The Never-Ending Greenness
written and illustrated by Neil Waldman. Morrow, 1997. 32 p.
Library ed. ISBN 0-688-14480-2 $15.93
Trade ed. ISBN 0-688-14479-9 $16.00
The goal is never to forget, but the question remains of how to remember the Holocaust for children, especially young children, who have no knowledge of World War II. Neil Waldman has given us his answer in The Never-Ending Greenness, which focuses on the survival of refugees from the Holocaust. Beginning with a tree-lined springtime scene in Vilna, the Jewish narrator recalls a childhood interrupted by Nazi soldiers who force his family into a ghetto, from which they escape into the surrounding forest. Later, in Israel, the boy transplants seedlings to his house where he can water them and nourish his dream of forests covering the barren hills around him. Postimpressionistic paintings flicker leaf-like shapes of colored light across panoramic landscapes. From the two dramatically gray ghetto scenes to pastel shades and deepening green hues, the illustration offers a spectrum of despair changing to hope, a hope celebrated every year with an Israeli tree-planting holiday called Tu b'Shvat.
Not for the primary-grade audience seeking standard suspense, The Never-Ending Greenness is nonetheless perfectly paced as an unfolding of personalized history reflected in a life cycle like an unfolding of leaves. And the intensity of the boy's project is magnetic enough to build a bridge of identification with today's young listeners who have no experience with devastated wastes of wartime gray. If the survival of a whole family is unrealistic or at least unusual in terms of what happened to millions of Jews, Waldman has ultimately projected the survival story of a people--perhaps the only happy ending for a story where so many individuals perished.
Our first impulse, of course, is to protect children from historical nightmares, and it took three decades for the Holocaust to make its way into juvenile literature at all. When it did, the format was young adult (Yuri Suhl's On the Other Side of the Gate, BCCB 9/75, for instance, or Milton Meltzer's Never To Forget, 9/76). As aging survivors felt compelled to pass on their stories in memoir or autobiographical fiction, and schools incorporated the subject into elementary curricula (sometimes mandated, along with other minority history), books about the Holocaust-including enduring, surviving, and escaping it- crept into younger formats, including easy-to-read works such as Isabella Leitner's The Big Lie (1/93) that are accessible at a third- and fourth-grade reading level. The next step, inevitably, was picture books, a genre already prepared for wartime desolation by groundbreaking works such as Maruki's Hiroshima No Pika (10/82). Just as inevitably, the subject was sometimes mishandled. Wild and Vivas' Let the Celebrations Begin! , (9/91) treats concentration camp liberation like a picnic, but other picture books--including The Lily Cupboard by Oppenheim (3/92) and Elisabeth by Nivola (3/97), in which the main characters survive, and Flowers on the Wall by Nerlove (3/96) and Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Hoestlandt (6/95), in which they do not--have managed a better balance in reflecting tragic situations for young listeners, upon whom we all wish happiness along with a conflicting quota of truth.
Each of the picture books wrestles with a central question of how much to tell: in content, how much of the horror; and in form, how much of the context. These issues in turn raise a critical question of whether the picture book comprises a self-enclosed world like other literature or whether it must depend in some cases on adult interpretation. For instance, Sim's In My Pocket(6/97) gives no historical context for a young Jewish refugee's experience; it's a book that would be incomprehensible without adult "translation," but of course an argument could be made that these are books best left to explanation by the adults reading them aloud, anyway. Gallaz and Innocenti's Rose Blanche is also mystifying without background commentary and connections. Are the Holocaust and its thematic variations too complex and terrible a subject for preschool or primary-grade understanding? That's a decision every parent and/or educator must make not only for herself but also for each different child in her care and each different book in her ken. Like all "trends," this one will go through cycles of truth (innovation) and consequences (commercialism). How many outstanding picture books have emerged, really, on the subjects of child abuse or AIDS?
What we do know is that social context affects and even effects text. No one in the 1950s could have imagined the publication of a children's book as grim as Pausewang's The Final Journey (12/96), which begins with the protagonist's boarding a train to Auschwitz and ends with her stripping for the "showers." Yet Schindler's List is shown on TV, with children wandering in and out of living rooms all over the country. Through the pervasive presence of multimedia, the worlds of adulthood and childhood that underwent separation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are once again fusing. Children see all but know little. And we are left to explain what we can, through books such as Waldman's The Never-Ending Greenness, and to do what we can, which is sometimes nothing more or less than planting a tree.
Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor
This page was last updated on June 1, 1997.