I Am David by Anne Holm, a tale of the Cold War, is an international classic, even fifty years after its first publication. It’s got a lot to recommend it–It’s a riveting read. But it’s also got hard things in it. Is I Am David by Anne Holm, supposedly for ages 8-12, actually appropriate for young children?
We’ll come back to that question.
Anne Holm, a Danish journalist and author, wrote this novel in 1963 about a twelve-year-old boy who grew up in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe and remembers nothing else. David’s life and outlook are uniformly grim. He has never even smiled.
When an unfriendly guard for some reason makes it possible for him to escape, he goes on the run. The guard gave him sparse directions: go south to Salonica, take a ship to Italy, then go north to Denmark. There you will be free.
In David’s journey he sees bright colors in southern Italy, for the first time. He explores our world: a bathroom, table settings, a bed. He delights in books, but he limits himself to books that are “true”: according to his definition, that’s books written before the Communist revolution in Russia in 1917.
David is shocked to find people who unexpectedly go out of their way to help him, It’s like he is waking from a bad dream. But always he keeps a distance, thinking that the authorities will throw him back into the camp if he makes himself known.
David has a strong moral compass, given him by a man in the camp who cared for him for years before dying of exposure. That man, Johannes, taught him never to steal or cheat, and always to remember who he is, David. Because that’s what the camps try to take away from you, your sense of who you are.
What makes this book so riveting is the author’s ability to stand in David’s shoes, see with his blind spots, feel his emotions, and experience his awakening of care and protectiveness for other children. We participate in his very first smile.
Of course I can’t spoil the book for you and tell you a lot about David’s journey, but I can say the book has a very satisfying ending.
So, is it appropriate for young children?
My literature professor read it to his sons when they were nine or ten, and they loved the book. But other kids might be more sensitive. The story discusses atrocities but doesn’t actually show them. I think age 12 or 13 would be a good age for this book.
I looked through online reviews of this book. One was from a reader who didn’t seem to know about the atrocities of the Cold War. This person thought the book must be set in World War II, and was critical of discrepancies. So, in the spirit of learning history so as not to repeat it, I think this is a good book for our young people to read. They need to know what happened under communism. The Gulag (Soviet prison system) was a reality during my early adult life. It could return again. And totalitarianism isn’t dead.
I’ll give it five stars for kids 12 and up. *****
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