By Cari Rerat
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In "Prisoner B-3087," by Alan Gratz, Yanek is 10 years old when Krakow, Poland, falls to the Nazis. He and his parents live in a neighborhood that the Nazis wall off as the Jewish ghetto, so they have to take family after family into their small apartment to make room for everyone who is relocated.
After three years of living in constant fear -- whether it be fear of being taken by the Nazis, fear that their apartment will be raided for valuables, or fear that they will be shot dead in the streets -- Yanek sees his mother and father in a group of Jews who are being "deported." He is filled with the terrible certainty that they are being taken to their deaths.
Yanek, now 13, decides at that moment that he will survive at all costs to honor his family. Yanek sticks to his decision throughout the next three years as he survives death marches, starvation and beatings between 10 concentration camps.
"Prisoner B-3087" is based on the true story of Jack Gruener. Jack's story is even more remarkable than the fictionalized version, but Alan Gratz does an excellent job of detailing Yanek's survival and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Gratz has a gift for finding the balance between writing about historical events in a factual way and keeping Yanek's voice true and realistic as he survives horror after horror.
Prisoner B-3087 was not an easy book for me to read because there is no separation between this book and reality -- these events really happened. While I read, I wondered how it is possible to survive what Yanek survives and whether or not I would have the strength to do so. I am still not sure.
There is certainly no lack of books about the Holocaust in children's and teen's literature. Alan Gratz has written one that can proudly stand alongside some of the best. I read an advance review copy, but the book will be available for checkout at the library later this month.
On a lighter note
"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe," by Benjamin Alire Saenz, had been on my to-read list for a while.
It got a bump after winning the Stonewall Book Award and earning a Printz Honor, but it didn't get to the top of the list until my mother -- a former English teacher now working in school libraries -- told me, "Read it. It'll make you joyful."
Set in the late 1980s, Ari(stotle) and Dante meet at the swimming pool the summer between sophomore and junior year. Ari can't swim, so Dante teaches him.
This starts a friendship both boys desperately need, though neither is completely willing to admit it. As they learn to trust each other and their friendship, life throws all kinds of curveballs their way -- family secrets, death, hospitalizations, questions about sexuality, falling in love.
Ari's narration is painfully honest. Even though he is dealing with so much, his story never gets bogged down or melodramatic. Both boys are fully realized characters, and both sets of parents are refreshingly complex.
This is a beautifully written story about love and friendship that did make me joyful, just like my mom said it would. But it's a quiet kind of book; one that is so full of real-life events, real characters, real dialogue that its impact sneaks up on you. You cry, you laugh and you feel joyful in the end because you know that even when things get tough, everything is going to be all right.
Underage drinking, marijuana smoking, mild sexual situations and some swearing make this a book for mature teens.
Cari Rerat is the teen librarian for the Joplin Public Library.