Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illus. by Claire Fauvel

Review by Jane Diokpo

HarperCollins, January 2020

176 pages, paperback, $12.99 CAD, 9780062915597

Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7

Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Graphic Novel 

“For days now, I’ve been looking for the perfect shot… I’m just here to capture it, like an instrument or a tool … unless it’s the shot that found me.”

Catherine’s War, a graphic novel by French novelist Julia Billet, is based on the author’s mother’s true story. Set in France during World War II, it follows Rachel Cohen, a young Jewish teenager who starts off living at Sèvres Children’s Home in Paris. It’s 1942 and Rachel has not heard from her parents in several months. She has no way of knowing their circumstances. The war continues to escalate. News that the Nazis recently opened a camp for Jews nearby only increase her fears. For the moment, however, she cherishes her safety and nurtures her love for photography using a borrowed camera.

Her sense of security doesn’t last long, as Nazism in France grows stronger and Jews are forced to wear yellow stars. The owners of Rachel’s school (a caring old couple called Penguin and Seagull) have their Jewish students change their names to sound more Christian, for their protection—Rachel’s becomes Catherine Colin—and send the Jewish students all over France for their own safety.

Before Catherine leaves Sèvres, Seagull gives her his camera and urges her to take pictures of anything significant during her journey, so the atrocities being inflicted on Jewish people will not get forgotten over time. Writer Julia Billet has chosen to center this story around a young and vulnerable character, with only a camera at her side. Just when Catherine’s gotten comfortable in a new location and fallen in love with a fellow photography-enthusiast, Etienne, she is told she has to move again because her new home was reported for having Jews. Catherine is hesitant but obeys.

Catherine must adapt to dangerous conditions in order to survive. Over and over, she does as she’s told, against her own desires, just to stay alive. Constant uprooting and dehumanizing robs her of any sense of safety and control, so moments when she uses her camera to gain a little control over her situation are gratifying to read. For instance, she takes photos of a family she lives with temporarily to capture their fleeting happiness and of children at an orphanage where she seeks refuge. This act of doing what she loves brings her comfort and ensures that her experiences during the war are recorded.

The graphic novel’s pages are illustrated in ink and watercolor panels by Claire Fauvel; her choice of mainly dark colors for the entire book sets the tone and immediately pulls readers into the bleakness of Catherine’s struggle to survive. Just like Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief, Catherine’s War tugs at your heart strings and gives you a profound glimpse of a horrific time period. I cannot recommend this graphic novel highly enough. At the end of the book, a map of Catherine’s hectic journey, a Q and A by Billet, and real photos taken by Billet’s mother, Tamo Cohen, are included. 

Jane Diokpo is a UBC Media Studies undergraduate who loves films, graphic design, reading, and writing. She also loves petting cute dogs from time to time.

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