Title: The Dollmaker of Kraków
Author: R. M. Romero
Illustrations: Lisa Perrin & Tomislav Tomić
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre: Older Children’s/middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Book format: Hardback
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Description: Kraków, Poland, 1939.  Magic brings a little doll called Karolina to life in a toyshop.  She becomes friends with the gentle, broken-hearted Dollmaker who owns the shop.
When the darkness of the Nazi occupation sweeps over the city, Karolina and the Dollmaker must use their magic to save their Jewish friends from a terrible danger, no matter what the risks.
Weaving together magic, folklore and history this timeless story is about finding hope and friendship in the darkest places.

*Free copy provided by publisher for review…

Review:  This is such a wonderful and moving story that it can, and should, be read by everyone of every age regardless of the fact this book is originally aimed at middle grade(older children). ‘The Dollmaker of Kraków’ is a beautiful tale that shows some of the true effects of the second world war while retaining a magical and hopeful feel.

The story follows Karolina and begins with a prologue showing her in the Land of the Dolls before moving onto the first chapter where her life starts in the human world in 1939. Karolina is a doll but she is alive and forms a friendship with the dollmaker who created her. It was very easy to get into this book right away and I found myself eagerly reading on and enjoying the magical story. Karolina and the Dollmaker soon become friends and as the story unfolds we are introduced to the Trzmiels, a lovely Jewish family, who the Dollmaker and Karolina, get to know well.

The Dollmaker of Krakow book page image one
©The Strawberry Post

Of course being an historical fiction novel it isn’t long before Germany invades Poland and the occupation of the country and in this case Kraków begins. Although aimed at children the book doesn’t hold back in showing the gradual demise of the Jewish people’s liberties, however being aimed at children the book isn’t overly graphic in any details and although you know what is happening and you get a sense of the loss and pain people feel, you don’t have descriptions that children wouldn’t be able to handle reading.

The majority of the novel is set in the human world during the war, but there are flashback chapters of Karolina’s life in the Land of the Dolls before she came to the human world. There is never any confusion when the story changes to these flashbacks and in fact the whole look of each page with it’s illustrations show you which story you are reading. In these chapters you learn that the Land of the Dolls had also faced an invasion similar to the one by Germany. I won’t reveal any details but this flashback story is a clever way of weaving in some of the more horrific things that really happened during the second world war without making it sound too scary for children or too graphic. Somehow having things happen to dolls was still sad and a bit shocking but it didn’t have the same impact that reading about real people have had.  (I felt it necessary to mention this last part as I’ve already read some reviews where the reviewer seemed not to ‘get’ the point of these flashback chapters.)

The story has a lot of folklore in it and it was wonderful to read these extra magical parts of the tale. I know that Poland itself has a lot of beautiful folklore and history and having some of this in the book just added to the wonderful magical feel and made the setting more solid in my mind. I also think it helped take away from some of the darkness that a novel set in 1940s Poland would normally have.

The novel is set over the years of Germany’s occupation in Poland and gets obviously darker the further it progresses. The ending isn’t one I predicted though it is a good one. I thought there would be a different, more magical, ending, being a story with magic in it, but when I was reading this book I realised that the actual overall ending is both a wonderful one and a very powerful one too. I will warn you that the ending will leave you feeling emotional, it certainly made me cry both happy and sad tears but it is a very satisfying and moving one.

The story was easy to read and very engrossing all the way through but did make me emotional reading it. What happens towards the end of the book did make me sad, especially a powerful chapter called ‘Tears’, however this book also has a hopeful feel which was so important. I may have been more affected, emotionally, by this book than some other people as I do have a personal connection with Poland. Although my family didn’t die in the war they do come from Poland and did experience a lot of what happens in this book, to the people in Poland and it makes me feel this book is all the more important to read.

The book has some beautiful illustrations. Not only is the cover lovely but inside each page contains some kind of illustration. The chapters set in the human world have a border on the top and bottom along with a relevant image at the start of the chapter. The chapters set in the Land of the Dolls have thick border all around the text with pictures inside the borders which show some relevant pictures of what is happening in the story. At the very end of the book there is a chronological order of the events. These start all the way back in 1914 and show all the relevant events up to the end of the world war II. There’s a brief description of all the events making it easy for kids to understand it. As well as this there are author’s notes which I wouldn’t usually recommend in reading but I think it’s very necessary as you find out where the inspiration for the book comes from and there’s a wonderful last message to everyone which should be remembered.

The Dollmaker of Krakow book page image two
©The Strawberry Post

This is such a beautiful and powerful novel to read I wish it would be made into a film and I’d recommend it to everyone regardless of age! Although the book is aimed at older children, to show them the truth about the second world war, and is written in an easy style for children to understand, it’s also very much a novel for all ages and doesn’t feel like a specifically kids novel, especially as the main characters are not all children. Some kids might be more emotional than others at the end of reading this but it’s not a book that isn’t too dark for them. I think it’s good and necessary reading to show the brutal truth of the war and more specifically what happened to the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. Our world has a dark history and everything I learned while at school didn’t do as good a job as this one book does in explaining what happened. Somehow the connection with the characters makes it easier to understand and although the darkest truths of what the Nazis did is kept out of this tale, it still shows the sadness of loss but finishes with a beautiful message of hope in that darkness (I especially love the last line of the novel). I’m giving this book a full five strawberries and I hope everyone in the world will read it and learn! And to quote the author at the end of the author’s notes: ‘Please, don’t let it happen again.’

Review first appeared online October 2017 – now republished here.

Have you read any books about the second world war?  What about historical fiction with magical elements in it?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂