Once I made a Nazi with toothache laugh… Morris Gleitzman’s Once

When I read John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a few years ago I thought I’d read the most moving children’s war book out there. And then last week a friend showed me there was a book I’d missed. And now, having finished that book, I want to shout about it from every roof top. Morris Gleitzman’s Once is a MUST READ for 10+ years.

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The book is narrated by a young Jewish boy called Felix. When the Nazis sweep through Poland rounding up the Jews, Felix is taken to an orphanage high up in the Polish mountains by his parents. From there he writes stories about adventures that his book-seller parents might be up to and reads them aloud to the other orphans. But Felix’s life changes forever on the day he receives a carrot in his soup.

Carrots

At first Felix thinks the carrot is a sign sent by his parents to tell him that they’re on their way to take him home. But when a group of Nazis arrive instead to burn any Jewish books at the orphanage, Felix realises his parents might be in danger. He sets out on a journey to find them but what he discovers along the way is going to change him forever… Stories were enough to fight the pain of missing his parents but are they enough to fight back the fears of the Nazis? To keep little Zelda safe? To smuggle medicines after curfew to keep his friends alive?

Book

Felix is one of those characters who stay with you long after you’ve finished reading his story. His mind is a place of stories and wonder – where nuns get bigger servings of food because they need the extra energy for being holy and where people like Just William are ‘alright in the end’. I mean it’s impossible not to love a boy who leaves this as his last message to the nuns before running away:

‘Dear Mother Minka,
Thank you very much for having me. Please don’t worry, I’ll be fine. If possible, can Dodie have my soup? 
Yours faithfully,
Felix’

But Felix’s naive innocence gradually gives way to a deeper understanding of the atrocities going on in 1942 Poland. As a child he sees so much more than the adults around him and we watch powerlessly as he bravely battles through. Once is the first book in a series: Once, Then and Now, and within seconds of finishing Once, I ordered the second two – because I can’t leave Felix on page 150 like that. I HAVE to know what happens next… So thank you, lovely Iona, this book was an Altocumulus Tower find – and that’s something to shout about. For more moontrug war books, click here.

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