George, M. (June 27, 2017) The Sometimes-Forgotten Genres in Literature Written for Adolescents and Young Adults: Short Stories, Essays, and Poetry.
I love the approach he is writing about this time. We both seem to return to YA books that deal with history and can readily be used in cross-curricular contexts. In this particular post, he is focusing on YA books that deal with War, specifically WWII. Some of the books he mentions I know and love. The others will be added to my reading list. Thanks Marshall.
World at War: Exploring the Many Facets of WWII Through Young Adult and Middle Grade Literature by Marshall George
While I was hired as a teacher of English Language Arts at the international school, at the end of my first year when the following year’s schedule was being developed, the leadership in the school realized that there was a group of seniors who needed various courses to graduate- some needed an additional course in English, others needed an American history course, and two needed a humanities/fine arts course (most students were getting two diplomas- an American one and a Brazilian one). There were not enough teachers to fill each of these needs in separate classes. Having taken an interdisciplinary course in my undergraduate program (it was one of my favorite elective courses), I volunteered to develop an “American Studies” class that would explore various periods of American history by examining the literature, music, and art from each era. Based on student engagement and feedback (and the fact that all were able to graduate thanks to the creative course offering), the class was deemed a huge success. I repeated a version of the course the following year with an 8th grade social studies class (one must be quite flexible when teaching in relatively small international schools).
I am drawn to historical fiction and there is an ever-widening body of literature written for adolescents and young adults that explores various periods in both world and national history. I spend a lot of time in middle and high schools in New York City and have the opportunity to observe students in their classes as well as during their independent reading time. While I have not engaged in any sort of systematic study of their interests, I have observed that they often have a real interest in World War II. After speaking with a number of social studies teachers, I have had my observations confirmed by many of them. Like many young people today, I have always been fascinated by the complexities of World War II and will often choose to read works of literature that focus on that conflict. In fact, as I reviewed the Excel file where I have recorded every work of adolescent/young adult literature I have read since January of 2000, I found that I have read over 50 books that were set during World War II. In a Washington Post column a few years ago, Valerie Strauss argued that it is very important to teach young people about World War II and suggested six rules to adhere to when doing so. It’s an interesting read and makes a good case. I would argue now, perhaps more than ever, we need to look to our past to guide us as we move into a future in an ever-changing world.
Following are brief summaries of some of my favorite WWII books. I considered many different ways of organizing this list. I thought of using a thematic approach, but found that each of the books addressed so many different themes it was hard to categorize them that way. I considered creating a high school list and a middle school list, but I struggle against pigeon holing books by level (though I did note publishers’ recommended reading ages to make suggestions as to whether the books are marketed to young adult or middle grade readers, or both). I landed on organizing the list around the primary setting of the books. World War II was indeed a war that spanned the globe. I have not read WWII books set in Africa, the Middle East or Australia and would welcome suggestions in the comment section of this blog.
War in Continental Europe
This fascinating novel is told from four points of view: a Lithuanian nurse, Joana; a young orphaned Polish girl, Emilia; a Prussian boy Florian, and a German soldier Alfred. This multinational cast of characters provides insight into the final months of the war in Europe, especially during Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German soldiers and citizens when the Red Army was approaching Germany. Readers learn of a little-known WWII incident, the sinking of the Gustloff, a German ship evacuating German soldiers and civilians.
Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen (YA)
Sarah is an orphaned 15-year-old Jewish girl who speaks numerous languages and looks like an Aryan. After her mother is shot by the Germans, she meets an unlikely ally, a British spy acting as a Nazi official. Sarah joins him in his spying endeavors, posing as his 13-year old daughter attending an elite school for Nazi youth. Her task is to foil a classmate’s father’s efforts to build a superweapon that could win the war for the Nazis.
Code Name Verity is the story of a friendship between a British female pilot, Maddie, and a female spy, “Verity.” When their plane crashes in Germany, “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo. Through her interrogations she cleverly tells her story without giving away the information that the Nazis want.
Rose Under Fire tells the story of another female pilot who is captured by the Nazis and is sent to Ravensbruck, the notorious concentration camp for women. She survives the horrors of the camp and witnesses the trials against Nazi war criminals after the war.
These two books feature incredibly strong women who survive because of their bravery, their commitment, and their sheer will to live.
These companion books provide an important glimpse into France during and after the German occupation. The first, Under a War-Torn Sky, chronicles the war experience of a young pilot who is shot down behind enemy lines in France. In his dangerous attempt to avoid capture by the Germans, Henry Forester is helped by the French resistance. Henry comes to truly understand the importance of the work done by these brave men and women.
In the second book, A Troubled Peace, Henry has escaped Germany and returned to his home in Virginia. Unable to adapt to his “regular life,” Henry returns to post-war France to see what happened to the women and men who had helped him escape. There, he discovers the chaos that has been left by the ravages of war.
Genevieve’s War by Patricia Riley Giff (MG)
Despite the war that is overtaking Europe, Genevieve does not want to leave her grandmother’s farm in Alsace to return to New York. When the Nazis overtake Alsace, she and her grandmother are forced to board a Nazi soldier. At the same time, they hide a fugitive in their attic, risking their lives to protect their friend. This book provides a clear picture of life in occupied France during the war.
In the first book, readers meet Felix, a young boy who is confused by what is happening to him and his family in Nazi Occupied Poland. Soldiers are burning books, beating and shooting people, and violently taking them away from their families. Despite witnessing all of these horrors, Felix never loses hope.
In the second book, Felix and his friend Zelda escape a prison train that is taking them to a Nazi death camp. Both children have lost their parents, who were murdered by the Nazis. Felix and Zelda struggle to survive in war torn, Nazi occupied Poland. Their entire life is focused on survival- avoiding being turned in by citizens eager for a reward, being shot, or starving.
When the third book opens in Australia, Felix is a grandfather who has struggled his whole adult life to bury the painful memories of his childhood. When his granddaughter, Zelda, comes to spend time with him and faces relentless bullying, his memories come rushing back.
Set in 1939 Germany, this is a story told by “Death” about Liesel Meminger, who has lost her mother and brother and is taught to read by her foster father. As her reading improves, Liesel steals books from Nazi book burnings and from the mayor’s home. The book examines the atrocities of the war as Liesel lives in a village outside Munich during the bombardment of the city and the experiences of a Jewish man hidden in the basement of her home.
My Mother’s Secret: A Novel Based on A True Holocaust Story by J.L. Witterick (YA)
Franciszka and her daughter provide shelter in their tiny home to two Jewish families who are hiding from the Nazis after the invasion of Poland. They also hide a defecting German soldier in their attic. Told from four different perspectives (though all in the same home) this novel provides great insight into the horror of living in Nazi occupied Europe and how citizens resisted and fought against the evil regime.
The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir (MG/YA)
This memoir provides a first-hand account of the author, who was nine years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. His father was executed, but the rest of the family was able to use their looks and language skills to pass as non-Jewish Poles to avoid being sent to the Nazi death camps like most of their family and friends. Nirs’ family’s life was not easy either, as they had to work for Germans. The horrors of life inside Nazi occupied Poland are explicitly told in this compelling memoir.
Many people are not aware that European Jews sought asylum in Cuba when the Nazi regime rose to power and began invading countries across Europe. After being refused asylum in New York, young Daniel, who had narrowly escaped Nazi Germany, was granted entry into Cuba instead. Told in narrative verse, Daniel’s story is a common one to refugees who live in fear of being returned to their oppressors by German spies among the fellow refugees.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (MG)
Bruno’s father gets a promotion to commandant of Auschwitz and the family has to move from Berlin to the country. Lonely and board, Bruno makes friends with a little boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence. Bruno does not understand the horrific reality of what is going on at this camp that his father commands. This devastating story provides a unique view of the juxtapositions that existed in the world of the Nazis.
The Pacific Theater
This series of books explores war in the Pacific Theater starting with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Book 1, Under the Blood Red Sun, traces the experiences of a Japanese-American boy (Tomi) and his family in Hawaii during and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His father and grandfather are interred in American concentration camps and Tomi and his mother must endure painful discrimination. Book 2, House of the Red Fish, continues Tomi’s story as he and his mother face increasing challenges as his former friends and neighbors see him as the enemy. Book 3 Eyes of the Emperor focuses on another Hawaiian of Japanese descent, Eddy, who is serving in the American armed forces. The Army uses Eddy and other Japanese-Americans in unthinkable ways. Nevertheless, Eddie endures as he wants to prove his loyalty to his country-America. Book 4 Hunt for the Bamboo Rat, chronicles the experiences of a Japanese-American recruit, Zenji, who is fluent in both Japanese and English. Once in the Army, Zenji is sent undercover to the Philippines to spy on the Japanese. When captured, Zenji is brutally tortured by the Japanese. He eventually escapes, but spends months in the brutal tropical jungle.
Based on actual historical events, this fictional story of Ned Begay exposes the fascinating and previously classified story of WWII when The US government utilized the native language skills of Navajo soldier to transmit coded messages for their commanders and troops. Ned, who had been taught at a boarding school that his native language was inferior to English, had the opportunity to become a code talker despite previously being rejected from serving in the military. Ned and his fellow code talkers were sent to Iwo Jima, where they participated in the battles there and on Okinawa. The code talkers were crucial to the war effort-without them, the war may have never been won by the Allies.
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park. (MG)
Because the Japanese occupied Korea during WWII, Sun-hee and her brother are forced to study and speak Japanese in school. They are forbidden from using their native Korean language. Koreans were expected to fight on the Japanese side in the war. Sun-hee (whose Japanese name is Keoko) is shocked when her brother enlists in the Japanese army. Her uncle is part of the Korean resistance so the family appears to be divided. Keoko does not realize that her brother becomes a kamikaze as a way of protecting the family.
Incommunicado by Randall Platt (MG)
“Jewels” is a 12-year-old girl living in Oregon when the Japanese attack the United States. She and her mother work for Mr. Kaye, a kind Japanese-American who allows them to live in one of his beach cabins in return for their cleaning services. After the attack, the town turns against Mr. Kaye, sure that he is a spy for the Japanese. Jewels goes to great lengths to protect her friend as he is treated badly by the townspeople and is under investigation by the FBI.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (MG/HS)
An entire Japanese-American family’s life is turned upside down when the US government considers them to be enemy aliens. The father is arrested for treason, while the rest of the family is sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert. The racism and xenophobia of American citizens during the WWII era has great impact on the children in this story (all of the characters remain nameless throughout) who suffered greatly for four years of internment.
The British and American Home Front
This two-book series tells the story of a young English girl with a club foot, Ada, who struggles to survive in war torn England. In the first book The War That Saved My Life. Ada lives under tragic circumstances, mistreated and abused by her mother. When Ada’s brother is evacuated from London to live in the relative safety of the country, she runs away as well. Ada connects with her foster mother and her life improves greatly, despite the dangers of living in Wartime England. In the second book, The War I Finally Won, Ada has successful surgery that repairs her foot and allows her to lead a relatively regular life (regular despite black out, rationing, air raid warnings). Ada loses her birth mother in a bombing of London, but gains a friend in a Jewish German girl who is living in England during the war.
Davey’s brother Bill flies B-17s in the war in Europe. He and his family at home certainly have it easier than Bill does, but the air raid drills, rationing, and rubber and paper scrap drives brings the war home to them in a different way. Waiting for word about Bill’s safety is especially hard for Davey and his parents. Indeed, life on the home front is a challenge for everyone in times of war.
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (MG/YA)
Women on the homefront made great contributions to the war. Ida Mae Jones, a young small-town farm girl tried to do her part by collecting silk stockings for the cause, but wanted to do so much more. Having learned to fly crop dusting planes, she was a gifted pilot and wanted to join WASP, a semi-military unit of women pilots. However, because she was African-American, she was not allowed to join. Because she had light colored skin she managed to join WASP anyway and began flight training. Overcoming discrimination and fear of being discovered, Ida Mae bravely makes important contributions to the war effort.
Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (MG/YA)
This work of nonfiction tells the fascinating story of a huge explosion that killed more than 300 sailors on the docks of the Navy base at Port Chicago, CA. After the explosion, more than 200 African American soldiers refused to go back to work on the docks until the unsafe and unfair conditions were rectified. Of those, fifty men were charged with mutiny. The brave men faced prison or even execution for their actions, but they believed that they had to take a stand against the prejudice, discrimination, and injustices facing black sailors who were risking their lives for their country.
Alternative Ending to the War
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
What if Hitler had triumphed? In this fantastical series, readers get to consider what would have happened in this nightmare scenario. Living in 1956, where the world is split between the German Third Reich and the Japanese Empire, a survivor of horrific medical experimentation, Yael, is able to “skinshift.” That means that she can assume any female role and agrees to become Adele Wolfe to help the resistance movement in their plot to finally kill Hitler. Yael participates in The Axis Games, an annual motorcycle race that commemorates the Great Axis Victory. Hitler will be at the victory celebration so Yael must win the race … and kill Hitler at the vVctor’s Ball. This fast paced and innovative novel will interest most young adults and may foster critical conversations about the outcome of the war.
Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin
Yael’s story continues in this sequel. After Yael’s assassination attempt fails, she ends up in an SS prison but manages to escape. She continues in her quest to kill Hitler. The sequel is equally fast paced and full of unexpected twists and turns.
Hunter College of the City University of New York
Marshall can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next week.