by Rebecca Upjohn
Renné Benoit, illustrator
Second Story Press
Cover Jacket: Munio and his younger brother Milek live in a sleepy village in Poland where nothing exciting seems to happen. One of their neighbors is a poor man named Anton, who is so gentle that he won’t eat meat and he won’t harm so much as a fly. While the rest of the town makes fun of Anton, the boys’ mother is kind to him, often sending her reluctant sons with soup and clothing for the “fool” no one respects.
When war comes to their country, everything changes. The Nazi solders march into the town and begin to round-up Jewish boys like Milek and Munio. Anton worries about them and their parents, and comes up with a plan to hide them. Anton’s courage and kindness shine through, proving that fierce bravery can come from the most gentle of people.
First Sentence: Milek and his brother, Munio, lived in a sleepy village in Poland.
World War II is ravaging Europe, yet has missed the small “sleepy” village in Poland, where brothers Milek and Munio live with their parents. Anton, a quiet man who keeps to himself, also lives in this village. Anton refuses to eat meat, smells like dirt, and has been heard talking to his plants and animals. Anton also has big bright eyes that see the precious value of every life. Most residents call Anton “The Village Fool” because of his lifestyle. The young brother’s mother is an exception, often sending the boys to Anton’s with food and old clothing. On one particular day, a rough, mean neighbor saw the boys at Anton’s home. The neighbor threatened them all:
“Watch out who you choose as your friends, Suchinski. Those boys are Jews. I’d stay away from them if I were you.”
Anton’s smile disappeared. “That’s an ugly thing to say.”
“You really are a fool, aren’t you? War is coming. When Hitler’s armies arrive here, these Jews will be in trouble.
Anton did not like what this mean-spirited man said, but also knew it was true. His friends would be in danger. Anton had a plan that he believed would save everyone. With the boy’s father, Anton shoveled out a tunnel from the root cellar to a small underground space. Here, the family, plus two young girls who had lost their entire families, would live until the war ended. They would huddle in that underground space for more than a year. The family endured extreme hunger, physical maladies, and much more while crammed in a space too small for six people. Above ground, Anton risked his life sheltering the family and each day he tried to bring home food for seven without drawing any suspicions. His penalty would be death, if his secret was revealed .
The Secret of the Village Fool is a compassionate story of the human spirit to persevere unspeakable atrocities and cruel pain. Some, like Anton, had an extraordinary sense of empathy and daring in the face of pure evil. Ms. Upjohn wrote a phenomenal story in words and terms children can understand. Add Benoit’s extraordinary artwork that imagines in detail what this family went through, and the book becomes an extraordinary slice of World War II.
The Secret of the Village Fool is a horrible story to have lived, yet these brave people did just that. The amount of evil some people possess is terrifying. That Hitler could motivate, or scare, others into fighting, murdering, and performing cruel acts upon innocent people is beyond words. This is a horrible story. Four children, two who had their family’s taken away to who-knows-where, and two adults endure unbelievable torture simply to live in peace. I feel at odds saying I loved the story.
I loved the simple, no-nonsense writing that kids will have no trouble understanding, yet should not be scared after reading, nor have nightmares. I loved the simple illustrations that told the story in art as well as it was told in words. The illustrations are in sepia, adding to the feel of life in a dirt hole. Together, those words and art make an extraordinary book about one hero who had to put six people in an environment I would never enter, simply to save them. It is surely a conundrum to like a horrible story about another’s suffering, yet I do.
The Secret of the Village Fool can be an immensely important tool in young children’s history classes or for those home-schooled. In addition to the actual story, the author has provided what she calls “What Happened After.” This three and one-half spreads of photographs and text tell the story of each person after the war ended up to the present, when possible. This section caused ear-to-ear grins, a few tears of joy, and one heartbreak followed closely by exuberance.
These stories, as horrible, and cruel, and sad as they are need retold generation after generation so that maybe, just maybe, this will never occur again. The age range is from seven to twelve, but the younger children will need help understanding how this fits into a war. The Secret of the Village Fool is a must read for 2013 and the first 6 star review here at Kid Lit Reviews.
by Rebecca Upjohn website
Renné Benoit, illustrator website
Second Story Press, publisher website
Released on September 1, 2012 Trailer
Ages 7 – 12
Copyright © 2012 by Second Story Press, used with permission Text copyright © 2012 by Rebecca Upjohn Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Renné Benoit .