The boy in the striped pyjamas : film review

I’ve blogged before on how I love John Boyne’s “The boy in the striped pyjamas”. It’s a hell of a book. Last night I also finally managed to see the film adaptation.

It’s interesting watching a film when you know approximately what’s going to happen. You prepare yourself for the ending. The awful awful stomach-punch of an ending. That’s a given. But what also struck me was the use of light and of music during the film.

There’s a moment, during the earliest of frames, where Bruno and his friends are playing at being airplanes in town. They run down streets, arms held out wide, engine sputters coming out of their mouths. The music is suitably euphoric. It is sunshine and children and so evocative of that perfect childhood moment.

And then Bruno planes past a group of soldiers in the background. A group of soldiers clearing out a housing block and people being thrown into lorries. This was the moment that summed the film up for me. The music just swelled a little bit louder, that tiny infinitesimal increase in volume, and we were pulled away from the scene, pulled to follow Bruno some more down the road. We were still in his childhood. We were still within his frame of reference. He had not noticed what was going on and so we weren’t allowed to notice.  It symbolised the way entire swathes of people just shut their eyes and pretended to not know what was going on. It was a brilliant fragment of a film that said so much more.

The film itself is very quiet and subtle. It never wholly names the “farm” which is interesting. This is a very key thing in the book where Bruno finds out it’s called “Out-With”. There was also an interesting subplot introduced in the film whereby the awesome Sheila Hancock plays Bruno’s grandmother and it’s unfortunate that this is all too brief to gain any coherent impact.

As a whole though this film complemented the book excellently and although it’s not an easy view, it’s a gutwrenching, heartbreaking and beautifully shot film that’s most definitely worth a view.

You need to see this film. You really need to.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Quick heads up – it’s on BBC2 (UK) tonight @ 9pm. I love the book so will blog about my reactions to the film. I’m intrigued to see if it translates well to film and whether the quiet subtlety of the text remains present. I’m also prepared to be a weeping mess by the end of it. If you’re watching, or you’ve seen it, let me know what you think.

Five books which changed my life

I read a lovely article recently where Mariella Frostrup discussed her ten most life-changing books. Typically I can’t find this article to link to (my information warrior powers are sleeping on the job) so, as I was somewhat inspired by that article, here are five books which changed my life. Obviously a lot of them have a children’s literature slant, what with this being on my blog and all, but there are a few oddities in there. And I promise I’ll link to that article when I find it again.

(Also, I’m aware I could do a version of this article which focuses solely on girls school stories so beware, you’ll be getting something like that in the near future. For now just praise me that I’ve gone at least three posts without mentioning the Chalet School …).

The book which made me feel like I could be a princess

Growing up is hard to do. It’s harder to do when you’re one of the run of the mill kids. When you’re not cool, when you’re not hot, you learn to develop your support network in other ways. Friends. The right people get you through anything. And books: books that make you think you can get out of the never-ending drudge that is school because they show you what can happen to people (kind of) like you.

The Princess Diary  by Meg Cabot gave me all that and more. It’s the story of Mia Thermopolis, the dorky awkward teenager who discovers she is actually princess of the distinctly ruritanian kingdom of Genovia. And oh my god it’s funny. Meg Cabot sparks off every page and just lives the nightmare that is being a teenager.

The film adaptations (and Anne Hathaway, my secret girlcrush) are my guilty pleasures. I remember being on a long distance flight to New Zealand, about 402 hours in, and I turned into a sobbing wreck at the emotional journey Mia had undertaken in the film. Amazing. Although slightly embarrassing for the dude sat next to me.

The book that made me realise anything was possible

I really want to go to Tibet. I want butter tea. I want to see the prayer flags flapping on the mountain side and I want to witness that culture.

And it’s all because of one woman. Alexandra David-Neel. Nobody knows who she is these days but by god this woman was amazing. The first western woman to enter Tibet, she adopted the appearance of a pilgrim and her and her male companion made their way to Lhasa.  Vaguely normal so far, but this was actually incredibly brave. If she had been discovered she would have been thrown out of the country. She did it because she wanted to and because she knew she could.

There’s a moment on their journey where her and Yongden are stuck on a mountain without shelter. It’s viciously exposed and the bad weather is coming on. It’s very much a life or death situation. But they survive due to David-Neel’s mastery of thumo reskiang, the Tibetan skill of increasing body heat. She sends Yongden off to gather fuel and settles herself down to the rite. They survive. Both of them survive a night on the mountain side without any injury.

It’s an amazing, and viscerally readable story. Here’s a link to the same edition I have. It’s not in print anymore but there are a lot of second hand editions floating around.

The author that always makes me laugh like a fool

It’s a slight cheat here but I’m selecting an author. She’s never failed yet. Louise Rennison. I hate her because she’s so damn good. She’s bloody brilliant. Seriously. I’m running out of synonyms for amazing and I’ve only written seven sentences.

The book that left me winded

It’s unusual for a book to leave a physical impact. I can count on one hand the books that have left me feeling winded. Micheal Morpurgo is obviously up there, but if I have to select a specific book I’ll go for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.

The last few pages left me feeling physically assaulted. I still remember my genuine intake of breath when I read them, and that awful sick feeling in the stomach that what I had expected to happen had come to happen.

I’ve spoken on writing about war before and I think this book justifies my argument. Sometimes the numbers are just too huge to comprehend. Sometimes you need a name and a story to latch onto. Witnessing the death of innocence that occurs in this book is one of the most awfully painful reading experiences I’ve ever experienced.

The book that I keep coming back to

I am a mean reader. I really am. I’m very aware of this. I’ve put books back because I didn’t like the font. I’ll pitch a fit over a typo. I’ve ignored authors because of the name they’ve given their lead character. I confess : I am horrendously subjective when it comes to books.

But I will never ever ignore a book from Frank Cottrell Boyce. And it’s all because of Millions. Millions is one of those books that deserves to be on the reading list for everybody everywhere. It teaches you everything you need to know about the power of love (and no, not the eighties power ballad version). Love. Love between brothers, a father for his sons, and a mother for her children. And oh my god it has the most beautiful scene in it that I’m not going to spoil now but I’m teary just remembering it. Just – go – read it – and thank me later. I am evangelical for this book and pray that one day I’ll be able to deliver something as good.

Children’s Literature and War

It’s the 11th November. On this day at 11am in 1918, the armistice was signed between Germany and the Allied forces and hostilities were ceased. Following a few signatures between a few men the war, which had changed lives and the world irrevocably, officially came to an end.

So why am I writing about this on a children’s literature blog?

I want to take the moment to address the presence of war literature for children.

Violence. Fighting. Death. Pain. Heartache. There’s arguments for presenting these things in children’s literature and there’s arguments against it. Lydia Kokkola has written an excellent book which discusses the representation of the holocaust in children’s literature. One of her key arguments is very simple. Should children be exposed to this sort of thing in their literature or not?

For me, this sort of thing goes to the very heart of the concept of literature. One of our great gifts of being human is language. And language helps us decode the world around us. Without language we struggle and become marooned in our own private existence. We lose our identity as there is no way for us to validate this against external forces. How can we know who or what we stand for when we do not know who or what the external influences are? Can a human exist without context?

Stories, storying and language all help us understand the world we live in. They help us realise we’re not alone. They help us gain a path out of the darkness by signposting a way out. They provide us with our context for existence. And they allow us to connect with each other.

So should the story shift depending on who we tell it to? I’m drawn to the example of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Here’s a book, definitely orientated towards children, and yet the subject topic of the Holocaust was such that upon reading the last page I felt physically winded. Is that because of my knowledge of what the ‘striped pyjamas’ actually stand for? Is it because of the internal narrative of the book or is it because of the external narrative of my knowledge of the second world war? It also left me intrigued. Is it possible to interpret the story on a much simpler level? Is it just about friendship existing where you least expect it? Is the lesson not to be horrified but to be proud of two children and their glorious innocence of the situation they were involved in?

So yes. Children should read this stuff. Not just for the duality of interpretation that may (and just let me repeat that, may) pull a text in a different direction than their adult counterpart.

They should read it to learn of their history. They should read it to understand what makes a person a person.

War literature tells us of people who lived and died in the worst of times. Of heroes and villains. Of darkness and light.

It forces us to see past statistics and static pictures in a text book. It forces us to inhabit a situation through the cipher of a character.

War literature also makes us become moral readers. To gain some sense of ourselves, to question what we would do. And it’s okay to think I don’t know. The important thing is to ask that question.

But perhaps more importantly than all that, there’s one big reason that children should be exposed to war literature. Children grow up. Become adults. And it’s adults who get us in these messes. Children need to know what sacrifices have been made in their name so that they don’t grow up and carry out the same mistakes.

Sit down with your children. Open a book. Tell them of what these people did. And be proud that you live in a free and empowered society that lets you do this.

Never forget.