Thursday, November 14, 2013

Making History Accessible

It’s tough to get reluctant readers interested in history. Sometimes a particularly compelling work of historical fiction will do the trick.

Case in point: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief draws readers into the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany, even though it’s really big and thick and intimidating-looking. (It doesn’t hurt that the movie version of The Book Thief just opened in theaters, expanding that book’s audience even further.)

Two new books on the Holocaust take a different approach, giving images greater weight in the storytelling.

A Bag of Marbles (Graphic Universe/Lerner, 2013) is a graphic novel based on the best-selling (in France) memoir by Joseph Joffo of his remarkable odyssey through France during World War II. That memoir has been adapted and translated, but the story is really told through Edward Gauvin’s detailed illustrations. 

At the age of 10, Jo and his brother Maurice must set out from Paris, leaving their parents—and their childhoods—behind when word comes that the Nazis are rounding up Jews.

The story jumps from place to place as Jo and his brother move, always keeping one step ahead of the Nazis. Young readers may find the narrative disjointed and at times confusing but, in spite of raising and leaving a few unanswered questions, A Bag of Marbles brings history vividly to life. It’s a great read for visually oriented kids ages 12 and up.

Younger readers will find equally lush illustrations by Elizabeth Sayles in Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree (Random House, 2013), written by Jane Kohuth (author of Estie the Mensch and Duck Sock Hop). Although intended for newly independent readers in grades K-3, this easy-reader biography should appeal to older, struggling readers as well.

Kohuth provides the outlines of Anne Frank’s story in simple text. But she never shies away from or waters down that story’s darker aspects.

Sayles’s illustrations are sometimes dark too, but light always seems to fall on Anne, who comes across as an ordinary girl with extraordinary maturity.

These two views of the Holocaust are visually compelling, and not to be missed.