#QP2018: 5 World War II Tales

There are teens who want to read about the here and now, and then there are teens who love to know what it was like to live in the past. World War II has been a rich and rewarding theme for fiction and non-fiction for teens – modern classics like The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas pique their interest and enhance their understanding of the world at that time.

These five books, three fiction and two non-fiction, offer events and perspectives that are unique but carry a common thread – resistance to the Nazi regime. All are based on actual events, and each one reminds the reader that the human spirit will always prevail.

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali
Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated by Penny Hueston
Roaring Brook Press/A Neal Porter Book
March 7, 2017

 In Nazi Germany, Max is created as a designer baby to increase the Aryan population, and is even born on Hitler’s birthday. In this appalling glimpse into the Third Reich’s Lebensborn program, Max “Konrad” tells the haunting story of what it meant to be a gift to the Fuhrer, and how he helped the Brown Sisters kidnap Polish children who fit the Aryan ideal.  Trained to become a fighter in the Hitler Youth, he is raised by the medical arm of the Nazi regime to hate Jews, homosexuals, and anyone perceived as weak. The chink in Konrad’s armor is Lukas, a Polish teen who has been selected in the raids as the perfect Aryan specimen. His internal conflict is heightened when he discovers that Lukas, who has taken on the role of Konrad’s older brother, is Jewish.

The stark red cover portraying a fetus wearing a Nazi armband definitely grabs attention. Max is told from the unusual perspective of one who is seasoned beyond his years, while still quite childlike. Narration begins in utero and grows along with Konrad.  The plot-driven, compelling text depicts an irreverent view of one of the most disturbing time periods in history.  Blunt, gritty language is bound to appeal to readers due to shock value.  Though Konrad is certainly flawed and twisted from his upbringing, he possesses a naiveté that will make readers alternately dislike him intensely and pity him. Although the pacing is inconsistent, the suspense and menacing plot is enough to keep readers engaged.  The Author’s Note at the end is jarring, as readers discover that Max is inspired by actual events, and that the Lebensborn program did, in fact, exist.

Konrad’s childhood will resonate with readers of Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman, and fans of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak will appreciate the unique narrator. Readers who THINK they have been already been exposed to everything in WWII fiction will be surprised by this book.

-Lisa Krok and Jodi Kruse

The Plot to Kill HitlerThe Plot to Kill Hitler:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
September 13, 2016
ISBN: 9780062411082

This nonfiction title is a glimpse into the life of a German resistance hero. Deitrich Bonheoffer was a member of a group of conspirators who plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Dietrich had an idyllic childhood surrounded by seven brothers and sisters and intellectual parents.  Unlike his brothers and sisters who pursued scientific and secular interests, Deitrich was shy and introspective and contemplated God rather than physics. This led him to a life of ministry. Not exactly a candidate for spy work, Deitrich could not turn a blind eye to the events he witnessed in Germany with the rounding up of Jews and other undesirables.  

Through his network of friends and religious colleagues both local and abroad, Deitrich was able to smuggle information to the allies about Hitler’s mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps.  That should have been enough for Deitrich, but his conscience would not allow him to ignore the evil that was Adolph Hitler. The pacifist pastor decided it was his moral duty to eliminate Hitler at any cost. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life.

Short chapters of two to ten pages with generous white space and numerous archival photographs make this 174-page book accessible and engaging to many readers. Boxed in asides define important topics mentioned throughout the narrative. A timeline at the back of the book highlights each assassination attempt on Hitler and essential events from World War I until the end of World War II. Readers who enjoy learning about Hitler, spies and World War II will find this book an informative and interesting read.

Hand this book to readers of The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport, or Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson.

Readers may also like Fearless Spies and Daring Deeds of WWII by Rebecca Langston-George.

—Dana Hutchins

Fearless Spies and Daring Deeds of WWIIFearless Spies and Daring Deeds of World War II by Rebecca Langston-George
Capstone /Compass Point Books
January 1, 2017

This inspiring nonfiction pick highlights several unconventional allied spies who plotted against the Nazi regime. Former Miss Poland beauty queen, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, volunteered as a fast-talking spy for the British Secret Intelligence Services. She even parachuted into occupied France with a knife strapped to her thigh when another spy was captured and executed. Others in this motley crew of rebels include a “dead” spy, a three-fingered spy, and yet another who needed permission from his mother to participate!

The cover depicts bomber planes over London, with a silhouette of what appears to be a spy and codebreaking below it. The layout of the book is extremely appealing to reluctant readers, as it has double-spaced, short chapters with file tab images on the edge of the pages, giving the illusion of spy folders.  Black and white stock photos of the time period enhance the narrative and include both the spies themselves, and devices used to access or transmit messages. Technical language such as Fuhrer, Aryan, Axis, etc. are defined both in context, as well as in the glossary. Overall writing is exceptionally clear and includes an introduction/overview, timeline of events, glossary, alternate print and online sources, and an index. Additionally, a “Did You Know” blurb of fascinating facts is included in each chapter.

Fans of both non-fiction and historical fiction will be riveted by this book, and will likely savor the other three titles in Capstone’s SPIES! series, which reflect World War I, Cold War, and Modern Time eras. Readability makes this a dynamite choice for middle grades, although older teens and adults will also revel in the intriguing anecdotes.

— Lisa Krok

Making Bombs for HitlerMaking Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Scholastic Press
February 28, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-545-93191-5

In 1943, sisters Lida and Larissa are brutally separated from their parents and then, even worse, separated from each other. The younger Larissa is taken away and Lida finds herself in a crowded train car full of fellow Ukrainians being taken to a Nazi work camp, where they are treated as slaves. There she does whatever she has to to survive, including risking her life daily working in a bomb factory. An eternal optimist, Lida manages to keep her positive spirit alive in spite of the terror she feels every day and the horrific things she witnesses. This fast-paced tale of the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit is both sad and uplifting. Lida’s determination to find her sister as she helps everyone around her is inspiring, and her courage as she plots to sabotage the bombs she is forced to make is remarkable.

The fact that Lida’s story could have happened to anyone makes it a compelling read for reluctant readers. The single point of view, linear timeline, and frequent breaks in the text combine to lend it an accessible rhythm and flow.  Teens will take away the message that anyone can make a positive difference in the world, even if that world is just a small barrack in the middle of a war. Lida never loses hope, never stops bolstering the people around her, and is rewarded in the end.

Fans of recent fiction that depicts teens rebelling in time of war will enjoy this one as well. The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse, Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and the non-fiction We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman all explore similar themes with great success. As is true with all good historical fiction, the fact that this really took place compels modern teens to examine their lives and ponder their own strength of character, which is a very good thing for budding adults to do.

— Laura Lehner

Four Four Two by Dean HughesFour-four-two by Dean Hughes
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
November 8, 2016

Are you American if America doesn’t really want you? What if American needs you? Yuki Nakahara knows what it is to be different. As Nisei Japanese, he is stuck in between the world of his first generation immigrant father and the land of promise that is held tantalizingly just beyond his reach. He’s smart. He meets discrimination and hatred with humor and grace, but none of that matters when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Before you can say “I had nothing to do with this,” he and his family are hustled off to an internment camp in Utah where he and his best friend enlist in an Army that needs men, but doesn’t really want Yuki, Shig, or any of their ilk–and by ilk I mean Japanese.

What follows is a fictionalized account of just one member of the highly decorated Four-Four-Two from life in an internment camp, to boot camp, to the impossible battles to which the battalion was assigned. Hughes doesn’t shy away from either the tragedy of war or the triumph of spirit that brings Yuki’s broken heart and body back to his family with honor. The sheer tenacity of Yuki’s character coupled with the injustice and overwhelming odds he faces are part of the appeal of this quick read. Readers who would otherwise consider historical fiction the metaphorical equivalent of lima beans will be won over by the universal themes of friendship and survival. Fans of Tanita S. Davis’s Mare’s War will find many similarities between Yuki and Mare–neither are fully accepted by their country, both are appreciated by the countries in which they fight.

Four-Four-Two stands proudly alongside such work as Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color: the True Story of the Triple Nickles and Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago Fifty.

-Jodi Kruse

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Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers Blogging Team @ YALSA's The Hub.

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