Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Title: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2006
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Oh, I have such mixed feelings about this book!

Published in 2006, the book originally came with all sorts of disclaimers urging people not to give away the story, but to allow all readers to experience this book without knowing what it was about. All these years later, the subject matter is no longer a secret: This is Holocaust fiction, telling the story of two young boys who meet through the fence at Auschwitz, and despite their vastly different circumstances, form a deep friendship.

We see the story unfold through 9-year-old Bruno’s eyes. Bruno’s father is a rising Nazi officer, favored by Hitler himself (whose name Bruno hears as “the Fury” rather than “the Fuhrer”). The father is promoted to Kommandant of Auschwitz, and when we first meet Bruno, he’s expressing his unhappiness at having his happy life in Berlin uprooted, as the family will be moving because of his father’s new job.

Bruno is remarkabley clueless (more on that later). They arrive at their new home, which is nowhere near as grand as his house in Berlin. There’s nothing to do, and no one to play with. From the upstairs window, Bruno has a view of strange people on the other side of a barbed wire fence, all wearing striped pajamas. He wonders who these people are and what they’re doing, and even feels some envy at what appears to be a large group of people who are all together while he is so very alone.

As Bruno goes exploring along the forbidden fence, he finds a strange boy sitting near it on the other side, a skinny, gray-faced boy wearing the striped pajamas. They start to talk, and Bruno and Shmuel begin to get to know one another. Soon, Bruno considers Shmuel his best friend, although he’s frustrated that they can never play together, and somehow knows enough never to mention Shmuel in his house.

On its surface, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a moving story. And yet, I can understand why it was controversial upon its release.

For starters, there are some story issues that make the book hard to digest. Bruno is 9 years old and lived in the heart of Berlin, in a house led by a Nazi officer and where soldiers and other important people constantly come and go… and yet he appears to never have heard of Jews until his sister tells him, much later, that that’s who those people on the other side of the fence are.

And why are there so many children at Auschwitz, when we know that the majority would have been murdered upon arrival? How is Shmuel able to sneak away for hours, day after day, with no one noticing?

And is Bruno’s language mix-ups (such as “the Fury” and his belief that they live at “Out-With”) supposed to be cute? Frankly, he presents as much younger than nine.

In the book’s favor, the title page clearly calls this story “a fable”. No, these are not historical events. No, this depiction of life at Auschwitz isn’t meant to be historically accurate.

And yet, what’s concerning is that apparently this book is often used in schools as an introduction to Holocaust fiction. In fact, the back of my paperback edition includes a blurb from USA Today that calls this book “as memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank”.

Um, no. That comparison is absurd. And it disturbs me to think that there are students whose first encounter with the horrors of Auschwitz might be through this “fable”, where nothing seems all that terrible at first, where the nightmarish reality is presented as a distant curiosity, and where a reader who doesn’t know the factual history might not even get what was going on.

As a companion book, or a different lens on known events, sure, this would be effective. But as the sole introduction, it’s sorely lacking in context and facts, and I’m afraid that the melodrama and Bruno’s limited worldview are pretty close to sugar-coating.

Now, I’ll add that I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on whether that version is more or less effective at conveying the full picture of Auschwitz. I actually picked up this book this week because my son saw the movie at school and came home to tell me how good it was. I think I should give it a chance, and see if I feel any differently about the story afterward.

I was eager to read this book not only because of my son’s recommendation, but because I just recently read my very first book by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and thought it was brilliant.

As I was reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I just couldn’t stop and ended up reading it straight through. It was only once I’d closed the covers and stopped to think that the various elements above started to bother me.

I’d be really curious to hear from others who’ve read this book and see if our responses and reactions are at all aligned.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking up reviews from when the book was published, and have found more than a few pieces that discuss why this book had such a mixed and controversial response:

(Note: Some of these links may contain spoilers. Proceed with caution!)

Review – New York Times
Review – Jewish Book Council
Analysis – Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre
Movie review – Time Magazine
Book Review – Aish.com

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

  1. Hi Lisa, I haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Thanks for your honest review. I’m not sure I’d pick this up. I think I’d have trouble with how unrealistic Bruno’s character is. I like how you’ve added links to other reviews – I’ve been doing that too, especially with books I didn’t like. Hope you are doing well!

    • Thanks, Barbara! When I have a mixed or negative reaction to a book that people seem to talk a lot about, I do find it helpful to look up other resources and see if maybe I missed something, or if there are other viewpoints that might convince me to expand my thinking.

  2. I agree that this shouldn’t be confused with fact, and certainly shouldn’t be taught as such, though I do think it is an easier tale for children to relate to than Ann Franks Diary in many ways.
    With respect I do disagree with your view on Bruno. This was a period when children of the upper class had very little to do with their parents.and when at home likely never ventured out of the attic nursery/schoolroom of their Berlin home except under the care of a nanny or tutor except to dutifully submit to a kiss goodnight. Military discussions would take place behind locked and closed study doors anyway He wouldn’t have access to any media, and it’s unlikely any one would have explained the war to him, children of his age were not informed of or included in such matters. it’s also entirely possible he never witnessed any of the violence or hate directed at Jews since any travel outside the home would be in a car and to approved places. So in my opinion his naivety really isn’t a stretch, especially when you factor in a child’s ability to normalise their circumstances, even when it evidently isn’t.

    • Thanks, I appreciate your perspective! I get what you’re saying about Bruno and being a sheltered child at the time, but Bruno does specifically talk about being out and about in the city, being on the crowded streets with his friends, what his friends’ parents do for a living, etc — so surely he must have at least encountered some hint of the reality of his times?

  3. I am glad I read this review. I do think historical fiction for the Holocaust has its place but am glad I didn’t pick this one up. I heard people rave about this but given your description I would not be one of them. The main character sounds too naive and the mixed up words too trite. The other book that I hear has lots of interest for schools is number the stars. Have ye read that one?
    x The Captain

    • PS. Thank you for including the link to the Analysis – Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre. They are a fantastic resource that I have used before like for the tattooist of Auschwitz. What I read there spoiled the ending and I am glad. I am now whole-heartedly not for this book being taught in schools when there are better choices out there.
      x The Captain

      • Oops, so sorry for the spoiler! Maybe I should add some warning language above the links. I hadn’t come across this resource before, but I’m glad to know about it now! And I’m glad you mentioned The Tattooist of Auschwitz — I’ll be reading that one (finally) with my book group later this spring, and it’s good to know there are good online resources to check out.

        Regarding the ending (spoilers!), a piece that’s been bothering me after the fact is that somehow Bruno’s death end up being the tragic part, which almost minimizes all the other countless deaths happening at the same time. The fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time is awful, but is his fate any more awful than that of Shmuel and all the other people being murdered? I don’t know… having a hard time with sorting all this out, clearly.

    • I have read Number the Stars, many years ago, and while the plot is fuzzy for me at this point, I do remember thinking that it was excellent! I think one of the differences is that Number the Stars is much more fact-based, showing the experiences of a girl during this time while clearly placing it in the context of what was happening. In fact, now that you’ve reminded me of it, I think I need to do a re-read!

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