The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne (2006)

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas will allow readers to grapple with deep, serious, mature questions about humanity, responsibility, and compassion. Exactly what you want a Middle School title to do.

Sweet, innocent, nine-year-old Bruno is the narrator and protagonist of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Bruno’s father is “a very important man” and “The Fury” has given him “a very important job to do.” After relocating to a new home right beside a ‘prisoner’ camp during World War II, Bruno is forced to slowly piece together and try to figure out what is going on around him — politically, socially, and morally.

Bruno is young and naïve. Through his eyes, the reader gets very little hard factual information about the goings-on around him. But Bruno is also wise beyond his years in understanding what is truly important in life.

As Bruno strives to understand the barbed wire fence and the prisoners in striped pajamas on the other side, he asks questions: “What exactly was the difference? And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”

His innocent and untainted view of people and the world stands in marked contrast to the outlook and attitudes of the adults that surround him. If only we could all hold on to Bruno’s childlike outlook on life. Perhaps Bruno is the one that has it “all figured out.”

The reader will eventually figure out that Bruno lives next to a concentration camp, that his father is the commandant of that camp, that “The Fury” is Adolf Hitler, ‘der Führer.’ The Boy in the Striped Pajamas paves gentle, patient ground for a Middle School conversation about prejudice and the events of the Holocaust. The story also ends with a twist that will help stimulate the kind of discussion about moral choices that you really want to ignite in Middle School — a conversation that may also leave school and come home, too — for every family that reads and talks and thinks together.

There is no shortage of topics for discussion: determining right from wrong, standing up for others, understanding the importance of friendship, and valuing human life. Student insights and ‘answers’ to these questions can draw you together as we sort out the challenges of living in an imperfect world.

Invite this title to move your students. Let The Boy in the Striped Pajamas encourage your students to offer varying opinions. Let it encourage debate. Let it bring you and your school community closer together. Just as great literature should.