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Honey Cake

by Joan Betty Stuchner; Cynthia Nugent, illus.

How does one stand against tyranny? What’s the true nature of bravery? Big questions for an early-reader chapter book, but Joan Betty Stuchner handles them with grace and honesty.

Stuchner’s novel tells the fictional story of a young Jewish boy in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. David Nathan and his friend Elsa are well aware of the war – food is scarce, soldiers are everywhere, air raids are frequent and frightening. But David is surprised to learn that his elder sister Rachel works for the Resistance, and is even more surprised to be asked to help by making an important delivery. While this episode is important, it’s only one aspect of the novel’s exploration of courage, resistance, and friendship. What I find most winning about Honey Cake are its depictions of those small gestures of daily life that offer another form of resistance: the quiet refusal to bend, the insistence upon humanity and generosity. Without preaching, Stuchner offers in the friendship between David and Elsa (who is Christian), and between their families, a depiction of tolerance and acceptance.

Stuchner’s writing is clear and competent, but it rarely sings, and her ending is somewhat abrupt. On the whole, however, this is a well-constructed novel, with some finely developed images and motifs; Stuchner’s bird imagery is picked up beautifully and subtly in the opening and closing illustrations.

Cynthia Nugent’s pictures generally enliven the text, although one or two are rather wooden. The first illustration is most resonant for me: David reading Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” that tale by one of Copenhagen’s most renowned storytellers about the need to be free.