When I came across this beautifully written and illustrated book I just HAD to write about it. Dealing with the extremely emotive subject of the Second World War, Rose Blanche gives us a view of war through the eyes of a young girl. From the outset the reader knows this is not your usual factual account of the conflict - instead it is written in the form of a picture book, but with enough words to show it is aimed at a slightly older audience.
At the beginning of the story we see the start of the war; the mood is light, with flag waving, speeches and optimism. We see that although Rose Blanche is unaware of the seriousness of the events that are unfolding in front of her she still knows enough to tell that something different is happening. As the text says "When wars begin people often cheer. The sadness comes later." She shivers with excitement at the scene, but is more caught up in the spectacle than she is in the reality of the situation.
The war gradually impacts on the life of Rose Blanche. To begin with it is just in the inconvenience of having to queue for food; food which often isn't there. Mostly her life isn't altered at all. She still does her homework, goes to school and carries on pretty much as normal. That is, until she sees a small boy trying to escape from a lorry; one of the lorries that nobody knew where they were going! "Some said they were going to a place just outside town." It is at this point that the war isn't all flags, speeches and cheering anymore - the war now has a face! The face of a small boy being threatened with a gun.
This is where the story starts to come alive! With clear and detailed illustrations, which go well with the simple yet effective text, Rose Blanche learns about the Holocaust! The book now becomes a haunting account of her running, furious at the treatment of the boy and the "other pale faces in the gloom" in the lorry, to see where these people are being taken. Rose Blanche's innocence is the perfect tool for the reader to see the awful face of Nazism in action. Facing her is a concentration camp and a row of silent people behind barbed wire. Instinctively she knows that this is awful and, as they start to shout out for help and food, she is upset and runs back home feeling "their sad and hungry eyes" follow her.
Now we see how Rose Blanche is willing to put herself at risk for the trembling children behind the electric fence. She saves her food and smuggles it to them through a small gap in the wires. As she gets thinner and more exhausted, her mood is matched by the moods of the soldiers moving in and out of town by cover of night. "The was no singing or waving now!"
The part of the story that chilled me most was the lead up to the end. The simple text and the hazy illustrations show Blanche Rose standing at the barbed wire with her basket of food. This time the fences have been broken down and the prisoners have gone. The allied troops in unfamiliar uniforms and cheerful faces have entered her town and the German troops are fearfully retreating into the fog. Poor Rose Blanche is leaving when there is a shot "a sharp and terrible sound". The poignancy is in the fact that the story never actually says that she is killed, but her mother looks for her and never, ever finds her.
The writer and illustrators (Ian McEwan and Roberto Innocenti) have triumphed in taking the complex events of World War II and putting them into the words of a six-year old child's innocent understanding of these events. As a result the reader comes away with a greater understanding of the tremendous loss of innocence and innocent lives during the Holocaust and the war as a whole. I defy any reader not to be moved by the simplicity of the words and the horror of the loss of Blanche Rose!
Yet, as I was rubbing my eyes and holding back a tear, the end of the story gives us hope for the future. The final picture shows "another, gentler invasion", as the countryside returns and begins to remove all trace of the horrors that went before.
It is an excellent lesson for all older children, and also a reminder to adults too. Through the unique perspective of a child's eyes we are taught so much. I am sure that as an educational resource I would consider this to be a very valuable way to teach and also to provoke discussion. Every picture needs to be explored to get the full impact of what they are trying to impart to the reader. As the pages turn, the images get darker and bleaker. The faces of the people become more troubled and even the sky becomes darker. The final image of the little girl at the barbed wire is the most evocative one in the whole book - it is also to simplest!
I congratulate McEwan and Innocenti for their powerful and thought provoking picture book. There is a stark realism in both the text and illustrations that drew me in and really made me think. The pictures have a real texture to them than is enhanced by the texture of the words! A top class book and a must for anyone who would like to learn more about the Holocaust, but in a slightly different way.
* Paperback: 32 pages
* Publisher: Red Fox (1 Jan 2004)
* Language English
* ISBN-10: 0099439506
* ISBN-13: 978-0099439509