Review: Attack of the Black Rectangles
Attack of the Black Rectangles
by Amy Sarig King
Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Heidi Rabinowitz
Mac's sixth-grade reading group discovers that their school copies of the Holocaust classic The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen have been censored with black rectangles. The blacked-out the passages, "hands over her breasts" and "She motioned toward her own undeveloped chest," take place in a harsh concentration camp setting and are in no way sexual, but their teacher is uncomfortable with these references to human body parts and thinks she is protecting the twelve-year-old readers with this action. Mac and his friends resent being dictated to, lied to, and not being taken seriously by the adults around them. They organize and bring the matter to the school board, helping their uptight town wake up: "Until we started our protests, people thought they had to follow rules no matter how weird the rules were. We reminded them that just because someone says something is the way it should be, it doesn't meant that's the way it should be." The message is reinforced through the well-developed B plot about Mac's divorced parents and his dad's issues with shame and lying. Mac's hippie Grandad sets a great example for facing hard truths and being in touch with emotions in a healthy way.
A beauty of this book is how every character is messily human. Those who might be portrayed as villains in the hands of a lesser author, such as the censoring teacher, the bullying classmate, or the messed-up dad, are fully rounded and have their moments of insight and kindness along with their darker qualities.
There are many mentions of "grace," but despite its Christian flavor, the word is used to convey a sort of courteous forbearance akin to zen. The only identifiably Jewish character in the story is Jane Yolen herself, who makes a surprise appearance at the school board meeting to support the kids. She gives a memorable speech about the relief she felt as a child, learning about the Holocaust and knowing that she could trust the adults around her not to keep secrets from her. She says "I'm here to say that children need to learn the truth. The whole picture of it, and not just the parts adults think they're capable of understanding. Our job is to help them understand, not black out the topic." The censorship in the story (based on an actual incident) is not targeting Judaism so much as sexuality, but the use of a Holocaust book to make this point makes me, as a Jewish reader, feel seen. We also see how universal Jewish books can be, as Mac's Asian American friend Hoa connects with Yolen's character Hannah and decides to stop anglicizing her own name to Hannah, fully embracing her identity.
The book ends on a realistic yet hopeful note. Mac knows that winning this one battle is only the beginning, but he's gained the confidence to persevere. He even leaves readers with a challenge, to go find out the truth about the origins of Thanksgiving and "make your own mind up."
This is a highly engaging, timely, and important story that will inspire readers. I hope it will be widely read.
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bookoflifepodcast.com. Heidi is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Library Director at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida.