The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Not Your Average Bedtime Story

John Boyne. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. New York, New York: Random House, 2006.

Collage of Translated Book Covers

Teachers looking for a unique entryway into the story of the Holocaust need look no further than John Boyne's fictional children's story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Translated into over forty different languages, and winner of countless awards, Boyne's novel about a young boy and the innocence through which he experiences the Holocaust has clearly spoken to the world.

Bruno is a nine year old boy, who has abruptly been moved from his home and his friends in Berlin, to a terrible new place oddly called "Out-With." Bruno doesn't know what "Out-With" means, but it surely must mean that the last inhabitants were told to get out, and maybe that's why things there seem so gloomy. With no one his age to speak to but his "hopeless case" of a sister, Gretel, Bruno suddenly and quite happily discovers a whole world of people in funny striped pajamas just on the other side of the fence from his new home. Bruno can see these people but they can't see him, until he one day goes on an adventure to the far reaches of that fence and finds Shmuel.
As Bruno's meetings with Shmuel and his awakening understanding of the world around him increases, the tension in this cleverly written children's story rises. Through Bruno children and adults alike gain access to what it would feel like to be told people who are different aren't people at all, or what it might mean to not have the luxury to think.

The unlikely relationship between Bruno and Shmuel reminds us all of power of innocence. Although Bruno's attempt to experience life on the other side of the fence truly shows him what life is like for the people in the striped pajamas, it has tragic repercussions. This book raises thought-provoking questions that will teachers and students alike to dig deeper into this part of the world's history.

Recommendations for Teachers

Below are just three areas in which lessons could focus on.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an ideal young adult novel to help students understand the Holocaust. This novel is unique to other Holocaust stories because the point of view is that of a young German boy, rather than a Jewish child, and he is experiencing the war in a very naive way. There were many citizens of Germany and of Europe who did not buy into Nazi propaganda, but they, like Bruno's mother, felt they didn't have the "luxury to think." Many of our students will have a hard time grasping the atrocities of the Holocaust, especially from a German perspective, so using Bruno's naivete students can learn to think critically about his experiences. Before students can begin to think critically about the war and Bruno's story, they must first have a general understanding of the Holocaust and its setting.

Along with the dates, key players, and information about ending the war, students need to have a general grasp of Europe's geography and where concentration and extermination camps were located. To ensure this, hand out blank maps of Europe for students to use while, as a class, you review the map of concentration camps below.


After reviewing the map as a class ask small groups to do the following:

Mark both Berlin and Auschwitz as these are the locational settings of the novel.

Using the symbols given on the map of concentration camps, mark all of the concentration camps and extermination camps that existed.

Shade every country that held either a concentration camp or extermination camp.

At the bottom of the page list any country that held an extermination camp, as well as any country that held a concentration camp.

*A follow-up lesson about Auschwitz in particular would also be useful, so students can understand the gravity of Bruno's new home once he arrives there.

Human Rights

"Those people...well, they're not people at all, Bruno."

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Regime used propaganda, or political messages, to convince the people of Germany and then Europe that Jewish people were not people at all. Propaganda was used to stir up emotions, and it was also used to hide the true meanings of places and activities. For example, concentration camps were often called "Re-education camps," and though these were camps, sometimes they were given a misleading appearance on the outside so their real purpose wasn't questioned. Nazi propaganda took form in books, text books, comics, posters, radio and film. After looking at Nazi propaganda, students in groups or lit circles will be tasked with creating propaganda to fight for human rights rather than destroy them.

Examples of Nazi Propaganda Posters


Before: Unemployment, hopelessness, desolation, strikes, lockouts.
Today: Work, joy, discipline, comaradarie. Give the Führer your vote!


Buy German Goods
Donate old clothes and shoes

Long Live Germany


"We're not supposed to be friends, you and me. We're meant to be enemies. Did you know that?”

Bruno and Shmuel's friendship is an important theme in the novel. They were the same age, had similar interests but were on two different sides of history. They weren't meant to be friends, but they were and they their ability to see beyond their differences serves as a lesson in the story about the power of friendship.

To facilitate a discussion or journal entries about friendship use the following prompts:

Why do you think Bruno and Shmuel become friends and stay friends?

How do the friendships that Bruno has in Berlin at the beginning of the movie compare with

his friendship with Shmuel?

Why doesn’t Bruno try to protect his friend when Shmuel is attacked by Lieutenant Kotler?

Have you ever done something to a friend that made you feel bad or ashamed? How does

shame and remorse figure into the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel? How does Bruno

show his remorse?

Why does Shmuel forgive Bruno? How?

How does Bruno justify continuing his friendship with Shmuel despite what his father, sister,

and tutor have said about Jews?

The barbed wire fence is a physical separation between Bruno and Shmuel. What other types

of separation does the fence represent in this story?

How do Bruno and Shmuel demonstrate the essence of friendship despite their many differences?

What exactly are their differences?

How can the power of friendship to cross boundaries of race, religion, and culture?

John Boyne

Image Source

John Boyne was born and raise in Dublin, Ireland. He studied English Literature at Trinity College in Dublin and then creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It was at the University of East Anglia where he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize for prose fiction.

His early writing career was based on short stories, of which he's published around 70, but it is for his later work in novels that he is now well known.

In 2006, Boyne wrote the children's book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a novel which gained him international acclaim, a movie deal, and an impressive list of international awards. Worldwide, this book alone has sold more than 5 million copies, has been published in 45 languages, and has appeared at the top of a number of best seller lists.

Boyne has continued to write books for young readers including Noah Barleywater Runs Away, 2012, and The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, soon to be published, as well the adult novel The Absolutist in 2011. His complete novel bibliography is below.



  • The Thief of Time (2000)

  • The Congress of Rough Riders (2001)

  • Crippen (2004)

  • Next of Kin (2006)

  • Mutiny On The Bounty (2008)

  • The House of Special Purpose (2009)

  • The Absolutist (2011)


  • The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2006)

  • Noah Barleywater Runs Away (2010)

  • The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket (2012)


This is the trailer to the movie version of the book. It is a nice teaser for students because it allows them to envision the setting and characters and the ominous tone of the book without giving the ending away. It would be a great audio/visual addition to a lesson on the Holocaust using this book.

A compelling review and recommendation by a young reviewer who has her own video book club and blog. To see more of her reviews of young adult and adult books check out and Kate's Book Club on youtube.

The first chapter of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas audiobook. This is a great way to allow students to listen to the story and read along. It will give them an opportunity to get the tone of the story and better understand Bruno's way of thinking.

Additional Resources

  1. TES UK- A full scheme of work and lesson resources for teaching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

  2. Teachers at Random - A teaching resource presented through the publisher's Teachers At Random website.

  3. John Boyne - John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas web page.

  4. Web English Teacher - This website lists a number of links for educators looking for teaching resources for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

  5. Film Curriculum - A webpage devoted to a curriculum based on the film version of the novel. This includes a discussion guide and activities that focus on innocence, friendship, humanity, obedience, conformity, prejudice and discrimination.

  6. - A nice long bio by John Boyne with insights into who he is as a writer and why he fell in love with the craft. Nice discussion questions as well.

  7. - Incredible teaching resources that include a graphic organizer, taxonomy guide, anticipation guide, a writing to learn plan and so much more. Don't miss this resource.

  8. Blank Map of Europe - This map can be used to help establish the setting of the novel and to help students understand the scope of the war.

  9. Concentration Camp Map - This map will show students where concentration and extermination camps were located throughout Europe. This will also help students see the distance that Bruno and his family traveled from Berlin to Auschwitz, the distance prisoners were forced to travel in terrible conditions and will help them again understand that this occurred throughout Europe.

  10. Holocaust Facts - A webpage that lists 33 Holocaust facts everyone should know.

  11. Interview with John Boyne - A interview with author John Boyne.


--Andria Barberi (The Lightning Thief Wiki, Speak Wiki, Thirteen Reasons Why Wiki)