youth books about war & refuge(es)

It’s spring, and there’s war in Europe. (I’m thirty-five years old, and I remember war in Europe going back to the late ’80s, and it’s awful.) I know a lot of Ukrainians; I have a close Russian friend who is devastated. I’m a mess right now.

In any case, I think a lot of little folks are going to be trying to find out what’s going on, and I’ve put together a small list of books about war and refuge(es), which might be of us.

I’ve also included a number of books about internment camps, because, alas, I’ve already seen people arguing for throwing out (or doing other things) to Russian Americans. And that is never the answer.

And, yeah, there are so many more. I’ll probably do another list. In the meantime, I’m going to link a few booklists I’ve made in the past of works about immigration, migration, and refugees.

Books About War & Refuge(ees)

In the past, I’ve tended to divide up nonfiction and fiction. I am not doing so here. I am, however, divvying up roughly by age rages and reading levels, mainly because if this should chance to help out a teacher, I’d prefer to have done as much of the work for them as possible.

Young Adult

M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad is (ironically) about Russia’s Saint Petersburg, then Leningrad, during the Second World War. It is one of the best and most moving nonfiction depictions of urban street warfare and siege that I have ever read. It’s also setting my expectations for the war in Ukraine—because Kyiv, among other places, has been theirs for two thousand years, and there’s no way Ukrainians are going to give up their country without a fight to the death.

Don Brown’s The Unwanted, an award-winning graphic novel history/sociological study, follows Syrian refugees from their homeland across the seas to Europe.

Andrew Fukuda’s award-winning novel This Light Between Us follows pen pals Charlie Levy, a French Jewish girl, and Alex Maki, a Japanese American boy who totally thought Charlie was a boy too. Fukuda takes readers from internment camps to war-torn Europe, following Alex as he fights—and searches for Charlie.

The Woman All Spies Fear, a biography by Amy Butler Greenfield, tells the story of pioneering American codebreaker Elizabeth Smith Friedman, whose work was essential to both World War I and II.

Monica Hesse frequently writes novels of normal people during wartime, as they take on black markets and smuggling rings and helping out neighbors when such a thing could get them killed. In They Went Left, Zofia, released from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, searches desperately for her brother, the only member of her family who, along with her, was not sent to the gas chambers. The publisher offers a book club guide, which is also useful for educators. Girl in the Blue Coat, meanwhile, tells the story of a black market wunderkind who is one day asked to smuggle something a little different. And in The War Outside, two girls—one German-American, one Japanese-American—meet in an internment camp in Texas, trying to understand themselves and their place in this world they thought they knew.

Kiku Hughes’ Displacement takes a contemporary Japanese-American teen back in time, to bear witness as her family is imprisoned in an internment camp.

Kim Hyun Sook grew up in South Korea and helped to take down a dictatorship by reading banned books. (And more, but that’s a big part of it.) Her award-winning graphic memoir Banned Book Club, co-written with Ryan Estrada and Ko Hyung-Ju (and published by Chicago’s own Iron Circus Comics!) tells the story of taking on a dictatorship with banned books—and direct action.

Butterfly Yellow is Thanhhà Lai’s first young adult novel, and it follows Hằng, who, six years after her brother ends up on a flight for the United States and she doesn’t, comes to the U.S. as a refugee. But when she finds her brother, he can’t remember Hằng—or Việt Nam—at all.

Soldiers Unknown, a graphic novel by Chag Lowry and Rashan Ekedel, follows three Yurok brothers drafted into World War I and sent to the Western Front. There is a curriculum guide available.

The Cat I Never Named, by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura Sullivan, tells the story of Sabic-El-Rayess’ youth in a Bosnia under attack, and the cat who helped. This is a crossover: I’m putting it in young adult, but it can also be read by older middle graders.

Ruta Sepetys writes a lot about war and its aftermath. Between Shades of Gray follows a Lithuanian girl and her family to a gulag in Siberia—and through their fight for humanity and freedom. Salt to the Sea follows its ensemble cast through the ravaged countryside of 1945 Germany as they pick their way toward the ship that is supposed to take them to safety. The Fountains of Spain is set during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, while I Must Betray You is set in the final days of Romania’s dictatorship. Each book has an accompanying educator guide; just click on the book’s title on Sepetys’ website.

Steve Sheinkin writes a lot about the Cold War, as well as some (but maybe less?) about World War II. He’s a writer of young adult and middle grade nonfiction, which means he writes engaging, readable histories of some awful eras. Bomb is one of his excellent books. Fallout is another.

Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes series is fantasy, sure—but it is also very much a story of resistance against great, and impossible, odds.

They Called Us Enemy is the story of a young George Takai and his family, as well as the larger story of Japanese American internment during World War II.

Elizabeth Wein, like Sepetys, has written a lot about war—although she tends to write about fighting it. A Thousand Sisters is her nonfiction tale of some of the Soviet women who took to the skies in WWII, triumphing over faulty equipment and more to help win the war. Novels Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, meanwhile, follow spies and pilots into war—and, sometimes, into concentration camps.

Middle Grade/Elementary

The late, great Ashley Bryan’s middle grade memoir, Infinite Hope, covers his time in the U.S. Army as well as some of his work as an artist and illustrator. The Black Bryan faces racism and white supremacy at every turn, a reminder that people of color fight more than one war at the same time.

In Drawn Across Borders, artist and illustrator George Butler tells the stories of migrants he has met, coupling portraits with words. This is a crossover text: it can be read by middle graders on up through adults.

Illegal, by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, and Giovanni Rigano, follows a boy from his home in Niger to make his way, alone, to Europe, looking for his surviving family as he goes.

Alan Gratz frequently tackles themes of children in wartime. Several of his books have won young readers’ choice awards, so they are likely to catch your middle grader’s fancy. In Projekt 1065, Irish Michael, living in Nazi Germany, is a spy, determined to bring the Nazis down. Refugee tells three interwoven stories of three young people from different continents and different eras, fleeing for safety. (Scholastic has some discussion points for it.) Grenade is the story of two boys on Okinawa, one Japanese, one American. Allies tackles D-Day. (Yeah, these really are middle grade books.)

Veera Hiranandani covers the violence and horror of Partition in The Night Diary, as Nisha and her family must flee their homeland in the face of surging violence. There is an educators’ guide.

In her Amina’s Voice duology, Hena Khan follows refugee girl Amina as she struggles to find her way and her place in a new country. Khan (who is awesome, btw) has educators’ guides for all her books on her website.

Two boys, one a refugee and one homesick in a new place, find each other in Katherine Marsh’s Nowhere Boy, about the Syrian refugee crisis. A teachers’ guide is available from the publisher, and Marsh includes additional information on her website.

Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson collaborate on the award-winning When Stars Are Scattered, the story of Omar and his brother Hassan’s childhoods in a refugee camp in Kenya—and how Omar, who must care for Hassan, finally finds a way for them both to get out. Penguin Random House has an educator guide available, Jamieson offers additional resources, and the National Education Association offers its own educators’ resources.

Jennifer Nielsen has written many books about young people’s resistance to dictatorships throughout history. A Night Divided follows Gerta and her family as they contend with the Berlin Wall. Resistance is the story of Chaya, who joins up with the resistance in Poland to fight the Nazis—no matter the cost. When the Cossacks come for her family, young Audra flees into the night with an important bundle in Words on Fire. A girl searches for her father in World War II in Rescue, while five kids face World War I in Lines of Courage. Note that Nielsen offers teachers guides and activities for all her books on her website.

Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad series is set in an alternate U.S., during a Civil War plus dinosaurs. But it’s also about kids of color at a real orphanage in New York City, struggling to survive both war and structural racism.

In White Bird, R.J. Palacio follows a girl through the Holocaust. (I think it’s moving as hell, I have some issues with its depiction of disabled people, and it won a ton of awards.) It’s connected to Palacio’s wildly popular Wonder, and will likely draw your reader in. The publisher includes an educator’s guide. The Seattle Holocaust Center also has teaching materials available online.

Sara Pennypacker’s Pax series tackles war on the homefront through the story of a boy, his soldier father, and the boy’s fox, Pax.

Uri Shulevitz tells his Holocaust story in Chance, as he and his family fled Poland for the USSR. Note that this is a bit of a crossover and will, I think, do just as well for high schoolers as for middle graders. The publisher has a teachers’ guide.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin, isn’t about a war, per se (although it is set during the Cold War). Instead, it’s about young Yelchin’s life growing up behind the Iron Curtain, trying to figure out how to become a national hero when he doesn’t do ballet and he isn’t an athlete and he doesn’t even have his own room. There is a curriculum guide available.

Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga, follows Syrian refugee Jude as she struggles to make sense of her new home in the U.S. HarperCollins has an educators’ guide.

Picture Books

The Three Lucys, by Hayan Charara and illustrated by Sara Khan, tells the ravages of war through a little Lebanese boy looking for one of his grandparents’ missing cats, the titular Three Lucys. Lee & Low includes a teachers’ guide for the picture book.

My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne del Rizzo, follows a Syrian refugee boy who dearly loves birds. (It’s fiction.) A classroom teaching guide is available.

Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz, Amy Shrodes, and Sue Cornlieson, tells the true story of the white cat Kunkush, who fled with his family from a beseiged Iraw only to be separated from them—and then reunited with them—once they reached European shoes. By now we’ve all seen the pictures of Ukrainians fleeing with their cats (and dogs), which will, I think, make this book particularly interesting.

A Different Pond, written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui, shows us aftermath of war. The little boy might be in a relatively safe place, but his entire family continues to live in the shadow of the war that drove them out of their native Vietnam.

Danny Ramadan’s Salma the Syrian Chef, with illustrations by Anna Bron, follows Syrian refugee Salma as she tries to learn how to cook food from home so her mother will smile again. The publisher has both a recipe and a lesson plan available.

Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix’s The Grand Mosque of Paris tells a story of ordinary people working to save their friends and neighbors in the face of great danger to themselves, as the Muslim community of Paris turns their mosque into a safe haven and path to escape for their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.

The Cat Man of Aleppo, by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, is about those who stay: or, in this case, about photographer and cat lover Mohammed Alaa Aljaleel, who has chronicled Aleppo under attack while working with its cats. The publisher offers educators’ guides for different grades.

Peter Sís’s Nicky & Vera is the story of one young Englishman who, as the Holocaust loomed, saved nearly 700 Jewish children trapped in the Nazis’ path in then-Czechoslovakia.

Kunkush: The Lost and Found Cat, by Marne Ventura and Beidi Guo, is a nonfiction retelling of Iraqi refugee cat Kunkush’s journey. According to the publisher, it is suited for lesson plans built around common core standards, as most lesson plans are. Again, give that we’ve all seen the pictures of Ukrainian pets, and since many of us have pets too, this will be of interest.