Four Holocaust-themed books with appeal to young adults were selected and evaluated for LIS 6530: Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, and Once by Morris Gleitzman.

Emil and Karl
Originally written in Yiddish and published in 1940, Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn, otherwise known as Jacob Glatstein, was translated into English by Jeffrey Shandler in 2006. While Glatshteyn’s bibliography consists of books written primarily for the adult audience, an article in The New York Times (2006, Newhouse) describes Emil and Karl as originally (in 1940), “…intended for students at Yiddish afternoon and weekend schools.” Shandler added that Emil and Karl is “…among the very first books written about the Holocaust for readers of any age and in any language.” Further, in the book’s foreword Shandler posits,

In 1940, [this book] asked Jewish children living in America to imagine what it would be like to face the challenges of life under Nazi occupation, on the eve of a war that had just begun and whose terrible course was then unforeseeable. The book also asked its readers to think how, even though they were still children, they might understand what was happening far away from America and how they might realize its importance to their own lives — as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings.

Set in Vienna, Austria, Glatshteyn carefully weaves the story of two best friends, one Jewish (Emil) and one not (Karl), as they band together and struggle to survive after the death of their parents in the early days of the Second World War. Perspective varies as Glatsheyn has both Emil and Karl narrate the story. While being merely speculative, Glatshteyn transmitted snippets of actual current events to the readers by way Emil and Karl’s experiences – Jews being forced to wash the streets with their bare hands and clandestine Nazi resistance movements. It should be noted that Glatshteyn does not sugarcoat interactions with the Nazi regime which might cause distress for some readers. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of a series of strangers whom come from all walks of life, Emil and Karl find some semblance of safety while they await transport out of the country via a child relief effort – which Glatshteyn is likely referring to the famous Kindertransport which ran out of money in the later part of 1939.

Differing from much of the historical fiction on the market, Emil and Karl was actually written prior to start of the Second World War and published in the time in which the story was set. According the Newhouse (2006), Glatshteyn was inspired to write Emil and Karl when he experienced anti-Semitism while visiting Poland in 1934 — he immigrated to the United States in 1914. In addition to starred reviews by both School Library Journal and Booklist, Emil and Karl was recognized as a Notable Book for Older Readers by the Association of Jewish Libraries in 2007.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
Born to Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman interviewed his father and produced a series of black and white comics which served as his biography documenting his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. With much controversy, Spiegelman chose to depict Jews as mice, Germans as cats, the Polish as pigs, the French as frogs, the Swedish as reindeer, and the Americans as dogs which closely resemble the Labrador retriever. In a 1987 review published by School Library Journal, Rita G. Keeler of St. John’s School in Houston, Texas wrote:

Told with chilling realism in an unusual comic-book format, this is more than a tale of surviving the Holocaust. Spiegelman relates the effect of those events on the survivors’ later years and upon the lives of the following generation. Each scene opens at the elder Spiegelman’s home in Rego Park, N.Y. Art, who was born after the war, is visiting his father, Vladek, to record his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Nazis, portrayed as cats, gradually introduce increasingly repressive measures, until the Jews, drawn as mice, are systematically hunted and herded toward the Final Solution. Vladek saves himself and his wife by a combination of luck and wits, all the time enduring the torment of hunted outcast. The other theme of this book is Art’s troubled adjustment to life as he, too, bears the burden of his parents’ experiences. This is a complex book. It relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story.

First serialized in the 1980s, Maus was published in its entirety via two volumes – Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, in 1986, and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, in 1991. It wasn’t until November of 1996 in which The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale was published which combined volumes I and II. In volume I of Maus: My Father Bleeds History, Spiegelman tells the story of how his Polish parents first met prior to the advent of the Second World War and their subsequent placement into a Jewish ghetto. The second volume of Maus: And Here My Troubles Began, picks up where the first left off – the Spiegelmans had been betrayed and end up being sent to Auschwitz. With great detail, Spiegelman describes what day-to-day life is like at the camp, the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, and life afterwards in Sweden as well as America.

Worth noting, Maus, to date, is the only comic book or graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize which was awarded in 1992. In addition to the Pulitzer, Maus has also received the following awards and honors: National Book Critics Circle Award – nominee (1986); Joel H. Cavior Book Award for Fiction (1987); Angoulême International Comics Festival Awards – Religious Award and Best Foreign Album (1988); Urhunden Prize – Foreign Album (1988); Max and Moritz Prizes – Special Prize (1990); National Book Critics Circle – nominee (1991); Eisner Award – Best Graphic Album – Maus II (1992); Harvey Award – Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Material – Maus II (1992); Los Angeles Times – Best Prize for Fiction – Maus II (1992); Angoulême International Comics Festival Awards – Best Foreign Album – Maus II (1993); and the Urhunden Prize – Best Foreign Album – Maus II (1993). Twenty-five years later, after initially being published, Spiegelman released a companion piece titled MetaMaus which offers readers an in-depth look at the story behind the story. Earlier this year, MetaMaus received the Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Book.


Published in 2003 by Alfred A. Knopf, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli is narrated by Misha Pilsudski – an innocent and naive young orphan boy without an identity – who later in the novel proudly claims to be a Gypsy and even later a Jew. This book was selected for inclusion in this project due to the unique perspective it offered to the pool of historical fiction currently available on the market. A brief synopsis offered by the publisher reads:

He’s a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. Happy. Fast. Filthy son of Abraham.

He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.

What the synopsis fails to mention is that Milkweed concludes with Misha, an isolated and estranged grandfather living in the United States, who is haunted by memories of the past – a very bittersweet ending better which is suited for older readers. School Library Journal recommended Milkweed for grade 5 and up and Linda Leonard Lamme of Book Links recommended the piece for grade 7 and up. Further, Ginny Gustin of the Sonoma County Library System in Santa Rosa, California added her School Library Journal review, “This historical novel can be appreciated both by readers with previous knowledge of the Holocaust and by those who share Misha’s innocence and will discover the horrors of this period in history along with him.” Further, it was disappointing to find that Spinelli failed to provide readers with an author’s note or include a foreword. Upon conducting cursory research for this project, it was found that the beloved character known as Doctor Korczak is actually based on Janusz Korczak, otherwise known by his pen name of Henryk Goldszmit – a Jewish children’s author and pediatrician.

Milkweed has been awarded the following honors: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Golden Kite Award (2003); Young Adult Library Association – Best Books for Young Adults (2004); Carolyn W. Field Award for Fiction (2004); National Jewish Book Award Finalist (2004); and the Great Lakes Great Books Award – Fourth and Fifth Grade Winner – 2005.


Once, the first in a series of four books was written by Morris Gleitzman and originally published in Australia in 2005 and five years later (2010) in the United States by Henry Holt and Company. Like the three other books selected for evaluation, Once is set in Nazi-occupied Europe in the early years of the Second World War – 1942, to be exact – and is narrated from a naive child’s perspective quite similar to the narrator, Misha Pilsudski, in Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. While also orphan and naive, Felix, the narrator in Once, happens to be a bit more sophisticated as he’s older by a few years and is knowledgeable about his background; however, he fails to grasp the danger unfolding around him. In a review published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (Ventura, 2011), Felix’s naiveté is explored:

Felix loves books and is a great storyteller. He keeps a notebook full of his stories. After he sees Nazis outside the orphanage burning Jewish books, he runs away to find his parents and warn them so that they can hide their own books from the Nazis. He is greatly concerned about the hatred that Nazis have for books and cannot understand why they would want to destroy them. As he journeys, however, he begins to realize that the Nazis are out to destroy more than just books.

A review published in School Library Journal (Hastings, 2010) gives a succinct synopsis of the book:

…When the orphanage is visited by surly Nazis instead of joyous parents, Felix escapes with only his cherished notebook full of his stories into the nearby countryside, still hoping for a family reunion. He soon discovers a burning home with two slain adults in the yard and their young daughter bruised but still alive. He takes Zelda on his journey, shielding her from the reality of her parents’ deaths in much the same way he’s been comforting himself, by inventing alternative realities. But, as he encounters the escalating ugliness of the death marches that are emptying his old neighborhood, now a ghetto, Felix becomes increasingly conflicted about the need to imagine a hopeful order and the need to confront brutal reality head-on…

Once also has a connection to Spinelli’s Milkweed in that Gleitzman was also inspired by Doctor Janusz Korczak. In an author’s note, Gleitzman wrote:

Ten years ago I read a book about Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish doctor and children’s author who devoted his life to caring for young people. Over many years he helped run an orphanage for two hundred Jewish children. In 1942, when the Nazis murdered these orphans, Janusz Korczak was offered his freedom but chose to die with the children rather than abandon them. Janusz Korczak became my hero. His story sowed a seed in my imagination.

However, in Gleitzman’s story, the caregiver archetype is portrayed by a man named Barney who runs a pseudo-orphanage in a basement in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

Once by Morris Gleitzman has received the following awards and honors: Young Adult Library Association – Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011); United States Board on Books for Young People – Outstanding International Book (2011); and the Association of Jewish Libraries – Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Teen Readers (2011). Once has three sequels – Then (2007), Now (2012), and After (to be released).

In conclusion, the four books selected – Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, and Once by Morris Gleitzman – are just a miniscule representation of Holocaust-related literature available to young adults today. Surveying the literature currently in print, some works are biographical while others are creative figments of an author’s imagination or pulled entirely from nightmares; however, regardless of an author’s chosen point of view, setting, or narrator, each book is truly poised to teach young adults about the history and atrocities committed against humanity during the Holocaust.  

Glatshteyn, Y. (2006). Emil and Karl. New Milford, CT: Roaring Brook Press.

Gleitzman, M. (2010). Once. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Gustin, G. (2003, November). Milkweed. School Library Journal, 49(11), 149

Hastings, J. (2010, April). Once. School Library Journal, 56(4), 156.

Jewish Virtual Library. (2012). Janusz Korczak. Retrieved from

Keeler, R. G. (1987, May). Maus: A survivor’s tale. School Library Journal, 33(1), 124.

Lamme, L. L., Astengo, B. (2006, September). Book Links, 16(1), 40.

Newhouse, A. (2006). Emil and Karl. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Spiegelman, A. (1996). The complete maus. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Spinelli, J. (2003). Milkweed. New York, NY: Alfred. A. Knopf.

Ventura, E. (2011, April). Emil and Karl. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54(7), 546.