ISBN 978-0-7636-9053-3 $16.99
Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 5–8
In narrator Patryk’s village in 1914 Poland, there are many constants: few people venture beyond the village, sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and kids run in packs by day and night. Even the Russian occupation has taken on an inevitable, if not timeless, aura—something to be borne since it cannot be changed. In August, the outside world crashes in when a German bomb wipes out the schoolhouse, killing a student and a despotic teacher. This is just the opportunity that impoverished Jurek, the boys’ self-appointed leader, has been awaiting. He’s long claimed to be a descendant of King Bolesław and therefore rightful claimant to the whole village, and now he proposes a contest to settle the matter. The boys will collect (well, steal) buttons from military uniforms of the soldiers vying for the village, and the one with the most impressive button wins the dead teacher’s dreaded cane and the right to lord it over the pack. Button-collecting turns deadly and Jurek keeps changing the rules in his own favor; the boys, by complying, further empower him. Although some readers will simply hang on the drama of Avi’s simple and unnervingly tense plot, most will recognize this as a powerful anti-war allegory. Patryk sees through Jurek’s ruses and the boys’ own weaknesses and flimsy justifications, but he can’t stop himself from participating. The final scene in which “winner” Jurek crows in triumph that he’s “Jurek the Brave! King of everything!” over a ruined and emptying village hauntingly exposes the universal vacuity of bullies and their enablers, whether in middle-school hallways or on a battlefield.