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Using Picture Books with Older Readers: The Whispering Town (Elvgren)

I’m on a roll this summer! This is my third set of lesson ideas for using picture books with older readers. Today’s picture book is Jennifer Elvgren’s The Whispering Town, one of many picture books set during The Holocaust. This book would be a great way to introduce students to The Holocaust–not an easy topic to bring up any time, especially the first time students have heard about it.


TITLE: The Whispering Town
AUTHOR: Jennifer Elvgren
ILLUSTRATOR: Fabio Santomauro
PUBLISHER: Kar-Ben Publishing
ISBN: 9781467711944
PAGES: 32, full-color illustrations


It’s 1943, and the Nazis have occupied Denmark. A young girl named Anett is helping her parents hide a Jewish woman and her son, Carl, in a secret room in their cellar. It is clearly not the first time Anett’s family has hidden Jewish refugees, and Anett understands the danger her family takes on when they help the Jews hide. When the Nazis suspect someone on their street is hiding Jews, Anett has an idea to help Carl and his mother escape in the dark of night, and the entire neighborhood gets involved in guiding them to the boat waiting to whisk them away to neutral Sweden.


This book is excellent as a first introduction to The Holocaust for students. Start with a discussion of laws. How important is it to follow laws? What are the consequences of not following the laws? Is there ever a time that following the law is the wrong thing to do? Would you be willing to risk your life to help a stranger?

Another prereading discussion could involve current events. Mass numbers of refugees from the middle east are seeking asylum in Europe and the USA. Some Westerners welcome the refugees and want to help; others say the refugees place too great a burden on the countries’ economies. England recently voted to separate from the European Union, and a major reason for this is the financial burden England bears in supporting the refugees in Germany, Greece, and Italy. In the USA, controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump has become a serious contender with his “build a wall” stance to keep mass numbers of refugees out. Many are critical of President Obama’s policies to bring in more refugees at the expense of local economies.


The swastikas on the Nazi soldiers’ arms. Discuss what this symbol means and how wearing it gave the soldiers power.

Eyebrows and bags. The Danes’ eyebrows are high on their heads, with worry. They have bags under their eyes, indicating lack of sleep and worry. The Nazi soldiers’s eyebrows are straight across, right above their eyes, making them look fierce and intimidating.

Objects they carry. The Danes carry objects of peace: the heart-shaped rock, eggs, books, a basket of food, each others’ hands. The Nazi soldiers only carry guns.


Pair with Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson. In Show Way, slaves in America escape to the north using clues woven into a quilt that doubles as a map to show them the way to freedom. Discuss the Underground Railroad and how normal people and families risked arrest for helping escaped slaves find their way to freedom. How are these families similar to Anett’s family and the people in her town?


Picture books are a fabulous way to introduce a booktalk topic and generate interest among middle schoolers. The presentation below is downloadable (free) from SlideShare and can be edited to suit your own library collection. I included ten books that represent a variety of reading and maturity levels. I was also careful to include titles that school libraries are likely to already have on their shelves.


Watch the video below and discuss the dual meaning of the swastika. The video is 30 minutes long, but the introduction in the first three minutes will give students enough information to discuss the topic.

Discussion question for students: Why do you think Hitler chose this symbol as his Nazi party symbol?


Pair with The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark. This picture book tells the story of Denmark’s King Christian and his commitment to keep all Danes safe from the Nazis. Many legends rose out of King Christian’s efforts to protect his people. Examine the legend of King Christian X. Did he really ride his horse among his people every day? Was he really unaccompanied by a bodyguard? Did he really wear the yellow star to underscore that “all Danes are equal”? Did he really threaten to remove the Nazi flag himself?


In The Whispering Town, Carl and his mother escape to the harbor, where a boat waits to take them to freedom in Sweden. Discuss the fishermen who ferried the Jews across the water and the risks they took. The video below talks about these fishermen and highlights one girl’s story when she was separated from her mother, who escaped on one of the fishing boats.

Much has been written about the Danish resistance during WWII. Some nonfiction resources you might have your students explore:

“Rescue in Denmark”–article for students on the US Holocaust Museum website.

Hitler’s Savage Canary: A History of the Danish Resistance in WWII by David Lampe. The title refers to Winston Churchill’s assertion that when Hitler named Denmark its “model protectorate,” Denmark became Hitler’s tame canary. This book tells stories about normal, peaceful citizens who quietly sabotaged the Nazis with every chance they got.

Practice using context clues by asking:

  • How do you know Anett’s family has hidden Jewish Danes before? (see p. 1-2 of The Whispering Town)
  • What kinds of codes do the townspeople use to secretly communicate?
    –knocking three times=be quiet; soldiers are here
    –“We have new friends”= We are hiding Jews and would appreciate any food or supplies you can give.
    –whispering the plan to one another in town to spread the word of Anett’s escape plan
  • Do you think Carl and his mother made it to Sweden? Why or why not?


Number the Stars is about Annemarie, a 10-year old little girl in Denmark in 1943. Annemarie’s family takes in her best friend Ellen and conceals Ellen as one of the family. Through Annemarie’s eyes, readers are able to witness the Danish resistance first-hand.

MORE ACTIVITIES: Check out this teacher’s guide for The Whispering Town from the publisher. The activities are geared for elementary-age readers, but some could be adapted for middle school.

Got some other ideas? Have you read The Whispering Town with your students? Share your thoughts below!

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