It’s Memorial Day weekend! For a lot of people, this holiday marks the start of summer—but it’s also a time to honor the men and women who lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military, often while fighting a war.
Imagine what it was like to be a kid during World War I (1914-1918) or World War II (1939-1945). One of my favorite things about books is the way they can take you to a whole different time and place. Maybe back to when your great-great-great-great-grandparents were your age. Or even before that!
Are you up for a little time travel? This weekend is the perfect time to join people doing brave, adventurous things in a dark and dangerous world. (Between the pages of a book, of course.) You’ll meet some of them in this list of books set during World Wars. Some of them are true stories or based on a true story.
Once you’ve been on an adventure or two, come on over to my Instagram page and share your favorite historical book.
P.S. If you want to travel even farther back in time, check out my post on 20 Middle-Grade Books About the Revolutionary War.
1. Journey to America by Sonia Levitin
Germany in 1938 is a dangerous place, especially for Jews like Lisa Platt and her family. They have to wear yellow stars and there are growing restrictions on what they can and can’t do. Then their neighbors get arrested and the Platts know they have to escape. Forbidden to bring money or possessions out of the country, Lisa’s father secretly leaves for America, planning to work until he can send for them. But things get so bad that the family can’t wait. Lisa flees with her mother and sisters to Switzerland to try and survive. Based on the author’s real-life experience!
2. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him. So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother? (Amazon description)
3. The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll
SUMMER 1914: Fran uncovers a bone in the garden the same afternoon that Leo breaks his leg. Coincidence? Maybe…but it won’t be the last one that summer. Fran gets roped in to keep Leo company, forced to listen to his foolish theories about the looming threat of war in Europe. Suddenly the garden she has loved all her life seems to hold threatening shadows of the future, and Fran starts to fear what she and Leo might find next … This is a pretty short book, so if you’re looking for a quick read it’s a good option. If you like it, check out Letters from the Lighthouse, another World War II book by the same author.
4. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
What would you do if your best friend was in danger? What if helping them put you and your family in danger, too? In 1943, as the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. (That really happened!) A Newberry Medal winner.
5. The Watcher by Joan Hiatt Harlow
1942. Just a few months ago, Wendy was in Maine, supporting the American war effort. Then she was kidnapped . . . and discovered that her mother is actually a Nazi spy! Now Wendy is stuck in Berlin, Germany, expected to speak German (which she doesn’t know) and support the Nazi cause (which she does NOT believe in). They only way Wendy will survive is with the help of a special dog and the allies who have been watching over her since she arrived. If she can find them. And she’d better . . . because her life may depend on it.
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I love this book! It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
7. Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Queens, 2012. Hurricane Sandy is flooding New York City, and Lily is at a nursing home with her grandmother. When the National Guard shows up to evacuate the building, Lily’s granny suddenly produces a red box she’s hidden in a closet for years. In it is an old, beautiful Montblanc pen and some letters written in French. Granny tells Lily that the pen is very important and that she has to take care of it. But Lily loses the pen and as she searches for it, she uncovers secrets of her grandmother’s past as a member of the French Resistance during WWII.
8. War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman
Millie McGonigle lives in sunny California, where her days are filled with beach and surf. It should be perfect—but times are tough. Hitler is attacking Europe and it looks like the United States may be going to war. Food is rationed and money is tight. And Millie’s sickly little sister gets all the attention and couldn’t be more of a pain if she tried. It’s all Millie can do to stay calm and feel in control.
Still—there’s sand beneath her feet. A new neighbor from the city, who has a lot to teach Millie. And surfer boy Rocky to admire—even if she doesn’t have the guts to talk to him. It’s a time of sunshine, siblings, and stress. Will Millie be able to find her way in her family, and keep her balance as the world around her loses its own? (Amazon description)
9. Stay Where You Are & Then Leave by John Boyne
From the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
The day the First World War broke out, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight—but he broke that promise the following day. Four years later, Alfie doesn’t know where his father might be, other than that he’s away on a special, secret mission.
Then, while shining shoes at King’s Cross Station, Alfie unexpectedly sees his father’s name on a sheaf of papers belonging to a military doctor. Bewildered and confused, Alfie realizes his father is in a hospital close by—a hospital treating soldiers with shell shock. Alfie isn’t sure what shell shock is, but he is determined to rescue his father from this strange, unnerving place. (Amazon description)
10. The Garden of Lost Secrets by A. M. Howell
October, 1916. Clara is sent to stay with her formidable aunt and uncle in the grounds of a country estate. Clara soon discovers that her new surroundings hold secrets: a locked room and a hidden key, and a mysterious boy who only appears in the gardens at night… But can Clara face up to her own secrets, and a war she’s desperate to forget? (Amazon description)
11. A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus
When William, Edmund and Anna’s grandmother dies, the young orphans need to find a guardian who will keep them together. Not an easy task in 1940’s London…so they decide to blend in with the thousands of children who are being evacuated to the country, hoping of finding a forever home. It’s not easy—they have to move around, the toilets are outdoors (brrr!), and not everyone is kind. The trio finds comfort in a village lending library and its kind librarian, who might be the perfect fit for them. Except her husband is German, and he’s missing, and the villagers aren’t too sure about her. . .
12. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
Growing up in a lighthouse, 11-year-old Pet’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels, and stories about sea monsters. But now the country is at war and the clifftops are a terrifying battleground. Pet will need to muster all her bravery to uncover why her family is being torn apart.
This is the story of a girl who is afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear at the enemy planes ripping through the skies overheard. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone. (Amazon description)
13. Spies, Code Breakers, and Secret Agents: A World War II Book for Kids by Carole P. Roma
Are you ready to learn about real-life heroes and villains, awesome gadgets, and what really went on behind the scenes in World War II? From spy schools and ciphers to sneaky tools and secret armies, this guide takes you on a declassified tour of the undercover operations that helped decide the outcome of World War 2. There’s also more than a dozen short spy-ographies that cover some of the most famous (and infamous!) agents that were active during the war.
14. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
In 1942, with the Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, the Franks and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. Discovered in the attic where she spent the last years of her life, this diary tells Anne’s story in her own words.
15. The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
September 1939. When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.
16. Pharmacy Girl: The Great War, Spanish Influenza, and the Truth about Billy Detwiler by Kate Szegda
Before COVID there was Spanish influenza. In 1918 there were masks. Schools, restaurants, and even churches closed. One in four Americans stricken, and an estimated 675,000 Americans dead. All because of a deadly germ carried on a puff of air. But there were no effective vaccines. No ventilators. No medicines to stop a virus. And a war to win.
Everyone likes Josie, except the spoiled and arrogant Billy Detwiler. He calls her Pharmacy Girl, but it is no compliment. As the hazy days of September 1918 drift into the deadly autumn of Spanish influenza, Josie’s everyday problems of school and friends, even the war effort at home, become insignificant when her mother comes down with the flu. But Josie is no slacker. She faces Billy in a class election, raises money for the Liberty Loan, and steps up to help her family when the pandemic strikes home. (Amazon description)
17. When The World Was Ours: A book about finding hope in the darkest of times by Liz Kessler
Inspired by a true story. Three friends. Two sides. One memory. Vienna. 1936. Three young friends – Leo, Elsa and Max – spend a perfect day together, unaware that around them Europe is descending into a growing darkness, and that events soon mean that they will be cruelly ripped apart from each other. With their lives taking them across Europe – to Germany, England, Prague and Poland – will they ever find their way back to each other? Will they want to?
18. The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay
This is a story about a girl who dares to open doors that the world would rather keep closed.
It’s the early twentieth century, and the only thing girls are expected to do is behave. But Clarry wants to dive off cliffs and go swimming with her brother Peter and cousin Rupert. And more than anything, she wants an education. She helps Peter with his homework all the time, so why can’t she manage it by herself? When war breaks out, Clarry is shocked to find that Rupert has enlisted. Then he is declared missing, and Clarry is devastated. Now she must take a momentous step into the wide world—for if she misses this chance, she may never make it.
19. How I Became a Spy: A Mystery of WWII London by Deborah Hopkinson
Thirteen-year-old Bertie Bradshaw never set out to become a spy. He never imagined traipsing around war-torn London, solving ciphers, practicing surveillance, and searching for a traitor to the Allied forces. He certainly never expected that a strong-willed American girl named Eleanor would play Watson to his Holmes (or Holmes to his Watson, depending on who you ask). But when a young woman goes missing, leaving behind a coded notebook, Bertie is determined to solve the mystery. With the help of Eleanor and his friend David, a Jewish refugee—and, of course, his trusty pup, Little Roo—Bertie must decipher the notebook in time to stop a double agent from spilling the biggest secret of all to the Nazis. (Amazon description)
20. Elizabeth’s War by D.L. Finn
It’s April of 1917, and World War I has reached Elizabeth’s family on their wheat farm in North Dakota. After her brother and father leave the farm to do their part in the war, eleven-year-old Elizabeth must learn to help out around the farm: cooking, cleaning, and tending to the garden and livestock. When a huge Christmas Eve snowstorm rages outside, Elizabeth faces her biggest challenge yet. Her family is cut off from any help, her brother and sister are laid up with chicken pox, and her mother is about to have a baby! What will Elizabeth do?
Where would you go if you could time travel? Stop by my Instagram page and let me know. Happy Memorial Day, everyone!