the year of goodbyes

Once you start reading, you will not be able to put down Debbie Levy’s book, the year of goodbyes. There are many books written for young people about the Holocaust, and yet Levy has found a uniquely powerful way to explore this dark period. This slim book has tremendous emotional force. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s a profound reading experience. I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature for young people, and this book is one of the strongest.

the year of goodbyes tells the story of Levy’s mother’s experiences in Hamburg in 1938, her family’s last year in Germany prior to leaving for America. Levy was inspired to write this story after reading her mother’s poesiealbum from this period, which is essentially like an autograph or friendship book. The album was full of messages written to Jutta, Levy’s mother, during that year before she left Hamburg. Each chapter of the year of goodbyes begins with a handwritten message, an actual image of the page from the album and then Levy uses that entry as a launch into a free verse poem.

The poetry feels completely true to the voice of an eleven-year-old girl. The language is direct and honest, which makes it convincing. I was impressed by the way Levy keeps the narrative line clear and compelling from poem to poem. Tension builds and there is nothing choppy or separate about the different chapters. One flows to the next, which proves how skillfuly Levy has drawn a story from the entries of her mother’s album, as well as extensive research.

Close to halfway through the book, I had to stop for a moment when I came to one of the entries. When you’re a teacher, handwriting says a lot to you. You imagine the child behind the letters. As you get to know your students, a lot of the time, their handwriting makes sense given who they are. The crazy huge letters of the child with the world’s messiest desk. The flowy, curly script of some types of girls. The super-slanted, angled letters of kids trying to make their writing look grown up for the first time. There was something about the tiny, perfect script of Ellen Berger that reminded me so much of the handwriting of a child I taught in my first year of teaching, also named Ellen. Which of course, made me wonder about Ellen Berger. Was she a careful, precise girl? Was she quiet? Did she have small hands? Was she good at drawing things? Did she take pride in making things look just right? At this moment in Levy’s book it struck me how much I had to know if these children survived. This realization is what makes the year of goodbyes so poignant. Many of these children did not survive. At the end of the book Levy reveals the fates of many of Jutta’s friends, but there are some of those stories that she could not discover through research.

the year of goodbyes is a perfect book for anyone interested in experiencing a very personal and human portrait of the Holocaust. It is the right book to read with a younger reader as an introduction to many of the more explicit books on this historical period. It will make you imagine the people who were lost, as individuals, because their words are here, on the pages.

the year of goodbyes is published by Disney Hyperion.

Here is the trailer, which I think captures rather well the spirit of the book:

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