Felix is a ten year old boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in 1942. His parents, who are book lovers and book store owners, have sent him there for protection. When Felix flees the orphanage in an attempt to find his parents, he endures a great deal of hardship, but also meets some truly caring and wonderful people. Once, which is written from the first person point of view of a child, is heartbreaking, raw, honest, and beautifully written. The first of a series of three books, Once is the perfect book to teach young children about the truths and the horrors of the Holocaust.
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Ten year old Felix lives in an orphanage. His parents are book lovers, and the Nazis don’t like book lovers, so they sent him there for his safety. Felix has been there for three years and eight months, but he knows his parents will come back for him. One night during dinner, Felix finds a full carrot in his soup, and he knows it’s a sign that his parents are coming for him. The next day, Felix sees cars arriving at the orphanage and just knows it’s his parents! However, the people in the cars are Nazis, and they are there to take all of the books. Felix wonders why the Nazis hate books so much and want to burn them. For the first time, he worries that his parents may be in danger.
Felix decides it is time to sneak out and find his parents. While on his journey back to his village, Felix notices it is eerily quiet, and the houses look as though they were abruptly abandoned. When Felix hears gunshots in the distance, he assumes people must be out hunting. When he arrives at his old village, he finds strange people in his parents’ bookstore, and nothing is as it seems. One of the strangers tells him that all of the Jews have been taken to the city, and that he must leave immediately. While on his journey to the city, Felix comes across a burning house. He finds two adults who have been shot and killed, and a little girl who is unconscious. Felix grabs the girl and takes her with him. When she awakes, she is frightened and wonders where her parents are. Her name is Zelda, and she is only six years old.
On their way to the city, Felix and Zelda come across a large group of Jewish people walking in the same direction. They are accompanied by mean-looking Nazis who are yelling and carrying guns. The Nazis force the children to join them. Felix begins to understand that this isn’t just about the books, and he and Zelda try to escape. They are nearly shot, but are rescued by a man named Barney. Barney takes the children with him to a basement where several other children are hiding. Zelda gives Barney her locket to wear, as a token of their friendship.
Felix is older and strong, so Barney takes him when he ventures out for water and other things for the children. During these excursions, Felix sees things that will haunt him forever, and he realizes that his parents are probably dead. When Zelda becomes very ill, Barney sends Felix out to the abandoned ghetto to find aspirin. During a close call of almost being caught, Zelda’s locket breaks open and Felix sees a picture inside of her parents. Felix sees that her father is a Nazi. When Felix returns, he finds that the Nazis have discovered their hiding place. Barney and the children are taken.
Packed into a train car with at least 100 other people, Felix discovers rotted wood and begins kicking out a hole. With the help of several others, they create a hole large enough to jump out of. As some people begin jumping, Felix and the others hear gunshots from the roof of the train. Felix and Zelda decide to jump, while Barney stays with the rest of the frightened children. The two children survive the jump and the gunfire and make their way into the woods. What comes next is unknown; Felix and Zelda’s journey continues in the next book, Then.
Once is a historical fiction novel that is written in such a way that truly emulates the innocence and purity of a child. As Felix begins to realize the horror around him, he tries to remain positive and strong for Zelda. This novel is the perfect story to use while teaching children about the most horrific time in our history.