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Thanks to the novel coronavirus, war has been much on my mind lately—not only the campaign against the virus but also the traditional shooting sort, the hot kind that has plagued our country since its beginning in revolution. Eleven other wars have followed in the wake of that uncertain inception: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan. It says something about my age that I have experienced 6 of the 12 in my lifetime. As for today’s kids: thanks to that war in Afghanistan, now in its twentieth year, a whole generation of them have grown up not knowing a world without it—war, that is. Is it any wonder, then, that the omnipresent subject is evergreen in books for young readers? To test that assertion, I recently visited Booklist’s online database and got an impressive 1,904 hits when I entered the word “war.” That single word is—well, let’s call it a big tent since it encompasses so many constituent subjects that range in variety from D-Day to a heroic dog of the Civil War; from the Kindertransport to Nazi saboteurs, from spies to secret soldiers and a host of others.
In thinking about and surveying this bewildering variety, I have come to a fairly obvious conclusion: the challenge of war is one that inspires excellence in literature, be it fiction or nonfiction. As evidence, I want to salute some of the (fairly) recent best about American conflicts (foreign wars would be the stuff of a future column) with the caveat that I could have selected 10 times as many as the following. That said, here is my selection. I have arranged the books by their authors’ last names. Note that some authors merit more than one mention! What more is there to say except that if it is true, as General Sherman so memorably put it, that war is hell, then reading about it in these superb books is—dare I say it?—heaven.
Laurie Halse Anderson. The Seeds of America Trilogy.
Anderson’s triumphal trilogy—Chains, Forge, and Ashes—of slavery and independence in the Revolutionary era brings history to compelling life while exploring the cruel irony that, during a war for freedom, there was still slavery.
M. T. Anderson. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation Duology. Vol. 1 The Pox Party and Vol 2. The Kingdom on the Waves.
Anderson’s monumental, multilayered, two-volume novel, each of which was a Printz Honor title, is, in my estimation, one of the most important YA novels in the genre’s history. Enough said.
Ashley Bryan. Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace.
The beloved nonagenarian continues to evidence his brilliance in this affecting memoir told in words and images.
Ann Burg. All the Broken Pieces.
Burg’s moving story of a Vietnamese boy’s fraught new life in America is told in spare, evocative verse.
Candace Fleming. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary.
Fleming looks at the Civil War and then some in her dual biography of the former first couple that boasts a novel, informative format as well as essential information. And while it doesn’t deal with an American war but, rather, with the Russian Revolution, Fleming’s book The Family Romanov is absolutely not to be missed.
Ari Folman. Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.
Anne’s imaginative inner world and the gravitas of her fate are illuminated by Folman and illustrator David Polonsky in their tour de force graphic adaptation of the classic memoir.
Russell Freedman. Vietnam: A History of the War.
Here you’ll find the indispensable Freedman’s take on what is arguably America’s most controversial war. And don’t forget his classic, Lincoln: A Photobiography.
Monica Hesse. The War Outside.
The Washington Post columnist writes of the Japanese American experience of internment camps with moving verisimilitude, flanking this novel with two other breathtaking evocations of WWII (Girl in the Blue Coat and They Went Left) that unfold on foreign shores.
Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive.
This powerful, visceral biography—an adaptation of the adult book—is not for the faint of heart, but is nonetheless an inspiring WWII survival story.
Antonio Iturbe. The Librarian of Auschwitz.
Iturbe pens an unforgettable novelization of Dita Adlerova’s life in the infamous concentration camp, where she looked after a small, contraband book collection. Also see Dita Kraus’ memoir, A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz, for further insight.
Lois Lowry. Number the Stars and On the Horizon.
WWII as viewed by the two-time Newbery Medalist in fiction and memoir.
Albert Marrin. Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience during World War II and A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust.
Marrin delivers two exceedingly rich and prodigiously researched aspects of WWII into focus with these two histories, the latter of which is winner of the 2020 Excellence in Nonfiction Award presented by YALSA.
Walter Dean Myers. Fallen Angels, Sunrise over Fallujah, and Invasion.
The late, great Myers’ unofficial war trilogy delves into Vietnam, Iraq, and WWII, respectively. Some would argue that Fallen Angels is his finest book.
Elizabeth Partridge. Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam.
Partridge, whose biography of John Lennon, All I Want Is the Truth, was a 2006 Printz Honor book, continues to evidence that she is one of our absolutely best writers of nonfiction with this compelling examination of the Vietnam War.
Gary Paulsen. Soldier’s Heart.
The prolific author puts a human face on the Civil War in this oldie but goodie.
Ruta Sepetys. Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea.
The author presents two little-known and heartbreaking stories: WWII’s forced relocation by the invading Russian Army of legions of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps and, secondly, the sinking of the transport ship the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Steve Sheinkin. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War.
In this penetrating look at a whistle-blower and the blurred line between hero and traitor, Sheinkin demonstrates why he has been chosen to receive the 2020 Margaret A. Edwards Award presented by YALSA.
Elizabeth Wein. Code Name Verity and Rose under Fire.
Conjuring taut atmospheres and unforgettable characters, Wein tackles unique aspects of WWII in these companion novels. This is only one end of her range, however. Don’t miss her newest (nonfiction!) book, A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II or her memorable Italo-Ethiopian War novel, Black Dove, White Raven.
Deborah Wiles. Kent State.
The desperately sad impact of the Vietnam War on the home front beautifully told in verse in this slim but powerful offering.
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