My daughter, who is unequivocally a fantasy-genre girl, came home from school telling me about a historical fiction book she was reading. I just about jumped out of my chair but, eager to maintain my ‘cool mum’ façade (don’t know how I earned that), I casually asked what it was about (tingling all the way down to my toes). It’s a story, she said, about a Jewish boy in a Polish orphanage in WWII.
I bolted to the library.
Once by Morris Gleitzman is the story of a young
Jewish boy who is determined to escape the orphanage he lives in to save his
Jewish parents from the Nazis in the occupied Poland of the Second World War.
Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least Once.
Once I escaped from an orphanage to find Mum and Dad.
Once I saved a girl called Zelda from a burning house.
Once I made a Nazi with a toothache laugh.
My name is Felix. This is my story.
Felix is a lovely character. Almost too lovely. I admit, I was a little frustrated with him at times – he was so naïve; so willing to trust the goodness of the adults around him. But then, I’m an adult, aren’t I? This book was not written for me – for someone who already knows what Jewish people suffered during WW2. While I might know how to connect the mass shooting in the distance with a house recently emptied of its occupants, a child who has grown up sheltered would not. As Felix was. As most of our children are.
This is a story for children, of course, through the eyes of a child. After finishing it, I went back and had a chat with my daughter and only then did I understand just how brilliant this book is.
It was more than good. It was brilliant!
Morris Gleitzman, author of Once, has done an amazing job of paring down this horrendous pocket of history for a young readership while still maintaining the essence of this era’s fear and confusion, most especially felt by the Jewish community. He has my deepest respect.
What I ended up loving most about this book was the fact that young readers learn with Felix the atrocity that was the Holocaust; they come to understand what is really going on at the same time as he does.
This is a very sensitive area within a genre needing much care and consideration. I admire Gleitzman for his courage to write such a story, and commend him for doing it so successfully. All children, apparently even those who strictly read fantasy, can gain something from it. Yes, it is a difficult subject matter and, yes, there are some very upsetting issues here. But this is one interpretation of a mass of events which actually happened – not so long ago either. It’s important for kids to know.
Because of Felix’s generous and hopeful nature, this book is hugely successful. I pay it the highest of compliments when I say I’ll probably never be able to read it again – my heart breaks for Felix, and for all the real children he represents. But this is a wonderful book with a fine mix of adventure and hope to balance out the sadness. I couldn’t recommend it more.