THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS
by John Boyne - Random House Children's Publishers UK, 2014
in / chapter books but good for adults and young adults too
When Max was ten, he asked me to read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to him. I wasn’t sure he was quite old enough for the emotions that would inevitably surface but he’s the youngest of six - and youngest children tend to grow up fast.
So we started reading one night. We got to chapter 5 when Max suggested we stop and only read in the daylight from then on.
“Not because it will get scary but because I think it will get sad and I need to be able to stop thinking about it before I go to sleep.”
Wise ten-year-old words.
There are obvious Holocaust themes and connections here, but I don’t think they’re the point of the book.
Really, it’s a metaphor – or a group of metaphors.
For example, Chapter 10 is titled:
“The Dot That Became a Speck That Became a Blob That Became a Figure That Became a Boy”.
The strength of that one metaphor – what appeared to be inanimate and insignificant became personal and purposeful once examined closely – makes this worth reading.
But there’s more. Characters who represent the intersection of good and evil, characters who represent the effects of pretended innocence, characters who recognise evil but are powerless in its face and so many more.
The careful simplicity of the storytelling is important to the overall effect – it matches the tale.
The ordinariness of a friendship between two small boys, the everydayness of sibling discomfort and the intrusion of the commonplace, all so important to the overall message, are made clearer by the lack of flowery descriptions or moralising tones.
Ten is probably close to the lower age limit for this book and some background knowledge is helpful, as is the ability to read between lines. There is, however, no upper age limit.
There’s a movie of course – and it’s quite good – but it lacks the knock-the-wind-out-of-you final line of the book:
“…and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.”
And that’s where the pondering really begins.