WWII involved civilians more than any previous war, not only due to the millions killed in bombings and imprisonment, but also the wholehearted participation of those at home sacrificing for the sake of the armies, defending against attacks, maintaining farming and industry despite the absence of those away fighting, awaiting news of loved ones.
The home fronts make especially apt windows into the war for those too young or sensitive to hear about more militant aspects. Here are some excellent choices:
Diana’s White House Garden, written by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by Jen Hill published in 2016 by Viking
Based on a true story, this book follows Diana Hopkins, daughter of President Roosevelt’s chief advisor, who lived in the White House. In 1943 she was 10 years old — old enough to want to do her part in the war effort.
Diana’s well-meaning intentions go utterly awry until FDR brings up the idea of Victory Gardens, urging Americans to grow their own food in order to provide more for the troops. Diana seizes on the notion of helping with a Victory Garden at the White House itself and the whole country takes notice.
It’s a pleasant, entertaining story, beautifully illustrated in graceful, period styling, for ages 4 and up.
A Year of Borrowed Men, written by Michelle Barker, illustrated by Renné Benoit published in 2015 in Canada; first U.S. edition 2016 by Pajama Press
Having had a daughter living in Germany for several years recently, I’ve become more attuned to the plight of the ordinary German people during the war. It’s tough to find books from that vantage point, which makes this title especially welcome.
Based on her mother, Gerda’s, childhood memories, author Michelle Barker tells the story of their family’s farm in Germany and of the French prisoners of war who were sent to help run it while their own men were away soldiering.
Little Gerda has a tender heart towards these seven men, who are supposed to be treated as prisoners. Her mother also has a hospitable heart, yet even inviting the men to eat indoors on a severely cold night, rather than in the pig kitchen, brings accusations from snoopy neighbors, a visit from the police, questioning at headquarters, and threats of imprisonment for any further kindness.
Read this brave, kindhearted story with children ages 4 and up. Warm, homey illustrations strike a gentle tone throughout. An Author’s Note tells more about the harrowing war experiences of the author’s mother.
The Lion and the Unicorn, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes published in 1999 by DK Publishing
Many British children, of course, experienced the war as refugees in their own country. Evacuated from the nightly bombings of London, they were abruptly separated from everyone and everything familiar, to arrive on their own, amongst strangers. I cannot imagine the trauma.
Shirley Hughes tells the story of one of these young evacuees, Lenny, who is taken in along with several other children by Lady De Vass at her expansive country estate. Lenny’s transition is far from easy, and Hughes explores it honestly, sensitively, without any rush. How can Lenny find the courage he needs as such a young child?
It’s a touching story, heartbreaking in places, and relatable for other children facing separation, loss, loneliness, homesickness, and the like. Illustrated in Hughes’ masterful watercolors, full of the gray shadows and peeks of sunlight in Lenny’s journey. Ages 6 and up.
My Secret War Diary: My History of the Second World War, written and illustrated by Marcia Williams published in 2008 by Candlewick
Marcia Williams has pieced together this brilliant pseudo-journal, written by one Flossie Albright who is nine years old at the outset of her diary-keeping in July, 1939.
140+ brown-paper pages are crammed with Flossie’s schoolgirl writings, drawings, photos, and keepsakes, all telling the story of her life and world during these six momentous years.
Flossie represents another British story, of those living in areas where they received the evacuees. At age 9, she’s already life-hardened. Her mum died of pneumonia a year ago, leaving behind a newborn baby, Boo. Now her dad’s been drafted, leaving Flossie with Uncle Colin and taking on the roles of mother, cook, and gardener’s helper. Tough times faced by a stalwart little girl.
Flossie is a thoroughly engaging character. Her bits of war history and her insider’s depiction of the deprivations in wartime England, completely drew me in, and when I handed this to my 93-year-old mother-in-law, she was hooked as well! A fantastic approach to history for ages 9 and up.
Don’t You Know There’s a War On?, written and illustrated by James Stevenson published in 1992 by Greenwillow
I love James Stevenson’s lesser-known autobiographical picture books. This one offers a lighthearted yet poignant look at his life as a young boy — a Henry Huggins sort of fellow — during the war years.
Stevenson’s smidgeons and snippets of narration alight on vast white space, accompanied by his genius brushstrokes of spot art. His words convey the plainspoken reminiscences of a grandfather talking about his childhood. Some of it is delivered in Stevenson’s characteristic, handscratched conversation-exchanges.
Humorous, dry, insightful, directly from the mindset of a 10-year-old boy whose brother and father have both left to fight the war. Ages 6 and up.
Barbed Wire Baseball, written by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu published in 2013 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Of course, for Japanese-Americans, life on the homefront rapidly turned into a nightmare of hostility and imprisonment in the internment camps of the West Coast. Many titles are available to understand this sorrowful episode in our history. I particularly like this one.
It’s the story of Kenichi Zenimura, a talented baseball player who moved to Hawaii with his family at age 8. Zeni grew up playing ball, excelling at many positions, and went on to coach, manage, and tour Japan with other Japanese ballplayers in order to popularize the sport there.
All that happened before the infamous day at Pearl Harbor, after which Zeni, his wife and sons were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, suspected along with every other Japanese-American of being disloyal and dangerous.
Zeni turned to baseball to relieve the drudgery, monotony, oppression, and humiliation of the camp, guiding his fellow prisoners to construct an impressive ball field complete with uniforms and stands.
The courageous story leaps off the page with Shimizu’s handsome, powerful, carefully-historical illustrations. Gorgeous work. Ages 7 and up.