The Extra

Book review by
Joanna H. Kraus, Common Sense Media
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Harrowing tale of Gypsy film extra in World War II.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will learn about the two prominent groups of Gypsies, the Roma and the Sinti, and the age-old rivalry between the two. During World War II the Nazis made no distinction and threw them all into concentration camps, where they suffered grave inhumanities yet made every effort to preserve their lives and dignity. Readers also will learn about Hitler's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl.

Positive Messages

The will to survive is strong. With courage and ingenuity kindled by hope, it's sometimes possible to outwit the enemy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lilo (a Sinti) and Django (a Roma) bond in an effort to save themselves and Lilo's mother when selected to be extras in a film. Django is incredibly resourceful, and Lilo is forthright, astonishingly brave, and determined to live.


The violence is all around: the imprisonment of Gypsies, sterilization of Gypsy women, starvation, shootings, physical brutality. However, rather than describe the acts of violence in detail, the author focuses on the aftermath and the responses of those affected.


Lilo is quite innocent, but working late one night she barely escapes being raped. There's a love interest between a guard and a Gypsy and allusions to their nighttime meetings.


There's no swearing, but there are derogatory terms spoken in German.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the adults smoke and drink wine and beer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Extra is based on a little-known aspect of World War II, when Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker, decided to make a movie, funded by the Third Reich, based on a Spanish folk tale. Due to the war, she didn't have access to Spain or Spanish actors, so she used Gypsy (Roma and Sinti) prisoners as extras. She also used a Gypsy girl as a stunt double in specific horseback riding sequences. That young girl was the inspiration for 15-year-old Lilo (a Sinti), the protagonist of The Extra. Riefenstahl was as cruel as she was beautiful, and there are many examples of her cruelty in the novel. The roundup of the Gypsies and their imprisonment is vividly described.

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What's the story?

Fifteen-year-old Lilo's life is shattered when her family and all the Gypsies in Vienna, Austria, are rounded up by the Nazis and sent to an internment camp. There she meets a new friend, Django, and both are selected to be extras in a film directed by Leni Rienenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker. Although they're surrounded by glamour, the Gypsies are closely guarded, locked in a barn when not on the set, and poorly fed. The director is as vindictive, egocentric, and cruel as she is physically beautiful. When Lilo asks the whereabouts of a girl who's disappeared, Lilo is instantly in danger herself. She escapes, and for a while she's safe with a puppet troupe. But then her identity is discovered and, once again, she's arrested. Only her daring and bravery and doing the unthinkable can save her.

Is it any good?

THE EXTRA is a powerful novel in which both suspense and stakes are high. Little is known about the persecution of the European Roma and Sinti people during the war years. Lasky's research makes the harsh story compelling, and she's created two believable and engaging young people as well as as a convincing adversary, the diabolical director upon whom their lives depend.

The descriptions of the filming are rich in detail: "There was not just one counterfeit village but entire cities and mountain ranges that had been created, facades designed and built by the scenery department. Bring up the wind! Bring up the sun! Bring up New York! Paris! Bring up anything, Lilo thought, except the real world."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about World War II and the different groups of people Hitler sent to concentration camps. What books have you read or films have you seen about the Holocaust? 

  • How has the media portrayed the life and culture of Gypsies? Have they been fairly portrayed or stereotyped?

  • Have you ever performed in a home video or a school play? What did you like about the experience? Was it hard work or fun or both? Do you think you'd enjoy being a film extra?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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