Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review: The Boy Who Dared

The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. (Grades 6+)

DAY 264

It's morning. Soft, gray light slips over the tall redbrick wall. It stretches across the exercise yard and reaches through the high, barred windows. In a cell on the ground floor, the light shifts dark shapes into a small stool, a scrawny table, and a bed made of wooden boards with no mattress or blanket. On that bed, a thin, huddled figure, Helmuth, a boy of seventeen, lies awake. Shivering. Trembling.

It's a Tuesday.

The executioner works on Tuesdays

So begins a fictionalized account of the real-life Helmuth Hubener, a teenager in WWII Germany who was arrested for spreading the truth about the Nazis. Helmuth wasn't always such a rebel. As Hitler came to power and Helmuth grew up, he was a fiercely patriotic member of the Hitler Youth. But as the war raged on, Nazis imposed many restrictions on daily life. Besides persecuting Jews and other groups in Germany, the Nazis made it illegal to read unapproved books or listen to radio broadcasts from outside Germany. When Helmuth discovered a way to listen to the BBC broadcasts about the war, he found out the truth that the Nazis were hiding from the German people. And he knew he had to pass along that truth to everyone he could reach.

I was delighted to see that Bartoletti had written this book. Earlier this year I read her nonfiction title Hitler Youth and I found Helmuth's story to be one of the most fascinating. I think this is a story that will resonate with teens and captivate them. The writing is also great. Take this passage as Helmuth is forced to write an essay supporting the Nazis when he secretly hates them:

The inside of Helmuth's head feels like crashing cymbals. The words, the sentences, waver, bang apart, come back together again until at last he's finished. He stares at the handwritten pages and feels worse than a coward. He feels like a traitor. (pg 50)

I must admit that fictionalized biographies don't do much for me. Having read Hitler Youth, I knew a bit about Helmuth's story which may have lessened the tension for me. Bartoletti includes a length author's note with photos of Helmuth and his friends and explanations of what happened to them after the story leaves off. I get that no one can know exactly what Helmuth went through after his arrest as he waited to hear whether he would be executed. But for me, I think I would have liked the book better if it had either been an actual biography or if it had been a totally fictional character inspired by the true story of Helmuth Hubener.

That said, it's still a powerful story that deserves a wide audience. I'd hand it to anyone interested in WWII and be sure to have Hitler Youth ready for when they finish.

The Boy Who Dared is on Mock Newbery and Mock Printz lists all over the place and it's gotten several starred reviews. Also read reviews at Librarilly Blonde,, and Ms. Yingling Reads. Be sure and stop by Ms. Bartoletti's website.