Deedy, Carmen Agra and Henri Sorenson. The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark.
Elvgren, Jennifer and Fabio Santomauro. The Whispering Town.
Hesse, Karen and Wendy Watson. The Cats in Krasinki Square.
Johnston, Tony and Ron Mazellan. The Harmonica.
*Kacer, Kathy and Gillian Newland. The Magician of Auschwitz. Based on a true story. Ideally, readers will have a solid understanding of the Holocaust and concentration camps before beginning this book.
Mochizuki, Ken and Dom Lee. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story.
Oppenheim, Shulamith Levy and Ronald Himler. The Lily Cupboard: A Story of the Holocaust.
*Polacco, Patricia. The Butterfly. An effective introduction to the Resistance. Heavy-handed at times.
Rappaport, Doreen and Emily Arnold McCully. The Secret Seder.
*Rubin, Susan Goldman and Bill Farnsworth. Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. A deft and suitably complex introduction to the concepts of the Holocaust and the Resistance, and my first choice to read with my son. The diction is high and a seven-year-old will need help understanding the ramifications of some statements.
*Ruelle, Karen Gray and Deborah Durland Desaix. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust. I had very high hopes but was ultimately disappointed by how fragmentary and unverifiable most of the anecdotes were in this book. Again, the diction is too high for the average picture-book reader.
*Spielman, Gloria and Manon Gauthier. Marcel Marceau: L’enfance d’un mime. Originally published in English as Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime. I read the French edition, so cannot comment on the English text. A sound introduction to the Resistance through the framework of Marceau’s early life.
*Tryszynska-Frederick, Luba, Michelle R. McCann and Ann Marshall. Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen. A powerful story that requires a sound understanding of the War and concentration camps to be comprehensible. Includes many quotations from Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, which are less effective for children because of how formal her language is.
*Ungerer, Tomi. Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear. A nice conceit, but odd to my eyes because it places the German Aryan boy’s experiences at the centre of the story. The illustrations depict a black American soldier as deeply simian. Can’t recommend this one.
*Upjohn, Rebecca and Renné Benoit. The Secret of the Village Fool. Based on the true story of a village outcast who sheltered a family in his root cellar. Simple and moving, with a lovely coda about the family members who survived the war.
Wiviott, Meg and Josee Bisaillon. Benno and the Night of Broken Glass.
This list is a work-in-progress and I’m still reading. If you have picture-book recommendations for me, please do leave them in the comments. And thank you!