We Recommend: WWII Books for Boys

It's back to We Recommend, in which we attempt to match kids up with their perfect book. Got a kid in your life who needs a recommendation? Write us at thediamondinthewindow (at) gmail (dot) com with the age, reading tastes, favorite books, and any other relevant (or irrelevant) information, and we'll give it a shot. And really? All the good suggestions are in the comments, so be sure to look there!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Which is apparently somewhat less compelling (to some) than complaining about cookie coverage. But we've got some books to recommend, gosh darn it! Here we go. And parents of boys, and readers of history, we're really counting on you here:

Henry is now thirteen years old, in seventh grade and in need of a good book. He hates fantasy which seems to be the only genre out there for early teens—he has read The Hunger Games, though, and while he enjoyed them, he's never been a big Harry Potter fan. I gave him Catcher in the Rye, and he says that he likes it, but I have the feeling that he's still a bit young to truly enjoy it. He loves both novels and non-fiction—really likes anything to do with World War II. I read Austen and all the classics when I was his age, but teenage boys are a different animal, and I just don't know what to recommend! I would appreciate your and your readers' advice.

I feel I must mention here, despite our title up there, that what we're talking about here isn't really the gender divide, but the realism/fantasy divide, which is way more intense. But it doesn't really matter how/why people have their tastes, only that they do, so the real question here is: what can we offer this kid to read?

Thirteen is a funny age anyway; a 13-year-old can read just about any book, it doesn't have to be slated specifically "for teenagers." But it should also appeal. I mean, something steamy doesn't necessarily make sense (it depends on the 13-year-old). And then there's the question of what a non-fantasy loving reader has open to him?

I admit I was leaning towards biographies and histories, given the World War II penchant, but I am not sure. What I really want is to offer the kid a book he would love to read. I thought of The Book Thief, which is certainly set in World War II, but the truth is that I didn't love that book, I felt it had a certain swaggering harshness that rubs me the wrong way. So then I asked my husband, who (word has it) once was a boy himself. His take? Go with the war, but it doesn't have to be WWII. How about Hemingway? There's a lot for a boy (or anyone!) to love in Hemingway. But then I thought—eesh. I'm not sure. I thought, maybe Atonement? And then I remembered what Atonement was about. I thought about Catch-22. And then I thought, he doesn't seem to be a high humor kid, but rather a thoughtful kid. And then I thought, maybe (maybe?) Kavalier and Clay? It's WWII, it's boy. But it's maybe too magical, too fanciful, too out there. And that is how, God help me and forgive me, I came up with this:

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OK I know, I know, everyone already has to read it for school, it's a billion years old, it's cliche. Argh. I am a failed book recommender. But the thing is, I think he might like it? Does that help?

And the truth, the terrible thing I must admit, is that this thoughtful decent-sounding kid just happens to have taste that is diametrically opposed to mine. So I don't have much to consider, it's just a whole empty space in my mind (and bookshelves).

So excellent readers, I implore you: you probably read histories, and biographies, and compelling stories of heroism and tactics. Help me out here, help this young man out here! If you've got a suggestion for him, put it in the comments.

20 thoughts on “We Recommend: WWII Books for Boys

  1. When I was that age, I asked for the Time Life collection of WWII books – it was awesome (a used bookstore had the whole set).
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller may be good. For non-fiction, Unbroken (Hillenbrand) may be also work(it’s a biography of a WWII soldier shot down over the Pacific – a bit slow in parts, but also a very interesting read). And, MAYBE The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society?

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  2. What about All is Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque ? It’s World War I but I read it when I was around his age and it always, always stayed with me. Also, it’s an “adult” book so not too babyish
    I don’t like Fantasy either so I feel for this boy. But something like Waterhsip Down is the perfect mix of realism (personalities) and the fantasy of the rabbits – plus a little bit of war culture thrown in.

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  3. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair? I read it in 8th grade, and thought it was beautiful, although it scared me into reading nothing but fantasy for months afterwards. Could I proffer this as a hesitant recommendation?

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  4. My first thought was “All Quiet on the Western Front” but he may not be able to overlook the fact that it takes place during the *wrong* war…
    Then I thought code breaking and Alan Turing. I’d recommend
    Joseph Bruchac’s Code Talker – a fictional story about the Navajo soldiers recruited to develop coded messages (the Navajo language structure defied efforts the Nazi’s codebreaking team). There are also some great aimed at teens non-fiction books about the Navajo “windtalkers”.
    I can’t think of any good fiction about the Turing machine with one odd exception. It may throw him into an entirely new genre and it can be a bit intense but I’d try Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
    Also, in a year or two – hand him “King Dork” by Frank Portman. It’s about not liking “Catcher in the Rye” and it’s awesome in its awkward boy glory. And Frank has a great pop punk band “The Mr T Experience” and all of his songs would fit the virtual soundtrack of the book.

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  5. What about “Battle Cry” by Leon Uris? I was completely swept away by that book in my teen years. There’s a line from an army sergeant that I still quote to this day.

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  6. I also thought of code-breaking and “The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Cliff Stoll came to mind. It’s a non-fiction thriller about computer hacking and espionage in the early days of the Internet. Not really close to WWII, but very compelling (and not too technical for those of us who don’t know much about computing).

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  7. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I read an excerpt in Vanity Fair and I was totally hooked. It’s a nonfiction book about a man whose plane went down in WW II. He and his pilot survived an ungodly amount of time at sea, only to be captured by the Japanese and held in a POW camp.

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  8. Wow great minds think alike- I went to codemaking/breaking too: Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945.
    Sci-fi is different from fantasy right? How about Pratchett’s “Only You Can Save Mankind”?

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  9. You’re right…the age makes this one complicated… Here are my suggestions:
    – A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson
    If he can get past the ridiculously girly cover, it is a great story about a school in Austria at the edge of WWII. The main male protagonist, Marek, is a conductor and is working to get Jewish musicians out of Germany. There is alot of tension without getting graphic or exploitative.
    – Winds of War and War & Rememberance by Herman Wouk
    May be too much at this age, but the war seen through this US family was really compelling to me as a teenager.
    – Summer of My German Soldier and the sequel Morning is a Long Time Coming by Bette Green
    Both are awesome and provide perspectives on life outside of the battle-fronts.
    -Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
    This is a newish book (last year, I think) about a Lithuanian family that is deported to Siberia in 1941. It is told through the eyes (and art) of the 15 year old daughter, Lina. While to Lithuanian-American families like mine that had relatives deported, the deportations under Stalin are well known, this story looks at a different side of WWII and Stalin that isn’t written about as much in YA fiction.

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  10. There’s actually a fair bit of non-fantasy historical adventure fiction out there for young teens. One that I really like (and have often recommended to 13-year-old boys who hate fantasy (or their desperate parents)) is THE WRECKERS by Iain Lawrence. Young kid shipwrecked on the coast of Cornwall, turns out he’s fallen among a whole village of criminals who deliberately put out the wrong lights so ships will wreck on their shore & they can have the scavange. And if they find out he’s survived, and knows about it, he’s toast. It’s first in a series so if this boy likes it there are lots more to read.
    Iain Lawrence also wrote B for Buster, about a kid fighting in WWII. I haven’t read it, but hey! WWII!
    Jason’s Gold, by Will Hobbs, is another good historical adventure, about a kid in the Yukon Gold Rush.
    And then there are all those Gary Paulsen survival books: Hatchet, Brian’s Winter, etc. Actually he might like Paulsen in general.
    And one good WWII book is Under the Blood Red Sun, by Graham Salisbury, about a Japanese-
    American kid in an internment camp in Hawaii.
    MIlkweed, by Jerry Spinelli, is also really good. About a young orphan in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust.
    Harry Mazer has written a trilogy about teenage boy during WWII. It starts with him as a 14 year old during Pearl Harbor and by the last book he’s 17 and in the Marines. I haven’t read it but have heard good things about it. The first book is A Boy At War.

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  11. There’s a blogger who specializes in WW II books–her blog is called The Children’s War.
    He might like Elephant Run, by Roland Smith, or The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier ; or, for non-fiction, The Candy Bombers.

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  12. I loved The Book Thief and I think he should try it even though it does have a fantasy taste. I also thought about Hatchet, I am reading it to my daughter right now…I suppose Number of the Stars is too young? If he hasn’t read it though he should!

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  13. Realistic fiction or history about WWII isn’t really my thing, but I think he might well enjoy reading “Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission” by Hampton Sides. Great stuff.

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  14. two more titles I’d like to throw into the mix–
    The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle
    (set in the U.S. during WWII, the boys in the book are 13 year olds)
    Don’t You Know There’s a War On by Avi
    (also WWII in the U.S.)

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  15. I almost hesitate to post this but the 14 year old boys in my life(son and nephew) say that this boy will enjoy Robert Ludlum. And maybe Dan Brown. And pretty soon, Le Carre. And they second Vonnegut.

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  16. I must have read every WWII book in existence when I was a teenager. Here are a few off the top of my head:
    Non-fiction:
    A Bridge Too Far – Cornelius Ryan
    The Longest Day – Cornelius Ryan
    30 Seconds over Tokyo – Ted Lawson
    God is my Co-pilot – Robert Scott
    PT-109 – Robert J. Donovan
    Escape from Corregidor – Edgar D. Whitcomb
    The Bridge at Remagen – Ken Hechler
    Fiction:
    The Moon is Down – John Steinbeck
    The Bridge over the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle
    The Guns of Navarone – Alistair McLean
    Where Eagles Dare – Alistair McLean

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