word craft


The Button War


Can­dlewick Press, 2018

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audio book nar­rat­ed by 
Will Ropp

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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.

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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)

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