Susanne Gervay is an award winning writer for children and young adults. Her much loved I Am Jack is becoming a rite-of-passage book on school bullying in Australia and is being adapted into a play to open in Sydney in August 2008 before touring regional Australia. Her other books include Butterflies, which was recognized as outstanding youth literature on disability by IBBY, while The Cave confronts youth male culture today. Susanne's recently released That's Why I Wrote This Song represents a new direction in literature, with its integration of prose, music, film and technology in a collaborative work with her daughter, songwriter-singer Tory Gervay. In this post Susanne discusses John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Susanne Gervay on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
I have been asked to write about a book I like or admire. Just one book, but how do I find it? I fossick in my bookshelves stacked with journals, children's books, histories, dictionaries, novels, travel guides, philosophy. I pull out Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. I was 20 when I read that book. It was one of the defining books of my life, challenging me with Plato, Jewish and Islamic philosophy, Nietzsche, the great philosophers and that question, 'What is truth?' Memories of Rousseau's romantic enlightenment and the noble savage trickle into my mind. Man is born good - except I've read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, exposing man's capacity for evil. William Shirer has to be Rousseau's noble savage, except he's not a savage. As a US journalist in Germany, he spoke out for the Jews and against the Nazi pursuit of power. The Gestapo, SS and Hitler were savages. Shirer risked his life to bring out his secret diaries exposing the violence against Jews and the Nazi megalomania that would destroy Europe. His book melds within its pages journalism, non-fiction, personal experience, story-telling and courage, making history real and relevant.
I'm deep into the meaning of life, with Bertrand Russell and William Shirer rustling in my thoughts, when I spot The Tales of Beatrix Potter. I can't resist, and blow away the dust. There's Jemima Puddle-Duck in her blue bonnet skimming over the tree tops: 'She flew beautifully when she had a good start'. Is that the meaning of life - imagination, friends, family, community, making sure there are enough cabbages to eat and the farmer doesn't shoot you?
My heart beats a little more quickly when I see my romance collection - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, all the Jane Austen novels, especially my favourite, Pride and Prejudice. My teenage years were filled with these books. I must have read each one 10 times, seeking insights into romantic relationships as they deal with life's adversities and successes. Of course, I was in love with Mr Rochester, Heathcliff and Mr Darcy, with their varying but heroic natures. I was the heroine: courageous Jane Eyre, passionate Catherine Earnshaw and feisty Elizabeth Bennet, respectively.
There are so many books that have been integral to my turbulent young adult years. They now sit haphazardly on my shelves. I can never dispose of them - because Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird helped me understand racism and gave me the courage to fight for justice. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness took me along that Congo river into human savagery until I knew I would not accept savagery. Simone Beauvoir's The Second Sex empowered me to make choices as a woman and spearheaded my reading of feminist literature. I remember when I became obsessed with Anthony Trollope's The Pallisers and read the whole collection of six books, each approximately 700 pages long. I was fascinated by the politics of power and it made me judge more critically government and the games people play.
More current books that have captured me with the might of human experience include Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, set in Ireland, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, set in Japan, and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, with its revelation of war and cultural dislocation in Afghanistan. The commonality in these books is the power of the human spirit, irrespective of disparate cultures. The commonality is youth caught up in the politics and hardships, as they seek meaning.
As a children's and young adult author, I view literature as a way of offering readers pathways and choices on that perilous journey towards adulthood. That is what I seek to do in all my books.
Now I have to choose the book. One book only. I make a last search through the shelves, pushing aside photo frames with pictures of my children, birthday cards, my computer connecting me to the world. Then I see it. A book I read a year ago. A book that had left its mark on who I am. It's small, with a simple blue and white cover written for children, young adults, adults, humanity. I tightly hold The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.
The book flap reads: 'If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno... And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence.'
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is written by award winning Irish writer John Boyne. It's his fourth novel but his first children's novel. He didn't know that he was writing a children's book because when he writes, it is about story and honesty and the human condition. In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the story is from the perspective of children. While the writing is simple, the themes are not. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird would today be called a young adult or children's book because it is narrated by Scout Finch, beginning when she is only six years old. The Catcher in The Rye would be a young adult book because it deals with male youth identity and is narrated by 17-year-old Holden Caulfield. These books, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, cross ages to bring powerful stories to readers, challenging them with the great issues of life.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fable about a little German boy Bruno, from a Nazi family, who makes friends with a Jewish boy called Shmuel on the other side of the concentration camp fence. I cannot go further into the story itself, as to reveal the narrative steals the story away from the reader. However, for those who wish to travel inside the pages to find those deeper stories of philosophy, history, humanity, they will find Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, William Shirer's courage and truth, Rousseau's noble savage.
Read this children's book, written for all of us, and discover the destruction brought by racism and war, the outcome of a world without moral responsibility and the redemptive power of friendship.