The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
John Boyne, 2006
Random House Children's
When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do.
A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—April 30, 1971
• Where—Dublin, Ireland
• Education—Trinity College
• Awards—Curtis Brown Award; Irish Book Awards: People's
Choice of the Year
• Currently—Dublin, Ireland
John Boyne is a full-time writer living in Dublin, Ireland. He was writer-in-residence at the University of East Anglia in Creative Writing and spent many years working as a bookseller. This is his first book for young readers. The author lives in Dublin, Ireland (From the publisher.)
His own words:
I stated writing at a very young age, not long after I first started reading and discovered the joys of getting lost in someone else’s world. When I was a child, I wrote hundreds of stories and bound them up together like books, writing my name on the spine and putting them on the bookshelves in my bedroom. I don’t have any of those stories any more. but I wish I did. Maybe I could still get some ideas from them.
At the age of 10, I was in hospital for a week for an operation and my mother gave me a copy of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis to read. By the time I was recovered I’d read all seven of the Narnia books and fell in love with the idea of adventure stories, particularly ones that included children like me who were in peril and had to use their wits and ingenuity to get out of trouble.
The next book I remember that had a big effect on me was The Silver Sword by Ian Serailler. This tale of four children fleeing Poland during World War II was perhaps the most important book of my childhood, combining my love of heroic adventure stories with my growing interest in history. It forced me to think about what children my own age had gone through during the war and question whether I would have been as brave and strong as they were. Twenty years later it influenced my writing of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as I tried to tell a story about this terrible time in human history with as much integrity and compassion as Serailler had.
When I was a young teenager, I discovered Charles Dickens and his novels have had the greatest effect on me as both a reader and writer. I particularly loved the orphan novels–David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby—books that began with a young boy left alone in the world, with no one or nothing to rely on other than his own resourcefulness. Because so many of Dickens’ novels were originally serialised in magazines, Dickens had a tremendous talent for finishing each chapter with a cliff-hanger, forcing me to leave the light on just a little longer to find out what happened next...and next...and next.
My life has always been filled with books and I never wanted to be anything but a writer. One of the great thrills over the last year of my life since publishing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the U.K. has been visiting schools and classrooms, talking to young children about the issues raised in the novel, but also discussing reading and writing in general. To my delight there’s a lot of young writers out there with great imaginations and stories to tell. I’ll be looking forward to their own books 20 years from now. (From the publisher.)
(Audio version.) Through the eyes of an innocent nine-year-old boy named Bruno, listeners become complicit bystanders, observing some of the horrors of the Holocaust. Maloney's soft-toned narration and chipper, believably childlike characterization of Bruno dramatically bring home the fable-like qualities of Boyne's moving text. Bruno's limited comprehension of all going on around him begs listeners, presumably with more knowledge than the protagonist, to glean the fuller story between the lines. When his father, an officer for "the Fury," as Bruno refers to him, is transferred from Berlin to a new post in Poland called "Out-With," Bruno and his family try to adjust. From his new bedroom window Bruno can see a fenced-in camp where all the inhabitants wear striped pajamas. He learns more about this intriguing place when he befriends a boy inside the camp named Shmuel (who happens to share Bruno's birthday). Their friendship progresses dangerously and brings Boyne's tale to a shocking end that is sure to be a discussion starter. (Ages 12 and up).
Bruno's life changes drastically in 1942. After the "fury" comes to dinner, Bruno and his family move from their Berlin home to "Out with," where Bruno's father becomes the Commandant. Sheltered from the world through his family's wealth and privilege, Bruno has no understanding of the view from his new bedroom window, which looks at a huge fence topped with barbed wire, confining boys and men of all ages dressed in grey striped pajamas. One day on a walking exploration, Bruno meets Shmuel, who is sitting on the other side of the fence, and these two lonely boys start a friendship. Everyday for a year, they meet at the same spot along the fence, and somehow, Bruno still does not understand. Bruno's inability to comprehend the situation is the inadequacy of this book. Even though Bruno is very intelligent and inquisitive, he does not see that Shmuel is not having fun on the other side of the fence. If the reader can somehow excuse the boy's void of empathy, it is nearly impossible to believe that the Commandant father never tries to explain the people in the striped pajamas, never tells his truth. Would such a high Nazi official not start his son's indoctrination early? The other characters are finely drawn and add to the fullness of the book, but Bruno's voice, whispering and hesitant, keeps one reading and wondering about the German children in 1942 and their many stories. That speculation on the part of the reader alone makes the book very worthwhile.
The publisher doesn't want reviewers to reveal too much of the plot so readers can bring a fresh eye to the reading experience and its unfolding horrors. (However, the title should be a big clue.) That leaves little else to say except perhaps that this is the story of a sheltered, privileged nine-year-old boy gradually becoming aware of an overwhelming evil. It begins somewhat like a fairy tale, a dark one, with an otherworldly feel, a dystopia. Bruno comes home one day to find his large, beautiful home in an uproar. Mother is unhappy. Father is locked in his office. Servants scurry about. The mansion is to be abandoned for life in the hinterlands. The world is suddenly bleak but rules of good behavior must still be followed. Once relocated, Bruno is forbidden to explore, but does so anyway, as boys will, to his cost. Told entirely from the point of view of a nine-year-old (although the book jacket copy insists this is not a book for nine-year-olds), the author maintains the atmosphere of incomprehension turning to some kind of knowledge, even though Bruno holds on to a portion of innocence until the end. In spite of the book jacket's claim, the novel certainly is not for readers much beyond the age of fourteen. Discussions of the evil inherent in the story are far from graphic and readers would need a surrounding context to understand what Bruno never fully does. The novel is quite moving and is a good introduction to the subject for any young reader, told from a different point of view from that usually chosen. —Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students.
Myrna Marler - KLIATT
(Gr 9 & up.) John Boyne's novel is a harrowing Holocaust story with an excruciating ending. It is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, whose family moves from Berlin after his father gets a promotion to Commandant. When the family arrives at their new home, Bruno is disheartened. The new place, which the boy calls "Out-With," is desolate, with a large "camp" on the other side of a big fence, behind which all of the people, except the soldiers, wear gray-striped pajamas. After starting classes with a tutor, who advocates history over art, Bruno explores his new surroundings and meets Shmuel who is living in the fenced-in area. Bruno never quite grasps why his new friend is behind the fence, but he knows that he should keep quiet about their visits. Only mature listeners with knowledge of World War II and Hitler's "final solution" will be able to interpret what the author unveils slowly (there is no mention of a war going on or the ability to get news from the radio or newspapers). Still, the novel will certainly augment the study of this period in history. There is the added bonus of an interview with the author and his editor at the end of the recording. With the eager urgency and excitement of the young protagonist, Michael Maloney reads with a British accent, using various voices for the many characters. Sometimes he drops the ends of words, which can be distracting. Haunting music between chapters adds to the suspense. A unique addition to Holocaust literature. —Jo-Ann Carhart, East Islip Public Library, NY
After Hitler appoints Bruno's father commandant of Auschwitz, Bruno (nine) is unhappy with his new surroundings compared to the luxury of his home in Berlin. The literal-minded Bruno, with amazingly little political and social awareness, never gains comprehension of the prisoners (all in "striped pajamas") or the malignant nature of the death camp. He overcomes loneliness and isolation only when he discovers another boy, Shmuel, on the other side of the camp's fence. For months, the two meet, becoming secret best friends even though they can never play together. Although Bruno's family corrects him, he childishly calls the camp "Out-With" and the Fuhrer "Fury." As a literary device, it could be said to be credibly rooted in Bruno's consistent, guileless characterization, though it's difficult to believe in reality. The tragic story's point of view is unique: the corrosive effect of brutality on Nazi family life as seen through the eyes of a naif. Some will believe that the fable form, in which the illogical may serve the objective of moral instruction, succeeds in Boyle's narrative; others will believe it was the wrong choice. Certain to provoke controversy and difficult to see as a book for children, who could easily miss the painful point. (Fiction. 12-14.)
1. Discuss the relationship between Bruno and Gretel. Why does Bruno seem younger than nine? In a traditional fable, characters are usually one-sided. How might Bruno and Gretel be considered one-dimensional?
2. At age 12, Gretel is the proper age for membership in the League of Young Girls, a branch of Hitler's Youth Organization. Why do you think she is not a member, especially since her father is a high-ranking officer in Hitler's army?
3. What is it about the house at Out-With that makes Bruno feel "cold and unsafe"? How is this feeling perpetuated as he encounters people like Pavel, Maria, Lt. Kotler, and Shmuel?
4. Describe his reaction when he first sees the people in the striped pajamas. What does Gretel mean when she says, "Something about the way [Bruno] was watching made her feel suddenly nervous"? (p. 28) How does this statement foreshadow Bruno's ultimate demise?
5. Bruno asks his father about the people outside their house at Auschwitz.His father answers, "They're not people at all Bruno." (p. 53) Discuss the horror of this attitude. How does his father's statement make Bruno more curious about Out-With?
6. Explain what Bruno's mother means when she says, "We don't have the luxury of thinking." (p. 13) Identify scenes from the novel that Bruno's mother isn't happy about their life at Out-With. Debate whether she is unhappy being away from Berlin, or whether she is angry about her husband's position. How does Bruno's grandmother react to her son's military role?
7. When Bruno and his family board the train for Auschwitz, he notices an over-crowded train headed in the same direction. How does he later make the connection between Shmuel and that train? How are both trains symbolic of each boy's final journey?
8. Bruno issues a protest about leaving Berlin. His father responds, "Do you think that I would have made such a success of my life if I hadn't learned when to argue and when to keep my mouth shut and follow orders?" (p. 49) What question might Bruno's father ask at the end of the novel?
9. A pun is most often seen as humorous. But, in this novel the narrator uses dark or solemn puns like Out-With and Fury to convey certain meanings. Bruno is simply mispronouncing the real words, but the author is clearly asking the reader to consider a double meaning to these words. Discuss the use of this wordplay as a literary device. What is the narrator trying to convey to the reader? How do these words further communicate the horror of the situation?
10. When Bruno dresses in the filthy striped pajamas, he remembers something his grandmother once said. "You wear the right outfit and you feel like the person you're pretending to be." (p, 205) How is this true for Bruno? What about his father? What does this statement contribute to the overall meaning of the story?
11. Discuss the moral or message of the novel. What new insights and understandings does John Boyne want the reader to gain from reading this story?
12. Discuss the differences in a fable, an allegory, and a proverb. How might this story fit into each genre?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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