Darkest of times strikes chord with young readers

NOBEL peace prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said that the Nazi death camps were a subject for writers that should be tackled only by those who had experienced them.

That would clearly rule out John Boyne and Morris Gleitzman. Neither had been planning to tackle the Holocaust when they wrote their books set against its backdrop; they simply had good ideas for stories. Boyne had an image in his head of two boys on either side of a fence. ''I knew where it was, I knew the journey to there and I knew how it would end.'' He produced The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a frenzy of writing over two sleepless days in his Dublin home.

And Gleitzman said he also wanted to write about friendship between two young people. ''But it wasn't enough to explore the good things of friendship. I decided to place it in the most unfriendly time when that friendship could be seen.''

So like Boyne's book, Gleitzman's tetralogy - it begins with Once and has just been completed with After - is firmly located in the horrors of the Holocaust. Both wrote for young adult readers and both struck a chord: Boyne's book has gone on to sell more than 5 million copies, while Gleitzman's have also become bestsellers.

The two writers were enthusiastically received yesterday at a packed session for school students at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Boyne said he dealt with Wiesel's prohibition by arguing that its logical extension meant that once the last survivor died, the story of the Holocaust had been ''solved''. ''It means that only certain people can write [about it], but the way we treat each other are universal topics,'' he said.

It was a point that Gleitzman reiterated. ''It is very important we have stories that remind us about the very worst and the very best we are capable of,'' he said.

But if their subject was dark, there were counterpoints. Gleitzman said running through his books were the very best humans could offer each other - love and friendship. And Boyne argued that despite the tragedy in his book, there was hope: ''The boys are holding hands and declare that they will be best friends. The forces of hatred can't beat that; it's the most important image in the book.''

The Age is a festival sponsor. mwf.com.au

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