Lisa’s Book List #4: War, Peace and Remembrance — Books to Help Young People Understand History

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

~ Ode of Remembrance from the poem, For The Fallen, Laurence Binyon, 1914

The National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario, at night.

Photo Credit: My talented friend and photographer, Celeste Odono!

(An abridged version of this article first appeared in Kingston Neighbours magazine, November, 2020.)

Remembrance Day is an important but difficult holiday, sometimes bringing out conflicting emotions — sadness, grief, anger, guilt, pride, love, allegiance, gratitude. Despite the turmoil, we honour fallen soldiers every November 11th because we know we must remember our history and the terrible cost of peace. Lest we forget.

Because of its complexity, helping children understand the significance and solemnity of Remembrance Day without overwhelming them is no easy task. But powerful stories give both context and connection, helping kids explore difficult and scary topics in age-appropriate, accessible ways. Further, reading a variety of stories from different historical periods and countries helps children understand that suffering, loss, courage, hope and perseverance are universal, not bound to any one time, place or people. Here are some powerful stories to consider, many which I’ve read with former students and my own children. (Age recommendations are suggestions only, based on content.)

Elementary School

A Poppy Is to Remember, Heather Patterson, 4+ – A Scholastic classic with beautiful illustrations, many kindergarten teachers use this book to introduce why poppies are used on Remembrance Day.

Feathers and Fools, Mem Fox, 4+ – A simple yet profound allegory about how the fear of differences between a flock of swans and a flock of peacocks leads to war; a powerful teaching tool for all ages.

A Bear in War and Bear on the Homefront, Stephanie Innes & Harry Endrulat, 6+ – The true stories of a teddy bear’s experiences with the Rogers’ family during WWI and WWII, told from the teddy bear’s point of view. Teddy now resides at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1368588/.

Gleam and Glow, Eve Bunting, 6+ – One of my personal favourites from beloved children’s author Eve Bunting, a Bosnian family flees their home during the Yugoslavian civil war, leaving behind their goldfish in the family’s pond. 

The Road to Afghanistan, Linda Granfield, 7+ – A beautifully illustrated story about a returning Canadian soldier who reflects on the simultaneous beauty and chaos in Afghanistan.

A Boy Is Not A bird, Edeet Ravel, 9+ – An 11 year-old Jewish boy is naively excited when his Romanian town is taken over by the Russians during WWII. His enthusiasm quickly turns to fear, however, when the Russians start deporting people to Siberian gulags. This Canadian novel is a 2021 Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Program Silver Birch Fiction Award nominee.

Hanna’s Suitcase, Karen Levine, 9+ –  This Canadian book tells three poignant, intertwined stories: the story of Hana Brady, a young Jewish girl in Czechoslovakia during WWII; the story of Fumiko Ishioka, a present-day curator at a Japanese Holocaust education centre and George, Hana’s brother, a Holocaust survivor living in Canada. A critically acclaimed book, a documentary was also made entitled Inside Hana’s Suitcase, https://canadianfilmday.ca/film/inside-hanas-suitcase/. 

Making Bombs for Hitler, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, 9+ – Recommended by my youngest, this novel tells the story of a brave Ukranian orphan during WWII, forced to work in a slave labour camp making bombs for the Nazis.

War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, 9+ – Told from the unique perspective of a horse named Joey, this sensitive and touching tale describes life on the frontlines during WWI. 

The Scout: Tommy Prince, David Alexander Robertson, (graphic novel) 10+ – An engaging graphic novel that documents the heroics of Sgt. Tommy Prince, Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldier, during WWII and the Korean War.

Middle/ High School

Refugee, Alan Gratz, 11+ – This novel deftly tells three interwoven stories of children desperately fleeing their home countries: Josef, a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany; Isabel, a girl running from the 1994 Cuban riots; and Mahmoud, a boy escaping the Syrian civil war in 2015. This book comes highly recommended by my oldest, who was moved by the plights of all three characters. 

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, (graphic novel), Michel Chikwanine & Jessica Dee Humphreys, 11+ – A vivid, first-person account of co-author Chikwanine’s harrowing experiences as a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Librarian of Auschwitz, Antonio Iturbe, 13+ – The daring, true WWII story about Dita Kraus, a teenager imprisoned in Auschwitz, tasked with protecting 8 books smuggled past the Nazis.

Remembrance Day can be hard for many, including children. Books and stories about armed conflict around the world can gradually introduce children to important but tragic historical events, while also giving them the enduring message of hope and perseverance in the face of adversity.  

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