Jun 16, 2018

Making and Keeping PROMISES.

If you've been reading posts here, here, and here, you're aware of a recent pattern: spotlighting picture books intended for a young audience but with enough depth to engage readers of any age. In each case, kindness is presented as a personal choice, a mind-frame for individuals to adopt and practice, even when it doesn't appear spontaneously. 

Second Story Press, 2018
I feel like a shift is overdue.  It's time to focus on picture books for older readers, ones that require a more mature awareness of history and life itself. Presenting a true family story, THE PROMISE is written by cousin/friends Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe and is illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal. Those hands forming the heart-wrenching image on the cover of this book and represent the authors' mothers, Rachel and Toby, when they were young sisters entering Auschwitz together. 
From the opening spread it is clear in text and illustration that any kindnesses portrayed would have to occur within the tragically surreal images of desperation surrounding Rachel and Toby. As gray and desperate as their circumstances were, their stricken faces and emaciated bodies were hauntingly protective and supportive of each other. After the first page turn we readers learn of their parents' arrest, and of their charge to the older sister, Toby: stay together to survive, and hold this small treasure in reserve. Use it ONLY when you need it most. That treasure was three gold coins, pressed into a small tin of shoe polish. 
The next page turn reveals the vicious teeth of a snarling dog, poised at the side of an equally ominous character: the Nazi-uniformed female guard of Barrack 25. Even the word kindness had no place on these pages. 
The story that unfolds incorporates specific details in text and illustration: the daily roll call, the inhumane living conditions, the starvation rations, the intentionally cruel work details, and the unflinching heartlessness of casually crossing names from lists as prisoners succumbed to all of the above. 
These scenes are unflinching and yet accessible to readers as young as mid-elementary age. That remains true as a frightening incident threatened the sisters even further. And yet kindness did play a role in keeping them both alive, and not just the kindness of the other girls in Barrack 25. Those coins played a crucial role, but some guards would have taken the coins and NOT turned their backs. Even that vicious Nazi roll call guard, the one who delivers Toby's beating, allowed the names of both girls to remain on the list, allowed them to live another day, and another, surviving to the end of the war. 
Toby's and Rachel's stories were eventually told to their own children, two of whom were determined to research, confer with family, and present a narrative that documents this remarkable sibling love. Then the illustrator accomplished the seemingly insurmountable task of portraying cringe-worthy scenes without overwhelming impressionable readers. The digital collage illustrations incorporate Victorian-era photos with textures, drawings, and intentionally distorted proportions to lend a dream-like buffer to the scenes while sharply defining the reality of individual lives. 
Scholastic Press, 20133
For readers who are intrigued by the authenticity and specificity of these pages from Holocaust history, I also recommend the fact-based depiction of Jack Gruener's experiences in PRISONER B-3087, written by author Alan Gratz. This reads like a mind-blowing and heart-crushing novel, but is woven from the incredible-but-true experiences of young Jack, whose Holocaust survival journey led him through TEN different concentration/death camps, many with names that are synonymous with gas chambers and crematoriums. 
No, this is not a contest to see which story can out-shock the next.  Instead these books and so many others allow readers to recognize that even the smallest decisions, the most difficult struggles to survive, can allow for individual choice, for momentary kindnesses, for sustaining hope in the face of hopelessness. 
Alex Baughm writing  at The Children's War, calls  THE PROMISE "compelling and inspirational", and I agree completely. She also makes the point that as the original survivors, the personal witnesses to the Holocaust are gradually disappearing, it is more important than ever to share, discuss, and research the truth of the Holocaust with upcoming generations. A recent survey reveals the disturbing truth that about half of millennials cannot define the Holocaust, anchor it in history, or distinguish it from other man-made disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York.
In these times when sorting fact from fiction, truth from propaganda presents an ongoing struggle, how can we urge our youngest to nurture their most humane and heartfelt instincts without sharing the ways real people in a real world may- or may not- be guided by such values?

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