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Review: A Family Secret and The Search

Jeroen stumbles across an old scrapbook while scrounging through his grandmother Helena’s attic. When he askes her about the book, it brings back hard memories of her experiences in Amsterdam during World War II, but she tells him her story anyway. Her father was a police officer working with the Nazis and one of her brothers fought for Hitler, but Helena was still determined to hang onto her friendship with Esther, a Jewish girl living in her apartment building. But when the Nazis began arresting Jews in the Netherlands, Helena and Esther’s friendship was ripped apart. Now, years later, will either of them learn what happened to the other during the dark days of war?

A Family Secret
Eric Heuvel
Farrar Straus Giroux, October 2009, ISBN: 978-0-374-42265-3
64 pages, $9.99

The Search
Eric Heuvel, Ruud van der Rol, Lies Schippers
Farrar Straus Giroux, October 2009, ISBN: 978-0-374-42265-3
64 pages, $9.99

Heuvel’s graphic novels were written in the Netherlands as a resource to teach children about the Holocaust. Originally published by the Anne Frank House, they also include teaching materials to help teachers with their use in the classroom. But even with, or perhaps despite, the educational focus, these two stories are still gripping reads that offer a nuanced, highly researched look at the Holocaust, World War II, and their effects on ordinary people.

The first book, A Family Secret, focuses on Jeroen and his grandmother Helena. Helena tells him the story of her family’s life during the war. Because books about the Holocaust published in the United States so often focus on the Jewish experience, it is a nice change of pace to read about a non-Jewish family. It gives readers a wider view of what happened in the Nazi-ruled countries during that time. Helena’s family was torn in their loyalty towards Hitler. One brother wanted very much to join up and fight for him, but her other brother worked for the Resistance. Her father, a policeman, felt that he was only following orders as he helped round up the Jews in Amsterdam, but even he faced a crisis of conscience at a critical point. Heuvel also has Helena tell about her aunt, uncle, and cousin who lived in Java in the Dutch East Indies. When the Japanese invaded, the Dutch were sent to camps where harsh treatment was the norm. Their tale adds even more depth to the story, bringing to light experiences that younger readers might not be aware of.

Heuvel’s sequel, The Search, is Esther’s story, told to Helena, Jeroen and Esther’s own grandson Daniel. Esther does not end up in a concentration camp, but her experiences on the run from the Nazis are no less terrifying. She also tells her parents’ story of imprisonment in Auchwitz, as it was told to her by a family friend who was imprisoned with her father. Even though The Search is a sequel, it is no less moving. Esther’s experiences during the war are both unique and familiar, telling again a tale of hideous abuse.

Graphic novel readers who are fans of Herge’s Tintin stories will be instantly caught by Heuvel’s art. It is reminiscent of Tintin, but more modern, fresh and slightly retro. Heuvel’s thin lines and bright colors do have a cartoonish quality to them, but they are never babyish. Even middle school readers shouldn’t find this one too young for them. My only slight quibble is that Heuvel relies a little too heavily on voice-over boxes at the top of each panel, but for the most part he avoids the trap of telling rather than showing. Soon, however, I was too engaged in the story to remember to be annoyed at the voice-overs. I do wish that the books had been published in a slightly smaller format. Their large size, almost 8 1/2" x 11", is rather off-putting for older readers and may limit the books’ appeal in middle schools.

Even with the darkness that is naturally in both stories, Heuvel and the other creators are careful to make this appropriate for ages 9 and up. Nothing is sugar-coated, not in the least, but any class studying World War II or any child or teen with an interest in the Holocaust will find these two books worthy, almost necessary additions to their reading list. Highly recommended for older elementary and up.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Farrar Straus Giroux.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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