book review: once

Once, by Morris Gleitzman, is a YA holocaust story with a naive young narrator who’s good at telling stories. The story starts with Felix in an orphanage and he’s trying to cheer up the other orphans by telling them stories about his bookselling parents. The thing is that he’s a Jewish kid sent to a Catholic orphanage to hide. He’s convinced his parents are out on a bookselling adventure and are sending him messages.

Then the Nazis show up and he escapes. He finds a burning house and saves a little girl and then they’re marched off to a ghetto in the city. More stuff happens and Felix loses faith in the power of stories, even while he helps an underground dentist.

It’s really hard not to compare this with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and it comes out ahead in pretty much every way. Felix is naive and believes some things we know are untrue (and he prays to God Jesus Mary and Adolf Hitler all in one breath), but he’s also clever. There are many things Felix doesn’t understand but you don’t get ticked off at him for it. You can see him trying to keep just ahead of the situation, and wonder at the doublethink that’s helping him survive. The language feels much less like an Englishman approximating what German-speakers might say. The whole book felt much more real, so if you liked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas you should really give Once a look.

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