October 2004

Outsmarting the Gestapo

By Karen Hesse
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Breathes there a child who has not fantasized about carrying out some dramatic rescue? The little girl who narrates this stirring tale about the Warsaw Ghetto is fictional, but her voice rings true, and her daring story is based on historical accounts from World War II. With the compressed power of poetry, Newbery Award winner Karen Hesse elicits chills with a simple account of homespun bravery.

We see from the start that our heroine is kind and empathetic in the way she observes that the stray cats she befriends "belonged once to someone. . . . Now they have no one to kiss their velvet heads." Her own situation is comparable: though fortunate to have escaped the extreme privation of the ghetto by passing ("I wear my Polish look, I walk my Polish walk"), she is still marginal, never more than "almost safe, almost invisible." Wendy Watson's watercolors, mostly in subdued earth tones, perfectly complement the mood of oppression and anxiety.

The girl's elder sister "all that's left of our family," a heartbreaking hint at unimaginable loss gets involved in an underground effort to smuggle food to those trapped in the ghetto. When the Gestapo catches on, the plan seems headed for tragedy until the girl hits upon a scheme to call on her feline friends for help.

The tragedies of the Holocaust might seem a topic scarcely suitable for a children's picture book, typically a realm of sugary sentiment and bedtime bromides. However, The Cats in Krasinski Square exudes assurance that come what may, people can usually be counted on to figure out how to look after one another.


Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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