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Rose Blanche

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by Roberto Innocenti
Text by Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti
Trans. Martha Coventry and Richard Graglia
Published by Creative Education
 
Rose Blanche won
  • The Batchelder Award in 1986.  This award is given to an American publisher for an outstanding children's book that was originally published in a foreign country in another language.
  • Golden Apple, Biennale of Illustrators, Bratislava, 1985
  • American Library Association Notable Book, 1986
  • Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Book citation, 1986

In simple text told from a first person viewpoint, Rose Blanche tells the tale of a young girl who lives in a small German town "with narrow streets, old fountains and tall houses with pigeons on the roofs."  Trucks and soldiers arrive in the town.  One day Rose Blanche sees a truck stopped in the street.  Suddenly, a boy jumps from the back of the truck, trying to escape.  He is stopped by the village mayor and returned to the soldiers.  Rose Blanche wonders where the boy is going, so she follows the truck into the forest. 

 

In a clearing, she is stopped by "electric barbed wire," behind which are children standing in front of long wooden houses.  The children say they are hungry, so Rose Blanche shares her bread.  In compassion, she makes daily trips to share her food with the children, some of whom have bright yellow stars pinned to their shirts. Time passes, and war-weary, wounded soldiers return.  Most of the villagers flee.  Rose Blanche makes a final trip to the forest clearing.  In terrible irony, the children are gone and Rose Blanche never returns home, killed by the bullet of a soldier who "saw the enemy everywhere."

 

Roberto Innocenti illustrates the story of Rose Blanche based on his own experience: 

 

I was a little child when the war passed in front of my door. . . . My father did not want to answer my questions, but I knew then that something terrible was happening.

In this book I wanted to illustrate how a child experiences war without really understanding it. . . . I chose Rose Blanche as its title, because . . . 'Rose Blanche' was a group of young German citizens protesting the war. . . . They were all killed.[i]

 

Innocenti has a realistic illustration style.  His highly detailed illustrations are perfectly proportioned and show great skill - remarkable in light of the fact that Innocenti is completely self-taught.[ii]  In the opening illustration, he shows a village scene.  Amid red-tiled roofs, red brick and beige stucco buildings, and cobblestone streets, Rose Blanche, her mother, and other villagers are cheering and waving swastikas as men from the village, "dressed as soldiers," leave.  Rose Blanche notes "Sometimes it seems things haven't really changed."  But her mother warns her to be careful crossing the street, because "soldiers won't slow down."  Innocenti shows Rose Blanche climbing stairs, warily observing trucks through an adjacent window. 

 

Innocenti uses the same color palette throughout, but page after page, the colors become grayer, browner, and more somber.  Only Rose Blanche retains her same bright colors, until she sees the boy being recaptured and shoved back into the truck.  Her blue coat is grayer, her hand raised in a gesture of fear.  As Rose Blanche follows the truck, the scenery becomes darker and ominous.  Bare trees look as if they are watching Rose Blanche and could reach out to grab her.  Her steps are tentative, her face filled with uncertainty and fear. 

 

The next scene is gripping.  Beyond the clearing, Rose Blanche sees row upon row of barbed wire behind which are many children and several buildings.  Innocenti illustrates the scene in a starkly realistic manner.  The buildings are ramshackle.  The children stand, staring at Rose Blanche, who is no longer in the illustration.  The children are thus staring at the reader; what Rose Blanche sees is exactly what the reader sees.  The children - their ghostly white faces unreadable behind the barbed wire - look cold, and their hope for help is unmistakable.  The perspective, as if the reader is standing before the children, evokes in the reader compassion and a desire to help. 

 

As Rose Blanche shares her food with the children, she becomes visibly thinner, more fearful, and furtive.  In the book's ending pages, Innocenti masterfully illustrates Rose Blanche's sadness when she sees that the children are gone.  We don't know where she found a blue flower (it is still winter), but Rose Blanche fixes this symbol of hope into the barbed wire.  Behind her, in the swirling fog, we see the solders, one of which kills Rose Blanche, not knowing she is merely an innocent child.

 

The text's initial words define the cultural setting as "a small town in Germany."  Innocenti supports this cultural setting with signs and graffiti in German:  Bäckerei Heinrich; …für Deutschland getan?; verboten.  Flags and armbands bear swastikas.  Innocenti accurately depicts period vehicles, clothing and uniforms.

 

Because this is a story about World War II from the perspective of a German child who does not understand the war, Innocenti doesn't explain many things about the story.  The word "war" is never specifically mentioned.  There is no explanation of what the swastika means, nor are the troops identified, although their markings (German and Allied uniforms and trucks) are historically correct.  "Holocaust" and "concentration camp" are not mentioned.  The captive children wear clothing identifying that they are Jewish, but the text does not identify them so. 

 

As adult readers, we can make inferences about the subject matter.  However, in an effort to show that Rose Blanche doesn't understand what is going on, Innocenti leaves the reader unenlightened.  A basic understanding of World War II and the Holocaust are necessary for the reader to understand the book, otherwise the book needs to be accompanied by discussion and explanations.  Reviewer Patty Campbell puts the conundrum this way:

 

Without a grounding of fact, this is a story full of puzzles and intimations of unnamed horrors.  An innocent youngster who knows nothing of swastikas, Hitler and concentration camps is likely to clothe these bare bones in a more personal and terrifying fantasy . . . ironically, without the catharsis of confrontation with the full truth, what [Innocenti] has done is subject another generation to his own unexplained terror. [iii]


[i] From the dust jacket of the book.

[ii] Something About the Author 96, s.v. "Roberto Innocenti."

[iii] Campbell, Patty. 1985. Review of Rose Blanche. The New York Times Book Review (July 21): 14.

 

 

 

Innocenti, Roberto. 1985. Rose Blanche. Text by Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti. Trans. Martha Coventry and Richard Graglia. Mankato, MN: Creative Education. ISBN 0-87191-994-X 

 

This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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