Despite his grim suroundings, Felix never loses hope. Morris Gleitzman takes a painful subject and expertly turns it into a story filled with love, friendship, and even humor.
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By Morris Gleitzman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Creative Input Pty. Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn't have been and I almost caused a riot.
It was because of the carrot.
You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn't drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can't wipe them because you're holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn't clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and Adolf Hitler?
That's happening to me.
Somehow I find my way toward my table. I use my ears for navigation.
Dodie who always sits next to me is a loud slurper because of his crooked teeth. I hold my bowl above my head so other kids can't pinch my soup while I'm fogged up, and I use Dodie's slurping noises to guide me in.
I feel for the edge of the table and put my bowl down and wipe my glasses.
That's when I see the carrot.
It's floating in my soup, huge among the flecks of cabbage and the tiny blobs of pork fat and the few lonely lentils and the bits of gray plaster from the kitchen ceiling.
A whole carrot.
I can't believe it. Three years and eight months I've been in this orphanage and I haven't had a whole carrot in my dinner bowl once. Neither has anyone else. Even the nuns don't get whole carrots, and they get bigger servings than us kids because they need the extra energy for being holy.
We can't grow vegetables up here in the mountains. Not even if we pray a lot. It's because of the frosts. So if a whole carrot turns up in this place, first it gets admired, then it gets chopped into enough pieces so that sixty-two kids, eleven nuns, and one priest can all have a bit.
I stare at the carrot.
At this moment I'm probably the only kid in Poland with a whole carrot in his dinner bowl. For a few seconds I think it's a miracle. Except it can't be because miracles only happened in ancient times and this is 1942.
Then I realize what the carrot means and I have to sit down quick before my legs give way.
I can't believe it.
At last. Thank you, God, Jesus, Mary, the Pope, and Adolf Hitler. I've waited so long for this.
It's a sign.
This carrot is a sign from Mum and Dad. They've sent my favorite vegetable to let me know their problems are finally over. To let me know that after three long years and eight long months things are finally improving for Jewish booksellers. To let me know they're coming to take me home.
Dizzy with excitement, I stick my fingers into the soup and grab the carrot.
Luckily the other kids are concentrating on their own dinners, spooning their soup up hungrily and peering into their bowls in case there's a speck of meat there, or a speck of rat poo.
I have to move fast.
If the others see my carrot there'll be a jealousy riot.
This is an orphanage. Everyone here is meant to have dead parents. If the other kids find out mine aren't dead, they'll get really upset and the nuns here could be in trouble with the Catholic head office in Warsaw for breaking the rules.
"Felix Saint Stanislaus."
I almost drop the carrot. It's Mother Minka's voice, booming at me from the high table.
Everyone looks up.
"Don't fiddle with your food, Felix," says Mother Minka. "If you've found an insect in your bowl, just eat it and be grateful."
The other kids are all staring at me. Some are grinning. Others are frowning and wondering what's going on. I try not to look like a kid who's just slipped a carrot into his pocket. I'm so happy I don't care that my fingers are stinging from the hot soup.
Mum and Dad are coming at last.
They must be down in the village. They must have sent the carrot up here with Father Ludwik to surprise me.
When everyone has gone back to eating, I give Mother Minka a grateful smile. It was good of her to make a joke to draw attention away from my carrot.
There were two reasons Mum and Dad chose this orphanage: because it was the closest and because of Mother Minka's goodness. When they were bringing me here, they told me how in all the years Mother Minka was a customer of their bookshop, back before things got difficult for Jewish booksellers, she never once criticized a single book.
Mother Minka doesn't see my smile — she's too busy glaring at the Saint Kazimierz table — so I give Sister Elwira a grateful smile too. Sister Elwira doesn't notice either because she's too busy serving the last few kids and being sympathetic to a girl who's crying about the amount of ceiling plaster in her soup.
They're so kind, these nuns. I'll miss them when Mum and Dad take me home and I stop being Catholic and go back to being Jewish.
"Don't you want that?" says a voice next to me.
Dodie is staring at my bowl. His is empty. He's sucking his teeth, and I can see he's hoping my soup is up for grabs.
Over his shoulder, Marek and Telek are sneering.
"Grow up, Dodek," says Marek, but in his eyes there's a flicker of hope that he might get some too.
Part of me wants to give my soup to Dodie because his mum and dad died of sickness when he was three. But these are hard times and food is scarce and even when your tummy's stuffed with joy you still have to force it down.
I force it down.
Dodie grins. He knew I'd want it. The idea that I wouldn't is so crazy it makes us both chuckle.
Then I stop. I'll have to say good-bye to everyone here soon. That makes me feel sad. And when the other kids see Mum and Dad are alive, they'll know I haven't been truthful with them. That makes me feel even sadder.
I tell myself not to be silly. It's not like they're my friends, not really. You can't have friends when you're leading a secret life. With friends you might get too relaxed and blurt stuff out and then they'll know you've just been telling them a story.
But Dodie feels like my friend.
While I finish my soup I try to think of a good thing I can do for him. Something to show him I'm glad I know him. Something to make his life here a bit better after I've gone, after I'm back in my own home with my own books and my own mum and dad.
I know exactly what I can do for Dodie.
Now's the moment. The bath selection has just started.
Mother Minka is standing at the front, checking Jozef all over for dirt. He's shivering. We're all shivering. This bathroom is freezing, even now in summer. Probably because it's so big and below ground level. In ancient times, when this convent was first built, this bathroom was probably used for ice-skating.
Mother Minka flicks her tassel toward the dormitory. Jozef grabs his clothes and hurries away, relieved.
"Lucky pig," shivers Dodie.
I step out of the queue and go up to Mother Minka.
"Excuse me, Mother," I say.
She doesn't seem to notice me. She's peering hard at Borys, who's got half the playing field under his fingernails and toenails. And a fair bit of it in his armpits. I can see Mother Minka is about to flick her tassel toward the bath.
Oh, no, I'm almost too late.
Then Mother Minka turns to me.
"What is it?" she says.
"Please, Mother," I say hurriedly, "can Dodek be first in the bath?"
The boys behind me in the queue start muttering. I don't glance back at Dodie. I know he'll understand what I'm trying to do.
"Why?" says Mother Minka.
I step closer. This is between me and Mother Minka.
"You know how Dodek's parents died of sickness," I say. "Well, Dodek's decided he wants to be a doctor and devote his life to wiping out sickness all over the world. The thing is, as a future doctor he's got to get used to being really hygienic and washing himself in really hot and clean water."
I hold my breath and hope Dodie didn't hear me. He actually wants to be a pig-slaughterer and I'm worried he might say something.
Mother Minka looks at me.
"Get to the back of the queue," she says.
"He really needs to be first in the bath every week," I say. "As a doctor."
"Now!" booms Mother Minka.
I don't argue. You don't with Mother Minka. Nuns can have good hearts and still be violent.
As I pass Dodie he gives me a grateful look. I give him an apologetic one. I know he wouldn't mind about the doctor story. He likes my stories. Plus I think he'd be a good doctor. Once, after he pulled the legs off a fly, he managed to stick a couple back on.
Ow, this stone floor is really cold on bare feet.
That's something Dodie could do in the future. Design bathroom heating systems. I bet by the year 2000 every bathroom in the world will be heated. Floors and everything. With robots to pick the twigs and grit out of the bathwater.
Look at that. Borys is the first one in and the water's brown already. I can imagine what it'll be like when I finally get in. Cold, with more solid bits in it than our soup.
I close my eyes and think about the baths Mum and Dad used to give me. In front of the fire with clean water and lots of warm wet cuddles and lots and lots of stories.
I can't wait to have a bath like that again.
Hurry up, Mum and Dad.
I stayed awake all night, waiting for Mum and Dad to arrive. They didn't.
But it's all right. Nobody drives up that narrow rocky road from the village in the dark unless they're Father Ludwik. He says God helps him and his horse with the steering.
Mum and Dad were never very religious so they probably wouldn't risk it.
They'll be here once it's daylight.
What I'm worrying about now is whether they'll recognize me after three years and eight months.
You know how when you have a haircut or a tooth comes out, your parents carry on about how you must be the kid who belongs to the shoe mender down the street?
Well, I've changed even more than that. When I arrived at this place I was plump and little with freckles and two gaps. Now I'm about twice as tall with glasses and a complete set of teeth.
I press my face against the cold windowpane over my bed and watch the sky start to go pale and tell myself not to be silly. I remind myself what Mum and Dad said when they brought me here.
"We won't forget you," Mum whispered through her tears. I knew exactly what she was saying. That they wouldn't forget to come and get me once they'd fixed up their bookshop troubles.
"We'll never forget you," Dad said in a husky voice, and I knew exactly what he was saying too. That when they come, even if I've changed a lot, they'll still know it's me.
The sun is peeping up behind the convent gates. Now it's getting light outside I don't feel so anxious.
Plus, if all else fails, I've got my notebook.
The cover's a bit stained from when I had to snatch it away from Marek and Borys in class. It was to stop them reading it and some ink got spilled, but apart from that it looks exactly like it did when Mum and Dad gave it to me. It's the only notebook with a yellow cardboard cover in this whole place, so they'll definitely recognize it if I hold it in an obvious way when they arrive.
And when they read it, they'll know I'm their son because it's full of stories I've written about them. About their travels all over Poland discovering why their bookshop supplies suddenly went so unreliable. Dad wrestling a wild boar that's been eating authors. Mum rescuing a book printer who's been kidnapped by pirates. Her and Dad crossing the border into Germany and finding huge piles of really good books propping up wobbly tables.
All right, most of the stories are a bit exaggerated, but they'll still recognize themselves and know I'm their son.
What's that sound?
It's a car or truck, one of those ones that don't need a horse because they've got an engine. It's chugging up the hill. I can hear it getting closer.
There go Sister Elwira and Sister Grazyna across the courtyard to open the gates.
Mum and Dad, you're here at last.
I'm so excited I'm steaming up the window and my glasses. I rub them both with my pajama sleeve.
A car rumbles into the courtyard.
Mum and Dad must have swapped the old bookshop cart for it. Trust them, they've always been modern. They were the first booksellers in the whole district to have a ladder in their shop.
I can hardly breathe.
Half the dormitory are out of bed now, pressing their noses against the windows too. Any second now they'll all see Mum and Dad.
Suddenly I don't care if everyone does know my secret. Perhaps it'll give some of the other kids hope that the authorities might have made a mistake and that their mums and dads might not be dead after all.
That's strange. The car windows are steamed up so I can't see clearly, but it looks like there are more than two people in the car. Mum and Dad must have given Father Ludwik a lift. And a couple of his relatives who fancied a day out.
I can't make out which ones are Mum and Dad.
I hold my notebook up for them to see.
The car doors open and the people get out.
I stare, numb with disappointment.
It's not Mum and Dad. It's just a bunch of men in suits with armbands.
"Felix," says Dodie urgently, grabbing me as I hurry out of the dormitory. "I need your help."
I give him a pleading look. Can't he see I'm doing something urgent too? Finding out from Mother Minka if Mum and Dad sent a note with the carrot saying exactly when they'll be arriving. I've got the carrot with me to jog Mother Minka's memory.
"It's Jankiel," says Dodie. "He's hiding in the toilet."
I sigh. Jankiel's only been here two weeks and he's still very nervous about strangers.
"Tell him there's nothing to worry about," I say to Dodie. "The men in the car are probably just officials from the Catholic head office. They've probably just come to check that all our parents are dead. They'll be gone soon."
I give a careless shrug so Dodie won't see how nervous I am about the officials. And how much I'm desperately hoping Mother Minka remembers the story we agreed on about my parents. About how they were killed in a farming accident. Tragically.
"Jankiel's not hiding from the men in the car," says Dodie. "He's hiding from the torture squad."
Dodie points. Marek, Telek, Adok, and Borys are crowding into the dormitory toilets.
"Come on," says Dodie. "We've got to save him."
Dodie's right. We can't leave Jankiel at the mercy of the torture squad. Marek and the others have been after him since the day he arrived. He's their first new boy to torture in three years and eight months.
Dodie shoves the toilet door open. We go in. Marek, Telek, Adok, and Borys have got Jankiel on his knees. Jankiel is pleading with them. His voice is echoing a bit because they've got his head half in the toilet hole.
"Don't struggle," says Telek to Jankiel. "This won't hurt."
Telek's wrong. It will hurt. It hurt when they did it to me three years and eight months ago. Having your head pushed down a toilet hole always hurts.
"Wait," I yell.
The torture squad turn and look at me.
I know that what I say next will either save Jankiel or it won't. Desperately I try to think of something good.
"A horse crushed his parents," I say.
Now the new kid is staring at me too.
I grip my notebook hard and let my imagination take over.
"A great big plow horse," I continue. "It had a heart attack in the mud and fell onto both his parents, and it was too heavy for him to drag off them so he had to nurse them both for a whole day and a whole night while the life was slowly crushed out of them. And do you know what their dying words to their only son were?"
I can see the torture squad haven't got a clue.
Neither does the new kid.
"They asked him to pray for them every day," I say. "At the exact time they died."
I wait for the chapel bell to finish striking seven.
"At seven o'clock in the morning," I say.
Everyone takes this in. The torture squad look uncertain. But they're not pushing anybody down the toilet, which is good.
"That's just one of your stories," sneers Telek, but I can tell he's not so sure.
"Quick," says Dodie, "I can hear Mother Minka coming."
That's a story too because Mother Minka is down in the courtyard with the head office officials. But Marek and the others look even more uncertain. They swap glances, then hurry out of the toilets.
Dodie turns wearily to Jankiel.
"What did we tell you?" says Dodie. "About not coming in here on your own?"
Jankiel opens his mouth to reply, then closes it again. Instead he peers past us, trying to see down into the courtyard.
Excerpted from Once by Morris Gleitzman. Copyright © 2005 Creative Input Pty. Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Chapter 1 (p. 1)
"Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn't have been and I
almost caused a riot."
1. Describe your first impressions of Felix, Mother Minka and one other character introduced in the opening chapter (consider the traits they appear to possess and your response to meeting them).
2. What is the significance of the carrot and what are Felix's plans for it?
Chapter 2 (p. 9)
"Once I stayed awake all night, waiting for Mom and Dad to arrive."
1. What memories and physical evidence does Felix have of his parent? What beliefs does Felix have of his parents? What beliefs does Felix hold about what happened?
2. Explain the importance of Felix's notebook. Identify 4 things this notebook symbolizes.
Chapter 3 (p.17)
"Once I saw a customer, years ago, damaging books in Mom and Dad's shop. Tearing pages out. Screwing them up. Shouting things I couldn't understand."
1. Identify two things that unsettle Felix and explain how his thinking starts to change.
2. Felix has plans to help Mom and Dad. What are they and what motivates him to take action?
Chapter 4 (p. 27)
"Once I escaped from an orphanage in the mountains and I didn't have to do any of the things you do in escape stories."
1. List some of the reasons Felix considers himself "lucky" (p.30)? List things you think he could complain about.
2. What indications are there –recognized or missed by Felix- that something is terribly wrong? What explanations does Felix come up with to make sense of things?
Chapter 5 (p. 38)
"Once I walked all night and all the next day except for short sleep in a forest and all night again and then I was home."
1. Contrast Felix's dreams with the reality of what he discovers when he makes it home.
2. Describe the range of emotions he experiences. Analyze emotions he observes in other people encountered at this point in the story. How would you classify them
Chapter 6 (p.49)
"Once I walked as fast as I could towards the city to find Mom and Dad and I didn't let anything stop me. Not until the fire."
1. What changes have taken place in Felix (e.g. more cautious, fearful of Nazis) and how do they influence his actions
2. How does Felix control his anxiety and make use of his story telling ability?
Chapter 7 (p. 57)
"Once I woke up and I was at home in bed. Dad was reading me a story about a boy who got left in an orphanage. Mom came in with some carrot soup. They both promised they'd never leave me anywhere. We hugged and hugged."
1. What is the significance of the following: the armbands? Felix's predictions about the future?
2. How does Felix answer his own questions- "Why would the Nazis make people suffer like this just for the sake of some books? (p.64) Why is this the turning point?
Chapter 8 (p. 66)
"Once I spent about 6 hours telling stories to Zelda, to keep her spirits up, to keep my spirits up, to keep our legs moving as we trudge through the rain towards the city."
1. Why does Felix go from 6 hours of story telling to keeping Zelda's spirits up, to the point where he suddenly hasn't got any more stories" (pg 73)
2. Describe the toll such a journey takes on Felix and Zelda – physically and emotionally. How is it they manage to survive?
Chapter 9 (p.74)
"Once I lay in the street in tears, because the Nazis are everywhere and no grownups can protect kids from them, not Mom and Dad, not Mother Minka, not Father Ludwik, Not
God, not Jesus, not the Virgin Mary, not the Pope, not Adolf Hitler."
1. Explain what Barney is doing. What sort of person do you think he is? What does he represent?
2. What impact does the realization that no-one can protect the children have on
Felix? How does this affect his belief in the power of stories?"
Chapter 10 (p. 83)
"Once I was living in a cellar in a Nazi city with seven other kids when I shouldn't have been."
1. Use an example of Felix's behavior or "self-talk" to illustrate his unusual degree of maturity and self-awareness. Explain your reasoning.
2. What story "saved his life" and what connections has he finally made?
Chapter 11 (p. 90)
"Once I escaped from an underground hiding place by telling a story. It was a bit exaggerated. It was a bit fanciful. It was my imagination getting a big carried away."
1. What lengths does Felix go to when trying to ‘escape'? How does Barney handle it?
2. What does Felix discover about Barney and how does Barney enlist Felix's help?
Chapter 12 (p. 102)
"Once a dentist stopped me from asking a Nazi officer about my parents and I was really mad at him."
1. Why did Barney stop Felix from asking about his parents? Why do he and Felix decide that Zelda needs to know the truth?
2. Describe the range of reactions the children are showing as result of the traumas each has suffered. How do you feel about the stories shared by the children?
Chapter 13 (p. 111)
"Once I told Zelda a story that made her cry, so I lay on her sack with her for hours and hours until she fell asleep."
1. Analyze Barney's gesture of giving Felix new boots. What does he mean by what he says (p.112) to Felix? What other "good things" does Felix seem to think he's got and what can you see (e.g. his hope and optimism etc) in him that is good?
2. Felix makes a terrible discovery in the chapter and Barney is forced to tell hi some awful truths about what is going on. What is Felix torn between as he tries to take it all in?
Chapter 14 (p.121)
"Once I loved stories and now I hate them."
1. Describe Felix's state of mind as this chapter opens. Describe your own feelings as you read about his close shaves and what he discovers upon returning to his hideout.
2. The importance of books is emphasized in this chapter. Felix's favorite gets him into terrible danger but other books "save" him. What do books symbolize and mean for Felix?
Chapter 15 (p. 132)
"Once the Nazis found our cellar. They dragged us all out and made us walk through the ghetto while they pointed guns at us."
1. Barney and Zelda wouldn't go. Why not? Think of three more reasons.
2. What is important to Felix as they head to the railway station? What is important to the others as they are tossed aboard the train?
Chapter 16 (p.141)
"Once I went on my first train journey, but I wouldn't call it exciting. I'd call it painful and miserable."
1. Once again, a book becomes a "savior" of sorts. Explain how. What is the significance of the fact that Felix is willing to use- and virtually lose- his notebook?
2. What choice and possible outcomes does the hole in the carriage create for the people inside?
Chapter 17 (p. 149)
"Once I lay in a field somewhere in Poland, not sure if I am alive or dead."
1. Felix feels fortunate –However my story turns out, I'll never forget how lucky I
am" (pg. 150). What is your explanation of this?
2. Knowing Felix as you do by the end of the novel, make a prediction of how you think his story might continue to unfold or end.