The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax, ill. by Caryl Strzelecki
It’s World War 2 and Misha’s family, like all the other Jews in Warsaw, has been forced to live in an overcrowded ghetto with apalling conditions. As the War goes on, more and more people arrive and disease and starvation start to set in. Then the deportations start. Desperate to help his family, Misha does his best to survive but when conditions get worse in the ghetto he joins a handful of other Jews who are determined to get word out to the world and together make one, last, desperate stand against the Nazis.
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts you’d know that anything to do with World War Two is not something I’d generally seek out. I’m not the biggest fan of it as a general theme in fiction, namely because when I was at school my History lessons (and even some of my English ones) largely consisted of nothing but World War Two, in some form or another. I can now understand why other countries in Europe think we as a nation are obsessed with the War. So, this book is not something I’d ever usually pick up and certainly not a part of the War that I’d ever really touched on. Poland never really got talked about at school – as well as being War-obsessed my History education was also very English-centric. In this respect I think this book gains points simply because it’s set in a different country to either Germany or England: I’m not entirely sure children these days get the real picture of the War as a world War rather than just being England v. Germany. This is particularly relevant when you consider just how many kids there are in England who have one or more parents who come from another country. Seems daft in that respect for our education to be so narrowed down, especially about something as incredibly complicated as a World War.
On the other hand though, if I were to use this in a class it would present some difficulties because it’s proven quite tricky for me to gage as a children’s novel. It’s got quite a flat way of writing which normally I wouldn’t really see as being particularly great for a children’s book. However, it is a book about the Holocaust and the horrendous conditions of the slums of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, so I’m not entirely sure whether any other type of writing could really do justice to the book’s subject. In some ways the tone of the it can be a litle jarring because it’s so unlike many of the other books I’ve read recently which generally have much warmer tones, but then, the flatness of the writing does underpin the harshness of the book’s topic somewhat. I think it’s a case of if you’re willing like me to stick with it and get used to the unembellished style of writing you’ll find it actually compliments the book in the end.
That being said, the flatness and blutness of the writing does mean that it woudn’t be one I’d recommend to every reader and certainly not to younger ones. I’m not entirely sure that a younger reader would get as much out of it as an older one (and considering certain things that happen in the story, I wouldn’t let a younger reader read it anyway). This is very much a book that you can’t just stick it on the curriculum and say everyone should read it. If this were to be used in schools it would have to be looked at by individual teachers first and used on a class-by-class basis. This is not just because of the subject matter, but also because classes vary as much as children do and whilst one class would get a lot out of a book like this, the writing style could well leave another class missing out on some of the larger issues the book raises.
Oddly enough I’m torn on the pictures too. On the one hand they can be drawn quite brutally and do add a great deal to particular parts of the story; occasionally the words don’t quite hit home but the picture that accompanies them certainly does. A few particular illustrations stick out in my mind and I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen pictures quite like them before. That said, not all the illustrations were, to me, absolutely necessary. Perhaps this was a formatting issue I had with my eBook proof copy but sometimes I found that they didn’t quite marry with the text. This is nothing against the illustrations at all (in fact, quite the opposite), just sometimes they seemed to be not especially well placed within the book. But like I said, at other times they brought the text home in a way the writing hadn’t quite been able to alone.
I know that occasionally I’ve given the book I read a rating but I’m not even going to attempt that with this one – how on Earth do you rate a book on the Holocaust anyway?! – but I can say that this is one book I will be mentioning to teachers or librarians as worth considering for any WW2 displays or projects. Not just because it covers a country’s History that I think often gets left out of a British World War education, but also as the flat, almost brutal style of writing and the illustrations that accompany it quite often give the reader a better view of the Holocaust and Warsaw than I think another, more gently-written piece could do.
Thank you to William B Eerdmans Publishing Co for my Netgalley copy. Find The War Within These Walls here.