I have often wondered how one teaches young children about the events surrounding the Holocaust. There is so much brutality (bestiality as Denis Avey described it) inherent in that era that it seems too enormous to simplify for young ears. Trina Robbins has attempted to do just that, record the story of Lily Renee, a young artist, who survived the war by making it onto a kindertransport. Renee’s story is fascinating and so clearly depicted. She survives the war in England, subjected to harsh conditions in the house of a penpal. Eventually she flees and becomes a nanny and nursemaid in her efforts to earn enough money to eat and live. For a long while she has no news of her parents (although the way the story is told she doesn’t dwell on the possibilities of their fate).
Renee is clearly a survivor, a tenacious young woman who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, to make something of herself and to create some light in the darkest of places. At times I thought that this book could have made more of this fact as it is such a valuable lesson for all people to learn.
Eventually, Renee hears that her parents have made it to America. They send for her and she joins them there and goes on to become an artist, successful in her own right.
The book glosses over the tragedies of concentration camps and the horrors of life for Jews in Europe at this time. It is written in comic-strip style, illustrated with minimal text and vivid colour. It is straight forward enough for younger readers to appreciate, yet depth is added by the glossary at the book’s rear which provides more of an insight into the events of the Holocaust. The book is also enhanced by real photographs collected from Renee’s past which bring to life her story.
The one enormously appealing aspect of this book is that it focuses on women. It is a book written by a woman, about a woman and all the women in her life. Renee finds comfort in the arms of a woman on the kindertransport, she is at the mercy of her penpal’s mother who is cruel and abusive, she finds shelter with a female school teacher and then a female nurse. She then goes on to illustrate comics about heroines who fight evil. In this way, Robbins has done a marvellous job of bringing a female face to the war and the Holocaust.
By giving women a voice in this dark time she has managed to write a book that is distinctive and well worth reading.