“Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings.”
Oskar and the Eight Blessings (September 2015, Roaring Book Press) is a poignant picture book that tells the story of Oskar, a Jewish refugee who arrives in New York City on December 24, 1938, a year when Christmas Eve and the seventh day of Hanukkah overlap. Following the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar’s parents put him on a boat with nothing but a picture of his American aunt and hopes for a better future. Oskar arrives in New York alone and afraid, and has to walk over one hundred blocks in the cold to get to his aunt’s house.
Though the setting of this story is a somber one, Oskar’s journey is illuminated by the small acts of kindness he encounters throughout his journey. Several strangers, moved by compassion and holiday spirit, help Oskar — giving him mittens to keep his hands warm and bread to ease his aching stomach. Mark Siegel’s gorgeous illustrations, in line with the text, utilize shadow and soft lines to convey the weighty subject matter, and yet brighten the pages with the warmth and light depicted in the faces of those who help Oskar.
Siegel’s depictions of 1930s New York are also captivating in a way that remind me of Mike Curato’s Little Elliot, Big City. As a present-day New Yorker, I feel transported back in time as I read this book. Also of note is a map in the endpages of Oskar that allow the reader to track Oskar’s walk through the city.
While historical children’s books can often come across as either pedantically dry or overly simplistic, Oskar provides the perfect balance of story and historical accuracy to open up a safe space for dialogue with a child. Because the story ends on a happy note, it leaves room for questions and conversations about the Holocaust without succumbing to despair.
In the end, what stands out to me about Oskar and the Eight Blessings is that it is, predominantly, a story about hope. I have seldom seen literature on the Holocaust that leaves the reader with a profound sense of the good that we are capable of as human beings. That Richard and Tanya Simon accomplish this in a children’s picture book is truly astounding.