“Wars are supposed to be fought between soldiers. But this one was not. They slaughtered the innocents, pulled babies from their mothers’ arms, children from their teachers. I didn’t understand it then; I still don’t. It was madness, the end of a God-fearing world.”
(from The Shadow Children, page 63)
The Shadow Children is a short novel (under 90 pages) for middle-grade readers set shortly after World War II that follows 11-year-old Etienne on a visit to his grandfather’s farm in Mont Brulant, France, for the summer. Etienne has heard about the Jewish refugee children who hid in the woods to escape the Nazis, and he sees the hungry children on the side of the road as soon as he arrives. However, his grand-père doesn’t see them, and when Etienne begins talking about the children he has seen in the woods while riding the old farm horse, Reveuse, the butcher’s wife becomes fearful, and his grand-père doesn’t want to talk about it.
The Shadow Children is a haunting story that touches upon the guilt many felt about the Holocaust. Steven Schnur gives readers much to think about once the story of the refugee children is revealed in its entirety, but so many hints are given along the way that there are no surprises. Still, it is a very sad story, and one that could be useful in educating young readers about the Holocaust without bombarding them with graphic imagery.
The refugee children are written about as a group, with only a few given names and a bit of a back story. Schnur doesn’t flesh out these characters, making it hard to connect with them, but readers will care about their fate because they are innocent children who have done nothing wrong. Yet, by not focusing on individual children, he emphasizes the enormity of the tragedy.
What makes The Shadow Children a richer novel are the illustrations by Herbert Tauss. Without these illustrations, the book wouldn’t pack the same punch. They are black and white pictures that look to be a combination of charcoal sketches and watercolors. The prose fell a bit flat for me at times, but the illustrations were chilling, particularly the sinister skeletal features given to the Nazis. In my opinion, all of the emotion in this book is conveyed not in words but through pictures.
The Shadow Children isn’t the best middle-grade Holocaust novel I’ve read, but it’s certainly a worthy one. I thought it was interesting how Schnur didn’t personalize the victims so much as the witnesses. The Holocaust is something that is unexplainable and impossible to process, and it’s not surprising that so many people — those who tried to do something about it but failed or those who did nothing at all — would feel guilt after the fact. This book gets you thinking about an individual’s responsibility and how much of a sacrifice should be made to help those being persecuted. Although seen through a child’s eyes, adults will be haunted by the story, too.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Shadow Children from the public library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.