WILLY AND MAX
by Amy Littlesugar
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Teaching younger children about the horrors of the Holocaust, or any genocide, is a difficult process. On the one hand, there comes a time in their lives when they need to learn about the evils of the world, particularly if they have a heritage, whether Jew or Armenian or Tutsi or Gypsy, who have been victimized by a genocide. On the other hand, there is the desire to preserve children from the worst evils humanity can through at people. Amy Sugarlittle does an excellent job walking the balance beam in her story Willy & Max.
This short tale humanizes the Holocaust by focusing on the friendship of the two young boys of the title. Willy is the son of an antique dealer in Antwerp When Professor Solomon and his son, Max, come in to purchase a painting called "The Lady," Willy and Max become fast friends based on their similar ages, likes, and missing teeth. Despite Willy being a Belgian and Max being Jewish, the two boys' friendship is never in doubt as they only see their similarities without caring about any differences.
However, when the German soldiers move in, Max's Jewishness becomes of overarching importance. Despite the danger, Willy and his father do a favor of the Solomons even as the Germans take all the Jews from Antwerp.
By focusing on the friendship of the two boys and ignoring the atrocities of the concentration camps, Littlesugar tells a story which children can relate to, and which won't overwhelm them with a sense of how evil humans can be. At the same time, the friendship between Willy and Max is such that it gives the reader something to cling to as a ray of hope in the wartorn world of Antwerp.
Willy and Max is a children's book and, therefore, is filled with illustrations. The artist is William Low, whose paintings fit the feel for the book quite well. His depiction of Willy and Max show them as simply two normal boys living in what should have been a normal time. His broad strokes give an older feel to the pictures, helping to set the time of the story as sixty-odd years ago.
While parts of Littlesugar's story may be too scary for younger readers (as evidenced by my four-year-old's reaction when I read the story to her), overall the tale is told well and will suck the reader in (as evidence by both my daughter's reactions). Furthermore, as with all the best children's books, Willy and Max is written so an adult audience can appreciate the story with, even with the additional historical perspective they will bring to the story.
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