The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a moving novel about the power of friendship in the face of tragedy and conflict. The book views the Holocaust through the eyes of a child and gives students a prudent message about the danger of ignorance to the surrounding world, as well as a story about a friendship that dares to defy the rules. Before starting the book, it would be beneficial to have a lesson on World War II and the Holocaust, with particular focus on Auschwitz and the lives of German citizens during that time.

Boyne wrote his novel as a fable. Students can discuss the elements that make this book a fable and the moral of the story. Boyne's decision to focus more on the message he wanted to convey rather than factual details of the Holocaust has been met with criticism. This controversy can prompt a class discussion on the appropriateness of fictionalizing history. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can also be paired with a nonfiction account of Jews during the Holocaust, such as The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, or Eva's Story, by Eva Schloss. This pairing will give students a better understanding of the horrors endured throughout the Holocaust.

Content Warning

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about the Holocaust and includes scenes of violence and suggested violence.

Summary

The novel focuses on Bruno, a nine-year-old boy living in Berlin during World War II. When his father is promoted to Commandant, he and his family move to the country, near a place Bruno calls "Out-With."" From his new home, Bruno sees a camp, which he explores. While walking along the wire fence, Bruno meets a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who is the exact same age as him. The two become fast friends. A day after having his hair shaved for lice, Bruno visits Shmuel, whose father is missing. Bruno sneaks into the camp and changes into prison clothes to help find Shmuel's father. As the boys search the camp, they are rounded up and sent to the gas chambers.

Objectives for Teaching
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  • Examine the significance of the title of the novel and those of the individual chapters.
  • Identify the form of narration used in the novel and analyze why Boyne might have chosen this particular type of narration.
  • Define the aspects of a fable and assess the novel as a fable.
  • Discuss the author's use of puns and wordplay and their effect on the novel.
  • Examine the impact —on plot, character, and theme —of the social and political issues present in the novel.
  • Trace the character development of the novel's protagonist, Bruno.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Caricature
  • Fable
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Parallelism
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Innocence and Experience — The story shows the true innocence of Bruno and Shmuel as they explore their friendship and begin to discover why they are separated by a fence.
  • Ethics — Although the book may seem geared towards young adults, it still provides a lesson on ethics for all ages based on the tragedies during the Holocaust.
  • Death —  The stark reminder of death surrounds Bruno and Shmuel, from the concentration camp fence to the smell of ashes in the air.

Related Works

Themes of Innocence and Experience

 

Theme of Ethics

 

Theme of Death

Key Facts

  • Length: 218 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1080
  • Publication Date: 2006
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9 – 10

Awards

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award
  • IRA Young Adult Choice

Movies

A film version was released in 2008 and is now available on DVD. Although the movie has some minor differences, it stays true to the plot of the book.

Your students will love:

  • The friendship that blossoms between the two boys
  • The loyalty Bruno shows to Shmuel by crossing the fence to help find his father

Students may have problems with:

  • The naivety of the characters, particularly Bruno.
  • The death of Bruno at the end of the book, especially considering how he ends up in the gas chambers; students may not understand the idea his death conveys.

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