Recently, I talked about how a classic can expire, that it’s classicness can fade because it is no longer relevant to readers. The opposite can also occur. Books stay classics because they stay relevant – that is, there is something, a spark, a thought, something, that connects the readers to the book. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is one such book for me. Yes, it was very exciting to read about Anna’s escape from Germany with her family as Hitler was coming into power, and I found all the historical facts interesting, and loved Anna and Max and her Mama and Papa – but I think that the part that really made me connect to the book was when Anna and her family move to Paris. It was extraordinarily like when my family moved to Paris – except, of course, without having a price on my father’s head. But her experiences with school were so similar to my experiences. Judith Kerr writes:
‘The girls in her class were expected to do at least an hour’s homework each day after school, to learn whole pages of history and geography by heart, to write essays and study grammar – and Anna had to do it all in a language which she still did not completely understand. Even arithmetic, which had been her great stand-by now let her down. Instead of sum which needed no translation her class were doing problems – long complicated tangles in which people dug ditches and passed each other in trains and filled tanks with water and one rate while siphoning it off at another – and all this she had to translate into German before she could even begin to think about it.’
Even though Anna lives in the 1930s, in a world about to break into war, and I lived in Paris in the 1990s and 2000s, during the beginning of the war on terror, it is really interesting to me that neither her nor me really contemplated the history occurring around us at the time. Children don’t really worry about politics, they only think about the world directly around them. And when writing for children, you can’t focus on the history of the world at the time of the story too much – because children don’t. Half the time their parents don’t really tell them what is going on – like Judith Kerr’s father, who had to be accompanied by two bodyguards in order to make his daily broadcast, in case the Nazi’s attempted an assassination. Judith Kerr only found out about this years later. To Anna (who is based on Judith, and her family based on Judith’s family) all this sort of washes over her. Yes, the book talks about her uncle who still lives in Germany and his awful experiences, and her family being berated because they were jewish, and her family’s financial troubles, but her world is mostly school, and friends, and her brother, and what meal her mother had managed to scramble together for dinner. This is why When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is only the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up list. It feels real to children, because it is how children really live.