Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

While Christmas shopping I came upon a book with an interesting title and cover in the teen section of Barnes and Noble. Reading the description on the back intrigued me so much I felt I had to buy the book and read it. Here is what the back cover says:

If you start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old by named Bruno. (Although this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one.

Because the book cover illustration was a simple striped pattern of sky blue and a paler shade of sky blue and a fence was mentioned, I assumed the book was about the Holocaust. I also assumed it was about a concentration camp. I also assumed the main character, mentioned in the title was a Jewish boy in the camp.

I was partially correct. The book is about the Holocaust. And a concentration camp. And there is a Jewish boy in it, but he is not the main character mentioned in the title. Instead he is the son of the Nazi who runs the concentration camp.

When I realized that the book was about the son of a Nazi who runs the concentration camp I thought to myself, “What a brilliant idea! I wonder how the author, John Boyne, is going to carry this off — especially since this was a book found in the teen section of Barnes and Noble and not in the adult section of Barnes and Noble.

How John Boyne carries it off is interesting indeed. But not interesting in a good way, really. He writes the book in a voice that becomes kind of annoying after a while. If you’ve ever read any picture books that repeat themselves over and over, you might understand what I mean by annoying after a while. In fact if this review is annoying you right now, you’ll understand what I mean by annoying after a while. I think this is a writing rhetoric called repetition. Repetition is good when you are first learning how to read and repetition is good when you really want to hammer a point home. Repetition is not good when you are using it to make a nine-year-old boy sound unbelievably naive.

Boyne seems confused about who he wrote this book for. According to Boyne himself, when he handed it to his editor he said he thought he’d written a children’s book. The voice seems to agree with that, because it is repetitive and the language is deceptively simple. However the text on the back of the book warns that the book is not for nine-year-olds. The subject matter of the book — Nazis, concentration camps, the Holocaust — is not subject matter I’d want my young children to learn about quite yet.

Because the book was in the teen section of Barnes and Noble, one would think it an appropriate book for teens — and yes, I think that the subject matter of the book– Nazis, concentration camps, the Holocaust — is subject matter my teens could handle. After all, they’ve both read Number the Stars. My daughter has also read a number of other books about the Holocaust including The Devil’s Arithmetic (my personal favorite) and Night. However this book, with its repetition and simple language might put off teens that attempt to read it. I’m pretty sure my son would be put off by the repetition and simple language, however my daughter might not be put off by the repetition and simple language because she’s an aspiring writer and understands the use of voice to convey a certain feeling in a book.

It is obvious that Boyne was using the repetition and simple language to create a voice of innocence and naivety. If this book were about anything other than the son of the Nazi who runs a death camp during the Holocaust, then the use of that voice would have been believable, but I could not get over the fact that the children in the story spent a year living at the camp and neither knew what was going on.

Another thing about the book that annoyed me was Bruno’s consistent mispronunciation of two words. He called Auschwitz “Out-With” throughout the entire book (thinking the former occupants were told to “get out”), even when told the correct pronunciation by his sister. He also said “Fury” for Führer. I kept on thinking, they speak German, not English and I’d bet the German words for “out with” and “fury” are not the same as in English. (Ok, I was wrong about “out with”. According to AltaVista’s Babelfish, the German for “out with” is aus mit. But the German word for “fury” is Wut.)

But do I recommend this book? Even though it is repetitive, carries an unbelievably innocent voice and has characters who are much more naive than they should be for their ages and situations? Yes. The basic idea is really very interesting and thought provoking. That I’ve spent the last few days dissecting it verbally, mentally and in writing is proof that it affected me more than I want to admit. Yes, I recommend it with the caveat that the reader suspend belief (about the character’s innocence) for a while and just get into the lyrical sound of the words. I recommend it to teenagers and adults, but not to anyone younger than, 12.

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