Well, a new Maine Student Book Award list is out and I am pretty pleased with the depth and breadth of it. Once again this year I was impressed by how difficult it is to choose 40 books for kids in grades 4-8 that encompass everything that we're striving for - kid friendly choices that are well-written in a wide array of genres. Sounds easy, but it most definitely is not!
So, I am now on to c2016 books and I've already read a few that I really loved, including Jaleigh Johnson's The Secrets of Solace, Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea, and Eugene Yelchin's The Haunting of Falcon House.
The one that I am highlighting here today, though, is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, by John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). This is not an easy book (I seem to be highlighting a lot of those here at Bibliothecary Prescriptions lately), but it gives readers an unusual glimpse into the development and psychology of a fervent member of Hitler youth. Although it is hard, at times, to feel compassionate towards the protagonist, Pieter, Boyne chillingly shows the slow and steady progression he makes towards the angry young man that he becomes.
Pieter is born as Pierrot, in Paris, to a French mother and German father. His best friend, Anshel, is Jewish and deaf; they provide comfort and kindness to each other in a world that can be painful and harsh. They are separated, though, when tragedy strikes and Pierrot becomes an orphan. After a brief stint in an orphanage, Pierrot is adopted by his father's sister, who works as a housekeeper at a magnificent estate in the Austrian alps. The master of the estate is not in residence and everyone seems a bit on edge. Pierrot is bewildered by the sudden change in his circumstances; he is distraught when his aunt Beatrix tells him that it is not safe for him to send or receive letters from his friend Anshel. The reader understands before Pierrot does that Beatrix is trying to protect him from something tremendous, and horrible. That something arrives in the form of the master of the estate: Adolf Hitler.
Hitler is impressive and formidable, frightening and charismatic. Pierrot becomes "Pieter" and he craves Hitler's attention and approval. Although the other adults around him try hard to steer him away from the xenophobia, anti-semitism, and hatred of Hitler, Pieter is susceptible to Hitler's power. Slowly, Pieter, whose best friend was once a deaf Jewish boy, becomes a miniature mimic of Adolf Hitler. It is heartbreaking to watch his devolution.
This book is hard to read; there is violence, an attempted sexual assault, and a depth of sorrow that seems fitting for a book whose protagonist is close to Hitler. If I had to categorize it, I would call it YA, but it certainly would be also be a powerful read for mature middle school readers, perhaps within the context of a unit on World War II. For its powerful, unforgettable message, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain deserves a place in the World War II canon.