By: Rebecca Slocum
I confess to having always had a fascination with World War II and the Holocaust. As a child, my best friend and I devoured book after book that dealt with the subject. The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. These authors wove stories of unimaginable horror and devastating heartache. With each book, I struggled to get through harrowing accounts of families hiding in attics; people forced like cattle onto train cars; children being ushered into gas chambers…and then I would reach for another as soon as I finished. If you had asked me back then what drew me to such a disturbing and horrific time in our world’s history, I don’t think I could have told you. All I knew is that I felt like I was reading something important, something powerful, something necessary.
At the same time though, I felt far away from the events of these books. I had never experienced anything like the characters in my books. I had never feared for my own life or those of my family members. I had never experienced the complete dehumanization that Jewish families and other marginalized groups faced. I had never even experienced anyone being that cruel to me. It was almost as if these events took place in a different world, one with which I truly had no connection.
And then I read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. You know it. You probably read it in middle school or high school as required reading. You probably giggled over those passages where Anne discuses her body. But what struck me most about this remarkable book is the, in many instances, complete normality of the teenage experience.
No, most teens are not forced to live in secret for two years to hide from a totalitarian regime. However, most teens do have questions about their changing bodies, as Anne did. Many teens experience their first kiss with the boy next door, or in Anne’s case with Peter, the boy in the next bed. And ALL teens understand boredom. I was bored just thinking about being locked in an attic room for two years, with basically only my parents and siblings for company. And I came to understand something fundamental: the characters in my books, these victims of the Holocaust, were children, like me. Anne was a child who, at one point, had thoughts and feelings and experiences similar to my own.
In grasping that common thread between us, I felt suddenly and devastatingly aware of the tragedy Anne would soon face. This bright, vivacious, and insightful girl would soon be arrested and sent to Bergen-Belson concentration camp, where she died of typhus in March of 1945.
Anne’s father, Otto, was the only surviving member of the Frank family. He published Anne’s diary, originally under the title Het Achterhuis, or The Back House, in 1947.
I am not alone in the impact I felt from this book. As of 2017, The Diary of a Young Girl has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into 67 languages. It is a staple title on literary canons and a popular choice for required reading in schools. It is also a victim of the very thing Anne’s story serves to warn us against: an attempt at erasure. The Diary of Young Girl has been challenged in many school settings for the heavy nature of its subject matter; in 1983, members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee cited it as being “a real downer”. Parents also frequently complain about Anne’s, ahem, frank discussion of her anatomy and her exploration of her sexuality. It has been called “pornographic” and described as containing homosexual themes, as if those short passages make up the sum of this impactful story.
Anne would have been 89 years old today. I wonder what, if she had lived, she would think about the world. While I think she would be disappointed to see that the world still experiences racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination, I would also like to think that she would feel hopeful that the active pursuit of inclusivity is so prevalent in our daily lives.
I’ll wrap up with two of my favorite quotes from The Diary of a Young Girl. To me, these words highlight the beauty and challenge of impacting the world, even in the face of difficult or even tragic situations. Anne acknowledges that “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” As if knowing how monumental that task can be, Anne also offers us words of encouragement:
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
How wonderful, indeed. Happy Birthday, Anne!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.