Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Curioseum – Review

Friday, March 28th, 2014

This is a wonderful collection for children aged 8-12… Museums are hives of story, both real and imagined. These 22 authors have created new stories surrounding some intriguing objects from Te Papa Museum… Raymond Huber writes one of the most memorable stories in the collection, of a unique breed of humans who mature into insects (a highly original allegory). – Sarah Forster

Photos of the curious objects which inspired the stories

Listen to the stories and explore The Curioseum.The_Curioseum_cover_large

 

Reading is Empathy

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Research shows that far being being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. – Keith Oatley (The Psychology of Fiction)

Likewise, Tolkien believed that fantasy “offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality”. When we read fiction we enter an imagined world, perhaps far from reality, but it’s the characters that we attach to. It’s this emotional connection with characters that provides an understanding of real life interactions. Children begin to develop true empathy for others from four years old and onwards – hearing and reading fiction enables them to walk in another’s shoes. An example for older children is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor which shows the young reader something of what it was like to be a black child growing up in the 1930s; an incredibly moving story of hope despite hardship.

While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. – Maryanne Wolf

 

Outside Over There

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book (and his) – haunting, comforting, uncompromising –  nobody else combined the real and the unreal so brilliantly. In his last interview, Maurice Sendak talked about how his stories reflected his childhood (but what a curmudgeon he’d become).  Outside Over There is a  tale of separation and siblings that features a creepy ice baby (pictured).

Sendak’s books can also be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:

sendak-atoms

Classic Comics 3. The Beast Is Dead!

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Comics were banned in WW2 occupied France but Edmond-François Calvo secretly produced a powerful satirical comic that became a French icon after the Germans retretaed in 1944. La Bete Est Morte! is the story of the bloody European war told with Disney-style animal characters: with the French as rabbits; British bulldogs; and German wolves (Goebbels is a weasel, Himmler a skunk). La Bete Est Morte! is a forerunner of the brilliant graphic novel, Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice. Here’s an extract:
My dear little children, never forget this: these Wolves who perpetrated these horrors were ordinary Wolves … They were not in the heat of battle excited by the smell of powder. They were not tormented by hunger. They did not have to defend themselves, nor to take vengeance for a victim of their own. They had simply received the order to kill.

War is old

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Alice Walker’s picture book Why War Is Never a Good Idea begins with the bright, comforting colours of a book for young children, but as War devastates the land the images become grim. It’s a scary message and parents will have to judge if it suits their children. The illustrations by Stefano Vitale are evocative and Walker’s words are true:

Though War is old

It has not become wise.

Though War has a mind of its own

War never knows who it is going to hit.

Walker comments: ‘War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself … It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not … Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor nonviolence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such grace and faithfulness.’

The Bull and the Dictators

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

The classic Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936) remains one of the most influential children’s books (it’s never gone out of print) because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective, laid-back character who bravely chooses to be himself instead of following the aggressive crowd.

No wonder the book was

In contrast, Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the strict child-raising style of the time. His 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it is in the spirit of war-time frugality, some is just a tad excessive:

Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.

The Adventures of Hergé

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

You must marry the wind of inspiration with the bone of graphic clarity.– Chang Chong-Jen.

The Adventures of Herge is a must for Tintin geeks although it’s not for children. It’s a Hergé (George Remi) biography done in the ‘clear line’ style of a Tintin comic book. Hergé fell in love with drawing in 1914 when his mother gave him some pencils to ‘calm him down’. The book is a fascinating insight into the influences on Hergé and the political and emotional difficulties he faced, especially during wartime working under the Nazis. Most moving of all is the story of his friendship with Chang Chong-Jen (which inspired Tintin in Tibet). Chang helped him refine his beliefs and drawing style. Before reading this book it might help to know a bit about Hergé, or to read the appendix first. Download a 5 page sample of the comic book here.

Tintin in Scots

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Dae they no ken that Tintin’s in danger?

The Derk IsleThe Derk Isle is the first Tintin book to be translated into the Scots language (which is over 1000 years old and is still spoken) and it works a treat. Familiarity with the original book, The Black Island (1938), adds to the fun but most readers will easily interpret the Scots (it’s best read aloud). There are many delightful phrases such as ‘dinna fash’ (don’t worry), ‘whit a scunner’ (what a nuisance) and ‘blackbelickit’ (drat). Snowy becomes Tarrie (terrier) and the Thompsons are Nesbit and Nesbit. The first Asterix comic is also now in Scots.

He’s a fair wunner, is wee Tarrie. There’s no a dug like him for snowkin efter crooks!

Oot ye get! An nae joukery-pawkery, mind!

 

 

 

Peake Pirate

Monday, December 30th, 2013

capatainslaughterboardNot another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beauty. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the cult novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ ( NY Times says the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See Peake’s incredible illustrations here.

Tove Jansson Sculptor’s Daughter

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

A book whose small, huge work is the healing of the divisions between the child state and the adult state; of a child-sized truth about how things connect. – Ali Smith

Sculptor's-daughterThe Christmas present I couldn’t resist opening early: Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson is a beautifully written childhood memoir that reads more like short stories. Jansson was the creator of the charming Moomin books had a Moomin-like family: affectionate, creative, and liberal. Her parents were well known Finnish artists: her father a sculptor, her mother an illustrator. She spent much of her childhood on the Pellinki islands in the Gulf of Finland. This new edition of the 1968 book is an exquisite little hardback.

 

Beautiful Christmas Book

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

nativityThe Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies,  I Went Walking.

The Importance Of Living

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Thoughts from a remarkable book written in 1938: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.

On writers:

Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.

Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.

A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.

A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…

On readers:

The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.

I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…

A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.

linyutang

Pinocchio

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio

pinocchiocoverPinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).

Rare Bee Novel

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan  finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.  IMG_2465

Last Child In The Woods

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may also very well need contact with nature.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is an inspiring book about how to prevent ‘nature deficit’ in children. Children today are often more aware of threats to the environment – climate change, extinction, pollution– than they are of the environment itself.

If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. Lacking direct experience of nature children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse.

Louv, brings together a body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. He takes a positive approach by offering practical solutions in your own backyard.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. – Rachel  Carson

last-child-in-the-woods1

Great Honey Book

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Honey, Nature’s Golden Healer by Gloria Havenhand is a superb book that deftly balances bee science, beekeeping expertise, folklore and health tips. Honey is more than just another spread for your toast:

‘Most people know very little about honey and its healing powers… Research has shown honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing.’

I thought I knew every fascinating fact about honey but I found many new insights here:

  • Beeswax is made by bees only 10 to 18 days old who consume about 10 kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
  • A little honey before bedtime fuels the brain overnight because the live stores the sugar (fructose).
  • Raw honey is best to eat. Most supermarket honey is treated which removes vitamins, anti-bacterials and pollen nutrients.
  • Always scrape out the honey jar – that last 1/10 of teaspoon represents the honey collected by one bee in her entire lifetime. honeybook

The Day Boy and the Night Girl

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879) is a classic short fairy tale by George MacDonald (left) about a witch who raises two children in a bizarre experiment – the girl, Nycteris, has never seen the sunlight, and the boy, Photogen, has no knowledge of the night. The two escape and meet at twilight to help each other overcome their fears of dark and light. It’s a lovely romantic allegory which also subverts male/female fairy tale roles. MacDonald was an unorthodox preacher turned writer whose fantasy tales inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. His other fairy tales are equally fascinating, my favourite being The Light Princess (1864) a witty story about a feisty  princess who has lost her gravity – she floats like a helium balloon and  can’t can’t take anything seriously, even a prince who gives up his life for her.

MacDonald occupied a major position in the intellectual life of his Victorian contemporaries. MacDonald’s stories are profoundly experimental and subversive. – (The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald)

Chris van Allsburg Books

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Rare is the American child who finishes school without at least once being asked to write a story based on one of the eerie, enigmatically captioned illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.– Meghan Gurdon

I suspect the same is true around the world; certainly of schools in New Zealand. Picture books by Chris van Allsburg are not only beautifully illustrated, the stories are open to interpretation, which makes them ideal for children to explore. It’s impossible to look at the pictures in Harris Burdick without imagining a story. It has generated a spinoff, Chronicles of Harris Burdick, wonderful short stories by writers including Stephen King, Lois Lowry and Lemony Snickett. Jumanji is van Allsburg’s other classic but my favourites are a couple of more surreal ones. Bad Day at Riverbend is a about a black and white cowboy town attacked by crayon graffiti; and in the postmodern ending the characters realise they are subjects in a colouring book! The Wretched Stone is set on a 19th century sailing ship, where a strange glowing stone makes the crew regress intellectually – is this a symbol of modern screen technologies?

bad

Classic Books For Babies

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

There’s a real tenderness and occasional profundity stitched into them. – Helen Brown (Telegraph)

It shouldn’t work but it does. Classic novels including War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist as board books for babies. Each book is cleverly condensed into twelve words suitable for very young children. The secret is in the charming photographs which tell the story with hand-made felt dolls posed in famous scenes from the novels (not the gruesome bits). The books are simple, funny and will appeal to adults as much as children. The series is Cozy Classics.

Cozy-Classics-Pride-and-Prejudice-Muddy1Picture 1: Elizabeth Bennett gets muddy on the way to Netherfield.

Picture 2: Andrei and Natasha dance; Pierre is jealous.

Cozy-Classics-War-and-Peace-Dance

Flight of the Honey Bee Launch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

This handsome, respectful volume deserves a place on the shelf … it succeeds in accurately dramatizing honeybee behavior. – Kirkus Reviews

Flight of the Honey Bee review by artist, Claire Beynon:
“Given the state of our environment, the sooner we introduce our children to bees – to their intelligence, their intricate behaviour and increasing vulnerability – the better. Flight of the Honey Bee is the perfect book to do this, combining as it does Raymond  Huber’s careful language and well-researched text with Brian Lovelock’s meticulously observed paintings. Cleverly formatted, fiction and non-fiction – story and fact – are woven together as two discreet yet interconnected strands: young readers can choose their flight path.

Exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore.

HONEYBEE COVERScout the bee – named after the feisty protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – and her tightly-knit community of hardworking bees demonstrate these small creatures’ importance in the pollinaton of plants and the well-being of our planet. Flight of the Honey Bee is about bee behavior but it will also teach children about subtler things; wonder, beauty, the value of group functioning and collaborative effort, reproduction, risk, courage, the joys of flight – those rhythms and principles essential for any thriving community. The hum of the parts.

This book has all the essentials of a satisfying story: it asks questions and it informs. It invites observation and participation. There’s drama. Suspense. Conflict. Danger. Hope. And a happy ending. At the close of her adventure, Scout is a wily-er bee than she was when she set out from her hive on her first nectar-seeking adventure. As all characters must, she grows through her experiences. We come to care about her and her safe passage home.

Visually, Flight of the Honey Bee is exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore – each double page spread is as stunning as the one preceding it. It will be immediately appealing to young readers. I was struck by how beautifully integrated the text and images are; they belong together like honey and honeycomb. The language is tender and witty (the line about ‘sun-powder’ is a wonderful change from ‘gun-powder’); and the paintings  – a combination of watercolour, acrylic ink and coloured pencils – are spectacular; compositionally bold, delicate, exuberant and information-rich. Looking at them through my adult eyes, I can’t help thinking about fractals, the mathematics inherent in nature, the ever-present background dialogue between shape and sound, pattern and colour.  Children will  pore over them. And they will love Scout for her feisty resourcefulness.

More Flight of the Honey Bee reviews.

 

Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

farmer palmer coverWilliam Steig, (creator of Shrek) has been called ‘one of the finest cartoonists and creators of children’s books’ (Jonathan Cott). He began writing for children at 60 and his stories are often uncompromising but always celebrate the richness of relationships and nature. Steig used sophisticated language to entertain rather than befuddle. The only problem is choosing a favourite. The picture book Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride (1974) is one of his most playful. A farmer-pig suffers a series of slapstick mishaps, Buster Keaton-style, as he tries to take gifts home to his beloved family. I love his description of a rainstorm:

‘Harum-scarum gusts of wind … a drubbing deluge … thunder rambled and rumbled … it dramberamberoomed!’

Read the full article about William Steig and his books.

Thirteen Clocks

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

13clocksThe Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber, is over 60 years old and retains its brilliance. I can still recall whole sentences from the time it was read to me when I was 9. It’s a fairy tale parody about a prince who must perform impossible tasks to save a princess from an evil duke. The language employs every device in the English language, plus many invented words ( ‘squtch’ and ‘zickering’). Look for the Ronald Searle illustrated version which has a  bonus story, The Wonderful O, about a pirate who tries to ban the letter ‘o’ because he pushed his mother out a porthole. Some choice Thurber sentences:

Thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets.

Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.

A peasant in a purple smock stalked the smoking furrows, sowing seeds.

A Wrinkle In Time

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was ahead of its time with its wormholes and angels. New writers take note that it was rejected 26 times because its ideas were so ground-breaking back in 1960. But what sci-fi fan could resist an ending where a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love? (Shades of Dr Who). L’Engle tackled some grand themes in this semi-spiritual quintet of novels. I love what she said about children’s books:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children – Madeleine L’Engle

Wrinkle-in-Time

 

 

Monster Picture Books

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Here are three of my favourite New Zealand picture books that give children a manageable dose of horror. Gavin Bishop’s Horror of Hickory Bay has grown on me over the years. The story of a bland family on a Canterbury beach and an amorphous beast seemed a bit coarse to me 25 years ago, but now I love the earthy monster (which has a new force in quakey times). Diane Hebley said it best:

I find this book fascinating for its masterly use of colour and design, its grim humour, its coherence of idea, text and image, and for its acceptance of the dreamworld reality.

hickorybay

The Were-Nana by Melinda Szymanik is a creepy delight about a visiting relative who might just be a monster. The suspense is nicely built up and the double surprise ending (true to horror traditions) is brilliant. Odd cover choice but fine shadowy illustrations by Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson.

Te Kapo the Taniwha by Queen Rikihana-Hyland is out of print but was always popular in class. It’s the story of a half-man, half-monster who was given the job of shaping the South Island. Zac Waipara’s pictures are stunning as usual.

Comics: From Barks to Bertrand Russell

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

LostintheAndesMy first comic book love as a child was the Donald Duck series by Carl Barks, perhaps the greatest comic storyteller. Barks fleshed out Disney’s slapstick film characters and created 500 engrossing adventures for children, making him “the most widely read but least known author in the world”. The hunt for square eggs in Lost in the Andes (1949) was my favourite Donald story; and anything with the Italian sorceress, Magica de Spell . When I was 10 years old, I moved on to superhero comics – I loved the bizarre character Mr Mxyzptlk who could only be beaten if Superman tricked him into saying his name backwards. But the best heroes were the Fantastic Four (1961) with their ‘grown-up’ plots and flawed characters.

Why are comics so popular? Because the style combines dramatic art, fast pace and engaging characters. Teachers can use comics in class as models of design and economical storytelling. Comic books are also ideal for reluctant readers, usually boys (see comics in education). The comic form also embraces stunning graphic novels for older readers, such as Persepolis and Logicomix, about Bertrand Russell.

Unsung NZ Books

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Three neglected science fiction books by New Zealand writers:
The Red Dust by Bee Baldwin (1965) is one of the first NZ post-apocalyptic novels. A deadly red dust released by Antarctic drilling wipes out much of the world. A group of immunes must survive roaming gangs and a mastermind who wants to rule New Zealand. It’s a chilling, well-structured story, with great use of NZ settings (this adult novel was inexplicably in my primary school library where I read it at age 10 and understood about 10%).

red dust

The Unquiet by Carolyn McCurdie is a strikingly original intermediate novel and a suspenseful read. It has an apocalyptic opening when the planet Pluto and parts of the Earth’s surface vanish. A small town girl has a gift for sensing unrest in the fabric of the universe and becomes the focus in a battle as the novel turns into a fantasy.

unquiet

Where All Things End by David Hill describes a spectacular journey into a Black Hole. A mission to study the hole goes wrong and the crew race towards the Singularity- a point where all things become no-things. A ripping yarn underpinned by a convincing depiction of space travel and universal theories.

 

 

Forgotten Books

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

One evening, a Sufi stopped by the roadside to read a book. He lit a bright lamp then walked some distance away and lit a small candle. He sat by the candle and read. People passing by asked, “Why don’t you read by the lamp?” The Sufi replied, “The bright light attracts all the moths. Here I can read my book in peace.” (Adapted from A Perfumed Scorpion by Idries Shah)

Big, bright blockbuster books attract many readers, but I’m attracted by books that the masses have almost forgotten. Here are a few of of my favourite hidden gems:

  • Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche – this love story is Lewis’ least known work but one which he described as “far and away the best of my books.”till we have faces
  • Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati (1949) – a brilliant collection of surreal stories.
  • Daydreamer by Ian McEwan – imaginative, interlinked stories about a boy who daydreams to cope with the trials of  growing up. The_Daydreamer
  • The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang – thoughts on everything by Chinese writer and inventor (1938)
  • Drift by William Mayne – controversial survival story about a North American Indian girl and a white boy.

 

The Genesis of Science

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.

Gods_Philosophers_295It’s a myth (turned cliche) that science and faith have always been at odds. The superb book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, shows how the medieval church supported the genesis of science. Early universities were church-sponsored and ‘natural’ philosophy (as science was called – the word scientist wasn’t used yet) was a core subject. European thinkers drew on ancient Greek and Islamic texts to develop scientific principles that we still use today. Hannam brings a warm appreciation to these unsung scholars (eg. Gerbert); debunks the myth of the ignorant ‘Dark Ages’ (eg. people knew the Earth was round) and that the church burned scientists; and details inventions such as clocks and spectacles.

Best Tolstoy Short Stories

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

There is only one time that is important: Now. – Tolstoy

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-GorskyTolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales (1903) inspired me in my youth and today I still love the wisdom of his folk tales. The classics are How Much Land Does a Man Need (very little, naturally); and The Three Questions (Eg, What should I do with my time?). One of the unsung tales is A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, an environmental metaphor that has gained in power. This is the only colour photo of Tolstoy (here aged 80), from 1908. Download a free ebook of Twenty-Three Tales by Tolstoy

The Righteous – Review

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

He who saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world.– Babylonian Talmud

righteousThe Righteous by Martin Gilbert is a record of the very best and the very worst of human behaviour. These are remarkable stories of ‘Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust’ who risked their lives to save Jews during the 1940s. We all know of Schindler’s List, but that is one page of 500 similar acts of courage – helping Jews carried the death penalty in occupied countries. Historian Gilbert spent many years researching these well documented accounts – many from the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ archive (link to stories and interviews) which lists 19,000 non-Jews who stood up to the Nazis, local authorities and their neighbours.
I was surprised to learn of the extent of anti-Semitism in wartime Europe, eg. in Lithuania, Ukraine and Eastern Poland the SS were actively assisted by local populations in murdering tens of thousands of Jews (in addition to the concentration camps deaths). The heroes in the book are clergy, farmers, businessmen, families, royalty, city officials, and soldiers. Their motivations ranged from God, hatred of German occupation and racism, morality, love and above all, a sense of decency. It’s estimated that to save one Jewish life required at least 10 people working in a fragile chain of courage.

Once introduced into public life, evil easily perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare and fragile. And yet, possible. – Tzvetan Todorov