Cover of The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Devil’s Arithmetic, The

Viking 1988
ISBN# 0-670-81027-4 Viking hardcover
ISBN# 0-14-034535-3 Puffin trade paperback
ISBN# 0-14-240109-9 Puffin Modern Classics paperback

I had thought about doing a book on the Holocaust for a long time, but quite frankly the idea overwhelmed me. Finally one of my editors, who was a rabbi’s wife at the time, persuaded me to confront the task. Writers and storytellers are the memory of a civilization, and we who are alive now really must not forget what happened in that awful time or else we may be doomed to repeat it. This book is about a Jewish teenager who–much like me at that age–hated the idea of having to remember so much Jewish history and ritual. At a family seder, she opens the door to Elijah and finds herself whirled back in time to a Polish Jewish shtetl in the 1940s. There, though she alone understands what will happen to the villagers, she is taken with them to a concentration camp. This is a story of the quiet heroism in the camps and why we must bear witness to history. There is a German/Austrian edition of the book.

It won the Sydney Taylor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries, the Jewish Book Council Award, the Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, and was a Nebula Honor Book. It was also on the 1992 Kentucky Bluegrass Master List, a Florida Children’s Book Award nomination in ’91-92 for grades 6-8, and was on the 1994 Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award master list. In 2007 it was named the Children’s Literature Association’s 2008 Honor Book for the Phoenix Award “given to the author. . .for a book for children originally published in English that did not win a major award at the time of its publication twenty years earlier” but has stood the test of time.

The book was made into a movie for the Showtime TV channel by Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers. It starred Kirsten Dunst. Robert Avrech wrote a very strong and moving screenplay and Donna Deitch directed it brilliantly on a shoestring budget. For their work Robert won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Special and Donna won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Children’s Special. The film also won “The Wilbur Award.” This is given for outstanding communication of religious values in public media: print, film, video, broadcasting and cable. The Wilbur has been given since 1949. The video is available from Blockbuster.

Teachers please note: Dr. Steve Sunderland, Professor of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati, has sent me a series of emails about using Devil’s Arithmetic, which I found both provocative and moving.

Here is an email from a sudent named, Nicole, quoted by kind permission:

“My name is nicole and I was in a speech competition, my coach wanted me to be very emotional about my speech because it was about the holocaust…I tried very hard and was emotional but she said I wasn’t emotional enough. She said I needed to feel the pain and suffering. so she suggested your book, ‘the Devils Arithmatic’… I went and bought the book and read it….the next practice I almost made my coach cry. She asked me how I got the feel of the speech in just a couple days…I said “I read The Devils Arithmatic by Jane Yolen”…she was very impressed..your book made me see what the victims of the holocaust actually went through. Thank you for making that book. It changed my look of things. made me not take as many things for granted. That year I got 4th place, but in my heart I got 1st because I could feel the pain that those victims felt thanks to your book. The tears that came out of my eyes weren’t fake that year, they were real. That contest was 2 years ago in 5th grade…now I am in 7th and 13 yrs old and still love that book and remember what it was like.”

Around the Web:

  • A Teacher’s guide to the holocaust using parallel reading of Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor and The Devil’s Arithmetic.
  • An article I wrote about writing the book.
  • Phyllis Harrison of St. Christopher School, Baldwin, NY has students write poems about Devil’s Arithmetic. See two of these poems.
  • There is a Study Guide by Michael Golden from Learning Links Inc.
  • Here’s a blog post.


  • YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list under “Books for the Soul”
  • 1988 Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies.
  • Parents Choice Awards Honor Book for Literature.
  • A Judy Lopex Memorial Children’s Book Award Honor Book from the Women’s National Book Association.
  • Maryland’s Black-Eyed Susan Award nominee.
  • American Bookseller’s Pick of the List
  • On the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller List
  • Won the 1997 Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award in Minnesota.
  • The German edition won the 1990 Leseratten Book Award presented twice a year by a youth jury on German radio.
  • Was one of the nominees for the South Carolina 1990-1991 Young Adult Book Award.
  • Was one of the nominees for the Oklahoma Sequoyah Book Award
  • On the Illiinois Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award list for 1993-1994.
  • On the 1992 Sunshine State Young Readers Award finalist list.
  • One of the 1999 Morning Star Award honorees for the movie of Devil’s Arithmetic.Award is for “Honoring those who illuminate the lives of Jewish women.”
  • Movie shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in March of 1999.
  • Movie was on Showtime, aired March 28, 1999 and frequently replayed during Passover week. It won 2 Emmys, for the script and for directing, and was nominated for five.
  • The movie won “The Wilbur Award” for “Outstanding Communication of religious values in public media: print, film, video, broadcasting, and cable.” The award has been given since 1949.
  • Was on the “Cuffies” List, top picks from Chkidren;s Booksellers, “Best Novel with a Problem Theme.”

There’s a Korean edition

What reviewers have said:

  • *STARRED REVIEW* “In this novel, Yolen attempts to answer those who question why the Holocaust should be remembered. Hannah, 12, is tired of remembering, and is embarrassed by her grandfather, who rants and raves at the mention of the Nazis. Her mother’s explanations of how her grandparents and great-aunt lost all family and friends during that time have little effect. Then, during a Passover Seder, Hannah is chosen to open the door to welcome the prophet Elijah. As she does so, she is transported to a village in Poland in the 1940s, where everyone thinks that she is Chaya, who has just recovered from a serious illness. She is captured by the Nazis and taken to a death camp, where she is befriended by a young girl named Rivka, who teaches her how to fight the dehumanizing processes of the camp and hold onto her identity. When at last their luck runs out and Rivka is chosen, Hannah/Chaya, in an almost impulsive act of self-sacrifice, goes in her stead. As the door to the gas chamber closes behind her, she is returned to the door of her grandparents’ apartment, waiting for Elijah. Through Hannah, with her memories of the present and the past, Yolen does a fine job of illustrating the importance of remembering. She adds much to children’s understanding of the effects of the Holocaust, which will reverberate throughout history, today and tomorrow.”—School Library Journal
  • “Yolen has told a gripping tale that makes the abomination of the Holocaust more real for the juxtaposition of events of the past with the knowledge of the present. If one needs to know why, like Hannah, we must remember, we will understand better from the experience of this book.”–The New Advocate
  • “The books simplicity is its strength; no comment is needed because the facts speak for themselves. This brave and powerful book has much it can teach a young audience.”–Publishers Weekly
  • *STARRED REVIEW* “Yolen’s time-travel is cleverly orchestrated; her plot fits together like a carefully cut puzzle. And while some teenagers will be more caught up by its tidy perfection than by the horror Yolen seeks to convey, they will still come away with a sense of tragic history that both disturbs and compels.”–Booklist
  • “A Masterpiece: If any novel has ever deserved the Newbery, this is it. I do not cry often–or easily–but I cried and did not care when I read Yolen’s masterful Devil’s Arithmetic. . .one of those rare young adult novels which, while not exceeding the emotional and nintellectual range of its primary audience, is really for all of us.”–IAFA Newsletter
  • *STARRED REVIEW* “A triumphantly moving book . . . . ion less skillful hands, such a story would risk either being didactic or irreverent, but Yolen has so completely integrated her deep concern with the structure and movingly poetic language tof her story that the meaning shines clear.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “[Readers] will come away with a sense of tragic history that both disturbs and compels.” — Booklist
  • “Those who read this book will never forget; and, just as important, they will know why we must never forget. In a world that includes criminal governments like those that have slaughtered innocents in Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Chile, I would like to think that this generation of children will all read The Devil’s Arithmetic …” — Orson Scott Card in Fantasy & Science Fiction
  • In a very long review in the NY Times, November 1988, Cynthia Samuels, political producer of the Today Show, concluded: “This is a book parents should want to read first. And while many young people who read it may turn to their parents for interpretations and comfort, the story’s impact seems vastly different from that of, say, Elie Wiesel’s ”Night,” another book about the Holocaust they might encounter. His was a testament – an offering of evidence to a world that could not fathom such evil. Ms. Yolen’s novel is more of a bridge to the receding past, and it concludes on a note of redemption and love. Sooner or later all our children must know what happened in the days of the Holocaust. ”The Devil’s Arithmetic” offers an affecting way to begin.”