‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr – how to be kind to one another against all odds

This post is the next installment of our initiative to showcase some of the beautifully written or illustrated books for children.

We strive to highlight books on our website that will help create the next generation of global citizens by exploring these themes:

  • Generosity
  • Caring for others
  • Multiculturalism
  • Empowerment and perseverance

Although I see all four of these themes in Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See, the importance of caring for others rings loudest. That the author can connect a young blind French girl with a young orphaned German boy growing up under Hitler’s influence, speaks to the power and possibilities of communication across geographic and political divides.

Doerr underscores this notion when he describes what his book is really about:

“Radio, propaganda, a cursed diamond, children in Nazi Germany, puzzles, snails, the Natural History Museum in Paris, courage, fear, bombs, the magical seaside town of Saint-Malo in France, and the ways in which people, against all odds, try to be kind to one another.”


Take a moment to watch the following video, in which Anthony Doerr talks in depth about the genesis of his book:


I find the book’s title very intriguing.  In an excerpt from his website, Anthony Doerr explains its meaning:


It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.


Is there a specific event that triggered the writing of this book?

In an interview with Scribner Magazine, Doerr explains that he was initially motivated to write the story by a visit to Saint-Malo, France (where a large part of the story takes place) and by a growing interest in the power of radio. He then goes on to say:


Ultimately, the novel became a project of humanism. I longed to tell a war story that felt new and to do that I needed the reader to invest as completely in Werner (the German orphan boy) as she does in Marie-Laure (the blind French heroine). In the war stories I read growing up, French resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who constructed machine guns from paper clips. And German soldiers were evil blond torturers, marching in coal scuttle helmets alongside barbed wire. I wondered if things might have been more nuanced than that. Could I tell a story about how a promising boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth and made bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, yet still render him an empathetic character? And could I braid his story with the narrative of a disabled girl who in so many ways was more capable than the adults around her? My attempt in this novel is to suggest the humanity of both Werner and Marie-Laure, to propose more complicated portraits of heroes and villains; to hint at, as World War II fades from the memories of its last survivors and becomes history, all the light we cannot see.


As Mr. Doerr stated there are so many things that cannot be seen (or that we don’t take time to see) but are revelatory.  This book shows the power to go beyond what we initially see, not make judgments so quickly, and take the time to relate and listen. This is a lesson for readers of all ages.


Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Doerr lives in  Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons.

To learn more about this author, visit his website at Anthonydoerr.com


This blog was crafted by a Global Grandmothers supporter, Brooke Herter James.                     

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