The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a moving story about how friendship crosses all boundaries. In this novel, John Boyne portrays the Holocaust through the eyes of a German child named Bruno, who does not recognize the horrors around him. His friendship with Shmuel, a Jewish boy he meets in the outskirts of Auschwitz, exists and thrives in spite of and in ignorance of war, racism, and fear. The third-person narration is limited mostly to Bruno's viewpoint, so providing students with background information on World War II and Auschwitz will help them fill the gaps in his naïve perspective. In doing so, they can explore themes involving the danger of naïvety during warfare. This historical context, whether offered through interviews, videos, or other Holocaust literature, is crucial, especially considering that Boyne does not provide a great deal of factual information in his novel.

You might consider leading a character study of Bruno himself. Students can explore how Bruno differs from other members of his family and then compare his sense of isolation from them to the bond he forms with Shmuel. His devotion to his friend ultimately leads to his death. Encourage your students to examine Bruno's choices and fate symbolically—what bigger idea about war and ethics does his story convey? Another notable character analysis could be a comparison between Bruno's mother and father. Each parent represents a completely different attitude prominent in the Holocaust era—his father, recently promoted to Nazi Commandant and fully committed to the party, and his mother, a guilty observer who demonstrates humanity's capacity for denial. Have students cite examples of each parent's behavior and analyze their roles in the overarching message of the story.

Boyne intended The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to be a fable, focusing more on the novel's message than on facts. Encourage students to scrutinize this storytelling choice and determine its effectiveness in relaying the terrors of the Holocaust. To enrich this discussion, you can also pair The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with nonfiction accounts like Elie Wiesel's Night or Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl to introduce students to other forms of Holocaust literature.

Check out more information below about teaching this powerful novel.

Summary of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 2006
  • Length: 218 pages
  • Lexile® Measure: 1080
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • New York Times Bestseller; Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award; IRA Young Adult Choices

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas 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 shares a birthday with him. The two become fast friends. Over a year later, Bruno's family decides they are going to move back to Berlin. Bruno visits Shmuel to tell him the news, but learns that Shmuel's father is missing. To help find him, Bruno sneaks into the camp and changes into prison clothes. As the boys search the camp, they are discovered by Nazi soldiers and sent to the gas chambers.

What Your Students Will Love About The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  • The friendship that blossoms between the two boys
  • The subtle instances of rebellion against Nazism (from characters like Mother and the maid)

Potential Student Struggles With The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  • Interpreting some of Bruno's misunderstandings (For example, he refers to Auschwitz as "Out-With" and Hitler as "the Fury.")
  • The shocking conclusion of the story
  • The gravity of the subject matter and scenes of violence and suggested violence
  • Comprehending the situation if they don’t have enough background to understand the horrors of the holocaust

Learning Objectives for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  • Examine the significance of the title of the novel and each chapter.
  • Identify the form of narration used in the novel and analyze why Boyne might have chosen it.
  • Explore themes involving boundless friendship, childhood innocence, denial, and ethics.
  • Discuss the author's use of puns and wordplay and its effect on the novel.
  • Interpret symbols in the novel, including Shmuel's "pajamas" and the fence.
  • Track the following motifs: guilty observer, exploration, and power/control.
  • Trace the character development of the novel's protagonist, Bruno.

Literary Elements in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  • Conflict
  • Fable
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Parallelism
  • Repetition
  • Simile
  • Symbolism
  • Theme

Major Themes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Innocence — The story shows the naïvety of Bruno and Shmuel as they explore their friendship amid a horrific time in history.

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Friendship — The novel demonstrates how friendship is so powerful that it can cross all boundaries.

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Ethics — The adult characters of the novel do nothing to fight the unjust treatment of those imprisoned at Auschwitz; this lack of ethics is, for some, due to loyalty to the party, and others, due to fear or self-preservation.

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