Book Review: Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s The Boy Who Dared

Posted February 15, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s The Boy Who Dared

The Boy Who Dared


Susan Campbell Bartoletti'

fictional biography that was published by Scholastic on February 1, 2008 and has 202 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A fictional account about a real boy who did dare to live in truth.

In 2011, The Boy Who Dared was nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award and the Iowa Teen Award.

My Take

It’s a short story. Initially, I kept wanting to put it down because I knew I’d just cry at the end. Which I did. It certainly shows up what monsters people can be. Sure, most of the Germans in World War II were terrified and couldn’t figure out how else to survive the bully boys who made up the Gestapo. But there certainly were enough of the greedy, grasping neighbors who saw an opportunity to enrich themselves or get payback or those who simply loved to watch others suffer.

I don’t normally enjoy a story that alternates between the past and current events, but Bartoletti did a nice job of it using italics to help set the “today” apart visually.

I can’t think of another historic event that came close to what Hitler and his followers managed to create with its repression of the German people and, worse, the Holocaust, a genocide of entire groups of people.

What set the stage for all this to occur was, initially, the economic depression in Germany resulting from sanctions in the Treaty of Versailles along with the even greater sense of shame and anger about being forced to accept responsibility for starting the war. Well, duh…they did. Yet, another instance of the “bad guys” never think they should have to pay for their deeds when they’re caught! Although, admittedly, the sanctions were pretty severe. I suspect this was the inspiration for the U.S.’s Marshall Plan at the end of WWII.

Combine this with the mindset of following the rules and obeying the leaders of one’s country (remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Germany was ruled by a kaiser). Then the blackout on communication which enabled a one-sided propaganda. Using the radio and newspapers to lie and frightening a trusting population about supposed Communist and Jewish plots. Look back at our own McCarthy Senate hearings.

By remembering history and today’s full access to a variety of opinions from multiple viewpoints, we stand a better chance of avoiding a future situation in which leaders lie to their people or successfully mislead.

We must refuse to allow bullying of any type. Whether it’s amongst students or from people set in a position of leadership. We must stand up for each other against anyone who tries to bully or force someone to conform to a wrong. Require oversight of government, police, the military, and ensure the freedom of the press in its broadest forms to ensure a more difficult time of allowing something like this again. Yeah, I hate that this means the Ku Klux Klan has to be allowed the same rights, too, but that’s part of the price of freedom.

In the story, Bartoletti shows us the escalation of repression and the isolation through the eyes of a young boy and how it affects his family and neighbors. People with whom he is friends. The first lie. His mother’s relationship with a Rottenführer in the SS. Her acceptance of his dominance a second lie for Helmuth. The teachers at his school either espouse Nazi thoughts or conform to keep their jobs. A third lie.

When you think about the Nazi overreaction to the actions of a single 16-year-old boy…it was pretty pathetic. An act of desperate, insecure “children” against the only “adult” in the room.

Bartoletti did a reasonable job of instilling drama and tension in such a short novel, particularly one aimed at young adults. Admittedly, it is almost a slam dunk simply because of its subject matter.

The Story

It started with promise. The promise of food, jobs. And it quickly deteriorated into attacks on easily isolated groups of people. Always there was an excuse as to why this or that group should be discriminated against. Beaten. Eliminated. With each escalation, it became harder and harder for the average German to speak out.

Helmuth began to question Nazi actions early on, but couldn’t see a way to fight it. Slowly, the stupid, brutal actions and the lies piled up, inspiring him to spread the truth he learned from BBC Radio from an illegal shortwave radio his brother had brought home from Paris.

One of those stupid events was a case of boys being boys, and Helmuth and Rudi decided to play at being detectives like one of their favorite stories, the Karl May adventure series, and they print up business cards and offer to help catch murderers and thieves. The SS jumps to the stupidest conclusions! Another is the severe wrong done to Herr Worbs simply for criticizing a statue of Hitler.

Unfortunately, Helmuth eventually trusted the wrong, weak person.

The ultimate insult. The invoice sent to Helmuth’s parents.

The Characters

Helmuth was eight years old when Hitler came to power. His brothers Hans and Gerhard were 13 and 12. Mutti is his divorced mother who enters into a relationship with Hugh Hübener, a noncommissioned corporal in the SS. Oma and Opa are Mutti’s parents.

Benno Seligman is a Jewish classmate threatened into leaving school. Revealed as a traitor…right. Rudi Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe are Helmuth’s German friends.

Inspector Becker was the policeman Helmuth and Karl spoke to about helping. Gerhard Düwer is a fellow apprentice whom Helmuth approaches. Bartoletti isn’t clear if the original snitch is Düwer, Werner Kranz, another apprentice, or Herr Mohns, their supervisor. The one who grins when the Gestapo take Düwer and Helmuth.

The Cover and Title

It’s a grim cover with Helmuth looking out through a prison door peep from behind his prison door.

The title is much too accurate for Helmuth was indeed The Boy Who Dared.


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