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Monday, February 13, 2012

His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg. Written by Louise Borden. Houghton Mifflin, Thomas Allen. 2012. $22.50 ages 12 and up

"He told Iver Olsen that Raoul
was a man
with energy and intelligence,
who knew the world,
who could lead others,
who respected humanity,
who could speak many languages,
who knew Budapest and its people...
who had a great heart."

Talking about picture book biographies has me very excited these days. First, the number of exceptional books about important people and events is growing exponentially. I have always had an interest, and feel that a picture book is a perfect introduction to some of the most interesting people, well-known and often unknown. They offer revelation and information for young readers, and can lead to a lifelong interest in a particular person and the part they played in shaping our history.

I have heard Raoul Wallenberg's name. To tell you that I knew anything about him would be a lie. I could place him at the time of World War II; but, that would be it. No longer true. After reading this remarkable and brilliantly researched story, I feel that I know him quite well. As any avid student in your classroom might do following reading this fine book about him, I want to know more. I don't think that is unusual. He was a compassionate, caring man whose life and work made a difference in the world!

Raoul Wallenberg was born in the early twentieth century to a eminent Swedish family and would travel the world as a very young man, learning multiple languages, oozing intelligence, charm and great courage. While on a business trip to Hungary during the war, he became aware of the unconscionable treatment being meted out by the Nazis upon the Hungarian people. When he became a member of the Swedish legation in Budapest, he set his mind to arranging special documentation and variious other measures to ensure that Hungarian Jews were under the protection of the Swedish royals. This kept many from deportation and certain death:

"There was little business in the capital,
only wartime worry...
and air raids,
and rationing of food,
and shortages of electricity,
and, still, the abuses against the Jews.
Some were arrested
or dragged off the streets by anti-Jewish street thugs
and shot.
But there were no deportations to Auschwitz."

The text of the book is written in free verse, making it move quickly from Wallenberg's early years of travel, to his work during the war and his constant battle to keep people safe from transport. He won the admiration of many and a grudging respect from others: 

"To the suffering Jews
and to his staff,
he spoke with calm kindness...
but when Raoul confronted evil men,
he used loud words of anger
and indignation.
His presence was felt everywhere in Budapest,
and the name Wallenberg always brought hope."

There is a wealth of personal family history, including archival and contemporary photos, documents, maps and information gleaned from visits with his family over the past twelve years. In an author's note, Louise Borden tells her readers:

"Since then, I've traveled several times to Sweden to meet with Raoul's sister, Nina. We walked the wooded paths at Kappsta on the island where Raoul was born and drove along the "street of the knight" in Stockholm. I've held Raoul's calendar and address book - brought back from Moscow - in my hands."

Tell me that's not impressive, and motivating when crafting the story of one of the world's heroes...a man who made a difference in his world. It is a powerful study...a book about the Holocaust told with honesty and honor.  Don't miss it!

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