Hitler's Canary
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Hitler's Canary

4.7 7
by Sandi Toksvig

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My brother stood up so quickly he almost knocked Mama over. "Why aren't you doing something? Do you know what the British are calling us? Hitler's canary! I've heard it on the radio, on the BBC. They say he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants."
I knew I should be afraid, but I didn't know yet what of: the Germans? The


My brother stood up so quickly he almost knocked Mama over. "Why aren't you doing something? Do you know what the British are calling us? Hitler's canary! I've heard it on the radio, on the BBC. They say he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants."
I knew I should be afraid, but I didn't know yet what of: the Germans? The British? The French? We were theater people. We didn't get involved in these things. It had nothing to do with us.

Bamse is used to drama—his mother is a famous actress and his best friend, Anton, is one of the most daring boys in all of Denmark. Should he follow his father's advice and not stir up trouble—or follow his daring brother into the Resistance and take part in the most demanding role of his life?
[Note: The character's name means "Teddy" in Danish and is pronounced "Bum Sir."]

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An extraordinary story . . . Truly life-affirming.” —Michael Morpurgo, bestselling author of War Horse

“Through the voice of twelve-year-old Bamse, Toksvig mixes in a sardonic humor that adds spice and comic relief to a story about a very perilous and frightening time. Drawing on real events and the experiences of her family, she re-creates an episode in history when many citizens willingly put their lives at risk to participate in the ten-day rescue of the Danish Jews during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays of 1943. In total, close to 7200 Jews and 689 non-Jews escaped to Sweden. Readable, intriguing, and realistic, with a good epilogue and author's note appended.” —School Library Journal

“Though such suspenseful episodes will thrill readers, it is Bamse's growing courage and deepening understanding that drive the story.” —Booklist

“There are not many classic children's novels about the Second World War but this is one of them. Toksvig's enchanting and inspiring tale reminds us of how even the smallest people made a difference.” —The Times

“A page-turner written with warmth and wit, not to mention a keen narrative sense.” —Time Out

“Racily written and full of comic incident as well as suspense.” —Independent

“Brilliantly told . . . Never loses sight of the child's view of war.” —Guardian

“Funny and gripping.” —Funday Times

“Sandi Toksvig is a national treasure.” —Deborah Ross, Inside

Publishers Weekly

In this insightful novel, Toksvig offers a unique glimpse of WWII, writing from the perspective of a 10-year-old Danish boy forced to grow up quickly. Bamse, the son of a famous stage actress and a talented set designer, has "lived in a make-believe world" until the spring of 1940 when Germany invades his country. In Copenhagen, Nazi soldiers now rule the streets, and native Danes begin to fear for their safety. Some, like Bamse's mother and father, try to keep a low profile in order to keep their loved ones safe. Others, like the boy's 16-year-old brother, refuse to act like "Hitler's Canary," and wish to take a stand against the invaders. When rumors spread that Jews are being taken from their homes, Bamse's entire family takes part in a resistance movement, hiding Jewish friends and later helping them escape. Based on true stories handed down to the author by her father, Toksvis's tale of courage in the face of tyranny sheds light on the difficult choices facing the Danish people and pays tribute to resisters (including some compassionate Germans), who make enormous sacrifices in order to save others' lives. Through the boy's narrative, readers witness his loss of innocence ("I knew my Danish history from school: for the first time in nine hundred years my homeland... was not free and independent"). The author thus brings to life the tensions in Denmark at a time when "it wasn't always easy to tell the difference" between the "good" and "bad" people. Ages 11-up. (Mar.)Agent: Nancy Gallt Literary Agency.

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VOYA - Stacey Hayman
A ten-year-old boy narrates the story of his family and his country, caught unaware by the sudden intrusion of the Second World War. Bamse, the youngest of three, struggles to understand the different responses that his fellow countrymen have to Hitler's invasion. Why do some Danes seem pleased, some seem indifferent, and some start fighting back right away? The oldest son becomes part of the Danish Resistance and eventually allows Bamse and his best friend, who happens to be Jewish, to help in small ways. Bamse's sister becomes involved with a young German soldier, a boy who proves his decency by warning the family before their apartment is searched for hidden Jews. By the end of the book, everyone will have suffered a loss, ranging from a loss of innocence to the loss of a family member. This book is difficult to recommend, but it is also difficult to dismiss. A local school assigns a historical fiction book of approximately two hundred pages every year. This book will fly off the shelves for that assignment for several reasons: its length, World War II theme, simple language, and reading ease. On the other hand, most teens would not voluntarily read a story about such a young boy whose viewpoint is so unsophisticated. A unique approach to a well-documented time, this title might be just right for libraries looking to fulfill a need within their historical fiction collection.
KLIATT - Claire Rosser
Toksvis is a Dane and this fiction about the Nazi occupation of Denmark during WW II is based on a story her father told her; it is basically true. Bamse is the youngest of three children in Copenhagen; when the Nazis come in 1940, he is just ten years old. The story is seen from his point of view and ends in October 1943 when his family is involved in helping the Danish Jews escape to Sweden. Bamse's mother is a famous actor and she continues to work at the theater through the war years. On the night their Jewish friends are hiding in their apartment, she gives the best performance of her life when the SS troops come. Bamse's older brother and father are part of the Danish resistance movement, yet their father's brother is part of the Danish Nazi Party. Bamse makes it clear there are good Danes and bad ones and that some Germans are good and some are bad—in truth, it was a German who tipped off the Jewish community to go into hiding, and there were Germans who made sure their ships would not thwart the Jewish mass exodus by boat to Sweden. Bamse's older sister, a teenager, has a crush on a young German soldier not much older than herself, and their relationship plays a part in the family's survival. This is frequently a humorous story, but of course it is also suspenseful. Denmark was known as Hitler's canary and for too long, perhaps, it endured its caged existence without much protest. In the end, however, Denmark's story is one of the few positive ones that came out of that terrible period of persecution—and Toksvis tells Bamse's story well.
Children's Literature - Greg M. Romaneck
The time is spring 1940. The place is Copenhagen in the generally peaceful nation of Denmark. It is the early portion of World War II, and the world of the Skovlund family is about to change. The invasion of Denmark by the German Army brings with it changes almost unimaginable to the Skovlund's and their neighbors. Told from the perspective of "Bamse" Skovlund, the family's youngest son, Hitler's Canaries traces the events that characterized Denmark's five-year German occupation. The Skovlund's are theater people whose lives have been fundamentally defined by their connection to drama. In the occupation years, each member of the family is called upon to come to grips with what their actions must be in the face of an oppressive foe. In the end, each member of the Skovlund clan makes a moral decision to balance the needs of their family with the broader ones of social justice. In telling the story of the Danish occupation through the eyes of one family author, Sandi Toksvis presents her readers with a unique look at an overlooked part of World War II lore. In addition, readers of this fine historical novel will better appreciate its plot and characters if they realize that they are based upon the author's own family and actions that occurred during the war years.
Kirkus Reviews
During WWII, the Danes, whose nation was occupied by the Germans, knew the British called them, "Hitler's Canary." "They say he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants." But Denmark waged active underground opposition to the conquerors and saved most Jewish Danes from being taken into the concentration camps. Toksvig tells the story through the eyes and actions of Bamsie, ten years old when the story begins. He is the son of an actress, whose talent becomes an essential part of the plot. Because of the theatrical influence in his life, Hitler's Canary is arranged as Act, Scene, Time, Date, Place, providing a guide from 1940 to 1943, the year the Jews escaped to Sweden. Characterization is good enough to make each person an individual, sometimes permitting "good" people to have faults. Details of setting and time are fascinating, and the action is suspenseful and riveting. Despite a few missteps (how would people who were rescuing Jews know what is and what is not a Jewish name, for instance?), Toksvig offers a spellbinding look at a part of history that is rarely fictionalized. Backmatter includes the facts of Danish resistance and Jewish rescue as well as further details on the fate of those involved. An author's note explains what is true of her own family history retold in the story. (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Square Fish
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Overture and Beginners
Time: April 1940
Place: Copenhagen, Denmark

The day the Germans invaded I was asleep on Henry V's throne. It was 1940. I was ten and I was asleep on the throne in the middle of the stage at the Royal Copenhagen Theatre. I suppose it made it all seem even more dramatic. The real King Henry, of course, had been dead for a long time but I had seen my Uncle Max play him so often that I dreamed about Henry and his great battles. I imagined I was making wonderful speeches calling the soldiers to cry 'God for Harry, England and Saint George!' I knew the words:

. . . when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.

I had heard the speech a million times from the wings of the theatre. It was stirring stuff, even for a small Danish boy.

That night, 9 April, there had been a big party on the stage. All the actors had done little scenes and everyone had wept when my mother did her piece from Hamlet where the queen says that poor, mad Ophelia has drowned herself in the river. Even Torvald the comic cried and said Mama could move an onion to weep. Mama had bowed low and still for a moment and there was this tremendous hush. She knew she had everyone in the palm of her hand because she looked at me and winked. Then she stood up and gave the tinkling laugh that got such good reviews in her production of A Doll's House. It was as if all the sad bits had been a great joke and everyone felt better immediately. Remembering to laugh when things were bad was what Mama did best.

Father had painted a little congratulations card for everyone, with the red-and-white flags of Denmark spelling out their names. Thomas, who was wardrobe master, had provided fancy dress and there were kings and clowns, cowboys and Indians, courtiers and peasants, ballet dancers and stilt walkers and even two men from the electrics crew dressed as a cow. Thomas had found me a top hat and waistcoat and said I could be 'the little ringmaster'. I don't know what I must have looked like in the huge hat and my usual baggy grey shorts which came to my knee, but I thought it was great getting dressed up. The old season was over and everyone needed to relax a little. Soon there would be new plays, with hours of rehearsal and lots of tension and excitement, but for now it was time to have fun.

I loved the theatre and everything about it: the dusty smell, the old wooden boards where anything could happen, the excitement, the nerves, the showing off and the fun. From my mother I learned to love it when the place was full and the audience was hushed. My mother was an actress through and through. My father was in the theatre too but he was a designer and painter. From him I learned how wonderful it could be when the stage was empty, waiting for the next great set to be put up: that moment when the theatre could become anything from a sailing ship to a Bedouin desert. My father would stand on the stage and show me the drawings of the world he wanted to build.

'Look, Bamse,' he would say. 'Just imagine where we will take everyone next time.' He and I would stand there and create magic with his paints and brushes and imagination.

We lived in a make-believe world and it was hard for me to imagine doing anything else with my life. My mother was not just any actress. She was one of the most famous women in Denmark. She was what the Danish critics called 'a leading light'. Elegant and beautiful, she was brilliant at Chekhov, at comedy and, of course, at Shakespeare. Mama and Papa had met on stage and I had been hanging around the theatre since Mama had first carried me on in a music revue as the brand-new baby of a girl who had got into trouble. Then there was Uncle Max (who was not my real uncle but my godfather). Uncle Max was a wonderful actor and he and Mama had played every famous couple there was in the theatre. I sometimes think the audience thought they were married in real life, they were so good together. They could make you cry and laugh at the same moment. Maybe that's why we were so good at it once the war came.

On the night of the big party no one had been talking about politics. There was a war going on in Europe but so far Denmark had been left alone. I don't remember being afraid, even though in those days I was sometimes fearful of other things and slept with a light on. After everyone had done their party pieces we all sang old Danish songs. The Danes love singing and Uncle Max had written some new words specially for that night, making jokes and poking fun at everyone. My big brother Orlando, who was sixteen, and my fourteen-year-old sister Masha had gone home but I hid out of the way so as not to catch Mama's eye and make her realize how late it was. I had watched the grown-ups laughing and drinking beer. Then Thomas had put me on the throne and made me deliver one of Henry's speeches and everyone had clapped. I had fallen asleep on the throne with the sound still ringing in my ears.

When I awoke in the morning I wasn't sure where I was. The electricians had gone home. Perhaps they had walked through the streets of Copenhagen still dressed as a cow. A drunk cow heading home. Even at a party the backstage people never last as long as the actors. The men had turned out the lights except for the one safety lamp that always burns night and day in every theatre in the world. Now the whole stage was lit with a single bulb on a stand in the corner. The music had stopped but I wasn't alone. There were various sleeping bodies about the place, and Kaufmann, who played the piano for the sketches, seemed to have collapsed across the keyboard. None of the slumbering shapes looked like Mother or Father but I wasn't afraid. This was my home.

Meet the Author

Sandi Toksvig's theater credits include seasons with the New Shakespeare Company at Regents Park. Her TV credits include various news shows, and she is now the host of "The News Quiz" in London. The author of thirteen books for children and adults, Sandi has regular columns in the Sunday Telegraph and Good Housekeeping.

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Hitler's Canary 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
MissPrint More than 1 year ago
Based on accounts of her own grandparents' work in the Danish resistance, Toksvig tells a compelling story of the many Danes who helped smuggle Danish Jews out of the country to Sweden before they were taken to Hitler's Concentration camps. The story revolves around ten-year-old Bamse and his family--a group of "theater people" as he calls them (the story is broken into scenes and acts instead of chapters). The story begins with the German occupation of Denmark in 1940 (when the BBC began to call Denmark "Hitler's Canary" because it was so accomodating) and finishes in 1943, shortly after the resistance foiled Hitler's attempt to seize all the Jews during their Rosh Hashanah dinners. Toksvig does an excellent job of making these events approachable to a younger audience (the idea of the story came when she was telling her ten-year-old son about her grandparents). The text is clear and concise while maintaining a surprisingly high level of emotional involvement. Several times during the story I found myself tearing up. The characters are vivid without becoming cartoonish and the story is, at its core, a very uplifting one. This book is sure to join other classic children's historical fiction books like Alan and Naomi and Number the Stars which also look at the events of the Holocaust through the eyes of young people. Also, be sure to read the material after the end of the story to hear about the real Danish resistance and Toksvig's inspiration.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book
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