By Ryan Woodward, Library and Education Associate of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh
Established in 1919, Children’s Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the country. Every year, events are held nationwide at schools, libraries, bookstores, and in homes — wherever young readers and books connect! As we are currently in the middle of the springtime celebration, it’s the perfect time to highlight and share what’s new in children’s literature and also how the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh takes quite seriously the challenge of presenting programs and recommending resources to students of all ages.
First, I need to acknowledge my colleague Emily Bernstein, the Education Outreach Associate at the Holocaust Center. Everyone who knows Emily is aware that she wears many hats at the Center and her outreach efforts to local educators have consistently increased our audience and the community we serve. I had the privilege of attending a book discussion group for younger readers in conjunction with our local PJ Library. The group received a brief age-appropriate introduction to the Holocaust before sharing their reactions to reading the graphic novel Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier. It was touching to see entire families participating and I was more than impressed by the thoughtful insights on the book and the history behind it from even the youngest attendees. Thank you, Emily, for coordinating this event!
Next, I have to salute every librarian I know who has truly and heroically answered the call to continue doing their best work during the pandemic. Continuing to offer regular story times, managing a stressed yet no-less demanding public, and safely providing services and resources stretched the limits of creativity and self-care. Challenges met and expectations exceeded in most cases. Librarianship is not easy and comes with its own unique risks, even outside of pandemics. They all deserve our thanks.
A common issue raised by many of my fellow avid readers over the past year was the inability to focus on getting through as many books as one normally would. Everyone should go easy on themselves, as it’s completely understandable to lose the necessary attention span when experiencing an unprecedented global crisis. I have only recently found my way back to reading books as I had before. I’ll share two recently read graphic novels, appropriate to mention for Children’s Book Week, but suitable for adults as well.
The first is Catherine’s War by Julia Billet (Author), Claire Fauvel (Illustrator), and Ivanka Hahnenberger (Translator)
The description reads, “At the Sèvres Children’s Home outside Paris, Rachel Cohen has discovered her passion – photography. But as France buckles under the Nazi regime, danger closes in, and Rachel must change her name and go into hiding. As Catherine Colin, Rachel Cohen is faced with leaving everything she knows behind. But with her beautiful camera, Catherine possesses an object with the power to remember.”
The recommended reading age for Catherine’s War is 8-12 years (grade level: 3-7), though the book would have just as much impact for a high school class or adult reading group. Personally, I really enjoyed Catherine’s War. It had the spirit of the 1987 Au Revoir, les Enfants as well as the recent film, Resistance, about Marcel Marceau. French children and the Holocaust is a popular topic in newly available graphic novels. White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio, the aforementioned Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, and the graphic novel version of A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo and Vincent Bailly have all been recent favorites and have the power to connect with local students who have visited the Holocaust Center and viewed our exhibits and artifacts, many of which are from France. The English version of Catherine’s War was just released in 2020. It is a fictional account, but largely based on the author’s mother’s experiences as a hidden child.
Another book worth checking out is Displacement by Kiku Hughes
Displacement is about the main character, Kiku, who “finds herself displaced to the 1940s Japanese-American internment camp that her late grandmother, Ernestina, was forcibly relocated to during World War II. These displacements keep occurring until Kiku finds herself “stuck” back in time. Living alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese-American citizens in internment camps, Kiku gets the education she never received in history class. She witnesses the lives of Japanese-Americans who were denied their civil liberties and suffered greatly, but managed to cultivate community and commit acts of resistance in order to survive.”
The recommended reading age for displacement is 12-18 years (grade level: 7-9), which I found accurate, although again, it needs to be stated that not all graphic novels are automatically suitable for children, and conversely, there are many children’s book, even picture books, that can effectively serve as educational and enjoyable reading material for adults. Having read They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker just last year, I am pleased to see more graphic novels on the topic of Japanese-American internment, especially of such high quality. From Displacement, I appreciated the delivery of the second story beyond Kiku’s experience of traveling to another time. She isn’t reliving her grandmother’s experience, but rather watching her go through it firsthand. She begins to learn about someone she didn’t know before. Many conversations, ranging from difficult to eye-opening, can come from reading Displacement, particularly on the themes of trans-generational trauma, family secrets, and the environments and relationships that can affect a person’s entire life.
I cannot think of better ways to celebrate Children’s Book Week than to read new material, develop new programming ideas for the Holocaust Center’s ever-evolving audience, and honor those who have held our communities together during recent global challenges. Children’s Book Week is actually two weeks of celebration, occurring each year in May and again in November. This fall, I look forward to more exciting programs from our Center, hearing from you what books have captured your attention, and of course, reading more.