Loïc Dauvillier’s Holocaust story for young readers begins in the present day, with a girl who wakes up in the night to find that her grandmother can’t sleep either. The young girl asks her grandmother, Dounia, if she had a nightmare and informs her that she would feel better if she talked about it. This spurs the grandmother to tell the story of her terrifying childhood in occupied Paris as a young Jewish girl during World War II. She speaks gently, telling her young granddaughter simply, making light of a crush and early childhood woes. Then things get a little darker as Dounia’s dad convinces her that they have all become sheriffs, since they must now wear the star of David. Dounia believes this until school the next day, when teachers and children clearly demonstrate that the star isn’t a symbol of pride. Life grows steadily more difficult for Dounia and other Parisian Jews, culminating in a raid on Dounia’s apartment that takes her parents away while they leave her hidden in a false-bottomed wardrobe. From then on, she must rely on the kindness of strangers as she hides from the Nazis.
This story reaches out and grabs your heart while remaining simple enough (in terms of both vocabulary and emotional depth) for a child to understand. Of course, the story depicts horrific acts that are difficult to comprehend even for adults, but they are told as safely as possible, in the arms of a grandmother who obviously survived. The matter-of-fact telling, combined with a child’s understanding, also helps mitigate the weight of the atrocities without losing necessary acknowledgement of the cruelties of the time period.
The art combines seamlessly with the words to tell the story, echoing the simple, poignant text. Rendered in spare lines and dots, the faces don’t seem like they would be particularly expressive. However, the simplistic images manage to convey the whole range of human emotions from anger, to hurt, to love of family, and a few made me gasp in sympathetic horror. The colors demonstrate the mood of each scene: dark and gloomy, fiery and frightening, or warm and safe.
This beautiful, emotional journey works as an introduction to a horrific moment in history and as a story about the human spirit to which any age could relate. While Dounia’s story is the most aptly and gently told Holocaust story I’ve read, it remains a tale that would be difficult for many children to read. The book is historically accurate in conveying the humiliations and brutal treatment of Jews during this time. The emotional content could be incredibly difficult for some children, and that should be taken into consideration before recommending. However, the book’s well-told, moving story should not be missed by anyone who can handle it.