Once by Morris Gleitzman

This book looks at the Holocaust through the lens of one boy.  Felix is an extraordinary boy whose head is filled with stories that help explain the horrors he sees around himself.  His parents had left him in a Catholic orphanage to keep him safe as Poland was invaded.  But when he saw the books from the orphanage library being burned, he feared his parents were in danger since they were book sellers.  He isn’t sure why the Nazis hate books so much, but he certainly doesn’t want his parents to be hurt.  So Felix runs away from the orphanage and towards the big city, which means he is heading directly toward the Nazis.  As Felix travels, he tries to make sense of what he is seeing.  At first he naively explains much of it away, but as the book progresses he begins to understand what is happening to him and the people he loves.  Powerfully written, this book allows children to understand the horrors of the Holocaust without being overwhelmed.  It also shows children that they too can be heroes even when their world is falling apart.

In this book, Gleitzman has hit the balance perfectly between honestly depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust and yet making it accessible and appropriate for young readers.  He does this entirely through Felix who is an incredible protagonist, protectively telling himself untruths and stories about what he is witnessing.  It is a powerful device to use, as we see Felix almost killed time and again.  Because of Felix’s misunderstanding of the situation he is in, the book can be chilling and frightening.  Modern readers will understand more clearly than Felix what being a young Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland means. 

Gleitzman’s writing is wry and warm.  Told in Felix’s voice, the story is gripping, filled with action, and moves along at a brisk pace.  This brisk pace can be alarming as Felix is almost always moving closer and closer to more perilous areas and situations.  Gleitzman plays with our own understanding of history, creating our own lens to contrast with Felix’s. 

This is the sort of book that invites you in for carrot stew, shares stories whispered in the dark, and brings you to tears.  It is a story to savor, to linger with, to be amazed by.  I don’t hug every book I read, but this is one that I had to sit with my arms wrapped around for a bit.  I was holding Felix tightly to me because he had become so vivid and real to me as I read.

Beautifully done, this book should be shared with classes learning about the Holocaust.  It is a story of hope, a celebration of childhood, and a way to tell young people the truth of history.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.

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