This was NOT one of the World War Two stories that I had planned on reading with the kids but we happened to stumble upon it in our local library and after just skimming the first few pages I knew my kids would enjoy the writing style. So we borrowed the book, I once again tweaked my planning (I do sometimes wonder why I bother planning as we are always moving things around and changing) and we dove in.
Okay so basic plot outline.The story is set in the Second World War and it deals with life at Auschwitz. The main character is Bruno a nine-year old German boy whose father becomes the Commandant at Auschwitz which means the whole family has to move from their house in Berlin to a house at Auschwitz. Bruno is an incredibly entertaining character and the manner is which he is written is enduring, he is really honest and sweet and tends to see the good in people (well for most people except for his sister who he calls a “hopeless Case”). The story centers around Bruno adjusting to life at Auschwitz and his finding a friend – Shmuel – who is a Jewish boy living in the camp. The friendship between these two is interesting and sweet but it does highlight the vast difference between the two. Bruno is clearly still quite innocent and protected but Shmuel has had his life and childhood innocence ripped apart. Plot spolier – the ending is sad, I was expecting that Schmuel would be killed but it ends up that both Bruno and Schmuel go to the gas chamber together.
This book does not claim to be a factual historical book, it is considered a fable and the author has adjusted a few facts to better suit the story. That being said reading this story you truly are transported back to life in Germany and then life at Auschwitz. It really is a powerful story that brings that whole time period to life for the kids reading it.
The book deals with sensitive issues around the treatment of the Jews during the Second World War so there are things discussed that might be upsetting to younger kids. But I also have to stress that the author has written about this topic in an incredibly sensitive style, one that is kid-friendly and he scatters humour in the book to lighten the mood (my kids loved the fact that Bruno calls Hitler the Fury). The kids will read about Schmuel being black and blue after being beaten, how he keeps getting thinner and more sickly looking (clearly slowly starving), they will read about how the guards round up groups of Jews and take them on a march and then those people are never seen again, they will also read a bit about life in the ghetto and how they were transported to the camps. So there is a lot that does get woven into the fictional story. But really the writing style does seem to just strike the right balance for kids and I do think most kids would be fine with the content. I will however add that my eleven-year-old son had a very strong reaction to the ending (when both boys end up in the gas chamber). He was so invested with the characters and he could not get over that Bruno ends up dying.
I really can not recommend this book enough. If you are covering the Second World War then this really is a book to read, we will not be disappointed (I would probably suggest it is suitable for ages 10+ just because of the sensitive nature of life at Auschwitz.) They do also include facts about Auchwitz and an interview with the author at the back of the book – which we thought was very informative.
And then for us home educators, I found FREE to download lesson ideas and worksheets to go with the book on the Oxford University Press site. With this book we actually did not do that many activities, I think I just picked about 4. But I do like having that resource, being able to read what they suggest and it gave me ideas on things to highlight and link to.
This book was an unexpected addition to our War theme but it truly has been a wonderful book to dive into. I really have enjoyed the writing style, the characters and how by just reading a fictional story my kids now have a better understanding of what it meant to be Jewish during the Second World War.