Children’s Book Blog: Recommended read – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
Seeing the amazing Judith Kerr talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last weekend prompted me to revisit her semi-autobiographical tale about her childhood flight from Germany on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power.
What’s the story?
Nine-year-old Anna and her older brother Max love their lives in Berlin. They are too busy playing games in their large, comfortable house and tobogganing with their friends to pay much attention to the upcoming political election, in which Adolf Hitler – an odd little man with a Charlie Chaplin moustache – looks set to win. But when their father, a prominent anti-Nazi writer who also happens to be Jewish, discovers that he and his family may be at risk if they stay in Germany, they escape first to Switzerland, then France, then England. In each country they must come to terms with the strange customs of the land and adjust to their new lives as refugees – with both heart-breaking and hilarious consequences.
Who’s it for?
The book is aimed at nine to 12-year-olds in terms of difficulty, though it should appeal to readers of all ages, particularly those interested in the Second World War and anyone who has been uprooted from their home and forced to adapt to a foreign culture.
Why should I read it?
Because it is quite simply one of the most heartfelt, life-affirming books you could ever read. The character of Anna – who is really Kerr herself – is so indefatigably bold and optimistic in the face of adversity that you can’t help but wish you were a bit more like her, even if she does let childish selfishness get the better of her at times.
The child’s eye view makes the events in the novel seem at once more matter-of-fact and more terrifying than if they were being recounted by an adult. The eventual consequences of Hitler coming to power are so infamous today that Anna’s blissful ignorance of the danger she and her family are in will have readers of all ages shrinking back in their seats.
Will the children’s lack of understanding blow everyone’s cover and lead them into the hands of the Nazis? And do the parents’ attempts to shelter their children make their collective ordeal easier or harder to bear? The childish misunderstandings that arise from not being told the full truth – Anna’s nightmare about her father being violently pelted with coins because ‘there is a price on his head’ – are sometimes just as disturbing as any real-life threats.
While Anna/Judith’s story undoubtedly provides invaluable insight into one of the darkest periods in European history, it will also resonate powerfully with refugees from all countries and eras. The family’s struggles to integrate into societies quite different from their own bring with them hardship, but also humour. This is no bleak tale of loss and regret, though many things are inevitably lost, including Anna’s titular toy rabbit. Instead, thanks to the young protagonist’s admirable spirit, each upheaval is treated as an adventure, and every fish-out-of-water incident that occurs is saved up as a funny story to share with others later.
In an afterword to my edition of the book, Judith Kerr reveals how incredibly lucky she feels to have survived the war when so many Jewish children did not. Anna’s near-namesake, Anne Frank, was not so lucky. When you finish this book, you’re left with an overwhelming urge to make the most of every moment life throws at you – good and bad – just as Kerr herself has done.
Best character: Anna, for having such an open, imperturbable heart (without being remotely goody-goodyish).
Best line(s): ‘It’s an odd feeling,’ said Papa. ‘You live in a country all your life. Then suddenly it’s taken over by thugs and there you are, on your own in a strange place, with nothing.’
He looked so cheerful as he said this that Anna asked, ‘Don’t you mind?’
‘In a way,’ said Papa. ‘But I find it very interesting.’
If I like this, what other books might I like?
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: anne frank, children's literature, judith kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
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