Betsy's Reviews > The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
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Nov 08, 08

Read in November, 2008

I'll give it this much. Few books have caused me to actually shake SHAKE in anger. Wow. I think I need to go boil my eyeballs for a while. What was the author thinking?
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message 1: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Mcdermott Hi there

I noticed you have some strong views about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which makes you an ideal person for me to ask if you would you like to put a question to John Boyne himself about his book? BBC World Book Club is interviewing him on Tuesday 23rd February and would love to hear from you. If you could email me at as soon as you can with your question about the book (anything - doesn't have to be particularly clever!), we can either arrange for you to talk to the man himself, or have our presenter put your question to John for you. Then you get to hear your question on World Service Radio! Please get in touch soonest, including where you are in the world.

Thanks, and all the best.

Ruth McDermott, BBC World Book Club

Betsy I appreciate the offer, Ruth. However, I'm not sure that there's much I could ask Mr. Boyne that wouldn't come off as overly snarky. I'm sure that there will be plenty of folks interested in speaking to him. So while I am grateful, I must respectfully decline.

message 3: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Mcdermott If there is anything you'd like to ask though, please put it in an email and we can read it out. I'm sure we can make it sound un-narky! We are really keen to challenge him on points, we don't just want praise, of which I'm sure there will be enough.

Please do get int ouch again, we need people with strong view points to ask questions.

Thanks for writing back.


Sophia Could you explain what you mean, Elizabeth? I dont understand what made you shake with anger. I thought it was wonderful... and I am truly just wondering what you hated about it.

Betsy Ah. Well. This is going to sound a bit harsh, so I apologize beforehand, but I do believe that actual harm is done when children are assigned this book in school.

In brief this is a book that turns a horrific event into a cute fable. On a logical level there are other problems, like the fact that since the characters are talking in German it would make no sense for Bruno to say, "Out-with" and have it mean the same thing in German that it does in English (ditto "The Fury"). The boy acts as if he were six but is apparently much older and would have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth from day one PARTICULARLY if his father was an officer with the S.S. The smell of his home would have been intolerable, due to the ovens, and I don't think there was a German child alive that didn't know what "Jew" meant during the war.

These logical problems often run into folks saying, "Oh, but it's a fable!" or "an allegory", but that doesn't excuse the fact that it gives out false information about a real event. It turns a true teachable moment into a book whose only real moral appears to be, "Don't kill people who are different from you or your son might be the one who ends up in a gas chamber."

The movie was slightly better because it tried to address some of the mistakes made in the book, but even then it could only do so much.

There are always difficulties when you take a moment in history as horrific as the Holocaust and try to explain it to children. A lot of discussion has sprung up recently about what age is the best age to begin teaching it. It makes far more sense, then, to assign books like "Diary of a Young Girl" or "Number the Stars" or "Yellow Star" (by Jennifer Roy) or "The Cat With the Yellow Star" or anything by Uri Orlev. These are books that did their research. This book, in contrast, disrespects history, disrespects the people who died, and disrespects our children. It takes a real historical moment and trivializes it, puts in cutesy words, and removes the facts so that it can make a rather vague point.

Whew! Sorry about that. It just upsets me sometimes. Particularly when I consider all the better books out there on the subject. I would recommend reading "Once" by Morris Gleitzman instead. It's similar, but avoids the mistakes that Boyne has made here. Like "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" it concerns an innocent boy who doesn't understand the facts behind what's happening in his country. Unlike Bruno, though, he learns and grows.

Sophia ok. that makes sense. Your right.

message 7: by Jean (new)

Jean I think this has found its way to a reading list around here because I have to keep finding it for people and I cringe when I do. I do think the movie is better than the book, but it still has so many faults. Maybe whoever is assigning it is using it as a springboard for discussing how a book can go wrong. But I doubt it. Sigh.

Lars Guthrie I'm with you to a point. The plot hinges on the most unlikely (make that highly impossible) of events: a friendship between the son of the Auschwitz commandant and one of its inmates. The langiage thing was irritating to me, too. However, the characters of the children seemed strong and well drawn to me. The fact that Bruno is presented as a "normal" kid might be a springboard for discussion about how evil can so easily wear a cloak of normality. Please don't boil your eyeballs; readers need you.

Heleen "I think I need to go boil my eyeballs for awhile." Thank you for summarizing how I felt about this book so vividly and succintly.

message 10: by Matilda (new) - added it

Matilda I read a few chapters of this book and was literally overwhelmed by the evil in its pages - it is evil on every page because it is so banal, so full of lies and evasion, so in love with its own joyless dandifying, nonsensical prose and supreme lack of faith - it's just bland hysteria by a fool - I wanted to KILL John Boyd, and I want to SHAME anyone who likes it and I just threw the book away. And I thought I'd forgotten it but no, no, they have to make a film about it and then they have to write duff reviews on that too, and people say, 'I read it to my children and they loved it' and I just think: go and rot, and your smug children too. So I am with F and Elizabeth and quite a few other people. In fact I am enjoying these reviews. I'd write one myself but I'd have to go and read the book again. Please don't make me. Never, ever make me read, or see that book again. I actually would have it burnt. Which would be fair as the Nazis burnt all the good books.

Julie Suzanne Wow, Jessica, that's pretty harsh and angry. Anyway, Elizabeth, what you said here, On a logical level there are other problems, like the fact that since the characters are talking in German it would make no sense for Bruno to say, "Out-with" and have it mean the same thing in German that it does in English (ditto "The Fury"). The boy acts as if he were six but is apparently much older and would have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth from day one PARTICULARLY if his father was an officer with the S.S. The smell of his home would have been intolerable, due to the ovens, and I don't think there was a German child alive that didn't know what "Jew" meant during the war", is exactly what bothered me, too. I actually did totally like the movie, though. I hated the mother character in the book and liked what they did with her in the movie.

Love your reviews!

message 12: by Betsy (new) - rated it 1 star

Betsy Those were precisely the problems I had with the book too. The movie worked to change some of those (making Bruno older, making the air of his home smell, etc.). Still, it was hard to watch the film without thinking that the moral was "Don't Build Concentration Camps Because if You Do Sometimes the Wrong People Get Killed". The book is pretty much just flawed from the start. There are other good books out there on the same subject (Once by Morris Gleitzman isn't bad) instead.

message 13: by Matilda (new) - added it

Matilda Hmmmm. I have thought about this further and I actually now think that the book itself is a form of either Holocaust denial or Nazi propaganda. I'm with you (inevitably) on the misspellings and the infantalising of the infant who is not an infant (he is nine, though it's condescending to six year olds) - these strangulated attempts to make the child seem as if he is - oh just the same as the Jew child who in fact would never exist because all the children were murdered anyway, or if not had to live on their wits and full well knew what was happening - Boyne makes the Jew as ignorant as the Nazi, which is despicable, and mysterious in a sick way - and I come to the conclusion that what we have here is that fake, deaf consciousness of making a terrible act one that no one is responsible for, because no one knew, and if they did, well, as Elizabeth says, the only trouble with that was that the wrong people might get killed so make your gates more secure.

But the gates in Auschwitz WERE secure; they were electrocuted. And pretending the Holocaust is innocent of itself is a very guilty matter.

Why has John Boyne written this book? He's written it to make an idea of peace and universal love applicable where it is not applicable, and he has pretended - as so many do - that abuse is not very nice to talk about so we will all act as if nothing has happened or that everyone is nice, or that none of us can spell (see that other astonishingly ugly book, The Reader) so how can we possibly know, illiterates or youngsters as we are, or love and innocence is everywhere, where it is patently not. I don't like that. I don't like it in real life, in literature, in art, at school, at home or on television, and I particularly do not like it with regard to the Holocaust.

Yes, there are good books on the subject of the Holocaust (Holocaust, for example, which was good enough for me when I read it as an 11 year old though I still don't know who wrote it and want someone to tell me (1978); The Drowned and The Saved (Primo Levi), Night (Elie Wiesel), anything by Paul Celan (Black Milk), etc), but that is not the point here. The point is that THIS book, on the subject of the Holocaust (while saying it isn't at the same time, though it's under History as a genre) is not just a bad book - badly written, badly researched - but a book that is in itself bad - harmful, evil, wicked; an act of bad faith; and this from me who is more than happy to read American Psycho - of course I am. That book takes some responsibility. It is a book where one does not breathe in gas on every page and conclude that one deserves to die. That is what I felt, reading Boyne's book, and why I physically could not complete it.

Look at what Rabbi Blech says about The Boy In The Striped PyJamas (no one yet has considered how manipulative the actual title is, as if it's all about sleeping and just a bedtime story, something no one needs to take seriously, the actual business of being in a death camp a front, a childish delight, Wee Willie Winkie, a nursery rhyme). Blech read it, and he went and visited some Auschwitz survivors and he asked them what they thought - they said the smell of burning bodies was apparent for miles around, that the trains drew up daily and the death was visible to the point where it was all that WAS visible. To pretend no one knew this, no one living right there on the edge of the camp, is a hideous distortion, similar to the distortion of the Germans later, after the war, on their ignorance and lack of complicity with it. These are his words:

'True, Bruno in the story was but a boy. But I have spoken to Auschwitz survivors. They tell me how the stench of burning human flesh and the ashes of corpses from the crematoria filled the air for miles around. The trains traveling with human cargo stacked like cordwood screaming for water as they died standing in their natural wastes without even room to fall to the ground were witnessed throughout every countryside. Nobody, not even little German children who were weaned on hatred of the Jews as subhuman vermin could have been unaware of "The Final Solution." And to suggest that Bruno simply had no idea what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home is to allow the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.'

He doesn't like the way the denial in the story chimes in with the denial of the Holocaust itself. He thinks the two things are identical. So do I; in fact one of the problems with the Holocaust was the way it self-erased itself anyway, by making the death of so many merely the death of no one, nothing, because Jews were never human to begin with, that anti-semitism itself didn't exist because hating Jews was beautiful, Godlike, a love of purity and peace, the true way of being, and that anything against ant-semitism was perverse, and that the prejudice eradicated itself by the poetic vision; none of it existed. THIS is the POINT. This is the fabric, the meat and texture and meaning of the Final Solution, to absolve itself of evil because it does no wrong: all it does is purgation, all its act are beautiful, charitable. What could be more innocent and true than wiping the world of degeneracy? It is cleaning up, not genocide. It means well; it is sweet, indolent, childlike in its understanding. And that is just what this book does, and it does it in many ways, ways that worry me are the ways of many of its readers, and that is why it is a book that perhaps is divides people, and that is why we need to look at what is human yet again.

Blech goes on to say this:

'My Auschwitz friend read the book at my urging. He wept, and begged me tell everyone that this book is not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation.'

OK. So I think that the book is not nebulous and silly and wrong-headed and evasive, but plain and simple evil. I think my original response to it was correct, and I am annoyed that it should be seen as anything other than a way of making people not face facts and cause the misery to happen all over again. And I am right. If it makes Auschwitz survivors weep and beg the world to know it is a 'profanation', then we have a serious problem, and no, it is not a work of art or a piece of fiction, it is an offence. This isn't about disturbing a faith or a religious belief like banning The Satanic Verses, this is about pretending evil is good. That I won't have. I dropped that book in disgust, and I was right to do so. It is pornography for rapists.

What is interesting here is that anyone likes this book, that the words I say are considered 'harsh'; that I myself am thought of as destructive in condemning it, that 'being angry' is just not kosher. I think these are the exact same words that would be used when someone objected to having a yellow star put on them, and dared to oppose the beautiful generosity and kind-spitedness of the German people in ridding themselves of a plague. I think the ONLY way to respond to this book is with a loathsome tremor. And indeed, not only Jews died for the idyll of Final Solution, but Germans too. Sophie Scholl was guillotined because she raised objections. She was rare, and it looks as though even in a democracy, and even with free speech, it is pretty unlikely that anyone will object to a malefic vision that leaves blood in its wake, precisely on grounds of the fact that it really sounds innocent and nice-natured. The book appeals the psychotic in denial. This disturbs me a great deal. I want you all to be equally disturbed.

message 14: by Angie (new)

Angie I have now read enough negative reviews of this book to be certain that I do not really want to read it.

message 15: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy The Nazi's were brutal and this is a story of the unintended consequences of that brutality. Your review seems more a commentary of the holocaust than the book.

message 16: by Chris (new)

Chris Waters Yea this was an amazing book. I really enjoyed it. The boys story was so interesting. In the end I was happy that he died. Before you gang up on me I want to tell you why. I think when the father came to the realization of how the son died he rethinks his strategies. When the soilders came and took him away he didnt even care because he doesnt he is still devastated by his sons death. Im mean even if he did find his son before it was too late in chapter 20 he couldnt have taken him out of the gas chamber while leaving others.I want to know do you guys really buy into the innocence of Bruno. I mean his dad is a top commander of a concentration camp and Bruno knows nothing of the camp. I find this just a little hard to believe. I think some of the ignorance on Brunos part makes the story what it is though. This was a very compelling book though.

message 17: by Oana (last edited Dec 29, 2013 03:00PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Oana Few books have caused me to actually shake SHAKE in anger. I hear you, lady. I've just finished it, and my blood pressure has increased way too high for my age frame right now.

message 18: by Marlene (new) - added it

Marlene Bailey It is truly a GrEAT book I read it four times and now I know the whole book out of my head

message 19: by Enza (new)

Enza Really? you think creating awareness is bad?

message 20: by Betsy (new) - rated it 1 star

Betsy Nope. But making the attempt with continual historical inaccuracies, conducted with the excuse of the story being an "allegory"? The Boy on the Wooden Box is the book this should have been.

message 21: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura Harrison Betsy wrote: "Ah. Well. This is going to sound a bit harsh, so I apologize beforehand, but I do believe that actual harm is done when children are assigned this book in school.

In brief this is a book that tu..."

I could not agree more. Where I live in Westchester The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is on most school's summer reading lists as required or recommended reading. I do my best to choose other books on the child's list if at all possible (I am a children's bookseller). Thank you so much for your spot on review.

message 22: by Nick (new)

Nick Wolff I agree with most of the negative comments here. It worries me that schoolchildren are being recommended this book as its distortion of the truth is gobsmacking. I doubt whether John Boyne did any research for this book at all. It is no good defending the book as an allegory when it identifies the camp as Auschwitz. I visited Auschwitz 1, where the Commandant Rudolf Hoess and his family were based after I read the book and was shocked to see that the house backs on to the camp. The main gas chambers were a few miles away at Birkenau, but the stench of the crematoria would have been smelt for miles around; also, there is still a gas chamber only a few yards from the house which was used early on with Russian prisoners to experiment with Zyklon B. The idea that the boy would have been unaware of what was going on is just plain wrong.He would have been indoctrinated from a very age what to think about Jews as indeed the real Commandant's sons were. One of the Commandant's grandsons is guilt-ridden about what his grandfather did and ashamed that his own father defended what the Nazis did until his dying day. If you want to read a true allegory of the Second World War, then Albert Camus's "the Plague" which ostensibly is about a North African town infested with the plague but is an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France is hard to beat.

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