February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Unbroken: The Movie, the Book, and Standout World War II Readalikes

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Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s acclaimed nonfiction title for adults (Random, 2010), Unbroken (PG-13) tells the extraordinary true story of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014), an Olympic runner and World War II airman who was listed as dead when his plane crashed into the Pacific in1943. He survived 47 days adrift in a life raft with two other crewmen, and endured imprisonment under vicious and inhumane conditions after being captured by Japanese forces. This epic and inspiring tale of survival, perseverance, and bullish hope spans years and continents.

Produced and directed by Angelina Jolie, the film premieres December 25 and stars Jack O’Connell in the lead role. The cast also features Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock as plane-crash survivors Phil and Mac; Garrett Hedlund and John Magaro as Louie’s fellow POWs and comrades in defiance; and Japanese actor Miyavi as the cruel camp guard nicknamed “The Bird.” Teens can visit the official movie website for a video trailer.

Unbroken: Adapted for Young Adults

Unbroken.1Movie fans will dive right into Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (Delacorte, 2014; Gr 8 Up), an adaptation reworked for teens. Zamperini’s incredible story is told with compelling clarity and mesmerizing intensity. Readers meet a young Louie, whose raucous childhood spent thieving and pranking in Torrance, CA continually landed him in trouble but also allowed him to develop the shining self-confidence that “he was clever and bold enough to escape anything.” This “resilient optimism” would later define him during wartime. Delinquency transformed to die-hard dedication when older brother Pete encouraged Louie to start running track, unleashing a passion and talent that would take him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. With the 1940 games derailed by war, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving aboard the B-24 bomber that would crash and begin his harrowing odyssey.

Whether he is besieged by aggressive sharks on the open ocean, abused by sadistic guards in Japanese POW camps, or performing small acts of rebellion, lucidly related details and emotions make Zamperini’s experiences vivid. Traumatic events are balanced with instances of steely determination, strength gleaned from thoughts of family and friends, and unwavering hope. Numerous black-and-white photos are scattered throughout, and an author interview with Zamperini is appended. The book is also available in audio version, and discussion questions and an educator’s guide with Common Core correlations can be downloaded from Random House.

Another true tale

Pure GritThey were “the first large group of American women sent into combat…and rose to the duty to which they were called.” Mary Cronk Farrell’s Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific (Abrams, 2014; Gr 7 Up) relates the story of the Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines for peacetime duty when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. Focusing on a handful of women, the author follows their experiences as they struggled to provide medical care in facilities overwhelmed by casualties during relentless Japanese bombardments, evacuated along with troops to run makeshift frontline hospitals on the Bataan Peninsula or Corregidor Island, were captured and imprisoned after the Americans surrendered in May 1941, and were finally liberated by American forces in 1945 after months of starvation.

Untrained for combat, living with constant danger and deprivation, and often injured or ailing themselves, these dedicated and brave nurses never stopped caring for the injured and weak. The text also describes the war’s aftermath as the women struggled to integrate back into a society fraught with expectations to which they could no longer conform and a disturbing lack of recognition and support for the courage they exhibited and the sacrifices they made. Archival photos, personal snapshots, numerous primary quotes, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and excerpts from author interviews bring this important moment in history to life. A teacher’s guide aligned to Common Core State Standards is available for download at the Abrams website.

Fiction that soars

From tales of captivity to an in-battle viewpoint to daring acts behind enemy lines, these books will captivate and inform readers.

It’s August of 1941 in Honolulu when Zenji Watanbe, 17-year-old son of Japanese immigrant parents, is recruited by the U.S. Army Corps of Intelligence Police for a top-secret job that will utilize his fluent language skills. Sent to Manila and provided with the codename Bamboo Rat, he is instructed to ingratiate himself with Japanese businessmen to collect information. When Japanese forces invade, he is caught behind enemy lines and taken prisoneHunt for bAMBOO RATr, and though he maintains his cover story of being a civilian, his captors will resort to any means—including torture—to succeed in their Hunt for the Bamboo Rat (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks., 2014; Gr 7 Up).

Zenji’s ordeal tests his courage and his cleverness as he faces iron-hearted jailers, aids the Filipino underground, escapes and gets lost in the jungle, and endures physical wounds and near starvation. Like Louie, Zenji finds strength in thoughts of his family, exhibits quiet dignity and determination, and proves that the human spirit can triumph despite great suffering and duress. Inspired by a true story, Graham Salisbury’s accessibly written novel is packed with adventure, suspense, and self-revelations.

Rose Under FireA flyer since age 12, American Rose Justice, now 18, is in England in 1944 serving as a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) where she and other civilian women ferry fighter planes to airbases. While on a mission, she strays off course to chase an unmanned V-1 flying bomb and successfully knocks it from the sky, but is apprehended by Nazi airmen. Sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, her refusal to assemble bomb fuses earns her brutal beatings and relocation to a high-security area for political prisoners. Here, looked after by the Polish “Rabbits,” young women who have been physically mutilated by Nazi doctors conducting horrific medical experiments, her life becomes a daily struggle to remain alive. Despite dehumanizing conditions, the women form friendships fortified by loyalty, caring, and sacrifice.

The first-person narration integrates Rose’s poetry, and these poems, filled with heart-stopping grief or high-soaring hope, help her to endure, and after escape, begin to heal. Remarkable characterizations, emotional complexity, and what-happens-next suspense make Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire (2013; Gr 8 Up) unforgettable. An audio recording is available from Brilliance Audio. Steer fans to the equally haunting companion novel, Code Name Verity (2012, both Disney/Hyperion).

The Right FightDetermined “to save the world for baseball, and for every other aspect of the American Dream,” minor league ball player Roman Bucyk is ready and willing to cash in his aspirations for making it to the big leagues and fight The Right Fight (Scholastic, 2014; Gr 7 Up) against the Nazis. After his final game of the 1941 season, he enlists in the Army, discovers a talent for tank driving during training, and is shipped out to the African front, fighting in Algeria and then Tunisia. Rapid-fire and readable, Roman’s no-nonsense first-person narrative describes the comradery between he and his crewmates, offers views of military clashes from inside a Sherman M-4 tank, and provides plenty of down-and-dirty action.

Letters exchanged with his fiancé telegraph his feelings and provide a glimpse at the home front (Hannah serves in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps as an air traffic controller). As the North African Campaign becomes disastrous for the Allies, Roman’s bravado turns to resolve, true friendships are forged, and fortitude is tested. The first in Chris Lynch’s new “World War II” series, this accessible book provides an affecting and personal look at war.

ResistanceConsisting of Resistance (2010), Defiance (2011), and Victory (2012; all First Second; Gr 7 Up) Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis’s graphic novel series takes readers into occupied France where three siblings learn firsthand about the effects of war. When Paul, an artist who always has sketchbook in hand, and his younger sister Marie discover that the parents of their Jewish friend have been taken away, they hide Henri and begin to plot his escape, an effort that results in their recruitment into the French Resistance. Older sister Sylvie joins them on a perilous train trip to Paris, where Henri is reunited with his family. The stakes are high, secrets must be carefully kept, and the consequences become deadly as German control tightens and the siblings increase their involvement in the movement. Nazi collaborators are everywhere—even in their own household—and it’s often difficult to know whom to trust.

The warm-hued artwork depicts a verdant French village and adds dimension to the multifaceted characters. Paul’s sketches, always presented in sepia hues, provide a telling window into his emotional world and hard-won revelations. Appended author’s notes help readers to put events into context. Filled with action and suspense, this behind-the-battlefront trilogy underscores the hard choices and moral ambiguities that come with war.

Unbroken.7Also set in occupied territory, Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses (Knopf, 2014; Gr 6-9) blends the realities of war with a once-upon-a-time telling radiant with timeless wonder. It’s 1941 in Russia, and Kalinka, a Jewish teen on the run since her entire family and most of her village were brutally murdered by Nazi soldiers, wanders into the Askaniya-Nova animal preserve in the vast Ukrainian wilderness. Devastated, ragged, and hungry, she forms a special bond with a pair of Przewalski’s horses, an ancient and extremely rare breed known for their stocky stature, incredible cunning, and untamable nature. Meanwhile, Max, longtime sanctuary caretaker and admirer of these wild horses, struggles under the unflinching cruelty of the occupying Germans.

The horses bring these two lonely individuals together, and their shared enthusiasm for the animals blossoms into true affection. However, the SS has proclaimed the species genetically “substandard,” and Captain Grenzmann has orders to exterminate every last one. With the soldiers hot on their trail, Kalinka and the horses—perhaps the final breeding pair in all the world—bid farewell to Max and set off into the freezing steppe to run for their lives. Though the story tips toward fantasy, this book, like the others featured here, depicts a courageous and gripping quest for survival, breathtaking moments of sacrifice and heroism, and a soul-lifting devotion to perseverance and hope. A Common Core aligned educator’s guide and book discussion questions are available for classroom use.

Publication Information

FARRELL, Mary Cronk. Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific. 160p. Abrams. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781419710285.

HILLENBRAND, Laura. Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive. 320p. Delacorte. 2014. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780385742511; lib. ed. $22.99. ISBN 9780375990625; ebk $19.99. ISBN 9780307975652; Listening Library/Books on Tape Lib. CD. $29.95. ISBN 9780553397130.

JABLONSKI, Carla. Resistance. Vol. 1. 2010. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781596432918.

–––– Defiance. Vol. 2. 2011. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781596432925.

––––Victory. Vol. 3. 2012. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781596432932.

each vol: illus. by Leland Purvis. 128p. (Resistance). First Second.

KERR, Philip. The Winter Horses. 288p. Knopf. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780385755467; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780385755443; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9780385755450.

LYNCH, Chris. The Right Fight. 192p. (World War II) . Scholastic. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545522946.

SALISBURY, Graham. Hunt for the Bamboo Rat. 336p. Random House/Wendy Lamb Bks. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375842665; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780375940705; ebk $10.99. ISBN  9780307979704.


WEIN, Elizabeth. Rose Under Fire. 386p. Disney/Hyperion. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-142318309-9; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781423184690. Unabridged CD (Bolinda/Brilliance Audio). lib. ed. $59.97. ISBN 9781743169582.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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  1. Hi Joy,
    I just discovered this post your wrote last December. I’m honored PURE GRIT is mentioned along with these other amazing books. Thank you for focusing on WWII and highlighting such a wide array of stories for teens on the topic. Something for everyone!


  2. Enjoyed this article, thanks for pointing us to these great works.