5 Children’s Books Set During the Second World War (Plus Links to Teaching Resources)

Image copyright Yvonne Keen, babbleabout.co.uk

















War is not an easy or straightforward subject to talk about with children.  War is never simple, never black and white.    The stories featured here are told through the eyes of children caught up in a war caused by grown-ups but felt by everyone.  The stories speak of innocence and wondering.   In Now, Felix watches Nazi soldiers flinging around and burning all the books from his orphanage library.   But it’s OK thinks Felix “I get it…..Mother Minka was complaining to us library monitors only last week that the library was very messy and needed a tidy-up….[t]hey’ve reorganised the library and now they’re burning the books that are left over”.   And in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bruno, the lonely son of a concentration camp commandant, wonders at all the children over the other side of the fence and yearns to join them.  The stories also speak of courage and determination.   In The Silver Sword, we follow the perilous journey of four children across war-torn Poland to Switzerland in search of their parents, where every day is a struggle to survive.  And in The Machine Gunners, we experience daily life for Chas McGill and his gang as they collect war souvenirs in between nightly German bombing raids

Once by Morris Gleitzman Morris Gleitzman says he was inspired to write Once, Then and Now from reading the stories, diaries, letters and memories of those who lived at the time of the Holocaust. Once is the story of Felix, a young boy who runs away from an orphanage in Poland to search for his Mum and Dad. Instead, he finds and befriends a little orphan called Zelda, whose Father wore a Nazi uniform. Throughout the story, Felix describes events exactly how he sees them but interprets them as a young, innocent boy (as you would expect him to). Therefore, he doesn’t always understand fully what is actually taking place. And yet the reader does. This makes the story incredibly moving. Age 10+

Then by Morris Gleitzman Then continues the story of Felix and Zelda who are taken in by Genia, a farmer’s wife, living alone. She gives the children new Polish identities. Then the Nazis come. Be prepared for a harrowing ending but done with such beauty and simplicity of language and again seen through the eyes of a ten year old boy – “Oh. Oh no.” Age 10+

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Bryne   Bruno’s father is very high up in the German Army.   The ‘Fury’ assigns him a new job, commandant of a concentration camp.  So Bruno and his family have to move from their five-storey house in Berlin (with servants) to a new home, leaving all his friends and everything familiar behind.   Bruno feels hard done by, miserable and very lonely.    As days pass, he begins to wonder at the people in the striped pyjamas living on the other side of the fence and his boredom and curiosity gets the better of him.  He sets off to explore.   After much walking, Bruno sees a speck which turns out to be a boy and who becomes a friend he meets at the same spot along the fence almost every day.  The conversations of the two boys reveal their childhood innocence and naivety (especially Bruno’s).   Here’s an example “Are there many other boys over there?” asks Bruno.   “Hundreds,” said Shmuel.  Bruno’s eyes opened wide.  “Hundreds?’ he said, amazed.  “That’s not fair at all.  There’s no one to play with on this side of the fence.  Not a single person.”  “We don’t play,” said Shmuel.  Watch out for a killer punch in the final pages.   Age 10+

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier    Written by a schoolteacher shortly after the Second World War ended and who knew the landscape of Europe well, this story tells of the remarkable journey four children make from the ruins of Warsaw in Poland to Switzerland as they struggle to search for their parents.   The children’s father, Joseph Balicki, has escaped a prison camp in southern Poland and tries and fails to find his children amongst Warsaw’s ruins.  He does find Jan though, an orphan with whom Joseph entrusts a silver sword and a message for his children (for them to make their way to their grandparent’s home in Switzerland).   Jan and the Balicki children meet up and here begins their perilous journey to safety.   An amazing insight into life in war-torn Europe – life carrying on under incredible hardship and deprivation.   Age 8+

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall     Chas McGill is making the most of life in Garmouth, a town in the north of England, bombed almost nightly by the Germans.  After each raid, he scours the town for war souvenirs hoping to get the best collection amongst his schoolfriends.  Then he stumbles across a machine gun in the debris of a German bomber which ignites his idea for a fortress of his own.   The writing depicts the grim reality of life in a British town subjected to constant threats from German bombers – the frustration of running for the shelter just as tea is served (another wasted meal of rationed food); the dog-tiredness of the grown-ups (balancing the day job and night-warden duties); the emotional neglect of many children as the adults that remain struggle to maintain something of normal life.   It’s no wonder that Chas and his friends find solace in their own underground shelter.    Age 12+

Links to teaching resources covering the Second World War

Imperial War Museum

BBC – History: World War Two

BBC – Primary History – World War Two








This entry was posted in Age 8-10, Bryne, John, Gleitzman, Morris, Pre-teen, Serrailler, Ian, Teenage, Westall, Robert and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 5 Children’s Books Set During the Second World War (Plus Links to Teaching Resources)

  1. Zoe says:

    Do you know Alex’s blog: http://thechildrenswar.blogspot.com/, all about books for children and teenagers set in and around World War II.

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