World War Two was the war of my father’s childhood. It began when he was one year old and lasted until he was seven, with societal repercussions (returning soldiers, damaged infrastructure, continued rationing etc.) that continued for far longer. So it makes perfect sense to me that some of the classic books of my childhood were written by people who lived through that same period and authored works which showed WWII from the point of view of children. Here, then, are five classic children’s books addressing the experience of children caught up in aspects of that particular conflict. In most cases it’s been many years since I read them, but they’ve stuck with me all this time, and that’s arguably the hallmark of truly great literature.
The Evacuee: Carrie’s War, by Nina Bawden (1973). Faced with the threat of German bombing raids on major cities, the British government ordered hundreds of thousands of children to be evacuated to safety in the countryside. Carrie’s War is told from the point of view of Carrie Willow who, with her younger brother Nick, is sent to live in a village in Wales. The story is told as a flashback as the now-grown and widowed Carrie returns to the village with her children thirty years later, convinced that as a child she committed a terrible wrong against her friends there, and depicts many aspects common to the experience of evacuees: the culture-shock of being relocated from the city to the country; the homesickness; the sometimes-kind, sometimes-cruel treatment of the strangers upon whom they had been thrust; and the ever-present fear of the consequences of the distant war for themselves and their family.
The Refugee: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr (1971). It is 1933 when nine-year-old Anna’s Jewish parents decide they have no option but to flee their home in Berlin and seek refuge abroad. Knowing that they can take only the most essential possessions, Anna’s mother instructs her daughter to choose just one of her many toys. Torn between her beloved pink rabbit and a new, barely-hugged toy dog, Anna decides upon the latter, and in the years that follow the memory of her abandoned pink rabbit becomes a symbol of all that she, personally, has lost. Kerr wrote in large part from her own experience: like Anna, she was a Jewish child whose parents fled the Nazis via Switzerland and Paris before eventually settling in England. Although the thought of the stolen pink rabbit – and all it represents – is never too far away, the overall tone of the story is positive as Anna’s (and Kerr’s) parents prioritise making their children feel loved and safe and encourage them to see their experience as a grand adventure.
The Survivor: I Am David, by Anne Holm (1963). Although textural clues suggest that the concentration camp in which twelve-year-old David has lived, and from which he has been assisted in escaping by a guard, is more likely Cold War-ear Communist than Nazi, the precise year and politics of the story are never established and for most people (particularly children) the words ‘concentration camp’ combined with the traditionally-Jewish name David can mean only one thing. David’s escape sends him on an epic quest across Europe in search of safety and, later, his mother. Along the way he meets many people, some kindly and others cruel, but the scene that I most remember (after more than twenty years) is the one where David realises that, for the first time in his life, he is smiling.
The Collaborator: Summer of my German Soldier, by Bette Greene (1973). What does a twelve-year-old Jewish-American girl do when she discovers an escaped German soldier in her small, all-American town? Conceal him in her family garage, of course. Summer of my German Soldier was, at some point during my high school career, a set text, and explores themes of prejudice, loyalty, and family. Patty is an unlikely protector for a German, but Anton is not your stereotypical German: conscripted into the army, he loves his country and dreams of returning home, but rejects Nazi ideology. Patty’s All-American family are abusive – part of her attachment to Anton stems from the fact that he treats her as a person of value – and the townsfolk are prejudiced against both the local African-American population and (perhaps understandably) the Germans.
The Perpetrator’s Child: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne (2006): Although criticised for being unrealistic (nine-year-old boys like Schmuel were gassed out-of-hand by the Nazis as they were too young to work, and the children of concentration camp personnel would not have had contact with the prisoners), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has become an instant classic for a reason: the innocence of nine-year-old Bruno in the face of his father’s and his country’s evil, and the terrible consequences, make for a compelling read and challenge us to ask ourselves what it means to call for the sins of the fathers to be visited upon their children.
And there you have it: five books, all different, all capturing the war from the perspective of children.
Have you read any of these books? Have they stuck with you the way they did with me?