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'The Boys Who Challenged Hitler' is a rousing YA story taken straight from history

Two Danish teens – the sons of a Protestant minister – took extraordinary risks to stand up to Nazi occupation of their country.

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    The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club
    By Phillip Hoose
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    208 pp.

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“April 9, 1940. It was a breakfast like any other until the dishes started to rattle.”

World War II had begun, and “a squadron of dark airplanes” from Germany flew overhead to announce that Nazi forces were swallowing Denmark. The Danish government, fearing that German forces would devastate their small country, had agreed not to fight.

Some Danes vehemently disagreed with submission. Fourteen-year-old Knud Pedersen was one of them. Knud and others admired Norway, which paid with blood for resisting invasion, and Britain, which for a time fought alone against Germany and its allies.

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So Knud, his older brother Jens, and other brave teens took action. They began riding around on bicycles, sabotaging German operations.

Bookstores fill their shelves with stories about brave, young adventurers. Mostly, however, these stories are fictional. But The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club is a story taken directly from history; the foe, Nazi Germany, was as powerful and evil as anything a novelist could cook up. And the consequences of the boys’ actions were very real. Author Phillip Hoose tells us that what these teens did “awakened and inspired Danes everywhere.”

One night the boys slipped past armed guards, cut a hole in a fence, and raided a rail yard – incinerating boxcars full of airplane wings and other war materiel. Another night they sneaked into the offices of a construction company that collaborated with the Nazis and burned important paperwork, along with a portrait of Adolf Hitler.

The Churchill Club – named after wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – also stole a multitude of German weapons, stashing them in preparation for the day the boys expected to fight to liberate their country.

Hoose adroitly introduces us to key members of the club. Knud and Jens, the sons of a Protestant minister, conducted meetings and other activities in the monastery where they lived. The brothers agreed about their opposition to the Nazis, but clashed over virtually everything else. Other club members included the “Professor,” a boy who experimented with explosives.

These youths took extraordinary risks. Often they would grab weapons when German soldiers were briefly distracted. Finally, they were caught.
At a time when many Nazi foes were being executed, the Danish judge managed to give them comparatively light punishment. Knud and Jens, the ringleaders, spent two grim years in Nyborg State Prison; the others got less time.

By the time the Pedersens were freed their groundbreaking acts of resistance had become famous – and successful. “By 1944,” writes Hoose, “so many acts of violence had been committed against German property that Germany had declared Denmark ‘enemy territory.’ ” Ultimately, of course, the Nazis were defeated.

Hoose started his research for this book in 2012. A big debt of gratitude for the vividness of this story is owed to Knud, who was still alive at that time. This book wouldn’t be as heart-poundingly good if Knud hadn’t given Hoose the firsthand behind-the-scenes details and drama of everything that had happened.

But this narrative is far more than a rousing real-life adventure tale. Ultimately, “The Boys Who Challenged Hitler” will stir readers to ask themselves whether they would have had the courage of Knud and Jens – two teenagers who risked everything to stand up to a real and extremely dangerous enemy.

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