Stars of the Night: The Coura­geous Chil­dren of the Czech Kindertransport

By – August 23, 2023

This com­plex and beau­ti­ful pic­ture book recre­ates Czech Jew­ish children’s jour­ney to free­dom. For­tu­nate enough to claim cov­et­ed places on the Kinder­trans­port from Prague to Great Britain, they sur­vived the war, but they lost their par­ents to Nazi ter­ror. Only lat­er in life did they learn that their bene­fac­tor had been Nicholas Win­ton, a Jew­ish-born British res­cuer who refused to pub­li­cize his coura­geous deeds. (Winton’s lega­cy is the sub­ject of anoth­er dis­tin­guished pic­ture book: Nicky and Vera: A Qui­et Hero of the Holo­caust and the Chil­dren He Res­cued by Peter Sís.)

Nar­rat­ed from the per­spec­tive of the chil­dren, the book con­veys their sense of emo­tion­al dis­lo­ca­tion when their qui­et lives and fam­i­ly rou­tines are abrupt­ly dis­rupt­ed. When we were sev­en or eight or nine or ten,” the chil­dren say, Prague was everyone’s peace­ful home, until it wasn’t.” As explained in the excep­tion­al­ly thor­ough back­mat­ter, the chil­dren telling the sto­ry rep­re­sent five sur­vivors, includ­ing Vera Giss­ing, who kept a diary dur­ing her ordeal.

Caren Stelson’s text is both poet­ic and under­stat­ed, cap­tur­ing how chil­dren view their lives. Prague is a wel­com­ing city; its cafés, parks, and win­try night sky are all emblems of pro­tec­tion and hap­pi­ness. Then the city becomes a site of vio­lence, as syn­a­gogues are burned, Jew­ish busi­ness­es are destroyed, and Jew­ish chil­dren are con­front­ed by bul­lies hurl­ing threats. Their own par­ents can no longer pro­tect them — a child’s worst night­mare. Some pages have few lines of text, while oth­ers are more detailed, allow­ing the sto­ry to unfold nat­u­ral­ly and with con­vic­tion. The anec­dotes are poignant­ly described; in one scene, a moth­er pulls her child from the train, hugs her one last time, and then finds the strength to push the child back through the train’s win­dow to a safe future.

The book’s evoca­tive pic­tures ensure that it will become a clas­sic. Using acrylic paint, col­ored pen­cil, and col­lage, Seli­na Alko por­trays the full range of the nar­ra­tors’ world. When fam­i­lies enjoy a meal in a cof­fee­house, bright col­ors high­light pas­tries and steam­ing hot drinks against a blue-and-gray back­ground. After the Nazis invade, the black boots of sol­diers march across a two-page spread, dwarf­ing pic­tures of build­ings the chil­dren have drawn. Once the war has end­ed, and the chil­dren have returned to Prague, they can only visu­al­ize their miss­ing par­ents as gray fig­ures behind barbed wire.

In an inven­tive motif described in the after­word, each of the five chil­dren wears a dis­tinct col­or through­out the text. Even in the emo­tion­al dark­ness of the train, and the ten­ta­tive secu­ri­ty of their new homes, their orange, red, dark blue, light blue, and green out­fits iden­ti­fy them as unique individuals.

Bal­anc­ing tragedy and hope, this sto­ry pre­serves the mem­o­ry of Jew­ish chil­dren who found new lives despite and because of their irrev­o­ca­ble loss­es. Com­plete with a time­line, a list of resources, and an author’s and illustrator’s note, Stars of the Night is essen­tial and enrich­ing read­ing for both chil­dren and adults.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Full of heart, heart­break, courage, and com­fort, Stars of the Night is an inspir­ing sto­ry of human good­ness in the face of deprav­i­ty, told from the per­spec­tive of chil­dren sent away by their par­ents in the hope that they would find pro­tec­tion. It was half a cen­tu­ry before the chil­dren dis­cov­ered the name of Nicholas Win­ston, the man who’d helped save them. Yes, the book seems to say, one per­son can make a dif­fer­ence. Caren Stel­son high­lights the inno­cence, fear, and con­fu­sion of the chil­dren as she brings us along on their jour­ney. Seli­na Alko’s strik­ing, haunt­ing, and beau­ti­ful col­lage art is the per­fect match for the text. Let us hope the next gen­er­a­tion will no longer face anti­semitism and can read this book sim­ply as a rel­ic of times past.