Thursday, January 17, 2013

Choosing the best instructional books for young readers

A friend and I were recently discussing Holocaust books for young adults. During our conversation, she mentioned The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I told her that I dislike The Devil’s Arithmetic. In fact, I wish that my son’s middle school did not offer it as an option for literature circles. Of course my friend asked me why I felt this way. It occurred to me that my answer might make a good blog entry.

To begin, let me state that there are other of Yolen’s books that I enjoy and believe are worth teaching. The Devil’s Arithmetic just isn’t one of them. The novel is an odd combination of historical fiction and fantasy that tells the story of a Jewish girl named Hannah. At the start of the novel as her family shares stories during a Seder meal, Hannah feels the ennui typical of teenagers. During the evening, Hannah opens the door of her home and is transported back in time to 1942 Poland. The reader follows Hannah through the remainder of the novel as she attempts to survive as a Jew under Nazi occupation. Absurd premise? I thought so. Reading the book didn’t sway my opinion.

I wouldn’t stop a young person from choosing The Devil’s Arithmetic for pleasure reading, even though I think there are better choices. My primary objection to the book stems from the fact that some schools choose it for instruction; this lends legitimacy to the novel it doesn’t deserve. The time-travel element of The Devil’s Arithmetic s is contrived and trivializes the subject. The Holocaust and fantasy do not mix well.

For upper elementary readers, Lois Lowry’s novel Number the Stars is a fine choice. Generally speaking, however, my position is that there are so many excellent Holocaust memoirs, biographies, and non-fiction options, I simply don’t see why a novel is necessary or justified as an instructional choice. A sampling of my non-fiction favorites for grades 7-9 are listed below. I invite you to respond to this blog with suggestions of your own favorite books for teaching the Holocaust to secondary students.

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood by Nechama Tec
This is the true story of how eleven-year-old Nechama and her family were hidden by Polish Christians. Because Nechama could most easily “pass” as Christian, she was sent out to sell bread to help support her family. This is a suspenseful story that illustrates the dangers for Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland and the conflicting motivations of Poles who chose to help their Jewish neighbors.

Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During World War Two by Nelly S. Toll
Nelly was only eight-years-old in 1943 when she and her mother went into hiding with a Polish couple. To keep Nelly occupied and quiet during the long and boring days, she was supplied with materials to paint and keep a diary. Twenty-nine of these childhood paintings illustrate this memoir.

Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan
I don’t feel that the Holocaust should be taught to students as young as sixth grade. If your school’s curriculum mandates that instruction begin at that age, this book would be a good choice. The book tells the story of the Blumenthall family and features two sections of historical photos, family photos, and photos of family documents. The Blumenthals are German Jews. Like Anne Frank’s family, they sense danger when Hitler comes to power and emigrate to the Netherlands. Eventually, of course, they are trapped. This is a “happy” Holocaust book in the sense that all four family members manage to stay together throughout their ordeal and survive to liberation. The story follows the family members through their resettlement to life in the United States. There is a companion video called Marion’s Triumph.

Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren
This book is a favorite because it tells the story of Jack Mandelbaum, a Kansas City area Holocaust survivor and a co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. The award-winning author, Andrea Warren, lives in Prairie Village, Kansas. Jack endured several slave labor camps and the loss of almost all of his family members. However, he does not lose his humanity. His love of people suffuses the text and makes it a wonderful choice for middle schoolers. Jack’s testimony is available on video from MCHE.

All But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein
A striking characteristic of this memoir is the elegance of the language. Klein wrote it in English – her third or fourth language. Gerda endures imprisonment in her own home, relocation to a ghetto, and slave labor in several different camps. Toward the end of the war, Gerda is forced on a death march. This is a compelling story and has a companion film titled One Survivor Remembers which won an Academy Award.

In My Hands: Memoirs of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opduke with Jennifer Armstrong
Irene Gut was a seventeen-year-old Polish girl when WWII began. She was forced to work for the German army as a waitress and eventually as a housekeeper for a Nazi major. Against all odds, she successfully hid twelve Jews in the basement of the major’s home until the end of the war. In My Hands is the story of the sacrifices Irene made to save these lives.

The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin
I realize this may seem like an odd choice. Every year I have at least one middle school student who is fascinated with Adolf Hitler; you may also have students with this interest. This is the book I would recommend you hand to them. Giblin won the Robert F. Siebert Medal for this text which is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in the United States in English. The book is even-handed and does not glorify Hitler in any way. It dispels many common myths about the man and addresses his destructive legacy.

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