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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.


Tryszynska-Frederick, Luba. Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen; as told to Michelle R. McCann; illus. by Ann Marshall.
Tricycle, 2003 48p
ISBN 1-58246-098-1 $16.95
Gr. 3-5

This complex picture book is based on the true story of Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, a Polish Jew who saved more than fifty children in Bergen-Belsen when she found them abandoned in the woods by truck drivers ordered to shoot them. Throughout the winter of 1944-45, Luba begged, bribed, and cajoled various other camp prisoners and officials to give her food for the children, all but two of whom survived. Celebrated as a hero after the war, Luba found that her own two-year-old son, torn away from her at Auschwitz, and her husband and family were all dead. Michelle R. McCann has documented her account of Luba’s experiences with great care, including an opening author’s note indicating fictionalized dialogue and a list of the children involved, a prologue supplying background on Nazi concentration camps, an epilogue on the aftermath of Luba’s rescue, and a note on World War II and the Holocaust. Also provided are a map and bibliography of books, articles, videos, letters, personal interviews, and web sites. The narrative is thoughtfully rendered to reveal incidents in a straightforward tone that neither flinches from nor overdramatizes a stark historical episode (“They used one wet cloth to keep fifty-four children as clean as they could”). A photograph at the book’s end shows sturdy Luba with some of the children on liberation day, and another depicts their fifty-year reunion in Amsterdam. As the youngest child rescued by Luba has said, “My mother always told me that she gave birth to me, but that Luba gave me life.”

Ann Marshall’s thickly textured paintings, sometimes overlaid with eerie fabric or paper collage effects, can be read on two different levels. In the scene where the children create a birthday party for Luba, for instance, the bright clothing and happy faces project a veneer of fantasy over the horror. One could ask, is this a glamorized image, repeated as it is on the cover, to resemble kibbutzniks dancing the Hora? A picture of Luba collecting wood in snowy darkness resonates like some “Silent Night” Christmas card, with a spotlight shining over the wooden barracks and barbed wire fences. Even in the most desolate moment, when an illustration shows Luba despairing of the children’s lives, a pink-frilled bedspread and velvet blanket drape gracefully over the side of her bunk. Yet the scraped and battered boards in this same picture, the thin legs of a child lying askew on a filthy mattress, and a face locked in a deathly stare on the facing page all project realistic depth. With hints of Dutch Renaissance portraiture, the artist seems to be daring us to ask if horror can be beautifully portrayed. Especially unnerving are the ambiguous faces that engage a reader directly from the past.

The challenge for any Holocaust book intended to be read aloud to a picture-book audience or alone by young readers is how to depict a brutal and often hopeless situation for children whom we want to nurture with hope for the future. How does one stay true both to the inherently tragic nature of the Holocaust and the expectantly triumphant nature of childhood? The June 1997 Big Picture featured another picture book depicting a Holocaust survivor, Neil Waldman’s The Never-Ending Greenness, which joined the company of Hoestlandt’s Star of Fear, Star of Hope (6/95), Nerlove’s Flowers on the Wall (3/96), Nivola’s Elisabeth (3/97), and Oppenheim’s The Lily Cupboard (3/92); all of these manage, largely through tight focus, to reconcile those two impulses sufficiently to make for a successful narrative. More recently, Kushner and Sendak’s Brundibar (BCCB 12/03) grappled with the same question, with its rosy overtones and bleak visual subtext. Darker than Brundibar, Luba will nevertheless depend on adult translation to challenge children to distinguish between the book’s dreamlike snatches at celebrating survival and its bleak expressions of death haunting the background, but it will then provide young audiences with a compelling account—and an inspiration for riveting discussion.

Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

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Cover illustration by Ann Marshall from Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen©2003. Used by permission of Tricycle Press.


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