Stones in Water (1999), by Donna Jo Napoli

Stones in Water is a carefully crafted and poignant World War II story. While it is associated with the Holocaust, it does not fit into the usual Holocaust narrative categories.  Two young Italian boys—Roberto is Catholic, Samuele is Jewish—are abducted from a movie house and forced into the Italian labour camps.  The protagonist strives to protect his Jewish friend from detection, but ultimately fails.  After his friend’s death, he escapes and is left wandering, trying to find his way home.  His journey—the good and bad people he meets—is a fascinating look at other young people’s war experiences. We hear so much of the concentration camps, that it is often forgotten that other horrific things happened in Europe—and indeed Asia—at that time.

Napoli has managed to strike an unusually effective balance between the horrors of Roberto’s experience and what a modern adolescent reader can manage. While this is definitely a YA text, younger readers who have been previously exposed to the concept of World War II will find Stones in Water approachable while still believable, and sufficiently troubling to suggest the reality behind the fictional trauma it narrates.  This novel is an excellent transition from the simplicity of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars (1989) and Elie Wiesel’s brilliant yet deeply troubling Night (1958, 1960). While this can be said of many texts lying between these two ends of the Holocaust narrative spectrum (and I understand that I am conflating fictional with more autobiographical accounts), I believe Stones in Water to be—like Number the Stars, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (1947, 1952), and Night—essential reading for those interested in the Holocaust. Napoli has constructed a powerful narrative of survival and determination, as well as the trauma of adolescence at a time of political and cultural upheaval. This is by far my favourite of World War II novels for adolescent readers.

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