Reviews 2011

Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature

Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature. Lydia Kokkola. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. 206 pages. £23.50 (paperback).

This is the paperback edition of a work which first appeared in 2003. It is based on an examination of over eighty English language fiction and “life writing” (autobiography, biography and memoirs) on the subject of the Holocaust either published for children and young people or read by them. It includes picture books, work in translation, genre fiction, and some texts first published for adults, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Kokkola explores the general question of depicting historical events through story; the particular demands made by representing the Holocaust; and what literary techniques and strategies are appropriate to address readers who may be less informed about the Holocaust and less experienced as readers than adults.

Kokkola approaches her subject carefully: discussing, by way of introduction, proper nomenclature, considering whether the Holocaust is an appropriate subject for fiction at all; and what might be an acceptable general critical approach to employ. There she settles on “ethical criticism”, a term she borrows from Wayne Booth, and which expresses her concern with the way that Holocaust literature might shape children’s and young people’s attitudes and actions. Her sensitivity to both the subject matter of these texts and to their readers is demonstrated in her first chapter, in which she discusses how holocaust literature for children might observe a reticence about its full horror, respecting both the victims of history and the sensibilities of the child reader, yet still be truthful to its awful significance as a historical event and its meaning for individual victims.

Her concern with truthfulness is part of her central preoccupation with the fraught relationship of fact and fiction in literature. With the spectre of Holocaust denial never far away, Kokkola is understandably insistent on factual accuracy in Holocaust literature and discusses at length how it can signal its “factuality” through textual and para-textual devices, although she is aware that such fiction relies on evidence beyond the text for its ultimate validation. Here, she is in tune with the didacticism of most of the literature she is studying, and her two central chapters, one on historical fiction and the other on “autobiographical fiction” employ a variety of tools drawn from literary theory, particularly narratology, to examine how effectively the impression of fact can be created within fiction and the relationship between Holocaust fiction and “life writing.”

In the chapter "Attraction-Repulsion: the Appeal of Holocaust Literature," she moves beyond the relationship of fact and fiction, to consider the eroticising of Nazism, in the company of Susan Sontag, and the Nazi as bogeyman, through the work of Marina Warner. This touches on the boundary between adult and children’s literature. Whereas the erotic theme is entirely absent or, in a small minority of works, very muted in children’s literature (and it might be questioned whether it merits so much space); Kokkola finds the Nazi as bogeyman characteristic of writing for children, as is the related reluctance to attempt complex portrayals of those responsible for or implicated in Nazi violence. In a rare speculation that carries discussion beyond the literature’s representational function, Kokkola wonders whether the use of the Nazi as bogeyman and the accompanying affirmation of family in Holocaust literature might reflect a need to divert a wider anxiety in contemporary society about dangers of child abuse within the family.

Part of Kokkola’s intention is to take account of how young people react to Holocaust literature, and she is aware both of how much prior knowledge a young person might bring and the reliance of particular texts on adult mediators. Yet she has found little research on children’s responses to inform her discussion, making her final chapter on the use of Holocaust fiction in education both relatively brief and inconclusive, except to argue that it ought not to be used to demoralise children or to act as a substitute for historical understanding.

The length of other chapters makes following her argument demanding at times, but this is the first full length study of a difficult subject and Kokkola handles a range of theoretical approaches adroitly, marshals examples from her subject material well, and offers more extended case studies of a number of works, including Sendak’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy; Margaret Wild’s and Julie Vivas’s Let the Celebrations Begin; Rose Zar’s In the Mouth of the Wolf> and Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies. Her willingness to tackle the moral issues and to make her own judgements is necessary and admirable.

Curiously, in a study concerned with works of historical fiction, there is only an incidental impression of how the corpus of Holocaust literature for children has developed since the period it describes, the implicit boundaries of its subject matter and how it compares with adult literature (incidentally, we learn that accounts of life in the concentration camps are rare in children’s books and few deal with the other groups that suffered alongside the Jews). Kokkola takes to task one of the earliest works on the subject for children, Ann Holm’s I am David, for its implausibility, without any concession for the extent of knowledge at the time or what was thought to be acceptable in a children’s book nearly fifty years ago.

It is a pity that the paperback edition could not be updated to incorporate recent books like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), a book in which the relationship of fact and fiction is consciously manipulated, and Morris Gleitzman’s Once (2006) and its sequels, both of which have generated new and wider interest in Holocaust literature for children and young people. Nevertheless, Kokkola offers insight into a difficult subject and ideas for future research to follow.

Clive Barnes
Southampton, UK