Saturday, July 8, 2017

Three riveting World War II novels for upper elementary students



historical fiction, novels, reading, middle school, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, Projekt 1065, The War that Saved My Life
Historical fiction is sometimes a tough sell for upper elementary students.  It's not that they don't like the ideas, it's that it often takes a while to establish the setting, and not all students are willing to wait that out to get to "the action."
This summer, I grabbed two unfamiliar books off my classroom shelves to read, hoping to get students as excited about them as they are about The War that Saved My Life.  I hadn't realized until I read them that both of the others were also about World War II.  All three books are very different from each other, but there are some common threads in the ways the characters grow, despite obstacles.
                                                         
Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by [Gratz, Alan]Michael, born in Ireland, now lives in Germany with his parents because his father is the Ambassador to Germany.  Michael's mother, with his father's blessing, works for the Resistance movement. Having witnessed the cruelty of the Nazis, Michael is willingly pulled into being a spy.  But he has to keep up pretenses, so he goes to school with German boys, burns books, and joins the Hitler Youth. This action-packed book, which may read a little fantastically to adults (it reminded me in some ways of the Alex Rider series) will keep students sitting on the edge of their seats.  Filled with enough suspense, action, and questions about friendships and trust - as well as short chapters! - students will want to keep reading this.
I like that Alan Gratz slips in historical information about World War II without students even knowing it.  For example, I wasn't aware that Projekt 1065 was Germany's plan to build a turbojet plane (all planes were propeller planes up to that point).  The book also provides an accurate depiction of what it was like to be involved in the Hitler Youth program.
                                                           
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by [Boyne, John]John Boyne has written a complementary story to that of his famous book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.   That one broke my heart.  This one left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn't like it, but that doesn't mean it didn't move me.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Pierrot lives in Paris with his French mother and German father, a man broken by his war experiences in World War I.  Eventually, his parents separate and after several years of living with his mother, she passes away from tuberculosis.  Pierrot goes to live with his father's sister, a woman who works as a housekeeper in a home on top of a mountain, which is used as a retreat house.  By Adolf Hitler.  
Although he is only there for brief periods of time, Hitler befriends Pierrot (renamed Pieter to sound more German).  And Pieter craves his attention, taking on the zealotry and bigotry that Hitler expounds on.  I couldn't put this book down although I wanted it to go in a very different direction than it did.  There are some powerful lessons here about how easily we can be taught to hate, especially if those messages come to us at a young age.

This would be a great read for someone interested in this time period but it does require a more mature, thoughtful student.  There's nothing graphic.  It just takes a different point of view from many other historical fiction novels about the Holocaust.
                                                     
Product DetailsThis book has become one of my favorite read-alouds the past few years.  Unlike other historical fiction books which take time to develop the setting first, this one starts off with a bang!  Students will be horror-struck by the way Ada's mother treats her because she was born with a clubfoot.                                                                                                                                                                       This perfect book to teach Growth Mindset is filled with adventures of a new kind.  Ada has been kept a virtual prisoner in her apartment and she emerges (spoiler alert!) by running away with her younger brother Jamie, who's being evacuated from London when the fears of London being bombed by Germany caused many children to be sent to the country to live with relatives.  Or strangers.

Ada and Jamie end up with Susan, a woman who doesn't really want to take them in, and declares herself "not nice."  And yet, her actions prove otherwise, and slowly but surely, each of the characters grows a little more friendly, a little more vulnerable, and a little more compassionate.  Ada's slow evolution from frightened child to more confident young woman is one that will have your students cheering her on.  What a beautiful book! 

There is a scene late in the book that always surprises my students (it did me too, the first time I read it.)  Honestly, it's worth reading out loud just to see the look on your students' faces at that point.  The fact that they're so hooked into Ada at that point shows what a brilliantly written, honestly felt book this is.

I have create a novel study, and a word search and crossword puzzle for this book, which you can find at my TpT store.


2 comments:

  1. These sounded like such terrific books that I went and ordered two of them while I was reading your post. I can't wait to start reading "The War that Saved My Life" and "The Boy at the Top of the World." Now to decide which comes first! Thanks for sharing this post.

    Angela

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    1. I'm so glad! They are good, but very different. I'll be curious to see what you think!

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