- Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature
Attention to the Holocaust in children's literature has increased dramatically in recent decades. Scores of titles geared to children and young adults have appeared since the mid-1980s, as have dozens of films for young people—many of them based on best-selling books. Critics in the field of children's literature have been quick to take note of these trends and have written about them at length. The Lion and the Unicorn, as a matter of fact, has taken a leading role in this effort, publishing path-breaking work by, among others, David Russell, Elizabeth Baer, Hamida Bosmajian, and Adrienne Kertzer.1 Lydia Kokkola's Representing the Holocaust in Children's Literature continues the discussion. It explores a corpus of approximately fifty books, all of them narratives of various sorts that cover both Jewish experience and also the experience of Gypsies, homosexuals, and others victimized by the Nazis. Her analysis takes as its point of departure problems of representation, a major topic in Holocaust studies.
The opening chapter rehearses some of the longstanding and ongoing debates from that field. How can imaginative writing grapple with unimaginable catastrophe? What role, if any, can fantasy and humor play in the fictional treatment of the Holocaust? Must mimetic fidelity be the sole ideal for narrative, lest any deviation from documented fact lead to Holocaust denial? For those readers new to these debates, Kokkola systematically lays out indispensable background information. At the same time, readers familiar with these ideas will find they resonate in new and powerful ways in the context of children's literature. Over many years authors have struggled with the question of how much to reveal and how much to conceal in texts concerned with horrific events. Naturally, it is imperative to be even more mindful of these issues with impressionable young readers than with mature ones. Similarly, while many critics have argued over the necessity of maintaining historical accuracy in literature, the stakes are higher in writing for children. Young readers may well confuse fiction with historical truth in a way that more informed adults would not. Kokkola's own stance on this issue is unflinching. She finds inaccuracy "morally unacceptable" and, armed with this conviction, she devotes several chapters to examining the relationship of truth to fiction in historical novels and in life writing (biography, autobiography, fiction, and memoir). She is fierce in condemning texts that she believes distort the historical past, such as Anne Holms' I Am David (1963). This prize-winning book, which appeared originally in Danish, gained a broad readership in multiple translations. [End Page 139] Yet Kokkola takes it to task for painting too rosy a picture of a young boy's escape from a camp. To her mind his freedom is too easily won; in this fictional world, she says, borders are too easily crossed, food is too abundant, help too forthcoming—all of which may give children the mistaken impression that perhaps the suffering of Holocaust victims really wasn't so bad after all.
Following Wayne Booth, Kokkola is committed to ethical criticism. She asks repeatedly how literature affects children's thinking and beliefs about the Holocaust and fascism. This is a welcome approach, which is at its best, in my view, not when it is narrowly prescriptive but when it urges us to think seriously about the profound impact that literature can have on young readers. This line of inquiry leads Kokkola to focus in chapter four on attraction and revulsion in literature. She reflects, for instance, on the portrayal of perpetrators. Since the ability to engage in resistant, critical reading generally comes only with maturity, children are more likely than adults to identify with the characters about whom they read. Accordingly, it is problematic for children's literature to present the moral dilemmas of non-Jewish Germans caught up in Nazi society, for this may inadvertently generate sympathy for fascist ideology. Conversely, Kokkola is also wary of simplistic presentations of Nazis as bogeymen that neglect historical complexities. Also in this chapter...