The Novel for April is The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. First of all, if the author's name seems familiar, it's because she's a prolific writer--and a fabulous one. She has written loads of picture books and novels, as well as lots of beautiful poetry. I've never read anything of Jane Yolen's that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed.
The Devil's Arithmetic is marvelous. Historical Fiction, it tells the story of a Jewish girl named Hannah growing up in present-day New York. In the car on the way to a Passover Seder with family, Hannah laments having to participate in so many Jewish holiday celebrations. As her mother reminds her that Passover is for remembering, Hannah replies, "All Jewish holidays are about remembering, Mama. I'm tired of remembering." But then, at dinner, when Hannah opens the front door of the house to sybolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she is transported to a Polish village in 1942. Soon Hannah finds herself amidst Nazi soldiers and struggling Jewish families, and only she knows the terrible things that await them. Only after experiencing these things for herself does Hannah appreciate the importance of remembering.
I first read this book in college. It reminded me of reading Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry in elementary school. (Have you read that one? It won the Newberry Medal and is also a must-read!) Like Number the Stars, The Devil's Arithmetic does a beautiful job of helping us, as readers, understand and feel the significance of the attrocities done to the Jewish people by the Nazis. What I find especially impressive is that both novels are deep and serious and thought-provoking, but still appropriate for children (both novels are about 3rd grade and up). They aren't dark or violent or grim. Instead, they educate, lift, and inspire.
I often comment to my husband that the worst thing in this world is man's inhumanity to man. More than anything else I want to be kind. And I want my children to understand that nothing is more important than being kind. Though it can be sobering to read about, I feel it is so important and necessary to know what happened to the Jews in Poland (and elsewhere), to the Tutsis in Rwanda, and what is happening now in Sudan. As we were always taught in history class, we have to make sure we don't repeat the mistakes of others. Stories like The Devil's Arithmetic remind me of the importance of friendship, hope, and courage. They remind me to be kind and to fight for that which is good and true. And just like Hannah learns, it is so important to remember.