HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Devil’s Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen
Cover Illustrator: Steve Cieslawski
Publisher: Puffin, republished in 2008
ISBN-13: 978-1435247895 (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1435247892 (Hardcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0142401095 (Paperback)
ISBN-10: 0142401099 (Paperback)
Related website: http://www.penguinputnam.com (publisher)
Language level: 3
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Yolen, Jane. The Devil’s Arithmetic (published in 1988 by Viking Penguin Inc., and republished in 1990 by Puffin Books, both divisions of Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York City, NY 10014). Twelve-year-old Hannah Stern lives in New Rochelle, NY, with her parents and her younger brother Aaron (whom she calls Ron-ron). The entire family goes to Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle’s home in the Bronx for the Passover Seder. Several aunts and uncles are also there, but Hannah is tired of hearing her relatives always talking about the past, not only the Exodus but especially the Holocaust. However, when she symbolically opens the door to welcome the prophet Elijah, she finds herself transported to a small Jewish village in Poland during the year 1942. At first, she thinks she is just a little woozy or maybe having a dream as a result of drinking the Passover wine.
Hannah is now Chaya Abramowicz, whose parents have died in Lublin of a plague and who now lives with her aunt Gitl and uncle Shmuel who is soon to marry Fayge Boruch, daughter of a local rabbi Reb Boruch. Chaya herself has just recovered from the disease and is very weak. However, as Hannah settles down to life with Gitl and Shmuel, the Nazis come while everyone is arriving at the neighboring village for Schmuel and Fayge’s wedding to take all the Jews to a concentration camp where she meets another young girl named Rivka. What will happen to Chaya/Hannah? Will she ever make it back to her own time and home in New Rochelle? My friend Natalie Bishop said of this book, “I remember when the teachers said they needed to teach the kids about death, I suggested using real events such as the Holocaust (Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic is a good one).”
Sigh. The Holocaust is certainly an important subject, and everyone, including children, need to remember it. It is just that I have read so many children’s books about it that they get a little old after a while. This one certainly has a different twist with a surprise ending. Of course, the story centers on some horrible events. The name of God is used as couple of times as exclamations, the word “bas*ard” is found, even Chaya begins to call a woman a “bi…,” and the “h” word is said once, though not as an interjection. A suicide is recorded, references to the “smokestack” where Jews are cremated occur, and there is a mass shooting. Also, smoking a pipe and drinking wine are mentioned. This is not a bad book, and there is nothing really undesirable, but parents will need to take into consideration appropriateness for age and sensitivity of children.