Booktalk for A NIGHT DIVIDED by Jennifer Nielsen

night-divided-2August 13, 1961. Gerta will never forget that date as long as she lives. Barbed wired Sunday, people start calling it. It’s the date that a wall goes up around communist East Berlin. The wall isn’t for keeping other people out, but for keeping the East Germans in.

For Gerta, it is also the date that her family gets torn apart. Gerta, her mother, and her oldest brother Fritz are trapped inside the new walls. Her father and her other brother Dominic went over to West Berlin a few days earlier to look for a job and a house, planning to return that very Sunday to flee with the whole family. Now they are unreachable on the other side of concrete, barbed wire, and merciless border guards.

That terrible day happened four long years ago. Gerta is 12 now. She walks to school every day in the shadow of the wall. It seems like her classmates hardly even notice it anymore. But Gerta can never stop thinking about the wall. She knows she’s a prisoner in her own country, and that the guards kill anyone who tries to escape to the West. It happened to her best friend’s brother.

Then one cold gray day, Gerta glimpses her own brother Dominic, the one she hasn’t seen in four years. He’s standing on one of the viewing platforms in the West. And her father is there too! Her father starts doing an odd dance. He’s acting out the motions to a song they used to sing together when she was little—but he’s not doing it right. He’s only doing the verse for digging. Digging…digging. He’s trying to tell her something. He wants her to dig? Dig what? And why? Did he leave something behind for them?

And then she realizes. He wants her to dig a tunnel—under the Berlin Wall, under the wide Death Strip, and to safety on the other side. He wants her to try to dig her way to freedom.

If she gets caught, it will cost her life.


Genre: historical fiction, thriller

Grades 5-8.


Anna’s take on it:

This was one of the superstar titles on my spring 2016 booktalk list for 5th and 6th graders. I didn’t know if the unfamiliar historical setting—East Berlin in the 1960s—would be a tough sell, but kids were absolutely desperate to read it.

In one class, a student got up at the end of my presentation and started opening cupboard doors—she rummaged around and pulled out a classroom copy of A Night Divided. Some tussling and happy squealing ensued when her classmates spied the book. The copy, it turned out, came from the “self-managers’ library.” Kids who’d proven themselves responsible not only got privileges like lining up first for the bus or being dismissed to recess first, but in this case, also the chance to read A Night Divided. When one of the squealing girls heard it was only for self-managers, she got a very disappointed look on her face. Another girl encouraged her, saying that she could still become a self-manager if she tried. Perhaps this book was going to provide the motivation she needed. (And I reminded her that she could also come get it at the public library.)