Wait, You Read that Too?: Young Adult Fiction and the Holocaust

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

Young Adult Fiction and the Holocaust

During class last week, as we discussed whether Art Spielgelman’s  Maus would be appropriate for young audiences, my classmates and I came to the question of what age we first learned about the Holocaust. We all distinctly remembered that we knew about it by elementary school, but not a single one of us had a vivid memory of the “moment” someone explained the events of that period. That could be a blog post in and of itself, but I don’t want to spend too much time speculating about how the elementary school teachers of the 1990’s may or may not have taught the Holocaust. However, another interesting point emerged out of our memory discussion. My classmates and I began to talk about how we many of us had extensively read young adult literature about the Holocaust during our elementary and middle school years. When I asked in class if anyone had actually been assigned to read these books, nearly everyone said no. This is true in my personal experience as well; I sought out these books and read as many as I could get my hands on, but perhaps only one or two were ever actually assigned. This made me wonder what it was about young adult fiction on this topic that was such a draw for people of my generation, and why did we remember these books so vividly and our lessons so poorly?

Number the Stars. The Devil’s Arithmetic. Two books from my elementary schools years that became deeply and terrifying ingrained in my memory, so much so that to this day I could painstakingly describe the haunting plot lines of these works (and this is nearly 20 years later!) [1] I remember connecting to the female protagonists in both of these books (which again, could be a whole other blog post). I also remember a sense of understanding something important about the Holocaust in a way my history textbook had failed to do. Is that why I sought out these books? Is that why my classmates did?

I have yet to be able to find any educational or psychological studies, explaining why the Holocaust is practically a subgenre for young adult literature. (And please, let me know in the comments if you’ve come across any). Personally, as I’ve pondered and struggled with the subject since last week, I’ve come up with a few theories.

One is that authors of Holocaust literature might take more care with their subjects, than authors of more light-hearted fare, which leads to a higher quality (and more engaging) work. I don’t feel like it would be a stretch to say that any author brave enough to tackle genocide might think more deeply about her work than your random YA romance scribe. Clearly, this is a generality, and I’m not saying that every wonderful, joyous work is also not thought provoking. But it seems authors must think deeply and write carefully when writing about such a culturally important and horrific time period. Because of this care, it is possible that only authors of some quality even attempt to tackle the topic of the Holocaust, and thus these books tend to be more introspective works.

But I believe there may be more to the popularity of YA Holocaust fiction than simple quality.  I think young adults are picking up on the deep emotional depth and honesty that these works so often have. Just like anyone else, young adults occasionally appreciate the brutally honest. In a world that is often trying to shelter these growing and questioning beings, works like Number the Stars tell them “Yes, the world can be awful and confusing. Terrible things happen to good people. But there is also beauty and wonder and kindness. And it is up to you to find your path to making sense of it all.”

The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen
The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen

So that is the conclusion I have come to. And it does follow the data, as I see it. The best of these books are the ones with unflinching honesty. There is no looking away, even in the more fanciful tales, such as The Devil’s Arithmetic (Which yes, does include a time-traveling plot for the main protagonist. However, it also was nominated for a Nebula award for Best Novella, so apparently it was written well enough to appease critics.) [2]. So in the end, I will argue that young adults respond to these works because they are looking to make sense of this beautiful, horrible world, even through the lens of those very unlike themselves.

Side note: While I was attempting to find research on this topic, I came across an excellent blog post touching on age-level appropriateness for Holocaust fiction. The main source of concern? None other than Art Spielgelman’s Maus. The article is called “Fear Factor,” and it is written by Marjorie Ingall. It’s worth a read if you’d like to gain further insight into the topic. [3]

[1] Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishing, 1989.

[2] Yolen, Jane. The Devil’s Arithmetic. New York: Puffin Publishing,1988.

[3] Marjorie Ingall, Fear Factor, Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life. January 20th 2012. <http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/89630/fear-factor-2&gt;

6 thoughts on “Wait, You Read that Too?: Young Adult Fiction and the Holocaust

  1. The first paragraph in the Tablet article sounded really familiar. I remember my parents not wanting me to read Maus (or for it to be with the kids books), but being fine with Daniel’s Story. They asked me if I understood that it would be a serious story and I did. I had known about the Holocaust beforehand, the narrative format (even if the book was historical fiction) made it a lot more understandable. I read Maus first when I was about 11 after randomly discovering it in my older brother’s room. While Maus isn’t the best way to introduce older children to the Holocaust, it isn’t terrible either.

    Part of me wonders what exactly makes Holocaust narratives (fiction and nonfiction) so compelling for Jewish and non-Jewish younger readers? Do we miss out on something when we focus on the Holocaust over other subjects in Jewish history?

  2. Fun fact: Th Devil’s Arithmetic fascinated/traumatized me to the point where I was half-convinced as a tween that something crazy and life-changing would happen when I opened the door for Elijah on Passover.

    1. I’ve actually never seen the movie, but thanks for linking to the blog Colin, the author (and yourself) bring up important points. We all know emotion is a valuable tool for getting the public to connect with history, but there is a difference between using emotion as a tool and just being manipulative and trivializing for the sake of drama.

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