When I went for my first PGCE interview in 2010 ( I went on three, timing issues meant I was offered a place at a uni to start a year later, and if I turned it down I could actually spend that year looking and applying to a uni I really wanted to go to, which I opted to do instead, and in hindsight this was absolutely the best decision), I had to give a short presentation on a children’s book. Whilst the other two candidates chose to discuss vampire fiction of the Twilight style, I went for John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. A wise choice! I have reread it over the summer as I am planning on teaching it to my Year 8 class, so thought a quick refresher was in need.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is told from the perspective of nine year old Bruno. After a visit from ‘The Fury’, Bruno and his family leave war-torn Berlin and set up home at ‘Out-With’, a strange and desolate place in the middle of nowhere, with no one around bar hundreds of people in striped pyjamas on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Whilst out exploring one day Bruno meets Shmuel, a boy from the other side of the fence, and the two strike up a lasting friendship, sharing their different life experiences and developing their knowledge and understanding of life at ‘Out-With’.
For me The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a poignant and heart felt story, it never fails to make me feel shocked, saddened and amazed by the sheer naivety of Bruno, who refuses to question his father’s actions or believe that there is any possibility that he is doing something horrific. This innocence is the reason why I love the book; yes Bruno is annoying, selfish and seems to think he is always hard done by, but then isn’t part of being a child that ‘it’s not fair’ mentality? And I realise that the circumstances of the novel are remarkably different from any modern day childhood, but Bruno is still only a child. Bruno and Shmuel become friends because they are ignorant of their so called ‘differences’, although I always get the impression that Shmuel understands far more than Bruno about ‘Out-With’ and the reason it exists.
This is an incredibly easy book to read, when I first read it, I finished it in a day, finding it difficult to put down and step away from the story. The langauge is simplistic and childlike in places, as Bruno’s references to ‘The Fury’ and ‘Out-With’ prove, although they are very precise interpretations in my eyes. I personally like how Boyne has taken one of the most horrific events in twentieth century history and used it as inspiration for his novel. Literature can be a fantastic learning aid, and I think this novel is an interesting way for young adults to begin learning about the Holocaust. It is not perfect, and I know there has been some criticism about the novel, but it is a difficult and very raw subject choice, so it was always destined to draw mixed reviews.
The ending is quite possibily the only reason I would umm and ahh over whether or not to teach this. It came as a complete surprise to me, and I had just finished studying a whole unit on the Holocaust at the time, but perhaps that says more about my opinion and expectations about children’s books. However as someone who relishes the importance of historical context when studying/teaching texts, I do think it is important that we don’t shy away from difficult/horrific stories just because we are worried about how pupils will react. On the whole I am looking forward to teaching this text and hearing the reactions of the girls in my class (all girls’ school, I am not being deliberately sexist!) I am sure they will have lots of differing opinions and interpretations.