Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne are two books for young readers that share their basis in tragic periods from history. I read both books recently and was struck by some of their similarities. Both books share a sense of dread and fear, and both raise the issue of how brutal events in history might be mediated for younger readers.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was first published in 1976. It tells the story of the Logans, a black family who are struggling to survive in the Deep South of America during the depression. The story is told from the viewpoint of Cassie Logan, a young girl who is on the cusp of realising that she lives in a society that views her and her family as second class citizens. Cassie's proud family have worked hard to protect her and her siblings from the racism of the world around her, but as she begins to interact with a more adult world there is no way that she can remain in blissful ignorance. The Logan family have fought hard to buy their own piece of land, therefore maintaining more independence than a lot of other families who work as share-croppers in the area. Unfortunately their independence also makes the Logans a target for local whites who are angry that they are getting 'above their station'.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry owes a debt to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird which was published the decade before Taylor's novel. They share a young female narrator and an episodic plot structure that mixes amusing anecdotes with a more serious plot line that slowly builds throughout the novel. Roll of Thunder however has something that Mockingbird doesn't have, and that is a real sense of danger and impending doom. The fact that this is a novel told from the perspective of a black family means that we as readers are central to the action. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout herself was never likely to be the victim of racism but Cassie Logan runs some very real risks when she stands up for herself. To my mind, Mockingbird is the better of the two novels but there is certainly a place for both in the canon of American literature.
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry tells a story that it is important for young people to hear. Taylor balances out the moments of despair and fear however by ensuring that there is still a sense of hope in the novel. For me, that sense of hope is really important when writing for young people, especially readers who might not be able to put such events into perspective on their own.
It is this sense of hope that is almost totally absent from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John Boyne's novel is about the holocaust and tells the tale of a small boy, Bruno, whose family move to the mysterious 'Out-with' (Bruno's pronunciation) at the behest of the very important man known to Bruno as 'the Fury'. Bruno's father has been hired to run the camp that adult readers will recognise immediately as Auschwitz.
Ostensibly this is a novel for quite young readers- the protagonist is 9 years old and the story is simple and almost fairy-tale like. Of course, this is no fairy-tale and adult readers will know that things aren't going to end well for Bruno and Schmuel, the friend Bruno makes who lives behind the fence.
It's not that I think that children should be protected completely from awful moments in our history, however what I do object to is the way this book lures children in with a sweet and innocent tone, only to hit them with an absolutely devastating and, let's face it, unrealistic ending. While no-one with an understanding of history would expect things to go well for Schmuel, Boyne adds in a twist in which Bruno himself becomes a victim of the holocaust. Bruno's death, the book seems to suggest, is only fair given that his father is responsible for systematic genocide. This seems a particularly brutal way for the author to make his point.
If we are going to expose children to the horror of the holocaust, is it too much to ask that it at least be historically accurate? Even the central premise, Bruno's friendship with Schmuel is extremely unrealistic. There are lots of books about this period in history that present the material in a more honest and open way. Anne Frank's diary springs to mind as perhaps more suitable for young readers.
When I think back to myself at 9 years of age, I think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would have been unreasonably disturbing. I think we owe it to young children to be honest with them and while Boyne's intentions are noble I don't think his book serves a useful purpose in the way that it makes a really awful part of history even more disturbing for such a young audience.