Review: Stars of the Night

Stars of the Night: The Courageous Children of the Czech Kindertransport 

by Caren Stelson, illustrated by Selina Alko

Carolrhoda (imprint of Lerner Publishing Group), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Heather J. Matthews

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Opening with the Talmud quote “save one life, save the world,” Stars of the Night tells the nonfiction story of a group of children. With narration in the third person plural, the reader is transported to Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1939. With a group of Jewish children ages from 7 to 10, we are shown scenes of sunny afternoon picnicking with mothers and hot chocolate-filled café nights with fathers. However, by November 1938, “something happened,” and the city of Prague is surrounded by tent camps filled with war refugees. Soon, the children begin to experience threats from local children, and the parents of Prague beginning making “arrangements” with a mysterious and unnamed man.

These nebulous arrangements, we find out later, come to fruition in March 1939, when war arrives to Prague. Almost overnight, the children are sent away on a train with suitcases and tickets strung around their necks, on what they are told is a “holiday to England.” From train to ship and train again, the children arrive in London, England, where they are picked up by their new foster families. As the decades pass, the Prague children now have children and grandchildren of their own. Finally, they learn the name of the man who saved them; Nicholas Winton, an English Jew who arranged for the transport of 669 Jewish children from Prague to London in order to save their lives.

The book closes with a set of back matter items: a definition of Kindertransport, Winton’s Kindertransport timeline, information about some of Winton’s Children who were interviewed for this book, information about Yad Vashem, notes by the author and illustrator, book sources, and recommended texts for further reading. We learn that Winton’s efforts went unknown until 1988, and that the quote which opened the text was engraved on a ring given to Winton by his children, in gratitude for the lives he saved and the lives he made possible. The back matter of this book is what takes the narration to a higher level. Both the author and the illustrator take this space to reflect on their Jewish background as well, which I was also pleased by.

With this all said, the Jewish representation in the book in integral to all elements of the book. At its core, the Kindertransport was based upon the Jewish identity of the children – were the children not Jewish, and the Czech Kindertransport (and this book) simply would not have happened. At the same time, we do not see the children’s Judaism in any of the art. We are told the children are Jewish, but we don’t see them practicing their Judaism. There is nothing in the book which is inappropriate for a child reader, and the information presented is accurate and has been rigorously researched and vetted.

I am aware of only one other juvenile book on the topic of Winton’s Children and the Czech Kindertransport: Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children he Rescued by Peter Sís (Norton, 2021). Too often, we associate Kindertransport with Germany, and Stars of the Night contributes to this limited conversation by adding in another voice of Jewish resistance. In fact, I think that the book can also open a conversation about the idea of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust in general. Readers learn that Winton was Jewish (thus making him ineligible to be named a Righteous Gentile), and that he never sought recognition for his efforts for the Kindertransport he organized. Interestingly, because Winton’s actions were unknown until the late 1980s, a great deal of media exists which documents, for example, the first time that Winton meets one of the children that he rescued. The peritext of this book refers to an episode of the British television show “That’s Life!” during which the entire audience that day is either a child, or a descendant of a child, who was saved by Winton. This episode can even still be found online, and it will make you cry.

What was most impactful for me, however, was the book’s art. A mixed media approach which the peritext tells me is acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, is reminiscent of the work by Melissa Sweet and Sam Winston in all of the best ways. However, I couldn't help but also draw connections to work by Lynda Barry as well – the use of mixed media collage which actively includes text within images was so impactful for this book, and the fact that real items seemed to be scanned and used was a tactile experience. In the scene of children picnicking with their mothers, we see snippets of a recipe for a vanilla cream dessert and a biscuit torte; on the legs of Nazi soldiers, we see newsprint regarding former President Donald Trump; on the pages featuring the Kindertransport train, we see parts of ticket stubs. The art was, in some ways simplistic and almost childish; in other ways, it was some of the most impactful art I’ve seen in quite a while.

I also couldn’t help but connect the scene of the children on the Kindertransport to beloved character Paddington Bear. A fun fact: author Michael Bond was directly inspired by the sight of Jewish refugee children arriving in England with tags strung around their necks when creating his bear. For this reason, Paddington Bear also wears a tag around his neck when he arrives at the London train station.

In all, this is a book which a child reader could make sense of independently. With an adult, the story is enhanced, and with the back matter, the story is a beautiful work which encapsulates empathy, resistance, survival, celebration, and the type of tikkun olam which modern Judaism demands of us all.

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Reviewer Heather J. Matthews, PhD, is an assistant professor at Salisbury University. Her specialization is in children’s and young adult literature. She is specifically interested in diverse representation within children’s literature.