February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Great War: A Somber Centennial | Focus On

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Archival image from Punch magazine 1918 by photos.com ©Getty Images.

Archival image from Punch magazine 1918 by photos.com ©Getty Images.

H. G. Wells said the Great War was the war that would end all wars. That was a fatalistic point of view in Wells’s day, but humankind’s propensity for warmongering makes the notion seem rather odd and old-fashioned today. If Wells was mistaken about the war’s ultimate placement in history, he did not overestimate its choking grasp on the globe. Indeed, the Great War, or World War I as it is now known, was a conflict of enormous proportions. It involved many countries, large and small. Boundaries, both geographical and ideological, were crossed. International alliances were made and severed. Advances in technology such as barbed wire, armored tanks, and chemical weapons gave rise to unprecedented atrocities on the battlefield.

Situated as it is on the U.S. history time line, World War I tends to get glossed over amid the live reenactments and silver screen interpretations of the American Civil War and World War II. The summer of 2014 marks 100 years since the start of the Great War, and the anniversary’s approach is certain to spark renewed interest and study. Some titles listed here cover the conflict as a whole, taking readers from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the Treaty of Versailles, while others hone in on specific aspects of the war and the experiences of those who lived and died during the period. Whether narrow or broad in scope, each provides meaningful reading while increasing students’ knowledge and enlarging their worldview. From picture books to comprehensive overviews, the cogent texts and complementary illustrations exemplify sound reasoning and thorough research, qualities that make each title ideal for supporting Common Core goals.




HOPKINSON, Deborah. Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story. illus. by Steven Guarnaccia. Putnam. 2013. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9780399252419.

Gr 2-5–When his dad leaves “to be a soldier,” a young boy longs to contribute to the war effort. Girls and women send knitted goods to soldiers, but boys don’t knit—or do they? Charming Tintin-esque illustrations grace a sweet, empowering story based on actual events, including a 1918 “Knit-In” held in New York City’s Central Park.

HUGGINS-COOPER, Lynn. One Boy’s War. illus. by Ian Benfold Haywood. Frances Lincoln. 2009. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781845075286.

Gr 4 Up–The experiences of a real-life World War I soldier are re-created through his letters and journal entries. In honest, straightforward language, the 15-year-old describes how his patriotic optimism fades as the harsh realities of war set in—violence, death, homesickness, mental and physical illness, and lack of provisions. Earthy hues and dramatic shadowing complement the somber tone.

JORGENSEN, Norman. In Flanders Fields. illus. by Brian Harrison-Lever. Simply Read. 2003. pap. $9.95. ISBN 978189 4965835.

Gr 4 Up–Bracketed in verses from John McCrae’s definitive wartime poem, this story magnifies a small event. A soldier spots a robin tangled in barbed wire. Risking his own life, the soldier crosses the empty battlefield to save the bird. Subtle white and red images throughout the black-and-white illustrations add emotional heft.

LOWRY, Lois. Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce. (Dear America Series). Scholastic. 2011. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780545144698; lib. ed. $16.99. ISBN 9780545265560; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780 545414982.

Gr 4-8–Presented in a fictionalized diary format, this popular series entry chronicles the experiences of 11-year-old Lydia after her parents are killed in the 1918 flu pandemic and she is sent to live with a Shaker family. Painstaking research vivifies life in a community where a global war has no bearing. Audio version available from Scholastic.

MEYER, Carolyn. Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914. (Royal Diaries Series). Scholastic. 2013. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780545535786; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780545576345.

Gr 4-8–Re-released with a snazzy new cover, this fictionalized diary of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Romanov family, chronicles the political wrangling that led to the family’s demise and to World War I. Atmospheric and full of lively period details.

MORPURGO, Michael. War Horse. Scholastic. 2007. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780439796637; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780439796644.

Gr 4-8–World War I is described from the point of view of Joey, a handsome farm horse. When Joey is forced to leave his beloved master and serve on the Western Front, he undergoes months of grueling battlefield action. Based on fact, this moving story about the love between a horse and a young man is a sharp indictment of war. Audio version available from Scholastic.

WILLIAMS, Marcia. Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2007. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763635329.

Gr 3-6–In an oversize fictional album, Williams presents a child’s view of daily London life and world events from 1914–18. Only 10 years old when talk of war begins, Archie documents the history of World War I as it impacts his family and country with cartoon drawings, period photographs and postcards, newspaper clippings, and foldout letters from the front.



ADAMS, Simon. World War I. (Eyewitness Books Series). DK. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780756630072.

Gr 4 Up–With DK’s trademark attention to detail and gorgeous photographic illustrations, this book is an ideal starting point for learning about the era. Each spread covers a specific aspect of the war: air combat, communication and supplies, espionage, and so on. A DVD of related clipart and a poster are included.

GREENWOOD, Mark. The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I. illus. by Frané Lessac. Candlewick. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763639136.

Gr 3-5–When stretchers become scarce on the battlefield, Jack uses donkeys to transport injured soldiers—including a childhood friend—to safety. Young readers will be pulled in by the man’s rapport with donkeys, but neither the writing nor the rustic illustrations shy away from the realities of war.

KROHN, Katherine. The 1918 Flu Pandemic. illus. by Bob Hall, Keith Williams, & Charles Barnett III. (Disasters in History Series). Capstone. 2008. lib. ed. $29.99. ISBN 9781429601580.

Gr 4 Up–In colorful graphic novel format, this volume chronicles the onset, physical effects, and social repercussions of the 1918 flu pandemic. Using simple sentences, Krohn describes the correlation between the pandemic and World War I. Vivid details, such as the use of kerosene taken orally as a home remedy, make the history unforgettable.

O’NEAL, Claire. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. (Natural Disasters Series). Mitchell Lane. 2008. lib. ed. $25.70. ISBN 9781584155690.

Gr 3-5–This succinct, accessible volume describes for young students the worldwide destruction wrought by a particularly enigmatic strain of flu. The author describes how the pandemic started, the flu’s effects on the home front and on the war front, and implications for future treatment. Aptly chosen photographs round out the riveting narrative.

RASMUSSEN, R. Kent. World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago Review. 2014. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9781613745564.

Gr 4-8–Well-organized and comprehensive, this volume covers causes, public reaction, war tactics, animals on the battlefield, the role of women and African Americans, the daily life of soldiers, and more. While some activities are questionable in their educational usefulness (training a dog to carry messages), others introduce aspects of the war with a hands-on approach. Illustrations are plentiful and substantive.

SWAIN, Gwenyth. World War I: An Interactive History Adventure. (You Choose Series). Capstone. 2012. lib. ed. $31.32. ISBN 9781429660204; pap. $6.95. ISBN 9781429679978.

Gr 3-5–In the tradition of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, this fact-based title gives readers a handful of scenarios that play out according to choices readers make as they go up against German soldiers, poison gas, the flu, and other dangers. Occasional illustrations add interest.


Middle School


BOYNE, John. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave. illus. by Oliver Jeffers. Holt. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781627790314; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781627790321.

Gr 6-8–The war has made Alfie’s London home life unrecognizable. His father is off fighting, and his once patient mother is often short-tempered. When Alfie discovers that his father is in a local hospital suffering from shell shock, the nine-year-old sets about getting him back. A powerful, poignant story about family, neighbors, prejudice, patriotism, and love. Audio version available from Macmillan Audio. [Ed note: See full review on p. 135.]

LARSON, Kirby. Hattie Big Sky. Random. 2006. lib. ed. $17.20. ISBN 9780606074902; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780385735957; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780375846410.

Gr 6 Up–Hattie, 16, is thousands of miles away from the battlefield but fights her own sort of war against fear, prejudice, and the harshness of the elements in 1918 Montana. The plucky heroine’s first-person narrative is interspersed with newsy articles she writes for the local paper and letters to her friend Charlie, who is fighting somewhere in Europe. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

WHELAN, Gloria. Angel on the Square. HarperCollins. 2001. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780064408790.

Gr 6-8–In 1913, 12-year-old Katya and her mother enjoy a privileged life among the Tsar’s inner circle in St. Petersburg. While Katya knows the Tsar to be a kind family man, she slowly begins to learn about life on the other side of the palace walls. A balanced and sensitive portrayal of growing up in a turbulent time. Audio version available from Recorded Books.


BARBER, Nicola. World War I. (Living Through Series). Heinemann-Raintree. 2012. lib. ed. $36.50. ISBN 9781432960018. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781432960100.

Gr 6-8–Barber presents an excellent narrative that clearly and concisely lays out the causes and effects that made up the conflict, highlighting key people and policies throughout the book. Photographs, maps, charts, and other period ephemera complement the text.

BRENNAN, Kristine. The First World War and the End of the Ottoman Order. (The Making of the Middle East Series). Mason Crest. 2007. lib. ed. $22.95. ISBN 9781422201688.

Gr 6-8–Compact and succinct, this volume explores the history of the Ottoman Empire and how a combination of factors contributed to its role as the “sick man of Europe.” The author also explains how the empire’s history led to its demise during World War I. Well-chosen photos and maps round out this unique presentation.

CORRIGAN, Jim. The 1910s Decade in Photos: A Decade That Shook the World. (Amazing Decades in Photos Series). Enslow. 2010. lib. ed. $27.93. ISBN 9780766031302.

Gr 5-8–Not only does this slim volume examine the causes and effects of World War I, it also considers other key events of the decade, including the growth of jazz, the founding of the Boy Scouts, and the rise of immigration. Engagingly written and profusely illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

KENT, Zachary. World War I: From the Lusitania to Versailles. (The United States at War Series). Enslow. 2011. lib. ed. $31.93. ISBN 9780766036413; ebk. $9.95. ISBN 9781464504167.

Gr 5-8–Concise and well-organized, this book pulls together the contrasting strands of cause and effect into a cohesive narrative. Excerpts from letters, newspapers, and remembrances add authenticity and interest. The lively red, white, and blue layout and archival illustrations complement an engaging text.

OXLADE, Chris. World War I. (Secret History Series). Arcturus. 2010. lib. ed. $32.80. ISBN 9781848377004.

Gr 6-8–With a focus on stealth methods of warfare, three-page chapters describe the use of U-boats, invisible messages, underground tunnels, codes and ciphers, and spying. The scrapbook-style format adds a look of historicity and the curated collection of photographs are vivid and telling.

High School


SPILLEBEEN, Geert. Kipling’s Choice. tr. from Dutch by Terese Edelstein. Houghton/Graphia. 2005. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780618800353; ebk. $12.95. ISBN 9780547348926.

Gr 9 Up–Based on fact, this novel recounts the events up to and including the brief World War I service of Rudyard Kipling’s son, John. As the mortally wounded young man bleeds to death, faceless and speechless on the battlefield, the scene shifts between the 18-year-old’s last thoughts and his affectionate memories of his father and his home. Graphic and poignant.

WESTERFELD, Scott. Leviathan. illus. by Keith Thompson. S & S/Simon Pulse. 2009. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781416971733; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781416971740; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781416987062.

Gr 6 Up–Machine-dependent Germans battle the British, breeders of powerful animal hybrids, in this cleverly re-imagined version of World War I. Following the assassination of his father, Archduke Ferdinand, teenage Alek is immersed in a round-the-world adventure. An irresistible tale packed with intrigue, action, and steampunk inventiveness. Thompson’s elegant, detailed sketches fuel the imagination. Continued in Behemoth (2010) and Goliath (2011). Audio versions available from Simon & Schuster Audio.

WINTERS, Cat. In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Abrams/Amulet. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781419705304; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781419705304.

Gr 7 Up–During the 1918 flu pandemic, 16-year-old Mary chafes at her neighbor’s insistence that he can capture the spirits of dead loved ones in his photographs, even as Mary mourns the loss of her boyfriend who was killed on the front in Europe. In this spooky tale, Winters captures the intense paranoia and fear brought about by war and death.



ARTHUR, Max. The Faces of World War I: The Great War in Words & Pictures. Cassell. 2012. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781844037124.

Gr 9 Up–In a stunning collection of black-and-white archival photographs of exacting clarity, Arthur depicts the poverty, politics, and patriotic fervor that shaped the war in Europe. No holds are barred as Arthur propels the reader through trenches, field hospitals, and barracks. Excerpts from period letters, diaries, and newspapers give context to the photos.

BATTEN, Jack. The War to End All Wars: The Story of World War I. Tundra. 2009. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9780887768798.

Gr 6 Up–No stone goes unturned as Batten describes the politics, people, and military maneuverings of the Great War. History is given urgency and immediacy through vivid personal histories from all sides of the conflict. Occasional black-and-white archival photographs complement the text perfectly. Thorough and engaging.

BAUSUM, Ann. Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I. National Geographic. 2010. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781426307027; lib. ed. $28.90. ISBN 9781426307034; ebk. $19.95. ISBN 9781426307287.

Gr 7 Up–Bausum explores the dichotomy of the United States fighting overseas in the name of democracy while increasingly restricting personal freedoms on its own shores due to paranoia about foreign influence. The erosion of civil liberties led many to question the government’s heavy-handed tactics. A well-curated collection of period ephemera adds visual impact.

BAUSUM, Ann. Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog. National Geographic. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781426314865; lib. ed. $26.90. ISBN 9781426314872.

Gr 6 Up–Readers are provided with a vivid account of life on the warfront through the experiences of a soldier, Bob Conroy, and his loyal canine companion, Stubby. Together, Conroy and Stubby patrolled the front lines, carried messages, and chased down enemies. The scrapbook-style layout is buoyed by archival photographs. Informative and compelling.

FREEDMAN, Russell. The War to End All Wars: World War I. Clarion. 2010. Tr $22. ISBN 9780547026862; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9780544021716.

Gr 6 Up–Freedman explains how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to worldwide conflict, combining riveting, accessible language with thorough research to re-create the sights and sounds of war, including training, combat, injury, and sickness. An outstanding resource featuring a wealth of well-chosen archival photographs. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

MURPHY, Jim. Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting. Scholastic. 2009. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780545130493.

Gr 6 Up–Accessible and engaging, this is a detailed chronicle of life on the battlefield and the political machinations that fueled the war. Murphy describes how amid this chaos, a handful of soldiers defied their commanding officers for a few hours on Christmas, 1914 by not fighting. Archival photos, maps, and political cartoons round out this first-rate work.

Prince_Contrib_WebJennifer Prince is a Youth Services Librarian at Buncombe County Public Libraries, NC

Digital picks

The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. www.pbs.org/greatwar. PBS. (Accessed 1/28/14).

Gr 6 Up–Designed as a companion to the PBS miniseries, this website offers a well-organized collection of image and text with an index that allows users to browse subjects at a glance. Archival video clips, photographs, and maps are included, and commentaries by modern-day historians are found throughout.

World War I Posters. www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/wwipos. Library of Congress. (Accessed 1/28/14).

Gr 9 Up–Posters were in wide use during World War I because they afforded governments a high-impact way of communicating with the public. This collection of “approximately 1900 posters” depicts messages related to the war, such as patriotism, recruitment, and hygiene (including veiled pleas to soldiers to avoid prostitutes because of STDs).

Military Resources: World War I. www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/military/ww1.html. National Archives. (Accessed 1/28/14).

Gr 9 Up–This website provides an easy-to-use repository of articles and photograph collections related to the conflict. In addition, there are links to information outside of the national archives, including biographies, maps, sound recordings of period speeches and songs, and more. Ideas for classroom use are included with some items.

World War I: What Are We Fighting For Over There? www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/lessons/great-war. Library of Congress. (Accessed 1/28/14).

Gr 6 Up–This unit of lessons for grades 6-12 utilizes primary sources from various Library of Congress collections and includes links to recorded speeches and music of the era, period newspapers, war-related panoramic photographs, and the African American soldier’s experience.

This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Diana Childress says:

    I would like to add two more compelling fiction titles about World War I for high school readers:

    Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful (Scholastic 2004)

    Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow (Penguin Putnam 2013)