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Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

book cover for What the Night Sings shows a stream of butterflies flying out of a concrete room toward the moon. Most of the image is sepia & cream, except for the one butterfly who has made it out of the room. That one butterfly is blue.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018 
Age Range: Grade 7 and up
Format: Print, Library Bound

From the Amazon Book Description: 

“After losing her family and everything she knew in the Nazi concentration camps, Gerta is finally liberated, only to find herself completely alone. Without her papa, her music, or even her true identity, she must move past the task of surviving and on to living her life. In the displaced persons camp where she is staying, Gerta meets Lev, a fellow teen survivor who she just might be falling for, despite her feelings for someone else. With a newfound Jewish identity she never knew she had, and a return to the life of music she thought she lost forever, Gerta must choose how to build a new future.”

What I Thought

I’ll be honest: When the librarian at my daughter’s middle school handed me this book at the end of May with a strong READ THIS NOW recommendation, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle it emotionally. And frankly it was touch and go there for a bit. I read most of it in two giant gulps, but they occurred a couple of weeks apart. I needed the emotional break.

Book cover for What the Night Sings is mainly sepia and cream, except for one blue butterfly. The scene is a swarm of butterflies escaping out the window of a concrete room and flying across the face of the moon. Only the butterfly outside the window is blue. The rest are still sepia/black.

When the book opens, the main character, Gerta, has no idea she is even Jewish. She lives with her father and her stepmother in Germany. Her father is an accomplished musician, and Gerta spends all of her time practicing the violin with her father and training with her stepmother for her upcoming vocal debut.

Before that debut can take place, however, someone turns Gerta and her father in to the Nazis. Her father tells Gerta that she is Jewish while they are on the train to the concentration camp. Although Stamper does include some of Gerta’s experiences at the camp, the bulk of the book deals with life in the camp after liberation.

This may be the only book I’ve read about the Holocaust that deals primarily with the question of what happens after. How do you rebuild your life after all you thought you had has been systematically stripped away both by the people who imprisoned you and the things you had to do to survive while so many others died?  

As Stamper’s vivid illustrations and skilled storytelling make clear, liberation is a much more complicated process for both the former prisoners and their liberators than most history books lead us to believe. After liberation, it takes months to refeed and revive the former prisoners enough for them to even imagine restarting their lives. And in the meantime, life in the camp remains extremely difficult, even when that camp is run by benevolent, well-intentioned people with the express goal of nurturing the people housed there.

Thankfully, Stamper’s narrative ends on a hopeful note. So yes, even though it’s hard, if you pick up this book, do yourself the favor of reading through to the end. This book is essential reading for our times.

Who Would Enjoy This Book

  • Anyone looking for a fictionalized account dealing with the aftermath of WWII or the founding of Israel

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