John Boyne is an Irish writer who was born in Dublin in 1971. After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin with an undergraduate degree in English literature, Boyne attended a graduate program in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, located in Norwich, England. Since completing his master’s degree, he has published twelve novels for adult readers, six novels for young adult readers, and one collection of short stories. His writing has been translated into over fifty languages and has also earned Boyne a number of awards, including three Irish Book Awards as well as the Hennessy Literary “Hall of Fame” Award for his still-growing body of work. In addition to his prolific career as a fiction writer, Boyne works as a regular book reviewer for The Irish Times and has served as a judge on committees for a wide variety of literary prizes. Although Boyne’s literary career began in 2000 with the publication of his first novel, The Thief of Time, he didn’t achieve wide renown for six more years. In 2006, he catapulted to international fame with the publication of his debut novel for young adults, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offers a unique perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust, which is a term that refers to the German genocide of European Jews that took place during World War II. Boyne’s novel takes place at the infamous concentration camp known as Auschwitz, and it tells the fictional story of a friendship between a German boy named Bruno and a Jewish boy named Shmuel. Bruno has moved with his family to Auschwitz so his father could take over as the commanding officer, or “commandant.” Bruno meets Shmuel while exploring the fence that separates the privileged world of his family from the desolate world of the people in the striped pajamas. The boys sit on either side of the fence and share the stories of their lives. Boyne began writing the novel one day after an image came to him of two boys at once separated and united by a fence. He decided to write the novel from the naïve point of view of a nine-year-old German boy, who would only learn about the reality of his situation in bits and pieces. Young readers would thus follow along with Bruno’s slow and ultimately tragic education.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas became an international bestseller immediately upon its publication, rapidly winning a large popular audience. Two years after its publication, Boyne’s novel received a major film adaptation, and since then, the novel has been adapted as a stage play, a ballet, and an opera. Soon after its release, the novel also began to make its way onto middle school and high school reading lists, becoming a widespread tool for Holocaust education. Boyne has visited over two hundred schools to speak with young students about his book and discuss Holocaust history. In this regard, the book has proven a great success. Boyne has publicly stated that one of his goals in writing the novel as a “fable” from a child’s point of view was to give younger readers a gentler introduction to the gruesome realities of the Holocaust. After this introduction, students would be able to move on to more realistic fictional and nonfictional accounts of the Holocaust in order to develop a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the historical atrocity.
Yet for all its popular appeal and widespread use in schools, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has also met with much criticism. Literary critics, historians, Holocaust survivors, and prominent figures in the global Jewish community have all questioned the novel’s fable-like quality. Many critics fear that the protagonist’s naïve worldview makes it difficult for young adult readers with limited knowledge of the Holocaust to understand the true nature of what’s going on. For instance, the novel never explicitly uses the name of the camp, Auschwitz, and instead only uses Bruno’s childlike misinterpretation of the word: “Out-With.” Without proper context, young readers might not make the necessary connection. Critics have also questioned the novel’s historical accuracy. In his review of the book, Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes that Shmuel’s ability to move about freely is both unlikely and implicitly denies “the constant presence of death” that permeated the camps. Researcher Michael Gray conducted a study to evaluate the novel’s effectiveness as an educational tool. Based on the data he collected, Gray concluded that the novel may encourage problematic misconceptions about the Holocaust. Despite these and other reservations, the book remains widely taught.