Happy MMGM, Reading Nook Readers!
Today, I'm reviewing The Watcher by Joan Harlow.
This is a standalone MG about a girl who is taken to WWII-era Germany by her birth mother, only to learn that life there isn't as ideal as her mother has made it out to be…
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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published November 4th 2014 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
But through self-discovery, unlikely friendships and a bit of luck, Wendy might just have the ability to get back home.
But she was kidnapped, then betrayed by her own mother, who is actually a Nazi spy. As a new Berliner—and now a German—Wendy is expected to speak in a language she’s never known and support a cause she doesn’t believe in.
There are allies, though, among the Germans. Allies who have been watching over Wendy since she arrived. And Wendy, along with her new German shepherd puppy, must confront them. If only she can find them.
Her life depends on it.
Joan Harlow (re)introduces readers to Wendy Taylor*, a young fourteen-year-old American girl who finds out that her Aunt Adrie is actually her mother. She agrees to return to Germany with her mother, without actually considering the full ramifications of that decision.
But once she's there, Wendy quickly realizes that her decision may have been made in haste. She doesn't speak the language; she finds herself not agreeing with the decisions of the Nazi government; and she's also distressed to see how anyone who doesn't fit into the new Nazi belief system is bullied and persecuted by those who do.
Harlow's premise is compelling, and it's easy for readers to immediately feel the challenges that Wendy experiences when adapting both to a new life, but also to a new ideology. Many of the opportunities that she once took for granted in the States - e.g. listening to whatever she wanted on the radio - are forbidden in her new country, and readers will undoubtedly sympathize with Wendy's frustrations as she tries to justify a new way of thinking.
Readers will undoubtedly also appreciate Wendy's persistence at trying to fit in. While her attempts are partially driven from a desire to please her mother, Harlow makes it clear that Wendy's efforts are also spurned by her own curiosity. She's willing to take on new challenges and new opportunities, and it's this innate curiosity that helps open her eyes to the realities of what's going on in Germany.
Even as Wendy gradually begins to realize that as much as she may want to have a life with her mother, there are sometimes obstacles that prevent that possibility, Wendy is still smart and thoughtful about her situation. Her relationships with Opa and Barrett are a refreshing ray of light in a dark time - though hints of a romance are a bit hard to believe at times - and it's a nice reminder by Harlow, of their real-life counterparts who made the same sacrifices to help individuals escape occupied territories.
Ultimately, while some may feel that the writing is a bit disjointed or too light for MG readers, I thought that Harlow did a great job of bringing younger readers face-to-face with a difficult topic, and showing how people can triumph in the face of such personal adversity. The ending especially reinforces this fact, and I challenge any reader to not end the book with a smile on their face.
* Based on other reviews I've seen + Ms. Harlow's author's note, Wendy was a character in a previous novel.
Things to consider:
This isn't something that I considered when I first read the book - to my great embarrassment - but a Jewish friend brought it to my attention, after I gifted her son a copy of the book. She and her husband have just begun teaching their young son about the history of the Holocaust, and she told me that she very grateful for the fact that Harlow's book gives her strong foundation to build upon.
Harlow's writing and plotting encourages readers to think about what they would do both in Wendy's position, and also what they would do if they were caught in the conflict zones of WWII on a whole. I can easily see readers challenging themselves to decide whether they would take the risks like Opa or Otto, and just how far they would go to help save a human (and canine!) life.
I strongly recommend this book for educators and parents who are looking for MG fiction about World War II, and also younger readers who are looking for historical fiction that will help ease them into studying and discussing real-world events on a whole.