What are you reading? Two book reviews

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne is a fictional novel that takes us back in history to World War II. Similar to his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there is real tragedy here. Pierrot, a young boy growing up in Paris in 1936, loses both his German father and his French mother. When his best friend Anshel’s  mother gives Pierrot to an orphanage for his own safety (these are not good times to be Jewish and be living in Paris), Pierrot’s own Aunt Beatrix finds him and brings him to Adolf Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Mountains where she is a housekeeper.

Beatrix, to keep Pierrot safe, asks him to forget his French roots, his childhood friend, and changes his name to “Peter.” Pierrot is quickly won over by the pageantry and power and Hitler’s personal attention. He is filled with a sense of superiority that his own father’s bloodline offers him. He becomes a cold, calloused teenager who eventually betrays his aunt and her lover who have forged a plot to poison Hitler. He coldly watches their execution from his bedroom window. Eventually, the Allies arrive. Herta, the only remaining member of Hitler’s staff tells Pierrot:

“The deaths you have on your conscience. But you’re still a young man, you’re only 16, you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters….Just don’t ever tell yourself that you didn’t know. That would be the worst crime of all!”

Years later, Pierrot finds Anshel who has become an author, and he tells him his story to write it down so that it can be shared with others. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain can be read by middle school students, but I think I would recommend it to high-schoolers.

Wildings by Eleanor Glewwe is an exceptional fantasy for middle-schoolers that deals with issues of class differences. Rivka is a Kasir since she can perform magic, but her twin Arik is a halani since he cannot. After Rivka’s mother dies, her father is appointed ambassador of the region where Rivka believes her brother has been sent to live with a halani family.  Her love for her brother is stronger than her father’s determination to keep them apart. On top of that, both law and society forbid Rivka from even saying her brother’s name.  Her father tells Rivka that her brother is dead to them. It was partially due to grief that her own mother died. Although her mother was not strong enough to defy her husband, Rivka is that strong. She knows that if she reunites with her brother and is found out, she could lose everything.  But she keeps secrets from her father, the new ambassador to Ashara, a district that overthrew its genocidal “kasir” (magician) leaders for a United Parliament of both kasiri and the “halan” underclass. Regardless of this new organization of government, oppression—legal and otherwise—still continues.

Eventually, Rivka’s determination pays off, and she finds her twin brother.  Together, they plan to search for other wildings. The children work to rid Ashara of the family laws that place children up for adoption with families of magical or nonmagical powers. The final confrontation between the halani in Ashara’s government and the children representing the city’s future is–although in many ways, bittersweet–both inspiring and hopeful in its depiction of the power of simple family love.  This book is a follow-up to Sparkers (2014) which examines the difficulty of completely eradicating systemic injustice. I particularly enjoyed this book, and fantasy is not my genre of choice!

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