Just a Young Boy with a New Friend

John Boyne. The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. Oxford, New York: David Fickling Books, 2005.
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Imagine being taken from everything that you know and hold dear and not truly knowing why. Imagine that you are in new territory, with no friends and nothing familiar to ease your pain. Imagine that you are a young boy in a time when the world was full of chaos. Imagine that you have met another boy, of the same age, with the same birthday, but whose life is as dissimilar to yours as yours is to him. Imagine that boy becoming your bestfriend, until the end.

In the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas written by John Boyne, we are presented with 9 year old Bruno, who lives in Germany. With his father being pretty high up in the military, Bruno never truly wanted for anything. Indeed, he had friends, he had servants, he had both parents, and he had an active imagination. The latter being maybe the most important. Bruno loves his life, that is until he comes home from school one day to see that the maid Maria is in his room packing up all of his belongings, even the things that “he had hidden in the back that belonged to him and were nobody’s business”. Since no one gave him a clear cut explanation as to why the entire family was moving, Bruno decided that they would not be there for long. After all, he had his best friends in the world to come back to.

It is in this other place, at this new house, in a new country that Bruno beings to piece together a few facts for himself. Having several conversations with the servants, and even his sister who he deemed as “A Hopeless Case” he begins to have a more accurate judgment of people, and an understanding of the how tragic life can be at times. He would often look out of his bedroom window and see a huge fence with a lot of people on the other side that all wore striped pajamas. Then he meets Shmuel, and everything changes.

He and his new friend only talk, but in Shmuel, Bruno finds a way to speak about all of the things that no one else will listen to. In Shmuel, Bruno finds a way to escape the unhappiness that he is enduring back at home. And while their lives are completely different, it is clear to Bruno that he has found a friend worth keeping. Bruno doesn’t understand the exact details of Shmuels’ position in the concentration camp, but he, being a good friend, brings him food from home and never talks down on him. Indeed, at the end, Bruno and Shmuel were really best friends to the end.

The message of this book would speak loudly to students of premature judgment and the idea behind a real friend. Curiosity led Bruno to go exploring, which in turn led him to a bestfriend, someone that he had needed all along. Someone to just talk to that was around the same age and someone that would actually listen and care about all of the things that he said, no matter the context. Bruno did not know what the Holocaust was, nor did he know that the gate separating him and his friend Shmuel was because of racial prejudice of his own people. He just knew that as a real friend, you keep your promises, and you never break them. No matter what.

With easy to read language and a naïve narrator, readers get an entirely different view of the period of the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jewish people. While Bruno may not have completely been aware of this fact, he nonetheless leads the audience on a journey of understanding that only enhances our awareness of past events. It has always been said that children always speak the truth, and in Bruno’s case this was more than true. Boyne places Bruno in situations where the curious nature of a child leads him to try to find his own answers since adults never seemed to want to help him. This is a story of growing up young, but only because of the times that he lived in. Bruno, as a child, with questions most adults are afraid to ask, really changes the perspective on this horrible historical event.
Recommendations for Teachers
The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas reflects the powerful, historical period of the Holocaust. Not only is its historical content relevant to any classroom, the perspective from which the story is told can be a point of relevance to discuss with students as well. Even though the story is told from a third person point of view, the reader is able to observe Bruno's lack of understanding for what is occurring during the Holocaust through his actions, constant curiosity, and his own thoughts and feelings. Teachers are highly encouraged to use this book along with the following activities to generate abstract thought about the content.
  • Students can be given the writing prompt of, "How do you believe Bruno's perspective adds to the significance of the story? What examples to we see his character descriptions, the chapter titles and other examples that are proof of a child's point of view. How do you believe the novel would change if written from the point of view of someone older?"
  • Students may create a collage using personal drawings, magazine or other cut-out pictures to show symbols brought out through the text. (For example: Student may want to find two different pictures of hands to represent Bruno and Shmuel's different stories).
  • Have students write a several 'diary' entries from the perspective of Schmuel along with his thoughts and reflections about meeting Bruno and their discussions. Make sure students describe what his true feelings are toward the Holocaust and what he believes is occurring in his life.
  • Have students discuss what Bruno and Schmuel's friendship represents in the story, and what could this relationship teach us today. Furthermore, explain what child's perspective can teach us about acceptance.
About Name of Author
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John Boyne, an Irish writer, was born on April 30, 1971. While had always loved to write, it was during his time at Trinity that he began to get published. He would work at Waterstone’s, which was a book located in Dublin, and type drafts by night, and this was all to pay for college. At the University of East Anglia, he took the course in Creative Writing that set him onto the path for writing more. He was skeptical at first if it would finally be his big break, but continued with it anyway. His first book to be published was the Thief of Time followed by The Congress of Riders.

While proud of his accomplishments, Boyne wanted more. He was not making enough to live off of, and more than that he did not think that his books were taking the world by storm as he had imagined. So, he begin to write the draft for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This, he says, he finished in two and a half days because the entire story came to him at once, and he had no choice to but to follow the story wherever it may go. Although considered a children’s book, Boyne believed that adults would like his book as well.

Boyne continues to write to this day. He has an upcoming book that comes out in the summer of this year (2011) in Ireland, where he still resides. He has 6 novels in total that he has written.
Multimedia (Video or Audio)
Here is a video from Youtube about the trailer of the movie The Boy In the Striped Pajamas.
Additional Resources:
  • Actual Holocaust Footage Shows the horrific reality of the Holocaust and treatment of the Jewish race.
  • Book Review This review discusses the unique perspective from which the book is told.
  • Author Information John Boyne discusses his historical background and his novels.
  • Genocide Television review on genocide and how it is still relative to our world today.
  • Book Review This review describes the age appropriateness of book and describes how this book can be discussed amongst family.
  • Aushwitz Death Camp The story makes reference to the meaning of the camp, Out-With, which in German is actually Aushwitz.
  • Tour of Aushwitz A virtual tour of the Aushwitz death camp
  • United States Holocaust Museum. A memorial to the Holocaust in Washington D.C. The website also includes history, and promotes awareness in genocide and ways to prevent it.
  • Holocaust Education The website provides various resources for teachers new to educating students about the holocaust.
  • The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center Providing services and and programs to help prevent discrimination.
--Emily Mayer and Devante Baldwin