This semester, I am enrolled in a Young Adult literature course, which I have to say, is pretty rad. We’re reading one book each week, analyzing characters and plot constructs and examining them through less obvious lenses. I like to think I know a good amount about the genre, but this class is structured and taught in a really innovative way, so it’s going to be a new experience. And I’ll probably learn that I actually know nothing. It’s all good. The teacher rocks, which I firmly believe makes a class worthwhile.
The first book we read was “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys, and then “The Berlin Boxing Club” by Robert Sharenow, which I just finished earlier today. I’m feeling quite raw. It’s been a bit since I finished “Between Shades of Gray,” so I won’t spend much time on it, but I will say it was an incredible and harrowing historical fiction novel about the atrocities committed against the Baltic nations by the NKVD and then by the KGB. I don’t know why we aren’t taught about the Baltic genocides in schools, but they happened and they shouldn’t be ignored anymore. Sepetys, who has Lithuanian roots, traced her family’s history and from that, drew inspiration for her novel. I was entranced by her story. It affected me in odd ways, in that I felt guilty for being so ignorant, while also feeling hopeful. Hopeful about what, I can’t pin down. But I think that’s the main point of the book: to persist in hoping. For whatever it is you want. Her characters and words are ravaged by an indomitable hope that inevitably gives them the strength to keep on going. Everyone should read this.
“The Berlin Boxing Club.” Sheesh. I wasn’t really amped to read this, and then I read the first chapter and I was hooked. Karl is a 14 year-old German kid, totally in love with his hot neighbor and her tight sweaters and itching to distance himself from his gallery-owner dad. He has a relatively normal life in 1930s Berlin. He’s technically Jewish, but he’s never gone to a synagogue before and was raised to be agnostic. And he has blonde hair and blue eyes. Then Hitler comes into power and hints of aggression against Jewish people start growing in intensity until one day, his peers beat hom up for being Jewish.
I just love this book because it shows readers a new perspective on what it was like to be a Jewish kid in Nazi Germany. We have great and incredible books like Anne Frank’s diary and “Number the Stars,” but most literature is largely from the point of view of devout Jewish people. That’s not bad in any way, but looking at things and events in a new way is always a good thing.
Karl is a character you can empathize with. He has family issues, questions about his friends, girl problems and a hard time figuring out who he is, all of which most people can understand. And giving us a story about Nazi Germany, through the voice and mind of such a relatable kid is almost more impactful than other Holocaust books. I don’t know what it’s like to be prosecuted. But I do know what it’s like to struggle with identity and friends and boys. I easily connect. You know what I mean?
If you only read one book this year, read this one.