When I was little, Memorial Day meant that summer was here, I could wear my white shoes, and my dad would take the day off work to light up the grill for a backyard barbecue with the family. But the real purpose of this special day is to honor our American war veterans who lost their lives for our country. At our house, we didn’t talk too much about the “losing heroes” part of it and now that I’m an adult, I think I understand why.
My father fought in World War II and he was known for telling intriguing – and true – stories of his own heroism. I especially remember the one about when his Navy ship sank during the Battle of Okinawa and he and the rest of the battleship’s crew had to swim to a nearby island. To me, the scariest part of the story was always the part about how the men found shelter inside a pitch dark cave where they tried to rest and recover while rats crawled on their bodies and faces. It still gives me shivers! But the pieces of the stories that Dad would always leave out were about the men who didn’t make it to safety. He never talked about his fellow heroes who died. It was just too painful for him, plus he didn’t want to scare my brothers and sisters and me.
But kids want to know, and perhaps even need to know, about the death that happens in wars and they need a safe place to learn about it. I think that’s why Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy became such a popular read. It’s about children in war, violent and horrifying, which is very real and true in life. But there’s some safety in the fact that the novel is completely fiction. The setting is far enough in the future and the technology is still so far beyond our current capabilities that we feel removed from it. We finish the book, close it, and settle our fears by reminding ourselves that Panem does not exist and games like this could never happen.
Just for the record, I have mixed feelings about middle school children reading The Hunger Games, so please understand that I’m not suggesting handing this book to any and every kid. But I do recommend that parents and teachers preview other good historical fiction about war and then choose to offer it to a child. Below, I have listed some books that were written for kids and involve war. Since this post is in honor of Memorial Day, and it’s an American holiday, I’m focusing my book choices on those that involve American men and women in wars.
The holiday, originally called Decoration Day, was started after the American Civil War, so let’s begin with books about that time. Keep in mind, there are hundreds of Civil War books written for children, but for the sake of the length of this post, I’ll keep my book choices limited. Please feel free to add your favorites in the comment section.
American Civil War
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Henry Fleming had no idea how horrible war really was. Attacks come from all sides, bullets fly, bombs crash. Men everywhere are wounded, bleeding, and dying. Now, Henry’s fighting for his life and he’s scared. He must make a decision, perhaps the most difficult decision he will ever make in his life: save himself-run from the enemy and desert his friends-or fight, be brave, and risk his life. If he stays to fight, he may die with his regiment. If he runs, he’ll have to live with knowing he was a coward. Can Henry find the strength within himself to earn his red badge of courage?
Full Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells
When the Civil War breaks out, life in the South is transformed and nothing remains the same. India Moody must summon the courage she didn?t know she had to plunge into one of the war?s most tragic and terrifying events?the Battle of Antietam, known in the South as Sharpsburg?in order to get medicine to her desperately sick father. As she struggles for survival during the Union?s brutal occupation, India gets an education in love and loss, the senseless devastation of war, and the triumph of hope in the face of despair.
Other great books about the American Civil War include: The River Between Us by Richard Peck; Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen; Girl in Blue by Ann Rinaldi; Civil War on Sunday (Magic Treehouse #21) by Mary Pope Osborne; Dear Mr. President Abraham Lincoln: Letters From a Slave Girl by Andrea Davis Pinkney.
World War I
The Night the Bells Rang by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
While adults talk endlessly of the war overseas, Mason fights his own battles at home with a bully named Aden. Yet Aden surprises Mason with an unexpected act of kindness. Finally, on the night the bells ring, signaling the end of World War I, Mason lays an old enemy to rest. A timeless story of a boy’s coming of age.
It is very difficult to find World War I literature for children that is still in print. But some good books I found include: Tree by Leaf by Cynthia Voight; Goodbye, Billy Radish by Jean Little; Ruthie’s Gift by Kimberly Bradley; When Christmas Comes Again, The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer by Beth Seidel Levine.
World War II
Willow Run by Patricia Reilly Giff
Meggie Dillon’s life has been turned upside down by World War II. Meggie’s father has announced that they must help the war effort and
move to Willow Run, Michigan, where he’ll work nights in a factory building important war planes that will help fight the enemy in Europe. Willow Run will be the greatest adventure ever, Meggie thinks. There she meets Patches and Harlan, other kids like her from far-off places whose parents have come here to do their part in the war. And there she faces questions about courage, and what it takes to go into battle, like Eddie, and to keep hope alive on the home front.
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
When her small hometown in Arkansas becomes the site of a camp housing German prisoners during World War II, 12-year-old Patty Bergen learns what it means to open her heart. Although she’s Jewish, she begins to see a prison escapee, Anton, not as a Nazi–but as a lonely, frightened young man with feelings not unlike her own, who understands and appreciates her in a way her parents never will. And Patty is willing to risk losing family, friends–even her freedom–for what has quickly become the most important part of her life. Thoughtful, moving, and hard-hitting, Summer of My German Soldier has become a modern classic.
More wonderful children’s books that feature World War II through the eyes of an American include: Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff; My Friend The Enemy by J.B. Cheaney; Aloha Means Come Back: The Story of a World War II Girl by Thomas Hoobler; Meet Molly, An American Girl (Series) by Valerie Tripp; Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami; Goodbye, Charlie by Jane Buchanan; Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata; Star of Luis by Marc Talbert.
The Korean War
I Remember Korea by Linda Granfield and The Korean War by Andrew Santella
I was able to find a fair amount of non-fiction about the Korean War, but I wasn’t able to find any stories for children, even though we lost about 37,000 American soldiers in that three-year war. If anyone knows of any children’s fiction featuring an American’s connection to the Korean War, please post in the comments. I’m hoping something exists and that I’ve just missed it.
The Vietnam War
Patrol – An American Soldier in Vietnam by Walter Dean Myers
A young American soldier waits for his enemy, rifle in hand, finger on the trigger. He is afraid to move and yet afraid not to move. Gunshots crackle in the still air. The soldier fires blindly into the distant trees at an unseen enemy. He crouches and waits — heart pounding, tense and trembling, biting back tears. When will it all be over?
Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell
When twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter’s brother joins the Army and is sent to Vietnam, Jamie is plum thrilled. She can’t wait to get letters from the front lines describing the excitement of real-life combat: the sound of helicopters, the smell of gunpowder, the exhilaration of being right in the thick of it. After all, they’ve both dreamed of following in the footsteps of their father, the Colonel. But TJ’s first letter isn’t a letter at all. It’s a roll of undeveloped film, the first of many. What Jamie sees when she develops TJ’s photographs reveals a whole new side of the war. Slowly the shine begins to fade off of Army life – and the Colonel. How can someone she’s worshipped her entire life be just as helpless to save her brother as she is?
Some other books about the Vietnam War are: 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War by Philip Caputo; Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (upper MG or YA); Lost in the War by Nancy Antle; Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty by Ellen Emerson White.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
In 2003, in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, young Robin Perry already wonders about “an enemy we can’t identify and friends we’re not sure about.” Myers dedicates this novel to the men and women who serve in the United States Armed Services and to their families, and he offers a powerful study of the strange war they have been sent to fight, where confusion and randomness rule. Why are they fighting? Whom are they fighting? When will they be hit next? Narrated by Robin, nephew of Richie Perry, the main character of the landmark Fallen Angels (1988), this companion expertly evokes the beauty of Iraq and the ugliness of war. Given the paucity of works on this war, this is an important volume, covering much ground and offering much insight. Robin’s eventual understanding that his experience was not about winning or losing the war but about “reaching for the highest idea of life” makes this a worthy successor to Myers’s Coretta Scott King Award-winning classic. (map, glossary) (Fiction. 12+) –Kirkus
Back Home by Julia Keller
Rachel “Brownie” Browning is thirteen when her father comes back from the war in Iraq. Of course she understands that he has been injured and that he will be a little different, at
least for a while. But Brownie doesn’t even know the man with a prosthetic arm and leg who sits in the living room day after day. He’s certainly not the father who helped her build a fort in her backyard, or played basketball with her sister, or hauled her little brother around like a sack of potatoes. Brownie’s mother says that because of his traumatic brain injury, their father needs their affection and patience. In time, he’ll be better–Dad will be back. But Dad doesn’t seem to be making much progress, or much effort. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t talk. He won’t even get out of his wheelchair, even though the doctors have taught him how and say that walking is essential to his recovery. And Brownie begins to wonder, will her family ever be able to return to the way life was before the war?
War in Afghanistan and Iraq by Jerry and Janet Souter
The war news from Afghanistan and Iraq both fascinates and frightens children. Here, in terms they can grasp, is a clear description of the day-to-day experiences of those who are directly involved, from the big issues to the small, everyday details. Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? What kinds of weapons do our soldiers use? What do they do when they’re not fighting? Featured are first-person accounts from soldiers in the field, their families back home in the USA, and ordinary Afghans and Iraqis caught in the crossfire.
I suspect and hope there’ll be more middle-grade books about the wars in the Middle East coming up in our future, but for now, we have: Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson; Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis.
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of forthcoming The Secret of Ferrell Savage (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, February, 2014).