Parents often find themselves amazed at the sheer number of WWII picture books available to kids today. Why the year 2004 alone was privy to such fabulous tomes as, "The Cats of Krasinski Square", by Karen Hesse and "The Greatest Skating Race", by Louise Borden. Usually such picture books are examinations of the Holocaust and/or Jewish oppression. Borden's book, however, takes an entirely different route. Concentrating on the German occupation in the Netherlands, the book shows how resistance and bravery can flower in children when the need is great enough. Though this book is far too lengthy and involved to seriously interest any child under the age of eight, I'd still recommend it to those tykes that can maintain their interest through a riveting race against time.
Piet (pronounced "pete") has a single burning obsession that has yet to be thoroughly quenched. He loves to skate. This is not particularly peculiar in the Netherlands, of course. After all, he comes from a long line of skate artisans and often he traverses the many canals that run through his town. But Piet's real hope is to someday compete in the difficult Elfstedentocht race held in Friesland when the winters are cold enough. Piet's hero, Pim Mulier, once completed the 200 kilometer (roughly 125 mile) course in just 12 hours and 55 minutes and Piet's raring to do the same. But it's the second winter into WWII and the Netherlands are under German occupation. What's worse, a father of two kids in Piet's school was recently arrested by the Germans for passing on information to the British. This places the man's children in dire peril and their only hope is to somehow escape over the border to Belgium and then into the town of Brugge to safety. But how could two such children be able to find their way? That's where Piet comes in. With his trusty red notebook in hand, Piet and the kids must escape and elude the Germans and make it to their safehouse in the course of a single day over 12 kilometers. If they're strong enough.
Though looking like a picture book, this is an in-depth read more appropriate for kids reading early chapter titles. In the course of the narrative, author Louise Borden spots the text with factual information in the form of maps, pronunciation guides (very useful when you have words like, "Elfstedentocht" to contend with), and info on the great Friesland race as well as a history of skating itself. It's enough to make your head spin. And then, to top it all off, there's the story. Borden cleverly sucks you into the action. It did strike me as a little odd that in this book the adults would place Piet in such danger when a grown-up probably could've have helped the two children instead. Then again, maybe they figured that kids would attract less attention. Whatever the reason, Piet's journey is realistic. He comes up with an ingenious way to keep the seven-year-old from tiring too much and also for keeping the children's spirits up. After reading the book, you may never want to skate yourself but you're happy watching others do it here.
The illustrations by Niki Daly are nicely detailed as watercolors go but the real hero here is the text. Kids who like that classic piece of children's literature, "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates" by Patricia Lauber will find a similar tale in "The Greatest Skating Race". Purchase only for those advanced readers that won't be turned off by a little historical fiction. A great WWII picture book for a select audience.