Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Years ago, I went on a reading binge of all the Holocaust books I could get my hands on. The experiences shared in those books were as much cast-iron testaments to the power of the human spirit as they were chilling. This book came out after that binge ended, but I kept hearing about it off and on, so I added it to my list.

That said, it was probably not my greatest idea to read a Holocaust book during our current difficult time. On the flip side of the argument, I would say that it’s also important to maintain perspective. The world has continually gone through periods of difficulty and gotten through them. We will get through this. With hard work and a dash of hope, we will have learned something valuable as well.

The story

Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy who’s father is a high ranking Nazi. At the beginning of the story, his family has to move because of his father’s work and he ends up at a place he calls “Out-With”. While it is never said in the text, readers are led to believe this is the Auschwitz concentration camp.

For the first half of the story Bruno is full of his anger at having to give up his friends and move to a place that is definitely not as nice as his home in Berlin. He misses all the things he enjoyed with his friends and the shops and the places he could go and explore.

It’s this craving that pushes him to go exploring along the long fence of the camp, a place that he has been told in no uncertain terms is “off limits with no exceptions.” This is how he meets Shmuel, a boy from Poland who shares Bruno’s exact same birthday. Bruno is thrilled that there is another boy his age and starts visiting him every afternoon.

We see through all these visits just how different the lives are for the two boys. Bruno always has plenty to eat, Shmuel is starving. Bruno’s life has been merely inconvenienced, Shmuel’s life has been completely overturned. Bruno shows a childlike naivete as he hears about Shmuel’s experience and often tries to tell Shmuel that what is happening to him can’t be all that bad, especially when compared to the minor inconveniences that Bruno has suffered.

***Skip this paragraph if you hate spoilers***

However, this is a Holocaust book, and as such, it certainly does not have a happy ending. Bruno learns that he is to go back home and as a farewell to Shmuel, agrees to help him search the camp for his missing father. They are collected up by the soldiers and marched into the gas chamber and both boys die. The last chapter of the book explores Bruno’s mysterious absence and the father’s chilling realization of what must have happened.

There goes my hope for a story that showed grit and determination in the face of a bad situation.

***End of spoilers***

My review

There are many who applaud this book as a gentle way of teaching children about the Holocaust and expose them to the history of the era. In that aspect, it does a fair job at teaching the basics and some of the ideas of what happened without diving into specifics. In essence, it’s a sanitized and simplified version of history.

For me, this book feels like if Winnie the Pooh were to be a German child in Nazi Germany. All of Bruno’s reactions are realistic to a young child where his immediate worries come first, and the rest of the world come in a very distant second. There is a beauty in seeing the world this way and for that I feel Boyne’s choice in writing style fits well.

However, there is so much about this book that bothers me, like never stating the truth of what’s happening. At every instance where it could have been an educational moment, Boyne pulls back. Bruno is told the correct words for things, but we never see the words themselves, and Bruno himself doesn’t use them because he doesn’t understand them. For example, instead of Führer he always refers to Hitler as “the fury.” Auschwitz is never named, and it’s purpose is only briefly touched on in a very childlike way.

Is the writing unique and interesting? Yes. Does the main character feel realistic and engaging? Yes. Does this book give an accurate sense of history? No. As the son of a high-ranking Nazi, Bruno would have been required to be part of Hitler’s Youth and would have been well educated about what was going on and why. Would he have understood what it actually meant? Probably not. This is a far cry from how Bruno is portrayed as being an innocent young boy. Shmuel in essence was just a hungry belly who Bruno could talk to. We see little more than him responding to Bruno’s endless questions and comments. In reality, Shmuel wouldn’t have been alive. Most young boys his age were sent straight to the gas chambers.

My recommendations

If you have a child who is interested in the Holocaust, but you want to introduce the ideas to them slowly, this book is a good pick because it doesn’t dwell on any of the uglyness and cruelty of the time period. It is an easy read, fairly short, and moves quickly enough so most readers won’t get bored. It is also available in audiobook with an excellent narration.

As an adult who has read a fair share of Holocaust books, this wasn’t as fulfulling as I’d hoped it would be. I wanted a story of survival against the odds or of good overcoming evil and got neither. Instead, I got a tragic story of a young boy who met an early end because he chose to be a good friend.

I rate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas 3/5

You can find The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on Amazon


Don’t miss it!

Stonebearer’s Apprentice comes out this Friday! Squee! It’s been a wild ride to get here and early readers have loved it. Even better, it has a happy ending.


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