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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Champion of Children, written and illustrated by Tomek Bogacki. Farrar, Douglas & McIntyre, 2009. $$21.50 ages 8 and up

"When new children entered the orphanage, they were each assigned an older child to help them for the first three months, like a parent or guardian. In time, the new child would be ready to help another newcomer. Korczak thought of it as forming a very big family. The children learned how to be self-sufficient and caring in this atmosphere of love and respect."

In this quietly elegant picture book biography we learn much about Janusz Korczak, a man who dedicated his life to the Jewish children of Poland and their rights in the early twentieth century. It was a terrible time for everyone in Warsaw, and especially for those children. In 1912, he opened an orphanage that had as its basic premise the notion that the children would establish their own government and have control over much of what would happen to them. Many of his ideas were unheard of prior to this. All that happened with 'his' children was to be admired and he was soon asked to help build another orphanage. Always the children were at the heart of everything he did...and they had much to contribute.

As the world outside changed, so did the plight of the children and Janusz. In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, all Jews were relocated to the ghetto. The children and their beloved leader left their happy, comfortable and beautiful home. He continued his work, despite the obstacles. In 1942, he and the orphans were sent to Treblinka, a concentration camp. They all died before the war ended.

His life ended there but not the admiration and adulation for his work. Tomek Bogacki has created a lengthy picture book that is to be admired for its serious tone, giving those who read it an accurate, if sad, look at a life well-lived. His artwork is muted and dramatic, in keeping with this story of joy and sadness. Readers will learn much about the time, the setting and the people of this gracious story through the acrylic illustrations. Be sure you take time to look carefully at the endpapers...they offer a bleak reminder of life before and after WWII in Warsaw.

Janusz is a humanitarian to be celebrated. He had a life plan and lived it fully, giving power and happiness to a host of children whose lives were surely much richer for the part he played in it. He was then and is now a role model for the world.

In an author's note we learn that Tomek Bogacki grew up in Poland, hearing stories of this wonderful man. What an honor he pays to share his story with us.

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