In his introduction to ''The Island on Bird Street,'' author Uri Orlev notes that while the setting is the Warsaw ghetto in 1943-44, the story could take place just about anywhere. Indeed, the novel is so well told that it transcends its setting, becoming an adventure story that any older child could appreciate.
When his father is taken away to a labor camp, young Alex must fend for himself. Hiding first in an old cellar, then in the upper floor of an abandoned bombed-out building, he quickly learns to forage for food at night under cover of darkness. Using hidden passages originally built by previous ghetto dwellers, he becomes adept at dodging German soldiers, looters, and other fugitives. It's a world in which even former compatriots cannot be trusted, for they will do whatever they must to survive. Through it all, what keeps Alex going is the hope that his father will return.
There are drama and wartime violence, such as Alex's killing of a soldier about to shoot a wounded resistance fighter. But the way in which it is handled adds much to the empathy one feels for a youngster caught up in the agony of war. Yet even during the bad times, there are good times, too - be it with a pet white mouse named Snow, an impromptu soccer match with other youngsters, or an ice-skating interlude with a newfound girlfriend.
While stories of adventure and heroism during wartime aren't new, there is something special about this one. Maybe it's because it is based in part on Uri Orlev's own childhood experiences in the Warsaw ghetto during the war, which give an added air of realism to the book. Perhaps it is the sense of humanity with which Orlev endows his hero, to the point where the readers can easily identify with him. Or perhaps it is the thread of hope that runs throughout the book and which Orlev, writing from Jerusalem, emphasizes so strongly in his introduction. Whatever the reason, ''The Island on Bird Street'' is an exceptionally good book.