This list was inspired by my childhood love of historical fiction. I don’t remember which book kicked it off, but I do remember finding Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself in a free books bin, reading it, and immediately wanting more.
World War II is one of the most covered historical eras in children’s literature, so there’s tons of titles to navigate. It’s also one of the major time periods that kids learn about in school, starting somewhere around 5th grade and going more in depth in 8th or 9th. I’ll also occasionally get some students at my library looking for particular historical eras to read books from as part of a school assignment.
So! Because I love historical fiction (and memoirs), because so many kids have asked me to help picking a book to read, and because I love making lists: here we are!
This reading list has a mix of fiction, memoirs, and fictionalized accounts of real events. I tried to include both the typical books that everyone has on their lists, as well as the more unusual or overlooked. In particular, I did my best to also include books either written by people who lived during the time period, or who had direct family ties to people who did. It has stories about people living through the Holocaust, Japanese occupation of Korea, American internment of Japanese-American citizens, wartime evacuation, post-War Japan, families, siblings, friends, and more.
Let me know if this list works out for you!
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World War II Books for Kids Ages 8-12
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947). “In 1942, with the Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, the Franks and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building.” (via Amazon). A classic and important book, one that every kid should read. Grades 5-8.
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (1972) [Audiobook]. “Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp—with 10,000 other Japanese Americans.” (from Goodreads). A good narrative nonfiction book to pair with any of the fictional books on this list. Sadly, it seems to be out of print, but used copies can be bought for a low price. An eBook version is also available, for readers who don’t mind digital versions. Grades 5-7.
The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson (2010) [Audiobook]. “One fateful day in December, Piper Davis awaits news of her brother, a soldier on the battleship Arizona, stationed in Pearl Harbor. As Piper learns about the harsh realities of war, she understands that she has the power to make a difference.” The Dear America series is one of my favorites; the diary format makes it easy to read and digest, and the characters are always so fascinating. Grades 5-8.
See also: Turned Away by Carol Matas, a book in the Dear Canada sister series.
Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida (1971). California Recommended Reading List Core Title. “Like any 11-year-old, Yuki Sakane is looking forward to Christmas when her peaceful world is suddenly shattered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Uprooted from her home and shipped with thousands of West Coast Japanese Americans to a desert concentration camp called Topaz, Yuki and her family face new hardships daily.” (via Goodreads). Grades 4-6.
Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (1997) [Audiobook]. Newbery Honor Book. “There’s no one Lily’s age in Rockaway until the arrival of Albert, a refugee from Hungary with a secret sewn into his coat. Albert has lost most of his family in the war; he’s been through things Lily can’t imagine. But soon they form a special friendship. Now Lily and Albert have secrets to share: They both have told lies, and Lily has told one that may cost Albert his life.” (via Amazon). Grades 3-7.
Lydia, Queen of Palestine by Uri Orlev (1993). “During World War II, a Romanian girl tries to cope with her parents’ divorce and her new life on a kibbutz.” (via Amazon). Another favorite of mine that is sadly out of print, but used copies can be found for reasonable prices. It reminds me a bit of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, but in a European setting instead of an American one. Lydia has similar qualities to Sally: headstrong, curious, and a big imagination. Grades 4-7.
No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War by Anita Lobel (1998). “Anita Lobel was barely five years old when World War II began and the Nazis burst into her home in Kraków, Poland. Her life changed forever. She spent her childhood in hiding with her brother and their nanny, moving from countryside to ghetto to convent—where the Nazis finally caught up with them.” A memoir of the Holocaust from someone who lived through it. Grades 5-8.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (1989) [Audiobook]. Newbery Medal winner. “As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family.” (via Amazon). Another classic that every kid should have on their reading list, perhaps as a companion read to Anne Frank’s Diary. Grades 5-7.
Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr (1977) [Audiobook]. “Hiroshima-born Sadako is lively and athletic–the star of her school’s running team. And then the dizzy spells start. Soon gravely ill with leukemia, the “atom bomb disease,” Sadako faces her future with spirit and bravery.” (via Amazon). Set shortly after the end of WWII, this book introduces some of the consequences of the atomic bomb. Though the author is Canadian herself, she lived in Japan as a newspaper reporter in the late 1940s/early 1950s. As this is a shorter book (about 80 pages), it’d be a good one to pair with a non-fiction book about a similar topic. Grades 3-7.
Spying on Miss Muller by Eve Bunting (1995). “Before World War II began, Jessie Drumm and her friends at Alveara boarding school in Belfast liked their German teacher, Miss Muller. But after Jessie sees the teacher climbing to the roof at night, she and the others wonder if Miss Muller is a secret agent, signaling the enemy.” (via Amazon). One of those great books where reading it a few times brings new revelations. Grades 5-7.
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume (1977) [Audiobook]. “Sally J. Freedman was ten when she made herself a movie star. She would have been happy to reach stardom in New Jersey, but in 1947 her older brother Douglas became ill, so the Freedman family traveled south to spend eight months in the sunshine of Florida. That’s where Sally met her friends Andrea, Barbara, Shelby, Peter, and Georgia Blue Eyes– and her unsuspecting enemy, Adolf Hitler.” (via Amazon). Sally is great, but so to is the description of life in post-War Florida. There’s some fun opportunities to have discussions about the history of phones, for instance! Grades 3-7.
Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn (1991) [Audiobook]. “In 1944, when her brother is overseas fighting in World War II, eleven-year-old Margaret changes her mind about the school bully, Gordy, after she discovers he is hiding his own brother, a deserter.” (via Amazon). Usually WWII books are about foreign enemies, making friends with refugees, or making it through rationing. This one focuses on the difficulties of the war at home in a way that is rarely seen, but is nevertheless important. Grades 5-7.
The War the Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (2015) [Audiobook]. Newbery Honor Book, Schneider Family Book Award winner. “Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.” (via Amazon). Grades 4-6.
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (2006) [Audiobook]. “Twelve-year-old Sumiko feels her life has been made up of two parts: before Pearl Harbor and after it. The good part and the bad part. Raised on a flower farm in California, Sumiko is used to being the only Japanese girl in her class. Even when the other kids tease her, she always has had her flowers and family to go home to. That all changes after the horrific events of Pearl Harbor.” (via Amazon). A book about friendship and finding a place to belong. Grades 5-9.
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (2002) [Audiobook]. “Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names.” (via Goodreads). A look at life outside of the typical American/European settings, this book was inspired by the author’s own family history in South Korea during the Japanese occupation. Grades 5-7.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi (1991). Ten-year-old Sookan and her family live under Japanese military occupation in Korea. Then, the war ends– but the country’s troubles do not, as Communist Russian troops take control of what is now North Korea. Sookan and her family must make a dangerous escape to American-controlled South Korea. A fictional account of real-life experiences drawn from the author’s own life in the 1940s. Available for free on Kindle Unlimited, for those who like reading ebooks. Grades 4-7.
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