Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands

The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands

Louise Borden
Illustrator:  Niki Daly 
Historical Fiction Picture Book
For ages 7 to 9
Simon and Schuster, 2004   ISBN: 978-0689845024

   Piet Janssen loves to skate, as do so many boys and girls in his homeland inHolland. It is 1941 and his country is German occupation. It is a hard time, and one of the things Piet does to help keep the war out is to write in the red journal his mother gave him. He also spends a great deal of time learning about his hero “Pim” Mulier, who took part in an eleven town skating race. The race, the Elfstedentocht, is gruelling, and one day Piet hopes that he will be able to complete in this “Great Skating Race” himself. In the meantime, he learns about the towns along the route, the canals that one needs to skate on, and about the famous Pim who completed it in just twelve hours and fifty-five minutes.

   Then some close family friends find themselves in trouble. The father is arrested by the Germans and it is decided that it would be safest to send the two children, Joop and Johanna, to Brugge inBelgiumto live with their aunt. After much talk, the two families realize that the best way to get the two children to Brugge would be to skate there, and the best person to take them is Piet. The German soldiers, who are everywhere, are less likely to suspect a group of children who are skating on the canal.

   What follows is a long, exhausting, cold, and frightening journey of sixteen kilometres along canals, under low bridges, and across the Belgian border. Piet has to keep his own fear in check, he has to help little Joop, and he even has to deal with suspicious German soldiers who question him. It would seem that Piet is having to complete a great skating race of his own, one with very high stakes indeed, and one which he simply cannot afford to lose.

   This inspiring story gives us a fascinating picture of Dutch life at a time in history when the courage of the Dutch people was sorely tried. Full of interesting background information about the skating culture of the people, and evocatively illustrated with pencil, pen and watercolors, this picture book for older readers is a gem.