Simply does it

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Once. By Morris Gleitzman. Puffin pound;5.99

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. By John Boyne. David Fickling Books Pounds 10.99

In The Morning. By Michael Cronin. Oxford University Press pound;5.99

As someone who has read his fair share of Holocaust literature, I'm beginning to feel there's probably almost nothing new to say in fiction about this period in history. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but we should have a good reason for trying. It's also a subject that needs sensitive handling, especially where children are concerned.

Popular Australian author Morris Gleitzman has a better chance than most writers of pulling it off, with his track record in tackling difficult themes in children's literature: death, divorce, dysfunctional families.

Felix, the novel's central character, is a recognisably Gleitzman-esque hero. He's chirpily optimistic, interpreting the world through stories that he tells everyone around him and writes in his yellow notebook. But it's a crazy world that he has to make sense of, for this is Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942, and Felix is a Jewish boy who has been hidden in a Catholic orphanage.

Then a bunch of Nazis turns up, and Felix escapes to go in search of his parents. He is an innocent abroad, with no understanding of what's going on, his quest a journey through a nightmare. He witnesses round-ups, shootings and massacres, adopting on the way a little girl whose parents have been killed, and finds himself at last in a cattle truck.

I can't fault Gleitzman's research, or the quality of the writing. But I do find it hard to believe that a Jewish boy in 1940s Poland could have been quite so unknowing, especially after the harrowing scenes early in the book. Once doesn't fall into the trap of sentimentalising the Holocaust like Roberto Benigni's ghastly film Life Is Beautiful, but there are passages where it teeters on the brink, especially in the early pages. It's also difficult to pinpoint the message of the book. Are we to understand from the ending (without going into too much detail) that innocence and optimism will always triumph? The experience of the Holocaust seems to teach the opposite. Still, Once is definitely worth reading, although some children might need careful preparation before they tackle it, and sensitive de-briefing afterwards.

Both this book and John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are deceptively simply written: the text is accessible to nine-year-olds upwards but the subject matter suggests a more mature reader, Boyne's book perhaps even more so. Both books might be best handled as a class reader in a secondary school with lots of room for discussion, or given to selected individual students.

Boyne's Holocaust tale has an original twist: the father of Bruno, its nine-year-old central character, is the commandant of a death camp, which is why Bruno has to come and live next door to it. Bruno has nothing to do, goes wandering along the camp fence, and encounters a boy wearing "striped pyjamas" who is on the other side.

Like Felix in Once, Bruno is an innocent, with no understanding of what's happening. Again, credibility is strained: it's hard to believe the son of a fanatical Nazi would have no idea what was going on, not even recognising the words used to describe the people in the camp. The story is beautifully written in the style of a fable, though, and the message seems to be clear - adults do stupid, cruel things. But there are already many books that show children that, including many which focus on the Holocaust.

Michael Cronin's In The Morning is the third title in a series set in an alternative past, one in which Britain was conquered by Hitler's armies in 1940. There's a great tradition of this kind of story, from Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle to Robert Harris's Fatherland. Part of its appeal is the frisson of thinking about the awfulness of What Might Have Happened Here. In The Morning is a well-constructed thriller which makes a decent fist of examining the morality of resistance and collaboration.

lHolocaust Memorial Day is on January 27

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