75th anniversary of WWII's VE Day

May 8, 2020 will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. Here are five recent novels about the war for middle school and high school readers; see also our starred review of The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein (Little, Brown) in the upcoming May/June Horn Book Magazine.

Catherine’s War
by Julia Billet; illus. by Claire Fauvel; trans. from French by Ivanka Hahnenberger
Intermediate, Middle School    HarperAlley/HarperCollins    168 pp.
1/20    978-0-06-291560-3    $21.99
Paper ed.  978-0-06-291559-7    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-291561-0    $10.99

This graphic novel (adapted from a novel by Billet and inspired by her mother’s life) follows teenage Rachel Cohen from one place to another in WWII France. By changing her name to Catherine Colin and hiding her Jewish identity, she is able to live at schools and an orphanage as well as with families throughout the ­occupied and free zones, moving whenever Nazi suspicion encroaches — and always documenting her experiences with her Rolleiflex camera. Though the story covers Rachel/Catherine’s adolescence, the smoothly translated text is clear enough, and gentle enough in its explanations of the Holocaust, to be comprehensible to readers younger than the character. Themes of self-expression — Catherine’s photography is a rare constant in a life overwhelmed by change — will likely resonate with a wide variety of readers. The back matter is pitched to explain this story’s context to young people with little or no background knowledge about WWII or the Holocaust, though readers familiar with the basics may learn something new about this specific setting. Fauvel’s borderless, color-saturated panels shift in palette by location, with red-and-black darkroom scenes standing out, particularly against the black-and-white photos produced in them. SHOSHANA FLAX

Fing’s War
by Benny Lindelauf; trans. from the Dutch by John Nieuwenhuizen
Intermediate, Middle School    Enchanted Lion    411 pp.
6/19    978-1-59270-269-5    $16.95

This sequel to Nine Open Arms (rev. 9/14) falls into two parts. In the early chapters we follow the fortunes and adventures of the Boon family, in 1938 Netherlands, from the viewpoint of the young teen daughter Fing. It’s a classic family story, with seven siblings, an impractical dreamer father, and a stern grandmother. Episodic, its comical incidents have the smooth polish of oft-told family or village anecdotes. Dotted with such middle-grade tropes as domestic disasters, a poor little rich girl, and a false accusation of theft, the plot is pulled along by Fing’s dream of education even as she is sent out to work at age fourteen. But as the war impinges more and more on village life, the narrative tone darkens, and the stakes increase exponentially. Lindelauf does a stunning job of showing the difficult relationships that war creates and the moral complexity of defining enemy and friend. The wicked Blackshirt? The Jewish victim? The Dutch resistance hero? Yes, but each of these characters is subtle and surprising, and the text asks for a reader willing to consider these nuances. Played out in a suspenseful plot with plenty of action, this story is a welcome and distinctive addition to the literature of the Second World War for young people. A substantial “Slang Words and Character List” is included to support a text that is rich with words in German, Yiddish, and Limburgish (the language spoken in the family’s Dutch province), but the story itself does a fine job of illuminating these terms in context. SARAH ELLIS

Village of Scoundrels: Based on a True Story of Courage During WWII
by Margi Preus
Middle School, High School    Amulet/Abrams    294 pp.    g
2/20    978-1-4197-0897-8    $16.99

In 1940s Vichy France, a remote mountain-plateau village known for sheltering refugees fleeing Nazi persecution houses a unique and innovative high school that draws students from all over France and beyond. Many of the students secretly work for the resistance, the maquis, which becomes much riskier after the arrival of Inspector Perdant from the national police, there to “identify evidence of illegal activities and unregistered Jews, foreigners, communists, and undesirables.” Preus (Heart of a Samurai, rev. 9/10; Shadow on the Mountain, rev. 11/12) weaves the experiences of students Philippe (who smuggles refugees over the border into Switzerland), Celeste (who carries messages for the maquis), Jean-Paul (who runs a sophisticated document-forging operation), and others into a tale of danger and bravery, luck and wits, purpose and community, and even occasional humor (some pretty on-point Nazi jokes). Chapters alternate among characters, with Preus always circling back to Perdant’s constant spying and dogged pursuit of arrests, which amps up the suspense (somewhat undermined, however, by how easily local farm boy Jules outwits him at every turn). An extensive epilogue informs readers about the real people upon whom the novel’s characters are based; and about concentration camps, the Boy Scouts and their relationship to the maquis, and the actual high school L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole in the village of La Chambon. A bibliography and a pronunciation guide complete the book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
by Laura Ruby
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    367 pp.
10/19    978-0-06-231764-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-231766-7    $10.99

At first, this seems to be the story of Frankie, a girl in a Catholic orphanage in Chicago in the 1940s. She and her sister and brother are abandoned there when her father remarries, and Frankie suffers under the nuns’ regime, but she also makes friends, grows up, and, eventually, falls into forbidden, passionate love — a relationship that America’s entry into World War II puts in jeopardy. But Frankie’s story is just one thread in a more expansive tale, that of the ghostly narrator Pearl, who observes Frankie but also tells us of her own doings as she floats around Chicago. In tiny increments, she reveals her dreadful history; the novel is as much about her spiritual healing as it is about Frankie’s coming of age. Pearl’s world-weary wisdom and moral outrage come through clearly as she interacts with other ghosts — victims of America’s misogyny, racism, and social and economic inequities. In addition, Pearl seems to have unusual access to information: about the atomic bomb, Nazi death camps, and more. The story’s momentum, logic, and focus thus wobble a bit, but Ruby’s message is clear: America is a precarious and threatening place, dealing as much in cruelty and injustice as it does in fulfilled dreams of family, love, and security. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

The Blossom and the Firefly
by Sherri L. Smith
Middle School, High School    Putnam    311 pp.    g
2/20    978-1-5247-3790-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-3791-7    $10.99

Almost buried alive in a bombing by Allied forces in 1945 Chiran, Japan, fifteen-year-old Hana feels as though she is already dead, just going through the motions. Since the bombing, girls her age have been assigned to the Nadeshiko unit; their job is to care for and send the tokkō (special attack pilots, or kamikaze) off to their deaths. In an alternating narrative, seventeen-year-old Taro is prepared to die for Japan, his death bringing more honor and glory for his family than his skill in playing the violin, or his life, ever could. When their paths cross, Taro’s violin-playing revives Hana’s appreciation for life as well as joyful memories, especially of her koto-playing father, now fighting in the war. When their connection deepens into love, Taro wonders if his feelings will jeopardize his resolve in completing his mission, while Hana’s heart breaks knowing Taro’s seemingly inevitable fate. Through meticulous research, Smith immerses her readers in a war narrative not often told to American readers, as well as a tension-filled love story. Smith does not shy away from the horrific consequences of war and its victims; the novel encompasses comfort women; Asian countries affected by Japanese imperialism; and ritual suicide. The imagery of the title evokes the Japanese code of bushido and the fleeting beauty of existence. A map, glossary, author’s note, and bibliography of both Japanese history in World War II and contemporary Japanese culture are appended. ARIANA HUSSAIN

From the April 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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