The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Great Book For Classroom Discussion

John Boyne. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. New York: David Fickling Books, 2006.


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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a story of division, perception, innocence and hatred; it tells the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy, who moves to Poland with his family where his father, a high-ranking Nazi official, has taken over command of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. It is here that the innocent Bruno becomes aware of several divisions between the people at his new home: the division between those on his side of the fence and on the other side, between the soldiers and the prisoners, between his family and the help, and between children and adults. Curious and trying to make sense of his strange new home, Bruno asks his father about the people on the other side of fence to which his father replies, “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno…You have nothing whatsoever in common with them.” It is here that the differing perceptions between children and adults becomes clear and apparent as Bruno tends to see what makes people the same, while many of the adults focus only on what makes them different from themselves.

While exploring one day, Bruno discovers a young boy sitting on the other side of the fence. Eager for companionship, Bruno and this boy from the other side, Schmuel, begin meeting daily to discuss life on their respective sides of the fence. From a place of innocence and privilege, Bruno is incapable of comprehending life on the other side of the fence and is unable to believe that his father would let anything bad happen to these people. Bruno, although misguided, envies Schmuel for having other boys to play with on his side of the fence. Schmuel, out of exhaustion and despair, spares Bruno the details reassuring him that life is much better on the other side of the fence.

After more then a year at the camp it is decided that Bruno’s family, excluding their father, will move back to Berlin. In one last adventure, after deciding they’ve never played together, Bruno disguises himself in the same striped "pajamas" the prisoners wear and crosses the fence to be with his friend. In the same uniform the two boys from opposite sides of the fence appear nearly identical. In the ultimate act of irony, the two boys are caught up in confusion and become victims of Bruno’s father, a system of ignorance, hatred, division and fear.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, makes a valid effort to be a compelling young adult novel. The story is unique in that it is not from the view point of a prisoner in one of the death camps, instead it comes from a young German boy living outside of Auschwitz – observing the strange events on the other side of the fence. Bruno is ignorant of what really occurs in the death camp, and the author does a great job of capturing Bruno’s innocence as his character envies life on the other side of the fence. This book illustrates quite well the fact that many people, including inhabitants of Germany, did not really know about these camps- let alone what was going on inside them. German citizens created fantastic explanations as to why the Jews were being rounded up and sent away, much like Bruno makes explanations about the camp out of ignorance.

The Boy in Striped Pajamas although it takes place with in the context of the holocaust transcends the genres of World War II, Nazi Germany and the holocaust. In the novel there is a purposeful absence of references to such subject matter as World War II, the Nazis and Hitler, which allows the reader to relate the story and its themes to a multitude of situations and contexts without trapping the book as a period piece. At its heart The Boy in Striped Pajamas speaks to perception, how we perceive the world and how the world actually exists. Do we see the world with eyes of transcendence, eyes of a child like Bruno, someone who is able to see through the superficial fences that divide the world and other people into categories or do we chose live within the fences and see the world like may of the adults in the novel and divide the world further and further, into deeper and deeper categories and subcategories: German and Polish, Jew and gentile, soldier and prisoner, family and helper.

Despite many positive qualities to this fable, this text possess some notable flaws. Simplistic in nature (and vocabulary), this book may leave the reader feeling as if they are experiencing a less-than-finished product. Characters are not exactly well developed, as characters outside of Bruno seem simple and static. In fact, the characters feel a bit cliché: an ignorant curious boy, a spiteful sister, a distant father buried in his work, and a mother who is gentle at first and then due to some family disagreement becomes an alcoholic. Kohler is a one dimensional villain who seems to be evil simply for evil’s sake. This simple presentation may feel more mature readers like they are being patronized with a text that is beneath them in some aspects. In consideration of these minor flaws, some group members would still say that this is a worthy text for the classroom, as it can be a potent force to engage students in rich discussion topics on topics not just about the Holocaust but on social boundaries that we humans construct without even really thinking about them.


Recommendations for Teachers
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas involves a simple vocabulary and an easy-to-follow plot, which could be beneficial in certain classrooms (especially those of lower-level reading students). However, some students would have the potential to find the story insultingly simple. The book's perspective is unique, but because it is told from a 9-year old boy, it fails to capture the intense reality of the Holocaust.

As a future teacher, I would use this book along with other stories about the Holocaust to teach students about the power of perspective in literature. There were so many perspectives involved in the Holocaust, and so many accounts written from these differing perspectives (Jewish men, women, and children, those who hid the Jews, Germans involved in the Nazi party, along with their wives and children, etc.). The Boy in the Striped Pajamas could be used nicely at the upper middle-school or 9th grade level in a literature-circle setting. A good idea would be to divide your class into 3 groups, and have each group read a different book dealing with the Holocaust. The texts could include The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Maus by Spiegelman, and Night by Wiesel; these particular 3 would work well because they each give very different perspectives on the Holocaust, while dealing with the same concentration camp at Auschwitz. On days when literature circles aren't meeting, the teacher could pull from even more perspectives on the Holocaust by having students engage in "close-reads" of short portions from texts that outline the experiences of German soldiers and those hiding Jews in their homes (Diary of a German Soldier by Pruller & The Hiding Place by Ten Boom). These readings could be preceded by related journal prompts and followed by discussion. As the 3 literature circles finish reading and discussing their books it might be interesting to rearrange the students into new groups composed of a member from each of the previous groups. This way, 3 students, using the 3 different Holocaust perspectives offered to them by their books, could work jointly at writing a paper comparing and contrasting their stories. Or, each group could work on a project to creatively present together to the class about their findings via filming a movie, using a powerpoint or Prezi presentation, making a poster, performing a drama, or recording a podcast.

Also important to note is the film version of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This movie is an incredibly accurate interpretation of the book, and almost brings the story to life better than the book itself (by filling in all the visual details and character descriptions left out by a child-narrator). If the teacher wanted to use another Holocaust book for the main text, but desired to show students a different perspective of the same subject, showing portions of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas film would be helpful. This might allow for the same amount of classroom discussion on perspectives that the text would evoke, but with more emotional punch and faster accessibility,


About John Boyne

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John Boyne was born in 1971 in Dublin, Ireland and is an Irish novelist who studied English Literature and Creative Writing. While in school he published his first short stories and he won the Curtis Brown prize while studying at the University of East Anglia. In addition to the Curtis Brown prize, his first short story, “The Entertainments Jar”, was short listed for the Hennessey Literary Award in Ireland, marking the beginning of a promising career in writing. His first novel, The Thief of Time, was longlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize, his third novel, Crippen, was shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award, all leading to his most successful work to date: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This novel worn the Irish Book Award Children’s Book of the Year, Irish Book Award People’s Choice Book of the Year, Bisto Book of the Year, Que Leer Award Best International Novel of the Year (Spain), Orange Prize Readers Group Book of the Year and shortlisted for the British Book Award, the Border’s New Voices Award, among many others, as well as longlisting for the Carnegie Medal and the International IMPAC Literary Award. On top of all this, it was adapted to film in 2008, further increasing his international recognition. To date he has published about seventy short stories and eight novels, with a ninth due out in May of 2011. (Information and photo courtesy of www.johnboyne.com)


Multimedia (Video or Audio)

This book shows us something interesting about ourselves as humans. That we are all cut from the same thread, the same blood that runs through their veins runs through ours. As we watch the development of Bruno and Shmuel's friendship we begin to see that the fence that stands between them is just a fence, a physical barrier; that they are the same 9 year old boy, just in different clothes and difference sides of the fence. This book is about barriers and the social constructs that we build up over the years to protect ourselves and "our kind".

The following videos are two different clips, the first is to one for a trailer that follows 8 children from 8 diffferent parts of the world, from war torn Uganda, to Russian, to the far east.
All the Children of the World

This next clip is the first part in a 6 part YouTube version of the Invisible Children documentary. This documentary explores the civil war that is in northern Uganda and Somalia. A civil war that is fought with child soldiers; child soldiers that are persecuting other children to kidnap to man their army.
Invisible Children (pt 1/6)



Additional Resources:
Here are... you guessed it, additional resources at your disposal.
John Boyne's Official Website The Author of The Boy in Striped Pajamas' Official Website
Boy in Striped Pajamas Page John Boyne's website for The Boy in Striped Pajamas
The Guardian's Book Review Review in the British newspaper The Guardian
Amazon's Book Review Review by one biggest book sellers online
Film Resources This website provides different clips taken from the film version of The Boy in Striped Pajamas, along with critical thinking questions that will get your students thinking critically about their own emotiona and reactions to the situation the boys find themselves in.
Lesson Plan Resources This site provides some resources for teachers trying to put together lesson plans and units together around this book.
Here are parts 2-6 of the Invisible Children documentary:
Here is the link to the Invisible Children website:
Invisible Children.com

--Travis Klooster, Emily Hoffmann, Jacob McDougall, Sean Mapes, and Ben Kraker