Maurice and His Dictionary

Owlkids. Oct. 2020. 56p. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781771473231.
Gr 4-8–A Jewish refugee pursues an education as his family escapes German-occupied Europe in this brief graphic novel that opens in 1940 Belgium. As the blitzkrieg advances, 12-year-old Maurice and his family flee their homeland, journeying through Vichy France and across fascist Spain to arrive in Lisbon, Portugal. There, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society finds the exiles space aboard the SS Serpa Pinto, a ship bound for the Gibraltar camp in British-colonized Jamaica. Intent on becoming a lawyer, Maurice snatches up schooling in dribs and drabs across Europe. His learning continues in Gibraltar, where, buttressed by a Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, he earns admission to the University of Toronto in 1944. His family vows to reunite, and Maurice sets off to start life anew. In an author’s note, Fagan cites his father’s memoir and two monographs as inspiration for his imagined recollection. Though the horrors of the Holocaust loom, he opts to foreground Maurice’s firsthand experience. The resulting narrative emphasizes hope amid ceaseless uncertainty, with small acts of kindness, from proffered food to educators sharing knowledge, offsetting glimpses of suffering and deprivation. Mariano’s richly textured illustrations provide a lush complement to the spartan text. Readers can proceed apace or take a more contemplative route, as luscious images reward those who linger on each panel. Mariano adheres to the ongoing cinematographic trend that favors tight framing and extreme close-ups; a focus on expressive faces amplifies the significance of ephemeral moments and small details.
VERDICT Succinct and sincere; another accessible middle grade window into World War II.

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