Emma Carroll's Five Best WWII Stories for Children
1. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
‘The tales he’d heard about evacuees didn’t seem to fit Willie… He was quite unprepared for this timid, sickly little specimen.’
It’s the evacuee story everyone’s heard of, and for good reason. Magorian’s narrative is told mostly- though not exclusively- from the perspective of Tom Oakley, who takes in young Willie Beech at the start of the war. Oakley would’ve had no choice in the matter: billeting officers made sure any household that could took in evacuees. Magorian explores the impact of Willie’s arrival on the older, widowed man, and as Willie settles into his new home, we’re reminded all too well of the dysfunctional one he’s left behind. This is a complicated, dark, heartfelt story of reaching out to others in need.
2. My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith
‘we only had a few things that matched but there was enough for all three of us to at least have a knife and fork.’
I came across this story a few years ago when it was shortlisted for the North East Book prize alongside my own book ‘Frost Hollow Hall’. I read it in one greedy gulp on the train home. When Peter witnesses the downing of a German fighter plane in fields near his village, he’s amazed that the pilot escapes alive. A manhunt for the German ensues, and its Peter who finds him- injured, young and very frightened. An unlikely friendship develops, which echoes Peter’s growing closeness to another outsider, an evacuee girl called Kim. It’s a brilliant read, skillful in its depiction of how humanity can emerge from conflict.
3. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
‘Liesel walked at him. She was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face. ‘Is it really you, Max?’
Just typing this quote brings tears to my eyes. The Book Thief is one of those stories: it asks for your heart, then stamps on it oh so beautifully. The book is narrated by Death, who watches over a young girl called Liesel as she grows up in Nazi Germany with her foster family the Hubermanns. Her own parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. One night, a desperate young Jewish man- Max- arrives, and the Hubermanns agree to hide him in their cellar. Liesel and Max soon bond over their mutual love of stories, finding refuge there from the evils of the Nazi regime. An absolute must read- though preferably not in a public place and definitely with tissues to hand.
4. The Things We Did For Love by Natasha Farrant
‘This is our story but only I am left to tell it now.’
Set in the fictional French village of Samaroux, Farrant’s compelling tale explores love in its many forms- romantic, heroic, patriotic, idealistic- and how it affects our reason. In many ways, the story is a classic teen love triangle: Ari loves Luc, Luc loves Ari, Romy also loves Ari. Add to the mix four years of German occupation- and with it suspicions, divided loyalties, an ever-present sense of threat- and the stakes are high. This is a dangerous, compelling, critically acclaimed story that I read in just a few sittings. Based on the real-life massacre that took place in Oradour, France in 1944, don’t expect a neatly tied-up ending.
5. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
‘Maurice Coster is one of my many admirers but pretty much of a pest’.
This is such a famous holocaust story you might feel you already know it: you don’t until you’ve read the book. Forget the instantly recognizable photos of a demure, be-ribboned girl. Anne on the page is a revelation. She’s sassy, funny, sharp-tongued and oh so inquisitive. Written in the tiny ‘annexe’ where her family hid for two years from the Nazis, Anne’s diaries are crammed with energy and personality. Many of her entries are so poignantly normal: she talks about her school mates, birthday presents, dreams for the future. She also lets us know that she’s scared. Reading her diaries, for me, allows her to be remembered as a living, breathing person who won’t be defined by her death or the evil that caused it.
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