When it comes to WWII middle grade novels I thought I had the market covered, but this one slipped under my radar. Thank goodness it was brought to my attention. This book came highly recommended from a wise teacher librarian who told me how beloved this book is in her school and so naturally I took it home right away and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.
The Silver Sword is the story of the Balicki children, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia, who are separated from their parents in Warsaw in 1940. They are just getting by in a make-shift home amid the rubble when they meet Jan, a resourceful street urchin with a penchant for taming wild or stray animals. Jan has the silver sword, a beautiful letter opener entrusted to him by the children’s father after a chance encounter. Along with the sword, Jan has a message for the children from their father: they should head for Switzerland where he will be waiting for them. For better or for worse, the children and Jan are bound together now in an incredible journey across war-torn Europe.
Seraillier’s novel was first published in 1956 and has remained it print ever since. At the time of its publication, Seraillier was praised for presenting the harsh realities of the war honestly and with sensitivity. His book stands up today as a suspenseful, touching, and compelling read. His writing style is straightforward and unfettered; there is too much plot in this story to spend time on extraneous description or philosophizing. He doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of war, but the story moves along so quickly that he doesn’t dwell on them, either. I was reminded of Robert Westall’s The Kingdom by the Sea, another honest and compelling novel that deals with an extrememly resourceful child orphaned and made homeless by the war.
Boys and girls alike will be compelled by the circumstances and resourcefulness of the children as they face struggle after struggle and yet manage to scrape by. In my experience, the most popular WWII novels for kids are the ones with a survival story, and the Balicki children are the ultimate survivors. Of course the clincher in all of this is that the novel is based on true accounts. The edition that I read has a great afterword written by Seraillier’s daughter full of facts and anecdotes about the author and the journey of the book.