By Morris Gleitzman
Published by Puffin
Felix, a Jewish boy living in Poland in 1942, is hiding from the Nazis in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. The second world war is at its height, and German forces are searching Poland for Jews and sending them to concentration camps.
Felix doesn't fully understand why he is living in an orphanage. For a start, his parents are not dead. He's not an orphan. His mother and father sell books, and Felix thinks they have gone away for a short while to try to save their business.
This situation won't last long. Felix knows he is only staying with the nuns until his parents return to take him home. This is how things are to Felix: he doesn't understand anything about the war raging outside the walls of the orphanage, and knows nothing about the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
Felix has been brought up to love books, and is a natural storyteller. He gets out of quite a few scrapes at the orphanage by making up stories.
But when a group of men in dark suits arrive and start burning books, Felix begins to really wonder what is going on. Are these librarians sent to clean out the orphanage's out-of-date library? In Felix's eyes, they can't be here for any other reason. But the nuns will not tell him what is going on.
Determined to find his parents and warn them about the book-burners, Felix runs away from the security of the orphanage. But Felix does not realise he's walking straight into Nazi-occupied Poland where every Jewish person is in danger. How can he possibly survive?
As he makes his way into a very strange world, Felix sees people being beaten, starved and shot. Can all this really be because of books? The boy's attempts to understand reality are moving and heartrending.
Australian writer Morris Gleiztman handles Felix's loss of innocence with great skill, and expertly turns this heartbreaking subject into a story full of love, friendship and courage.
Felix tells his own tale and begins each chapter with the word "once", before he recalls the events that make up his story. His narration pulls the reader along.
Once is Gleitzman at the top of his storytelling game. He perfectly captures the voice and emotions of a youngster caught up in horrors he will never understand. This is a tragic book in many ways, but full of hope. Beautiful, heartfelt and utterly enthralling.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com