May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ordinary Kids, Extraordinary Circumstances: World War II Fiction for Middle Grade Readers

Set against a backdrop of dramatic world events, these engrossing and vividly written novels provide glimpses at history from the relatable perspectives of their young narrators. Rich in details of time and place, the titles can be used as springboards for further study of the historical time period, whether it be a broad overview of World War II or more specific examinations of the incidents and issues featured in each title. These books encourage students to think about how war reaches beyond political leaders and soldiers to impact the day-to-day lives of civilians. All three of the featured protagonists face challenges that force them to look inward and make important self-discoveries, demonstrate resiliency and hope in the wake of tragedy, and consider and re-consider the true meaning of courage

Great Britain

the war that saved my lifeIt’s 1939, and though England and much of the world stand on the verge of war, Ada Smith’s own world is limited to the shabby one-room flat in London where her mother, ashamed of the twisted foot that makes Ada a “cripple,” keeps her a virtual prisoner. Mam’s verbal and physical abuse is matched only by her neglect. Ada, however, Ada has plans of her own, secretly teaching herself to walk despite setbacks and great pain, and dreaming of venturing into the bustling streets where her cherished six-year-old brother now freely roams. When she discovers that local children are being evacuated to the countryside for safety, she sneaks away and boards the train with Jamie. Especially grimy and underfed, the siblings are left standing on a platform upon their arrival in a small village in Kent, until they are unwillingly taken in by Susan Smith, a woman who is still grieving the loss of her friend Becky, and claims to know nothing about children. Thrust together by circumstances, the three gradually form a family filled with warmth, understanding, and affection. Ada, now well-cared for physically and treated with patience and compassion, begins to blossom in ways she could never have envisioned. She feels as though she can almost let down her guard and open her heart, but the dangers and horrors of war creep ever closer to their seaside village (Kent is across the English Channel from occupied France), and the threat of her old life looms equally large.

No-nonsense yet poignantly evocative, Ada’s striking first-person narrative describes The War that Saved My Life (Dial, 2015; Gr 4-7). Kimberly Brubaker Bradley paints a portrait of a girl who has been kept woefully uneducated but is naturally clever and while frustratingly stubborn is also fiercely loyal. And although Ada exhibits daily the evidence of emotional damage she ultimately remains hopeful. According to the girl, “There are all kinds of wars,” and her personal battles to find self-worth, to learn to trust in the affection of those around her and return it in kind, and become an accomplished and admirable individual require the courage and fortitude of a frontline soldier. Small moments of victory—teaching herself to ride a pony, making a friend, learning to accept a hug from Susan—resonate against a vividly drawn historical backdrop, as rationing and food gardens give way to frightening bombing raids, providing aid to the wounded soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, and the genuine threat of enemy infiltration. Expertly operating on many different levels, this exquisitely written novel incorporates themes of self-discovery and self-worth, strength of family, the power of love, and the many different kinds of courage

Bradley places Ada’s heart-lifting story against an incredibly well-drawn historical milieu, consistently conveying details and happenings from a child’s perspective. Students can research many of the events depicted in this book—including life on the home front in war-ravaged England (evacuations, bomb shelters, rationing books, the Women’s Voluntary Service, and much more), the Battle of Dunkirk, and the bombing of Great Britain—and make comparisons with Bradley’s text.

Small Town America

WoodfordDetermined to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, a Great War hero whose statue graces the Harmony town square, and his Dad, currently serving in Europe, Cory Woodford, 11, resolves to prove to his friends—and himself—that he is not just brave, but Woodford Brave (Calkins Creek, 2015; Gr 4-7). And the easiest way to attain hero status would be to catch their neighbor, Mr. Ziegler, whom Cory believes to be a Nazi spy (he has a German name and accent, after all), in an unlawful act and turn him over to President Roosevelt. Maybe then, his best pal Aidan would stop following the obnoxious baseball-loving Sawyer around like a puppy dog. When Anne moves into the neighborhood, Sawyer is ready to dismiss her (girls “can’t pitch and they can’t hit”), but Cory takes an instant liking to her (solidified when she strikes out Sawyer during their first pickup game), further alienating him from the other boys. Cory finds comfort in writing letters to his father, filling the page bottoms with his very own comic strip starring the Warrior’s Kid. The war is brought closer to home when Cory discovers that his father has been killed in an accidental explosion, shattering his world, fueling his anger, and intensifying his belief that all Germans are bad. However, as secrets are revealed (the kind and loyal Anne Burke changes her name from Anya Birkbeigler due to prejudice, and there’s a surprise in Cory’s own family history) and events unfold (Sawyer’s actions reveal that he’s not just a bigmouth but disturbingly cruel), Cory must find the courage to look beyond stereotypes and blind hatred to see—and stand up for—the truth.

Marcia Thornton Jones tells Cory’s tale in an accessible first-person narrative that draws readers in with a strongly delineated time and place, believable relationships, and kid-centric concerns. Scattered throughout, Kevin Whipple’s black-and-white comic strip sequences integrate Cory’s experiences and worries into the storyline, further adding to the book’s impact. The 1943 home front setting is evoked through small details—Mom’s Victory Garden, or the difficulties of finding tires to build a go-cart (rubber had been donated to the war effort)—and an acknowledgement of the broader societal tensions, traumas, and suspicions brought out during wartime. Like many 11-year-olds, Cory struggles to sort through friendship issues, wrestles with questions about his own place in the world, and gradually learns to think for himself. From his mother’s determination to move forward in the wake of tragedy, to an 18-year-old neighbor’s choice to turn his back on his family and stand up for his beliefs by becoming a conscientious objector, to a girl who would risk anything and everything for a friend, Cory also discovers that there are many different ways to be a hero.

Students can dig more deeply into Cory’s world by researching the U.S. home front during World War II. Topics that would enhance the book’s themes include investigations of the internment of Japanese Americans, the changing role of women in the workplace and in society, and a study of wartime media propaganda. Have youngsters take a closer look at World War II posters and discuss how the figures are portrayed, the emotions the visuals evoke, and how the images were intended to garner support from the public for the war effort. A dedicated page at the National WWII Museum website makes a good starting point.

In the Philippine Sea

into the killing seasFeaturing two boys who stow away aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945, Michael P. Spradlin’s gripping survival tale spotlights the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history. Patrick, 12, is used to looking after his younger brother Teddy, who has not spoken a word since their parents placed them on an evacuation plane in Manila just before the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941. Stranded in Guam, the two have already survived many harrowing adventures when they decide to sneak aboard the Indy, hoping to get to Leyte and that much closer to being reunited with their parents. They are helped by Benny, a tough-talking (he describes fighting Japanese troops throughout the Pacific as “Chasing their little Imperial butts all the way back to Tokyo”) but kindhearted marine. When the ship is struck by Japanese torpedoes, the boys find themselves thrust Into the Killing Seas (Scholastic, 2015; Gr 4-7), where Patrick, under the guidance of a severely injured Benny, struggles to keep them all alive.

From the shock and confusion of the shipboard explosions to the danger and despair of clinging to a wooden pallet for endless days and nights, the narrative incorporates historical fact, gritty often gruesome details, and you-are-there intimacy to provide a riveting account. Patrick must fight off aggressive sharks, delusional and sometimes violent fellow survivors, and a growing sense of despondency as conditions worsen and hope for rescue dwindles. Throughout, he relies upon Benny’s calm encouragement and embraces his credo: “Marines don’t leave no man behind.” But there’s a surprise in store at story’s end, an unexpected revelation that adds even more punch to the book’s exploration of human resiliency and the ability to tap into hidden strength and courage.

This grabber of a tale will not only enthrall readers but will also inspire curiosity about the particulars of the historical event. A lengthy afterword provides more detail about the sinking of the Indianapolis and its aftermath, the devastating loss of human life, the much-delayed rescue, and the controversial court-martial of Captain Charles Butler McVay, who was absolved decades later in part as the result of a history project completed by a 12-year-old student in the late 1990s. Youngsters can begin their explorations at a website that offers information about the ship, the ordeal of the 316 survivors, the court-martial and eventual exoneration of McVay, a survivor’s eye-witness account, and more. Have students consult this site, along with other books and web resources, to compile individual or classroom research projects on the tragedy, and compare the characters’ experiences with those of the real-life survivors.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RL 6.1/7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RI 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
RI 5.6. Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.
W 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
SL 6.1-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions….

For additional historical fiction titles for middle grade readers, see Joy Fleishhacker’s companion piece, “Exploring America’s Past: Fiction for Middle Grade Readers.”



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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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