All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Once by Morris Gleitzman

on September 25, 2019

Once (Once #1)
Morris Gleitzman
Puffin Books
2005, 160p
Purchased personal copy

Burb {from the publisher/}:

nce I escaped from an orphanage to find Mum and Dad. Once I saved a girl called Zelda from a burning house. Once I made a Nazi with a toothache laugh.

My name is Felix. This is my story.

A story of children in the Holocaust, Once is poignant and powerful without being frightening or graphic. With his gentle and utterly alive manner, Gleitzman reads the tale of Felix, a Jewish boy who runs away from the convent where his parents had him hidden and roams the countryside with an orphaned girl until they find their way to the cellar of a print shop in the Warsaw ghetto, where an old dentist has been protecting lost children.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my oldest son is an excellent reader. However he’s not what I’d call an enthusiastic reader. Most of his commitment to reading comes because he’s been told that he’s good at it and like most kids, he likes praise. He’s 11 and in grade 5 but he’s already graduated out of the reading assessment grading they use and has been assessed at reading at a 14/15yo level. Now that he knows he can read at this advanced level, he wants to read a lot of pretty intense books. Some I’ve agreed to, others I’ve thought might be best to revisit in a year or two. I’m not about censoring reading but at the same time, I want to make sure that he’s actually able to understand and deal with the content. He’s not exactly what I’d call mature for his age, so it’s a fine balance of maintaining his engagement (because kid books are ‘boring’) but not sacrificing comprehension and mental fallout. He’s really, really interested in World War II and asks a lot of questions about how it happened and why. At his age, it’s difficult for him to grasp what happened to Jewish people in Europe – not the actual acts but the why. I don’t remember how he came across this series, I think we were in a bookstore and he was asking me “Can I read this? Can I read this? What about this? Can I read this?” and he picked up Once, the first book in this series. I hadn’t read any of them but I have read other Morris Gleitzman books (probably as a kid, the same age my son is now!) and I’d heard good things about this series. Plus I’d been sent the 6th one for review about three years ago (which I hadn’t read obviously, given that it was #6 in a series). So we bought the first book and he absolutely roared through it. He’s read the second, is reading the third and used a gift voucher from his birthday to buy books 4&5. He’s been asking me if I’m going to read them “now that we have the series Mum” and because he’s so enthusiastic about it, I couldn’t say no. It’s something he wants to engage in and it’s not Minecraft or Fortnite, so I’m in.

The book begins with Felix, a young Jewish boy in Poland whose parents have left him in an orphanage. Felix isn’t aware of why they’ve left him here but an adult reader can guess pretty easily where Felix’s parents probably are now. In the beginning of the book, Felix is either charmingly or annoyingly naive, take your pick. But he’s also young and kids don’t learn this stuff until someone shows it to them. And when he escapes from the orphanage, thinking his parents are in danger and he must save them, he slowly has the wool stripped from his childish gaze in the most heartbreaking of ways. At first, he tries to ration away what he sees or hears as some sort of benign event – ie an abandoned house with food still on the table means the family were just excited to leave for an adventure, the nearby gunshots mean they are hunting. It’s a strong denial that I think children would probably indulge in psychologically in order to preserve their state of mind. Eventually Felix sees things that he cannot ration away and he struggles to understand why this is happening and why the Nazis hate Jewish people and Jewish children so much. He is also forced to come to terms with the probable reality of the fate of his parents, especially when he learns about the trains to the death camps. Along the way Felix meets the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Now for me, a lot of what is happening is not particularly subtle, but I think in terms of for kids my son’s age, a lot of the message is more gently implied. It doesn’t shy away from some of the more gruesome and depressing parts of this time period but it’s showing them through a child’s eyes as well.

I think what I like about this sort of book is that it’s a way to promote discussion. I know my son has had quite a few questions for me and this I think has enabled him to explore empathy on a whole new level. He has a great thirst for knowledge which is good, I always like encouraging that but I think this gives him more than just straight information, it gives him a chance to understand the experience. It’s one of those scenarios where you’d like to be able to say, this never happened, it’s purely made up. But even though this is fiction, it’s loosely based on real events and we know just how horrific some of the stories and experiences were.

This was a quick but quite intense read and I’ll definitely continue with the series. I am looking forward to being able to discuss more of the series with my son and get his experience too. He will see the books differently to me (the way they’re intended probably, given he’s in the target age range). It’s a fine line, trying to encourage him to read without feeling like he’s being forced. I want both of my kids to enjoy reading so when they find something that engages them, I’m always so glad for it. The fact that I can enjoy these too and being able to talk about it with him, is just a bonus.


Book #146 of 2019

2 responses to “Review: Once by Morris Gleitzman

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