[Saturday Reads] Once, Then, and Now: A 3-in-1 Morris Gleitzman Special

10013649_10202591514361961_1202639554_n

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

Super special thanks to Iphigene for creating this visually-arresting widget!

I am a huge series-freak. I like continuity in the narratives that I read: seeing how the characters grow in complexity, and witnessing the many trials that they face and overcome. And so I am glad that Pansing Books has shared these three titles with me for our current reading theme until the first week of September.

IMG_5757

The format of the books is unique in the sense that in the first book, all of the chapters begin with the word Once. Similarly, in the second book, each chapter begins with Then, and so on with the third book in the series where all the chapters begin with Now. 

IMG_4852Once

Written byMorris Gleitzman
Published by: Henry Holt and Company, 2005
Review Copy provided by Pansing Books.

This first book in the series happens to be my favourite of the three. Here the reader gets to know ten year old Felix who was left in an orphanage by his Mum and Dad who are Jewish booksellers so that he can escape from the Nazis’ wrath. This is a good middle-grade introduction to the Holocaust. It personalizes this horrific period in history without it being too hopeless or despairing or unduly pessimistic. It is also a beautiful celebration of make-believe and the desire to make things a bit better through sheer will and the power of stories to transform and transport people elsewhere – anywhere but where they are at that moment.

There is an innocence to the character of Felix that borders on naivete. He has this unwavering desire to believe the best in people, notwithstanding the horrible things that are happening around him. This steadfast faith is also the very thing that lands him to so much trouble in the book, because he does not realize the truth, the reality of everything that is transpiring around him.

IMG_6018

When he saw the Nazis burning books in the orphanage, he mistakenly assumed that the Nazis are angry at the Jews because of the books. Because of this, he has taken it upon himself to escape from the orphanage to save his parents’ books. Clearly, Felix is a big-hearted kid who doesn’t know any better. And his good intentions, while noble and very heartwarming, are also needless and the exact thing that would put him at the very mouth of danger. In his quest to save the books, he chanced upon a burning house with dead bodies. This is where Felix found six-year-old Zelda who survived the fire that killed both her father who was a Nazi soldier and her mother. This unlikely friendship between 10-year-old Felix and six-year-old Zelda is at the very core of this story and what propels it forward. While Felix could have given up as he started to gradually realize the gravity of the situation he has put himself in unwittingly, he now has someone else to take care of – a young smart-mouthed six-year-old who has a predisposition to ask “Don’t you know anything?” in annoyance and exasperation.

Felix’s evident gift when it comes to storytelling is double-edged: his overactive imagination makes him arrive at false conclusions that do very little with his realistic appraisal of his situation that can be detrimental to his very survival. Yet, on more than one occasion, it was Felix’s ability to cast a spell using stories that saved him and Zelda.

I also noted a few parallels between this story and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief which tore me to shreds. For younger readers who may not have the reading stamina to plow through Zusak’s book, Once may be the next best read allowing a glimpse of magic through make-believe, and the beauty of stories amidst overwhelming pain and loss.

ThenIMG_5756

Written byMorris Gleitzman
Published by: Henry Holt and Company, 2008
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

(Spoiler Alert!) In this book, the reader follows the story of Felix and Zelda who managed to escape from a Nazi army truck that would lead them directly to the gas chamber in the first book. Through blind luck, serendipity, and a free-fall kind of courage, these two children who have adopted each other as ‘family’ now find themselves in the forest – certain sections of which are being used by the Nazis as burial ground for children whom they have killed.

While there are cruel individuals out to capture children like Felix and Zelda who have literally fallen through the cracks for a certain amount of money, there are also kind-hearted people like Genia, a Polish farm woman who had decided, despite the danger she is inflicting upon herself, to feed and care for them, giving them new identities so that they can hide out in the open.

Admittedly, this is the part of the story where I got particularly annoyed with Zelda who has taken it upon herself to make faces at Nazi soldiers and stick her tongue out at them whenever she sees them. There is a sense of self-loathing too because her father happens to be a Nazi soldier as attested in the locket that she kept from her old life, especially as she sees what the Nazi soldiers do to children like Felix. However, her behaviour is simply incongruous with the danger that she is putting herself and Felix through (along with Genia), especially as she has already experienced first-hand what the Nazis can do to children like her. Her fearlessness is incompatible with everything that she has seen and the natural imperative to survive. The ending in this story is also quite abrupt and seemed to have come from out of nowhere. I also felt that there was an authorial decision to move the story forward with Felix coming up with such strange decisions that would ultimately end badly as can already be foreseen by the reader. Yet, it seems necessary to do that so that the story keeps moving and that the circumstances and events do not just happen to Felix, who would then passively respond to them. Yet, somehow this strategy did not work for me as it felt that the protagonists are simply making a lot of unwise choices, no matter how heroic they seem to be.

IMG_5755Now

Written byMorris Gleitzman
Published by: Henry Holt and Company, 2010
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

The third novel in the series shows Felix many decades later, a retired brilliant surgeon living in Australia, and a grandfather to a young girl who is also named Zelda, after Felix’s childhood friend. Unlike the first two novels, this one is spoken through the eyes of Zelda who had to live with her retired grandfather as her parents (who also happen to be exceptional medical doctors) volunteer to help wounded children in Africa.

While there are no Nazis to fear in this book, Zelda had to defend herself against the bullies in her school who pick on her and torment her – both physically and through SMS messages, as she is the new girl who is thought of as a master liar who makes up stories in school. She finds an unlikely friend with a boy who is suffering from asthma, and who also happened to be the brother of the older girl who bullies Zelda. It was interesting to see the parallels in this story with that of the original six year old Zelda and Felix when he was younger. It also shows a more contemporary setting that most young readers can relate to, making it interesting for them to tease out the connections between the two stories of persecution and feelings of being singled out and ostracized for who you are.

This story also includes a reference to “Australia’s catastrophic Victorian bushfires in February 2009.” I felt, as a reader that there are already way too many natural disasters and cataclysmic events that people are simply not in control of, without us adding more to the equation with needless violence, catastrophic wars, and fighting that lead to death and destruction.

This, I suppose, is the weakest of the three novels. But it is not without its own distinctive charm, as it demonstrates how Felix has managed to survive and transcend his sufferings, transforming his life to one that celebrates service, humanity, and yes, Richmal Crompton – even after all these years.

CORLchallenge2014_widget

must-read-in-2014-challenge

Reading Challenge Update: 194, 195, 196 (25)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: