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Children in a World Gone Mad: 5 Kids’ Books Set During World War II


Their World War II settings are what make these five titles obvious companions. But their tributes to family are what strongly connect them. All five commemorate the generational and lateral bonds that sustain children across the globe, and that are all too easily broken.

Dip into these very different books and you’ll find resentment and reconciliation between siblings, heartbreak as extended families are obliterated, strength as old men open their homes to grandchildren and joy as a new generation is brought into the world. You’ll be transported to New York, London, France, Cuba, Poland, Russia, Turkestan; you’ll weep at the shocking randomness by which lives are suddenly torn apart. But you’ll come away convinced that in times of crisis those who love us — or who do their best to love us — are the key to our survival.

By Amy Hest
181 pp. Candlewick. $16.99.
(Ages 10 and up)

Amy Hest gently and expertly explores these themes in “The Summer We Found the Baby.” The story takes place on the American home front in an undisclosed year and is related by three instantly engaging narrators: 11-year-old Julie and 6-year-old Martha Sweet, summering in Belle Beach, Long Island, and their neighbor 12-year-old Bruno Ben-Eli, son of the local grocer. The baby of the title turns up on the doorstep of the new children’s library on the day of a gala celebrating its opening, and the rest of the summer is remembered in breezy flashbacks as the three narrators chase one another around trying to do what’s best for the mysterious and patient infant in the basket. The characters are exuberant and full of personality, but the whiff of tragedy in the background is genuine: The Sweets’ mother is dead and Bruno’s adored older brother Ben is serving his country in the Pacific. The reality of combat is never far away, as wounded soldiers recuperate in the nearby military hospital and the whole town participates in all-too-frequent oceanside memorial services whenever another local boy is killed. Through it all, the novel wears its wartime and historical mantle with a summer lightness of spirit; loss never quenches its persistent undercurrent of hope.

By Miriam Halahmy
208 pp. Holiday House. $16.99.
(Ages 8 to 12)

A leap across the Atlantic takes us to another home front in Miriam Halahmy’s “Rip to the Rescue,” as we follow gutsy Jack Castle through the bomb-strewn streets of London at the height of the Blitz. At 13, Jack lies about his age to become an air raid bicycle messenger, providing a vital service as phone lines are severed and city streets are blocked by wreckage. “Rip” is Jack’s dog, based on Britain’s original search-and-rescue dog, a mixed-breed terrier who saved more than 100 lives during World War II thanks to his ability to identify survivors trapped under rubble.

Jack’s fictional role as Blitz messenger boy and Rip’s owner creates the framework for a nail-biting adventure, but this is also a tale of friendship and family, in which no one is completely whole. Jack’s friend Paula desperately tries to hide her Jewish heritage while she stockpiles supplies in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. Jack strives to prove his worth to his depressed amputee father, and to face up to schoolmates who mock his one deaf ear. “Useless” and “Deaf Nellie” by day, fearless Blitz messenger boy by night — wearing the uniform he secretly keeps at his granddad’s — Jack is a true superhero. The metaphor goes unspoken but will surely appeal to young readers.

By Gordon Korman
240 pp. Scholastic. $17.99.
(Ages 8 to 12)

Gordon Korman brings the gritty horrors of combat to life in “War Stories.” The exhaustively destructive liberation of France in 1944 is seen through the eyes of the 17-year-old U.S. Army G.I. Jacob Firestone, known as “High School” to the rest of his squad because he’s so young. Jacob shares “war stories” through a structure I think of as “generational flashback,” allowing the contemporary reader to relate to Jacob’s great-grandson, Trevor, who at 12 is obsessed via video games with the military side of the European theater. Trevor, his peace-loving dad, Daniel (a history teacher whose store of facts comes in handy for background information), and the irrepressibly confident old soldier Jacob (now 93) make a pilgrimage to France on the 75th anniversary of V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. The shadowy menace of La Vérité, a group bent on revenge for a mysterious error of judgment committed by Jacob 75 years earlier, adds modern contrast and tension. Its intimidation of Trevor’s family includes slashed tires and a fake bomb in their hotel room. The concept of a personal vendetta replicating war, in the form of modern terrorism, brings the past uncomfortably close both for Trevor and for the reader.

By Ruth Behar
272 pp. Nancy Paulsen Books. $17.99.
(Ages 10 and up)

Dispossession and flight are the lenses through which wartime is viewed in Ruth Behar’s “Letters From Cuba,” based on the little-known saga of Jews who emigrated from Poland to Cuba to escape persecution in the decade prior to World War II. The novel is framed as a series of letters, mostly written in 1938 from the 11-year-old émigré Esther to her little sister Malka as Esther and her father struggle to earn enough money to bring the rest of the family to Cuba from increasingly dangerous and hostile Poland. Practical, hardworking Esther sets up a dressmaking business as she learns to speak and read Spanish; she makes friends with a cosmopolitan and diverse group of Cuban citizens, including Chinese immigrants and the granddaughter of a former African slave, and participates in their various religious celebrations without ever losing her Jewish faith. This is a quiet story of determination, and an openly loving tribute to the author’s grandmother, who made the real journey that inspired Esther’s fictional one.

Escape From the Holocaust
By Uri Shulevitz
336 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $19.99.
(Ages 8 to 14)

Rounding out this eclectic selection of books is one more journey — this one autobiographical. The Caldecott Medalist Uri Shulevitz’s “Chance: Escape From the Holocaust” is a harrowing, engaging and utterly honest account of the author’s childhood, forged in the crucible of war and affected by it long after it is over. Uri is 4 when German bombs begin falling on Warsaw. Following a serendipitous conversation with a Jewish refugee, his father drags him and his mother out of Poland and into Russia. There they languish for a year and a half in a detention camp in the far north Archangel region near the White Sea until after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. They spend the remainder of the war in Turkestan, foreign pariahs on the verge of starvation.

Blind luck plays an enormous role in Uri’s survival, and the one consistency in his terrifying, nomadic young life is the urge to draw. This memoir is lavishly illustrated with the author’s own drawings — some of them modern renderings that complement the text, others astonishing childhood originals. Told without bitterness, in a relatable, straightforward voice, it reminds us that creativity and survival go hand in hand. For a child in a world gone mad, encouragement to embrace that creative urge is sometimes the greatest love a parent can bestow.


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