Be Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan does what I want to do and what I want my students to do. He takes his passions and lets them drive his reading, listening, and songwriting. So much of his Chronicles, Volume One is spent praising and discussing a wide variety of figures in literature and music, everything from the Beats to Harry Belafonte to Neil Sedaka. Dylan fans can read this and discover lesser-known influences and peers such as Dave Van Ronk and Bobby Vee.

Teachers need to do the same, and they can do it without writing a book. They just have to model their reading habits for their students. There is so much students want to know about their teachers, and it never occurs to the teachers that a little modeling of their reading habits would humanize them for their students. I get a little of that from reading Dylan’s memoirs. He was already human, but now I know him a little better—even if he still isn’t candid about everything in his life.

I play Bob Dylan at some point every year. Most of my students have never heard of him, and when they leave my classroom, they may never hear him again. But at least they are exposed to the man who may be our greatest living songwriter. If the world is lucky, he may stick with a few students. It’s the least I can do.

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Continuing! Maybe!

It’s been a couple of months since I finished the class for which I was keeping this blog.  Since then, I have missed posting book reviews, but even more so, I have been attempting to become more focused on literacy, and even more specifically, why students and the general population are less than concerned about it. 

I’ve become convinced during my short career that teachers need to model the excitement of reading for their students, who may not know anyone who enjoys books.  I’ve also realized that literacy stretches beyond books into just about any facet of culture, high, popular, or otherwise (these points may be nothing new to anyone who visits this site, but they excite me, so let me indulge for just a moment).  This is what I try to instill in my classroom–an appetite for books without neglecting everything else out there. 

So here’s what I’ll do:

  • I’ll keep a record of books that may interest the student reader (both willing and unwilling).  I’m interested in children’s and young adult novels, but I also like the idea of finding works intended for adults that might still find a younger audience (see my review of The History Boys).
  • I’ll make occasional comments on reading strategies & research.
  • I’ll share news and observations from the culture of books.
  • I’ll promote literacy-at-large–an ability to read deeply in all forms of media (movies, art, the Internet, etc.).  In my classroom, I try to model the life of someone who reads avidly but also watches TV, views goofy YouTube clips, and even plays the occasional video game.

Let me be honest with you: Behind me is a long trail of failed blogs, all due to neglect.  I feel differently about this one.  It really bothers me that my students–even some in my Introduction to Teaching class, our nation’s future educators–have little interest in reading.  The students are not to blame.  I blame bad classroom experiences and a culture that is too busy following Britney Spears to the hospital.  There will be plenty of time to discuss those issues, but for now, if you don’t mind, take a moment to hope and pray that this goes somewhere, because it would be nice to change things.


Is He Or Isn’t He?

Myers, Walter Dean (1999).  Monster.  New York: Harper Tempest.

     Who is Steve Harmon?  A budding filmmaker?  A small-time street thug?  A loving son and brother?  A kid in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Is he all of these things, or is he just what a prosecuting attorney calls him—a monster?  Walter Dean Myers’ Monster lets Steve himself try to sort all that out for the reader.    

Steve is on trial for a murder that occurred during a botched convenience store robbery.  During his downtime in jail, Steve writes a screenplay about the trial, which is the bulk of the novel’s content, interspersed with excerpts from his journal. 

Although we are inside Steve’s mind the entire time, Steve withholds many details until we must know them, and even then, there is a bit of ambiguity as to what really went on the day of the robbery.  At one point, Steve claims in his journal that he walked into the store just to buy some mints, but during his testimony, he says that he did not even go to the store that day.  One wonders if he was involved, or if he lied about his presence simply to distance himself from the crime itself.    

Regardless of Steve’s guilt or innocence, Myers touches on a number of issues in the book.  In addition to racism, Steve’s experiences reveal the prison system to be simmering with the hatred and violence of its inmates, who are practically conditioned to tear each other apart (and the guards do not help).  This can confuse Steve from time to time: “I want to look like a good person.  I want to feel like a good person because I believe I am.  But being in here with these guys makes it hard to think about yourself as being different” (62).  It may be that the confinement of prison itself is one of the things that gives a person the prisoner’s mindset.  Steve has to fight that while he is in jail. The violence around him can also be overwhelming; he theorizes that the other prisoners “want it to be normal because that’s what they’re used to dealing with” (144).  Prison culture is vastly different from the culture of the outside world.  Myers illuminates that with Steve’s subtle and cautionary observations.    

In the end, this book is about much more than one teenager on trial.  With economic language and an experimental screenplay format, Myers does all he can to place the reader inside the mind of a young man accused of murder, and he succeeds in unexpected ways.  The horrors of prison life—not to mention a trial deciding your fate—are depicted realistically and without resorting to didacticism.  Most haunting of all is the overwhelming realization that anyone in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong appearance, could be in Steve’s situation.  It is by grace that it hasn’t happened already.


Comfortably Haunted

Kooser, Ted (2004).  Delights & Shadows.  Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.

2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

It’s no insult to say that Ted Kooser is from Nebraska, and it shows.  His working life (by day, anyway) was in insurance for many years, and his poetry is full of broad, open landscapes.  Kooser’s language is sparse and precise.  In Delights & Shadows, these characteristics make for a collection that is haunting, but written by a man who is comfortable with being haunted.

Take for example, the two-line “Starlight”:

All night, this soft rain from the distant past.

No wonder I sometimes waken as a child (76).

Kooser is fascinated with the slightest of details about his life.  Perhaps Nebraska, a state as flat as can be, offers this opportunity.  Without mountains and valleys to distract him, a steady light rain can be a catalyst for meditation.  The weather reminds him of childhood, when such a thing would wake him, as it no doubt awakens many children either bothered by the noise or looking for a way out of going to bed.

“On the Road” provides another account of a small thing provoking great thought.  A pebble found on the ground possesses a profundity most would not see: “I held it to the light/and could almost see through it/into the grand explanation” (77).  Abruptly, he places the rock back on the ground when “something” tells him to.  Kooser is surrounded by “explanations” for nature and life, and these things are whispering to him everywhere he goes.

He sees these haunting details in people as well.  “Mourners” concerns a group at a funeral, where they “gather/under the rustling churchyard maples/and talk softly, like clusters of leaves” (16).  Inexplicably, the people greet each other constantly even though, as Kooser points out, the event is intended as a time to say goodbye.  Gently, these mourners must remind each other that there are other people still there.

In short poems with clear language, Kooser finds themes and objects most people would (intentionally or not) avoid.  This makes Delights & Shadows a relatively easy read for teenagers.  For the teacher, this book can provide a nonthreatening introduction to literary devices in poetry, and scaffold students into more difficult works.  It’s a pleasure to read, and the simplicity can help any reader contemplate meaning for as long as he or she chooses.


Pass the Parcel

Bennett, Alan (2004). The History Boys. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.

2006 Tony Award for Best Play

Think back to your last year of high school and all the pressures you faced. You probably took the SAT at least once. If you did what your counselor told you to, you enrolled in a rigorous slate of classes, applied to 3-5 colleges, waited anxiously for months for those colleges to accept you, and (hopefully, but probably not) fought off senioritis. Add to that all the pressure you faced from your parents. What if, on top of all that the weight of your school–your community, really–was also on your shoulders? For eight English schoolboys, that is exactly the case in The History Boys.

These boys are from a working-class town in England that tends to send its graduates to more of the local (read: less prestigious) universities, but this year, things are different. Eight students–more than in any other year–did well enough on their graduation exams that they get the chance to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. This means the guys will get extra help during a special school session, but it also means that the pressure is on them, as well as their teachers.

Each teacher has a different style, one other teachers might recognize as their own. There is Mrs. Lintott, the history teacher, who is relentless about the importance of facts and dates. There is Mr. Hector, the literature teacher, a romantic whose meandering lessons seem frivolous but ultimately stress a love for culture. Finally, there is Mr. Irwin, a young new teacher brought in specifically to coach the students for their tests and interviews. More than anything else he is pragmatic, drilling into the the students the necessity not just to be right, but to be interesting as well:

IRWIN At the time of the Reformation there were fourteen foreskins of Christ preserved, but it was thought that the Church of St John Lateran of Rome had the authentic prepuce.

DAKIN Don’t think we’re shocked by your mention of the word ‘foreskin’, sir.

CROWTHER No, sir. Some of us even have them…

IRWIN Has anybody been to Rome?

No? Well, you will be competing against boys and girls who have. And they will have been to Rome and Venice, Florence and Perugia, and they will doubtless have done courses on what they have seen there. So they will know when they come to do an essay like this on the Church on the eve of the Reformation that some silly nonsense on the foreskins of Christ will come in handy so that their essays, unlike yours, will not be dull.

Think bored examiners.

Think sixty, think a hundred and sixty papers even more competent than the last so that the fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine.

Come the fourteen foreskins of Christ and they’ll think they’ve won the pools (19).

Comparing and contrasting the three instructors (and also the results-driven Headmaster) will have both teachers and students discussing the nature of education. Is there one be-all and end-all to pedagogy? Or do a variety of pedagogies complement each other? It is evident in the play that Lintott’s approach is “the foundation” (as other characters repeatedly call it), Irwin’s thinking will get them where they need to be, and Hector’s approach will show them how to enjoy it all, first and foremost for their own pleasure, but also for the accomplishment of great things.

For Hector, the finest moments come thusly: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things–which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours” (56). This snippet of dialogue is an open door to discussions of how reading can provide emotional sympathy or intellectual like-mindedness regardless of when or where the author first wrote the words down. There is a timelessness in literature which can lead us farther down our roads if we are willing to learn. This is worth passing on to anyone looking for a reason to read.

Hector is clearly the most beloved of the teachers, yet some inappropriate behavior with his students costs him dearly. His actions are either the simple yearnings of an old man, the crimes of an authority figure abusing that authority, or a bit of both. Again, students can compare Hector with Macbeth, and perhaps they can even see a bit of the tragic in him. These circumstances may cause a few sensitive students to cringe, although the ability of the students in the play to shrug it off (one of them even serenades Hector with The Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”) will bring some levity to the matter.

All this aside, The History Boys will resonate with classes looking for an acclaimed play that is still appealing to high school students. There is power and purpose in education, and the tradition of schooling the young is one that has been, and will continue to be, noble and hopeful. One simply needs to participate. As Hector tells his students at the end of the play, “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on” (109).

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Creative Power

The Big Myth (2005).  Retrieved October 27, 2007 from Mythic Journeys (

 Web English Teacher A+ Site for Teachers

Study Sphere Award of Excellence

The Big Myth is a CD-ROM featuring animated presentations of creation myths from 25 different cultures.  About half of these myths are available for free online, with accompanying handouts for each culture.  From a map of the world, all the user has to do is click on a specific region to view a simple, but fascinating, cartoon about how the people there believed everything came to be.

Babylonians, for example, believed the world originally consisted of two seas, out of which emerged the gods Lahmu and Lahamu.  These two create other gods, who eventually begin to irritate each other into war.  Ultimately, the supreme god Marduk battles his rival Tiamat, defeating her by stuffing a hurricane in her mouth and cutting her in half with an arrow.  One half of Tiamat becomes the heavens, and the other half becomes the earth.  As violent as this sounds, the Flash animation is pretty tame, so students of any age can watch this without being frightened or grossed out.  Text accompanies the presentation, and a narrator reads it clearly.

In addition to the animation, the website features information on the culture and pantheon of the Babylonians, as well as exercises for assessment.  Most of these are geared more toward an elementary or middle school class.  Some are far too simple for a high school class: “Look at a world map.   Where was Mesopotamia?”  Beyond this basic question, however, are some assignments that would require more thought: “Choose a god and make a temple to honor this god.  When making the temple, try to find examples of Babylonian architecture.  During your presentation, tell what happened in such a temple.”  This exercise is more challenging, and it also allows for the application of different learning styles.  All of this is available not just for Babylonian myth, but also for 24 other cultures!

Many of these myths can lead into some interesting discussions when compared and contrasted with Macbeth.  Intrigue and power struggles are common, and violence is frequently how the cosmos came to be.  The Maori people of New Zealand believe the earth and sky were two gods “who were so much in love that they held each other tightly and refused to let go of each other.”  Their children, who are crushed between them, conspire to split them up.  Students can study this and other traditions in groups, comparing notes and relating their discoveries to what happens in Shakespeare’s play.

You can imagine how great a resource this is.  The myths available are from all over the world: Norse, Yoruban, Mayan, and Hindu are among the cultures represented, making this a good fit for literature or social studies courses.  This interactive text is a fine supplement to the study of just about any traditional unit.

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Land of the Lost

Delisle, Guy (2006).  Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.  Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly.

*2007 ALA Great Graphic Novel for Teens

I might be placing North Korea at the top of my list of “Places I Will Never Visit.”  In Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle, on a business trip for a French animation studio, finds plenty of fodder for an intriguing travelogue, but what becomes quite clear over the course of his memoir is that North Korea’s dynasty of dictators (the only one in communism) has robbed a culture of its soul (no pun intended–Seoul is in South Korea, after all).

Pyongyang is perhaps more contradictory a place than anywhere else in the world.  It is at times clean and efficient, while at other times it is outdated and decaying.  The city (and the rest of North Korea) is full of bizarre quirks.  People walk backwards for exercise, there is a shell of an uncompleted 105-story hotel in the middle of town, and everyone is an unapologetic promoter of the regime that successfully prevents them from knowing anything of the outside world.  There is no Internet access, only one TV channel (two on Sundays!), and all radios are not only government-issued, but routinely inspected for hacking.  The few foreigners stay in one of three hotels and enjoy a few creature comforts denied to citizens. 

The people are an intriguing bunch, but the most compelling character in the book is someone Delisle never meets.  According to Delisle, North Korea is decorated with some very interesting things to say about its fearless leader, Kim Jong-Il:

“A series of paintings…depict[s] orders given by General Kim Jong-Il (who in fact never served in the Army).  As a student, he published no less than 1,200 works, including a number of specialized military treatises.  Wherever you look, you see painted or sculpted avatars of the “Perfect Mind” in the form of a red flower: the Kimjongilia.  The wall of one of the restaurants depicts Mount Paektu, the highest peak in Korea, where the prodigious son is said to have been born under a double rainbow and a shining star (In fact, he was born somewhere in Siberia)” (130).

Although the dictator makes no personal appearances here, his impact is clear in every image–including his own, which is omnipresent–and in how everyone behaves.  The people’s support is unflagging to the point of creepiness.  Delisle, who has brought a copy of 1984 with him, cannot help but make comparisons, especially when his guides know exactly where he goes when they are not around.  Kim Jong-Il comes across as the king of all meglomaniacs, with the possible exception of his father Kim Il-Sung, who continues to be president despite the fact that he died in 1994.  The two are depicted in portraits everywhere, their appearances altered to appear more alike.  Everything in the nation is intended to pay tribute to their alleged likeness.

Of course, the propaganda machine also depicts North Korea’s enemies in a strikingly negative light.  At the Museum of Imperialist Occupation, paintings depict American soldiers “forcing children to drink motor oil” and “nailing anti-American propaganda to the author’s forehead.”  When his guide asks for a response to these images, Delisle replies, “I don’t think war is ever ‘clean,’ no matter who’s fighting.  And I certainly wouldn’t demonize an entire people on the basis of 3 blurry photos and a few paintings” (169).  This does not impress anyone within earshot.  All of them are convinced that America, South Korea, and Japan are their own Axis of Evil, keeping them one of the poorest and most isolated nations on earth.  Delisle’s black-and-white images, however, contain lots of gray, giving much away about how the leader of North Korea has drained his constituents of all color, nuance, and culture.

What makes Pyongyang a great book is the sad truth of its content.  Despite the simple drawings and absurd settings, this eye-opening story is about a real country, filled with people so apparently genuine in their loyalty to its corrupt regime that the reader comes to many points where it is appropriate both to laugh and cry.  Kim Jong-Il is crazy, his father was crazy, and their followers are…well, what are they?  Insane?  Stupid?  Brainwashed?  Ultimately, they’re more exploited and deprived than anything else. 


Haunted by Humans

Zusak, Markus (2005).  The Book Thief.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

2007 Michael Printz Honor Book

Its status as a Printz Honor Book alone would qualify it for review, but Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has amassed a pile of additional accolades, including the Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature, the National Jewish Book Award, and places on several ”best of the year” lists.  Zusak has raised the bar on young adult writing with a novel of Nazi Germany profound in its ability to evoke emotion without sentiment.

Ten-year old Liesel loses her entire family in the first pages of The Book Thief.  Her communist parents disappear, never to be seen again, and her brother dies on the train ride to their new foster parents.  Because they were already far from home, Liesel and her mom must bury her brother in an unfamiliar town along the way.  When Liesel arrives in the city of Molching, she is alone.  Hans and Rosa Hubermann, the foster parents, take her in and love her in their own quirky ways.  Rosa is strict and demanding, while Hans is whimsical and friendly. 

The time is the late 1930′s, as Germany is preparing for war, and Hitler is expecting his constituents to participate fully.   Some of the people on the Hubermann’s street (Himmel–German for heaven) comply willingly, while many others do so begrudgingly.  Liesel and her new best friend Rudy are in the latter camp; they are bored and irritated by their mandatory participation in the Hitler Youth.  In the midst of increasing hardship, the two of them come up with ways to make life interesting.  Rudy does his best to emulate his idol Jesse Owens (at one point, he covers himself in charcoal before running laps), while Liesel takes up the theft of various books.  Until Hans teaches her, reading is something she has never done, and once she begins to learn, she cannot stop.

Eventually, however, the Hubermanns take in another boarder: Max, the son of a Jewish man who saved Hans’ life in World War I.  Max is frail, but he’s tough–when he is still a boy, he says, “When death captures me…he will feel my fist on his face” (189).  As Liesel gets to know Max, who hides in the basement, she becomes convinced of the Jews’ humanity, and they become very close.  All of Liesel’s relationships gradually change her, but her friendship with Max will teach her more about life than any of the others.

Zusak tells a long (550 pages) and complicated tale with some unusual twists.  The novel is narrated by Death, portrayed here as a weary agent of fate who recognizes his work as objectively necessary–there is no good or evil about it.  Someone’s time to go is just that–time to go.  During the war, Death has plenty to do, but he visits Himmel often enough to notice and quietly admire Liesel and her family and friends.  Liesel’s determination to survive hardship is intensified by her growing realization that the Nazi regime would kill Max if it had the chance.  When necessary, she stands up to bullying peers, a trait shared by her foster father, who gets whipped for helping a Jewish man up off the ground.  All of this leaves a positive impression on Death, who is alternately impressed and appalled by humanity.

As the novel progresses, Death observes a series of tragic events that exemplify his philosophy of humanity.  He spends a lot of time at concentration camps, picking up souls and wondering why lives have to end this way:


I always say that name when I think of it.


Twice, I speak it.

I say his name in a futile attempt to understand.  “But it’s not your job to understand.”  That’s me who answers.  God never says anything.  You think you’re the only one he never answers?  “Your job is to…”  And I stop listening to me, becuase to put it bluntly, I tire me.  When I start thinking like that, I become so exhausted, and I don’t have the luxury of indulging fatigue.  I’m compelled to continue on, because although it’s not true for every person on earth, it’s true for the vast majority–that death waits for no man–and if he does, he doesn’t usually wait very long (350).

It is oddly refreshing to encounter Death as a character who is as clueless as we are.  He does not understand the tragedies he sees; he merely takes care of people when their time has come.  This mystery is handed down from one literary era to the next.  Zusak takes the question of fate posed by Sophocles and Shakespeare and applies it to modernity without hitting a snag.  We know no more on the subject than the ancients did, but at least we are in good company.

As busy as Death is, however, he frequently returns to Himmel to watch Liesel grow up.  Her thirst for knowledge entertains him at first, but over the course of the novel she gives him a positive view on humanity when many are trying to eliminate an entire ethnic group.  This also confuses him: “I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race…rarely do I ever simply estimate it…I am haunted by humans” (550).  How can such good and evil come from the same species, and even from the exact same people?  Markus Zusak knows The Book Thief is one more historical novel that will be unable to answer such a complex question, even with a little magical realism thrown in.  Somehow, in a counterintuitive sense, this is consoling.  One can only hope the world will learn…even if so far, it hasn’t.

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Dust to Dust, with Some Violence in Between

Wisniewski, David  (1996).  Golem.  New York: Clarion Books.

David Wisniewski’s Golem is not a true story, but I wish it was.  It would be thrilling to know that if you and those close to you were ever under threats on your lives, you could build a man out of clay and have him protect you.

According to legend, that is what happens in Prague in 1580. The situation is grim for the Jews of the city: “the Jews of Prague were bearing the ingnorant fury of others.  Enemies had accused them of mixing the blood of Christian children with the flour and water of matzoh, the unleavened Passover bread.  This “Blood Lie” incited angry mobs to great cruelty against the Jews.  Penned in their walled ghetto, forbidden the use of weapons or the protection of the law, the Jews could do nothing to stop the vicious falsehood” (2).  In the midst of this trouble, a rabbi receives a message from God that he should build a golem from clay to protect the Jews.  The resulting creation is named Joseph and bears the Hebrew word for “truth” on his forehead.

With the golem’s presence, the Jews, and especially Rabbi Loew, suddenly have great subversive power.  As the story continues,  the people of Prague become aware of the lies they have been told, and those who would destroy the Jews become even more adamant, gathering a mob and storming the ghetto.  The golem is not afraid to get violent, and it appears things have gone too far:

“Rabbi Loew covered his eyes.  This was too much destruction, too much.

Leaving the dead and wounded, the mob fled in panic.  Golem threw the broken battering ram after them.  He lifted the shattered gates and hung them back on their ruined hinges.  Then he plodded back into the ghetto” (19).

The Jews are protected, but at what price?  The fact that a picture book ponders such a sophisticated question is impressive.  Although the story does not pursue it at great length (the emperor guarantees the safety of the Jews two pages later), it makes a great starting point for a discussion of the abuse of power.

As a character, the golem himself is childlike both when he is in action and during his downtime.  He is an agent of power, but he is fascinated by the sunrise and submits himself faithfully to Rabbi Loew.  At times he seems innocent, but that innocence just magnifies how raw he is in essence.  This is a man made of clay; he is elemental, without room for subtlety, not allowing for gray areas.  Once the Jews are safe, Rabbi Loew tries to end his time on earth.  Not wanting to die, the golem refuses, but Rabbi Loew is too clever for him: “The Rabbi lashed out with his staff, erasing the first letter–aleph–from the word on Golem’s forehead.  At this, emet–Truth–became met: Death” (23).  The golem could never have had life without a tzaddik–a righteous man–to make him.  Both Rabbi Loew and the golem are capable of continuing with their campaign of violence even after the Jews’ problems are solved.  Rabbi Loew, however, is too wise to walk that path.  His humility as a tzaddik keeps his temporary power in check.

 Golem is a powerful book that recounts a legend on a child’s level without withholding any information.  The author includes an extensive historical note at the end, in which he details the history of the legend, how Rabbi Loew (a historical figure) became associated with it, and how the present-day nation of Israel is a political golem, continuing to protect the Jews.  Without this added material, this is a great story, but its presence gives the story just that much more heft.  I can’t wait to read it to my daughter–just as soon as she stops trying to tear the pages.

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The Worst Kind of Rebel

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell (2005).  Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow.  New York: Scholastic, Inc. 

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth is a chilling look at how a powerful regime exploited the rebellious instinct in all children.  In its early stages, the group appeared to be nothing more than a youth organization promoting a strong work ethic in a time when Germany was still licking its wounds from World War I.  It didn’t take long, however, for the Hitler Youth to adopt bullying tactics against children who were not in the group and adults who were not loyal to Hitler.  This included turning in teachers, spying on their parents, and persecuting the Jews, revolting against authority figures in order to support a more supreme authority.

Bartoletti interviews many former members of the Hitler Youth, all of whom are surprisingly candid about their actions and their willingness to believe whatever they were told.  One interviewee, Melita Maschmann, believed a feeble response to her question about the displacement of the people of Poland:

“Melita often wondered where the evicted families went.  One day, she asked an SS officer.  He told her that the Poles were sent to other farms or resettled in the southeastern portion of Poland. 

‘After that, Melita didn’t wonder any longer.  “These answers satisfied us,” she said.  “We never realized that there could not possibly be enough farms standing empty for all those who had been expelled”‘ (79-80).

These young people were so impressionable that they had no idea things were beginning to get much worse than they–or many adults–would have anticipated.  Hitler Youth offers one example after another of how the Nazis took the children of Germany and used them as a foundation for war.  The government requires them to serve six months of labor after high school and prepares all of them for eventual military service.  In time, the Hitler Youth transition from German versions of the Boy and Girl Scouts to young soldiers, brainwashed by propaganda to achieve the Nazi Party’s heinous ends.  Among other things, some of the boys man antiaircraft batteries: “The Flak Helpers, as they were called, attempted to shoot down enemy aircraft during raids.  Already skilled at handling small guns, the boys quickly learned to operate  the flak, the larger 88-mm antiaircraft cannon.  Younger boys worked the searchlights.  Later, boys and girls ages thirteen to fifteen manned the batteries.  This freed more soldiers for frontline duty” (89).  Even the youngest people affiliated with the Party find themselves risking their lives, and the adults show little or no remorse.

Juxtaposed with these recollections are the stories of students who did not comply so easily, forming underground groups to resist the Nazis and the Hitler Youth.  Particularly poignant is the story of Sophie Scholl, a teenager who continued to read forbidden literature long after the Nazis held their fanatical book-burning ceremonies.  Freedom is very important to the Scholl family; at one point, Robert Scholl tells his children, “What I want most of all is that you live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that may be” (110).  Sophie and her brother Hans risk their lives to promote an underground movement against Hitler.  Eventually, Sophie and her brother are caught, tried, and executed.

The larger story of World War II looms large in our history, but Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth zeroes in on a facet of the Nazi movement that is rarely discussed in depth.  The stories of these young people will resonate with anyone who wishes to prevent such abuses of power from happening again.

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