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Based on a True Story, BOOK REVIEWS, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

HITLER’S CANARY by Sandi Toksvig

Hitler’s Canary is the extraordinary story of Bamse Skovlund and his youth in Denmark during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  Although not written in diary form, Bamse narrates his own story as a memory.

Bamse has grown up in the theater, as his mother is an actress on the stage.  His father is an artist, often building sets and drawing political cartoons for a Danish newspaper.  He has an older brother and sister and his best friend, Anton, lives in the apartment upstairs.  Bamse loves watching his mother on stage, marveling at his father’s paintings and watching cowboy-and-indian movies with Anton.  His most terrifying moment was seeing  Anton’s leap from a balcony onto a cow (pretending it was a horse).

And then in 1940 the German Nazis enter Denmark.  Suddenly, Bamse realizes there is now a vague foreboding, a sense of evil and danger that invades his everyday life.  He has never thought about the fact that Anton and his family are Jewish.  He thinks of them only as friends and Danes.  His brother, Orlando, is angry.  He is appalled that the BBC is referring to Denmark as “Hitler’s Canary,” implying that the Danish people will sit in a cage for Hitler and as his pet, sing any song he tells them to.  Bamse is confused and frightened by his father’s instructions to keep quiet and not cause trouble and his brother’s determination to do something to thwart the German army.

Bamse’s story is based on that of the author’s father who was a young boy in Denmark during the Nazi occupation.  I was unaware of the unbelieveable rescue of the Danish Jews that occurred in the Fall of 1943.  The Danish population actually banded together and covertly managed to get almost 8,000 people to safety in Sweden.  At the end of World War II, due in large part to so many acts of individual heroism, less than 2% of the Danish Jewish population were lost.

Toksvig opens the book with a quote by Edmund Burke:  “The one condition necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  After reading Bamse’s story we must each look into our own heart and ask “What would I do?”  This is an fantastic choice for a read-aloud in an upper elementary or middle school class.  It is also a great choice for an independent read, but I do think it begs to be talked about either during or after reading it.

This is an excellent story to read with students–or adults–because it opens a discussion about how we treat each other as human beings.  With the current focus on bullying in schools, this particular story (and many stories from the Word War II era) provide an excellent example of what happens when we stand aside to allow one to bully or torment another.  This remarkable book makes the point very clearly that race, religion, cultural heritage are not really the things that ultimately define us as human beings.  There are good people and bad people found in all places.  It is for the universal qualities of love, compassion and kindness that we must look and those come in all colors and shapes and sizes and languages.

I learned a great deal historically about Denmark during World War II by reading the book and I felt the connection between Bamse’s struggle to understand the hate in his world, the pull of goodness in his heart, and the fear that sometimes immobilizes and ultimately inspires him to nurture one side or the other in a personal way.  I believe other readers will have the same experience and I am grateful to Sandi Toksvig for sharing her father’s story in such a loving and hopeful way.


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