In tumultuous 1930s Berlin, fourteen-year-old Karl Stern is coming to grips with what it means to be an outcast. Ostracized for being Jewish, Karl is in desperate need of an outlet to prove his self-worth. So when luck smiles upon Karl and delivers German boxing champ Max Schmeling as a coach, he has an opportunity he never dreamed of: to make something of himself in the boxing ring. But with the threat of all-out war inching ever closer, Karl’s dream of becoming a champion boxer is far from certain—as is the very survival of his family.---From the Discussion Guide by Robert SharenowThe Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow came to my attention as I was searching for YA books that have received starred reviews by the major reviewers (SLJ, Bookist, Publisher Weekly, Kirkus) as possible candidates for my 2012 Mock Printz Workshop. In the publishing world to get four different starred reviews is a really, really good thing. I also heard about the book by my blogging friend Helen at Helen's Book Blog. She had really great things to say about the book and I have come to trust her recommendations as a fellow high school librarian.
The Berlin Boxing Club has a lot going for it. It is a terrific book that would work well for students aged 12 and up. Though it is 400 pages it is a very fast read. Karl wants to be a cartoonist and there are several pages throughout the book with his diagrams and comics. They added a touch of whimsy and fun to a very serious subject. It is historical fiction for a time period of high interest---the time period leading up to WWII in Germany just as Hitler is coming into power and he is starting the Hitler Youth program. Events like Kristallnacht, where Jews were terrorized by Germans by having their homes and business ransacked, and how Jews were forced to sell priceless art for mere pennies, were covered accurately and thoughtfully. I could feel the terror that Karl and his family experienced as they were trying to figure out what to do and where to go.
And then there was the boxing. When the book first opens Karl is much more concerned about how to deal with the school bullies and if he can attract the attention of the pretty girl who lived in the same apartment building than what Hitler was up to. His family were non-observant Jews, after all. When he gets beaten up the very day that he meets the very famous boxer, Max Schmeling he is thrilled to accept the offer for boxing lessons. The descriptions of the boxing lessons, training, and matches were all very well done, even for someone who knows very little about boxing (me.) I think that it is the boxing that sets this book apart from the other famous YA Holocaust-themed books (The Book Thief, The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Number the Star.) This book has cross-over appeal for boys who are interested in sports.
As a teacher-librarian I am always on the hunt for good teaching materials to augment literature and Robert Sharenow has provided a great resource here with a discussion guide, information on how to write historical fiction, and possible project topics. I also hunt for books that will be of interest for boys, especially reluctant readers. I think The Berlin Boxing Club is just the book I've been looking for.