When looking for books for my children, I used to peruse the Newbery Honor books (and, yes, until I started writing this piece, I thought it was Newberry). Since I care about morals as well as language, I admit to favoring books that were chosen for the award in earlier decades. With that in mind, I am delighted to recommend a recent honoree, The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
This book and its sequel, The War I Finally Won, tell the story of Ada, a ten-year-old British evacuee from London during World War II. I appreciated the depiction of England during wartime including rationing, bombing, the death of so many soldiers and the real fear of invasion. But the story is deeper than a historical fiction sketch of England in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ada isn’t sent out of London due to a loving mother’s concern. Ada’s mother is a twisted woman who imprisons the young girl in their apartment, despising the daughter who was born with a clubfoot. Ada uses the war-time evacuation of her younger brother, Jamie, as an opportunity to escape her violent and hateful mother by sneaking away with him. In this multi-faceted book, the two children end up being taken in by a spinster, Susan Smith, who is battling her own depression since the death of her closest friend.
I loved these books despite that fact that they deal with difficult subjects. To give you an example of how the Newbery books have changed over the years, the Medal Winner in 1939 was Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer. The Honor Books of that year were Nino; Mr. Popper’s Penguins; Hello the Boat!; Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot; and Penn, which I assume was a biography of William Penn. My children only read Thimble Summer and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that had we come across the other books, they would have been perfectly appropriate for children and I would not have had to pre-read them. I would not recommend that hands-off attitude for The War that Saved My Life or The War I Finally Won, despite their being promoted as middle-school readers.
These books deal with child abuse, the disproportional responsibility an older child feels for a younger sibling in a dysfunctional home, death (a reality in war-time England), depression, and other difficult matters. Two further topics make veiled appearances: the Nazis treatment of Jews and a possibility of lesbianism.
In the second book, a German-Jewish girl, evacuated to the same home as Ada and her brother worries about her grandmother back in Germany and one can read hints as to Susan’s relationship with her close friend though they are ambiguous and vague. I think that unless an adult chooses to focus on what’s below the surface here, most pre-teens and younger teens won’t dwell on or even twig onto those two subjects unless they are already aware of them. (This isn’t to say that a teacher might not choose to highlight either of these issues. @reasonsIhomeschooled – as a mother, I decided what was appropriate and when.)
What these books do provide are compelling stories, excellent character development and the whetting of an appetite for learning history. You won’t mistake Ada and Susan Smith for Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm) or Marmee (of Little Women), but both are believable and inspiring heroines who triumph over challenges. The books are also an opening for parents to discuss unpleasant but real topics. While some of these topics weren’t on my radar screen at all as a child, the harsh reality of our times is that it is almost impossible to shelter children today. In addition to these books being good literature, I think many parents may find them to be worthy tools for starting conversations about difficult issues and opportunities to get a glimpse into our children’s awareness and thoughts.
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