Review: Max in the House of Spies

Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II (Operation Kinderspion series)

by Adam Gidwitz

Dutton Books for Young Readers (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2024

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Rachel Aronowitz

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Twelve year old Max is sent away from his loving parents and his home in Germany to England, along with thousands of other Jewish children, as part of the kindertransport, but he doesn't want to go. Max is a brilliant and resilient child and he will do whatever it takes to get back to his parents.

As a kindertransport refugee, he is placed with a wealthy Jewish foster family in London who happen to have connections to British Naval Intelligence. Right away, Max has the idea that if he can somehow become a spy for the British, he can be reunited with his parents in Germany. It's also worth noting that Max is walking around with two supernatural creatures; a dybbuk named Stein and a kobold named Berg, living on his shoulders, who act as a bit of comfort and support when the two are not arguing or trying to strangle each other.

Part historical fiction, part fantasy, and part kid spy thriller, this well researched and often hilarious book will keep you rooting for Max and hungry for the next installment. Readers of spy thrillers and children with interest in the history of the Holocaust and World War II will find it accessible and enjoy the humor including runaway kangaroos and the entertaining spy training sequences. It is an interesting melding of fantasy with the addition of the magical creatures and I often wondered if they were necessary to the plot but they did serve as an additional way to vocalize Max's internal world, his fears and his trauma. The adult characters are well developed and realistic, as all of them question the idea of training a child as a spy, and second guess the whole plan to send Max back into Germany.

While the protagonist is Jewish and the setting is World War II Nazi Germany and England during the Blitz, I don't feel that it is an any way limited to a Jewish audience or would necessitate former knowledge of Judaism. The many incidents of antisemitism in the story are educational and are details not often represented in children's literature, such as the prejudice exhibited by teachers of Jewish children in a German classroom, and the antisemitism of British teachers and members of the British Intelligence. 
Max is an endearing hero with a universal appeal. I think this is an important contribution to children's literature as it features a Jewish child who is a relatable and strong protagonist while also teaching details of World War II history, creating an authentic portrayal of one child's experience of life during this era. I think this book would be an excellent fit for the middle school classroom and serve as a useful tool for diving into the history of this era and of England and its role in colonialism.

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Reviewer Rachel Aronowitz currently works as a librarian at the Springfield Public Library near Eugene, OR, and spends many delightful days each week working in the children’s room. Before that, she spent almost a decade working as a librarian in her hometown of San Francisco, CA. When not at work, she enjoys baking, playing music, gardening, listening to political podcasts, and spending time with her  husband and young daughter.