Thursday, August 20, 2009

Then by Morris Gleitzman

Two children are running up a steep hill after jumping from a train on its way to a death camp in 1944 in Poland. Felix is 10 and Zelda is six. They must get to the safety of the forest above them before the next train comes along with machine gun-bearing German soldiers watching from the train roof. A third child has already died escaping as a result of the jump.

Felix narrates this harrowing and heartbreaking story of survival. Each chapter in this page-turner begins with the word "then." The word can also be used to describe consequences, like farmers being hanged in the town square along with the Jewish people they've tried to hide. "Then" can also refer to a past period of time, as opposed to now. The time of the shoah, the holocaust.

An obvious book to compare to this one is John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Bruno, Boyne's young narrator, is totally clueless compared to Felix. Felix has first-hand knowledge of atrocities. He and Zelda hear gunfire and afterwards come upon a pit full of the bloody corpses of children who have just been massacred.

The power of stories helps Felix and Zelda to persevere. When Felix prays, it is to Richmal Crompton, because she is his favourite author. As it happens, I have a copy of collected William stories by Crompton on my to-read shelf, so that has moved to the top of the pile.

A nine-year-old reader could easily handle the text in Then, but I would suggest the accompaniment of an adult's guidance because of the content. Teens and adults will find much to appreciate in this thoughtful novel. Readalike: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (in addition to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas).

New, Aug 27, 2009: I've just listened to an excellent Australia Radio National podcast conversation with both John Boyne and Morris Gleitzman. This is the description:

How young is too young to read about the Holocaust?
Is there a danger of oversimplifying complex events or downplaying the true horror of Nazism by writing about history in this way?
That's what authors John Boyne and Morris Gleitzman are discussing live from the Melbourne Writers' Festival.

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