This book tells the story of a young boy Piet in the Netherlands during the winter of 1941. It is war time and the Netherlands have been occupied by the Germans. The father of Piet’s neighbors has been arrested by the Germans for owning an illegal radio which they have accused him of sending secret messages to Allied forces. Now the children need to get to an aunt’s house in neighboring Belgium and Piet is asked to escort the two younger children as they navigate the frozen canals on skates. It is a 16 kilometer trip from one town to the other and must be finished before dark.
Woven along side this tale of bravery and danger, is a history of a famous skating race in the Netherlands called the Elfstentocht- or Eleven Towns Race. Attempted only during the coldest winters with conditions harsh enough to ensure that all the canals will be frozen, this is a time-honored tradition taken on by only the hardiest of skaters. Piet uses the inspiration of the National Hero and first person to officially skate the race, Pim Mulier, to keep him going when he is most scared and tired. Luckily the children make it to the aunt’s house arriving safe if a little tired and cold.
Borden, L. (2004). The greatest skating race: A World War II story from the Netherlands.New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
The most disappointing thing about this book for me is in not knowing if the story told is true or not. I looked in various places, including the author’s website, but could not find confirmation or denial of the existence of Piet Janssen, his family and the family they helped. Considering the book has an epilogue, you would think it was a true story, but I’m thinking it is not.
Other than the above mentioned conundrum, I really was moved by this story. I liked the format of the text; I believe it makes a long story more readable for the intended age range. The illustrations are perfectly matched to the time frame and the story. Even though the colors used are muted and stark fitting the winter time and the riskiness of the children’s situation, they also manage to be cheerful and quaint.
I also enjoyed learning about a race that I had never heard of before. As I read the story, the immensity of taking on a challenge like that became clearer and clearer as we traveled with the children and watched them as they grew more and more weary; they were only traveling 16 kilometers! Great story!
“Grade 2-5–This slice of historical fiction celebrates the bravery and resourcefulness of children. In the winter of 1941, 10-year-old Piet, a strong skater, is enlisted to lead his two young neighbors from Holland to safety over the ice to relatives in Belgium after their father is arrested for sending messages to the allied forces. The three children leave their home in Sluis and bravely skate 16 kilometers on the canals to Brugge. They outwit and hide from German soldiers and make it to their destination in one long, difficult day. Told with immediacy and suspense from Piet’s point of view, the engaging narrative is arranged in columns, which is an ideal structure to relate the action in short sentences. Readers learn about the Elfstedentocht, a 200-kilometer skating race, and the boy’s hero, skater Pim Mulier. The gorgeously detailed watercolor illustrations capture a sense of the time. The subdued, winter hues of brown and smoky gray are those often found in the oil paintings of Dutch and Flemish masters and match the quiet tone of the text. The book’s format maximizes the drama and expanse of the landscape. Use this picture book to introduce curricular units and to give youngsters a vivid child’s-eye view of the past.”
Brommer, S. (2005, Spring). [Review of the book The greatest skating race: A World War II story from the Netherlands, by L. Borden]. School library journal 51(Supplement), 26. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com
This could be used in some sort of race day at the library. I’m sure there are other books about different kinds of races and these could be read before and after the event. Then the library could sponsor all sorts of races outside of the library (maybe in a roped off section of the parking lot if there is not a convenient space adjacent to the library) and have prizes along with refreshments. I think this would be a great way to promote physical fitness as well as reading. Exercising the body helps keep the brain healthy!