17 August 2010

Picture Book Review: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

I've refrained from using my usual title "Rave Review" because this is not a book that one can rave about: it is a story about Kristallnacht. But as an example of how a picture book can break free of the perceptions of the format and be an intelligent, compelling, and sensitive way to tell a story to readers from ages 5 to 105, this book is an excellent example.

The action of the story takes place on Rosenstrasse in Berlin, and is told from the point of view of a ginger cat named Benno. He is a stray who makes his home where he leaves his hat, so to speak, and his transient lifestyle gives him the opportunity to spend time with the residents of Rosenstrasse. He shares Shabat with the Adler family, sleeps in the window of Mitzi Stein's dress shop, visits Frau Gerber for daily ear scratches, and watches Inge Schmidt and her Jewish friend, Sophie, walk to school each day. He is a non-judgemental observer of the comings and goings of a busy street--all is told in perspective to his own feline needs. Consequently, when the Nazis arrive, his non-judgemental perspective creates a stark contrast to the fear of the residents. He seems to be aware that something is wrong, but as he is a completely non-anthropomorphized character, his non-emotional observance of the terror and destruction wrought by Kristallnacht is unembellished. The evil speaks for itself. Afterwards, he tries to find some of his friends, but they are gone. He cannot know that they are gone because they are Jewish, but he notices that everything has changed on Rosenstrasse and that nothing will be the same.

Using the eyes of a cat to tell this story is a remarkably efficient technique for taking the emotional charge out of the events and presenting them to children in a way that they can absorb and understand what has happened. The heartbreaking images of the demolished shops and homes fill in the dramatic gaps in the text, and the historical note at the end, which in non-fiction picture books has become the bridge between young readers and the wider contextual details of a book's subject, provide the starting point for discussion. The thought of having to tell young children about Kristallnacht at all is pervasively tragic. Yet here is a book that is more than up to the task.


Meg Wiviott said...

Just saw this review. Thank you for your kind words.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

You are very welcome!

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