World War II doesn’t seem so far away in Europe. You are surrounded by memorials and former war sites wherever you go. So many towns you pass through have a war memorial to the young men from the area who died in one of the world wars. World War II seems an integral part of the European landscape in a way that it doesn’t in the USA. Of course, the war actually took place in Europe and the USA was mostly spared fighting in their own land. Moreover, Americans have other war traumas nearer in time than World War II (Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and Iraq). Being in school in England, my children have read their fair share of books about World War II. In our travels as well, we have found it helpful that they knew how the war played out and what it was about. Here is our list of 20 of the best war books for kids to understand World War II when they travel around Europe.
The 15 Best War Books for World War II
I have separated my list of the best war books into categories – World War II as it affected England, the stories of people trying to escape the Nazis, the war in Europe, how relationships between people got complicated, and the war in the Pacific.
For the main part these books are fictional accounts with a historical setting. If you would like to have actual historical sets, my kids love the Horrible Histories account books about World War II.
The Home Front in England
These books examine life in Britain during World War 2 where the Battle of Britain was raging strong. London was deeply affected by The Blitz (the Nazi bombing offensive that was meant to bring the British to their knees).
Walking around London, you can see a modern building suddenly appear in a row of old period buildings. In all likelihood, that new building was built over where a Nazi bomb had landed and destroyed the building that stood there. One of our friends had a house that was rebuilt over wreckage of the older house that had been built. When our friends renovated their house, they merely shifted some of the wreckage around and created a wine cellar in the floor.
In London, the Imperial War Museums relate the World War II experience for both children and adults. My kids loved the Churchill War Rooms, a member of the Imperial War Museums, which is the underground bunker from which Churchill lead the war effort.
The books for children seem to revolve around the story of the many evacuees from the cities and big towns. During this evacuation, children in places which were in danger of being bombed were sent to safety in the homes of strangers in the countryside.
It was not only leaving their families that was traumatic for these displaced kids, but also returning home after years to a family and home that was different from when they left.
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michele Magorian (A London boy evacuated to the countryside forms a friendship with a grumpy old man)
Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden (A girl and her brother are evacuated to a small town in Wales)
Letters From The Lighthouse by Emma Carroll (A girl and her brother are evacuated from London to a small village in Devon)
Blitzcat by Robert Westall tells the story from a cat’s point of view. The cat has gotten separated from its family during the bombing of Coventry.
Escaping the War
If you are in Amsterdam with children, in all likelihood you will visit the Anne Frank Museum.
During our visit to Salzburg, we took a tour of the sites from the Sound of Music, the movie where the von Trapps famously leave their home to escape the Nazis. We also went on a tour of the actual von Trapp family home which is now a hotel. During the war the von Trapp family home was used by Heinrich Himmler, the feared commander of the SS and Gestapo troops, when Hitler came to spend his summers in the nearby Berchtesgaden National Park.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr (A family leaves Berlin in 1933 moving to Switzerland, France and England)
The European War
Before we visited the Allied landing beaches in Normandy, we read about the war and also visited Slapton Sands in Devon (England) near where my husband’s family used to live. The Allied troops had to mobilise in England before they moved across into France. My son had one of his boy scout ceremonies at the American Embassy in London where the bar in the staff canteen was up cycled from Dwight. D. Eisenhower’s war command headquarters in London.
After you visit the beaches of Normandy, you can follow the Allied forces route in Europe as they advanced towards Berlin, Germany. Obviously, Berlin is full of memorials and museums related to World War II. We have been to Berlin a few times but have not yet taken the kids.
In Vienna, my kids favourite tourist attraction, the Haus des Meeres, is an aquarium created from a World War II gun tower.
Of course, not all children caught up in World War 2 were lucky enough to escape the war.
The Silver Sword is a book by Ian Serraillier about 3 Polish children whose parents are taken away by the Nazis. The story is about how the survive the war and go searching for their parents.
Waiting for Anya by Michael Morpurgo is the story of a young boy who lives in a village in the Pyrenees border between France and Spain. Nazis have occupied his village but he discovers that a widow is smuggling Jewish children across the French border to safety in Spain.
Once by Morris Gleitzman is a story of a young Jewish boy in a Catholic orphanage in Poland. He’s convinced he’s been left at the orphanage by mistake and sets off to find his parents. It’s the first of a series of four books which tells the tale of the boy during and after the war.
City of Fate by Nicola Pierce is the story of two groups of kids during the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia. One group are school boys fighting for Russia and another group are orphans who are barely surviving on their own on the streets.
These books explore the complicated relationships children make during the war, including unlikely friendship created out of the most difficult circumstances.
The Pacific Front
We’ve come across World War II in our travels in Asia as well. For example, we discovered that many Chinese in Guilin still hate the Japanese after their invasion during World War II.
Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (A young British boy living as an expat in China has his life turned upside down when the Japanese invade)
In the USA, we have learned about the American involvement in World War II at the Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum in New York. The Intrepid air craft carrier was an important part of the Pacific theatre of war in World War II.
On our road trip through Wyoming, we went to the Heart Mountain Japanese internment centre near Buffalo Bill’s tourist town of Cody. The Heart Mountain centre has an excellent museum recounting how Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated in camps in the interior of the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles also has lots of information on this important aspect of the Japanese American experience.
What Age Group Are These Books Suitable for?
I would say the age rating for these books are 9+, basically these world war 2 books are for middle school children. I would think high school students would find many of them too young. Of course, The Diary of A Young Girl is a classic read no matter what the age.
My children have read this list of World War 2 books from the age of 9 and understood them. Really it is a judgment call on what you think your children can handle.
Movies of World War 2 Books For Kids
If you don’t have readers in your family, some of these books have also been made into films:
- Goodnight Mr Tom (1998)
- Carrie’s War (2004)
- Back Home (1990)
- The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas (2008)
- The Book Thief (2013)
- Summer of My German Soldier (1978)
- Empire of the Sun (1987)
- Under The Blood Red Sun (2014)
These books (and movies) bring the history home to the children in a way that merely reading about facts in a history textbook does not. Moreover, they will feel a deeper connection to the places they visit if they can relate it to a story.
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