Review of the Day: Yellow Star
I will admit to you right here and now that there is a kind of children's book I tend to avoid, if I can. The Holocaust children's book. I've read plenty of Uri Orlev in my time and I know my Anne Frank, but that doesn't mean I look forward to reading this kind of literature. So when the buzz began ah-hummin' around, "Yellow Star", I wasn't exactly primed to listen. First one librarian began to sing its praises. Then another. Then a whole chorus of on-pitch clever librarians in syncopated rhythm. I couldn't help but hear what they had to say. Apparently the book was so good that it sucked away about 20 minutes of discussion during a committee meeting in which we had seventy-some other books to talk about. Under such praise I had no choice but to locate myself a copy and read it myself. Normally when a book garners buzz of this nature, it has a very hard time living up to it. Jennifer Roy, however, should fear no such feeling. Her book has all the reality, depth, intelligence, and sheer compelling narrative to grab the attention of any child who is required or enticed to read this tale. Worth the hype, to say the least.
This is a true story. It was repeated to author Jennifer Roy by her aunt Sylvia, born Syvia Perlmutter. In 1945 the Lodz ghetto in Poland was liberated from the Germans. "Out of more than a quarter of a million people, only about 800 walked out of the ghetto. Of those who survived, only twelve were children. I was one of the twelve". Told in verse, the book charts Syvia's life between the ages of four and a half to ten. During that time we see the world through Syvia's eyes. Her family was, like most Jews, rounded up and put into the Lodz ghetto. An attempt to reach "safe" Warsaw never worked, and the family was forced to stay under grueling conditions. As the Nazis started to send off Jews to the concentration camps, including children, we watch as Syvia's father uses extraordinary persuasion and intelligence to hide, protect, and help the children around him. Filled with close calls, luck, and a stifling oppression, this is a gripping narrative that brings the true horror of the time into fast and frightening relief.
Some librarians of my acquaintance got into a high-spirited debate when they tried to figure out why this book was catalogued as fiction rather than as a non-fiction memoir. To my mind, Roy may have had to change some small elements of her tale to make it into a readable work. Since the story is told in first-person verse and is a biography rather than an autobiography, it technically falls into the world of fiction, even if every little word written in it is true.
Maybe it was the fact that this was a real story or maybe it was Roy's first-person narrative, but there is something about this book that feels more true than any other children's Holocaust novel I've ever encountered. Granted, I haven't read as many as I could, but Roy's voice in this book hits a vein of reality, shocking in its immediacy. In cases such as this, I like to point out that depressing books aren't my style. I was the kid in school who avoided, "The Bridge to Terebithia", like the plague since I knew it was renowned for being "sad". But while "Yellow Star" isn't exactly a laugh riot, but there are moments of levity to it. Rather than depressing, the book plays out like a thriller. Will Syvia be found? How can a small child escape or influence her own surroundings for the better? I don't want to label this book an action-novel, but when this puppy moves, it MOVES. And the sheer heroism coupled against pure unvarnished evil is written in such a way that kids everywhere will not only be able to read it but understand it on a truly immediate level. All this makes, "Yellow Star", one of the strongest children's books I've ever had the pleasure to read.
You hand this book to a kid. The kid glances at the cover, glances at the title, then tells you that they don't like books like this. When they say this to you, insist that they read it. Use the old, "It's a verse novel so it's a really quick read", excuse if you have to. Just do whatever you can to get this book into the child's hands. It's an amazing story and an even better read. Strength is in its bones.