Children Caught in War

by Pat Austin and James A. Bryant Jr.

What is it like for children when bombs explode in their neighborhoods, shooting occurs in the streets outside their doors, and their very lives are threatened? What is it like when dreams of childhood and adolescence—dreams of glory on the baseball diamond or the s occer field, young love, and a boundless future—give way to the painful realities of a world bent on destruction and geared toward domination by arms? How must children feel when the adults sworn to protect them become swept up by the violence around them?

 

The books in the bibliography below include fiction and nonfiction about children caught in the maelstrom of war. We have chosen stories of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—stories that span the continents, from Africa to Asia, Europe, North America, and South America—for several reasons. They do not present war in a glorified manner—the tragedy, the pain, and the loss are on full display. These books also portray children (and adults) who feel empowered or who empower themselves through their actions, people who are active participants in—not passive victims of—the tide of history. If we define citizenship as active participation in our community and our times, then the children in these books provide powerful models of this quality.

 

When incorporated into a curriculum, the books allow students to see the human face of war. Too often our textbooks present those caught up in war as heroes, villains, or mere statistics. It is important for teachers to move beyond a sanitized version of war in which the sacrifice and loss are glossed over and students are given an unrealistic portrait of nations, or even a world, in conflict.

In Zlata’s Diary, below, Zlata Filopovic writes that “a child should not be seeing, should not be living with this kind of horror.” But across the globe, every day, children are subjected to the horror of war. Having students confront this fact, seen through the eyes of other children, may increase their sensitivity and awareness. Then, when their generation becomes the policy makers, perhaps they will work, as the Greeks said, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Picture Books

Balgassi, Haemi. Peacebound Trains. Illus. by Chris K. Soenptiet. 1996. 48p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-72093-1); paper, $6.95 (0-618-04030-7).

Gr. 2–5. A young Korean American girl listens as her grandmother recalls her family’s harrowing flight from Seoul as the Korean War erupts around them. While the story shows the impact of war on home and families, it also shows the value of elders and all that can be learned from their stories.

Heide, Florence Parry, and Judith Heide Gilliland. Sami and the Time of the Troubles. Illus. by Ted Lewin. 1992. 32p. Clarion, $16 (0-395-55964-2); paper, $6.95 (0-395-72085-0).

Gr. 1–4. Ten-year-old Sami lives in Lebanon, where war, “the time of the troubles,” has lasted his whole life. Dark paintings convey the dark times when the family must stay in the basement and contrast with the light-filled watercolors when they can go outside. For another story of young people in wartime, set in a different region, see Allan Baillie’s Rebel (Ticknor & Fields, 1991), which takes place in Burma.

Hoffman, Mary. The Color of Home. Illus. by Karin Littlewood. 2002. 32p. Penguin Putnam/Phyllis Fogelman, $15.99 (0-8037-2841-7).

Preschool–Gr. 3. In this story about the healing power of art, Hassan’s Muslim family has fled to America from their war-torn home in Somalia. When Hassan paints a picture in school of the nightmares that haunt him--the flames and bullets that killed his uncle and drove his family out––his teacher helps him deal with his memories.

Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche. 1995. 32p. Creative, $17 (1-568-46189-5); paper, $8 (0-89812-385-2).

Gr. 1–5. Young Rose Blanche doesn’t understand the comings and goings of soldiers in her town, but, curious, she follows one of the trucks and comes upon a wired enclosure. With the heartfelt innocence of a child and not recognizing the danger that leads to a tragic fate, she begins bringing food to these prisoners who are wearing bands with gold stars.

Mochizuki, Ken. Baseball Saved Us. Illus. by Dom Lee. 1993. 32p. Lee & Low, $16.95 (1-880000-01-6); paper, $6.95 (1-880000-19-9).

Gr. 1–4. “One day, my dad looked out at the endless desert and decided . . . to build a baseball field.” This picture book paints a picture of what life was like within Japanese American internment camps, how baseball provided a coping mechanism, and how Japanese Americans continued to face prejudice after World War II ended.

Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. Illus. by Dom Lee. 1997. 32p. Lee & Low, $15.95 (1-880000-49-0); paper, $6.95 (1-58430-157-0).

Gr. 4–8. Sugihara was a high-ranking Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania at the beginning of World War II. As the Nazi army approached, hundreds of Jewish refugees pleaded with Sugihara for visas that would allow them to escape persecution. The narrative shows the power of family and the sacrifice often involved in doing the right thing. For the story of one family’s escape, see William Kaplan and Shelley Tanaka’s One More Border: The True Story of One Family’s Escape from War-Torn Europe (Groundwood, 1998).

Park, Frances, and Ginger Park. My Freedom Trip: A Child’s Escape from North Korea. Illus. by Debra Reid Jenkins. 1998. 32p. Boyds Mills, $15.95 (1-56397-468-1).

Gr. 2–6. At the brink of war, a young girl and her family are forced to flee from North Korea to the south. Fearing the enemy, they cannot leave all at once, so first the father is guided to freedom and then young Soo. War breaks out, however, and Soo never sees her mother again.

Polacco, Patricia. The Butterfly. 2000. 48p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-23170-6).

Gr. 2–5. In this story taken from Polacco’s family history, Monique discovers and befriends a Jewish child hidden in her basement. Only then does Monique realize that her mother is part of the French underground and resistance, offering safe haven for Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Say, Allen. Home of the Brave. 2002. 32p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $17 (0-618-21223-X).

Gr. 3–8. A kayaker crashes his boat and is transported into a mystical world that reveals his own and his nation’s past during World War II, a time of suffering for Japanese Americans. The children in this story guide the adult toward truth and understanding, an empowering message for young readers.

Fiction

Choi, Sook Nyul. Year of Impossible Goodbyes. 1991. 176p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-57419-6); Yearling, paper, $5.50 (0-440-40759-1).

Gr. 6–9. Sookan says goodbye to a way of life as she endures the Japanese military occupation of Korea. In this richly descriptive, gripping story, Sookan tells of working in a factory and going to Japanese School, where she isn’t permitted to speak her own language. After the war, she and her family face a dangerous escape to South Korea when Communist troops take over their country.

Clinton, Cathryn. A Stone in My Hand. 2002. 192p. Candlewick, $15.99 (0-7636-1388-6).

Gr. 5–8. Malaak is 11 years old in 1988 when she and her family cannot escape the violence between the Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza City. After her father disappears and her brother joins a radical group, Malaak discovers the meaning of her mother’s words: “Bravery is not seen in one act. It is measured by the choices and deeds that fill every day of our lives.”

Ellis, Deborah. Parvana’s Journey. 2002. 176p. Groundwood, $15.95 (0-88899-514-8); paper, $5.95
(0-88899-519-9).

Gr. 5–8. In this sequel to The Breadwinner (Groundwood, 2001), 13-year-old Parvana disguises herself as a boy and sets out across war-torn Afghanistan to find the surviving members of her family. Along the way, she rescues a baby and meets two other children: Asif, who has lost a leg, and Leila. Together the four children battle starvation, bombings, and despair before reaching a camp that offers them some glimmer of hope for the future. American readers will be moved by the tremendous suffering of the young characters, who speak, think, and bicker like children everywhere. Also see the final book in the trilogy, Mud City (Groundwood, 2003).

Havill, Juanita. Eyes Like Willy’s. 2004. 144p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-688-13672-9).

Gr. 6–9. In 1906, 10-year-old Guy’s family leaves Paris to vacation in a small Austrian village, where he befriends a Viennese boy named Willy. Meeting every summer for several years, Guy grows closer to Willy, but in 1914, World War I puts an end to the family’s vacations, and in 1915, Guy joins the army, painfully aware that his friend may be in the opposing trenches. This spare, thoughtful story does a superb job of personalizing the pain of this brutal, futile war.

Hesse, Karen. Aleutian Sparrow. Illus. by Evon Zerbetz. 2003. 160p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $16.95 (0-689-86189-3).

Gr. 5–10. Vera is only visiting Kashega when the Aleuts are evacuated to relocation centers after the Japanese invade Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in June 1942. Yet Vera must go with the others. In exquisitely crafted and imagistic free verse, Vera starts “stringing up the lanterns of lives, / Story by story,” unveiling a little-known culture, people, and event in history.

Ho, Minfong. Gathering the Dew. 2003. 208p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-439-38197-5).

Gr. 6–9. In this entry in the First Person Fiction series, when the Khmer Rouge takes over Cambodia, Nakri, almost 13, winds up in a brutal labor camp along with older siblings Teeda and Boran. Eventually the remnants of their family immigrate to the U.S., where Nakri begins a confusing new life caught between cultures.

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. 1989. 144p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $16 (0-395-51060-0).

Gr. 4–8. Annemarie Johansen is 10 years old in 1943 when everyone feels the Nazi presence in Denmark. Unaware of her family’s direct involvement in the resistance movement to smuggle their Jewish neighbors to safety, Annemarie becomes a hero as well through her brave actions to save the life of her friend.

Naidoo, Beverley. The Other Side of Truth. 2001. 272p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (0-06-029628-3); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-441002-1).

Gr. 5–9. Sade and Femi’s father, a journalist in Nigeria, is in danger for writing the truth about the corrupt military government in the mid-1990s. After their mother is murdered, Sade and Femi are smuggled to London. When their uncle does not meet them at the airport, the children end up in foster care. Sade finds her own way to share the truth so that her family can be reunited.

Orlev, Uri. Run, Boy, Run. 2003. 192p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $15 (0-618-16465-0).

Gr. 7–up. Srulik is only eight years old when his father tells him to forget his past in order to stay alive. The young Jewish boy becomes Jurek, lives for a time in the forest, and works on farms, but is always on the run. Orlev shares in an epilogue that the novel is based on a true story.

Park, Linda Sue. When My Name Was Keoko. 2002. 208p. Clarion, $16 (0-618-13335-6); Yearling, paper, $5.50 (0-440-41944-1).

Gr. 5–9. When the Japanese occupied Korea during World War II, they forbade the Korean language to be spoken, so Sun Hee becomes Keoko. In alternate chapters, Keoko and her brother tell the story of war tearing away their culture and of their fears for their uncle, who is printing an underground paper for the Korean resistance.

Shattered: Stories of Children and War. Edited by Jennifer Armstrong. 2002. 176p. Knopf, $15.95 (0-375-81112-5); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (0-440-23765-3).

Gr. 5–10. Twelve stories by authors including Suzanne Fisher Staples, M. E. Kerr, and Ibtisam Barakat explore how children and teenagers are affected by war. Although the stories do not all take place in countries at war, they all confront fear and destruction and provide “a way of looking at reality.”

Spinelli, Jerry. Milkweed. 2003. 208p. Knopf, $15.95 (0-375-81374-8).

Gr. 7–up. An orphan without a name does not even have a sense of self, much less an understanding of the world around him. As the boy who is dubbed Misha comes to explore his surrounding milieu, Spinelli’s novel makes readers feel the fear and sting of prejudice that Jews and gypsies felt during the Holocaust.

Watkins, Yoko Kawashima. So Far from the Bamboo Grove. 1986. 192p. HarperTempest, paper, $5.99 (0-688-13115-8).

Gr. 6–10. Although Yoko was Japanese, she lived in North Korea during World War II. When war threatens her village, Yoko flees with her sister and mother. The family’s escape is filled with seemingly overwhelming trials. However, Yoko and her sister emerge triumphant.

Whelan, Gloria. Angel on the Square. 2001. 304p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-029030-7); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-440879-5).

Gr. 6–10. As the daughter of a lady-in-waiting to the empress, Katya is a playmate to Grand Duchess Anastasia on the cusp of the Russian revolution. Caught between her fondness for the royal way of life and her increasing awareness of the disparity between classes, Katya witnesses the final days of czarist Russia.

Nonfiction

Abells, Chana Byers. The Children We Remember. 1986. 48p. Greenwillow, $15.95(0-688-06371-3); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.95 (0-06-443777-9).

Gr. 2–8. Striking black-and-white photos and minimal text provide chilling portraits of children of the Holocaust—before the Nazis, when the Nazis came, and after the war. The photo-essay comes full circle, ending on a note of hope for the children who survived, and are now grown with children of their own.

al-Windawi, Thura. Thura’s Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq. 2004. 144p. Viking, $15.99 (0-670-05886-6).

Gr. 7–12. Thura, a nineteen-year-old girl in Baghdad, keeps an account of her life during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq in this immediate, gripping journal. Readers will get a sense of what life was like under Saddam Hussein’s rule as well as the uncertain future of American occupation.

Amis, Nancy. The Orphans of Normandy: A True Story of World War II Told through Drawings by Children. 2003. 48p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $17.95 (0-689-84143-4).

Gr. 2–8. Through charming crayon drawings and writings, young French schoolgirls, many of whom were orphans, tell how they escaped the chaos of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, l944, when their teachers led them to shelter in an iron mine. The carefully penned French words in this primary resource are translated into English.

Cameron, Sara. Out of War: True Stories from the Front Lines of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Colombia. 2001. 192p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-439-29721-4).

Gr. 5–10. Nine teenagers tell their stories of working for peace in a destitute country plagued by civil war. With varying motives for their involvement in the movement and with some admitting how difficult it is to stay committed to work for justice, their narratives about working for change in a community are inspiring. For a fictional take on war in another part of Latin America, see Frances Temple’s Grab Hands and Run (Orchard, 1993), set in El Salvador.

Cooper, Michael L. Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp. 2002. 96p. Clarion, $15 (0-618-06778-7).

Gr. 4–9. Cooper’s work, which makes explicit reference to post–September 11 America, outlines the hardships endured by the Japanese Americans who were relocated at the outbreak of World War II. A particularly striking element within this narrative is the discussion of the rumors and uncertainty that were a constant reality for the Japanese Americans, including the rumor that Manzanar would be bombed immediately if Japan again attacked the United States.

Drucker, Olga Levy. Kindertransport. 1992. 160p. Holt, paper, $8.95 (0-8050-4251-2).

Gr. 5–10. Between December 1938 and August 1939, 10,000 Jewish children were transported from Europe in a well-orchestrated rescue operation. Ollie Levy was one of those children, and with an engaging voice, she tells her story of the six years and many homes where she stayed before her lucky reunion with her parents at the end of the war. Moving accounts of the children’s section of the concentration camp at Auschwitz can be found in Milton J. Nieuwsma’scollection Kinderlager: An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors (Holiday, 1998).

Filopovic, Zlata . Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. 1994. 208p. Puffin, paper, $11 (0-14-024205-8).

Gr. 4–8. When Zlata began keeping a diary in 1991, she didn’t know that within months war in Bosnia would forever change her middle-class life. The diary chronicles two years, divulging the hardships and deprivations that Zlata and her family and friends faced. Interspersed photos of the Bosnian teenager heighten the reality of war in today’s world. For other stories of Balkan children caught in war, see Trish Marx’s One Boy from Kosovo (HarperCollins, 2000) and Alice Mead’s Girl of Kosovo (Farrar, 2001).

Lifton, Betty Jean, and Thomas C. Fox. Children of Vietnam. 1972. 112p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, o.p.

Gr. 5–10. Offering a distinct perspective, having been written during the war, Children of Vietnam highlights innocent victims who have never known peace—Amerasians born to soldiers who left them, refugees, orphans, the homeless, and the wounded. Many “learned early to expect little from life.”

Lobel, Anita. No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War. 1998. 208p. Greenwillow, $17.99 (0-688-15935-4); Avon, paper, $5.99
(0-380-73285-8).

Gr. 6–10. Known to many as a creator of picture books, Anita Lobel was five years old when war broke out, forcing her and her brother into hiding first with their nanny in the countryside and then in a convent. Lobel did not escape the Nazis, however, and was deported to several concentration camps. This riveting autobiography details the story of a child without a childhood.

Maruki, Toshi. Hiroshima No Pika. 1982. 48p. HarperCollins, $17.99 (0-688-01297-3).

Gr. 4–8. This deeply haunting book tells the story of a Japanese family on the morning that the atomic bomb was dropped on their city. The book reminds readers of the true cost of war—the inhumanity of both victory and defeat.  

Music and Drum: Voices of War and Peace, Hope and Dreams. Edited by Laura Robb. Illus. by Debra Lill. 1997. 32p. Philomel, o.p.

Gr. 2–8. Dramatic imagery in poems and illustrations enables readers to enter deeply into the pain and suffering that war produces but ultimately hope for a peaceful future. Written by children and adults who have lived through war—as well as by poets such as Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton—the anthology ends on a note of hope.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin. 2000. 48p. Holiday, $18.95 (0-8234-1461-2); paper, $8.95 (0-8234-1681-X).  

Gr. 4–up. Dicker-Brandeis thought first of the children as she packed her belongings when she was sent to a concentration camp. She brought paint, brushes, paper, and books so that “through art, she could fight back.” This photo-essay chronicles the story of how the arts enabled children to rise above the unspeakable conditions of Terezin. For a look at more of the art and writings of the children of Terezin, see Hana Volavkova’s collection I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin (Schocken, 1984).

Tryszynska-Frederick, Luba, and Michelle R. McCann. Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen. Illus. by Ann Marshall. 2003. 48p. Tricycle, $16.95 (1-58246-098-1).

Gr. 3–7. When Luba discovered 54 children behind the barracks of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she made it her mission to find food for them and to care for them. Known as the Diamond Children, the orphans not only survived a bitter winter but also returned Luba’s kindness.

Tunnell, Michael O., and George W. Chilcoat. The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp, Based on a Classroom Diary. 1996. 80p. Holiday, $19.95 (0-8234-1239-3).

Gr. 3–8. The authors’ use of diary entries from children imprisoned in an internment camp gives voice to these children of history. A particularly poignant moment in this book is a teacher’s recollection of how difficult it was to teach the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all” from within the barbed-wire confines of the camp. For a memoir by a familiar Japanese American author who spent time in Topaz as a child, see Yoshiko Uchida’s The Invisible Thread (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. 2001. 160p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (0-688-17497-3); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-000767-2).

Gr. 5–10. Jack was only 15 years old when he entered the concentration camp, which he survived through forged friendships and a tenacious hold on hope. After becoming a successful businessman in America, Jack Mandelbaum devoted himself to Holocaust education.

Patricia Austin is an associate professor of children’s literature at the University of New Orleans and the author of The Cat Who Loved Mozart (Holiday, 2001). James A. Bryant Jr. is an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of New Orleans and the author of Curley (University Press of America, 2004).