Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy is a middle grade novel about what happened to the Jews imprisoned in the Lodz, Poland ghetto during World War II. Which I know makes it sound depressing. And it's quite sad, certainly. It brought tears to my eyes more than once, especially near the end. But Yellow Star is filled with love, bravery, hope, and compassion, too. Ultimately, it's inspirational. The book is based on a true story.
Yellow Star is told from the perspective of Syvia Perlmutter, who was, with her family, locked into the Lodz ghetto when she was 4 1/2 years old. As described in the foreword to the book, 270,000 people were forced into this ghetto during the course of the war. More than five years later, Syvia walked out of the ghetto alive. She was one of only 800 people left. Only twelve of the survivors were children. That's right. Twelve.
More than fifty years later, Syvia (now called Sylvia) told her story to her niece, Jennifer Roy, who found that the best way to tell the story was to tell it in Syvia's own voice. The story is classified as fiction, because of course no one can be sure of every detail, but the book rings true throughout. Because this is Syvia's story, and we know from the introduction that Syvia survives to adulthood, this story isn't as scary as it might be otherwise. I think that's a good thing, because it's quite scary enough. I kept shaking my head throughout the book, reminding myself that this was real, not some movie version of a story.
The book is told in very short sentences, like a young child's memories. This format (it's a free verse novel) makes it easily accessible to kids. There is plenty of white space in the text, and the poems/sections are quite short.
What stands the most in this book, to me, is the strength of love that Syvia's parents had for her. They did whatever it took to protect her and keep her safe under impossible circumstances. Her father, especially, showed himself to be a brave leader, who also helped others outside of the family. As for Syvia, she mostly accepts what's happening to her as inevitable, and tells us about facts. But sometimes she wonders about the bigger picture. For example:
"I am certainly no one special or important.
Just one plain brown-haired, skinny girl.
But I am alive and still here.
Am I lucky?
Surely not as lucky as children
who are not Jews.
But every day I get to be with
my parents and sister,
and in the ghetto that is
more than luck.
It is a miracle."
Syvia goes through terrible things. She loses friends and relatives, and her precious doll. She has to hide from the Nazis, who are removing all of the children. Her family doesn't have enough food, or heat. The Nazis shoot people on the street, and send people off in freight cars. At one point, she resorts to naming and playing with dust bunnies, and calling them her toys. But Syvia maintains her spirit, and the love for her family. She survives, in part through her own actions, and in part through the combined efforts of the adults around her. And that's inspirational.
I highly, highly recommend this book. Yellow Star recounts an important chapter in World War II, from the perspective of an actual child who survived. Hearing about the Lodz ghetto from Syvia, who only gradually comes to understand what's going on herself, should keep the story from being overwhelming for most kids. The strong parental love displayed in the book should also act as a counterweight to balance the more negative elements. This is a book that I'll want to read again, and want kids I care about to read, too.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.