Hesse, Karen. 2004. THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE. Ill. Wendy Watson. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0439435404 [Suggested Grade Levels 3-6]
A haunting and vivid depiction of a young girl’s efforts to secure food for the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto, Hesse’s historical picture book works on several levels. Narrated by an unnamed Jewish girl who has herself escaped from the Ghetto, the action revolves around a plan conducted by the Jewish Resistance to smuggle food into the Ghetto. Complications arise when the Gestapo learns of the plan and comes with dogs to sniff out the food and arrest those involved. The narrator comes to the rescue with a plan to release the city’s stray cats at the train station to distract the dogs and allow the food to reach the Ghetto. The exciting plot works well enough for the book to succeed in its own right, but its historical accuracy also lends it as an excellent piece of historical fiction on the Jewish Resistance in Poland during World War II. An Author’s Note and a Historical Note follow the story to explain that it was based on an actual event and also to put the events into the proper historical context.
Hesse’s poetic text raises this historical picture book to brilliance. Speaking of herself as a Jewish girl who has escaped from the Ghetto, the narrator says, “I wear my Polish look, / I walk my Polish walk, / Polish words float from my lips / and I am almost safe, / almost invisible, / moving through Krasinski Square / past the dizzy girls riding the merry-go-round.” Complementing Hesse’s text are Watson’s beautiful watercolor illustrations that immediately capture both the impermanence and grayness of life in war-time Poland as well as the light and hope that the members of the Resistance maintain. Together, the text and illustrations work seamlessly to bring to life a memorable period in history.
Talk to the children about what life was like for Jewish people, especially children, during World War II. Use nonfiction sources to show pictures of real children during this time in history. To put the events mentioned in the story into context, create a time-line for the Holocaust.
Other stories about the Holocaust:
Spinelli, Jerry. MILKWEED. ISBN 0375813748
Matas, Carol. DANIEL’S STORY. ISBN 0590465880
By Erin Miklauz