Monday, October 19, 2009

Book talks and young readers

As a library media specialist, I feel comfortable talking about books. Books about the Holocaust are normally very well written and have great appeal to my students if I book talk them. These book talks can be one on one standing by the library shelves or with whole classes that have come in to check out their historical fiction novel. Our Communication Arts/Reading classes, grades 6 – 8, have different genres that students are responsible for with outside reading. I make sure that when I book talk these genres I check with the social studies teachers to see where they are in class on the American History timeline. This means I do a lot of Civil War and Holocaust book talks throughout the year! The Holocaust books generally come in two forms: historical fiction and memoirs. The tricky part is steering my students towards books that aren’t too mature and graphic while at the same time matching them up with just the right book to keep them coming back for more. When I talk to whole classes I make sure to give them a reading level for each of the books (found on Novel List) and a maturity level that I personally decide on after reading the books.

For young readers, I’ve found asking them first what they’ve already read is a good place to start. Some have read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and a few have heard Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things. Where do you go from here? There are several good possibilities: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Many middle schools do novel studies and read Devil’s Arithmetic in 7th grade and The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade. If your CA/Reading classes don’t do Holocaust novel studies these are both good wrungs up the Holocaust literature ladder to offer your younger students.

The hardest student to find Holocaust books for is the adolescent male! I’ve found a book that most boys can really sink their teeth into though. It’s probably because it’s written by an adolescent boy – Leo Bretholz! The book is Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe. When you tell students that the author decided to write his memoirs because he found his name in a Nazi book of Jews from France killed at Auschwitz- they’re hooked. There’s adventure on every page and not Gary Paulsen-like adventures but adventures that are fatal if you’re caught! We always borrow multiple copies of this book from our feeder high school. But don’t be scared, your 8th grade boys can handle this book.

Another excellent boy book is Andrea Warren’s Surviving Hitler. It won the William Allen White award several years ago and is the biography of Jack Mandelbaum, one of our local survivors and co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. Students who want to know how people actually survived the camps will appreciate Jack’s story. The book is full of amazing primary source photos too.

Several years ago our teachers started using literature circles to allow students more choice of titles. What we’ve found with Holocaust books is that most students end up reading more than one of the titles and sometimes all of them! Students book talk to each other and share the titles! I always book talk Han Nolan’s If I Should Die Before I Wake and start with a warning about the language used at the beginning of the book. Like Devil’s Arithmetic the main character is thrust back to the past and forced to live life as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. You will have to throw out reality and use your imagination to appreciate these stories, but it will be worth the trouble. I also talk to the students about I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton Jackson. She gives a view of the camps that one could only have if they’d actually been there. I particularly like this book because the author describes in detail what it was like when the Nazis first came and the process that was involved before the Jews were moved to the camps. You don’t get this perspective very often. Also, The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang is amazing in its detail of the train ride to the camps. Truly, the entire book is about what it was like to be in a cattle car for a 14 year old Jewish girl and her grandfather. The surprise ending will break your heart.

Finally, in the past several years I have purchased new Holocaust titles that are appropriate for middle school students. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy about life and death in the Lodz Ghetto is a perfect example. Be sure that you read the inside cover to students when you book talk it. The statistics they give about the ghetto and how many Jews came through it and survived it are staggering especially when they tell you how many children survived, and the author’s aunt was one of them!

These are just a few of the many wonderful books available for young people on the Holocaust. I’d love to blog with you about other titles I know and maybe titles you know as well.

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