The notion of introducing young readers to the atrocity that was the Holocaust is a challenging one, to say the least. It’s a discussion that by its very nature serves as a striking wake-up call to children about life’s inherent cruelties. Ultimately, the decision over when to discuss this is up to parents.
But when the time is right and they find themselves looking for books that address the topic from the point of view of a child, particularly if they’re looking for fiction that dramatizes the horrific events, I’d recommend Loïc Dauvillier’s Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, a graphic novel for young readers, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo. Hidden arrives on bookshelves next month, in time for National Holocaust Remembrance Week. It’s a story first published in France in 2012.
The story opens with Elsa, a young girl who tosses and turns in bed. She wanders into the living room and sees her grandmother, Dounia, whose body is slumped in sadness, while looking at old photos. When the girl hugs her, she asks if she’s had a nightmare. “You could say that,” her grandmother says. When the girl urges her to share what’s made her so despondent, her grandmother launches into the dramatic story of her experience as a Jewish girl in Paris, hidden by neighbors to avoid capture by the Nazis. At the book’s poignant close, which jumps back to present day, readers discover it’s a story that she had never told her own grown son, Elsa’s father. When she’s finally ready to share memories, it’s her beloved granddaughter who first hears them.
“The project goes back to 2005,” Dauvillier tells me. “Marc Lizano and I were wondering about our roles as fathers in the duty of remembrance. We are fathers and we are also authors. Soon enough, we wondered about our roles as authors in passing on the memory of things. We started from a principle that knowing past events can help to avoid repeating them.”
Dounia says a confused and panicked goodbye to her parents when the Nazis come storming into their home one night. It’s only because they hide her under the panel inside a wardrobe that she isn’t whisked away to a concentration camp herself. Eventually, her neighbor, Mrs. Péricard, rescues her. She and her husband effectively become Dounia’s guardians. Their kind friends help hide Dounia, while she dreams of seeing her parents again.
Thanks to Mr. Péricard, who never gives up his search for her parents, Dounia is reunited with her mother. She is gaunt and ghost-like. When you turn the page to see her sitting there, it’s a moment you won’t soon forget, helped by the fact that Lizano gives these characters here very large heads and pin points for eyes. At this moment, Dounia’s mother, who has survived the brutality of a concentration camp, stares straight at the reader, as if she’s near the brink of death before finally seeing her daughter again. It’s a powerful, arresting moment in a story filled with both despair and joy.
Dauvillier says that, since the book’s French release two years ago, “we keep hearing we produced a universal story. The book has been translated in many places (in Israel, in Korea, in Germany). The feedback from editors is always the same. I can't imagine it will be received differently in the United States.” Indeed, it’s been met with positive reviews here, even before its official release in April.
When I ask how he, the illustrator, and the colorist collaborated on this story, Dauvillier tells me I might be surprised. “It wasn't born of a tight collaboration between us. I wrote the story in thumbnail form. Marc read that and liked it. Then I did a tighter storyboard. Marc drew the pages following that as a lead. I would then edit his inked pages. The few corrections were only for historical accuracy. After that, Greg added his beautiful color to each page. The book was complete, right when we presented to the publisher. I don't think any editor would have signed it up, if we had presented a four- or five-line pitch.”
Dauvillier’s next project is considerably more light-hearted. “I'm currently working on Myrmidon, a young comics project for beginning readers,” he says. “Thierry Martin is on artwork. This project pays tribute to Winsor McCay. It makes reference to Little Nemo and also to Little Sammy Sneeze. We're currently working on a third volume. It's my dream to see this published in the States.”
Time will tell if we U.S. readers see that, but for now we have his tender and haunting story of survival in Hidden, what will surely be one of this year’s most memorable graphic novels.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.