Friday, May 6, 2011

The Shadow Children by Steven Schnur, illustrated by Herbert Tauss

Ever since the end of World War II, 11 year old Etienne has spent his summers on his grandfather’s farm in Mont Brulant, France. Etienne can’t wait to get there this summer, dreaming of all the things he loves on the train trip, but when his grandfather, Monsieur Hoirie, picks him up at the train station, things feel different somehow. The usual summer magic and beauty are gone.

Riding in his grandfather’s horse-drawn wagon out to the farm, they pass a group of raggedy children. Probably refugees, Etienne thinks. He was used to seeing orphaned refugee children wandering and begging after the war. So Etienne is surprised when his grandfather doesn’t stop and give them something, as he always had done. But he is even more surprised when his grandfather says he hadn’t even seen the children.

The refugee children are forgotten as Etienne settles into farm life with his grandfather. And it is nice when Madame Jaboter, the butcher’s wife, comes by to help with some of the housework, as she did every Thursday since Etienne’s grandmother had passed away.

Later, he decides to go for a ride on the old farm horse, Reveuse. Eventually they come to what looks like an abandoned road, over which trees have grown, giving it a tunnel-like feeling. The air, he notices, is ice cold, despite the hot summer day. Etienne thinks he hears crying down the road, but when he tries to get Reveuse to ride forward, the horse appears to be frightened, refuses move and even throws him off his back. His grandfather brushes the incident off later, telling Etienne the road is an old railroad spur, and that he and the horse were probably just sleepy and imagining the crying.

Yet, when Etienne tells Madame Jaboter about it the next week, she becomes quite agitated and makes him promise never to go there again. The woods are haunted, she explains, with the souls of thousands of lost children, but she refuses to explain more, simply saying it is something no one likes to speak about.

Etienne can’t stop himself from returning to the abandoned road and one day he finds an infant’s gold bracelet. This is puzzling since no children live in Mont Brulant. It is a town of only old people now. The children who once lived there, like Etienne’s mother, left as soon as they could.

But another day out there, he hears chanting and when he explores, he meets a young man and several children, who asks him if there is any news. When Etienne tells them who he is, the young man says that Monsieur Hoirie has helped many, they owe him much.

Even more puzzled now, Etienne tells Madame Jaboter about the encounter, that the young man was named Isaac and he seemed to be teaching the children out of a large book. Besides farming, Monsieur Hoirie also restores old books. In his workshop is a long row of beautiful restored books, still waiting for the owner to come and pick them up. When Madame Jaboter points to these books, Etienne realizes they are the same as he saw in the woods.

But as he learns more about the children in the woods from Madame Jaboter, his grandfather becomes more and more agitated, and irritated at the woman for filling Etienne’s head with her superstitions.

The children, he snaps, are just the bad dreams of guilty consciences, “War is terrible, especially for children. They always suffer the most.” During the war, thousands of children were sent to Mont Brulant for safety, he explains. The town tried to help, but there were so many of them.” (pg 45) Still not satisfied with this explanation, Etienne continues to visit the abandoned road, where he starts to find all kinds of evidence of the children’s existence there.

One night, both Etienne and Reveuse both hear a train whistle in the distance. They ride out to the abandoned road, but this time the horse seems to have a mind of her own, throwing Etienne again when he tries to return to the farm. On the ground, he finds a fountain pen in good order, with blue ink. He tests it on his arm and a blue line appears that look very much like numbers. But when he gets home, the pen is old and rusted, and there is no ink in it.

Things reach a climax when they are taking Madame Jaboter home on the next Thursday. She and Monsieur Hoirie are napping as they go along the road, so well known by Reveuse. Suddenly Etienne sees a girl leading a large group of children. When the wagon comes to a stop, he jumps out and runs after the children, who are running away, but they disappear. When the wagon finally reaches town, Madame Jaboter sees the blue ink on Etienne’s arm and tells his grandfather it is a sign.

Finally, back at home, Etienne’s grandfather tells him about the children. Who are these children? What truths was the town hiding? And does it explain why there are no children in Mont Brulant?

The Shadow Children will cause more than a few hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end. It is a well crafted ghost story that keeps you in suspense even as Etienne finds more and more clues about the children in the woods. I don’t know if this may have been based on a true story, and there is no mention indication about it. There were, of course, many Jewish children who hid in the woods from the Nazis all over Europe. Some were lucky and taken in by people, others either perished in the woods or were caught by the Nazis.

The illustrations by Herbert Tauss are as haunting as the story, adding to the sense of suspense throughout the story. Most appear to be charcoal, some with a watercolor wash to them.

The Shadow Children is a short novel that forces one to think about is what they would have done under the same circumstances that the French residents of Mont Brulant found themselves in, making it an excellent choice to incorporate into a classroom discussion on the Holocaust. I highly recommend it.

This book was a 1994 Sydney Taylor Book award.
This book is recommended for reader age 9-12.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

This novel was read as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Week event hosted by The Introverted Reader


  1. Historical novels are some of my favorites. I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds good. Thanks for the review.

  2. What a great and thorough review, Alex! I love historical fiction and will add this to my "buy next" list!


  3. Another thorough and thoughtful review Alex. I'm glad that there is someone on the web to bring attention to these forgotten treasures.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I really appreciate hearing what people think about the books I write about. This one was different and interesting, but I like Steven Schnur.