The Button War
Candlewick Press, 2018
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What’s this book about?
A stark, unflinching tale of ordinary boys living in wartime as tensions—and desperations—mount among them.
Twelve-year-old Patryk knows little of the world beyond his tiny Polish village; the Russians have occupied the land for as long as anyone can remember, but otherwise life is unremarkable. Patryk and his friends entertain themselves by coming up with dares—some more harmful than others—until the Germans drop a bomb on the schoolhouse and the Great War comes crashing in. As control of the village falls from one nation to another, Jurek, the ringleader of these friends, devises the best dare yet: whichever boy steals the finest military button will be king. But as sneaking buttons from uniforms hanging to dry progresses to looting the bodies of dead soldiers—and as Jurek’s obsession with being king escalates—Patryk begins to wonder whether their “button war” is still just a game. When devastation reaches their doorstep, the lines between the button war and the real war blur, especially for the increasingly callous Jurek. Master of historical fiction Avi delivers a fierce account of the boys of one war-torn village who are determined to prove themselves with a simple dare that spins disastrously out of control.
Story Behind the Story
It must have been something like forty years ago.
I was visiting my father-in-law with my older boys. They were playing with something they were collecting, perhaps baseball cards, or some such.
Looking on, my father-in-law said, “When I was a kid, we boys collected things, too.”
The story he told was rather unusual.
Awards and Recognition
- CLA/NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts
- 25th “Protagonista Jove” Literature Prize, Catalan Children’s and Youth Book Council
- Young Quills 2019 Shortlist UK
“Darker than the Newbery Medalist’s usual fare, this powerfully evocative WWI novel set in Poland parallels a child’s game with the war raging in the not-so-distant background. After the Germans bomb the schoolhouse and the long-residing Russian soldiers prepare to leave the area, Patryk’s small, isolated village is suddenly a whirlwind of activity. Inspired by the frequent comings and goings of military men, Jurek, the cruel, conniving leader of Patryk’s group of classmates, declares a daring challenge: whoever procures the best button from a soldier’s uniform gets to be king. Patryk is determined to beat Jurek at his own game, but he is no match for Jurek’s determination to win at all costs, even as the game turns deadly. Told from Patryk’s point of view, the novel captures the ways that war can forever alter a child’s sense of order, morality, and security in the world. Strongly visual scenes, including the smoky forest after battle, the soldiers marching in perfect formation, and a chilling final image of Jurek, will long resonate in readers’ minds.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
“In this bone-chilling Avi novel, readers learn a lesson that they will remember for the rest of their lives: War is not a game. Set in a remote village in Poland, a group of boys are alarmed when the German army drops a bomb on the schoolhouse and the Russian occupiers leave. Inspired by all of the soldiers and the magnificent buttons that currently reside in their village, Jurek, the maniacal leader of the group, decides to launch a dangerous dare: the group would have a contest. Whoever got the best button would become the king. Patryk, one of the boys in the group, would do anything to stop Jurek from becoming king. But Jurek is determined and will not let anyone stop him. The battle spirals and collides with the war. As the button war turns lethal, everything spins out of control. With captivating and vivid scenes, this bittersweet novel will be an incredible read for all ages.” (Nathaniel Kraemer, age 9, starred review)
“Will Ropp’s restrained narration captures the personalities of small- town Polish boys caught between opposing Russian and German forces during WWI. Avi’s bleak novel exposes the brutality of war, not only among nations but also among the village boys who succumb to the bullying dares of Jurek, who will do anything to obtain the best button and rule over them all. Patryk, the young narrator of the story, knows this game is dangerous and wrong, yet still he capitulates. Ropp chooses contemporary American-accented speech to tell this story, distinguishing the boys with variety in pitch and pacing and using a particularly appropriate nasal tone for the sociopathic Jurek. A grim but compelling look at the underside of human behavior.” (S.G. © AudioFile, referring to the audio book)
“The author of more than 60 books for young people including 2003 Newbery Medal-winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead has published, at age 80, possibly his finest work yet, in the compelling, brilliant The Button War, which one reviewer called reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five and Lord of the Flies. In August 1914, a pack of boys, led by 12-year-old Jurek and Patryk, while away the days in their Russian-occupied village in Poland building forts, hanging out at the village water pump, having fishing contests, or—at Jurek’s instigation— playing pranks on their neighbors. Then Patryk finds a button in the forest and refuses to hand it over to an enraged Jurek, who declares he is the descendant of ancient Polish king Boleslaw the Brave.”
“War comes to the village, German soldiers take up residence in villagers’ homes, and Jurek announces a new contest, daring the boys to steal military buttons, with the owner of the best button to be proclaimed Button King. Despite his misgivings, Patryk is determined to prevent Jurek from winning by finding the best button himself. The contest escalates in ever-more dangerous ways, from cutting buttons off uniforms on a laundry line to climbing into a bomb crater to cut buttons off the uniform of a dead soldier. Patryk finds himself stuck in ever more dangerous competition, helpless to call the whole thing off, unable to save his friends and taking actions that will have terrible consequences, as Jurek grows increasingly violent in his deadly obsession with finding the best button. In crisp, beautiful prose, narrated in Patryk’s voice, Avi brings to life the small village, the quiet rhythms of daily life, the class differences (Patryk’s father is a wheelwright, Jurek has no parents and lives with a sister who does laundry for Russian soldiers), the ominous arrival of war in the form of a German airplane which Patryk believes at first to be a giant bird. The insanity of the boys’ button war, a war they are caught up in and eventually consumed by, mirrors the Great War itself. The Button War is a classic, a contender for this year’s Newbery and National Book Award.” (The Buffalo News)
“There are seven of them, Patryk reports: himself and six friends, all 11 or 12 years old; they aren’t a gang, he continues, but “more like a flock of wild goats.” They live in a small Polish village in the year 1914. Jurek is their de facto leader, boasting (falsely) that he is a descendant of Boleslaw the Brave, the ancient king of Poland. The boys’ lives change dramatically when an airplane appears and bombs their school, evidencing that war has come to the village. The occupying Russians flee in the face of a German advance. Meanwhile, another sort of war has come—a button war. For at Jurek’s instigation, the boys agree to steal buttons from the soldiers; the one with the best button will become king. But it’s an increasingly dangerous game as, one by one, the boys are killed. Who will survive to become “king?” The award- winning Avi has turned in another solid performance, bringing history alive with a clever plot, a powerful, anti-war theme, and characters as memorable as his story.” (Michael Cart, Booklist)
“Avi’s intense and cautionary novel is a psychological thriller set in a hardscrabble Polish village during World War I. Patryk, the 12-year-old narrator, is one of a group of boys who meet nightly at the village water pump to share news and plan adventures, most of which are harmless dares. But on the night the Germans drop a bomb on the local schoolhouse, their lives are changed forever. A troubled boy named Jurek, whose parents died years earlier and who lives with his older sister, challenges his friends to steal the shiniest and most intricately designed military button. The winner, according to Jurek, will be the king. The king of what is unimportant to Jurek, a boy anxious to have control over something in his life. Patryk recognizes the danger of Jurek winning; he has seen glimpses of Jurek’s cold heart and knows the danger he poses. But when the contest has tragic consequences, Patryk is torn between his loyalty to his friends and his conscience. One by one, the group of boys, described by Patryk as a “flock of wild goats,” pays a price for their willingness to follow the rules of Jurek’s reckless game. The culminating scene in a forest blurs the lines between the “button war” and the real war raging around them. VERDICT Avi has written a compelling and tautly constructed book that is a portal to grappling with the complexity of the human instinct to compete. Gr 5–8 Highly recommended.” (Shelley Sommer, School Library Journal)
“The prolific American writer known as Avi tells a far darker tale of young boys, one set in a Polish hamlet in August 1914 and recounted in deadly earnest in The Button War (Candlewick, 229 pages, $16.99). In this arresting, unsettling novel for 9- to 14-year-olds-it has none of the levity of the similar-sounding 1994 movie, War of the Buttons—the author is so sparing with description and language, and the lines of dialogue are so clipped and abrupt, that the story feels both real and like a dread allegory.
“Twelve-year-old Patryk runs with a pack of boys dominated by a clever, dangerous boy named Jurek. It is Jurek’s idea for the boys to steal buttons from the Russian soldiers who occupy the village. As Patryk explains: “Dares were the way we measured one another, tested one another, who was strong, who was weak.” Whoever collects the most elaborate buttons will become the Button King, with the power to inflict hurt on the other boys and make them bow down to him.
“Meanwhile, as World War I falls like a storm on Europe, soldiers of different armies, each with different brass-buttoned uniforms, begin sweeping murderously back and forth through the village: Russians, Germans, Austrians, French, and the terrifying Cossacks, with the most coveted buttons of all: emblems in the shape of skull and crossbones. As the war rages, so does the button war, its victims paying every kind of ghastly price in a sober and sobering tale.” (Wall Street Journal)
“… the message is clear –there are no winners in war … demonstrates that war, no matter its scale, is devastating …” (Kirkus Reviews)