The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, published in the United Kingdom with the alternate spelling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, won many international and Irish awards, including two Irish Book Awards and the Bisto Book of the Year. It topped the New York Times Bestseller List and has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. The book was rank first in Ireland for over 80 weeks and was the bestselling book in Spain for two years.
Boyne had always been fascinated by the Holocaust and had studied the historical context of the genocide and World War II. He reports that within 100 hours of having the initial idea to write a novel set during the Holocaust, he had completed the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The ending of the novel was set in stone from that first draft, completed on April 30, 2004.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is described on the title page as "a fable," a characterization Boyne has said he chose in order to explain some of the story's unrealistic aspects. In interviews, the author stresses that rather than being a historical novel about Auschwitz, the book is meant to be a universal story about any concentration camp in World War II, since so many children were victimized during that time. He gives this as the reason the name "Auschwitz" never appears in the novel; rather, the reader only gets Bruno's mishearing of the name, "Out With."
Bruno's confusion surrounding the situation at "Out With" is an example of Boyne's technique of defamiliarization. Through the voice of a limited, third-person narrator, Boyne leads the reader to Auschwitz and introduces the terrible things taking place there as if the reader has no prior knowledge on the topic. This allows the reader to avoid immediately categorizing the victims of the Holocaust as "Others," fundamentally different and unknowable. Rather, the reader gains the perspective of Bruno's childlike innocence.
By characterizing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a fable, Boyne avoids the retrospective speculation that often marks Holocaust novels. Rather, he implies that Bruno's story is an allegory, serving as a timeless representation of atrocities and the people who participate in and/or become victims of them. It poses the question whether perpetrators of such horrors as the Holocaust might rethink their behavior if they were to themselves become a victim of the horror - as in what happens to Bruno's father.
The book is an example of a trend in children's literature that acknowledges the extent to which children can be witnesses and victims of issues much larger than themselves. Though the Holocaust and all its atrocities are outside the realm of Bruno's understanding as a child, he and his family are participants and he becomes a victim by the end of the novel.
Growing up in war-torn Ireland, Boyne has said he felt a personal connection to the story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This connection is revealed in certain details: for example, the characters of Bruno and Schmuel share a birthday, among other similarities. The specific date, April 15, 1934, is Boyne's father's birthday.