This month I re-read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (cataloged as juvenile historical fiction in the library) before starting his new book The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (cataloged as teen historical fiction in the library). For the sake of not making this post one mile long and getting to work on time in about two hours I am only going to be discussing these two titles – but there are definitely more books out there that make the same mistakes I believe Boyne makes when writing about the Holocaust. I picked up Boyne’s new book and took it on my weekend vacation hoping that he made different choices than he did when writing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
Heres’s the thing: Boyne is a talented writer: I like his book reviews and he’s written other books for children, teens, and adults that I’ve really enjoyed like The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these two Holocaust-centered books do more harm than good when it comes to educating young adults about Hitler, World War II/the treatment of Jews and other “undesirables” during that time, and concentration camps. Boyne has stated that he purposefully called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a “fable” (it says this after the title on some book covers) because he wanted to tell a specific story with specific circumstances and he had to change some realities of concentration camps in order to do so.
In both stories you’re supposed to believe that two children/young adults (they both take place over many years) are completely oblivious to the realities of Hitler and concentration/extermination camps. I understand it’s fiction, but there’s a moral responsibility to truly educate and not create “fables” about true, dark, terrifying real history.
I’ll start with the first book: a boy Bruno is the son of a man who gets promoted at the last minute to run Auschwitz so they quickly pack up from Berlin and move. He’s really bummed he’s leaving his friends, and gets to this place and even a year later this german-speaking boy can’t pronounce it correctly and spends the entire book calling it Out-With. I get it, Boyne – like “out with you!”. But it doesn’t work. This boy is created to be the most naive character in literature’s history (until Boyne’s next book?), and even though he lives directly next door to Auschwitz and walks to the fence every day to talk to another boy named Schmuel he has no idea what’s going on. No idea at all. None. Hitler comes to dinner one night and he still doesn’t get it. The boy in the camp doesn’t explain it to him. His parents and sister don’t explain it.
The one thing I really can’t let go about this book is that the entire time Bruno talks about the people in the camp wearing striped pajamas, and it’s repeated over and over. At no point does Boyne eventually point out to the character or the reader that no, these people aren’t wearing pajamas – they’re wearing ratty prisoner clothes. For the most part, no one had identical clothing at all. Pajamas are a luxury these people never had. This huge mistake in writing has had lasting effects – we had student field trips come through the Auschwitz exhibit and see the clothes on display and every single group I took through had one or more students call them pajamas and talked about the book/movie saying, “these pajamas look just like the ones in the movie!”
The new book The Boy at the Top of the Mountain features a boy with a German father and French mother who grew up in Paris with a deaf Jewish boy as his best friend, but when his parents die he’s sent to live with his aunt – who happens to be the head housekeeper in Hitler’s home Berghof, one of the centers of government during the Third Reich. So yet again we have a story spanning years where he’s around 9(?) in the beginning and 15-16 near the end. He’s quickly taken under Hitler’s wing and yet his aunt and other servants are warning him about Hitler and his Jewish best friend is writing letters telling him how awful Jews are being treated, and he casts it all aside because it makes him sad to think about and it’s not his current reality. He takes notes at Hitler’s meetings and literally writes about the building of concentration camps, yet claims to have no idea what they were used for even when he’s nearly 16. It goes on like this for a while but I’m going to stop here.
If you write about the Holocaust you should be responsible for explaining your choices and then educating your readers on the realities. I get it – Boyne has two boy characters that are completely naive to the realities around them, just like how a lot of people chose to be naive about everything, but his characters don’t grow, don’t question anything, don’t fight back on anything. They don’t really support the bad things they sometimes hear about (for the most part, not so much in the second book), but they don’t try to find out the truth, either.
I get that educators want to use books like these that are a step up reading-level wise from books like Number the Stars to teach their students, but if they’re not having real dialogue about it (and from what I hear from the teens that come in, they’re only tested on answering questions about the book to prove they’ve read it), it would be smart for Boyne and his publishers to put a Q&A section in the back of these books where he can explain further, and even include a short history on the realities of the Holocaust and how citizens reacted to it as the years went on and how people were treated in the camps. Instead, they slap the word “fable” under the title and move on with their stories, only “explaining themselves” at book tour interviews. This is recent history, folks. It didn’t happen that long ago in Europe. Genocide continues to happen all around the world. There’s some responsibility that needs to be accepted – for every survivor that dies there’s a new responsibility to continue telling their stories forever. The true stories mustn’t be forgotten. Why try to make a fable out of the realities of those that survived, and those that didn’t?