Life & Culture

Review: What We're Scared Of and When the World Was Ours

These two British YA books about antisemitism are brave and heart-shaking says Angela Kiverstein


What We’re Scared Of 

By Keren David

Scholastic, £7.99

When the World Was Ours

By Liz Kessler

Simon and Schuster, £12.99

It’s rare to read a UK YA book with any Jewish characters – even rarer to read one set in 21st century London – and unheard of to read one with antisemitism so dramatically and courageously at the forefront as it is in What We’re Scared Of by JC associate editor Keren David

Evie and Lottie are twins – but nothing like each other. Evie is a pupil at her local state school, a budding stand-up comedian, with a figure she describes as zaftig; Lottie is willowy and anxious, goes to the brainy private school and asks for goats for Christmas. For Christmas – because although their radio-presenter mother is Jewish, they’re largely non-practising. 

On its own, the coming-of-age of Evie and Lottie would have provided sufficient fascination for a novel  -  but David steadily raises the stakes, as the family faces anti-Semitic incidents ranging from the casually offensive remarks of classmates to Twitter trolling and eventually life-or-death peril.  Maybe on one level this can be read as an edge-of-seat thriller – but it is terrifyingly believable. More so, because David introduces characters who have moved to the UK from France following the 2015 terrorist attacks. She weaves fact with fiction - the what-ifs with the what-is - and the effect is heart-stopping. Uplifting, too – to see how much strength the young protagonists find in themselves and their family and friends to confront these challenges.

Early in the book, Lottie is reading Anne Frank’s Diary but her mother removes it, because it is too upsetting. But later, the family attends a talk by survivor Mala Tribich – and fictional time effectively stands still, while historical fact takes centre stage, in Tribich’s testimony of her Holocaust experiences. This is a daring structural strategy – and circles us back to the novel’s cover line - “The past is closer than we think”.

A reverse approach is taken by Kessler in When the World was Ours, a story of three friends from Vienna, two Jewish, one not, all drastically affected when the Nazis come to power. Although the main plot takes place in the run-up to and during the Holocaust, Kessler takes great care to make links with the present. One of this novel’s key strengths is its exploration of how a teenage boy whose best friends were both Jewish could sign up for Hitler Youth and be won over by its ideology. It’s not so far, after all, from the gang of girls who make Lottie’s life a misery with their antisemitic remarks. Kessler also gives us glimpses of other minorities persecuted in the death camps.

Like What We’re Scared Of, When the World Was Ours demonstrates the strength that supportive families and friends can bring to a teenager, helping them survive dark times. And (avoiding spoilers) the final chapter of this book does bring its message right into the present day.

These are two brave and heart-shaking books.

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