Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Greenwillow BooksNo Pretty Pictures: A Child of War
Anita Lobel
New York: Greenwillow Books, 1998

Reviewed by:
Karen Leon

Roslyn High School
Roslyn, New York


There has been an explosion of biographical reference sources published for, and marketed to young adults and school libraries. It is not clear if the publishers created the need for this type of material, or it represents a response to the demands of widespread curricular emphasis. The genesis of these materials may not be as important as the awareness that in social studies and humanities education, the exploration of time through the lives of people who were affected by, or contributed to society, is a current education technique.

This personal approach to exploring history allows students to experience the social, political, economic, religious and artistic forces that have shaped humanity’s trek through the ages. Each chapter in a book about personalities, in the Renaissance, for example, or American reformers, or “heroes” of the Holocaust, provides mini history lessons while placing individuals in the context of their time. A typical report may require thoughtful analyses of the textual material to determine a person’s place in history. The answers to the questions are embedded in the text, and information processing does not generally involve independent thought and intellectual construction.

Another educational strategy is the use of the document-based question, or DBQ. Students examine a primary source document relating to a particular period and analyze the text to compose essential questions about its importance. With knowledge of the history of time gained through research, students suggest resolutions to their essential questions. This process involves high order thinking skills for both creative questioning and problem solving activities.

Higher order thinking is exactly what we want students to achieve in all of their lessons and in particular when it comes to understanding the Holocaust. Students must ponder moral issues, make decisions, question events, and make comparisons in order to integrate the lessons into their personal frameworks. A valuable strategy would be to combine the biographical lessons with a document based approach provided by a personal memoir of the Holocaust. The memoir can serve as the locus for exploring history and personalities, uncovering essential questions relating to the Holocaust. A memoir as the center of an interdisciplinary wheel can have unlimited spokes of related issues for students to explore. The exploration yields the challenge to resolve the essential question.

A review of Holocaust education-related articles indicates a great emphasis on the use of literature, in this case, memoirs, as a resource for teaching the Holocaust. Since the atrocities of the Holocaust are so large and events so overwhelming and incomprehensible, textbook accounts leave the learner with little more than lists of numbing facts. Aside from sidebars and a photo or two, a personal connection that can engage the feelings and emotions of the student is absent. Where it is not possible to have direct communication with a Holocaust survivor to help raise the essential questions, one or more of the many excellent memoirs written for young readers can evoke strong emotions and reflections.

Memoirs written for children and young adults need to contain a youthful perspective in order to engage their interest. While reading a Holocaust survivor’s words, the reader must be transformed and live in the writer’s skin to experience how their world was destroyed. While reading the account, the readers should imagine how their lives could change under different circumstances, how they would react, how they would cope, and how their actions would make a difference to those around them.

The memoir, No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War, by Anita Lobel (Greenwillow, 1998) is a clear and magnificent portrait of the author’s experience during the Holocaust. The book was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award for Young People, and is a 1998 Sidney Taylor Honor Book for Older Readers. The book was reviewed in the New York Times by the eloquent and insightful reviewer, Hazel Rochman (Rochman, Hazel. “Why are the Grown-Ups Crying?” New York Times 15 November 1998:p.44). Young adults may recognize the name of Anita Lobel as an illustrator of some of their favorite children’s picture books. The title reflects upon a time in Anita Lobel’s life when there were, indeed, no pretty pictures.

Children have a way of seeing things that are not complicated by the knowledge and experience of adults, and reflect upon events in a way that is different from adults. Whatever happens, happens. Since children often don’t have the power to change their surroundings, they don’t necessarily feel as powerless as adults do in bad situations. They are not accustomed to having power over themselves or their surroundings. The voice of a child can relate horrors to others without the child even realizing how horrible their tale really is. We are left to shake our heads and gasp at the child’s resilience and brutal honesty.

Such is the sense of the memoir, No Pretty Pictures. Anita Lobel candidly and unreservedly tells the story of her and her brother’s lives beginning as young happy children and including the unrelenting horrors and degradation of the war years, and the healing of the post war years. The reader descends into unbelievable experiences with Ms. Lobel that get worse and worse and worse: the disappearance of the father and other family members; years of hiding in the countryside with the nanny; hiding in the ghetto; hiding in a convent; living in prison and in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the final months of the war. It is the story of children trying to stay alive, not understanding why they, as “Juden” are so tortured. “We hadn’t murdered anybody. We were here because we were Jews.”

Anita Lobel’s simply stated and well-crafted use of language engages the reader as if we were looking at pictures. The words are so descriptive and evocative that we almost see the scenery through the eyes of Lobel and her brother. Certainly, readers could easily illustrate the chapters without having seen the photographs of the Holocaust that are so familiar to us. As children, Lobel and her brother become so accustomed to deportation, confiscation, liquidation, the fear and terror of being caught, starving, filth, lice, and the unknown, that when they finally reached Auschwitz, Ms. Lobel finally felt “triumphant” in knowing. “It was the never knowing that made us into helpless lumps.” The simplicity of a dream of a ten-year-old girl to “sleep in a soft bed with clean sheets and sit on a toilet in a lavatory that had a door that closed” moves the reader to tears.

Young adults can explore many historical aspects of the Holocaust through the text presented in Anita Lobel’s memoir through additional research using some of the excellent secondary source material written for grades 7-12. Students can read all or parts of other memoirs to compare and contrast the experiences of other Jewish children during the Holocaust. We could ask students to imagine how the story could have been written differently by Lobel’s mother or father, or her Niania (nanny), or the nuns at the convent, or the guards at the concentration camps. We must ask the students what the essential questions are that are raised by a memoir such as this. They must appraise the situation, judge the results, criticize and defend where appropriate, and compare the situation to the present, to their lives, to the possibilities of the future.

Interestingly, Tomi Ungerer, another prominent illustrator of children’s books also published a memoir of the war year entitled Tomi: A Childhood of the Nazis (TomiCo., 1998). I couldn’t help but compare these two accounts of life under the Nazis. Tomi was born and lived in Alsace and was five to ten years old during the war (as was Anita Lobel). The Jews were deported from Alsace very soon after the Germans invaded in 1940, and so they do not play a prominent role in this story. Ungerer writes in the same style of descriptive, observant and naïve language of a child as Lobel about life under Nazi rule in Alsace.

It would be interesting to have some students read this memoir while others read Lobel’s memoir .A comparison could be made between the lives of young children, Jewish and non-Jewish, under the Nazis. The students could construct a chart to encompass the vocabulary and deprivations of war and normalcy of life that both children did or did not experience. Ungerer’s beautifully illustrated book includes his childhood drawing depicting his wartime experiences. He was able to live in his family home where personal things were saved and life was fairly normal. This excellent memoir is a supreme example to those who might say that what happened to the Jews was justified by the fact that it was wartime. While Jewish children across Europe were thrown into a life comparable to that experienced by Anita Lobel, children who were not Jewish did suffer privations of war, but were not systematically hunted and murdered because of their religion. Ungerer’s memoir begs the comparison between what may be justifiable or expected in a wartime situation and what is simply outrageous. 

The recent emphasis on the study of historic events through the lives of individuals can play a very positive role in the moral education of our students. It is particularly important in the study of the Holocaust, to focus on those who have shared their experiences through their memoirs. Students will learn about the not-to-be-believed details of the Holocaust through these literary sources in a manner that has an appeal to their humanity and their developing feelings as ethical beings. 


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