This historical fiction book by John Boyne is published by David Fickling Books, a division of Random House Children's Books, and is written for readers ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
The story is told from the viewpoint of a 9-year-old German boy named Bruno. Bruno is the privileged son of a Nazi commandant during World War II. Bruno comes home from school one afternoon to discover his belongings packed and set near the door. His family is preparing to relocate from Berlin to a place Bruno believes is called Out-With. In reality, his father will be in charge of the prison camp Auschwitz.
Bruno is not at all happy about the move, especially at leaving behind his three best friends. He is quite lonely and doesn't understand why he can't play with the children that he can see from his window at Out-With, children all dressed in the same striped pajamas. Then he realizes they aren't all children, but also men of all ages, all wearing the same striped pajamas.
Bruno tries to entertain himself around the house since his parents don't want him to do any exploring. He and his sister have lessons at the house instead of going to school. Eventually, Bruno decides to sneak out to explore the area. He meets a boy his age named Shmuel. Shmuel wears the striped pajamas and lives on the other side of the fence.
Shmuel and Bruno begin to meet every day. Bruno is thrilled to have a friend his own age, yet never fully grasps why Shmuel can't play at his house or why Bruno can't play with the other children in striped pajamas.
After a little more than a year and a bout with lice among the children, Bruno's mother decides she can take no more of the isolation and plans to leave. Bruno and Shmuel make plans for one last day to go exploring where Shmuel lives. Bruno's head is shaved because of the lice, so he will fit in when Shmuel brings him pajamas. Bruno meets Shmuel, changes into the pajamas and crawls under the fence to help Shmuel find his papa, who hasn't been seen for days. As the two boys are searching, the guards round them up with many other adults into the middle of the camp.
Believing they were going on a march, Bruno and Shmuel stick close together inside the group and march into an airtight building with many other Jews. That was the last anyone ever heard of Bruno.
His mother eventually returned to Berlin with his sister. Bruno's father was ordered to leave Out-With with other soldiers. He eventually figured out what had happened to Bruno.
Bruno is not allowed to question his parents or the decision to move to Out-With, but once, in an outburst, he tells his father how awful he thinks it is. His father tells Bruno he is very brave for speaking his mind, but that he is becoming insolent. He orders Bruno to stop talking about the move.
Everyone is respectful to the point of being frightened of the German authorities. Bruno knows he should respect Lieutenant Kotler, a young soldier, but he has a hard time since Lieutenant Kotler always calls him Little Man.
We learn that Bruno's grandparents were against the promotion that led his father to be in charge of Out-With. When he accepted the position, it alienated Bruno's family from his grandparents. Bruno had been close to them previously.
Other belief systems
When Bruno asks his father about the people outside his window (the prisoners at Auschwitz), his father says that they aren't people at all.
Bruno tells Shmuel that his sister hits him sometimes. Bruno is inadvertently herded into a gas chamber with his friend, Shmuel, and is never heard from again.
Bruno doesn't understand it, and it is never said out right, but the book implies that Bruno's mother has an affair with Lieutenant Kotler.
Winner of various Irish children's book awards
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Shmuel never fully explains what life is like on his side of the fence to Bruno.
Why do you think he is so silent about the horrors of the camp?
What would you talk about if you were in his place?
- While Shmuel is very hungry and has black eyes, Bruno is complaining about the living conditions at his house because it didn't have enough bedrooms and didn't have a basement.
Why might Bruno not understand Shmuel's world?
Why might Shmuel better understand Bruno's world?
Think about your friends.
Who might not understand your world? Explain.
Who might you not understand because of his/her world?
- What is wrong about Shmuel and others being in Out-With?
If you saw something like that happening today, what would you do?
How do you think God would want you to respond?
- Who figures out what happened to Bruno?
How might this have helped change the way he felt about the prisoners at Out-With?
How did this story make you feel?
Explain a little of the helplessness that you may have felt.
How might those in the prison have felt a large dose of the same helplessness?
Lying: Shmuel is sent to Bruno's house to do some work in preparation for a party. Bruno sneaks him some food. When questioned by Lieutenant Kotler if he has been eating, Shmuel denies he has been eating. When he finally confesses, he says that Bruno gave it to him. Bruno denies knowing Shmuel.
Secretive/deceptive behavior: Bruno goes to meet Shmuel every day for months after his parents specifically told him not to go near the fence or the camp, or to walk the direction that he went. Bruno sneaks Shmuel food every day.
Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In's movie review for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
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