The Wall Between Us by Dan Smith – at a glance
The School Reading Lists’ five word review: Separation, friendship, mystery, bravery, research.
Children’s book title: The Wall Between Us.
Children’s author: Dan Smith.
Genre: Historical fiction.
Published by: Chicken House.
Recommended for children aged: 9-12-year-olds.
First published: Paperback June 2023.
This children’s book is ideal for: KS2 children interested in world history, and KS3 teachers looking for a highly accessible class text to support a Cold War history unit.
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Anja and Monika are two twelve-year-old girls living in 1960s Germany. Cousins as well as best friends, they share a love of butter cake, sausage pizza (without the mushrooms), and Otto, Anja’s beloved cat.
Despite living on the same street, their homes are on opposite sides of the border that separates East Berlin from West Berlin. Ever since Germany was split in two in 1949, the border has just been a line on a map. But that changes one night when Anja is awoken by loud noises, only to discover that a barbed wire barricade is being built right down the middle of her street, separating her from half her family.
The harsh conditions that those in East Germany face compared with those in the West are subtly suggested through references to the different foods and drinks available:
Mama bought me an ice cream to eat on the step but when Monika came back from her Young Pioneers meeting, she saw me and looked angry. I suddenly felt bad eating the ice cream because I couldn’t share it with Monika and I know it’s not easy for her to get ice cream.
Anja and Monika soon learn to communicate through their bedroom windows using torches and hand signals. But as the rumours around Stasi informants grow and neighbours begin to mysteriously disappear, the two cousins realise they are risking too much by interacting in public view. Monika, living in Soviet-controlled East Berlin, knows the dangers better than Anja and vows to keep her fears to herself, detailing them in letters that she doesn’t intend to send. However, the reader is made aware from the very first page that the girls’ communications and personal documents have been seized, and this knowledge builds an uneasy tension as the story progresses.
In West Berlin, Anja watches in increasing disbelief and horror as the temporary structure is replaced with a brick wall that grows so high it obscures her view of Monika’s window altogether.
We saw loads of people watching the WALL being built. It’s SO LONG! We even saw two tanks on the bridge! We rode along the wall for a while, and it felt like it went on forever. Some people were going really close and looking over. Everything smelt like cement.
Anja’s journal entries, which start out as a curious and excitable report of the events happening outside her bedroom window, begin to reflect her growing unease. When a mysterious figure she refers to as ‘THE SHADOW’ begins to regularly appear on the other side of the wall, Anja starts to question whether she is being watched, and who, if anyone, she can trust.
After realising that her cat Otto continues to visit Monika, just as he’s always done, it dawns on Anja that if he can get through the wall, perhaps she can too. A chance encounter with a mysterious neighbour becomes the gateway to a new means of communication between the cousins, thanks to Otto’s adventuring. At the same time, Monika also meets a new neighbour, and the two girls are set on a path that will change their lives forever.
One night when her parents are asleep, Anja follows Otto to see how he breaches the barricade. When she finds herself trapped on the wrong side of the wall, her journal becomes a way of communicating the thoughts that she is too scared (or guilt-ridden) to share out loud. So begins a frightening ordeal that echoes the wartime experiences of people in the twentieth century and beyond.
Using letters, journal entries, newspaper articles and government files, Dan Smith weaves a powerfully moving story that oscillates between despair and hope. He skillfully details the events of 1961 as viewed through the eyes of children, using their voices to reflect the lighter and darker sides of their experiences. Although the story is rooted in the history of Germany and post-war Europe, it is told with a lightness of touch that will appeal to readers of all ages.
The Wall Between Us is a beautiful book that invites the reader to walk in the shoes of its characters. It prompts them to consider how they might respond in the same situation and raises the question of whether a person’s character can always be judged by their actions.
Many thanks to Chicken House for the review copy.
If you like The Wall Between Us by Dan Smith you might also like: our reviews of The Missing by Michael Rosen, The Week at World’s End by Emma Carroll, Our Beautiful Game by Lou Kuenzler, Ajay and the Jaipur Moon by Varsha Shah, Time School by Nikki Young and The Accidental Stowaway by Judith Eagle.
Browse our lists of history books