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History of war

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The following books for middle schoolers describe the horrors of twentieth-century wars and urge readers to learn from history’s mistakes.

marrin_uprootedUprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin opens briefly with a prologue set on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but then he backtracks for several chapters, delivering a crash course in Japanese history with a special focus on racism. By the late nineteenth century, Japanese Americans had arrived in the United States, a country with its own troubled legacy. Racial problems persisted well into the twentieth century, ultimately paving the way for the forcible relocation and internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Marrin places his subject in a comprehensively broad context: a final chapter draws a connection to the treatment of Muslim Americans in the aftermath of twenty-first-century terrorist attacks and discusses the uneasy tension between liberty and security during wartime. Generous quotations and photographs are integrated throughout the text, providing the immediacy that comes with primary sources. (Knopf, 12–14 years)

stelson_sachikoSachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson spans fifty years of the life of atomic bomb survivor Sachiko Yasui, starting in August 1945 when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (she was six years old) and ending in August 1995, when Yasui agreed to speak publicly about her experiences for the first time. Stelson’s sensitively crafted account is the result of extensive interviews with Yasui. Her tragic tale is full of terror and despair, but hope and peace also loom large. Interspersed with ten brief, informative essays (“Racism and War,” “Radiation Sickness,” “The H-Bomb,” etc.) the text is illustrated with numerous photos. (Carolrhoda, 12–14 years)

mccormick_plot-to-kill-hitlerOn April 5, 1943, the Gestapo arrived at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s house in Berlin to arrest him for his role in attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. His guilt is never in doubt; instead The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero explores the question of what led this devout Lutheran minister to plan to kill another human. Author Patricia McCormick traces Bonhoeffer’s spiritual and religious calling. Concurrently, and chillingly, she catalogs Hitler’s steady rise to power. Questions of moral authority drive Bonhoeffer’s story, and his execution for the failed attempts at Hitler’s life just a few weeks before Germany surrendered raises the provocative question for readers: was it worth it? Archival photographs supplement the text. (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 12–14 years)

freedman_vietnamIn Vietnam: A History of the War, Russell Freedman opens his history of America’s second-longest war with the massive April 1971 protest against it, posing two questions that frame the entire text: “Was the Vietnam War a tragic mistake? Or was it…’a noble cause?'” His conclusions, and straightforward reasoning for them, are, respectively, yes and no. Without overwhelming young readers with excessive detail, he flashes back over two thousand years, outlining the many foreign powers that had subjugated Vietnam. Freedman doesn’t back down from America’s faulty vision and missteps in the war or the home-front opposition to it. Instead, he shows how war itself is complicated and horrific, and how a multitude of events can lead to armed conflict with no simple solutions. Archival photographs convey a sense of time and place. (Holiday, 12–14 years)

From the January 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.



  1. Elissa, thank you for this list of fantastic books. As the daughter of a hibakusha, I am glad to see SACHIKO: A NAGASAKI BOMB SURVIVOR’s STORY. May I also suggest, my MG historical fiction novel, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM(Sky Pony Press Aug. 2016), which gives a glimpse into the Japanese culture, as well as family life of a 12- year -old girl in Hiroshima during WWII. I’m proud to say it is based on my mother’s life and it is through her eyes you witness the use of the first atomic bomb. I feel that our books complement each other nicely.

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