Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Review: The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I'm on a sprint to read books with multiple starred reviews because the time for putting the BCCLS Mock Printz list together is drawing near. Today's book: The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

We begin with a Tuesday in the life of Helmuth Guddat Huebner, a German political prisoner in 1942. Tuesday is the day the executioner comes, and Helmuth wonders if today might be his last day on Earth. As we move from scenes in Helmuth's prison cell to the story of his childhood, we see a boy with a strong sense of justice, who is not willing to defy his own views and beliefs just because they are the beliefs of the majority. Helmuth is eight years old when Hitler comes to power, but even at eight Helmuth can see that not everything Hitler does is really in the best interests of Germany. Hitler may talk about protecting Germans, but Helmuth knows he is losing freedoms and being told what to think about non-Germans. He fights with his mother's boyfriend, a Nazi who believes that Hitler is in the right. He also defies his teachers, who want him to write pro-Nazi school papers. Because of his views on humanity and equality, Helmuth is encouraged to stay silent. But as we know, quiet people don't have books written about their lives.

Using information he hears from the BBC on a black-market radio, Helmuth begins distributing flyers that speak against the Nazi party and its propaganda. He is eventually caught by the Nazis and put on trial. Even with the knowledge that he is facing imprisonment, maybe execution, Helmuth refuses to stay silent or allow others to take his punishment.

The book is definitely worthy of all its starred reviews. It's a fast yet thought-provoking read, and I am always supportive of books that show young readers why defiance in an oppressive time (WWII or not) is never as easy as it looks. Bartoletti keeps the focus on Helmuth tight and shows the reader German history really well without going off into history data-dumping tangents. We see the struggle Helmuth must fight between speaking for what he believes is right and the knowledge that doing so could get him sent to prison, or worse. Bartoletti makes us understand why even those who did not believe in the Nazi ideals joined the party and fought in the war. There's also a powerful look at how the distribution and receipt of information influence people's beliefs.

With all this, do I think it's a Printz book? As much as I liked it, I'm leaning toward no. I would definitely buy it for my library, booktalk it, and perhaps even use it in a book discussion group. It's nominated to BBYA and is quite deserving of a spot on that list. I just don't think that it terms of "literary" it's in the same field as some of my other favorites. Not all books have to be literary, though, and I do encourage you all to take a look at this book.

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