The Berlin Boxing Club
Joe Louis, the first African-American world heavyweight champion (from 1937 to 1949), is a faraway and yet pivotal figure in both these novels, each set in the mid-1930s. Both books show the inspiration that young people, in particular young men, can draw from sports and sports heroes, especially when their own lives are difficult.
The Berlin Boxing Club tells the story of a secular Jewish 14-year-old’s struggles in 1930s Germany. Neither his Aryan looks, his own dislike of Jews, his gentile grandmother, nor the fact that his family isn’t observant can save Karl Stern – or his family. That becomes clear when Karl becomes a target for Hitler Youth bullying at school. So when an old friend of his father’s, Max Schmeling, Germany’s boxing hero, offers to give the bloodied Karl boxing lessons, Karl grabs at the chance. He reinvents himself at the Berlin Boxing Club and also discovers that both Jews and blacks are champion boxers in America – a fact completely at odds with what the Nazis teach about the “mongrel races.” But Karl is living in an escalating inferno of violence against Jews, and he soon finds himself responsible for safeguarding and then saving his family. Karl is also an aspiring cartoonist, and his cartoons, which are believable and funny, are scatter-shot through the book’s pages.
Both these first-person books bring the mid-1930s into vivid focus through the perspectives of their young protagonists. Both books tell stories in which adults fail children who depend upon them, and in which society fails minorities. Both books also show, however, that there are hidden heroes among us, and that we can aspire to dreams and heroism ourselves. The sprightly Bird in a Box, written for 9- to 12-year-olds, will probably find its fans among children who are already dedicated readers. The Berlin Boxing Club, on the other hand, with its cartoons and straightforward tale of danger, yet written for the 12 and over crowd, should be able to win over even those reluctant readers we all know and love.